The UN refugee agency on Friday expressed concern about civilians targeted in fighting that has displaced more than 100,000 people in eastern Congo since April and joined calls on the authorities to do more to protect the population.
“We urge all parties to the conflict to respect the rights of civilians as well as their obligations under humanitarian law,” Stefano Severe, UNHCR’s regional representative in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was quoted as saying in a joint press release issued by UNHCR, sister UN organizations and other international aid agencies working in the east.
He said it was “imperative that armed actors put an end to the exactions of their members against civilian populations” and added that the different sides should also “allow humanitarian access to the United Nations agencies and NGOs, whose mandate is to provide protection and assistance to civilians.”
The Congolese army has been engaged in fierce stop-start fighting in North Kivu province against renegade soldiers loyal to former rebel commander Bosco Ntaganda, forcing civilians to flee for their lives. Ntaganda is also wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes.
On Thursday, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that as a result of this wave of violence, an estimated 74,000 people have been displaced in North Kivu’s Masisi, Walikale and Rutshuru territories, several thousand more have moved to or near the provincial capital Goma and some 33,000 had found shelter in neighbouring South Kivu province. Thousands have also fled to Uganda and Rwanda.
Friday’s press release, issued by the UNHCR-coordinated protection cluster, expressed alarm at the resurgence in violence, which comes three years after a peace accord for the east between the government and rival armed groups.
“The attacks of the past month have clearly marked a deterioration in the protection of civilians”, said Alain Homsy, country director of the Norwegian Refugee Council, a protection cluster member. “Local communities feel increasingly vulnerable to attacks.”
The statement noted that defections from the Congolese army, together with the redeployment of troops to the combat zones in North Kivu, had created a security vacuum in several areas, leaving civilians at the mercy of armed groups. “Civilians are increasingly being targeted by all parties to the conflict, and are often victims of reprisals for their supposed links with enemy groups or the Congolese army,” it said.
The members of the protection cluster said villages were constantly the target of new raids and there were many victims of murder, violence and looting. “Members of the protection cluster have also observed an increase in the number of children being recruited by armed groups to become soldiers, as well as numerous cases of sexual violence committed by members of the armed groups and the Congolese army. Even in areas where they have fled to find safety, civilians are still facing forced labour, extortion, looting and pressure by armed groups to return to their home areas.”
The press statement specifically called on the DRC government “to make all necessary efforts to ensure the protection of its population.” It said the presence of trained and equipped army and police units were essential to ensuring the security of civilians during and after the military operations.
UNHCR’s Severe, however, welcomed a recent initiative by the Congolese authorities to organize an inter-community dialogue to restore peace in the east. He said the refugee agency encourages such dialogue.
The joint press statement also said that MONUSCO (United Nations Mission for the Stabilization of Congo), the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC, had a crucial role to play in the east. “MONUSCO, including its armed units, should retain its mandate and all of its capacity to continue and reinforce protection measures, as well as respond to the civilian population’s need for security.”