War Crimes and Human Rights in the Democratic Republic of Congo

An Analysis of the Culture of Violence in the Sub-Saharan Region


The Democratic Republic of Congo has historically experienced hardship in multiple facets due to colonialist interference and governmental instability. The crimes that have been committed are immense, not just in number but also in nature. Atrocities within the Congo have been conducted purposefully to violate the human rights of the country’s own citizens; these crimes include sexual assault, recruitment of child soldiers, and homicide. The International Criminal Court has conducted various investigations and trial hearings designed to bring these issues to light and the responsible parties to justice. However, the crisis is active currently, and the country remains in a state of continuous uncertainty. The present issues of mass migration resulting from regional exigencies has made it impossible for Sub-Saharan countries to acquire a sense of stability. Refugee populations have increased from outside states, creating a potential for these displaced persons to be subjected to more hardship. The leading intercontinental powers are faced with the issue of how to efficiently provide aid to this region and its communities, but the future remains ambiguous. 

Human Rights Abuses Within the DRC

The conflicts that are present within the DRC run deeper than most would assume, with a virtually non-existent government and a plethora of violent militiamen.¹ Under Belgian rule, the monarchy was ruthless in its venture to establish the country as a treasured economic commodity. The penalties implemented against these enslaved people were not humane in their execution. Families were separated and even held captive, which acted as a method of coercion for men to cut down these trees in exchange for their families’ release.² The nineteenth century plunged the Congo into a state of perpetual dependency and disenfranchisement, from which there was no chance of recovery.³ The violence that was committed against the Congolese was eventually broadcasted to other regions of the world, through missionaries who had witnessed the cruelty firsthand and had it documented.⁴ The historical patterns of violence have manifested themselves within the culture of the Congolese society, and have subsequently set the stage for its current political and communal vulnerability. 

Mass groups of people and communities have suffered from this battle that has been waged within the Congo. Reports show that there was one case which involved the invasion of the city of Goma in the eastern region of the DRC from a guerilla militia group called the M23.⁵ These people ransacked communities, wreaked havoc in refugee camps, and engaged in sexual violence towards Congolese women; there was a calculated number of approximately seventy-six women and young girls who were subjected to this torture in November of 2012.⁶ Rape has been one of the most especially disturbing methods of violence, as it is designed to enact socialized violence and destruction against women and people that are considered vulnerable. The DRC has taken efforts to combat this political vulgarity. In 2013, court hearings had been conducted in the city of Goma and Minova, with a larger proportion of witness testimony over the course of forty days. This, however, proved to be ineffective in enacting justice, since only two out of thirty-nine total defendants were charged with rape, and little was done to prosecute officers of high ranking.⁸ The degree of armed aggression within multiple provinces of the DRC has become problematic in terms of murderous crime rates. Reports have listed the sightings of mass graves within the region of Kasai, which is already experiencing a migration crisis of approximately one million people.⁹ This number is especially troubling, given that it comprises less than one half of the total persons that have been internally displaced within the DRC. Among the disaster, UN personnel have also been victimized.¹⁰ Militia attacks from the Allied Democratic Forces have also taken place in Kivu, and has been engaged in domestic warfare against innocent civilians since late 2014.¹¹ These sources have reported that various sites that have been targeted by these militant groups have been the center for refugee populations that reach up to over one million people. 

In terms of governmental activity (or lack thereof), there has been increasingly intense debate about how officials are going to confront these militiamen. The domestic court system within the DRC have tried fourteen officers and twenty-five soldiers in Kivu, and these men had been convicted for many of the human rights abuses that have already been cited: sexual violence, terrorism, etcetera.¹² Earlier in 2008, more murders were committed in late November in Kiwanja, which is also located in the Northern region of Kivu.¹³ Various parts of the DRC have fallen to the abuses caused by rogue military figures, who disregard the legal standards put in place, through domestic policy as well as international law. 

One of the key issues that has allowed these atrocities to become so widespread and intense is the incompetency of army officials in quelling the violence caused under their watch. One of the most notable and unfortunate cases was in the region of Minova, which is also located in Kivu. In 2012, a group of rebel soldiers “engaged in a 10-day frenzy of destruction: looting homes, razing shops and shelters in camps for displaced people, and raping at least 76 women and girls.”¹⁴ According to reports, the efforts made to put these men on trial produced very minimal results, with only a small fraction of them being charged and convicted of rape crimes and virtually no other crimes against humanity.¹⁵ The lack of attention that these cases have been given illustrates the dysfunctional qualities of the Congolese government, as well as its military forces, which have proven to be ineffective and directly linked to associated acts of cruelty. These cases remain at the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the overarching dilemma the DRC is facing, with internal disorder and turmoil. Another concern lies with those who have been tried on a global scale, and how international legal procedure will choose to effectively put away all responsible parties. It is important to note the methodologies used by head court-institutions to identify and pass judgment on a concept as broad and horrendous as crimes against humanity.

Role of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and Famous Prosecutions 

Global headlines have been made about various political and military leaders being prosecuted and receiving sentencing from the International Criminal Court. The ICC is an international legal institution that resides within the city of Hague in the Netherlands, which has presided over thousands of historical cases of criminal felonies committed on a monumental scale. This court has imposed sentencing on various cases that possess a degree of infamy, ranging all the way to acts of genocide. Many states have signed off on becoming officialized members of the ICC, while others (like the United States) have chosen to remain outside this agreement, due to fear of accountability for its own domestic policies. This is not surprising, given how the ICC holds many precedents for how legal procedure is conducted. Individuals cannot be tried alone, but nation states can, making it even more possible for national interest to be a priority that must be preserved and defended through refusal to join the ICC. However, in the case of human rights violations, global attention is demanded if punitive justice is to be enacted and enforced.

In the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo, leading officials such as General Bosco Ntaganda and Thomas Lubanga Dylio have been indicted for war crimes. Ntaganda has been accused and charged with cases of child recruitment for the Congolese militia, rape, and even murder.¹⁶ According to the ICC, Ntaganda has been charged with a total of eighteen felonies, thirteen being war crimes and the remaining five being categorized as “crimes against humanity.”¹⁷ Only in 2013 did he surrender to the officials of the ICC, seven years after his official indictment.¹⁸ His role in the Congolese crisis was significant in its brutalization of innocent people. Ntaganda had led a militia group that was responsible for the mass extermination of 150 individuals in Kiwanja, in the eastern region of the DRC.¹⁹  It has been recorded that women and children have been subjected to crimes of sexual assault, and the forces to avert these obscenities were not successful.²⁰ One hundred and twenty UN Peacekeepers were placed in Kiwanja, but failed to effectively protect anyone.²¹ Ntaganda has infamously been labeled as “The Terminator,” and according to the personal account of one of his former recruits, he is a man who “kills easily.”²² In 2019, the ICC issued its judgment, and Ntaganda was officially sentenced to be incarcerated for thirty years.²³ Lubanga Dylio, who had surrendered to the authorities in the year 2006, has been charged with the recruitment of child soldiers and being coercive in his methodology.²⁴ According to his case documentation, the age-range for most of the children he recruited were “under the age of fifteen” and were “used as soldiers and bodyguards for senior officials, as well as the accused.”²⁵ The utilization of children for criminal acts demonstrates the degree of instability that exists within this country, and is considered reprehensible under international law. 

Potential Solutions 

One of the main obstacles facing this humanitarian dilemma is the issue of immigration and the pursuit of refuge for displaced persons. Recently, the world has witnessed the devastating effects of cultural uprooting and the misfortune of many who are denied entry into developed countries with more economic sustainability and governmental structure. The lack of support from Western powers, such as the US, in offering forms of aid to these individuals is startling. Under the Trump presidential administration, a travel ban had been issued for people attempting to travel to or from a select number of countries, which fit various criteria that gave cause to concern for “national security.”²⁶ Most of the nation-states are Muslim-majority, sparking some suspicion of prejudice and political discrimination against this community, while the inclusion of other countries, like Chad, remain a mystery for many. According to some sources, the citation issued for halting travel to and from this region is especially perplexing, given Chad’s efforts to combat terrorist forces. The country is a “member of the Counterterrorism Partnership,” which is a US affiliate partnership that was designed to deal with “terrorist threats and prevent the spread of violent extremism.”²⁷ Chad has also been involved in maneuvers for fighting the Boko Haram militia, making it even more controversial and counterproductive for this country to be cited.²⁸ One proposed solution would be the lifting of this ban, given how many refugee populations have fled to Chad and the states that surround it. The US is more than capable of offering their support for lessening the severity of the refugee crisis in multiple regions of the world, and diverting its attention to Africa is long overdue. It is important to consider the statistics when analyzing how much the US owes to those populations that remain virtually destitute and overlooked. This country has taken on a large portion of African people into its general population in recent years. According to the Pew Research Center, between the years 2000 and 2013, the African immigrant population has escalated by 130 percent, and the likelihood of immigrants that originate from the Sub-Saharan region to receive a citizenship visa is greater than that of any other demographic.²⁹ This is due to the utilization of a policy that was constructed in 1990, designed to take in European persons that originated from nations with low global recognition.³⁰ While the influx of refugees from various parts of the globe has skyrocketed within the past decade alone, there is still complication with what action the US has attempted to take to accommodate African people. If examined from a utilitarian approach, one could begin to understand how the numbers could still meet a more sufficient quota that would be beneficial to the most people. Therefore, a proposed solution could be to increase the number of immigrants allowed and to provide specific favor to those that are fleeing from places of extreme conflict such as the DRC, Nigeria, Sudan, and Somalia.

Predictions for the Future of The Democratic Republic of Congo

The troubles that plague the DRC are multifaceted. Its history has been heavily influenced by the imperial colonial powers that initially dismantled its economy, government structure, and social livelihood for the native people. Even in modern times, there remains a culture of perpetual instability that has only manifested an environment that is hazardous to natives and foreigners alike. And because of this, it is difficult to see any chance of remedy occurring, at least within the next century. If these proposed resolutions were to be put into effect, this would possibly alter the futures of many displaced victims for the better and change the ways in which history is told. A new precedent could be established, which could possibly call forth the attention of other powers to acknowledge and become more open about their negative backgrounds.

About the Author

Olivia Beech is currently a graduate student at Georgetown University pursuing a Master’s of Science in Foreign Service. She received her Bachelor of Arts in International Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2018, with a focus on International Social Justice. This coming summer she will be a publications intern for the American Society of International Law and is hoping to pursue a career in global criminal prosecutions and human rights. She is from Stamford, CT.


¹ Armin Rosen, “The Origins of War in the DRC,” The Atlantic, published June 26, 2013, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/06/the-origins-of-war-in-the-drc/277131.

² Girerd, “The Crisis in the Congo feat. Belgium,” Washington State University, published August 25, 2016, https://history.libraries.wsu.edu/fall2015/2015/08/26/crisis-in-congo

³ Ibid; Rosen, “The Origins of War in the DRC.”

⁴ Girerd, “The Crisis in the Congo feat. Belgium;” Nicole Hobbs, “The UN and the Congo Crisis of 1960,” Yale University, published 2014, https://elischolar.library.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1006&context=applebaum_award

⁵ “Justice on Trial: Lessons from the Minova Rape Case in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” Human Rights Watch, October 01, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/10/01/justice-trial/lessons-minova-rape-case-democratic-republic-congo.

⁶ Ibid.

⁷ Ibid.

⁸ Ibid.

⁹ Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, https://reliefweb.int/organization/gcr2p

¹⁰ Ibid.

¹¹ Ibid.

¹² “Justice on Trial,” Human Rights Watch.

¹³ Ibid. 

¹⁴ Ibid.

¹⁵ Ibid.

¹⁶ Penny Dale, “Bosco Ntaganda: the Congolese ‘Terminator,’” BBC, published July 08, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-17689131

¹⁷ “Ntaganda Case,” The Prosecutor v. Bosco Ntaganda, International Criminal Court, updated 2019, https://www.icc-cpi.int/drc/ntaganda

¹⁸ Dale, “Bosco Ntaganda.”

¹⁹ “Killings in Kiwanja: The UN’s Inability to Protect Civilians,” Human Rights Watch, published December 11, 2008, https://www.hrw.org/report/2008/12/11/killings-kiwanja/uns-inability-protect-civilians; Dale, “Bosco Ntaganda.”

²⁰ “Killings in Kiwanja,” Human Rights Watch.

²¹ “Killings in Kiwanja,” Human Rights Watch.

²² Dale, “Bosco Ntaganda.”

²³ “Ntaganda Case,” International Criminal Court.

²⁴ The Prosecutor v. Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, International Criminal Court, published November 2017, https://www.icc-cpi.int/Pages/PageNotFoundError.aspx?requestUrl=https://www.icc-cpi.int/drc/lubanga/Documents/LubangaEng.pdf

²⁵ Ibid.

²⁶ Ruby Mellen, “Why is Chad in Trump’s New Travel Ban?,” Foreign Policy, published September 25, 2017, https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/09/25/why-is-chad-in-trumps-new-travel-ban/.

²⁷ Ibid.

²⁸ Ibid.

²⁹ Monica Anderson, “African Immigrant Population in US Steadily Climbs,” Pew Research Center, published February 14, 2017, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/02/14/african-immigrant-population-in-u-s-steadily-climbs/

³⁰ Ibid.