Non-international Armed Conflicts in Democratic Republic of Congo
The Democratic Republic of Congo is engaged in several non-international armed conflicts on its territory against a number of non-state armed groups. A United Nations peacekeeping operation, the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), is supporting the Congolese armed forces (FARDC). Rwanda has intervened in DRC in support of M23. Furthermore, Kenya has deployed peacekeeping troops to DRC in order to fight in Goma.
Several non-international armed conflicts are taking place in the DRC involving different non-state and international actors.
- The Congolese armed forces (FARDC) are party to a number of non-international armed conflicts against, at least, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), the Mai-Mai Yakutumba, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), M23, and the Cooperative for Development of the Congo (CODECO).
- 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.
- Rwanda has intervened in DRC in support of M23.
- In November 2022, Kenya deployed peacekeeping troops to DRC in order to fight in Goma, as a reaction to alleged support by Rwanda to members of opposition groups in Kivu.
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 fueled 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.
In recent years, the intensity of violence between the Congolese armed forces (FARDC) and a number of non-state armed groups has been significantly high and further deteriorated in 2018. Although the FARDC increased its attacks against opposition groups at the beginning of 2018, it has not succeeded in diminishing the activities of the armed non-state actors, whose attacks against the governmental armed forces have remained sustained. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC): Military and Security Updates – 2018’, Armed Conflict Database.
The armed violence between the FARDC and armed groups has had a critical impact on the civilian population. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of 20 April 2020, 912,691 refugees have fled DRC. Furthermore, ‘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, Refugees and asylum seekers from DRC, 30 April 2020; UNHCR, ‘UNHCR Alarm at Recent Attacks and Rising Displacement in Eastern DRC’, 28 September 2018.
Allied Democratic Forces (ADF)
The FARDC has engaged in a non-international armed conflict with the ADF. The armed group operates mainly in Kivu, but his military activities extend also to Ituri and Beni.
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. 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.
During the first half of 2019, violence between FARDC and ADF remained relatively stable. However, in October 2019 it worsened dramatically when the government conducted a major offensive against the armed group in North Kivu and in North-east Ituri. In October 2019, two armed attacks conducted by ADF against the civilian population in Beni territory (North Kivu) caused the death of 5 individuals. Consequently, on 30 October the FARDC launched a military operation against the group, which allowed the government to capture a number of ADF positions. In turn, the army offensive triggered a harsh reaction by ADF, which resulted in the death of at least 100 civilians, the displacement of thousands, and sparked protests. Armed operations continued in December 2019, when ADF attacks caused at least 97 casualties. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, October 2019; International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, November 2019.
Due to the inability of MONUSCO to protect the population, in late November 2019 part of the population of Beni territory set fire to the city hall and attacked MONUSCO facilities. Accordingly, the government decided to increase its presence in the region and coordinated with MONUSCO to conduct joint military operations against ADF. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, October 2019; International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, November 2019.
In January 2020, the FARDC made significant gains against ADF. Notably on 9 January the army captured Madina, ADF stronghold in Kivu. The operation caused the death of 40 militants and 30 soldiers. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, January 2020. In February 2020, the armed group conducted his first military operation in Ituri province, which resulted in 63 civilian casualties. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, February 2020. In May 2020, ADF continued to remain active in North Kivu, especially in Beni region, and has engaged in a number of military operations in Ituri province. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, May 2020.
Over the following months, the intensity of violence has not decreased, ADF has engaged both in armed confrontations against governmental forces and armed attacks against civilians. For instance, in November 2020 it has been reported that suspected members of the ADF killed 22 persons in different villages in the DRC and the following months 40 civilians were killed by members of the armed group. In January 2021, clashes between FARDC and the group resulted in the death of 14 fighters and 2 soldiers. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: DRC.
Attacks by ADF and clashes with governmental forces continued regularly throughout the year 2021. For example, 60 people died in several ADF attacks in Beni territory during February. . International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, February 2021. In late July, ADF launched a series of attacks in North Kivu and Ituri, leading to retaliation from the FARDC which clashed with the armed group on 26 and 30 July in, respectively, Boga and Kilva. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, July 2021. By the end of 2021, DRC military forces started joint operations , with Ugandan military forces in order to weaken ADF. For instance, they organized air and artillery raids against the group on 30 November. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, August 2021. Similarly, in December joint operations were operated by Ugandan and Congolese armies against the group in North Kivu and Ituri. Armies claimed to have captured 6 camps, killed 41 militants, and freed hostages. Daniel Levine-Spound, ‘Ugandan and Congolese Troops Are Conducting Joint Operations: What Could that Mean for MONUSCO?’, IPI Global Observatory, 20 December 2021; International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, December 2021. Nevertheless, ADF continued to operate deadly attacks in December 2021 and during the first half of 2022. The group was blamed for having perpetrated the first deadly suicide attack in DRC by killing 6 persons in a suicide bomb attack in Beni on 25 December 2021. ‘Deadly suicide bomb attack attack at bar in eastern DRC’, France 24, 25 December 2021. As a consequence, FARDC and Ugandan forces, in a joint operation, arrested Benjamin Kisokeranio, an ADF small faction leader in South Kivu. Kim Aine, ‘DRC: How Joint Intelligence Operations Led to ADF Commander’s Arrest’, Chimpreports, 16 January 2022.
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 the 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 the Mai-Mai 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 the 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 the Mai-Mai Yakutumba left 4 soldiers and 14 rebels dead. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, December 2018.
In 2019, armed confrontations between the Mai-Mai and governmental armed forces remained intense. For instance, on 11 and 28 October, in Mambasa, clashes between the opposition group and governmental armed forces caused the death of 17 members of the Mai-Mai and of 3 soldiers. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, October 2019. Similarly, the following month in Ituri province Mai-Mai Yakutumba raids caused five casualties. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, November 2019. Clashes between the rebel group and FARDC continued to be intense in 2020, although a number of members of the rebel group surrendered during the first part of the year. Notably, on 2 February 2020 a local Mai-Mai Yakutumba militia commander and about 300 fighters surrendered near Goma. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, February 2020; International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, March 2020; International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, May 2020.
It has been reported that in 2020, in the Fizi and Uvira highlands in South Kivu, Mai-Mai has engaged in armed confrontations against a number of other non-state actors, notably ‘the mainly ethnic Banyamulenge Ngumino armed group and allied self-defense groups.’ Clashes have dramatically affected civilians, and many were displaced as a result of violence. Nevertheless, the intensity of violence is not sufficient to determine the existence of a NIAC between the two groups. Human Rights Watch, World Report 2020. Though FARDC and Mai-Mai Yakutumba clashed on 30 January 2021 in Bwito chiefdom, killing 6 people, there have only been few other clashes between them since then. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, January 2021. It is worth recalling that this does not imply that international humanitarian law (IHL) ceases to be applicable. Indeed, IHL continues to be applicable regardless of oscillating intensity of violence, thus even when the intensity requirement is not met for a certain time. As specified by the ICRC ‘a lasting cessation of armed confrontations without real risk of resumption will undoubtedly constitute the end of a non-international armed conflict as it would equate to a peaceful settlement of the conflict, even without the conclusion or unilateral pronouncement of a formal act such as a ceasefire, armistice or peace agreement.’ ICRC Commentary to Article 3 GC (2016), §488.
Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR)
The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda, FDLR) has been active in the eastern part of DRC since 2000. Its members are individuals of Hutu ethnicity coming from Rwanda. Since its inception, it has engaged in a non-international armed conflict against the FARDC. International Crisis Group, ‘The Congo: Solving the FDLR Problem Once and for All’, Africa Briefing N°25 Nairobi/Brussels, 12 May 2005.
In 2005, FDLR has participated to peace talks with the DRC Government in Rome, sponsored by the Community of Sant'Egidio. On 31 March 2005, the rebel group announced that it intended to lay down weapons and return to Rwanda. While the DRC government and the FDLR agreed on a timetable for the demobilization and repatriation of members of the rebel forces, the agreement was not implemented. Indeed, as of 2012 there were still several thousand Hutu rebels active in the eastern part of DRC. A. Bellal, ‘Armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2014’, in A. Bellal (ed.), The War Report: Armed Conflicts in 2014 (Oxford University Press 2015), p. 163.
On 30 December 2013, leaders of the FDLR ‘committed themselves to put down their weapons and rather undertake a political struggle.’ Midterm Report of the Group of Experts Submitted in Accordance with Paragraph 5 of Security Council Resolution 2136 (2014), S/2014/428, 25 June 2014, annexe 12. According to Small Arms Survey, by mid-2014 about 200 fighters surrendered. While fighting continued in 2015 and the group did not completely demobilize, the number of members substantially decreased. Small Arms Survey, Waning Cohesion: The Rise and Fall of the FDLR-FOCA, 2015.
While armed confrontations between the FARDC and the FDLR has continued, in 2019 the government has obtained a number of victories. Notably, in September 2019 an FDLR commander, Sylvestre Mudacumura, was killed by governmental forces. Furthermore, on 11 November 2019 FARDC announced that they killed Musabimana Juvenal, leader of the rebel group, in North Kivu. The following month, 306 FDLR fighters surrendered with their weapons to the DRC army in South Kivu. ‘DR Congo forces kill leader of splinter Hutu armed group’, Al-Jazeera, 11 November 2019; A. Dogru, ‘306 Rwandan rebels surrender in DR Congo’, AA News, 6 December 2019. More recently, the rebel group has conducted a military attack against a number of rangers in Virunga National Park, which killed 13 rangers and 4 civilians. J. Tasamba, ‘13 rangers, 4 civilians killed in DR Congo park attack’, AA News, 25 April 2020; ‘DRC blames Rwandan Hutu rebels for ranger massacre’, Africanews, 5 May 2020. Fighting has continued through 2022. For instance, UNHCR has reported that ‘armed clashes between the FARDC and armed groups continue to uproot thousands in North Kivu. In Bwito Chiefdom, Rutshuru Territory, armed clashes between the FDLR and FARDC have led to reported human rights violations, by both parties.’ UNHCR Weekly Emergency Update - Ituri, South Kivu and North Kivu Provinces, Democratic Republic of the Congo (25 May – 8 June 2020), 8 June 2020; International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch.
The Cooperative for Development of the Congo (Coopérative de développement économique du Congo, CODECO), a coalition of militias, was founded in the 1970s as a Lendu agricultural cooperative, based in Ituri. The group actively participated to the so-called Ituri War, which took place between 1999 and 2003. Following the end of the conflict, the group did not completely dissolved and stockpiled the weapons used during the NIAC in a number of communities. After a period of inactivity, in 2018 CODECO started engaging in armed attacks again. While at the beginning the fighters were not identified, authorities in Ituri concluded that the authors of the armed attacks were members of CODECO. International Crisis Group, ‘DR Congo: Ending the Cycle of Violence in Ituri’, Africa Report N°292, 15 July 2020, at 9.
Since then, armed violence increased steadily, and it is possible to conclude that CODECO is party to a conflict against governmental forces. For instance, in December 2019 clashes between the armed forced and the rebels left 4 fighters and 2 soldiers dead. Furthermore, later during the same month CODECO raids and armed confrontations with the armed forced caused the death of other 19 individuals. The following month, clashes between armed forces and CODECO left at least 43 dead; in February 2020, fighting between the armed group and state forces left at least 34 civilians and 7 fighters dead. April was one of the deadliest months, as governmental forces recaptured some of the territories controlled by the group and clashes resulted in the death of at least 169 individuals. In July 2020, peace negotiations started and the following month rebel forces signed a unilateral commitment to end hostilities. However, hostilities continued and multiple clashes took place between the parties to the NIAC. Notably, in February 2021 it has been reported that clashes between the group and armed forces caused the death of 27 people. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: DRC.
Clashes between FARDC and CODECO continued throughout 2021. One of the main clashes happened on 6-7 September 2021 in Ituri where 34 militants were killed. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, September 2021. As retaliation, FARDC launched an offensive against CODECO in Ituri on 2 October 2021 killing 21 civilians and claimed to have killed 31 CODECO militants on 28 December 2021. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, October and December 2021. During 2022, CODECO continued engaging in armed violence against state forces. A number of armed confrontations exemplify the sustained intensity of violence, For instance, the armed group killed 62 people by attacking a camp for internally displaced persons near Djugu territory in February, before also killing 60 civilians in Ituri on 8 May. Between 30 August and 3 September, CODECO launched a number of attacks near Mongbwalu town, in Ituri, causing the death of at least 30 people. Ciolence between CODECO and DRC armed forces remained intense through the rest of the year and continued in 2023. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Democratic Republic of Congo.
In April 2012, a conflict between FARDC and the M23 broke out in Kivu. While at first the armed group asked for the implementation of the peace agreement signed on 23 March 2009 between CNDP and FARDC, it then embraced arms and took the provincial capital, Goma. It has been reported that M23 was supported by Rwanda and Uganda. Human Rights Watch, ‘DR Congo: Rwanda Should Stop Aiding War Crimes Suspect’, 3 June 2012; L. Charbonneau and M. Nichols, ‘Exclusive: Rwanda, Uganda arming Congo rebels, providing troops – U.N. panel’, Reuters, 17 October 2012. Towards the end of 2012, the M23 agreed on a ceasefire and left Goma. Negotiations with the government started soon thereafter. However, fighting never completely ceased. Notably, in mid-2013 clashes between the FARDC and rebel forces were particularly intense around Goma. MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping mission in DRC, took part to the fighting against M23. On 12 December 2013, the opposition group signed a peace agreement with DRC government in Nairobi, Kenya, which determined the end of the conflict. S. Casey-Maslen, ‘Armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2013’, in S. Casey-Maslen (ed.), The War Report: Armed Conflict in 2013 (Oxford University Press 2014), pp. 129-131; ‘DRC government and M23 sign peace deal’, Al-Jazeera, 13 December 2012.
Though it seemed that the conflict between FARDC and M23 was over, new clashes between the two took place during the first half of 2022. Firstly, the Congolese army claimed that M23 militants were responsible of an attack on army positions on 28 March before claiming that M23 downed a UN helicopter the next day, killing 8 people. ‘M23 Rebels attack military positions in eastern Congo’, Reuters, 28 March 2022; ‘DR Congo: M23 rebels shoot down MONUSCO helicopter’, Africa News, 30 March 2022. The following month FARDC and M23 militants clashed though rebels declared a unilateral ceasefire a few weeks before. The clashes continued as well during the month of May. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, April 2022; ‘DRC: Army and M23 rebels continue clashes in North Kivu Province as of May 26’, Crisis 24, 26 May 2022. In October 2022, M23 made strategic territorial gains in North Kivu. Notably, on 23 October the group gained control over Ntamugenga village, near strategic RN2 highway which links North Kivu’s capital Goma with province’s north and Uganda. The action triggered a new wave of fighting. On 29 October, M23 took over Kiwanja and Rutshuru towns, hence cutting off Goma from upper half of North Kivu. In November and December 2022, M23 made further gains in Goma region. However, on 23 December M23 announced withdrawal from Kibumba, a strategic town located in Nyiragongo territory. Nevertheless, on 18 January 2023 DRC Foreign Minister Christophe Lutundula announced that M23 still occupies Kibumba town. Fighting between M23 and DRC armed forces has remained intense through the first months of 2023. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Democratic Republic of Congo.
It has been reported that M23 is supported by Rwanda, as explained in the ‘International Interventions’ section below.
National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP)
The National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) was founded in 2006 with the aim of protecting Tutsi groups in eastern Congo. Since then, it had engaged in intense armed confrontations against the FARDC, which amounted to a NIAC. The Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo found ‘evidence that the Rwandan authorities have been complicit in the recruitment of soldiers, including children, have facilitated the supply of military equipment, and have sent officers and units from the Rwandan Defence Force (RDF) to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in support of CNDP.’ United Nations Security Council, ‘Final Report of the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo’, 12 December 2008, S/2008/773.
In January 2008, the DRC government organized the Conference on Peace, Security and Development for the Kivus in Goma, which resulted in the conclusion of the ‘Acte d’engagement’ between the government and the CNDP, the Mai-Mai, and a number of other armed groups active in the region. According to the agreement, the opposition forces committed to the progressive demobilization of the armed forces and the implementation of a cease-fire. Human Rights Watch, ‘‘You Will Be Punished’ – Attacks on Civilians in Eastern Congo’, Report, 2009.
In spite of the agreement, in August 2008 the situation worsened and fighting between CNDP and FARDC significantly increased. Notably, the rebel group gained control over the areas of Masisi and Rutshuru. Furthermore, on 26 October it captured Rumangabo military camp, which is one of the most important military bases in the region. The Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo found ‘evidence that indicates that RDF provided support to CNDP during their … offensive of 26 to 30 October 2008.’ United Nations Security Council, ‘Final Report of the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo’, 12 December 2008, S/2008/773. Thanks to the weapons seized from the base, CNDP kept advancing and, by the end of October, it was threatening Goma. Nevertheless, it did not take the city; instead, it declared a unilateral ceasefire. Human Rights Watch, ‘Killings in Kiwanja. The UN’s Inability to Protect Civilians’, Report, 2008.
Following the publication of the report by the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which provides evidence of Rwandan assistance to the CNDP, and the announcement by CNDP that it aimed at removing Kabila from power, Rwanda stated changing strategy. Indeed, in December 2009 Rwanda and DRC announced a joint military operation against Rwandan Hutu rebels active in Kivu. Human Rights Watch, ‘‘You Will Be Punished’ – Attacks on Civilians in Eastern Congo’, Report, 2009. On 23 March 2009, CNDP and the government signed a peace agreement. Accordingly, the group became a political party and nearly 300 members of the armed groups were integrated in the FARDC. S. Casey-Maslen, ‘Armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2012’, in S. Casey-Maslen (ed.), The War Report 2012 (Oxford University Press 2013), pp. 98-101.
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.
In early 2019, the swearing in of Félix Tshisekedi as new president was seen as a victory for the rebels inasmuch as they consider him a ‘son of the Kasai.’ Consequently, a number of rebel fighters decided to lay down their arms and, according to the information at our disposal, no relevant episodes of violence have taken place between the Kamuina Nsapu and the FARDC. Therefore, it seems possible to conclude that the conflict is now over. Nevertheless, since the causes that led to the outbreak of the conflict have not been addressed, the situation could deteriorate again. ‘Three Kamuina Nsapu rebel leaders surrender in support for new DR Congo president Tshisekedi’, The Defence Post, 29 January 2019.
Front for Patriotic Resistance in Ituri (FRPI)
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.
Since 2019, armed violence between state forces and the non-state actor has decreased in intensity. Nevertheless, the conflict was not over. Indeed, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has clarified that 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. On 28 February 2020, the government and FRPI signed a peace agreement, which establishes that ‘FRPI ceases to exist as an armed group and commits to respect the process for their transformation into a political party in accordance with the legislation on the matter’ and where the ‘Congolese government undertakes to submit to the Parliament a bill providing amnesty for insurrectionary acts, acts of war and political offenses,’ with the exception of ‘war crimes, crimes against humanity, gross human rights violations, rape, sexual violence and crimes of genocide.’ ‘DRC: Congolese government and FRPI armed group have signed a peace agreement, much to the relief of the local population’, United Nations Peacekeeping News, 2 March 2020. Accordingly, it seems possible to conclude that the conflict is now over. Nevertheless, since a relatively short time has passed since the conclusion of the peace agreement, it is necessary to keep monitoring the situation as violence might resume.
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 (ADF)
The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) were 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.
On 29 November 2019, DRC armed forces killed ADF leader, Mohamed Mukubwa Islam in Mapobu. ‘DRC army says it killed top rebel leader as civilian toll rises’, Al-Jazeera, 30 November 2019. Furthermore, on 10 December 2019 the US imposed sanctions on six members of ADF. Specifically, ‘the sanctions allow the U.S. government to seize any property or accounts the fighters have in the U.S. and prohibits anyone in the U.S. from doing business with them.’ F. Mahamba, ‘U.S. imposes sanctions on Islamist rebels in eastern Congo’, Reuters, 10 December 2019.
The Cooperative for Development of the Congo (Coopérative de développement économique du Congo, CODECO), a coalition of militia, was founded in the 1970s as a Lendu agricultural cooperative, based in Ituri. The group actively participated to the so-called Ituri War, which took place between 1999 and 2003. ‘Congo-Kinshasa: Ending the Cycle of Violence in Ituri’, All Africa, 5 July 2020.
DRC authorities have identified the leader of the coalition as being Justin Ngudjolo. Its sanctuary in Wago forest is used as training base and the total number of its members amount to approximately 2,350 fighters. International Crisis Group reported that ‘several witnesses claim that CODECO helped mobilise Lendu youth with anti-Hema hate rhetoric.’ The objective of the group is to defend the Lendu population against the Hema. Rapport public sur les conflits en territoire de Djugu, province de l’Ituri, décembre 2017 à septembre 2019”, UNJHRO/MONUSCO, January 2020, at 15; International Crisis Group, ‘DR Congo: Ending the Cycle of Violence in Ituri’, Africa Report N°292, 15 July 2020.
Although the internal structure of the group is unclear, the armed attacks conducted since 2018, the capacity to coordinate such attacks, and the capacity to engage in negotiations with the government all suggest that the group is sufficiently organized to be party to a conflict. This conclusion is confirmed by a recent report by MONUSCO: Rapport public sur les conflits en territoire de Djugu, province de l’Ituri, décembre 2017 à septembre 2019”, UNJHRO/MONUSCO, January 2020, at 15-16.
Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR)
The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, known by its French acronym FDLR (Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda) is a Hutu opposition group. It was created in 2000 by two branches of the Rwandan Liberation Army (Armée de Libération du Rwanda, AliR) and is formed by forces that participated to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and fled to DRC after they lost the NIAC, other former members of the Forces Armées Rwandaises (FAR) who did not take part to the genocide, as well as post-genocide Hutu recruits. International Crisis Group, ‘The Congo: Solving the FDLR Problem Once and for All’, Africa Briefing N. 25, Nairobi/Brussels, 12 May 2005.
FDLR established a representation in Europe, led by the president and supreme commander of the armed forces, Ignace Murwanashyaka, the vice president and president of the military high command, Straton Musoni, and the executive secretary and vice president of the high military command, Callixte Mbarushimana. On 19 November 2009, Murwanashyaka and Musoni were arrested in Germany, while Mbarushimana was arrested in France on 3 October 2010. Following these events, the political leadership was transferred from civilians based in Europe to members of the armed wing, based in DRC. ‘Waning Cohesion: The Rise and Fall of the FDLR-FOCA’, Small Arms Survey, 2015.
The military wing of FDLR, called Forces Combattantes Abacunguzi (FOCA), is organized like a regular army. Specifically, it has a general staff, a headquarters battalion, and four combat battalions. The political wing is led by a 32-members comité directeur (steering committee), which meets approximately two times per year and take strategic decision regarding the conflict. Members of the committee are ‘the 15 highest- ranking FOCA commanders, the FDLR president and his two vice presidents, an executive secretary, as well as about ten executive commissioners responsible for defence, social affairs and reconciliation, status of women and promotion of the family, political affairs, mobilization and propaganda, legal affairs and human rights, information, finance and inheritance, external relations, and documentation and security.’ ‘Waning Cohesion: The Rise and Fall of the FDLR-FOCA’, Small Arms Survey, 2015.
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.
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. GlobalSecurity.org, ‘Kamuina Nsapu – An Army of Bewitched Children’. In light of the foregoing, it is possible to conclude that Kamuina Nsapu meets the organization requirement.
The M23 was composed of individuals belonging to the Tutsi ethnic group and had close ties with Tutsi in Rwanda. It was active in Kivu. As of 2013, its president was Bishop Jean-Marie Runiga Lugerero, while the head of its military wing was General Sultani Makenga. ‘Q&A: Who are DR Congo's M23 rebels?’, Al-Jazeera, 5 November 2013. While information on the organization of the group are scarce, its military capability and capacity to speak with one voice would suggest that it meets the organization requirement.
The group emerged on 4 April 2012, following a mutiny by around 300 former members of the CNDP who left the FARDC. The group was called M23 in reference to the peace agreement concluded on 23 March 2009 between the CNDP and the DRC government. According to the deal, CNDP would have laid down weapons and its members would have been integrated into the DRC army. Nevertheless, a number of former members of the CNDP complained about the poor conditions they found in the army and accused the government of not respecting the agreement. However, it has been reported that the main reason might be that the DRC government was under pressure to capture Ntaganda, former head of the CNDP and in the leadership of the M23, in order to hand him to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to be prosecuted for the allege commission of crimes against humanity and war crimes between 2002 and 2003. ‘Q&A: DR Congo's M23 rebels’, BBC News, 5 November 2013.
In March 2013, due to internal fighting with M23, Ntaganda turned himself to the United States embassy in Rwanda. He was subsequently prosecuted by the ICC. On 8 July 2019, Ntaganda was found guilty of 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, committed in Ituri, in 2002-2003. Accordingly, he was sentenced to 30 years of imprisonment. ICC, The Prosecutor v. Bosco Ntaganda, 7 November 2019, Trial Chamber VI, Decision, ICC-01/04-02/06-2442; ‘U.S. confirms Bosco Ntaganda turned himself in at U.S. Embassy in Kigali’, Reuters, 18 March 2013.
The 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. 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.
National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP)
The National Congress for the Defence of the People (NCDP), commonly known by its French acronym CNDP (Congrès national pour la défense du people), was founded in 2006 by Laurent Nkunda. Its aim is ‘to defend, protect, and ensure political representation for the several hundred thousand Congolese Tutsi living in eastern Congo, and some 44,000 Congolese refugees, most of them Tutsi, living in Rwanda.’ Human Rights Watch, ‘‘You Will Be Punished’ – Attacks on Civilians in Eastern Congo’, Report, 2009. On 5 January 2009, Nkunda was ousted and the leadership was taken by his military chief of staff, Bosco Ntaganda. Soon thereafter, Nkunda was arrested by Rwandan forces. On 23 March 2009 the CNDP signed a peace agreement with the government, which put an end to the armed conflict. Furthermore, on 26 April 2009, it established itself as a political party. Human Rights Watch, ‘‘You Will Be Punished’ – Attacks on Civilians in Eastern Congo’, Report, 2009.
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. UNSC Res 1925, 28 May 2010. Since then, the peacekeeping operation has been supporting the government in its efforts to tackle the myriad of 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 Yakutumba 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.
In November 2019, protests against the UN peacekeepers spread in Kivu. The reason underpinning the protests is the perceived failure to protect the civilian population from violence by rebel forces. On 25 November, protesters reached MONUSCO compound in Beni, which was evacuated before protesters arrived. ‘Protests spread in east DRC as fury against UN peacekeepers rises’, Al-Jazeera, 27 November 2019; ‘Congo: Protesters storm UN base in Beni’, DW News, 25 November 2019.
In early-April 2021, new demonstration arose against MONUSCO in North Kivu. This also engenders intercommunal clashes. On another level, MONUSCO’s Kiliva base was attacked on 10 May 2021 by presumed rebels affiliated to ADF, killing one peacekeeper. Similarly, a convoy escorted by FARDC and MONUSCO peacekeepers was attacked by suspected ADF militants in Ituri province, killing at least 10 people. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, May and September 2021.
On 6 September 2022, anti-MONUSCO demonstrations erupted in Beni city. On 17 September, the UN Secretary General António Guterres conceded that MONUSCO is no longer able to defeat M23 and called for a diplomatic solution to the conflict, which should include both DRC and Rwandan governments. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Democratic Republic of Congo.
In March 2022, DRC armed forces moved the first allegations against Rwanda, claiming that the neighbouring country supports M2 rebel group, while Rwanda rejected the allegations. On 25 May, DRC government reiterated its accusations against Rwanda and subsequently suspended all flights of Rwandan national airline RwandAir to DRC. On 5 June, DRC President Tshisekedi affirmed that he had no doubt that Rwanda intervened in DRC to support M23 rebel group. Furthermore, the army announced that Rwanda sent 500 troops in North Kivu and fired rockets in the area. Furthermore, it affirmed that it captured two Rwandan soldiers in May. On 15 June, demonstrations erupted close to he border with Rwanda, as the local population protested against the foreign intervention. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Democratic Republic of Congo.
In July 2022, Kenian and DRc Presidents met in in Angola’s capital Luanda in order to discuss a de-escalation plan in North Kivu. Both parties agreed to an ‘immediate cessation of hostilities’ and ‘immediate and unconditional withdrawal’ of M23 rebels from eastern DRC. Nevertheless, the following day M23 affirmed that they rejected the agreement, as only the group could sign a ceasefire agreement. Therefore, fighting continued between M23 and DRC armed forces. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Rwanda.
In August 2022, a confidential report by the United Nations group of experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), transmitted to member states of the UN Security Council, was leaked. According to the report, there is solid evidence that would confirm Rwandan intervention in DRC in favour of M23. M. Notably, the Report affirms that the group of experts ‘obtained solid evidence of the presence of, and military operations conducted by, RDF (Rwandan Defence Force) members in Rutshuru territory between November 2021 and July 2022.’ Le Cam, ‘Confidential UN report provides 'solid evidence' of Rwanda's involvement in the East DRC’, Le Monde, 5 August 2022; N. Peyton, H. Holland, ‘U.N. experts: Rwanda has intervened militarily in eastern Congo’, Reuters, 4 August 2023.
On 25 November 2022, a Mini-Summit on Peace and Security in DRC took place in Angola. During that occasion, Congolese President Tshisekedi and Rwandan Foreign Ministry Vincent Biruta called for a cessation of hostilities in North Kivu. Nevertheless, M23 rejected the call again. On 10 December 2022, DRC President affirmed that his country is victim of ‘unequivocal aggression by Rwanda’. On the other hand, Rwandan President answered that his country ‘cannot be responsible for... Congolese of Rwandan descent in Congo who are being denied their rights as citizens’. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Rwanda. On 24 January 2023, Rwandan forces fired a missile against Congolese fighter jet, for allegedly violating Rwandan airspace. ‘Great Lakes Tensions Spike After Rwanda Nearly Downs a Congolese Fighter Jet’, International Crisis Group, 27 January 2023.
Allegations of Rwandan support seem to be confirmed by various sources. Apart from the forementioned leaked UN expert report, the European Union has ssued a statement where it urged ‘Rwanda to stop supporting the M23 and use all means to press the M23 to comply with the decisions taken by the EAC and at the Mini-Summit on Peace and Security in the Eastern Region of the DRC in Luanda on 23 November 2022.’ Council of Europe, ‘Democratic Republic of the Congo: Statement by the High Representative on behalf of the EU on the publication of the recent UN Group of Experts report’, 31 December 2022. On 4 January 2023, the US expressed their support to the ‘midterm report by the United Nations Group of Experts released on December 30’ and ‘reiterate[d] our call for Rwanda to cease all support to M23 and withdraw its troops from eastern DRC.’ US Press Statement, ‘Statement on Report by UN Group of Experts’, 4 January 2023. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch has clearly stated that Rwanda not only is supporting M23, but also sent its own troops into DRC territory to fight against Congolese armed forces in Kivu. Human Rights Watch, ‘DR Congo: Atrocities by Rwandan-backed M23 Rebels’, 6 February 2023.
Under IHL, a NIAC becomes an IAC when a foreign country exercises overall control over an armed non-state actor ‘not only by equipping and financing the group, but also by coordinating or helping in the general planning of its military activity.’ ICTY, Tadić case, Appeal Chamber Judgment, 15 July 1999, §131. While currently the information at our disposal is not enough to conclude that Rwanda exercises overall control over the M23, the direct intervention of Rwanda with its troops leads us to conclude that DRC is party to two parallel conflicts: a NIAC against M23 and an IAC against Rwanda.
On 2 November 2022, Kenya announced the deployment of peacekeeping troops to DRC in order to fight in Goma, as a reaction to alleged support by Rwanda to members of opposition groups in Kivu. On 12 November, the first contingent of Kenyan soldiers arrived in North Kivu. A few days later, on 17 November, the second contingent arrived in Goma, for a total of 900 soldiers deployed. ‘Kenya to send soldiers into Democratic Republic of Congo’, DW, 2 November 2022; ‘Second contingent of Kenyan troops arrive in DRC to battle rebels’, Africa News, 17 November 2022.
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.
United Nations forces
- Allied Democratic Forces (ADF)
- Mai-Mai Yakutumba
- Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR)