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EU Sanctions Congo, Rwanda Army Officers

To Address M23 Abuses, Sanctions on More Senior Officials Also Needed

Men stand by a mass grave where five men and boys were allegedly executed by the M23 armed group in November 2022 in Kishishe, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, April 5, 2023.  © 2023 Alexis Huguet/AFP via Getty Images

On Friday, the European Union imposed targeted financial and travel sanctions against seven people from the Democratic Republic of Congo, one from Rwanda, and one from Tanzania for “acts that constitute serious human rights violations and abuses” in eastern Congo.

Most newly sanctioned individuals are leaders or senior commanders of known abusive armed groups operating in eastern Congo’s North Kivu, South Kivu, and Ituri provinces, including the Rwanda-backed M23.*

But the EU also sanctioned Col. Salomon Tokolonga of the Congolese army and Capt. Jean-Pierre Niragire, known as Gasasira, of the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF), both for their involvement in the conflict triggered by the M23. Last month, the United Nations Group of Experts on Congo reported that Niragire had been running RDF special forces’ “specific operations [in eastern Congo] from May 2022 onwards” as part of Rwanda’s direct intervention to support the M23’s advance. As for Colonel Tokolonga, Human Rights Watch previously documented his collaboration with abusive militias to fight against the M23.

Although Rwanda has long been involved in supporting abusive armed groups in eastern Congo, this is the first time the EU has sanctioned a Rwandan army officer. The action shows that the EU is finally willing to go beyond condemning “Rwanda’s support to [the] M23 and Rwanda’s military presence in eastern [Congo]” and send a strong message. But the EU should demonstrate that it will escalate its response and sanction more senior RDF commanders named by the UN investigators to show that assisting abusive fighters has a cost, no matter the rank or position. Similarly, EU sanctions should reach higher up the Congolese army hierarchy and target more senior officers who collaborate with abusive militias.

The EU should also express its concern to the Rwandan authorities about Maj. Gen. Alex Kagame, who was appointed commander of the RDF Joint Task Force in Mozambique in June, despite having commanded several RDF operations on Congolese territory in 2022, according to UN investigators. Last year, the EU granted 20 million euros for RDF operations in Mozambique. But any Rwandan contribution to peacekeeping should not be seen as distinct from its apparent complicity in atrocities in eastern Congo.

Over the past year, Human Rights Watch has interviewed over 200 people, including victims and witnesses of horrific crimes by the M23. Sanctions are an important tool to deter further abuses. But they are only the starting point of a necessary process to hold the worst abusers to account.

*Full list includes: Janvier Karairi of the Patriots’ Alliance for a Free and Sovereign Congo (Alliance des patriotes pour un Congo libre et souverain, APCLS), Michel Rukunda known as “Makanika” and Charles Sematama of the Twirwaneho, Justin Maki Gesi aka “the little mountain wolf” of the Cooperative for the Development of Congo (Coopérative pour le développement du Congo, CODECO), Bernard Byamungu of the M23, Apollinaire Hakizimana of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (Forces démocratiques pour la libération du Rwanda, FDLR), Ahmad Mahmood Hassan also known as “Jundi Abakwasi,” a Tanzanian national, of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), Col. Salomon Tokolonga of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Armed Forces, and Capt. Jean-Pierre Niragire also knowns as Gasasira of the Rwandan Defence Force.

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