The United Nations Security Council should urgently act to protect civilians in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo from further atrocities by government and rebel forces and ensure peacekeepers are not implicated in abuses, Human Rights Watch said in a report.
The 183-page report, "‘You Will Be Punished': Attacks on Civilians in Eastern Congo," documents in detail the deliberate killing of more than 1,400 civilians between January and September 2009 during two successive Congolese army operations against a Rwandan Hutu militia, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
The report is based on 23 Human Rights Watch fact-finding missions this year and interviews with over 600 victims, witnesses and family members.
"Continued killing and rape by all sides in eastern Congo shows that the UN Security Council needs a new approach to protect civilians," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The Security Council should send a group of experts to Congo to kick-start a serious civilian protection plan."
Congolese army soldiers and FDLR rebel combatants have attacked civilians, accused them of being collaborators, and "punished" them by chopping many to death with machetes, the report says. Both sides also shot civilians as they tried to flee or burned them in their homes. Some victims were tied together before their throats were, according to one witness, "slit like chickens." The majority of the victims were women, children, and the elderly, HRW discovered.
Human Rights Watch recommended the immediate creation and deployment of a civilian protection expert group that would put forward specific measures to improve strategies to protect civilians in eastern Congo. Alan Doss, special representative of the secretary-general in Congo, will address the Security Council on December 16. The Security Council is scheduled to vote on a renewal of the mandate of MONUC, the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, on December 21.
The report urges the peacekeeping force to immediately cease all support to the current military operation until clear procedures and the means to implement and evaluate them are put in place to prevent violations of international humanitarian law. Human Rights Watch also called for all commanders with known records of human rights abuse to be removed from operational responsibilities. The procedures and conditions, the report says, should be made public.
Over the first nine months of 2009, the UN recorded over 7,500 cases of sexual violence against women and girls across North and South Kivu in eastern Congo, nearly surpassing the figures recorded during all of last year. It's generally believed that the numbers reflect only a fraction of the total - that most go unreported. Most of the women and girls were gang raped, some so violently that they later died. Many women and girls were held as sex slaves by both the Congolese army and the FDLR for weeks or months at a time; they were raped repeatedly and some were mutilated and then killed by machete or shot in the vagina.
One of the youngest cases documented by Human Rights Watch was of a nine-year-old girl raped by FDLR combatants on January 27 in Ngwilo village, Masisi territory, when she and her mother fled the fighting. The FDLR first raped the mother and inserted a large stick in her vagina causing serious injury which led to her death. When the young girl cried out in distress, the FDLR raped her as well.
"Many UN Security Council ambassadors have visited Congo and expressed outrage at the massive sexual violence," said Van Woudenberg. "Yet rape is increasing - not decreasing - in eastern Congo. That outrage needs to be translated into bold and effective action to help protect these women and girls."
In January the Congolese and Rwandan governments began joint military operations against the FDLR in a five-week operation known as Umoja Wetu. It was followed in March by a second military operation, Kimia II, conducted with the support of the UN peacekeepers, which continues.
The Congolese government said the military operations were intended to bring peace and security to this volatile region, but they have not. Human Rights Watch documented horrific crimes against civilians by the FDLR, the Congolese army, and, in some instances, the Rwandan army, during the military operations. Human Rights Watch investigations link senior FDLR commanders and several Congolese army officers to some of the worst atrocities. Many of the abuses amount to war crimes and possible crimes against humanity, the report charges.
UN peacekeepers made important efforts to protect civilians in this complex and difficult terrain, Human Rights Watch said. But the peacekeeping force's role as a joint player in the military operations, providing substantial support to the Congolese army, has implicated peacekeepers in the abuses and undermined the mission's primary objective, which is to protect civilians.
The civilian protection expert group should be created to investigate and make specific recommendations regarding civilian protection needs and challenges in eastern Congo, Human Rights Watch said. This expert group should evaluate the circumstances under which attacks against civilians are taking place, the measures taken by peacekeepers to carry out the mandate to protect civilians, and the best ways to bolster these activities.
On November 11, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1894, which restates the council's pledge "to respond to situations of armed conflict where civilians are being targeted...including through the consideration of appropriate measures at the Security Council's disposal." Human Rights Watch said that the situation in eastern Congo serves as a test of that commitment.
"The Security Council needs to provide UN peacekeepers in Congo with clear and concrete direction," Van Woudenberg said. "Sending a group of experts and making clear to the Congolese army the conditions under which the peacekeepers will work with its troops can play a crucial role in ending abuses and ensuring that UN peacekeepers are not implicated in future atrocities."