In a new report, a United Nations entity asserts that violent attacks, including sexual violence, between members of the Lendu and Hema community in the Democratic Republic of Congo since late 2017 may constitute crimes against humanity and war crimes. In January 2020, the Human Rights Division of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which together make up the UN Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) in the DRC, published a report assessing violence in the DRC’s northeastern Ituri province in the context of inter-ethnic tensions between the communities of Hema herders and Lendu farmers. [OHCHR Press Release] The report documents widespread attacks against civilians, mainly targeting the Hema community and including women and children, between December 2017 and September 2019. See UNJHRO, Rapport public sur les conflits en territoire de Djugu, province de l’Ituri Décembre 2017 à septembre 2019 (2020) [French only]. In particular, the report finds that the attacks may constitute the crimes against humanity of murder, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence, among others – and, given that the events took place in the context of an internal armed conflict, may also constitute war crimes. See id. at paras. 78-81. The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that at least 556,000 people have fled from the Ituri province as a result of the conflict, and about 57,000 people have fled to neighboring Uganda to seek refuge over the past two years. [UN News: Report] The new report consolidates and expands upon previous reporting by UNJHRO and UNHCR on the conflict. [VOA; Al Jazeera; UN News: Flare-Up]
Inter-Ethnic Tensions: Overview
According to the report, more than 700 people have been killed since December 2017 as a result of violence between the Hema and Lendu communities in the DRC. See UNJHRO, Rapport public sur les conflits en territoire de Djugu, province de l’Ituri Décembre 2017 à septembre 2019, para. 1. An additional 168 individuals have been injured and at least 142 individuals have been victims of sexual violence, the majority of whom belong to the Hema community. See id. Moreover, the report documents at least 218 cases of extortion and looting, as well as destruction of homes, schools, and health facilities in Djugu, a territory in the Ituri province, and Mahagi, the neighboring territory. See id. at 4.
While the inter-ethnic conflict between the Lendu and Hema communities over land and other resources has gone on for decades, a new wave of violence began in December 2017 and continued through May 2018. See id. at para. 2. Two additional waves of violence followed: one took place from September 2018 to May 2019 and the other began in June 2019. See id. In the report, the UNJHRO highlights that these last two waves were more organized and involved a high degree of planning by Lendu attackers, which the UNJHRO now considers as “belonging to an armed group” given their ability to carry out simultaneous attacks against State security forces, villages, and camps for displaced persons. See id. at para. 3. According to the report, the goal of these attacks is to inflict losses and long-term trauma for Hema community members in order to prevent them from returning to their villages, and thus gain control of their land. See id. at 4.
In addition to the violence carried out by the Lendu, the report also documents acts of retaliation by members of the Hema community against the Lendu, such as targeted attacks and the burning of Lendu villages, as well as human rights violations by the Congolese defense and security forces, including extrajudicial executions, sexual violence, and arbitrary arrests, among others. See id. at 4-5.
Crimes Against Humanity & War Crimes
The report identifies the various human rights instruments to which the DRC is a party, outlining the relevant international legal framework and the DRC’s specific human rights obligations in this context. See id. at para. 57. Aside from emphasizing that, under international human rights law, the DRC has an obligation to prevent, protect, and punish the human rights violations committed by its security forces or non-State actors, the report also clarifies that international humanitarian law may apply given that the acts took place in the context of a non-international armed conflict. See id. at paras. 58-59.
Some of the violations documented in the report, specifically the systematic attacks against civilians that resulted in murder, rape, theft, and child recruitment to the conflict, may constitute crimes against humanity or war crimes under articles 7 and 8 of the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court, which has been incorporated into DRC domestic law. See id. at para. 59. In particular, the report highlights that the systematic destruction of Hema homes as well as “[t]he barbarity that characterizes [the] attacks – including the beheading of women and children with machetes, the dismemberment and removal of body parts of the victims as trophies of war – reflects the desire of the attackers to inflict lasting trauma to the Hema communities and to force them to flee and not return to their villages.” [OHCHR Press Release] The report concludes that these facts could establish elements of the crimes of persecution and forced population transfer given that a large number of the population has already been displaced, as documented by UNHCR. See UNJHRO, Rapport public sur les conflits en territoire de Djugu, province de l’Ituri Décembre 2017 à septembre 2019, 4, para. 80.
According to the report, there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate that the Lendu attackers intended to destroy the Hema as an ethnic group. See id. at para. 81. However, some of the elements of the ongoing violence – for example, the specific targeting of the Hema community; the high number of civilians killed, mutilated, and victims of sexual violence; and, the systemic destruction of Hema homes – could constitute genocide. See id.
The UNJHRO makes several recommendations to DRC authorities, including that the government: address the root causes of the conflict as it relates to land and resources; conduct independent and impartial investigations into all attacks and protect civilians in accordance with international human rights standards; guarantee security at camps for displaced persons and villages; provide redress and reparation to victims, such as access to medical and mental health care to victims of sexual violence; and, facilitate reconciliation efforts between the Hema and Lendu communities to ensure their peaceful cohabitation. See id. at 27-28.
To the MONUSCO, the UNJHRO recommends that it extend the presence of its military personnel to prevent more violence and to ensure the possible return of displaced populations to their homes and villages, provide human rights trainings to the national police forces, support local authorities in their reconciliation efforts, and implement transitional justice initiatives in addition to other measures to fight impunity. See id. at 28.
The UNJHRO also recommends that the UN Security Council’s Group of Experts of the DRC investigate the possible involvement of non-DRC actors in the planning of the attacks. See id.
Finally, the UNJHRO recommends to the international humanitarian community that it continue its assistance in the Djugu territory and neighboring areas, carry out an assessment of additional humanitarian needs in the region, and continue to identify and provide care for victims of sexual violence that are currently taking refuge in Uganda. See id.
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