"What we have documented is widespread and vicious attacks against civilians by all sides -- by the Congolese army, by the Rwandan army and also by the Rwandan Hutu militia, the FDLR", Anneke Van Woudenberg, Senior Researcher on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said at a press conference this morning as the non-governmental organization released a report documenting recent and ongoing atrocities in the eastern part of that country. Joining her on the podium was Ida Sawyer, a researcher based in the eastern Congolese town of Goma.
Underlining the calculated nature of the attacks, Ms. Van Woudenberg said: "These were not civilians who were caught in the crossfire. These were not civilians who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. These were civilians who were deliberately targeted." To make good on its commitment to protect civilians, the Council should immediately deploy a civilian-protection expert group to formulate strategies and document ongoing atrocities. At a minimum, the United Nations should also work to remove known human rights abusers from the ranks of the Congolese army, starting with a list of 15 individuals that MONUC had itself already identified, she added.
Today's launch of the 183-page report "You Will Be Punished: Attacks on Civilians in Eastern Congo" -- which details the deliberate killing of more than 1,400 civilians by Government and rebel forces between January and September 2009 -- comes two days before Alan Doss, Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is expected to brief the Security Council and a week before that body is scheduled to renew the mandate of the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC).
Based on 23 fact-finding missions carried out by Human Rights Watch this year, as well as interviews with more than 600 victims, witnesses and family members, the report covers two phases of operations: the five-week joint operation between the Congolese and Rwandan forces against the FDLR (Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda), which began in January, and the Congolese military's ongoing Kimia II operation targeting the FDLR with support from MONUC.
The report details the FDLR's deliberate strategy launched early this year to attack civilians so as to create a humanitarian catastrophe. It describes dramatic increases in sexual violence, forced labour for the transportation of weapons and ammunition -- particularly by the Congolese army -- and widespread burning of villages, homes, schools, churches and other structures.
Citing specific violations, Ms. Sawyer said one of the worst attacks that Human Rights Watch had documented had taken place in the Shalio area, where 129 Rwandan Hutu civilian refugees had been massacred during a three-day killing spree from 27 to 29 April. Some had been shot in the neck while trying to flee, others had been chopped to death by machete and still others had been burned to death in their homes. Many women and girls had been raped before being murdered.
Another 40 women and girls had been abducted and taken to a Congolese army position in nearby Busurungi, where they had been held as sex slaves for days and even weeks, said Ms. Sawyer, adding that she had interviewed members of a group of 10 escapees, one of whom had chunks of flesh missing from her breast and stomach.
She went on to say that, in retaliation for Shalio, the FDLR had massacred at least 96 civilians, some of whom had been tied together and had their throats "slit like chickens", according to one witness. In one church compound, the pastor and his family had been massacred together, she said.
Stressing that the events included in the report were "the tip of the iceberg", Ms. Van Woudenberg said it was crucial that the Security Council find a more comprehensive strategy for dealing with the FDLR. It should go beyond military means to encourage the militia group to disarm and leave eastern Congo. While FDLR President and Supreme Commander General Ignace Murwanashyaka had been arrested in Germany in November, other leaders should also be arrested.
The United Nations had taken an important step forward to cut off support to one army brigade in November, but it was not the only one carrying out abuses, she said. Indeed, reporting indicated that the Shalio massacre had been ordered by Lieutenant Colonel Innocent Zimurinda, whose troops were receiving rations, fuel and other support from the United Nations. While the officer had a well-known track record of war crimes and crimes against humanity, he remained in operational command of a unit still supported by MONUC.
Asked to comment on suggestions that MONUC forces should be drawn down, Ms. Van Woudenberg said that, in light of the immense risk Congolese civilians faced from their army and other armed groups, the time was not yet right for such a drawdown. The Council would be wise to resist any pressure to reduce troop levels -- including from Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. MONUC had made some steps forward in protecting civilians, but it should not only seek to be more effective, but to do more.
She noted, in that context, that an additional 3,000 troops mandated a year ago were only arriving now -- a delay due in part to the Council's failure to respond quickly. With sexual violence in eastern Congo rising despite a special focus on that issue within the United Nations, policymakers should also wonder the effectiveness of the steps taken to end it.
In response to several questions about need for United Nations leadership, she emphasized that leadership should come first from the Council, and also from MONUC and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO). It was shameful that MONUC, DPKO and the Council were allowing operations backed by the Organization to include Bosco Ntaganda, who was wanted by the International Criminal Court.
She went on to underscore further that the Organization's own lawyers had advised, in memos between the Office of Legal Affairs, DPKO and MONUC written in April and made public last week, that MONUC should not be involved in operations until there was clear conditionality in place. That was one reason why Human Rights Watch was advocating for proper conditions to be put in place now, or for the suspension of MONUC operations until they were. Unless that was done, the United Nations -- and particularly MONUC -- would be in a situation where it was implicated in human rights violations.
Asked what that would mean for the Organization, she clarified that it did not mean the United Nations was involved in committing war crimes, since that required a demonstrable intent. Rather, the United Nations would be involved -- and legally implicated -- in violating the laws of war if it knowingly continued to support operations in which its partners committed war crimes.
Noting that the report included a range of recommendations for various actors, she said that if there was one thing that could fix the problems in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, it would have been done by now. However, it was to be hoped that, by providing the Council with its own internal United Nations documentation on the issues, a civilian protection expert group would provide the basis for it to push for an end to impunity.
United Nations Advocacy Director Steve Crawshaw, who moderated the press conference, pointed out that, while that recommendation might sound procedural, it could be a wake-up call that might not in itself change things, but it could serve as a starting point for confronting the truth about events in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Asked who would be responsible for arresting the 15 known human rights abusers, Ms. Van Woudenberg said the United Nations and MONUC could be stronger in saying they would not support operations in which the 15 it knew of were participants. MONUC could also support national and international justice efforts while working jointly with Congolese judicial officials for the arrest of many of the suspect commanders. However, in the case of Bosco Ntaganda, the Mission could act unilaterally on the basis of a Congolese Government request made two years ago for assistance in arresting him.
She went on to note that the International Criminal Court, which could investigate crimes from July 2002 through the present, and which had started investigations in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo's North and South Kivu provinces, had jurisdiction over all the violations documented in the report, and Human Rights Watch would be encouraging it to do so.
Commenting on questions relating to the tracking of MONUC's support assistance, she said Human Rights Watch did not know where it was going and did not think MONUC knew either. Oversight was inadequate and there was no specific manager for such support.
For information media - not an official record