Hundreds of extrajudicial killings and cases of torture and sexual violence against civilians have been documented during the last two years in North Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), according to a UN report issued Wednesday.
The security and humanitarian situation in North Kivu steadily deteriorated between January 2017 and October 2018, the report says, with the number of human rights violations and abuses amounting to one-third of all the human rights violations documented across the entire country.
The expanding number, and evolving nature, of armed groups fighting both against the security forces and among themselves in order to control territory or natural resources has been a significant factor in this deterioration.
This report, published by the UN's Joint Human Rights Office* focuses in particular on the chronic situation in the Masisi and Lubero territories, where the UN documented at least 324 victims of extrajudicial or summary executions, 832 victims of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, 173 victims of rape or other sexual violence (114 women, 58 children and one man), and 431 victims of forced labour. The civilian population has been the main victim of the worsening security situation in these territories.
Since 2015, the number of human rights violations in both territories has been on the rise, the report says. Women and children are often kidnapped, frequently for the purpose of sexual exploitation, with rapes and gang rapes committed both by armed groups and sometimes by the army (FARDC), the report says, adding that children are also subject to indoctrination by armed groups and forced to serve as child soldiers.
"In some villages of Masisi and Lubero, sexual violence is being used in a deplorable, systematic and particularly brutal way by certain armed groups to punish and intimidate whole communities," said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. "All efforts should be deployed to protect civilians - in particular the most vulnerable - and prevent such atrocities."
The report describes how the widespread violence has provoked massive displacement of civilians, with many displaced persons living in precarious conditions and vulnerable to further exploitation and violence.
The report, based on verified information gathered by UN human rights officers, states that armed groups were responsible for around two-thirds of the human rights violations and abuses registered during the reporting period, while Government security forces - mainly the army and the National Police (PNC) - accounted for the other third (20 percent by the FARDC and nine percent by the PNC).
The report also stresses the number of human rights violations and infringements of international humanitarian law attributed to the FARDC, alongside credible allegations of complicity between some army members and armed groups in Lubero and Masisi. These are exacerbating the population's already considerable vulnerability and mistrust of the FARDC, as well as contributing to the general deterioration of the security situation.
"Without credible investigations to determine responsibility for every crime, and without judicial sanctions against the authors of these violations -- no matter who has committed them - impunity will continue to prevail," said the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in the DRC, Leila Zerrougui. "This will in turn continue to feed the seemingly never-ending cycle of conflict and misery in North Kivu, with civilians caught between the armed groups on the one hand and the security forces - who are supposed to protect them - on the other."
The report takes stock of important developments in the protection of civilians by all concerned actors and offers some recommendations for further improvement. It urges the Government to reinforce State authority in affected areas and support judicial processes against alleged perpetrators of human rights violations and abuses.
The activities of the armed groups have also affected the emergency response to the Ebola epidemic in the Lubero region, where the violence has triggered displacements both from and to Ebola-affected villages, most likely contributing to the spread of the disease.
The report also states that this situation of high insecurity and of continuing violations of human rights could undermine the political rights of the population in the context of the upcoming elections.