Killings and rapes in North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continue at a horrific rate, according to Human Rights Watch, despite the signing of a peace accord six months ago. Many people have fled the area, as fighting has flared up between General Nkunda's Tutsi rebels, Hutu militias and Mai Mai fighters. . kaart.jpg
During a recent 10-day mission to the worst affected areas in eastern Congo, HRW-researchers documented 200 killings of civilians and hundreds of rapes of women and young girls. All armed groups - including Congolese government troops - are guilty of the crimes.
"Six months after the peace agreement, there has been no improvement in the human rights situation and in some areas it has actually deteriorated," says Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "While the parties to the peace agreement attended talks in Goma, their troops continued to kill, rape, and loot."
On 23 January the Congolese government signed a comprehensive peace agreement in Goma, North Kivu, with 22 armed groups. The parties agreed to an immediate ceasefire, disengagement of forces and respect for human rights. The Congolese government subsequently set up the so-called Amani Program, a scheme to manage peace efforts in eastern Congo. Both the government and international donors have provided limited funds to get the programme up and running.
But the Goma agreement failed to halt the fighting. The United Nations has documented around 200 ceasefire violations, starting the very day of the signing ceremony. Most of the violations took place during fighting between the forces of renegade general Laurent Nkunda's National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), Mai Mai fighters and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). The FDLR is a Rwandan Hutu-militia whose leaders participated in Rwanda's 1994 genocide. They were not a party to the Goma agreement.
Looting, rape and murder
Human Rights Watch interviewed dozens of people. They described how fighters frequently raided villages for cattle, goats and other goods. During these raids, they raped women and girls, and killed civilians who resisted or whom they accused of collaborating with their enemies.
In March and April, Nkunda's fighters killed around 100 civilians as they indiscriminately fired on more than a dozen villages during an offensive against Mai Mai militias. According to HRW, many of the dead were elderly or very young, and unable to flee ahead of the attacks.
The ongoing clashes and abuses have forced some 100,000 people to flee North Kivu since January, adding to the 750,000 refugees displaced by previous conflicts. Human Rights Watch also said it found credible evidence that soldiers from the Congolese national army were supporting several militias, including Mai Mai and the FDLR.
The abuses by all sides are jeopardizing the peace process in the DRC. "The peace process is meaningless if it fails to protect civilians from the worst abuses," says Van Woudenberg. "The parties to the peace agreement should abide by their commitment to protect civilians, and diplomats should urgently appoint a special advisor on human rights to ensure that this commitment becomes a reality."
Eastern Congo has been the scene of a bloody regional conflict since 1996. The conflict was sparked by the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda, where General Nkunda's Tutsis fought against murderous Hutus. After the genocide, General Nkunda followed Hutu militias to Congo, where they had fled.
Partly as a result, the world's worst humanitarian crisis unfolded in Congo, drawing in the country's neighbours and a whole range of rebel groups. Access to Congo's minerals has been another key issue, but in the background ethnic tensions have continued to play an important role. The fighting and the ensuing starvation and disease have so far killed 5.4 million people.
DRC and ICC
The International Criminal Court in The Hague has indicted several Congolese militiamen for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in 2002-2003. The indictments followed a request by the DRC government in 2004 to investigate if serious crimes were committed. Soon after, the ICC started an investigation in eastern Congo's Ituri district.
The first defendant, militia leader Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, faces charges over the use of child soldiers. Two others, Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, are awaiting their joint trial over similar accusations and a third, Bosco Ntaganda, remains at large. Lubanga might be released because prosecutors failed to disclose possible exculpatory evidence to his defence team.
The ICC - which has a district office in Kinshasa - is collecting information about crimes committed in North and South Kivu. It is also considering the role of those who organized and financed the militias, and this might lead to accusations against government officials as well.