The top United Nations human rights official today spoke out against abuses committed by Ugandan rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and voiced alarm about the impact on civilians of a joint military operation being conducted by DRC and its neighbour Rwanda.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay described the violations committed in eastern DRC by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) as “grotesque.” The rebels have attacked civilians in Orientale province in retaliation for a joint military operation launched last month by the Governments of DRC, Uganda and Southern Sudan targeting LRA bases in north-east DRC.
The military action followed the failure of LRA leader Joseph Kony to sign an agreement to end his rebellion against the Ugandan Government.
Initial UN investigations suggest that the LRA retaliated by killing hundreds of civilians, whom they believed were aiding government forces. The LRA is also accused of conducting large-scale kidnappings and rapes, as well as forced recruitment of minors, all of which has led to a major humanitarian crisis in the region.
According to the most credible estimates from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the LRA violence has left 900 people dead and uprooted 130,000 others, with more than 8,000 Congolese taking refuge in Southern Sudan.
Teams from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently visited several towns in Southern Sudan where Congolese have taken refuge. The agency noted that humanitarian aid remains hampered by the volatile security situation and limited accessibility.
“I’m also concerned that the joint military counter-operations, unless properly planned and executed, could lead to further human rights abuses being perpetrated against the civilian population who are, in effect, caught between the conflicting parties,” stated Ms. Pillay.
The High Commissioner called on all actors in the various conflicts in the troubled eastern part of the DRC to respect human rights and international humanitarian law and called for accountability measures to be included in international efforts to bring about a peaceful solution.
Ms. Pillay also voiced concern over the situation in North Kivu province where thousands of Rwandan troops have deployed in recent days, in preparation for joint action with the Congolese army to disarm the Rwandan Hutu rebels of the Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), who have been responsible for committing massive human rights abuses against civilians over the past 14 years.
She stressed that the protection of civilians should be the top priority as this operation is planned and carried out, recalling how similar actions in the past have resulted in widespread harm for civilians.
“I am particularly concerned by reports that the Congolese-Rwandan operation to flush out FDLR-rebels has already impacted negatively on the ability of MONUC [UN mission in DRC] peacekeepers, as well as various UN agencies and humanitarian organizations, to protect and assist the civilian population in some areas,” she said.
Echoing her concern, Walter Kälin, the Secretary-General’s Representative on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, called today on all actors involved in the present military operations in eastern DRC to respect international humanitarian and human rights law.
“I fear that unless a clear distinction is made between fighters and the civilian population, and precautionary measures to protect civilians are taken, these operations will trigger further massive displacement of civilians and deepen the humanitarian crisis in the Kivu region,” Mr. Kälin said.
The independent human rights expert recently visited Kinshasa and Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu, at the invitation of the Congolese Government.
Alan Doss, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative and head of MONUC, and the Mission’s Force Commander, Babacar Gaye, are meeting with Congolese authorities in Goma to discuss the possible impact of the operation on civilians and on the Mission’s work in general.
Regarding another conflict in the DRC, Ms. Pillay welcomed recent calls by MONUC and others for the reintegration of members of the mainly Tutsi rebel militia known as the National Congress in Defense of the People (CNDP) into the Congolese national armed forces (FARDC), as an important step towards securing peace in North and South Kivu.
The conflict between the CNDP and FARDC has uprooted an estimated 250,000 people since late August, on top of the 800,000 already displaced in the region, mainly in North Kivu province, which borders Rwanda and Uganda.
However, she added that this process must include accountability for massacres and other horrific abuses committed by the CNDP under the leadership of Laurent Nkunda and Bosco Ntaganda, pointing out that the former is suspected of crimes against humanity, and the latter has already been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Mr. Nkunda was taken into custody by the Rwandan authorities last week.
“Members of the CNDP are accused of authorizing or committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, along with the leaders of a number of other groups in eastern DRC,” said Ms. Pillay. “There should never be impunity for crimes of this gravity.”
Meanwhile, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has called for an immediate end to abductions, forced recruitment and extreme violence against children and women in north-eastern DRC, noting that the number of children abducted has reached “horrible” proportions.
“We urge all armed groups to immediately end deliberate attacks against civilians, the recruitment and use of children, and to release all children in their ranks,” said Pierrette Vu Thi, UNICEF Representative in the DRC.