Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo Early Warning Brief:

Gross Human Rights Violations Warning


Condensed Brief:


Warning: Ongoing serious human rights violations (including sexual violence targeting women). Lack of good governance. Recent national elections have resulted in increased violence.

Full Brief:


1. Background

In recent years, the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC, this brief will focus on the provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu, and Ituri  District within Province Orientale) has been beset by violence and human rights abuses. This violence has largely been caused by two factors: 1) political (and institutional) instability, and 2) ethnic tensions (exacerbated both by intense political competition and by the influx of refugees from the Rwandan genocide in 1994). The proliferation of small arms has also magnified the impact of these conflicts, as has the intervention of foreign forces.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a very large country that is rich in hydro, timber, and mineral resources. In spite of this wealth, the Congo has remained an impoverished country with a low median standard of living. This paradoxical state of affairs can largely be attributed to unrepresentative, exploitative, and corrupt governance (first from the Belgian colonial regime, 1885-1960, and subsequently, from the Joseph Mobutu regime, 1960-1997, and the Laurent Kabila regime, 1997-2001).

Several events served to transform the governance void in the Congo into violence. In 1994, the Rwandan genocide led to an influx of over one million Hutu refugees, who settled in the eastern region of the country. Two years later, Mobutu was on an extended stay abroad (due to illness) and this resulted in a weakening of his (and the central government’s) control over the country. This weakened control provided the context for Mobutu’s 35 year dictatorship to be overthrown by Laurent Kabila (backed by Uganda and Rwanda) in May 1997. Kabila’s regime was subsequently challenged by a Rwanda/Uganda backed rebellion in August 1998. Troops from Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Chad and Sudan intervened to support Kabila’s Kinshasa regime.

The Lusaka agreement was signed on July 10, 1999, which included terms for a cease-fire, demobilization and disarmament of all military groups and an inclusive peace process (with the involvement of civil society). However, despite the signing of this agreement by all parties, sporadic fighting continued. Kabila was assassinated in January 2001 and his son Joseph Kabila was named head of state. The new president quickly began peace talks in an attempt to end the war. This resulted in a final peace agreement being signed in South Africa in 2002, the formation of a transitional government in 2003, and the first round of multiparty elections in June 2006. In sum, the conflict in the Congo cost the total of about four million lives (averaging out to about 31 000 people dead per month through the course of the war).1 During the conflict, many gross human rights violations were committed including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and, in all probability, genocide.

In spite of the peace agreement, violence and human rights violations have continued in the past several years in the eastern parts of the Congo including the Kivus (North Kivu and South Kivu), as well as Ituri District with Province Orientale. The Kivus is an area that has become a de facto holdout for forces opposed to the peace process. It is also (like Ituri) a region that is closely tied to Rwandan interests. There are many Tutsis and Hutus living in the Kivus. The Tutsis, for the most part, migrated from Rwanda generations ago, while the Hutus were mostly recent migrants coming as refugees during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. It is from the extremist elements of this population of Hutu refugees that the soldiers of the Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR) are drawn. The FDLR also contains Hutu members of the former Rwandan army and genocidaires.

The FDLR has been active in the eastern parts of the Congo for a number of years fighting alongside the Congolese army against the RCD-Goma (Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie or Rally for Congolese Democracy), a group backed by the Tutsi-led government in Rwanda. The RCD-Goma also established a kind of de facto control over the Kivus. The RCD-Goma was made a part of the transitional government in 2003 and since then there have been attempts to get the group to disarm. In the past few years, the RCD also constructed and promoted the identity of “Rwandophones” – Rwandans living in the Congo who had faced persecution at the hands of the Congolese government.

There have also been attempts to get the FDLR to disarm and be repatriated back to Rwanda (amnesties have been offered for those not involved in the genocide). The FDLR is less of a threat to the stability of the Congo than it once was but hardliners in the group have prevented Hutu refugees from returning to Rwanda and have also launched raids into Rwanda in an attempt to rouse Rwanda to intervene again in the Congo (thereby sparking a renewal of the Congolese civil war). The FDLR, the RCD-Goma, and the Congolese armed forces have all committed gross human rights violations in the violence that has wracked the Kivus.

Ituri has also been caught in the struggle between foreign governments (in this case Uganda, Rwanda, and their proxies) and the Congolese government (and its militia allies). However, the violence in Ituri has a more explicitly ethnic character than that in the Kivus. Ethnic violence in Ituri largely occurs between the pastoralist Hema and the agriculturalist Lendu. The Hema were favoured by the colonial regime (as the Tutsis were favoured in Rwanda) and in the post-colonial period they easily assumed economic and political leadership roles in Ituri.

Another major source of grievance and conflict has been land rights. The 1973 Land Use Law allowed people to buy land that they did not inhabit and then evict the inhabitants after two years (if ownership of the land had not been contested by that point). This law was purportedly used by some unprincipled Hema to evict Lendu from their homes in 1999. This resulted in a wave of Lendu attacks followed by waves of Hema counter-attacks. The Hema were supported by the Ugandan Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF – the Ugandan military), and comprised the majority of the RCD-K (the Kisangani faction of the RCD), while the Lendu largely drew on the Nationalist and Integrationist Front (FNI). The UPDF also declared Ituri to be province (previously it was a district within Oriental Province) and installed a Hema as governor. Uganda exploited the ample mineral resources of Ituri while alternating between a role as a mediator and actively arming and training one side or the other in the conflict.

There was a second wave of violence in 2001 sparked by Uganda’s attempts to combine various factions and splinter groups into a unified rebel front (a move that was perceived as threatening by the Lendu). Since 2001, there has been a cycle of escalating violence between Lendu and Hema militia groups that has resulted in atrocities such as drug-fed, undisciplined troops engaging in massacres, slavery, cannibalism, and mutilation. There have been many shifts in the political landscape as groups have split and realigned numerous times but the fundamental results have remained the same. Tens of thousands of people have been killed, more have been internally displaced, and children have been forcibly recruited into armed groups. The use of child soldiers has been epidemic and it is estimated that there are 30 000-50 000 child soldiers in the DRC. Moreover, they make up as much as 60-75% of the militia troops in Bunia District (Ituri).2 It is probable that incidents of genocide occurred in Ituri and possibly in the Kivus as well (or at the very least crimes against humanity).

2. Current Situation

Figure 1.1 - Return of Congolese Refugees to the DRC and IDP's in the DRC 

(click on the map to access a larger version in a new window)

Source: ReliefWeb (original source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees).

The security situation in both the Kivus and Ituri remains dire. This has contributed to the continuing large numbers of internally displaced persons.  Moreover, there are many human rights abuses perpetrated against civilians by the Congolese Army (FARDC), armed militias, and the police. These abuses include such things as torture, arbitrary detention, and killings. Sexual violence against women and girls is particularly prevalent.   The FDLR is less powerful than it once was but it continues to terrorise civilians in the Kivus and commit grievous human rights violations. The RCD-G has still not disarmed and demobilised and continues to contribute to the atmosphere of insecurity.  In particular the districts of Masisi and Rutshuru remain unsettled.

The major proliferation of small arms in the region also plays a role in this insecure environment and facilitates human rights abuses. Moreover, the Congolese military and police are lacking in discipline and often behave more like independent militias - committing crimes with impunity - rather than instruments of the central government. Both Rwanda and Uganda have withdrawn their forces from the Kivus and Ituri, yet they continue to exercise a powerful influence in these areas. Until the militias disarm, good governance comes to the Congo, discipline and respect for the rule of law are instilled in the security forces, and the proliferation of small arms lessens, the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo will remain areas with substantial human rights deficiencies. The recent elections in the DRC (the second round of multiparty elections, a runoff between the two leading candidates) presented a situation of heightened risk of gross human rights violations as groups struggled to maintain or gain political power. The relative success of the elections (where Joseph Kabila was elected as president) is a positive sign for the future of the Congo.

However, on March 22nd 2007 fighting erupted in Kinshasa between the army and forces loyal to Jean-Pierre Bemba. Bemba and Kabila faced off in the second round of the Congolese presidential elections with Kabila taking approximately 58.05% of the vote and Bemba's supporters alleging that the elections were fraudulent. On March 15, 2007 Bemba's guard (his personal security forces) did not meet the deadline to be incorporated into the military and fighting ensued with at least sixty deaths reported.3 Bemba has been accused of high treason but he maintains that his safety was threatened by the government and that he was just acting in self defence.  Bemba is now living in exile in Portugal although he was elected in January to the Congolese senate.  These events serve to illustrate the continuing political instability in the DRC and the potential for further violence and human rights abuses.  The security situation in the DRC seems to be gradually improving although many divisions remain (not the least of which are the divisions between the Lingala-speakers of the west and the Swahili-speakers of the east).

3. State of Response

The international community was very slow in responding to the conflict in the Congo and the subsequent gross human rights violations. At the time, the war in the Congo was, most likely, the greatest humanitarian catastrophe on the planet (it was dubbed the “African World War” by some observers due to the plethora of African countries involved), yet it received little effective international response. In 2000 the United Nations Security Council enacted Resolution 1291 establishing a UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo (Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies en République démocratique du Congo, or MONUC). The size of the mission (10 531 soldiers at first but then an additional 5 900 were added in 2001) was inadequate to restore order and protect human rights in the DRC. On the 15th of May 2003 the UN Security Council authorised the deployment of a French-led interim emergency force (IEFM) to Ituri. This was not a UN force per se but was a UN-authorised force set in a bridging capacity until the UN forces in Ituri could be shored up. Conditions seem to be gradually improving but there are still concerns that the international presence in areas such as the Kivus and Ituri is not sufficient to restore human security. There are also fears that the current spike in violence accompanying the Congolese elections could escalate into further violence and gross human rights violations.

The situation in the DRC was referred to the International Criminal Court by the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2004. Two suspects (Germain Katanga and Thomas Lubanga Dyilo) are now in the custody of the court.  Katanga is alleged to be a former senior commander of the rebel group the Force de Résistance Patriotique en Ituri.  As a leader of this group Katanga is charged with planning and carrying out crimes against humanity and war crimes arising from an attack on the village of Bogoro.  Lubanga, an alleged leader of the militia group the Union of Congolese Patriots (UTC) in Ituri, is accused of the war crime of conscripting and enlisting children.  Investigations into alleged international crimes are ongoing. 

References and Further Reading

Agence France Presse (AFP). South Africa says former DR Congo Rebel wants truce." March 24, 2007.

Amnesty International. “Democratic Republic of the Congo: arming the east.” July 5, 2005.

International Crisis Group. “The Congo’s Transition is Failing: Crisis in the Kivus.” Africa Report No. 91. March 30, 2005.

---. “Congo Crisis: Military Intervention in Ituri.” Africa Report No.64. June 13, 2003.

Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies en République démocratique du Congo (MONUC). “Monthly Human Rights Assessment: September 2006.”

End Notes

1 Amnesty International, “Democratic Republic of the Congo: arming the east,” July 5, 2005.

2 P.W. Singer, Children at War, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006, p. 21.

3Agence France Presse (AFP). South Africa says former DR Congo Rebel wants truce." March 24, 2007.

Version 1.4
Last Updated: October 29, 2007
Updated by: Kjell Follingstad Anderson