As fighting continues in North Kivu Province between the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) army and the rebel group M23, both sides have been accused of committing human rights abuses against each other and civilians, some of which amount to war crimes, according to rights groups.
Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported the M23 rebel movement in eastern DRC had committed war crimes; a second major report by HRW, released 22 July, finds M23’s war crimes have continued.
Summarizing the report’s findings, lead author Ida Sawyer told IRIN: “What we’ve documented is that war crimes committed by M23 fighters have continued since March, and those crimes include summary executions of at least 44 people, and rapes of at least 61 women and girls, and forced recruitment of scores of young men and boys.”
Meanwhile, HRW, a report of the UN Secretary-General and other sources allege the Congolese army has also committed abuses, ranging from the desecration of corpses to mass rape and the killing of civilians.
The M23 rebellion began in April 2012, with the DRC army and M23 clashing intermittently since then. The most recent spate of violence began on 14 July in areas around Mutaho, Kanyarucinya, Kibati and in the mountains near Ndosho, a few kilometres from Goma, the provincial capital. M23 currently controls the areas of Rutshuru and Nyiragongo.
The group came into existence when hundreds of mainly ethnic Tutsi soldiers of the Congolese army mutinied over poor living conditions and poor pay. Most of the mutineers had been members of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), another armed group that in 2009 signed a deal with the government, which the dissidents felt Kinshasa had not fully implemented.
In a September 2012 report on M23, HRW accused the group of deliberately killing at least 15 civilians since June and of executing 33 of its own combatants.
In its latest report, the group alleges that 15 civilians were killed by M23 over two days in April, and a further six were killed in June in reprisals for alleged collaboration with Congolese militias.
It says other civilians killed by the movement included a man who refused to hand his sons over to the rebels, a motorcycle driver who refused to give them money, and recruits caught trying to escape. It also reports that M23 tortured prisoners of war, including two who were killed.
HRW did not include any comments or reactions from M23 in its latest report.
Sawyer said her organization had arranged to interview M23 leader Sultani Makenga about its findings, but fighting broke out on the day of the interview. Makenga cancelled and was subsequently unavailable for a phone interview, Sawyer said.
Speaking to IRIN, M23 spokesman Kabasha Amani said: “When Human Rights Watch says people have disappeared in the territory we control, why doesn’t it give the names of those people?”
He dismissed the findings as rumours, describing the DRC as “a country of rumours”.
A lawyer working with M23, John Muhire, said that since the NGO has not given names of victims or the precise location of the supposed crimes, “they don’t mention anything which really can be a proof that the crime has been committed”.
Muhire accused a Congolese NGO that carried out field work for HRW of being biased against M23, adding that the rebel group had asked for a “neutral” investigation supervised by the UN.
HRW and other sources report that M23 has threatened to kill people who speak out against the movement; the organization does not name victims or precise locations of crimes to protect sources from possible harm.
The report has also been criticized by Rwanda - accused by Human Rights Watch of supporting M23, a charge Rwanda has denied - for wrongly stating that Rwandan soldiers had served with the peacekeeping contingent in Somalia. HRW published a correction but stood by its findings.
“We are very confident with our findings,” Sawyer told IRIN. “What we’ve included in our report is only the information that we have confirmed with several credible witnesses. We rely on information from eyewitnesses who were present during the events - victims and witnesses to abuses. We do very in-depth interviews with all the people we speak to, to document this, and we don’t include information that we think may be biased.”
As an example of information not included, Sawyer cited a claim by the UN Stabilization Mission in DRC (MONUSCO) that M23 had executed 26 farmers in two localities between June 16 and 19, allegations for which the NGO could not find sufficient evidence.
Right abuses by DRC army and others
M23 was the main focus of the report, which deals exclusively with abuses within the zone that M23 tried to control and with evidence of Rwandan support for the group.
But M23 is not the only armed group operating within this zone, and the report includes a brief mention of abuses - three people killed and four raped - by another armed group, the Popular Movement for Self-Defence (Mouvement populaire d’autodéfense or MPA) in the same area since March.
It also notes that, according to the UN Group of Experts on Congo, Congolese army personnel have recently supplied ammunition to the Rwandan rebel group Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), which HRW says has long been committing “horrific abuses” against civilians in eastern DRC.
Additionally, a press release accompanying the HRW report referred to Congolese army soldiers treating “the corpses of M23 fighters killed in combat on July 16 in a degrading manner, stripping them, making ethnic slurs, and prodding their genitals with weapons”, an incident seen in widely circulated photos. The press release also refers to allegations the army harshly treated M23 combatants captured in recent fighting.
On 17 July, the army arrested a lieutenant in connection with the desecration of the M23 fighters’ corpses.
Col Olivier Hamuli, a DRC army spokesman, said the army condemned such behaviour, and added that the incident should be seen in context, as the actions of men suffering from “combat stress”.
The UN Secretary-General’s latest report on MONUSCO includes further references to abuses by Congolese army units in recent months. It highlights a mass rape, allegedly of more than 200 women, by Congolese troops at Minova, in South Kivu, in November 2012, and the killing of at least 27 civilians and the wounding of 89 others in clashes between the army and an armed group at Kitchanga, in North Kivu, in late February and early March.
UN and local sources told IRIN that most of the deaths at Kitchanga were attributable to the army’s use of heavy weapons in a town centre. The army unit involved was led by a colonel who had fought alongside M23 leaders in a previous rebellion and was alleged to be still in alliance with them.
A recent bombing raid by Congolese army aircraft against an M23 military camp at Rumangabo also caused several civilian casualties, according to M23. The UN noted that M23 caused several civilian casualties in Goma when its shells landed in a displaced people’s camp and other locations in the city suburbs in May and again this month.
Sources within MONUSCO commented that reporting of human rights abuses in DRC is uneven, tending to focus on more accessible areas and on groups - like M23 - which are considered to be a regional threat to peace.
Alleged abuses by other armed groups and by some units of the Congolese army may be under-reported compared to those attributed to M23. Complaints in December and January by a civil society organization in Tongo, North Kivu, alleging that an army unit there had been responsible for 93 rapes and eight murders over a six-month period have still not elicited an official response; MONUSCO could give no details of its investigation into these allegations.
Nevertheless, the Congolese army has suspended 12 senior officers and arrested 11 suspects in connection with the mass rapes at Minova. Nationally, the proportion of alleged rights abuses by the army that lead to prosecution has been increasing in the past few years.
Figures from MONUSCO show between July 2010 and July 2011, there were 224 convictions of DRC military personnel or police for serious human rights abuses (about half involving sexual violence), a big increase over previous years.
M23, which recently claimed to have appointed criminal investigators in its territory and to be carrying out trials, has yet to announce the results of any investigations of alleged abuses by its personnel. In reality, says MONUSCO, M23 has no real capacity to hold trials as there are no magistrates in its zone.
Civilians told IRIN that, in some cases, people accused of crimes by the rebels had already been put on trial. Some of them had been imprisoned, one civilian said, speaking just out of earshot of an M23 combatant.
“And some of them were killed,” he added quietly.
Another civilian said: “Those who are arrested and can pay a fine can be freed. As for those who can’t pay a fine, they can be put on forced labour or killed.”
An estimated 900,000 people are displaced in North Kivu, more than half of them by the M23 rebellion; tens of thousands more have fled across the DRC’s borders with Rwanda and Uganda.