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Crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo 

The Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) has a long history of conflict, but its recent crises can be traced to the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.  In response to violence carried out by exiled Rwandan Hutu genocidaires, Rwandan and Ugandan forces invaded the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 1996.  In what came to be known as the First Congo War, Mobutu Sese Seko was overthrown and replaced by Laurent-Desire Kabila.  Beginning in 1998, Kabila accused Rwanda of exploiting the DRC’s minerals, and was aided by Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe in a successful effort to push Rwandan and Ugandan forces out of the country.  The Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement of July 1999 attempted to end hostilities between nations, and was signed by Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, and Uganda, as well as the DRC.

In November 1999, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) established the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC), which was tasked with supervising and implementing the Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement.  Despite its efforts, however, continued violence in the DRC resulted in the Second Congo War, which waged until the 2003 peace accords were signed between Uganda and the DRC.  Even though these accords officially ended the Second Congo War, a proxy war between Rwanda and Uganda continued until 2008.  With UN electoral assistance provided under the auspices of MONUC, the late President Kabila’s son, Joseph Kabila, became the first democratically-elected president of the DRC in 2006.

Unfortunately, this democratic transition has not brought about the change that was hoped for in the perpetually conflict-ridden DRC, where it is estimated that more than 6 million people have been killed from war-induced causes.  In addition, egregious human rights abuses such as systematic rape and wanton murder, among other violations, have created a horrific humanitarian crisis in the DRC and surrounding region.  Much of this conflict has arisen from violence between the Forces armees de la Republique democratique du Congo (FARDC, Armed Forces of the DRC) and several rebel factions, including the Forces democratiques de liberation du Rwanda (FDLR, Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda), Maï-Maï Sheka, and M23.  This persistent violence, coupled with the struggle for control of the DRC’s natural resources, continues to further destabilize an already-fragmented nation.

The following section provides a breakdown of several key rebel actors in the DRC conflict, such as the M23, FDLR, Maï-Maï Sheka, Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), and Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA); as well as an overview of the battle for minerals, from which much of the crisis stems.  Subsequent sections will address the pivotal role of the M23 rebels in the exacerbation of the DRC conflict, along with human rights abuses committed by all parties, including rape, sexual violence, and the use of child soldiers.  In addition, responses from the international community, regional organizations, and civil society will be outlined.


Conflict Minerals
One of the main drivers of conflict in the DRC is its plethora of valuable minerals and resources, including cobalt, copper, diamonds, gold, tantalum, and tin.  Indeed, the Congolese government’s inability to control the entirety of its territory has allowed rebel armed forces to exploit these resources and fuel the continuous conflict in the Congo.  Many of these minerals are exported to electronics companies worldwide, and rebels not only keep the profits of this illicit trade, but also rape women as a means of invoking terror in mining zones. Elsewhere, the Congolese government has also been involved in the exploitation of conflict minerals.

Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR)
The FDLR, made up of Rwandan Hutu extremists who entered the Congo following the 1994 Rwandan genocide, has repeatedly attacked civilians, such as in January 2012, when it killed twenty-six people in South Kivu.  It has also been involved in the recruitment of child soldiers.  Human Rights Watch further notes that between April 2012 and May 2013 alone, the FDLR murdered 314 civilians in various attacks. Thus, though it has been weakened in recent years, the FDLR remains an important element of the conflict in the DRC.  In October 2013, Oxfam reaffirmed that the human rights abuses committed by the FDLR, as well as other rebel groups, could not be forgotten in light of the sudden defeat of the M23 rebels (see Part III for more on the M23’s decline).

Maï-Maï Sheka
The Maï-Maï Sheka has contributed to the violence in the DRC by attacking not only civilians, but also UN peacekeepers.  The group, which was formed in 2009 by mineral resources businessmen, was also involved in the increased October 2013 rebel conflict experienced in the eastern DRC.  Earlier, the Maï-Maï Sheka had gained notoriety for an exceptionally violent episode of sexual violence in 2010.

Indeed, during the period of 30 July to 4 August 2010, the mass rape of more than 240 people was carried out in the eastern Congo by members of both the Rwandan FDLR and Maï-Maï Sheka rebels.  In addition, homes and shops of many who would also be raped were looted.  These crimes occurred within miles of the UN peacekeepers’ base, but the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) was unable to protect Congolese civilians.  UN headquarters only became aware of the violence days later, when the International Medical Corps, which was charged with treating many of the victims of these attacks, first reported it.

Atul Khare, then UN Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, acknowledged the failure of the UN by stating that “our actions were not adequate, resulting in unacceptable brutalization of the population of the villages in the area. We must do better.”  The UNSC also urged for the “swift and fair prosecution of the perpetrators,” and called for the enhancement of MONUSCO’s “interaction with the civilian population.”  Since the mass rapes occurred, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallström, has stated that there is the potential for victims to be attacked in the future by the Armed Forces of the DRC (FARDC), as “there is already some information from MONUSCO peacekeepers on the ground that rapes, killings and lootings have been perpetrated by FARDC soldiers.”

Allied Democratic Forces (ADF)
The Ugandan-led ADF has existed since the mid-1990s.  While relatively small, the ADF has abducted Congolese nationals and is known to have links to the terrorist networks of Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab.  While the ADF’s ultimate goal is to establish Shari’a law in Uganda, the FARDC began Operation Ruwenzori in 2010 in an effort to drive the ADF out of the DRC.

Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)
The Ugandan-based LRA is led by Joseph Kony, the infamous warlord known for his notorious recruitment of child soldiers.  In December 2009, LRA soldiers killed over 300 people and abducted 250 more over the course of four days in Makombo, located in northeastern DRC.  Similar attacks continued in subsequent years.  Additionally, given the Congolese government’s primary focus on the M23 (see Part III), the FARDC has often been unable to protect Congolese civilians from attacks by the LRA.

Please see here for a list of other major rebel groups active in the DRC conflict.

III. March 23 Movement (M23)

On 23 March 2009, the Congres national pour la defense du peuple (CNDP, National Congress for the Defense of the People), a former rebel group led by Laurent Nkunda, signed a peace agreement with the Congolese government to reintegrate into the FARDC.  Three years later, former CNDP forces, complaining about the non-implementation of agreements to integrate political-military movements of the CNDP into the FARDC, and arguing that the government had thus only “feigned” its efforts at inclusivity, formed a new group called the M23.  Led by Ntaganda, the M23 was comprised of ethnic Tutsis and took its name from the date of the 23 March peace agreement in 2009.  Importantly, the M23 has also been allegedly backed by the Rwandan government, which, according to a 2012 Human Rights Watch report, has provided the M23 with forced Rwandan recruits, as well as weapons and ammunition.  Rwanda has also been accused of training child soldiers and luring them to fight for the M23, along with granting the M23 cross-border access into its territory.

In November 2012, the M23 fought the FARDC and successfully took the major city of Goma, located in the North Kivu province, effectively forcing civilians to flee the area.  According to a UN Joint Human Rights Office report on the incident, which identifies 135 documented cases of sexual violence, M23 rebels committed acts of sexual violence and other human rights abuses against civilians in Goma during its seizure of the town.  During the M23’s seizure of Goma, the FARDC committed human rights abuses as well, including mass rape and arbitrary executions.  Notably, in November 2013, thirty-nine Congolese officers were tried for rape and acts of sexual violence in a 2012 incident.

The M23’s seizure of Goma was condemned by the UNSC, which passed a resolution demanding an immediate cessation of hostilities.  As such, a week and a half later, the M23 agreed to withdraw its forces and negotiate with the FARDC.  The withdrawal was negotiated at a conference in Uganda, where heads of state in the region, including Rwanda and Uganda, were present.  During negotiations, the M23 highlighted several conditions that would need to be met in order for it to leave the town: namely, that the Congolese army would also disarm its troops in Goma, and that various Congolese political prisoners would be released.  Eventually, in December 2012, the M23 pulled out of Goma. 

In April 2013, the Kampala peace talks that had begun on 9 December 2012 after the M23’s departure from Goma broke down, as the Congolese government and M23 rebels were unable to agree on the implementation of a ceasefire.  This pattern of stalled negotiations continued through the fall of 2013.

In the wake of the most recent suspension of peace talks in October 2013, FARDC and M23 forces continued to clash.  On the weekend of 25-26 October 2013 in particular, with both sides claiming the other was responsible for initiating violence, M23 rebels and the Congolese army attacked each other near Goma.  The following week, the UN announced that after a strong push by the FARDC, the M23 rebels were “all but finished.”  On 30 October 2013, the M23 was finally driven from its last stronghold in the eastern town of Bunagana, and five days later, it declared a cessation of hostilities.  On 5 November 2013, the M23 rebels completely surrendered, and a peace deal was signed on 12 December 2013 (for more details, please see the Conclusion).

According to the Global Centre for R2P, however, the M23’s demise does not mean the conflict in the DRC is over.  Indeed, the Congolese government’s specific attention on the M23 in the past 20 months has come at the price of allowing other rebel groups to rise to prominence.  Focusing primarily on the M23 has allowed the FDLR and Maï-Maï Sheka in particular to strengthen and regroup.  For example, the Enough Project underscores that although the FDLR had weakened by 2012, the Congolese government’s focus on the M23 rebellion provided the FDLR with a “much-needed reprieve” that enabled it to regroup and strengthen its initiatives. The Maï-Maï Sheka also reorganized itself, allegedly with the help of the Rwandan military, in the spring of 2012.

Sexual Violence, Child Soldiers, and Humanitarian Crisis

As the preceding sections on both FARDC and rebel group activity indicate, civilians in the DRC have been subjected to an onslaught of human rights abuses over the past two decades.  According to the
Enough Project, rape as a weapon of war in the DRC “exists on a scale seen nowhere else in the world.”  Accordingly, Special Representative Wallström declared the DRC the “rape capital of the world” in 2010, a statement which was supported by the UN’s estimation that 15,000 women had been raped in eastern Congo in 2009 alone.  This claim was further substantiated by the increase in reported sexual violence cases from 4,689 in 2011 to 7,075 in 2012, according to UN data.

In its 2008 Global Report, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers estimated that 7,000 child soldiers remained in government forces and armed groups.  Indeed, children have often been recruited from refugee camps and used as combatants, sexual slaves, guards, and porters.  In 2012, the UN accused the M23 rebels in particular of recruiting child soldiers.  Though the UN subsequently announced the release of more than 500 child soldiers in eastern DRC provinces in September 2013, approximately 1,500 children remained mobilized in the areas in question. 

Alarmingly, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center stated that 2.6 million total Congolese have been displaced and 509,000 more have become refugees as of January 2013.  Based on previous calculations of the death rate and toll in the DRC, Caritas International also estimates that some 6.9 million Congolese have now died since the outbreak of conflict in 1998.

Response by Civil Society
Following the 2010 publication of an OHCHR report on DRC conflict between 1993 and 2000 (see below), Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect condemned both the gross violations of human rights, as well as the allegations and evidence of mass atrocity crimes conducted in the DRC during that time.  In its “Open Statement Regarding UN Report on the Democratic Republic of Congo,” the Global Centre noted that “the evidence unearthed by the report points to the simultaneous perpetration of war crimes and crimes against humanity, two of the four crimes that the Responsibility to Protect seeks to banish forever.”

On 26 March 2013, Refugees International issued a report entitled “DR Congo: Outdated Approach, Misplaced Priorities,” which documents the plight of those who have been displaced in the Kivus due to M23 rebel violence.  In addition, International Crisis Group’s report from July 2013 underscored that the root of conflict in the DRC is local land disputes, and recommended that resolving these land issues be a component of subsequent peace talks.  In its 23 August 2013 report, Amnesty International also identified the imperative need to better protect civilians from M23 attacks.  Similarly, on 2 October 2013, Human Rights Watch wrote an open letter to the UNSC, urging the Council to refuse to accept agreements that included amnesty for M23 fighters, as well as to adopt a resolution requiring Rwanda to discontinue its support for the M23, among other requests.


As discussed in previous sections, horrific human rights abuses have been continually committed in the DRC, notably since the start of the First Congo War in 1998.  Some of the greatest concerns have been over the recruitment of child soldiers, sexual violence, and the murder of civilians.  A parallel issue, however, is the larger security concern in the DRC, as violence in the Congo has spread instability to other states in the region, namely Rwanda and Uganda.  As such, the UN and wider international community have also been greatly involved in seeking a resolution to the DRC conflict, specifically in the past decade.

Human Rights Council (HRC)
In the 2012 Report of the Human Rights Council, the HRC referenced Resolution 19/27, which was adopted on 23 March 2012.  The Resolution encouraged, inter alia, the establishment of a national human rights commission in the DRC, and asked the High Commissioner for Human Rights to submit a report in 2013 on the Office’s human rights work in the country.

United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
On 1 October 2010, the OHCHR released a 566-page report on the DRC entitled DRC: Mapping Human Rights Violations 1993-2003. The report notes that “the vast majority of the 617 most serious incidents [of human rights abuses] described in the mapping report point to the commission of multiple violations of human rights and/or international humanitarian law, which may constitute crimes against humanity or war crimes, and often both at the same time.” It also states that “the apparent systematic and widespread attacks described in this report reveal a number of inculpatory elements that, if proven before a competent court, could be characterised as crimes of genocide.”

A particularly controversial component of the Mapping report was its allegations that Rwanda’s army was responsible for acts of genocide against ethnic Hutus living in the DRC, reprisals for the 1994 Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis.  Similarly, the Report accused Ugandan troops of having committed war crimes in the DRC.

The OHCHR also addressed the issue of sexual violence in its 3 March 2011 report entitled “Remedies and Reparations for Victims of Sexual Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).”  The report highlighted how victims of sexual violence are often responsible for bearing the cost of the harm done to them, and called on the Congolese government to implement a reparations fund for victims of sexual violence.

On 13 January 2012, High Commissioner Navi Pillay released a report (A/HRC/19/48) on the DRC, and concluded that “little improvement” had been made in the country since her last report.  The OHCHR released another report (A/HRC/24/33) on 30 July 2013, to assess progress made by government authorities between November 2011 and May 2013.  The report concluded, among other things, that increased human rights abuses, particularly in the eastern DRC, were attributable to M23 rebel activity in the region.

United Nations Security Council (UNSC)
On 28 July 2003, the UNSC passed Resolution 1493, the first in a series of DRC sanctions resolutions, in which an arms embargo was placed on militias in North and South Kivu, and Ituri.  Later, in January 2013, the UN initiated an arms embargo on both M23 and FDLR rebels, along with a travel ban and assets freeze on two specific M23 leaders: Jean-Marie Runiga Lugerero, and Lieutenant Colonel Eric Badege.

In addition, the DRC Sanctions Committee was established in 2004, pursuant to the adoption of Resolution 1533.  In 2012, the Committee’s Group of Experts found that both the Ugandan and Rwandan governments had violated terms of the arms embargo, a conclusion it again reached in its official July 2013 report.  Another underlying issue regarding Rwanda, as outlined in a 2013 Enough Project report, is its position as a transit point for minerals extracted from the DRC.  While Rwanda has denied its involvement in resource exploitation in the DRC, its drastic 69 percent increase in exports from 2012 to 2013 could not have been achieved within Rwandan territory alone.  Minerals from the DRC have also been transported through Uganda.

Another confounding element of Rwanda’s role in the DRC is the General Assembly’s (GA) decision to name Rwanda to one of the five rotational seats in the Security Council for the 2013-2014 year.  Given Rwanda’s longtime connections to and support of M23 rebels in the eastern DRC conflict, some consider the GA’s decision to be hypocritical.  An October 2013 Human Rights Watch open letter to the UNSC also emphasized Rwanda’s role in supporting the M23 rebels, including its provision of weapons, ammunition, and other supplies; the deployment of Rwandan army troops to the DRC to fight alongside the M23; and the forcible recruitment of Rwandan men and children to fight for the M23.

In August 2013, the United States warned that further targeted sanctions would be in store for the M23 and any groups that assisted them, should the violence continue.  This threat was substantiated when, in October 2013, the United States cut military aid to Rwanda for its support of the M23 rebels and their alleged recruitment of child soldiers in the DRC.  Britain and the European Union did the same.

Aside from sanctions, another crucial element of the UNSC’s involvement in the DRC has been its authorization of two missions to the country.  The first, the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC), was established in 1999 following the Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement.  On 28 May 2010, through the adoption of Resolution 1925, MONUC was discontinued, and the operation became the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), effective 1 July 2010.  As such, MONUSCO was formed to address issues raised during the MONUC period, including sexual abuse by UN Peacekeepers, its mandated support of the Congolese government, and, most worrisome, its inability to adequately protect civilians.

Yet, as the International Crisis Group stated in its 11 June 2012 open letter to the UNSC, MONUSCO failed to uphold its mandate to protect civilians in the DRC. For example, IDP issues and resource exploitation continued to plague the nation.  Of even greater concern were its peacekeeping failures, which stemmed from a “misdiagnosis of the conflict’s roots,” and include ineffective civilian protection, as well as an inability to stop M23 advancements, such as these rebels’ unimpeded seizure of Goma in November 2012.

To address the continued problems arising from the MONUC/MONUSCO era, the UNSC unanimously approved a first-ever Intervention Brigade in March 2013.  The unprecedented mandate of the Brigade allows its personnel to use offensive tactics against the M23 and other rebel groups in order to protect civilians in the DRC.  Resolution 2098, under which the Intervention Brigade was established, also highlighted a reconfiguration of MONUSCO’s mandate to allow it to use “all necessary means” to enforce the following: civilian protection, neutralization of armed groups via the Intervention Brigade, arms embargo implementation, and provision of judicial processes.  As such, MONUSCO’s capacity was thereby increased.  In January 2013, the UNSC also authorized the use of drones to monitor the situation in the DRC, a move immediately challenged by the Rwandan government

Civil society initially reacted with some trepidation to the implementation of the DRC Intervention Brigade.  For instance, The Stimson Center raised concern over the Brigade’s ability to effectively protect civilians.  Refugees International also warned that added military presence could further exacerbate the humanitarian issues in the country.  Indeed, documented fighting between the Brigade troops and M23 rebels in late October 2013 indicated that the rebels were not afraid to engage with the UN-sponsored force.  Yet, the Brigade has also been able to effectively push back, something the MONUC/MONUSCO missions failed to achieve.  Significantly, it also helped bring about the November 2013 defeat of the M23.

International Criminal Court (ICC)
On 19 April 2004, President Kabila of the DRC referred his country to the ICC. On 23 June of that year, former ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo formally announced his decision to open the first-ever ICC investigation into the crimes committed in the DRC.  

On 14 March 2012, Thomas Lubanga, former leader of the Union des Patriotes Congolais (UPC), was convicted of war crimes and child soldiering, and subsequently sentenced  to fourteen years in jail.  Notably, Lubanga had been the ICC’s first arrest back in 2006.  Leaders of the Force de resistance patriotique en Ituri (FPRI) and the National Integrationist Front (FNI) have also been also sought by the ICC.

Elsewhere, Bosco Ntaganda, a former M23 leader, made international headlines when he turned himself in at the US Embassy in Kigali, Rwanda, on 18 March 2013.  Speculations for why the notorious leader of the M23 rebels would give himself up include fears for his own safety, given that following the 2011 elections in the DRC, President Kabila said he would arrest Ntaganda; as well as the fact that the M23 rebels suffered a defeat two days beforehand.  Ntaganda is currently awaiting trial in The Hague.  

VI. Regional Response

Southern African Development Community (SADC)
On 9 November 2008, the Heads of State of country members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) agreed to immediately deploy both a team of military experts to assess the escalating violence in the country, as well as an additional team to evaluate the situation on the ground.  Importantly, the creation of the UN Intervention Brigade was initiated by the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) and supported by SADC.

International Conference on the Great Lakes Region and the February 2013 Framework Agreement
Following the M23 rebellion, it was clear to national leaders in the region that something needed to be done in order to address the mounting violence in and around the eastern DRC.  As such, Congolese President Kabila used the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICLGR) as a platform for discussion by convening a series of meetings that resulted in the Kampala peace talks.  On 24 February 2013, a UNSC-brokered peace agreement between the ICGLR Heads of State was signed by Angola, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, the DRC, Rwanda, South Africa, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia.  Formally called the “Peace, Security, and Cooperation Framework for DRC and the Region,” the Agreement emphasized issues of sexual violence and displacement, among other human rights abuses, and noted that progress begins with the cessation of violence.

Importantly, the Agreement recognized the distinct yet interdependent roles of actors from the DRC, within the region, and within the international community.  At the country level, the DRC agreed to work towards decentralization and further structural reform.  Regional players promised to respect one another’s sovereignty, but to also increase cooperation between states.

VII. Conclusion

On 12 December 2013, the Congolese government and M23 rebels signed a peace agreement facilitated by the ICGLR and SADC.  This Final Communique on the Kampala Dialogue stipulates, among other things, that there is no blanket amnesty for M23 fighters.  As a spokesman for the deal confirmed, those individuals responsible for committing war crimes and crimes against humanity will be brought to justice.

Having reached an agreement with the M23, the Congolese government must now begin to address threats from other rebel groups still active in the conflict.  Indeed, the sudden demise of the M23 does not signal an end to violence, and it is now time for the Congolese government to shift its focus towards dismantling the FDLR, along with other groups that continue to pose a threat to the peace and security of the DRC.

Special thanks to Michelle Rae Eberhard for her work on writing this page.


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