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Possible war crimes in DRC

“It was Wednesday around 12 o’clock. We were locked in the house and we could hear gunshots all around. My mother was cooking and my father was sitting near the door. Two men in camouflage uniforms and carrying guns entered the compound. Without saying anything they shot my mother in her belly. She fell on the fire and died. They shot my daddy in the ribs and he died on the spot. I wanted to tell the man to kill me was well, but the other children prevented me from doing so.”
Report testimony from a 14 year old boy, Kiwanja, North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Map of Democratic Republic of the Congo - OHCHRLate last year in the remote North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in two separate outbreaks of fighting and violence, the Congolese army and armed groups committed serious violations of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law. The violations were so serious they could amount in some case to war crimes in the view of a team which has investigated and reported its findings. Both incidents were investigated by the UN Joint Human Rights Office in DRC, a collaborative effort between the UN peacekeeping operation (MONUC) and the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR).

MONUC is the UN’s largest peacekeeping force with more than 18 thousand uniformed personnel, more than a thousand civilians and around 600 UN Volunteers.

Kiwanja, a town of around 70,000 is an important urban centre in the province of North Kivu, less than a hundred kilometres north of the regional capital, Goma. It sits at a junction linking the main route north from the capital to the border crossing into Uganda.

In November last year, there was a small military camp of MONUC peacekeepers stationed in Kiwanja when fighting broke out between the militia group known as the Congrès National pour la Defense du Peuple (CNDP) and other local militia. The fighting raged over two days in and around the town. Ultimately the CNDP led at the time by Laurent Nkunda and his Chief of Staff, Bosco Ntaganda prevailed. CNDP members then began immediate house to house searches looking for fighters belonging to the defeated militia groups. In the process they summarily executed at least 67 people most of them young men but including two women, eight children and three elderly men. Those people, the report says were not killed in crossfire, but were arbitrarily executed, often inside their houses after the fighting had stopped.

In reality the number of people killed was likely to have been much higher but allegations of other murders could not be confirmed because security constraints prevented appropriate investigations. Rapes and murders by other militia were also investigated and recorded.

“The actions of the CNDP could well amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity and are part of a self-perpetuating pattern of brutality in eastern DRC which continues to go largely unpunished,” says Human Rights High Commissioner, Navi Pillay. “I am deeply concerned that members of the CNDP who may be implicated in these crimes – especially Bosco Ntanga, against whom there was already an International Criminal Court arrest warrant – are either still at large, or have even been absorbed into the FARDC.”

In its second special report, the Joint Human Rights Office investigated serious human rights violations, again in the North Kivu province, involving DRC’s armed forces (FARDC), the CNDP and other militia. In this incident, it was FARDC which was largely responsible for serious human rights violations and breaches of international humanitarian law.

In October and November last year, commanders of FARDC in effect lost control of their forces as they retreated in fighting through Goma and surrounding villages. In the chaos that followed, FARDC soldiers went on a rampage amongst the civilian population and engaged in large-scale pillage and other violations including arbitrary killings and sexual violence.

On one night alone in Goma at least 9 cases of arbitrary killing were recorded as the soldiers looted private houses and through November/December more than 70 rape cases were confirmed.

Pillaging, which could constitute a war crime, was a feature of this outbreak of violence with local witnesses describing hundreds of soldiers walking along roads carrying foam mattresses, generators, radios, cooking ware, food and agricultural products and other household items. Conditions in the army are grim. The report describes poor training and discipline, low salaries and widespread corruption. Soldiers resort to the use of force against the local population to sustain themselves. Being in the military is viewed by many in the DRC, the report says, as a means to make a living off the population rather than as a public service or duty.

The report concludes the current situation cannot be allowed to continue. It warns that without profound change in the military, the international community’s support to the FARDC may be perceived as contributing to human rights violations. Many of the atrocities described in the report were committed by soldiers in units which have received support and training from the international community. 

The High Commissioner has noted that despite some welcome changes in the command structures of FARDC following the rampage, local people have complained that soldiers who committed the violations have not been arrested and remain in the area. “I totally agree with the report’s conclusion that the judicial response to the violations has, so far, been wholly insufficient,” Pillay says. “That has, unfortunately, generally been the case since the war officially ended in 2002, and is one of the main reasons why progress on the human rights front since then has been so deeply unsatisfactory.”

The High Commissioner also noted recent announcement of a zero tolerance policy on sexual violence by the government, and hopes this will be followed by “concrete and immediate action to hold perpetrators accountable, particularly since sexual violence continues to take place on a daily basis.”

Pillay stressed that “fundamental reforms to both the security sector and judicial systems are of paramount importance if both the authorities and the international community are serious about bringing lasting peace to eastern DRC.”

“On Wednesday (November 5) my two sons, their two cousins and a friend had hidden in the house. Five CNDP elements came and asked the boys to open the door because they knew that local militia were hiding in that house. They said: “open the door, otherwise we will kill you.” The boys opened the door. They killed one of them inside the house and took the others outside and killed them near the house. They used guns and knives. I was hiding in a house nearby and could hear the boys screaming when they were being killed.” Testimony from a 58 year old man, Kwinja, North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

9 September 2009