The Failure of Humanity in Congo

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By Katherine Iliopoulos

Life is cheap in eastern Congo, one of Africa’s most dangerous areas, where humans are slaughtered like animals, women and girls are systematically raped, and children are summarily executed. The burning of villages, schools and churches is widespread. One resident of eastern Congo said to Human Rights Watch, “When are they going to stop killing us?”Sixty years since the end of the Second World War and the creation of the United Nations, events in DR Congo are a reminder that the system of collective security based around the UN is often still unable to save the lives of innocent civilians caught up in armed conflict. Even worse, the United Nations itself is facing accusations of complicity in violations of international law. 

The ‘Kivu Conflict’ – an explosive mix of power-hungry militias and ethnic tensions, fuelled by a violent tussle for control over mineral resources – is taking place between the Congolese armed forces (FARDC) and the Rwandan Hutu militia group, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) in the mountainous provinces of North and South Kivu. After a dramatic shift in political alliances, in January 2009 the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda launched joint military operations in eastern Congo against the FDLR – some of whose leaders had participated in the Rwandan genocide, and which had targeted Congolese civilians in these areas over the previous 15 years.

Rape, pillage, murder: words associated with war since time immemorial. But as you read the catalogue of horrors perpetrated against women, men, children, and the elderly that is the December 13 report by Human Rights Watch, ‘You Will be Punished: Attacks on Civilians in Eastern Congo,’ you may realise that the reality on the ground must far exceed your powers of imagination.

For example, in March this year, FDLR soldiers raped a 30-year-old woman. She was eight months pregnant and lost her baby. When her 16-year-old daughter, who was with her, resisted being raped, the combatant took her by force, inserted the barrel of his gun into her vagina and shot her dead. There were at least 14 other women like her who suffered a similar fate.

A nine-year-old girl was raped in January, in Masisi territory. A rape counsellor who later interviewed the victim said the girl had fled with her mother when they ran into the FDLR. They first raped her mother and inserted a large stick in her vagina, which led to her death. When the young girl cried out, the FDLR raped her as well.

The elderly are not spared either. One 60-year-old woman told HRW that “they took all my money and raped me. Then they took me into the bush, and I was there for four months … They beat me if I was tired when they wanted to have sex … I left many unburied corpses behind me in the forest, especially those of women and young girls who weren’t capable of having sex anymore.”

Another survivor recalls the massacre of her family. “When the Tutsi soldiers came to our village, they said that peace had arrived. But then they started killing us. My husband was shot in the head while I was with him. His whole skull shattered into several pieces. My father-in-law was shot in his side. They cut my sister-in-law into pieces with a machete. They put the pieces together in different piles. That’s what I found when we went to look for her.”

In Kishonja in early February, the FDLR forced their way into a house and shot and killed a five-year-old and a six-year-old boy in front of their mother. “We kill animals, and we’re killing you, so you must be animals,” they shouted.

Between late January and September 2009, the FDLR deliberately killed at least 701 civilians in North and South Kivu. Many people were chopped to death by machete or hoe. Some were shot. Others were burned to death in their homes. In the worst single incident, the FDLR massacred at least 96 civilians in the village of Busurungi on May 9-10, 2009. Some of the victims were first tied up before the FDLR “slit their throats like chickens.”

Many of the abuses amount to war crimes and possible crimes against humanity, HRW has said. And they took place despite the deployment of the UN’s largest current peacekeeping mission in the country.

MONUC is a United Nations peacekeeping force established by the Security Council, originally established to monitor the peace process of the Second Congo War that officially ended in 2003. The UN’s largest at over 20,000 troops, it has been supporting Congolese military operations against the FDLR, known as Kimia II, since March, an operation that has claimed the lives of 1,400 civilians.

MONUC was given the mandate to support and participate in military operations with the Congolese armed forces against the FDLR in December 2008, as long as such operations were conducted in accordance with the laws of war. But according to Human Rights Watch, it disregarded crucial elements of formal legal advice given by the UN Office of Legal Affairs (OLA) in January and did not establish conditions for respecting international humanitarian law, as required by its mandate, before it began to support the operations.

HRW has found evidence that FARDC violated their obligation under the laws of war to minimise harm to civilians. They failed to make a distinction between civilians and combatants, actively targeted civilians, failed to give effective advance warning of attacks when possible, and made no efforts to permit civilians caught in the crossfire to flee to safety. They summarily executed hundreds of civilians under their effective control. And as with the FDLR, the killing by Congolese army soldiers was often accompanied by the rape of women and girls.

According to HRW, MONUC received credible reports of gross violations of human rights yet continued to support the FARDC, raising concerns that the UN itself may be implicated in war crimes.

In a leaked October 12 memo from OLA, marked “Priority Confidential” and addressed to top UN peacekeeper Alain Le Roy, MONUC’s policies for providing assistance to the FARDC are found to violate international law. Specifically, there is no provision in MONUC’s policies for suspending assistance to operations of the FARDC in which laws are violated, but rather only partial suspension to particular units.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s December 14 announcement that MONUC peacekeepers have suspended logistical or other support for certain units of the FARDC where there were sufficient grounds to believe their operations violated human rights appears to be consistent with this current policy. Indeed, MONUC suspended support for a specific FARDC unit believed to have been involved in the targeted killing of civilians in the Lukweti area of North Kivu.

But according to the advice from OLA, it is unlawful for MONUC to provide any support to a FARDC operation if it is found that any of its units are violating international law. This flows from the UN’s obligations under its Charter and under customary international law to uphold and promote respect for international humanitarian law and human rights law.

Furthermore, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings Philip Alston has noted that MONUC continues to work with units under Colonel Zimulinda, whom he accuses of murder and mass rape. In addition, the MONUC leadership has apparently ignored the important role played by Bosco Ntaganda in the Kimia II operation, where he was the de facto deputy commander. The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for Ntaganda’s arrest in August 2006 on charges of conscripting, enlisting and using child soldiers, but he remains in operational command in the DRC.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which has jurisdiction over all of the crimes documented in the HRW report. Currently, the ICC Prosecutor is prosecuting three warlords from Ituri. It remains to be seen whether the ICC’s DRC investigations will expand to include the 2009 atrocities in the Kivus.

HRW has urged the UN to set up a “civilian protection expert group” to devise measures to help safeguard people in the strife-torn east of the country. “The Security Council needs to provide UN peacekeepers in Congo with clear and concrete direction,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Sending a group of experts and making clear to the Congolese army the conditions under which the peacekeepers will work with its troops can play a crucial role in ending abuses and ensuring that UN peacekeepers are not implicated in future atrocities”.

The Report has been condemned by the DRC Government “as disproportionate and an attempt to delegitimise the Congolese state,” Communication Minister Lambert Mende told AFP reporters. “(It is) an attempt to distort the truth.”

Alan Doss, Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and MONUC chief, briefed the Security Council on December 16, and advised that the joint operation – which he said had “largely achieved” its goal of weakening the Rwandan Hutu rebels – will conclude by the end of this month. On the same day, MONUC and the Congolese army announced new directives for operations against rebels with the protection of civilians as the core focus. On Monday 21 December, the SC is scheduled vote on whether to renew MONUC’s mandate.

Even if MONUC were to reform its policies, or even absorb more troops, the fact remains that peacekeepers in DR Congo are being asked to perform a mission closer to peace enforcement than traditional peacekeeping. The mission in Congo illustrates the difficulties that such missions can entail, and suggests that the United Nations and its member states do not yet have the expertise and commitment to deal effectively with such complex humanitarian emergencies.

Katherine Iliopoulos is an international lawyer based in The Hague, Netherlands.

Related Links:

You Will be Punished: Attacks on Civilians in Eastern Congo
Human Rights Watch
December 13, 2009

Leaked Memo to Chief MONUC Peacekeeper (PDF)
United Nations Office of Legal Affairs
October 12, 2009

DR Congo: UN forces, army adopt new directives with civilian protection at core
UN News Centre
December 16, 2009

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