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Decades of colonialism and oppressive national rule made Congo the scene of recurrent atrocities. The tumultuous years of power struggles and international interference that followed the country’s independence from Belgium in 1960 paved the way, beginning in 1971, for nearly three decades of autocratic and corrupt rule under President Mobutu Sese Seko, during which the gradual decay of all state institutions left entire communities throughout the country to fend for themselves. The weakening of Mobutu’s regime encouraged the emergence of a rebellion in eastern Congo in 1995. The movement was led by Laurent Kabila, a longtime leftist opponent of Mobutu and leader of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL). The AFDL launched an insurgency to topple the Mobutu regime in 1996, recruiting tens of thousands of child soldiers from local communities in the East. A “war of liberation” followed in 1996–97 when a regional alliance, spearheaded by Rwanda and Uganda, sent thousands of soldiers to support the AFDL. The campaign raised great hopes of change and renaissance throughout the country, and the AFDL made a triumphal entry in the Congolese capital in May 1997 as Mobutu fled the country.

The 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda of ethnic minority Tutsis by a Hutu-dominated regime fuelled the war of liberation. The genocide spilled over in the Congo when hundreds of thousands of predominantly Hutu refugees poured into its eastern provinces, among them genocidaires, remnants of the army and militia that perpetrated the genocide.[1] As the AFDL overran one Mobutu government stronghold after the other in late 1996, Rwandan forces accompanying the AFDL fighters pursued fleeing genocidaires across the border, killing thousands of civilians, mostly Hutu refugees and local Congolese in the cross fire.[2] Hutu extremist leaders and commanders who survived the chase later formed what would become the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). While vowing to topple Rwanda’s current Tutsi dominated government, the FDLR continues to pose major threats for civilian security in North Kivu.

Once in power, President Laurent Kabila attempted to curb the influence of his Rwandan and Ugandan allies. In response, Rwanda threw its support to the rebel Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD)[3] from eastern Congo which was fighting to topple Kabila’s government. This ignited the 1998– 2002 “war of occupation,” dubbed by the international media as “Africa’s first World War” due to the involvement of several African countries, including Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia, which supported Kabila, while Rwanda and Uganda aided rebel groups seeking to topple him.

A stalemate during the conflict led to the division of the country into four administrative zones with each dependent on foreign backers for survival. The mainstream Rwandan-backed RCD-Goma controlled the two Kivus and parts of Katanga, Maniema, and Eastern Kasai provinces. The breakaway, Ugandan-backed RCD-Kisangani controlled parts of North Kivu and Oriental provinces, including the Ituri district. The competing Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), also a Ugandan proxy, was the dominant force in Equateur province. The Congolese government managed to hold on to the western half of the country with the support of Angolan, Namibian, and Zimbabwean troops. The RCD factions merely fronted for an outright military occupation of the eastern half of the country by Rwandan and Ugandan troops[4] as a 2005 ruling by the International Court of Justice would determine in the case of Uganda.[5] These regional powers were as keen on politically controlling their local Congolese proxies as plundering the country’s rich natural resources. Their fierce competition for stakes in Congo’s political and economic future at times led to direct military confrontations between the Rwandan and Ugandan armies, as happened four times in Kisangani between 1999 and 2002, with hundreds of Congolese killed in the cross fire.[6]

All belligerents during the 1998–2002 war, including the national and foreign armies, used ethnic “Mai Mai” and self-defense militias as surrogates, exacerbating local disputes in rebel-held areas over land tenure and the control of local resources. In Ituri, the new war deepened a long-standing conflict between Lendu and Hema, and more generally, the conflict increasingly evolved along ethnic lines.[7] Rwandan and Ugandan insurgents groups based in eastern Congo, chief among them the FDLR and the Ugandan Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) repeatedly clashed with their respective national armies on Congolese soil during the 1998–2002 war.[8]

After the 1998–2002 war erupted, the United Nations Security Council established a peacekeeping force, the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC),[9] to assist in implementing the Lusaka Peace Accord signed in 1999. The Mission’s mandate includes enforcing the ceasefire agreements, monitoring and reporting on the belligerents’ disengagement from frontlines, assisting with the process of DDRRR (disarmament, demobilization, repatriation, resettlement, and reintegration), and facilitating the transition to democratic governance.

The prospect for peace improved following the assassination of Laurent Kabila in January 2001 and the ascendance of his son Joseph Kabila to the presidency. The subsequent Sun City peace agreement (2003) established a transitional government, under international supervision in the form of the International Committee in Support of the Transition (CIAT), that guaranteed former belligerents full control of the state and its resources while leaving representatives of civil society and other constituencies with little influence. The skewed power-sharing arrangement meant that the transitional partners had little incentive to begin the difficult tasks of resolving the root causes of Congo’s recurrent conflicts, ending impunity, and instituting the rule of law and the enforcement of basic human rights.

Despite the signing of the Sun City agreement, armed conflict continued in eastern DRC, notably in the Ituri district of Oriental province and North and South Kivu. Violence erupted in Ituri during the First Congo War in 1999 between the rival Hema and Lendu ethnic groups. These two groups experienced a history of tensions over land use in Ituri, but the outbreak of conflict between these groups was fueled by proxy support from Uganda to both rival Hema and Lendu rebel leadership. As violence continued after the signing of the Sun City Agreement, first a European Union peacekeeping force led by the French intervened to halt the fighting in Ituri in June 2003, and then MONUC troops deployed and assumed peacekeeping responsibilities in Ituri in September 2003. MONUC forces have maintained a significant peacekeeping presence in Ituri ever since.

Violence also continued in North and South Kivu during the transition. The Sun City peace agreement called for the integration of the national army, a process known as “brassage,” requiring soldiers from all regions to report to a central training location from where they would be deployed to regions other than those in which they had previously fought. This meant that in eastern Congo, RCD-affiliated soldiers could be placed under the command of an officer loyal to Kabila. Many RCD soldiers resisted the “brassage” program and their deployment away from their home regions. A key contributing factor in this resistance was the government’s failure to investigate the killings of hundreds of soldiers from eastern Congo, many of them Congolese of Rwandan heritage, that occurred in its garrisons at the beginning of the war. General Laurent Nkunda, a notorious Rwandan-trained, Congolese Tutsi whose involvement in committing widespread rights violations and war crimes during the 1998–2002 war was well documented by Human Rights Watch and other independent rights groups, refused to deploy to Kinshasa after the war and instead commanded two RCD brigades in North Kivu.[10] He would later rebel and lead his soldiers in attacking government forces in the town of Bukavu, South Kivu in 2004. His rebellion continues.[11]

The transition period ended with the 2006 legislative and presidential elections and the subsequent establishment of provincial and national parliaments and the swearing-in of President Joseph Kabila in December 2006. The massive and predominately nonviolent participation of the Congolese in the electoral process sent a clear message to the political elites that the population was keen on democratic transformation and the realization of genuine reforms. However, these reforms have yet to materialize and fighting continues to rage in eastern Congo, particularly in the provinces of North and South Kivu.

The 2006 elections also brought about the demise of RCD-Goma, the main political vehicle for Congolese Tutsi and Rwandan influence. Triggered by this loss of political influence and increased anti-Tutsi rhetoric during and after the elections, Nkunda stepped up his attacks against the government, claiming he was acting to “protect” Congolese Tutsi from the FDLR and others. Nkunda consolidated his armed forces to create his own movement, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP). His forces have engaged in waves of armed assaults and clashes with the Congolese national army (FARDC) and even MONUC troops from 2004 to the present.

Seeking a way to end the conflict with Nkunda, in late 2006 the government entered into a compromise, brokered by Rwanda, that called for a limited form of military integration called “mixage,” which allowed Nkunda’s troops to be integrated with government forces in North Kivu. Unlike “bras-sage,” these mixed forces were deployed locally in eastern Congo to conduct military operations against the FDLR. However, mixage failed to accomplish its goal of bringing Nkunda under the control of the government and was ended in August 2007.

Both Congolese troops and those loyal to Nkunda have committed grave violations of international humanitarian law including forced displacement and killing of civilians, abductions, recruitment of child soldiers, rape and other forms of sexual violence, and looting and destruction of property. Between 2003 and 2006, Congolese and international workers identified and removed approximately 30,000 children from the ranks of both the regular military and other armed groups and returned them to civilian life.[12] And according to the UN, in 2006, 27,000 sexual assaults were reported in South Kivu alone. In one town surveyed, 70 percent of the women reported being sexually brutalized.[13]

Other recent initiatives seeking to quell Nkunda’s violent campaign include the Nairobi Communiqué, signed by the Rwandan and Congolese governments in November 2007 to disarm the FDLR, and the Goma Conference on Peace, Security, and Development in North and South Kivu in January 2008, which has resulted in a ceasefire agreement to end the military standoff in North Kivu and addresses other pressing local security issues and ethnic tensions. While local initiatives played a leading role in the Goma process, the establishment of follow-up institutions, enforcement of agreements reached at the national level, implementation of much needed reforms, and FDLR demobilization still depend on decisive action by the central government. The Goma ceasefire remains fragile as a result.

In the neighboring district of Ituri, the deployment of UN peacekeepers and the disarmament of the main militias have brought about relative stability.[14] However, the failure to address impunity for the massive violations that took place during the conflict; the social, structural, and distributional injustices; the absence of state institutions; and the continued plundering of the region’s rich natural resources for the benefit of a few pose serious threats of a relapse into deadly violence.

During the transition and to this day, little has been done to address impunity within the security forces and armed groups or to reform the justice sector. Despite considerable support for training and rehabilitation of the judicial infrastructure, corruption continues to be endemic, including, most insidiously, the protection of higher political interests. Furthermore, all-encompassing military jurisdiction over human rights violations has yet to be reformed.

Although the DRC is a signatory to the Rome Statute, the Statute has not yet been incorporated into domestic law. Some military tribunals, which have jurisdiction over international crimes, have brought a few cases to trial, but so far only low-ranking soldiers have been found guilty. Even when prison sentences have been handed down, the state of the penitentiary system is such that most of those convicted escape almost immediately. The referral of the situation in eastern Congo and subsequent transfer of three warlords to the International Criminal Court are welcome developments. However, to date, the cases remain limited to Ituri and the ICC jurisdiction is limited to crimes committed after 2002. At the same time, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established by the 2002 Sun City agreement failed to achieve any of its objectives.

In short, peace, social reconstruction, justice, and reconciliation remain distant dreams in Congo. The military and other government security forces continue to be among the worst perpetrators of daily human rights violations against the population and the source of instability. Civilians remain targets of the indiscriminate violence, including killing, torture, displacement, abduction, and epidemic levels of rape and other forms of sexual violence. A state of fear prevails to this day in large swaths of the DRC.

[1] Thomas Turner, Congo Wars: Conflict, Myth, Reality (London: Zed Books, 2007), 124.

[2] For more details on this, see: Human Rights Watch, “Democratic Republic of the Congo, What Kabila Is Hiding: Civilian Killings and Impunity in Congo,” 9/5(A) (October 1997), available at

[3] Known as a political-military party identified with Congolese Tutsi, as is its splinter group RCD-Goma.

[4] Reyntjens F., “Briefing: the second Congo War: more than a remake,” African Affairs 98 (1999).

[5] International Court of Justice, Year 2005, 19 December 2005, Case Concerning Armed Activities on the Territory of the Congo (Democratic Republic of Congo v. Uganda), available at

[6] Human Rights Watch, “Congo: Kisangani Residents Again Under Fire, Rwanda’s Congolese Proxy Force Killing Civilians, Closing Civil Society Groups,” 24 May 2002, available at htm.

[7] Reyntjens F., “Briefing: The Democratic Republic of Congo, from Kabila to Kabila,” African Affairs 100 (2001): 311–17.

[8] As the multilayered conflict raged, critics pointed out that Rwanda and Uganda continued to be among the leading recipients of international bilateral and multilateral development and military assistance in Africa, despite mounting evidence of the involvement of their armies in committing massive violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in the Congo.

[9] MONUC has a Chapter VII mandate from the United Nations Security Council, authorizing it to use all necessary means within its capacities in the areas of its deployment to protect civilians from threat of violence.

[10] Rwanda is known to have provided, at minimum, rhetorical support for Nkunda. Some suspect the Rwandan government provided Nkunda with arms, and others have documented occasions when Rwanda allowed Nkunda to recruit soldiers, sometimes children, within its borders. Human Rights Watch, “Renewed Crisis in North Kivu” (October 2007), 49.

[11] For more on Nkunda’s role during the war, see: Human Rights Watch, “Democratic Republic of Congo, War Crimes in Kisangani: The Response of Rwandan-backed Rebels to the May 2002 Mutiny,” 14:6(A) (August 2002).

[12] Human Rights Watch, “Renewed Crisis in North Kivu” (October 2007), 48.

[13] Jeffery Gettleman, “Rape Epidemic Raises Trauma of Congo Wars,” New York Times, 7 October 2007.

[14] International Crisis Group, “Congo: Four Priorities for Sustainable Peace in Ituri,” Africa Report 140 (2008).