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Non-international Armed Conflicts in Democratic Republic of Congo

Conflict type: Non-international armed conflict

The Democratic Republic of Congo is engaged in several non-international armed conflicts on its territory against a number of non-state armed groups, most notably against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and the Mai-Mai Yakutumba in Kivu, the Kamuina Nsapu in Kasai, and the Front for Patriotic Resistance in Ituri (FRPI) in Ituri. A UN Peacekeeping Operation, called the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), is supporting the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC).

Several non-international armed conflicts are taking place in the DRC involving different non-state and international actors.

  • The Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC) is party to a number of non-international armed conflicts against at least the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and the Mai-Mai Yakutumba in Kivu, the Kamuina Nsapu in Kasai, and the Front for Patriotic Resistance in Ituri (FRPI) in Ituri.
  • The UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) is supporting the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC) and is party to the conflicts.

Two criteria need to be assessed in order to answer the question whether a situation of armed violence amounts to a non-international armed conflict.

  • First, the level of armed violence must reach a certain degree of intensity that goes beyond internal disturbances and tensions.
  • Second, in every non-international armed conflict, at least one side to the conflict must be a non-state armed group which must exhibit a certain level of organization in order to qualify as a party to the non-international armed conflict. Government forces are presumed to satisfy the criteria of organization. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict' in our Classification section.

Intensity of violence

Various indicative factors are used to assess whether a given situation has met the required intensity threshold, such as the number, duration and intensity of individual confrontations; the types of weapons and military equipment used; the number of persons and types of forces participating in the fighting; the number of casualties; the extent of material destruction; the number of civilians fleeing; and the involvement of the United Nations Security Council. For further information, see ‘non-international armed conflict – intensity of violence’ in our classification section.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been affected by several armed conflicts over the past decades. Political tensions, the proliferation of armed non-state actors, and the involvement of foreign countries have contributed to deteriorate the situation and have prevented the possibility to reach a peaceful settlement of the conflict. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC): Conflict summary’, Armed Conflict Database. Furthermore, the presidential elections that took place in December 2018 increased tensions and fuelled armed violence. ‘DR Congo election: Presidential poll hit by delays’, BBC, 30 December 2018. The regions that have been most affected by the armed conflicts are Kivu, Kasai, and Ituri, although violence is widespread and affects the whole country.

Kivu

At least 100 armed groups are active in Kivu, in particular the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and Mai-Mai Yakutumba. Human Rights Watch, ‘Democratic Republic of Congo: Events of 2017’, World Report 2018. In recent years, the intensity of violence between the Congolese armed forces (FARDC) and these non-state armed groups has been significantly high and further deteriorated in 2018. Although the FARDC intensified its attacks against opposition groups at the beginning of 2018, the activities of the armed non-state actors have not decreased. Instead, the rebel groups have increased their attacks against the governmental armed forces. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC): Military and Security Updates – 2018’, Armed Conflict Database. Specifically, the FARDC has been engaged in a non-international armed conflict with the ADF. On 14 January 2018, the FARDC launched an armed attack against the ADF and took control of two military bases of the armed group in North Kivu province. ‘DR Congo Army Launches Offensive Against ADF Rebels’, Al Jazeera, 14 January 2018. The ADF and affiliated groups reacted to the attack by launching a counter-offensive that resulted in the death of at least 12 soldiers and wounded at least 20. ‘At Least a Dozen Congo Soldiers Killed in East’, Reuters, 19 January 2018. Armed confrontations between the FARDC and the ADF continued to intensify in the following months. For instance, on 17 February 2018 the ADF attacked the FARDC, killing five members of the governmental army and wounding seven. Between 12 and 17 April 2018, armed clashes between the ADF and FARDC caused the death of at least 12 soldiers, while more than 50 were injured.  International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC): Military and Security Updates – 2018’, Armed Conflict Database. More recently, on 7 December 2018 the ADF attacked the city of Beni, in North Kivu, which caused the death of 17 people including  civilians and members of the FARDC. ‘DR Congo: 17 Killed in Suspected ADF Attacks in Beni’, The Defense Post, 7 December 2018.

In 2018, armed confrontations between the Mai-Mai Yakutumba armed group and the FARDC were equally intense. Between January and February, several clashes took place between the non-state armed group and state forces. Most notably, on 8 February 2018 the FARDC announced that its military offensive led to the death of 83 members of Mai-Mai Yakutumba, while 120 rebels were captured. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC): Military and Security Updates – 2018’, Armed Conflict Database. In April 2018, the FARDC reported a number of crucial victories against Mai-Mai Yakutumba and was able to regain control of areas that were under the influence of the opposition group. Nevertheless, the non-state actor proved capable of regrouping and reacted by launching attacks against state forces. During summer 2018, military operations conducted by the FARDC against Mai-Mai Yakutumba proved particularly successful in countering the rebels’ armed activities, especially in the Fizi region. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC): Military and Security Updates – 2018’, Armed Conflict Database. However, this did not reduce armed confrontations. For example, in December 2018 clashes between the FARDC and Mai-Mai Yakutumba left 4 soldiers and 14 rebels dead. International Crisis Group, ‘Crisis Watch’, December 2018.

The armed violence between the FARDC and armed groups operating in Kivu has had a critical impact on the civilian population. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), ‘it is estimated that more than a million people are displaced in North Kivu. An estimated half a million people have been forced from their homes this year alone.’ UNHCR, ‘UNHCR Alarm at Recent Attacks and Rising Displacement in Eastern DRC’, 28 September 2018.

Kasai

Since 2016 in Kasai, the Kamuina Nsapu armed group has been engaged in armed confrontations against the government, triggering a conflict that is having a dramatic impact on the civilian population. L. Dennison, ‘New Phase of Lawlessness Grips Congo’s Kasaï Region’, IRIN, 28 August 2018. Violence between the rebel group and the government escalated between 2016 and the beginning of 2018. For instance, on 2 and 14 January 2018 the Kamuina Nsapu attacked Kananga Airport in Kasai province, killing at least six people. On 17 January 2018, clashes between the Kamuina Nsapu and the FARDC in Kambamba resulted in the death of at least four members of the armed group. On 26 February 2018,  14 more rebels were killed by governmental forces during armed confrontations. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC): Military and Security Updates – 2018’, Armed Conflict Database. However, armed confrontations were more sporadic in the following months. Although the intensity of violence between the government and the armed group has decreased, this does not imply that the conflict is over and that international humanitarian law (IHL) ceases to be applicable. Indeed, a non-international armed conflict ‘continues until a peaceful settlement is achieved’. Accordingly, IHL continues to be applicable regardless of the oscillating intensity of violence, thus even when the intensity requirement is not met for a certain amount of time. See International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Prosecutor v Haradinaj et al., Judgment, IT-04-84, 3 April 2008.

Ituri

The Front for Patriotic Resistance in Ituri (FRPI) is the main armed group active in the Ituri province. In 2018, it engaged regularly in armed confrontations against the FARDC. M. Chambel, ‘Democratic Republic of Congo Analysis’, ACLED, 16 March 2018. In spite of the deployment of 1,300 additional FARDC and police personnel by the DRC government in April 2018, the FRPI continued to attack governmental forces, which responded with Operation Hero, a counter-offensive that took place on 22–25 May and resulted in the death of seven members of the opposition group. More recently, between July and August 2018 the FARDC conducted 14 armed attacks against the armed group. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC): Military and Security Updates – 2018’, Armed Conflict Database. Although the armed violence between state forces and the non-state actor has decreased in intensity, the conflict is not over. A non-international armed conflict ‘continues until a peaceful settlement is achieved’ regardless of the oscillating intensity of violence, thus even when the intensity requirement is not met for a certain amount of time. See International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Prosecutor v Haradinaj et al., Judgment, , IT-04-84, 3 April 2008.

Organization

A series of indicative factors are used to assess whether armed groups exhibit the required degree of organization, such as the existence of a command structure and disciplinary rules and mechanisms; the ability to procure, transport and distribute arms; the ability to plan, coordinate and carry out military operations; the ability to negotiate and conclude agreements, e.g. ceasefire or peace agreements. If the minimum criterion for organization of the armed groups is not fulfilled, there is no armed conflict. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict – Organization’ in our Classification section.

The Allied Democratic Forces

The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) was founded in Uganda in 1989 and is based in the mountains between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where it operates mainly in the Kivu region, specifically around the town of Beni. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Allied Democratic Forces (ADF)’, Armed Conflict Database. Since 2007, the military activities of the ADF in Uganda have been sporadic and it does not pose a real threat to the country. However, the situation is crucially different in DRC, where the armed group has been conducting attacks against both the state armed forces and the civilian population. A. McGregor, ‘Violence and Viruses: How a Poorly Armed Insurgency in the Congo Poses a Global Threat’, 16 Terrorism Monitor 21 (2018). The ADF does not possess sophisticated weaponry and relies mainly on machetes and axes. In order to obtain access to more advanced weapons, it conducts raids against state military bases. A. McGregor, ‘Violence and Viruses: How a Poorly Armed Insurgency in the Congo Poses a Global Threat’, 16 Terrorism Monitor 21 (2018). Originally, the leader of the armed group was Jamil Mukulu, who was arrested in Tanzania in April 2015. Currently, the new leader is believed to be Imam Seka Musa Baluku. A. McGregor, ‘Violence and Viruses: How a Poorly Armed Insurgency in the Congo Poses a Global Threat’, 16 Terrorism Monitor 21 (2018). In spite of the paucity of specific information on its hierarchical structure, other elements such as the ADF’s military capabilities and its ability to procure, transport and distribute arms suggest that it meets the organization requirement.

Mai-Mai Yakutumba

Mai-Mai Yakutumba was founded in 2007 by self-proclaimed ‘General’ William Yakutumba, who has expressed his opposition to President Kabila’s regime several times. A. Ross, ‘Congo Naval Boats Battle Rebels on Lake Tanganyika’, Reuters, 28 September 2017; International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Mai-Mai Yakutumba’, Armed Conflict Database. William Yakutumba claims that his opposition group has around 10,000 members. However, observers estimate that the militia is composed of a few hundred. ‘RDC: des rebelles Maï Maï aux abords de la ville d'Uvira’, RFI, 27 September 2017. The vast majority of its members are from the Bembe community, based in the Fizi territory in South Kivu. The primary objective of the group is to protect the Bembe community from other communities based in the region. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Mai-Mai Yakutumba’, Armed Conflict Database. There is no clear information regarding the hierarchical structure of the group. Nevertheless, its military capabilities and its ability to procure, transport and distribute arms suggest that it meets the organization requirement. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Mai-Mai Yakutumba’, Armed Conflict Database.

Kamuina Nsapu

The Kamuina Nsapu was formed in 2016, following the killing of a Luba tribal leader by the Congolese security forces. Since its inception, the armed group has spread, ‘thanks to an organised recruitment system and the placement of tshiotas (initiation halls containing sacred fires)’. The organization of the group is based on the tshiotas, which are present in several provinces in Kasai. Each unit is led by an emissary (called an ‘apostle’) of the Kamuina Nsapu, who is responsible for the recruitment of new members. Armed operations are planned in the tshiotas as well. Human Rights Council, Situation in Kasaï: Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN doc A/HRC/38/31, 3 July 2018, §§25–34. The group fights mainly with machetes, sticks, hunting rifles and semi-automatic weapons. ‘Kamuina Nsapu – An Army of Bewitched Children’, Global Security. In light of the foregoing, it is possible to conclude that Kamuina Nsapu meets the organization requirement.

Front for Patriotic Resistance in Ituri (FRPI)

The Front for Patriotic Resistance in Ituri (FRPI) is a political party and military group based in Ituri that was founded in 2002. Its members are Ngiti, one of the ethnic groups in Ituri, and are estimated to number roughly 1,000. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Front for Patriotic Resistance in Ituri (FRPI)’, Armed Conflict Database; ‘Who's Who in Ituri – Militia Organisations, Leaders’, IRIN, 20 April 2005. Initially, its leader was Germain Katanga. However, the leadership was assumed by Baudouin Adirodo in 2005. In 2006, during the peace process, nearly 15,000 members of the group were demobilized and Katanga was brought to The Hague before the International Criminal Court, where he was condemned for war crimes and crimes against humanity in 2014. International Criminal Court, The Prosecutor v Germain Katanga, Trial Chamber 2, Judgment, ICC-01/04-01/07-3436-tENG, 7 March 2014. Nevertheless, the military activities of the FRPI remained sustained. In spite of the paucity of specific information on its hierarchical structure, its military capabilities suggest that it meets the organization requirement.

International interventions

The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) was established by the UN Security Council (UNSC) on 1 July 2010, when the UNSC authorized it to use all necessary means, within the limits of its capacity and in the areas where its units are deployed, to carry out its protection mandate, namely to protect civilians and to stabilize and consolidate peace. S/RES/1925, 28 May 2010. Since then, the peacekeeping operation has been supporting the government in its efforts to tackle the myriad armed groups operating in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

In 2018, MONUSCO was the object of several attacks by a number of non-state armed groups. For instance, on 27 January 2018 a MONUSCO convoy was ambushed by the Mai-Mai group, which caused the death of a peacekeeper and wounded another. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC): Military and Security Updates – 2018’, Armed Conflict Database. In November 2018, MONUSCO and the Congolese armed forces (FARDC) launched a military operation against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), when they ‘identified, attacked and managed to retake key ADF positions’. During the attack, 7 peacekeepers were killed and 10 others were wounded. Furthermore, a number of FARDC soldiers died. MONUSCO, ‘FARDC and MONUSCO Launch Joint Operation Against ADF’, 16 November 2018; MONUSCO, ‘UN Chief Condemns Killing of “Blue Helmets” in DR Congo, as Violence Erupts Prior to Elections’, 16 November 2018.

All parties to the conflict are bound by Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which provides for minimum standards to be respected and requires humane treatment without adverse distinction of all persons not or no longer taking active part in hostilities. It prohibits murder, mutilation, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, hostage taking and unfair trials.

Furthermore, all parties are bound by customary international humanitarian law applicable to non-international armed conflict. Customary international law consists of unwritten rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. Based on an extensive study, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains a database on customary international humanitarian law.

In addition to international humanitarian law, international human rights law continues to apply during times of armed conflict. DRC is a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Furthermore, it is bound by customary human rights law. Under human rights law, the territorial state has an obligation to prevent and investigate alleged violations, including by non-state actors. Non-state armed groups are increasingly considered to be bound by international human rights law if they exercise de facto control over some areas.

State parties

Non-state parties

Last updated: Thursday 14th February 2019