Human Rights Watch released a damning report today, offering evidence that soldiers from the Republic of Congo deployed as peacekeepers to the Central African Republic killed 18 people between December 2013 and June 2015. The report includes evidence that Congolese soldiers used a mass grave to cover up the murder of 12 villagers, apparently killed in retaliation to an attack that left a Congolese soldier dead.
The victims were arrested following a violent incident between Congolese peacekeepers and a local anti-balaka leader, the self-styled “General” Maurice Konoumo, in which one peacekeeper died. Angered by the death of their colleague, the Congolese peacekeepers surrounded the anti-balaka leader’s house, arrested him and at least 12 others, including five women, one of whom was six months pregnant, and two children, one about 10 years old and the other 7 months old.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the detainees were taken to the peacekeeping base at about 7 p.m. and confined in villa number 6, used by a commander identified by witnesses as Captain Abena.
The peacekeepers ordered civilians who lived at or near the base to go inside their homes. One witness said: “They came and yelled at us, ‘Go into your homes and lock the doors! Do not come out!’ They were very angry. It was the first and only time they had made us lock ourselves into our homes like that, it was not normal.”
Later that night, witnesses heard screams and a volley of gunshots from an area near the villa on the other side of the road, followed about an hour later by another round of gunfire from the same location. One witness said he overheard a heated debate among the Congolese peacekeepers between the two rounds of shooting about whether to kill the women and children, followed by the second round of gunfire.
This incident occurred in late 2013, when the Congolese soldiers were deployed to CAR as part of an African Union mission. The following spring, Human Rights Watch published a report claiming that at least 11 people had been “disappeared” by this Congolese contingent.
In September 2014, when the United Nations took over peacekeeping duties from the African Union, it insisted that Congolese contingents be rotated out of the country and not serve as Blue Helmets. Other Congolese troops, though, are alleged to have committed abuses as UN peacekeepers, resulting in the death of at least two civilians in the town of Mambéré in June 2015. Those troops have also been repatriated to Congo.
What can the United Nations do about these abuses?
The unsettling answer is precious little. Congolese troops in CAR operate under the criminal jurisdiction of the Republic of Congo. It is now up to authorities in Congo to investigate these claims, and bring the perpetrators to justice. Alas, that does not seem to be happening.
Twenty Congolese peacekeepers from the unit in Mambéré were repatriated after these killings. Human Rights Watch is not aware that any soldier has been held to account for the killings and serious beatings.
[The UN Peacekeeping mission] investigated the incident in 2015 and sent the results to the government of the Republic of Congo via a diplomatic note. To the best of Human Rights Watch’s knowledge there has been no response. [emphasis added]
Herein lies the weak link of accountability for peacekeepers who commit abuses on the job: the UN cannot force a government to investigate crimes committed by its peacekeepers. The most the UN can do is cease accepting troops from countries that refuse to credibly investigate allegations of abuse. But that is clearly of little recourse to victims of their crimes.
The perception of impunity for crimes committed by peacekeepers threatens to undermine the credibility of peacekeeping around the world. If member states are serious about taking on the scourge of abuse, one option they have is to use diplomatic tools at their disposal to compel countries like the Republic of Congo to investigate their soldiers. So far, it appears that the criminal prosecution of ex-peacekeepers is not a top priority of key member states’ bi-lateral relations with Congo. Until that changes, we can probably expect that these soldiers will continue to evade justice.