Honorable Commissioner Soyata Maiga
African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights
21 Bijilo Annex Layout, Kombo North District
Banjul, The Gambia
Re: Human Rights Situation in Democratic Republic of Congo
Dear Commissioner Soyata Maiga,
We are writing to you in your capacity as the country rapporteur for the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Human Rights Watch has monitored and reported on the Human Rights situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo for over 20 years. We remain deeply concerned by the escalating human rights and security crisis in the country.
Political violence and government repression intensified in 2017, as President Joseph Kabila held on to power beyond his constitutionally mandated two-term limit, which ended on December 19, 2016. As authorities deliberately stalled plans to organize elections, government officials and security forces systematically sought to silence, repress, and intimidate the political opposition, human rights and pro-democracy activists, journalists, and peaceful protesters.
Government security forces and numerous armed groups committed vicious attacks on civilians across the country, with devastating humanitarian consequences.
Since August 2016, violence involving Congolese security forces, government-backed militias, and local armed groups left up to 5,000 people dead in the country’s southern Kasai region. In addition, dozens of armed groups remained active in eastern Congo’s North Kivu and South Kivu provinces and many continued to attack civilians. Many of their commanders have been implicated in war crimes, including ethnic massacres, killing of civilians, rape, forced recruitment of children, and pillage.
The humanitarian situation in Congo has severely worsened, with Africa’s largest displacement crisis in 2017, famine expected to affect 7.7 million Congolese, and a national cholera epidemic that has spread across the country.
We outline these concerns in more detail below. We would be happy to follow up with supporting information and, if requested, with briefings from our staff who work on Congo.
In your capacity as country rapporteur for Congo, we hope that you publicly call for a peaceful, democratic transition in Congo to help prevent further violence, repression, and instability, which could have potentially dire consequences across the sub-region. We also ask you to press Congolese authorities to open political space, including by releasing political prisoners and allowing peaceful protests, and to fully cooperate with ongoing international investigations into abuses in the Kasai region.
Wendy Isaack, researcher at Human Rights Watch, is attending the 61st Ordinary Session in Banjul and would greatly appreciate the opportunity to meet with you at your convenience to further discuss the human rights situation in Congo. She can be reached at [...].
We look forward to actively participating in the forthcoming 61st Ordinary Session.
Director, Central Africa
Annex: Summary of Recent Human Rights Violations Documented by Human Rights Watch in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Over the past three years, government officials and security forces repeatedly banned opposition demonstrations, fired teargas and live bullets at peaceful protesters, shut down media outlets, and prevented opposition leaders from moving freely.
Security forces killed at least 171 people during protests across the country in 2015 and 2016 against President Joseph Kabila’s attempts to extend his presidency. Security forces also killed at least 90 people as part of a crackdown against members of the Bundu dia Kongo (BDK) politico-religious sect in Kinshasa and Kongo Central provinces in January, February, and August 2017. Some of the BDK members also used violence, killing several police officers.
The most violent crackdown over the past three years occurred on September 19, 2016, when Congolese took to the streets to protest the government electoral commission’s failure to announce presidential elections, three months before the end of Kabila’s term. Security forces responded with excessive force, killing at least 66 people and setting at least three opposition party headquarters on fire. Some protesters also turned violent, beating or burning to death several police officers. At least eight journalists were detained in an apparent attempt to block independent reporting of the situation.
Three months later, security forces killed another 62 people and arrested hundreds of others during protests across the country between December 19 and 22, when Kabila refused to step down at the end of his second term.
Over the past two years, more than 200 activists and opposition leaders or supporters were arbitrarily arrested and held for at least 48 hours simply because of their political views or for exercising the rights to peaceful protest or free expression. Some were held incommunicado for weeks or months, without access to their families or lawyers, while others were put on trial on trumped-up charges. Many remain in detention. These individuals include political opposition leaders and supporters, human rights and pro-democracy youth activists, and those suspected of having links to political opposition leaders. Many allege they were mistreated or tortured and some are suffering serious health complications.
Over the past two years, authorities also prevented international and Congolese journalists from doing their work, including by arresting them, denying access, or confiscating their equipment and deleting footage. Nearly 40 journalists were detained in 2017. The government has shut down Congolese media outlets and periodically curtailed access to social media. Authorities lifted a nine-month block on Radio France Internationale (RFI)’s signal in Kinshasa in August, but they refused to renew the work permit for both the RFI and Reuters international correspondents in Congo.
Earlier, from 2013 to 2014, Congolese security forces summarily executed at least 51 young men and boys and forcibly disappeared 33 others during a police campaign in Kinshasa, known as Operation Likofi. Some of the victims are believed to be buried in a mass grave outside the capital, where the government admits having buried more than 400 bodies in March 2015. The government has so far failed to exhume the mass grave in Maluku or allow for an international, independent investigation.
Attacks on Civilians by Armed Groups and Government Forces
Between August 2016 and September 2017, violence involving Congolese security forces, government-backed militias, and local armed groups left up to 5,000 people dead in the country’s southern Kasai region. Six hundred schools have been attacked or destroyed, and 1.4 million people have been displaced from their homes, including 30,000 refugees who fled to Angola. Nearly 90 mass graves have been discovered in the region, the majority of which are believed to contain the bodies of civilians and militants killed by government security forces using excessive force against alleged militia members or sympathizers.
In March, two United Nations investigators—Michael Sharp, an American, and Zaida Catalán, a Swedish and Chilean citizen—were summarily executed while investigating serious human rights violations in the Kasai region. The four Congolese who had accompanied them are still missing. Human Rights Watch investigations and an RFI report suggest government responsibility for the double murder. A seriously flawed trial against suspects in the case began in June.
In the southeastern province of Tanganyika, more than 200 people were killed, 250,000 others displaced, and numerous villages and displacement camps were burned during intercommunal violence between July 2016 and September 2017. Earlier in 2015, in Nyunzu, in the north of former Katanga province, ethnic Luba fighters attacked a camp for displaced people. The assailants killed at least 30 civilians from the marginalized Batwa community, known as “Pygmy,” with machetes, arrows, and axes and burned down the camp, Human Rights Watch found. Dozens of others remained missing and feared dead. The attack followed deadly raids on Luba by Batwa militias.
Dozens of armed groups remain active in eastern Congo’s North Kivu and South Kivu provinces and many continue to attack civilians. Many of their commanders have been implicated in war crimes, including ethnic massacres, killing of civilians, rape, forced recruitment of children, and pillage.
In Beni territory, North Kivu province, a series of more than 120 massacres occurred over the past three years, in which assailants methodically hacked people to death with axes and machetes or fatally shot them. More than 900 people have been killed, making the spate of massacres one of the most brutal periods in recent Congolese history. Senior UN and Congolese army officials have repeatedly asserted that the attacks in Beni territory have been carried out by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan-led Islamist rebel group that has been in the area since 1996. Human Rights Watch research, however, points to the involvement of other armed groups and certain Congolese army officers in planning and carrying out some of these attacks.
Elsewhere in North Kivu, intercommunal violence increased since 2015 as fighters from the armed groups Nduma Defense of Congo- Renové (NDC-R), the Union of Patriots for the Defense of the Innocent (UPDI), and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) carried out ethnically based attacks on civilians, killing more than 200 people and burning at least 2,200 homes.
The FDLR, a largely Rwandan Hutu armed group, and allied Nyatura groups continue to be responsible for some of the worst atrocities in eastern Congo. The FDLR’s military leader, Sylvestre Mudacumura—sought on an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court since 2012—remains at large.
Kidnappings of Congolese civilians and humanitarian aid workers continue to affect parts of Rutshuru, Lubero, and Masisi territories in North Kivu. At least 200 people were kidnapped for ransom from 2015 to 2016.
In South Kivu province, Congolese security forces used excessive force to quash a protest in Kamanyola in September 2017, killing around 40 Burundian refugees and wounding more than 100 others.