DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO 2021
Continuing armed conflict and violence claimed thousands of lives, large-scale displacement and widespread sexual violence. At least 10 cases of crimes under international law were prosecuted by military courts, but impunity remained widespread. Economic, social, and humanitarian crises persisted, exacerbated by Covid-19 and other outbreaks. The use of arbitrary arrests and unlawful detentions was prevalent across the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Prison conditions remained inhumane. Rallies and protests organized by opposition parties or civil society deemed to be critical of the government were often banned or violently suppressed. Human rights defenders and journalists continued to be targeted with attacks and threats; at least three journalists were killed. Mining projects led to serious pollution with a considerable human rights impact. Children’s education was interrupted by teachers’ strikes over poor pay and working conditions.
President Tshisekedi appointed Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde Kyenge as prime minister in February, having ended the two-year coalition with his predecessor Joseph Kabila. In April, a new government was formed with a parliamentary majority.
Tensions emerged over the elections planned for 2023, particularly in relation to the organization, functioning and leadership of the Independent National Electoral Commission.
In North Kivu and Ituri, a state of siege was declared in May allowing the army and police to take over political leadership, public administration, and the criminal justice system in the two provinces.
Rampant violence continued in the Kasaï region. South Kivu, Tanganyika and Maniema provinces also experienced continued and significant levels of violence.
Unlawful attacks and killings
Indiscriminate attacks against civilian populations, looting and destruction of homes, crops, and other objects indispensable for the survival of the civilian population, as well as attacks on infrastructure, continued particularly in the east and south; some of these acts constituted war crimes.
In North Kivu and Ituri provinces, attacks and other violations and abuses against civilians by armed groups and government forces increased by 10% between May and November according to the UN. According to the Kivu Security Tracker, at least 1,137 civilians were unlawfully killed in the two provinces between 6 May (when the state of siege was declared) and 15 November. For instance, at least 55 civilians were killed during indiscriminate attacks by combatants of the Cooperative for Development of the Congo (CODECO), an alliance of militia groups, in the villages of Boga and Tchabi, in Ituri province, on 30 May. In the same province, the Congolese army killed seven civilians in Nongo village on 2 May and eight civilians in the villages of Banikasowa, Ndenge I and Ndenge II on 15 May. There were multiple abductions and 300,000 people fled their villages. Armed groups including combatants of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an armed group operating in the DRC and Uganda, also carried out attacks targeting schools, health facilities, public markets, churches, UN peacekeepers and humanitarian actors. For example, alleged ADF combatants attacked the Kisunga village health centre and the surrounding area, in the territory of Beni in North Kivu, overnight on 11 and 12 November, resulting in the killing of at least 48 civilians including health workers and patients, according to local human rights organizations.
In South Kivu province, the long-standing conflict involving local and foreign armed groups in the highlands of Uvira and Fizi claimed at least 70 civilian lives and forced thousands to flee their villages, according to the UN. The Congolese army committed human rights violations against civilians, including unlawful killings, rape, looting and destruction of homes, on a par with the armed groups it was deployed to fight.
Sexual and gender-based violence
Conflict-related sexual violence remained widespread, especially in the provinces of North and South Kivu, Ituri, Tanganyika and Kasaï-Central, despite some encouraging efforts by the authorities to hold perpetrators to account. According to the UN, between January and September, at least 1,100 women were raped in North Kivu and Ituri alone.
Several initiatives which aimed to establish a reparations fund for victims of conflict-related sexual violence were undertaken with the involvement of President Tshisekedi and the First Lady, although they had not come to fruition by the end of the year.
Lack of humanitarian assistance
Five million people remained internally displaced at the end of the year, 1.5 million of whom were forced to leave their homes to flee from violence in 2021 alone, according to the UN. Most of them lived in dire conditions without access to humanitarian assistance.
In March and April, inter-communal conflict between Luba and Kuba ethnic groups in Bakwakenge, in the Kasaï-Central province, caused the destruction of 190 houses and the displacement of 21,000 people, according to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. In the territory of Beni, repeated attacks, allegedly by members of the ADF and local Mayi-Mayi groups, forced 10 humanitarian organizations to halt their aid work, leaving 116,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) without vital assistance, according to the UN. The UN also reported that alleged CODECO combatants carried out several attacks on IDP sites, killing dozens of people and burning down settlements, resulting in the further displacement of 50,000 IDPs in Ituri province.
According to the UN, over 19.6 million people were in dire need of humanitarian assistance, half of whom were children. More than 26 million people faced high levels of acute food insecurity. Despite this, according to UN humanitarian coordinator David McLachlan-Karr in October, financial support to alleviate the DRC crisis continued to decline, and only 25% of the US$1.98 billion needed was raised in 2021.
Most perpetrators of crimes under international law, including rape and other gender-based violence, enjoyed impunity. There was some progress, however, with at least 10 cases of serious crimes prosecuted. At least 80 army and police officers were prosecuted in North Kivu, South Kivu, Ituri, Tanganyika and Kasaï provinces for serious crimes including sexual violence. In the Kasaï region, investigations into serious human rights violations committed in Mulombodi, Nganza and Tshisuku in 2017 and 2018 were completed, with the assistance of a team of investigators deployed by the OHCHR. The trials were yet to start.
The trial of the alleged perpetrators of the murders of two UN experts in February 2017 was ongoing. Defendants and victims’ lawyers continued to complain about its slow progress, and intimidation of some witnesses. The cause of death of one of the defendants in October was unclear. He was the third defendant to die since the trial began.
Former Congolese warlord Roger Lumbala, who was arrested in France in December 2020 over war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the DRC, remained in custody.
There were no meaningful developments regarding the situation in the DRC before the ICC.
In April, following calls from human rights organizations including Amnesty International, the government started to develop a comprehensive strategy to deal with serious crimes committed over the last three decades, in collaboration with the UN and representatives of Congolese civil society organizations.1
Arbitrary arrests and detentions
The frequent use of arbitrary arrests and unlawful detentions persisted throughout DRC. The situation was particularly serious in the North Kivu and Ituri provinces, where the state of siege gave excessive powers to the army and police, as well as to the military justice system. The security forces arrested and detained hundreds of civilians without due process, many for non-criminal acts such as debt or land disputes.
In February, three activists from the citizens’ movement “Jicho la Raiya” (Eye of the People) were arrested in North Kivu for organizing a peaceful sit-in to protest against alleged illegal taxes on roads and alleged mismanagement of a local healthcare administration. They remained in arbitrary detention in Goma city at the end of the year. Two activists from civil society movement Lutte pour le Changement (LUCHA) were arrested in Goma in July and September, respectively, for saying that local authorities and staff of the Denise Nyakeru Tshisekedi Foundation, established by the First Lady, diverted humanitarian aid intended for survivors displaced by a volcanic eruption near Goma in May. Following a defamation complaint to the military justice prosecutor by the Foundation, they were held in arbitrary detention for several months. They were released on bail in November, but the fabricated charges against them were not dropped. Thirteen other LUCHA activists were arrested and illegally detained in Beni in November for staging a peaceful demonstration against the state of siege. Dozens of other activists were also held in arbitrary detention nationwide for exercising their human rights.
In Ituri province, hundreds of people were unlawfully detained for several months in the territories of Aru, Djugu, Mahagi, Mambasa, Irumu, and in the town of Bunia, due to a shortage of magistrates to handle their cases.
In September, Hubert Berocan, a provincial member of parliament (MP), was sentenced to 12 months in prison after an unfair trial at a military court in Bunia, solely for challenging the local executive about the unfair distribution of computers to schools. In June, another local MP had been unlawfully detained for 48 hours by a military prosecutor after he criticized the president for failing to restore peace and fulfil his commitments.
Inhumane detention conditions
According to local human rights groups, at least 220 people died in detention due to overcrowding, poor conditions and healthcare, and lack of food, among other factors which could amount to torture or other ill-treatment by the state. Some prisons and detention centres held up to 500% over their intended capacity, as a result of dysfunction in the criminal justice system, especially in North Kivu and Ituri where the capacity of military courts, which took over the criminal jurisdiction over civilians under the state of siege, became even more limited in terms of geographical access and staffing.
Freedom of assembly
Bans on, or other suppression of, peaceful demonstrations were common once again. The authorities frequently banned rallies and protests organized by opposition leaders and activists, trade unions and civil society groups, while security forces violently suppressed those that went ahead. In April, demonstrations against civilian killings in North Kivu, including a peaceful sit-in by schoolchildren and a women’s march in Beni, were violently dispersed by the army and police. Similar tactics were also used in other areas, in particular against peaceful demonstrations by University of Kinshasa students in July and August; a peaceful assembly convened by opposition platform Lamuka in September; and, from October, student/teacher protests in support of the teachers’ strike (see below, Right to education). In almost all cases, those responsible for illegally banning or suppressing the demonstrations were not held to account.
Human rights defenders
Human rights defenders and whistle-blowers continued to be the target of attacks and threats by public institutions which were supposed to protect them. Dozens of pro-democracy and anti-corruption activists, environmental activists, trade union leaders and Indigenous peoples’ rights defenders were arbitrarily detained, harassed and even sentenced by courts following unfair trials. The draft law on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, first proposed in 2017, made no progress during 2021.
In March, two whistle-blowers were sentenced to death in their absence after they revealed financial transactions made for the benefit of individuals and entities under international sanctions. After they fled the country, their colleagues and family members were harassed by the authorities.
Freedom of expression
At least three journalists were killed during the state of siege period in North Kivu and Ituri, apparently in connection with their reporting, according to journalists’ rights organization Journaliste En Danger. At least 11 journalists were arbitrarily detained, sometimes violently, while they tried to carry out their work. Several journalists were threatened or intimidated by state agents, political leaders, and members of armed groups. At least three media outlets were arbitrarily banned, including two in Equateur province and one in Mai-Ndombe province. Once again, most human rights violations against media outlets and journalists were not prosecuted.
In August, there was extensive pollution to the Tshikapa and Kasaï rivers and their tributaries in southern DRC, which, according to the Congolese government, was caused by a spillage upstream from a diamond mining and processing company based in northern Angola. The DRC government said the disaster led to at least 40 deaths, hundreds of cases of severe diarrhoea, and wiped out aquatic life. The authorities’ response was slow and ineffective. A joint DRC/Angolan investigation into the causes and environmental consequences was announced by the DRC authorities, but no further communication had been made about its progress or possible reparations or guarantees of measures to avoid similar catastrophes in the future.
Other cases of serious environmental pollution were reported at and around gold mines in Ituri, Haut-Uele, South Kivu and Maniema provinces, and copper and cobalt mines in Haut-Katanga and Lualaba provinces. Illegal logging in the Congo Basin forests continued, while the development of oil and other energy projects potentially harmful to the environment continued in or around the Virunga, Maiko, Upemba and Kundelungu national parks.
Right to health
The Covid-19 death toll peaked between July and August, with the emergence of the Delta variant causing an exponential increase in deaths in several cities. In March, the first batch of 1.7 million AstraZeneca doses was received through the COVAX initiative. However, delays in the vaccination roll-out due to vaccine hesitancy and poor planning resulted in 1.3 million doses being returned and redistributed to other African countries according to the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations. The DRC received an additional 2 million doses between May and October and, by the end of the year, had fully vaccinated 131,000 people, representing 0.1% of the population according to the WHO.2
The DRC’s 13th Ebola outbreak was declared in North Kivu in October. Other epidemics, including malaria, cholera, measles and bubonic fever claimed thousands of lives nationwide, especially among the young, despite efforts by the government and the international community to contain the outbreaks. Health actors on the response frontline continued to work without adequate or regular salaries, prompting demonstrations that were often violently dispersed by the police. Nurses and doctors countrywide went on strike for several months to demand better working conditions, pay and recognition of their professional status. International funding provision for the health sector was adversely affected because of inefficiency due to poor involvement, transparency and accountability from, as well as coordination by, national and international stakeholders.
Right to education
Implementation of President Tshisekedi’s flagship free primary education programme was severely undermined at the start of the school year in October when teachers went on strike. They demanded better salaries and working conditions, including sufficient fit-for-purpose and well equipped school buildings to address overcrowding in classrooms and in some cases an absence of classrooms. Teachers and thousands of students took to the streets to protest at the programme’s shortcomings, which included poor planning by education authorities, late salary payments, and inequality of resources which favoured urban over rural schools. Public schools were closed for several weeks and reopened in late November following an agreement between the government and the main teachers’ trade unions.