(Goma) – Congolese security forces and the M23 armed group in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo must minimize harm to civilians as fighting resumes, Human Rights Watch said today. Past fighting between government forces and rebels has resulted in widespread abuses against the civilian population and protracted humanitarian crises.
Armed conflict in North Kivu province since May 22, 2022 has forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes, as M23 rebels launched their biggest offensive against government troops in a decade. On May 25, heavy fighting reached the outskirts of the provincial capital, Goma. The fighting in eastern Congo is linked by international humanitarian lawincluding Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which prohibits summary executions, rape, torture, forced recruitment and other abuses.
“The M23 armed group has been responsible for countless atrocities in the past and renewed fighting in North Kivu raises serious concerns about the danger to civilians in the region,” said Thomas Fessy, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch. “All parties, including rebel forces, Congolese and neighboring security forces, and United Nations peacekeepers, are obligated under international law to spare civilians.”
Since the resumption of hostilities, the governments of Rwanda and Congo have exchanged accusations over the fighting. Rwanda said that the Congolese army fired rockets into its territory, “injuring several civilians and damaging property”. congo alleged that the Rwandan Defense Forces (RDF) were actively fighting alongside the M23.
Rwanda has alleged that the Congolese army collaborated with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a predominantly Rwandan Hutu armed group operating in Congo, some of whose members took part in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and attacked Rwandan forces. and “kidnapped two of his soldiers while patrolling” along the border. On May 29, a Congolese military spokesman said he was holding two Rwandan soldiers “captured by the population”.
The Expanded Joint Regional Verification Mechanism (EJVM) of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) said it was preparing a report on the situation. The EJVM should make its findings public, Human Rights Watch said.
A farmer from the village of Kibumba, about 20 kilometers north of Goma, where some of the fighting took place, said of the return of the M23: “Everyone knows how much we suffer under the domination of these people, so many young people died… I don’t know. I don’t think they can change, we can’t expect anything good from them.
Human Rights Watch previously documented war crimes by M23 rebels who, backed by Rwanda and Uganda, took control of large parts of North Kivu province in 2012. After the M23 briefly captured Goma, UN-backed government troops in 2013 forced them to return to Rwanda and Uganda. M23 fighters summarily executed dozens of civilians, raped dozens of women and girls, and forcibly recruited hundreds of men and boys.
The M23 armed group was originally made up of soldiers who took part in a Congolese national army mutiny in April and May 2012. The then High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, described the M23 leaders as “among the worst perpetrators of human rights violations”. in [Congo]Where in the world.
Among them was General Bosco Ntaganda, who has since been convicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity when he led another armed group, and Colonel Sultani Makenga, who allegedly led the offensive in May. Congolese authorities issued arrest warrants for Makenga and other senior M23 commanders in 2013. Rwanda and Uganda never acted on extradition requests to their countries.
Regional attempts to demobilize M23 fighters have failed over the past 10 years. The group resurfaced in November 2021, attacking the Congolese army, amid claims that President Felix Tshisekedi’s administration was not committed to existing peace accords, which included amnesties for the group’s base. The agreements, however, did not include accountability for the worst perpetrators of human rights abuses.
Following fresh M23 attacks in March, tensions escalated in late April when Kenya held a first round of talks between Congo and a number of armed groups in Nairobi. Congo has expelled M23 representatives from the dialogue due to renewed fighting by the armed group on the ground. Just days before the talks began and as Congo joined the East African Community, its member countries agreed to create a regional force to fight rebels in eastern Congo.
Any new round of talks should address, with the help of the African Union (AU) and the UN, the demobilization of armed groups and accountability for past serious crimes, Human Rights Watch said.
In Congo, hate speech and stigmatization of communities linked to neighboring countries has increased and is sometimes linked to government officials. A government spokesman, Patrick Muyaya, condemned a video broadcast on social media in which the deputy commander of the North Kivu police, François-Xavier Aba van Ang, encouraged residents to take machetes because “the war against the enemy must become the war of the people”. But Human Rights Watch is not aware of any disciplinary action taken against van Ang.
Various foreign forces are engaged in military operations against armed groups in eastern Congo. Tshisekedi has invited Ugandan forces to the northeast for joint military operations against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan-led Islamist armed group. Burundian troops have undertaken incursions against the Burundian armed group RED-Tabara (Resistance for the Rule of Law in Burundi; Resistance for the Rule of Law in Burundi), based in South Kivu province. The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), which provides military support to Congolese government forces, should help civilians in need of protection, Human Rights Watch said.
On May 30, Senegalese President Macky Sall, current President of the AU, said he had spoken to both President Tshisekedi and Rwandan President Paul Kagame, and that Angolan President João Lourenco led the mediation efforts in his capacity as head of the ICGLR.
The current hostilities in eastern Congo should not deter the Tshisekedi administration and neighboring countries from seeking justice for abuses committed during the previous armed conflict on Congolese territory, Human Rights Watch said.
“The failure of governments in the region to seek justice for commanders on all sides implicated in past atrocities heightens concerns for the safety of civilians in any future fighting,” Fessy said. “Governments that aid abusive armed groups like M23 risk becoming complicit in their crimes.