The Democratic Republic of Congo is requesting the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate the upsurge of violence and abuses in the embattled eastern province of North Kivu.
Last week, ICC prosecutor Karim Khan announced that the Congolese government formally requested his office to investigate serious crimes allegedly committed in North Kivu since January 1, 2022. As the prosecutor considers whether to move forward with investigating these crimes, this new referral highlights the need for the ICC’s continued engagement in Congo, particularly given escalating violence not just in North Kivu but in other provinces as well.
Over the past year, Human Rights Watch has consistently documented widespread killings and rapes by the Rwanda-backed M23 rebels in North Kivu as well as abuses by other armed groups. A resident of a village attacked by the rebels said, “the M23 raped women, forced people to work for them, and beat people up.” Mass graves containing the bodies believed to be of villagers and captured militia members allegedly executed by M23 fighters were uncovered in the village of Kishishe.
United Nations investigators have documented apparent war crimes by the M23 and other armed groups. Some of these groups continue to wreak havoc among civilians, particularly in the provinces of Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu. Amid the violence, Congolese army units have backed armed groups implicated in serious crimes.
Persistent impunity feeds the ongoing violence, and many of the same actors implicated in past abuses are still committing atrocities.
The ICC has been investigating serious crimes in Congo since 2004 with mixed results. It needs to do more to close the country’s impunity gap and address not only the responsibility of abusive rebel commanders but of senior political and military officials from Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda for their role in grave crimes in eastern Congo over the years.
But as a court of last resort, the ICC cannot do it all, and it should invest more in strengthening domestic accountability efforts. The prosecutor’s recent visit to Congo and memorandum of understanding with the Congolese government are steps in that direction, though it remains unclear how this renewed engagement will look in practice.
The ICC should make the most of the multifaceted role it can play in Congo to bring justice to victims of serious crimes and communities affected by the spiraling violence.