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Atrocity Alert No. 279: Democratic Republic of the Congo, Venezuela and UN Refugee Global Trends Mid-Year Report

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Atrocity Alert is a weekly publication by the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect highlighting situations where populations are at risk of, or are enduring, mass atrocity crimes.

SURGING VIOLENCE THREATENS POPULATIONS ACROSS EASTERN DR CONGO

From 11-12 November, suspected fighters from the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) militia attacked three villages in eastern Beni Territory in North Kivu province, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), killing at least 38 civilians. The victims were reportedly tied up and had their throats slit or were burned alive. During one of the attacks, alleged ADF fighters also looted and burned down the only health center in the village of Kisunga, North Kivu province. Earlier that week, on 9 November the UN Refugee Agency reported that fighting between armed groups and Congolese security forces in North Kivu’s Rutshuru Territory forced at least 11,000 people to seek refuge in Uganda, representing the largest refugee influx in a single day in more than a year.

These latest incidents in North Kivu demonstrate that the “state of siege” declared by the government on 30 April – which aims to combat armed groups in North Kivu and neighboring Ituri province – has done little to improve the security situation for vulnerable populations. The Kivu Security Tracker documented at least 1,137 civilians killed in North Kivu and Ituri since May.

According to a report published by UN Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) in the DRC on 12 November, in the first 10 months of 2021, armed groups have perpetrated more than 2,300 human rights abuses and violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) in Masisi and Lubero territories, North Kivu province, marking a significant increase in recorded abuses and violations from the same period in 2020 and 2019. The recorded violations and abuses included summary executions, targeted attacks and sexual violence. According to UNJHRO, currently more than half of the human rights violations and abuses recorded in North Kivu province have occurred in these two territories.

UNJHRO also recorded a significant increase in violations of human rights and IHL by security forces in Masisi and Lubero territories from January-October. During the reporting period, security forces perpetrated 966 violations, including extrajudicial killings and sexual violence.

Following the publication of UNJHRO’s report, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed their alarm regarding the atrocities committed in Masisi and Lubero territories. Liz Throssell, Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that, “we call on the authorities to establish prompt, impartial, independent and effective investigations into all human rights violations and abuses with a view to hold those responsible accountable. We also urge authorities to ensure that security personnel deployed to the two territories to confront the armed groups are properly trained to prevent human rights violations from occurring. Demobilization, disarmament and insertion programmes to support the integration of fighters into the communities should be fully and rapidly implemented.”

A STEP CLOSER TO ACCOUNTABILITY FOR ATROCITY CRIMES IN VENEZUELA

On 3 November the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Karim Khan, announced the opening of an investigation into possible crimes against humanity in Venezuela. The surprise announcement was praised by civil society organizations across the country as an essential first step towards justice for victims of ongoing government repression which began to escalate in 2014.

Venezuela has been under the ICC’s purview since February 2018, when the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC declared the opening of a preliminary examination into crimes allegedly committed by security forces in the context of demonstrations and related political unrest since at least April 2017. In December 2020 the Chief Prosecutor asserted that there are reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed by “civilian authorities, members of the armed forces and pro-government individuals” since at least April 2017, including imprisonment, torture, rape and sexual violence, and political persecution. The UN Human Rights Council-mandated Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Venezuela has also found that patterns of violations and abuses between 2014-2020 may amount to crimes against humanity. Over the past year, the FFM and UN Special Rapporteurs have reported that Venezuelan civil society organizations and human rights defenders have faced increased criminalization, harassment and persecution for documenting violations and abuses and calling for international scrutiny.

On the same day as the announcement, Prosecutor Khan signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Venezuelan government – a State Party to the ICC’s Rome Statute – in which Venezuela agreed to “adopt all necessary measures to ensure the effective administration of justice” and “to establish mechanisms to enhance cooperation with the ICC.”

Meaningful progress in line with the ICC’s principle of complementarity would not only entail an entire overhaul of the country’s judicial and penal systems to tackle pervasive impunity, but also independent and thorough investigations into authorities at the highest level who may be responsible for crimes against humanity. It remains questionable whether the government will abide by and commit to genuine reforms given that, in September 2021, the FFM warned that Venezuela’s judicial system has contributed to ongoing state violence by perpetuating impunity for possible crimes against humanity.

Acting as a court of last resort, Prosecutor Khan’s decision to open an investigation exerts significant pressure on the Venezuelan government. In the absence of genuine domestic investigations and far-reaching reforms, the ICC will play a vital role in closing the accountability gap. Elisabeth Pramendorfer, Senior Human Rights Officer at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, said that, “victims, their families and loved ones have a right to justice, which they have been denied for far too long due to years of pervasive impunity. Karim Khan’s announcement provides a glimmer of hope to victims that perpetrators who continue to hold positions of power will eventually face consequences.”

UN REPORTS A SHARP INCREASE IN GLOBAL MASS DISPLACEMENT IN 2021

On 11 November the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) released the 2021 Mid-Year Trends report, noting that the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide has continued to increase for nine consecutive years. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ March 2020 call for a global ceasefire, UNHCR reported that the number of active conflicts reached a record high in 2020. Further, the number of people forced to flee has risen sharply since the end of 2020 and likely exceeded 84 million by mid-2021. Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, stressed that, “the international community is failing to prevent violence, persecution and human rights violations, which continue to drive people from their homes.”

As in previous years, the report provides evidence of the close relationship between atrocity crimes and mass displacement. In most of the top 10 countries of origin for international displacement as of mid-2021, state authorities and/or non-state armed groups have perpetrated crimes against humanity or war crimes, including in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Myanmar (Burma), South Sudan, Syria and Venezuela. More than a quarter of all people displaced across borders between January and June 2021 were from Syria – which continues to account for the world’s largest refugee population – as millions have fled atrocities, including war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Intensifying violence led to significant new internal displacements as well in the first half of 2021, bringing the total number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to nearly 50.9 million. New internal displacements caused by escalating violence were recorded in Afghanistan, the Central Sahel, DRC, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Myanmar and South Sudan. In Myanmar, the total number of IDPs grew by 54 percent following the military coup in February and the subsequent increase in targeted violence against civilians, which may amount to crimes against humanity. According to the Mid-Year report, more than 120,000 people fled escalating violence and atrocities in Burkina Faso, further fueling one of the world’s fastest growing internal displacement crises. Conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, and growing insecurity in other parts of the country due in part to ethnic violence, sparked more than 1.2 million new displacements in the first half of 2021. Hundreds of thousands more have been internally displaced worldwide in the second half of the year due to ongoing conflicts.

Savita Pawnday, Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, said that, “in keeping with the 1951 Refugee Convention, the international community has both a moral and legal obligation to assist refugees forced to flee their homes as a result of mass atrocities. Providing safe haven is a way that the international community can uphold its responsibility to protect. The soaring displacement numbers over the years demonstrate the need to confront intractable conflicts, protect vulnerable populations, and find solutions that enable the safe, voluntary return of all displaced populations.”