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Human rights expert calls joint UN-Congolese army action ‘catastrophic’

Human rights expert calls joint UN-Congolese army action ‘catastrophic’

Congolese national army soldiers (file photo)
Government troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have killed, raped or mutilated scores of civilians this year in the context of “catastrophic” joint military operations with United Nations peacekeepers to weed out mainly Rwandan Hutu rebels, a UN human rights expert said today.

“Congolese soldiers shot and beat to death at least 50 Rwandan Hutu refugees, and burnt their camp to the ground in an attack in April 2009,” UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions Philip Alston said in a press statement at the end of an 11-day investigation in which he travelled widely in the vast country.

“Some 40 women were abducted from the camp. A small group of 10 who escaped described being gang-raped, and had severe injuries – some had chunks of their breasts hacked off,” he added of the atrocities in the Shalio area of North Kivu province in the east, where a joint DRC-UN military operation has been launched against Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR) rebels.

“An immediate, independent, and thorough investigation into these killings is essential,” Mr. Alston said, citing emerging reports of other very recent killings by the DRC’s army.

“Alarm bells are ringing loudly in the DRC,” he warned of the general situation throughout the country, calling on the Government and the international community to take immediate preventative measures to avert further predictable bloodshed.

The joint operation in Kivu has been so poorly carried out that the FDLR has easily re-entered villages abandoned by the Congolese and UN forces to commit brutal retaliation massacres of civilians, Mr. Alston said.

“From a human rights perspective, the operation has been catastrophic. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced, hundreds of villages burnt to the ground, and at least 1,000 civilians have been killed. Women and girls have literally been raped to death in the most gruesome attacks imaginable.”

The nearly 19,000-strong uniformed force of the UN mission in DRC, known as MONUC and set up in 2000 to help restore peace after years of multiple civil wars, announced in May that it was supporting the army in efforts to flush out the rebels.

The mission’s public information director Kevin Kennedy, replying yesterday to charges by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) of MONUC silence on human rights abuses, said the mission brings the information to the attention of the military authorities, and recommends disciplinary steps such as demotion as well as judicial measures.

Some 50 MONUC operating bases have been put in place in the most sensitive zones to protect the civilian population, he added.

Mr. Alston, an independent expert who reports to the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council, also investigated killings in Orientale province in the far north, bordering Sudan and Uganda, where Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels have infiltrated. He called the situation “a powder keg,” with neither the Government nor the international community paying sufficient attention to it.

“The Government claims to have pushed the Lord’s Resistance Army out of the Congo and is ready to declare victory. But the sad reality is that the LRA is still very much in business in Orientale. Killings and kidnappings continue apace,” he said.

The LRA essentially consists of children abducted by Joseph Kony, a man wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes. “Far from being finished off, the LRA has turned itself into a regional problem that now requires a regional solution, but none is apparently contemplated,” the Special Rapporteur warned.

He voiced particular concern that the Government has recently dispatched troops to the area “who are best known for raping and killing civilians and looting in other parts of the country.” Since September 2008, over 1,200 civilians have been brutally killed by the LRA, with many killings predictable revenge massacres after Government and UN military operations.

Both the Government and UN failed in their responsibility to prioritize civilian protection in their planning, he concluded. Some of the most vicious LRA killings occurred after an operation conducted in cooperation with Uganda and the South Sudan People’s Liberation Army, with United States logistical support, he added.

Turning to the western regions, Mr. Alston warned that with the approach of elections next year, Kinshasa, the capital, and Bas Congo province are ripe for a repetition of the political killings of hundreds of civilians committed by security forces from 2006-2008.

“The highly repressive State apparatus in these areas was brought home to me dramatically when I was prevented from meeting with witnesses and victims by officials and armed police in Bas Congo,” he said.

Across the country, impunity for killings is so pervasive that even Bosco Ntaganda, wanted by the ICC for using child soldiers, holds a senior command position in current military operations.

“Men dressed anonymously in off-the-rack green military uniforms, lacking any identifying insignia, use brutality and the power of their position to prevail over the law in the Congo,” he added. “The Government doesn’t even know how many soldiers it has. Even a change as simple as requiring soldiers to wear uniforms that identify their name and unit would go a long way to combating impunity.”