A report by Human Rights Watch released this month is the latest of many reports that have accused M23 rebels of massacring civilians in areas that they occupied for months.
Claims that M23 massacred residents were reported as early as November 2022 by the Congolese government and UN human rights office in DRC. In April, French newswire AFP also published an expose on the massacre. As time has passed, more horrifying details of the alleged massacres have come to the fore.
In its report, HRW says it interviewed 21 residents in Kishishe by telephone in April and May, after the M23 withdrew from the area, “including some who said they had witnessed executions or whom the M23 forced to bury bodies”.
Others had voluntarily buried bodies after the M23 left the area. Through interviews, the rights organisation says it got information on 14 mass graves which “appear to be only a fraction of the total burial sites”.
M23 continues to reject the accusations as unfounded and insists these allegations are meant to tarnish its reputation. Instead, the movement claims it has a human rights department that trains all its members on promotion of human rights.
14 mass graves appear to be only a fraction of the total burial sites.
Neither the regional force nor the East African Community secretariat has commented on the massacre allegations. The regional body spokesperson did not answer questions from The Africa Report.
The M23 has slowly and reluctantly handed over many areas they occupied in Eastern DRC to EACRF in the past six months.
Though the regional body’s force mandate doesn’t require them to investigate, rights activists argue they should ascertain the authenticity of the massacre allegations given that no one is better placed than them. They also argue that the regional force can’t claim to protect civilians – its principal mandate – without probing rights violations.
A mum regional force doesn’t work
Stewart Muhindo, a researcher at Lucha, a non-violent and non-partisan youth civil society movement based in Goma, tells The Africa Report that the regional force’s silence on the massacre doesn’t place them in a good position.
“I think it’s not good for them to keep quiet because they came to protect civilians and when an organisation, such as Human Rights Watch, says rights were violated by an armed group, the EACRF should at least say something.”
Muhindo says the regional force should support organisations that are trying to investigate the massacres by helping them to physically access places where massacred people were buried and protecting them during the investigations. He adds that the regional force should ensure that evidence is not erased.
“When reports are released, it’s possible that M23 would want to destroy available evidence of massacre. EACRF should ensure that evidence is not destroyed by M23 or any other armed group,” Muhindo says.
Clementine de Montjoye, an Africa researcher at HRW tells The Africa Report they conducted an investigation independently.
She says they have had discussions with EAC contributing countries focused on the EACRF and have urged them to strengthen civilian protection through developing strong human rights monitoring mechanisms. For such an initiative, she says, EACRF should work with the UN and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights
EACRF cannot investigate human rights abuses because of the nature of EAC member states relations
As EAC continues to look for funds to support its deployment to DRC within the region and beyond, questions on human rights violations committed by M23 and what the regional force has done are bound to be asked.
An EU spokesperson tells The Africa Report that the EAC has approached them requesting possible support of its initiatives in pacifying Eastern DRC. “Due and careful consideration is being given to the request, in consultation with international partners,” the spokesperson says.
Montjoye says HRW is urging countries considering funding the regional force to only support EACRF on “condition of development of a vetting mechanism in line with international standards, a strong protection mandate and due diligence policy, and the development of a human rights monitoring mechanism”.
“We also called on independent and trained forensic experts, for example from the ACHPR or the UN, to provide support for the Kishishe investigations,” she says.
The regional force has been operating in an environment of contestation and suspicion, especially over its mandate and Rwanda’s backing of the rebels. Whereas the DRC government has been urging the regional force to engage with M23 militarily and force them out of the areas they occupied, the force has spoken with the rebels who voluntarily handed over areas they were occupying, triggering anger among Congolese politicians.
Two months ago, DRC President Felix Tshisekedi urged the regional force not to favour M23. Tshisekedi has also told the regional force to leave Congolese territory on several occasions if they don’t want to fight M23. Major General Jeff Nyagah, the first commander of the regional force, resigned in April over fear of his security.
It’s not only Tshisekedi and politicians who share such sentiments; even civil society and ordinary Congolese do. “EACRF is not fighting M23 and that does not help Congolese people. When you go to Bunagana, Rutshuru and other areas, you will see that they live with M23 and they know that M23 are enemies of Congolese people,” Muhindo says.
Rwanda has been constantly accused of backing the rebels though it has dismissed the accusations. “EACRF cannot investigate human rights abuses because of the nature of EAC member states relations,” he says.
Sylvanus Wekesa, an analyst on regional security and politics, tells The Africa Report that the best the regional force can do is offer protection, but it should be more proactive in deterring human rights violations and “if necessary, use force”.
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