Human Rights Watch Says M23 Rebels Targeting Civilians in DR Congo

The M23 armed group in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo summarily killed at least 29 civilians since mid-June 2022 in areas under their control, Human Rights Watch said today. There are heightened concerns that the abusive rebel force, largely inactive for a decade, is receiving Rwandan support for its operations in North Kivu province.

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that on June 21, following fighting around the village of Ruvumu, M23 rebels summarily killed at least 17 civilians, including 2 teenagers, whom they accused of informing the Congolese army about their positions and hideouts. Some were shot dead as they attempted to flee, while others were executed at close range. Deliberate killings of civilians are serious violations of international humanitarian law, including Common Article 3 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and are war crimes.

“Since the M23 took control of several towns and villages in North Kivu in June, they’ve committed the same kind of horrific abuses against civilians that we’ve documented in the past,” said Thomas Fessy, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government’s failure to hold M23 commanders accountable for war crimes committed years ago is enabling them and their new recruits to commit abuses today.”

The fighting between Congolese troops and M23 rebels has forced nearly 200,000 people to flee their homes. Nearly 20,000 children may be unable to complete their end-of-year exams in July due to the fighting, according to the United Nations (UN). The resurgence of the M23 comes as the security situation in eastern Congo has deteriorated over the past year, with other armed groups, and at times government soldiers, committing widespread violence, unlawful killings, and other grave abuses.

Since June, Human Rights Watch conducted 49 interviews with survivors and witnesses of abuses, as well as with victims’ family members, local authorities, activists, UN staff, security personnel, and diplomats.

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A 35-year-old mother of five in Ruvumu said she heard gunfire as she hid with her youngest child and other villagers in the early morning in a house near her parents’ home. A few hours later, as she and others peered through the door, she saw four rebels in military fatigues taking her father out of his house with his hands tied behind his back.

She said she heard one of them screaming at her father in Kinyarwanda: “It’s you who told the military where we were hiding!” She said she heard gunshots. “When it got quieter, we went outside to find shelter somewhere else and I saw my father lying dead on the ground,” she said. “He was shot in the chest and his hands were still tied.”

In a July 17 statement, M23 rejected the Human Rights Watch findings. Earlier, on June 24, the rebel group denied that they carried out any killings in Ruvumu. Instead, they blamed the deaths on the Forces Démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR), a largely Rwandan Hutu armed group operating in Congo, and the Nyatura, a Congolese armed group vowing to protect Hutu communities.

Since May, the M23 has demonstrated increased firepower and defensive capabilities that have enabled the group to overrun UN-backed Congolese troops and hold territory. UN sources and a senior Congolese security official suggested that foreign support may be responsible for M23 fighters having a steady supply of ammunition and the capacity to fire mortar barrages for several consecutive hours. Rwanda and Uganda have backed the M23 in the past, Human Rights Watch said.

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On June 14, the United States embassy in Congo said it was, “extremely concerned about the recent fighting in eastern [Congo] and the reported presence of Rwandan forces on [Congo]’s territory.” The UN Group of Experts on Congo, mandated by the UN Security Council to monitor the implementation of its sanctions regime, stated in its June report that the “presence of individuals wearing uniforms of the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) in M23 camps located in [Congo], [had been] confirmed by aerial footage and photographic evidence.” The government of Rwanda has repeatedly denied supporting the M23 directly or indirectly.

On June 29, the Head of the UN Stabilization Mission in Congo (MONUSCO) Bintou Keita, informed the Security Council that the M23 has “conducted itself increasingly as a conventional army rather than an armed group,” and that the UN mission “may find itself confronted to a threat that goes beyond its current capabilities.”

All parties to the conflict in North Kivu have increasingly used explosive weapons — mortar fire and artillery shelling — in combat, putting civilians and civilian structures at greater risk.

On May 23, a shell allegedly fired from the Rwandan side of the border destroyed a primary school in Katale. An M23 mortar round hit a playground in Biruma on June 10, killing two young boys. M23 mortar fire in Kisiza and Katwa killed a woman and a child and injured at least 10 civilians on both July 1 and 2. Attacks that do not discriminate between military objectives and civilians or civilian objects are unlawful. All parties to the conflict should commit to restricting the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects, such as mortars, in populated areas, Human Rights Watch said.

The UN, the African Union (AU) and concerned governments should publicly denounce M23 abuses and any found to have been committed by other parties. Sanctions against senior M23 commanders should be maintained and expanded to include those newly found responsible for serious abuses, as well as senior officials from across the region complicit in the armed group’s abuses. Any political settlement should reject an amnesty for those responsible for grave international crimes and not permit abusive M23 commanders to integrate into Congo’s armed forces.

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Donor countries should suspend military assistance to governments found to be supporting the M23 and other abusive armed groups.

The UN, AU, and Congo’s partners should support a clear strategy to address impunity for serious abuses with a vetting mechanism for the security and intelligence services, an internationalized justice mechanism, and a comprehensive reparations program, as well as an effective demobilization program. These should be central in ongoing regional discussions regarding the threat posed by the M23 and other armed groups.

“Civilians in eastern Congo should not have to endure new atrocities by the M23,” Fessy said. “The UN should urgently step up its efforts with national and regional authorities to prevent history from repeating itself at the expense of North Kivu’s people.”

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