DR Congo Parliament Approves New Amnesty Law for Insurgency and Other Crimes, as Part of Agreement with M23 Rebel Group

M23 TroopsCredit: Al Jazeera English
M23 Troops
Credit: Al Jazeera English

The parliament of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has approved legislation granting amnesty for acts of insurgency, acts of war, and political offenses, while excluding amnesty for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. [UN News Centre] This amnesty proposal originated as part of the December 2013 agreement to end fighting between the DRC army and the M23 rebel group, known as the Nairobi Declarations. [UN News Centre] The law, adopted on February 4, has been welcomed by some as an important step towards lasting peace, but other groups are concerned it does not go far enough to prevent impunity and recurring violence. [Miami Herald]  

The New Amnesty Law

The new amnesty law, which President Joseph Kabila was expected to sign over the weekend, will grant amnesty for acts of insurgency, acts of war and political offenses dating back to 2006. [UN News Centre; Miami Herald; France24] In accordance with international law, the new law will not grant amnesty for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. [UN News Centre]

While the National Network of Congolese Human Rights NGOs has criticized the amnesty law, United Nations officials welcomed parliamentary approval of the law, declaring it to be the “next step in bringing sustainable peace” to the region. [UN] MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC, discussed the law’s potential to pave the way for ex-combatants to return to the DRC, encouraging rehabilitation and reintegration of those who did not engage in war crimes or crimes against humanity. See MONUSCO, Statement of SRSG Martin Kobler to the Security Council, Turning Promises into Deeds, 13 January 2014. MONUSCO reported that 8,000 combatants had surrendered by mid-January, although it received credible reports that military recruitment of M23 forces continued after the Nairobi Declarations. Id.

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights had previously urged the DRC government “to take the necessary measures to put an end to impunity, including by ensuring that perpetrators of acts of violence are brought to justice,” but has not issued a statement regarding the new amnesty law. ACommHPR, Resolution 241 on the Human Rights Situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 24 July 2013.

The legislation adopted last week mirrors earlier amnesties intended to encourage armed groups to lay down their arms and put an end to the conflicts that have engulfed the DRC since 1996. A 2009 amnesty law – which covered acts of war and insurrection from 2003 through May 2009, but not war crimes or crimes against humanity – was criticized by the International Center for Transitional Justice as “perpetuat[ing] Congo’s pattern of rewarding violence and creat[ing] a blanket amnesty for scores of crimes perpetrated by rebel groups, Congolese armed forces (FARDC), militias, and peace alike.” [ICTJ]

The M23 Rebellion

The M23 rebel group, formally known as the 23 March Movement, formed when ethnic Tutsi soldiers mutinied from the DRC national army in April of 2012. [UN News Centre] The group’s name derives from the March 23, 2009 peace agreement that integrated a former militia, National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) into the DRC national army (FARDC). [IRIN] At the time of the 2009 agreement, soldiers that eventually joined M23 were members of the CNDP, and their 2012 rebellion was reportedly led by Bosco Ntaganda, who is now facing trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court (ICC). [Al Jazeera]

M23 soldiers claimed that they rebelled because they were unhappy with the pay and conditions in the FARDC, accusing the DRC government of not honoring the March 23rd peace deal. [Al Jazeera] The government claims that the mutiny began because the it was under pressure to arrest Ntaganda and turn him over to ICC. [Al Jazeera]

The M23 rebellion caused significant concern, including internationally, because its commanders were known or believed to have committed serious human rights abuses in the past, including the use of child soldiers and sexual violence. [IRIN]  The activities of rebel and militia groups have been the focus of the ICC’s investigations into the situation in the DRC.  Since April 2012, M23 has engaged in ethnic massacres, summary executions, rape, and forced recruitment of child soldiers, and has displaced thousands of people. [HRW] See ACommHPR, Resolution 241 on the Human Rights Situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 14th Extraordinary Session, 20-24 July 2013.

The DRC army defeated the M23 rebels in November of 2013 and, one month later, both parties signed declarations reflecting inter alia M23’s renunciation of the rebellion and its decision to transform itself into a legitimate political party, and DRC’s commitment to authorize amnesty for M23 members for acts of war and insurgency. UN Security Council, Joint ICGLR-SADC Final Communiqué on the Kampala Dialogue, S/2013/740, 18 December 2013.

M23 was one of the many armed rebel groups in the DRC. [International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect] Recurring conflicts in the DRC have resulted in the deaths of over 5 million people and the displacement of 2 million individuals since since 1996. [Al Jazeera]

Justice and Accountability Going Forward

The declarations made in December 2013 laid out additional plans for peace and justice beyond the provision of amnesty, including the creation of a national reconciliation commission and a commitment to ensure the criminal prosecution of perpetrators of war crimes, acts of genocide, crimes, against humanity, sexual violence, and recruitment of child soldiers.

Under the Nairobi Declarations, the DRC government also committed to establishing a national reconciliation commission. See UN Security Council, Declaration of the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the Conclusion of the Kampala Dialogue, S/2013/740, 18 December 2013, para. 8. The commission’s mandate would be to promote national reconciliation and peaceful resolution of conflicts, combat ethnic discrimination and incitement to hatred, settle or resolve inter-ethnic conflicts, offer civil education in order to promote peaceful coexistence and strengthen patriotism, and address other related issues as they arise. Id. The Nairobi Declarations provide that the Commission will be composed of “representative and upright citizens” including individuals from the former M23. Id.

President Kabila issued a statement in October of 2013 indicating his intent to establish specialized chambers within the Congolese courts to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity. [HRW] The DRC Minister of Justice had drafted legislation to establish the specialized chambers, but it was rejected by the Senate in 2011. [OSISA] Advocates encourage the DRC government to take up amended draft legislation during the next parliamentary session, which is set for March 2014. [HRW] Civil society organizations throughout the DRC, while critical of the new amnesty law, reportedly strongly encourage the creation of specialized chambers to prosecute international crimes and strengthen accountability. [HRW]

With regard to preventing a resurgence of conflict, in February of 2013, eleven African countries signed the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Region, which has been termed the “Framework of Hope” because it seeks to address the root causes of conflict and end recurring cycles of violence. See Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for the Great Lakes Region of Africa, A Framework of Hope: The Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Region.

To achieve these goals, the signatory countries committed to “neither tolerate nor provide assistance or support of any kind to armed groups” and to “neither harbor nor provide protection of any kind to persons accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity, acts of genocide or crimes of aggression, or persons falling under the United Nations sanctions regime.” See Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Region, 24 February 2013. With many of the M23 leaders currently in Rwanda and Uganda, MONUSCO emphasized the importance of implementing the Framework of Hope and bringing the leaders to justice. See MONUSCO, Statement of SRSG Martin Kobler to the Security Council, Turning Promises into Deeds, 13 January 2014.

The United Nations Security Council has also authorized a temporary Intervention Brigade, permitting MONUSCO to carry out offensive operations to reduce the threat of armed groups and stabilize conflict-affected areas. See UN Security Council, Resolution 2098, Democratic Republic of the Congo, S/RES/2098, 28 March 2013, paras. 9-11. These operations may be performed unilaterally or in collaboration with the DRC armed forces (FARDC). Id at para. 12.

For further background on the conflict in the DRC, see the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect website for a concise summary, or the 2010 OHCHR Report of the Mapping Exercise Documenting the Most Serious Violations of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law Committed within the Territory of the Democratic Republic of the Congo between March 1993 and June 2003, for an exhaustive account.