Human Rights Watch asserted on Monday that the Rwanda-backed M23 armed group has committed summary executions and forced recruitment of civilians in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo while the Congolese army is responding to the M23’s offensive by collaborating with ethnic militias with abusive records.
The warring parties have increasingly appealed to ethnic loyalties, putting civilians in remote areas of North Kivu province at a heightened risk.
“Rwanda-backed M23 rebels in North Kivu are leaving behind a growing trail of war crimes against civilians,” said Thomas Fessy, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Rwanda should end its military support for the M23 while Congolese government troops should prioritize protecting civilians and cease using abusive militias as proxy forces.”
“The Rwandan government’s support for the abusive M23 rebels is raising concerns about further ethnic violence in eastern Congo,” Fessy said. “Greater international pressure is urgently needed so that Rwanda and Congo take all steps necessary to end abuses and ensure the protection of ethnic groups under threat.”
Recent investigations by the United Nations Group of Experts on Congo, as well as Human Rights Watch research, provide significant photographic and other evidence that Rwanda is not only giving logistical support to the M23, but that Rwandan troops are reinforcing or fighting alongside the armed group inside Congo. The Rwandan government has denied supporting the M23 rebels.
The renewed hostilities by the M23, the Congolese army, and various other armed groups has forced more than 520,000 people to flee their homes, according to the United Nations. This has exacerbated an already catastrophic security and humanitarian situation in North Kivu and the broader eastern region. The humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières has warned of a potential health disaster as cholera spreads rapidly in camps for displaced people outside Goma, the North Kivu provincial capital.
Between October 2022 and January 2023, Human Rights Watch interviewed in person and by phone 48 survivors and witnesses of abuses as well as victims’ family members, local authorities, activists, UN staff, security personnel, members of armed groups, journalists, and foreign diplomats.
A 38-year-old woman said she was at home in Kishishe with her husband and their three children on November 29 when a group of M23 fighters kicked the door open. “They took my husband and our son by force outside, and told me ‘Stay in the house, if you come out, we will kill you!’” she said. “So I closed the door behind them. They shot them a few meters away, I could see them through a hole [in the door].” Her husband was seriously injured but survived. Their 25-year-old son died.
Human Rights Watch found that on November 29, M23 rebels summarily killed at least 22 civilians in Kishishe following fighting with factions of Mai-Mai Mazembe, Nyatura and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda, FDLR). Reliable information indicates that the M23 killed at least another 10 civilians while searching for militia members. Further reports by the UN and others conclude that M23 fighters may have unlawfully killed many more people, including captured fighters.
In a December 3 statement, the M23 rejected murder allegations and said that eight civilians had been killed by “stray bullets” during the fighting.
In late 2022, while the M23 expanded control over Rutshuru territory and attempted to capture parts of neighboring Masisi territory, several armed groups organized mostly along ethnic lines deployed in and around the town of Kitchanga, in Masisi.
In May, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi said he opposed any alliance between Congolese military commanders and the armed groups. However, according to security sources, in late 2022 Congo sent two senior army officers to oversee military operations in Masisi, both of whom are former Hutu militia leaders who have retained close links to ethnic-based militias with poor rights records. This has raised fears of further retaliatory attacks and ethnic violence against civilians on both sides.
On December 16, the rebel commander Guidon Shimirai, who has been sanctioned by the UN, led his fighters from the main Nduma Defense of Congo-Renovated (Nduma Défense du Congo-Rénové, NDC-R) faction into Kitchanga following a meeting with leaders of other militias and army officers. Although Congolese authorities issued an arrest warrant for Guidon in 2019 for recruiting children, insurrection, and the crime against humanity of rape, he was filmed leading his fighters through one of Kitchanga’s main thoroughfares, walking alongside Col. Salomon Tokolonga from Congo’s national army.
Human Rights Watch recently documented Tokolonga’s involvement with a coalition of Congolese armed groups calling itself the Patriotic Coalition. Congolese officers who assist armed groups that commit abuses can be held responsible for aiding war crimes, Human Rights Watch said. Congo has an international legal obligation to investigate alleged war crimes on its territory and appropriately prosecute those responsible.
Hundreds of Tutsi civilians in Kitchanga and nearby villages, often perceived by members of other communities as supporters of the Tutsi-led M23, have fled for fear of reprisals from militias that are using increasingly hostile and threatening rhetoric against them. “The more M23 rebels attack and the more they advance, the more we’re being harassed by other communities who link us to them,” said a Tutsi community leader in Masisi territory, who for security reasons did not want his name used. On January 26, M23 rebels captured Kitchanga, prompting civilians from other communities to flee for fear of retaliation.
Rwanda has a long history of support for the M23 and its predecessor, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (Congrès national pour la défense du peuple, CNDP). Angolan-led mediation efforts by the African Union between the presidents of Congo and Rwanda have made little progress. The African Union and its member countries should make clear to Rwanda, publicly and privately, that its continued military support for the M23 could implicate Rwanda in M23 abuses as a matter of state responsibility, and that Rwandan officials could be found complicit in M23 war crimes, Human Rights Watch said.
On December 15, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Rwanda should “use its influence with M23 to encourage” them to withdraw and to “pull back” its own forces. Belgium, France, Germany, and the European Union have also urged Rwanda to stop assisting the M23. The US, the EU, France, the United Kingdom, and other countries should suspend military support to Rwanda so long as it is assisting the M23. The EU should ensure that its recent assistance to the Rwandan Defence Force mission in northern Mozambique is adequately monitored so that the EU is not contributing indirectly to abusive military operations in eastern Congo.
The armed conflict in eastern Congo is bound by international humanitarian law, notably Common Article 3 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which prohibits summary executions, forced labor and recruitment, and other abuses. Serious laws-of-war violations committed with criminal intent are war crimes. Individuals also may be held criminally liable for attempting to commit a war crime, as well as assisting in, facilitating, or aiding a war crime. Commanders and civilian leaders may also be prosecuted for war crimes as a matter of command responsibility when they knew or should have known about the commission of war crimes and took insufficient measures to prevent them or punish those responsible.
Congolese authorities should investigate and appropriately prosecute alleged war crimes, including ethnic violence and reprisals against the Tutsi community. Governments should maintain sanctions against senior M23 commanders and expand them to include commanders and officials across the region implicated in serious abuses.