(Brussels) - The Congolese government should immediately stop former rebel warlords now commissioned as national army officers from recruiting and using child soldiers in army brigades deployed in North Kivu province, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch also called upon the Rwandan government to prevent these officials and their agents from continuing to recruit children in Rwanda to serve in the Congolese army’s North Kivu brigades.
“The head of the Congolese military in January ordered the North Kivu brigades to stop recruiting and using children soldiers,” said Alison Des Forges, senior advisor to Human Rights Watch’s Africa division. “Former rebel warlords now serving as army officers have failed to follow this order, and children are still on the front lines shooting and being shot at.”
Despite the order by chief of staff of the armed forces, Maj. Gen. Kisempia Sungilanga Lombe, 300 to 500 children, some as young as 13, currently serve in newly formed army brigades, according to international and local child protection workers. The brigades are deploying these children in military operations against local armed groups, including the Mai Mai and the Forces for the Democratic Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR, or Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda), which are fighting the Rwandan government. Many of the children are Congolese Tutsi who were originally under the command of former rebel leader Gen. Laurent Nkunda.
Under a deal meant to end combat between the national army and Nkunda’s forces, rebel combatants were to be integrated into the national army by a process called “mixage.” Beginning in January, army brigade commanders were supposed to identify and hand children over to agencies responsible for their rehabilitation, but several have refused to do so. The commanders say they must maintain sufficient soldiers to protect Tutsi living in North Kivu and enable the return of thousands of Congolese Tutsi refugees living in camps in Rwanda.
In one case at the North Kivu military camp at Kitchanga on March 22, brigade commander Col. Sultani Makenga tried to forcibly remove eight children from the vehicle of child protection workers. He personally dragged six from the vehicle under protest and beat two of the children who refused. Makenga also called the child protection workers “dogs,” and threatened to beat them as well. Three of the children later found refuge with the United Nations peacekeepers, but three are still missing.
According to child protection workers, children are still being recruited for the North Kivu brigades within the Congo and also from across the border in Rwanda. In one case, the Association of Young Congolese Refugees (Association des jeunes réfugiés congolais), active in the Congolese refugee camps in Rwanda since 2005, recruited two boys, aged 14 and 16, from one of the camps, along with nine other children and 17 adults. On January 18, the two boys were taken from Rwanda to serve in one of the Congolese army’s North Kivu brigades, but were able to escape during the burial of two adult recruits who died on the journey.
Other armed groups active in North Kivu are known to be using child soldiers. One of the local armed groups known as Mai Mai engaged in a skirmish with Congolese army brigades in February. On February 19, six boys aged 14 to 17 fled this Mai Mai group and made their way to United Nations peacekeepers based in Kiwandja.
At a news conference on April 11, the UN Mission in DR Congo (MONUC, or Mission de l’ONU en RD Congo) said that only 37 of 267 children whom they had identified in the North Kivu brigades had been demobilized. MONUC urged the brigade commanders to respect national and international law and to follow the orders of Maj. Gen. Kisempia Sungilanga Lombe, who ordered the children to be released.
Since November 2001, DR Congo has been a party to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which sets 18 as the minimum age for participation in armed conflict. The country is also party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which defines as war crimes both the recruitment of children under the age of 15 into military forces and the use of children to participate actively in hostilities.
In September, DR Congo was the first country to be considered by the UN Security Council’s new monitoring and reporting mechanism on children in armed conflict, which envisages strong measures against those responsible for child recruitment. The Security Council’s Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict called on the government to take appropriate legal action against members of the Congolese army accused of grave crimes against children and reiterated the responsibility of MONUC to aid the government in apprehending and bringing to justice those responsible for recruiting and using child soldiers.
Despite this new system, UN peacekeeping officials in Congo have privately raised concern at their inability to oblige army brigade commanders to release the children.
Human Rights Watch called on UN officials to refer brigade commanders responsible for continuing child recruitment in North Kivu to the UN sanctions committee on Congo for possible sanctions, including travel bans, asset freezes or other measures.
“Congolese army officers who are recruiting, training and using child soldiers are violating international law and they know it,” said Des Forges. “The chief of the armed forces took the first step by ordering an end to this crime, but the military must ensure that officers follow these orders or face serious consequences if they refuse.”