Martial Law in Eastern Congo No Pretext for Abuse

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Congolese soldiers stand in a field camp in Paida, near Beni, North Kivu province, Democratic Republic of Congo, on December 7, 2018.

© 2018 Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

Martial law went into force yesterday in two conflict-ridden provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo to “swiftly end the insecurity which is killing our fellow citizens on a daily basis,” a government spokesman said. This means the military has taken over from civilian authorities in North Kivu and Ituri for an initial period of 30 days.

Under the martial law orders, military authorities are now able to search people’s homes day and night, ban publications and meetings deemed against public order, restrict people’s movements, and arrest anyone for disrupting public order. Civilians will be prosecuted – contrary to regional standards – before military courts. Despite reassurances from the army’s spokesman that international human rights and humanitarian law will be respected, military rule puts a wide range of rights in jeopardy.

The new military provincial governors only heighten concerns over human rights and civilian protection. North Kivu’s governor, Lt. Gen. Constant Ndima, better known as “Effacer le Tableau” (“erase the board”), earned his nickname from an abusive operation he allegedly led as a rebel commander with the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) in Ituri province in 2002. In Ituri, Lt. Gen. Johnny Luboya, a former rebel chief of military intelligence with the Rwanda-backed Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD-Goma), may bear command responsibility for killings, rapes, and other abuses by his forces, according to an internal United Nations memo seen by Human Rights Watch.

The two major military operations launched in North Kivu and Ituri provinces since President Felix Tshisekedi took office in 2019 have not addressed the regions’ multilayered complexities. On the contrary, violence has since escalated, and the number of internally displaced people is at a record high. The rampant impunity for abuses by both rebel groups and national forces continues to drive conflict.

In this context, the Tshisekedi government needs a national approach that prioritizes justice for serious crimes, effective vetting of security forces, and successful demobilization of ex-combatants. It should make sure that martial law will not provide greater opportunities for the military to commit abuse.