(Goma, September 25, 2008) - Renewed combat in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has caused a drastic deterioration in the humanitarian situation and immense suffering for civilians, the Congo Advocacy Coalition, a group of 83 aid agencies and human rights groups, said today. The coalition called for urgent action to improve protection of civilians and an immediate increase in assistance to vulnerable populations.
Since August 28, 2008, fighting has resumed between the Congolese army and the forces of a renegade general, Laurent Nkunda's National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), as well as other armed groups, breaking a fragile ceasefire that had been in place since the Goma peace agreement was signed on January 23. An estimated 100,000 civilians were forced to flee in the most recent violence, including many who had been displaced by earlier waves of fighting. According to witnesses, some civilians were trapped in combat zones and were killed, wounded, raped or illegally detained by soldiers of the Congolese army and combatants of other armed groups.
"The situation for civilians is desperate, and it threatens to deteriorate further if fighting continues," said Rebecca Feeley of the ENOUGH Project. "All the parties who signed the Goma peace agreement should adhere strictly to their obligations, including to protect civilians and respect international humanitarian and human rights law."
The heavy fighting, the worst since the ceasefire was signed, started in Rutshuru territory in North Kivu province before spreading to Masisi territory and then to Kalehe territory in South Kivu. Since January 23, the UN peacekeeping mission, MONUC, has recorded more than 250 ceasefire violations in both North and South Kivu. Each round of fighting resulted in fresh displacement of civilians. The exact numbers are difficult to estimate as those returning home are frequently forced to flee again, but the UN believes that more than 1.2 million people are now displaced in North and South Kivu.
During the recent fighting, many civilians were wounded or killed in the crossfire while there are reports that others, including children, were abducted and forcibly recruited into armed service. In Kirotshe, a female worker at the local health center was shot in the stomach on September 11 while the CNDP and soldiers from the Congolese army fought for control of the town. Another woman who fled from Nyamubingwa village said she left behind three women who had been raped by armed combatants. Much of her village was looted.
"Again and again, we are attacked, we flee, our houses are pillaged, and then we are displaced with nothing," said one man, whose house was looted by two different militia groups after he fled from Nyamubingwa on September 10.
Roadblocks erected by the Congolese army and militia groups prevented many civilians from escaping to safety. In some cases, civilians fleeing combat were only permitted to pass if they paid fines or handed over their electoral cards (which serve as identification in Congo) and other goods which they managed to carry from their homes.
Even outside of combat zones, Congolese army soldiers, sent to the region in increasing numbers, killed or injured civilians, often in the process of pillaging their property. In Minova and neighboring villages of South Kivu, for example, four civilians were killed by indiscriminate fire from soldiers who were looting the area. In some areas, Congolese army soldiers, as well as members of armed groups, are also involved in illicit mining activities in the rich gold and tin mines across the Kivu provinces, systematically extorting from civilians, in particular through the imposition of illegal "taxes."
"Congolese army officers and leaders of armed groups must take urgent steps to control and discipline their troops," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. "They are responsible for keeping their soldiers and combatants from killing, harassing and abusing the population."
Aid workers have suffered attacks that have forced them to suspend activities in North Kivu and parts of South Kivu, leaving many displaced persons without assistance. Soldiers and combatants from armed groups have looted health centers and hijacked trucks delivering humanitarian assistance, diverting them for military purposes. Crowds have stoned aid workers and refused to allow them to pass roadblocks, confusing their role with that of the UN peacekeeping force, MONUC. The crowds said they were angry about what they saw as MONUC's failure to end the conflict and protect the population.
"The signatories to the Goma peace agreement agreed to protect civilians, remove roadblocks and allow humanitarian access to populations in need, yet communities have witnessed them doing precisely the opposite," said Juliette Prodhan, country director for Oxfam GB in DRC. "All parties must live up to their commitments and cease such attacks immediately."
Ten years ago this month, the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement were first presented to the Human Rights Commission, officially recognizing the basic rights of all internally displaced persons, including protection against arbitrary displacement, the right to protection and assistance while displaced, and guarantees for safe return.
"In eastern Congo many of the basic rights of displaced people have been flagrantly violated," said Ulrika Blom Mondlane from the Norwegian Refugee Council. "The UN's Guiding Principles should be more than just lofty aspirations. The people of eastern Congo desperately need the protection and basic standards of assistance detailed in this groundbreaking document to become a reality."
The Congo Advocacy Coalition calls on the parties to the Goma peace agreement, international donors, and international facilitators to the peace process (United States, European Union, African Union, and the UN) to redouble efforts to implement the Goma peace agreement and to ensure that the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement are respected in one of the world's worst humanitarian emergencies.
Specifically, the coalition calls on these actors to:
- Uphold the commitments to civilian protection and respect for human rights set out in the Goma peace agreement and the Nairobi communiqué. Appoint a special adviser on human rights for eastern Congo to help ensure that human rights concerns are central to peace discussions.
- Significantly and urgently increase and improve assistance for those displaced from their homes and for the families and communities who host them.
- Sanction those who incite violence against humanitarian and UN workers. Inform the population about the different roles and mandates of MONUC and humanitarian agencies.
- Ensure that MONUC's protection mandate is given priority in the resourcing and management of operations.
- Ensure that the illegal exploitation of natural resources and the economic interests of the parties to the conflict are addressed explicitly in bilateral and international dialogues.
On January 23, the Congolese government and 22 armed groups signed the Goma peace agreement, committing to an immediate ceasefire and observance of international human rights law. The Goma Agreement followed the November 2007 agreement between the governments of Congo and Rwanda, known as the Nairobi Communiqué, which sought to address the presence of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Rwandan armed group, in eastern Congo. In April 2008, the Congolese government set up the Amani Program to coordinate peace efforts in eastern Congo.
The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement set out the basic rights of all displaced people, though their implementation has been weak in eastern Congo. A majority of displaced people in North and South Kivu do not have access to adequate health services, food, or education. In some areas, malnutrition rates have reached alarming levels and several diseases are endemic. A worrying increase in cholera cases, for example, has been registered in six health zones in North Kivu since the beginning of September.
Local food prices have increased dramatically, exacerbating poverty and malnutrition, but the World Food Programme has been obliged to reduce rations in eastern Congo because of food shortages. Displaced people and other vulnerable groups have resorted to high-risk strategies to feed their families. Despite the risk of abuses by army soldiers or combatants of armed groups, some have no alternative but to return home to cultivate their fields. Women and girls are the most affected: many have been raped while attempting to return home or to seek firewood or water. Others have been arbitrarily arrested or forced to pay illegal taxes. Those who do manage to reach home often find their houses looted or occupied by armed groups or bandits.
Children of displaced families have little or no access to education, either because the family has no money to pay school fees or because there are no schools operating in or near displacement camps. In the struggle to stay alive, children are forced to work. As one young boy said to a humanitarian worker, "if you don't work, you don't eat". Like women, children are vulnerable and easy prey to attacks by combatants. In areas around Masisi, for example, children go out to collect firewood at 3 a.m. to avoid abuse by militias, being captured for recruitment, or rape.
The vast majority of those forced to flee their homes live with host families, many of whom are as poor as those they support. To date, these host families, many of whom have sheltered large numbers of displaced persons for months or years, have received little attention and assistance. With village populations sometimes doubling in size, scarce local resources are so strained that displaced people are often forced to move again to other locations.
The Congo Advocacy Coalition, made up of local and international nongovernmental organizations, was established in July 2008 to focus attention on the protection of civilians and respect for human rights in eastern Congo's peace process. The coalition advocates that the parties to the Goma Agreement, the Nairobi Communiqué and the Congolese government's national Amani Program live up to their commitments to respect international human rights law and ensure protection of civilians. The following organizations are members of the coalition's steering committee: ActionAid, ENOUGH Project, Human Rights Watch, International Rescue Committee (IRC), Mercy Corps, Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Oxfam, Conseil Régional des Organisations Non Gouvernementales de Développement (CRONGD) - North Kivu, Promotion et Appui aux Initiatives Féminines (PAIF) - North Kivu, Initiative Congolaise pour la Justice et la Paix (ICJP) - South Kivu, and Association des Femmes Juristes du Congo (AFEJUCO) - South Kivu.
International NGOs: Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED),
Beati i Costruttori di Pace (Blessed are the Peacemakers), CAFOD, CARE International, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Global Witness, International Alert, La Benovolencija, Merlin, Refugees International, Save the Children UK, Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (SCIAF), War Child Holland, Women for Women International, World Vision.
Congolese NGOs: ACP/Sud-Kivu, Action de Promotion et d'Assistance pour l'Amelioration du Niveau des Vies des Populations (APANIVIP), Action Paysanne pour la Reconstruction et le Développement Communautaire (APREDECI), Action pour la Promotion de la Participation Citoyenne (APPC), Action pour la promotion et la défense des droits des personnes défavorisées (APRODEPED), Action Sociale pour la Paix et le Développement (ASPD), ADEF, Aide et Action pour la Paix (AAP), Association Africaine de Défense des Droits de l'Homme (ASADHO)/Sud-Kivu, Association des jeunes pour la défense des droits de l'enfant et la lutte contre la racisme et la haine (AJERH), Association des Voluntaires du Congo (ASVOCO), BEDEWA, Blessed Aid, Caritas Goma, Centre de Recherche sur l'Environnement, la Démocratie et les Droits de l'Homme (CREDDHO), Centre pour la Paix et les Droits de l'Homme - Peace and Human Rights Center (CPDH-PHRC), CEPROSSAN (Le Centre de promotion socio-sanitaire), CEREBA, Change Agents Peace Program (CAPP), Children's Voice, Coalition pour mettre fin a l'utilisation d'enfants soldats en RDC, Collectif des Associations des Femmes Pour le Developpement (CAFED), Collectif des ONGs de Droits de l'Homme (CODHO),Collectif des Organisations des Jeunes Solidaires du Congo, (COJESKI) /Nord et Sud Kivu, Construisons la Paix et le Développement (COPADI), CPP (Campagne Pour la Paix), Dynamique des femmes juristes (DFJ), Fédération des Organisations des Producteurs Agricoles du Congo (FOPAC), Femmes Plus/ Sud Kivu, GAM, Goma Pax Christi, Groupe de Voix de Sans Voix (GVSV), Heritiers de la Justice, Human Dignity in the World (HDW), IGEE, La Ligue Adili, LDGL, LUNACOP, Ministère de l'Eglise du Christ au Congo pour les Réfugiés et les Urgences (ECC MERU)/Sud Kivu, Mouvement International des Droits de l'Enfant, de la femme, de l'homme veuf et de leur promotion sociale (MIDEFEHOPS), PAMI, PFPA, PRODES, Promotion de la Démocratie et Protection des Droits Humains (PDH), PROPREAD, Reseau d'initiative Local pour le développement durable (REID), Réseau Femme et Développement (REFED)/Nord-Kivu, Réseau Provincial des ONGs de Droits de l'Homme (REPRODHOC)/Nord-Kivu, Solidarité Féminine pour la Paix et le Développement Intégral (SOFEPADI)/ Nord-Kivu, Solidarité pour la Promotion sociale et la Paix (SOPROP), SOS/Grands-Lacs, Syndicat des Associations Féminines pour un Développement Intégral (SAFEDI), Synergie des femmes pour les victimes des violences sexuelles (SFVS), Uwaki, VAS, Villages Cobaye (VICO), VOVOLIB.