Human Rights Watch (HRW) says it has credible evidence that army units in the Democratic Republic of Congo backed armed groups that were implicated in serious abuses during fighting with rebels in the east of the country.
The Congolese army worked with a coalition of Congolese militia as well as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) to fight against Rwandan-backed M23 rebels in North Kivu province between May and August 2022, the rights group says.
Congolese army (FARDC) officers reportedly gave these armed groups sporadic support.
“Congolese army units are again resorting to the discredited and damaging practice of using abusive armed groups as their proxies,” said Thomas Fessy, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“The Congolese government should end this support, which leads to military complicity in abuses, identify officers responsible, and hold them accountable.”
Over the past year, HRW asserts that armed groups – and at times, Congolese soldiers – committed widespread abuses, “including unlawful killing, sexual violence and theft, causing the security situation to deteriorate”.
In early May, leaders of several Congolese armed groups, some of them rivals, allegedly got together and formed a non-aggression pact, a so-called “patriotic” coalition to join forces against “the aggressor”, M23.
In addition, several Congolese army officers were in attendance. Reportedly two FDLR senior commanders were there too. Photos of this meeting were circulated, according to HRW.
“All of these armed groups are known human rights abusers in their strongholds. Human Rights Watch has previously documented widespread abuses by forces under the command of [Guidon Shimiray Mwissa, leader of the Nduma Defense of Congo-Renovated militia], who remains under UN sanctions,” said HRW in its statement.
Congolese authorities have a warrant out for his arrest from 2019 for rape, child recruitment and insurrection.
Abuse of civilians
Eyewitnesses and fighters told Human Rights Watch that armed groups would force locals to help them with supplies.
“We try to avoid contact with them [the armed groups], but they have requested a contribution from every household for their survival,” a man from Kabaya told HRW. “It can be beans or even a cow for herders.”
Other abuse cases against civilians include at least three killings by FDLR fighters in May and July and two cases of rape by Congolese soldiers in July, according to HRW.
The group further alleges that boxes of ammunition were provided by the FARDC to certain FDLR groups.
The military has dismissed all of these accusations outright.
The DRC is struggling to contain dozens of armed groups in the east, many of which are a legacy of two regional wars a quarter of a century ago.
A flare-up of fighting in the east has revived decades-old animosities between Kinshasa and Kigali, with the DRC blaming Rwanda for a resurgence of the M23 (“March 23 Movement“) militia.
Rwanda has repeatedly denied backing the rebels, while both countries have accused each other of carrying out cross-border shelling.
During a visit to Kigali in August, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Congolese and Rwandans to stop supporting armed groups.
Meanwhile, Angolan General Joao Massone was appointed this month to head the ad hoc verification mechanism tasked by the International Conference for the Great Lakes Region with examining accusations that the DRC and Rwanda have made against each other.