Killings, rapes and other barbaric violence committed by an ethnic armed group in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo may amount to crimes against humanity and possibly even genocide, the United Nations said.
The attacks in Ituri province mostly targeted Hema herders, long in conflict with Lendu farmers over grazing rights and political representation.
Lendu armed groups carried out systematic and widespread attacks, to “inflict lasting trauma” on the Hema and clear them from what they deem to be their ancestral lands, the UN human rights office said.
“The widespread nature of the organisation, the systematic nature, is certainly characteristic of crimes against humanity,” UN human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told a briefing.
“The burden of proof of genocide, the intent to destroy a whole part of a population, is more difficult to prove.”
Lendu groups acquired more firearms after seizing them from the military, UN investigators said.
“The barbarity that characterises these attacks – including beheading women and children with machetes, the dismemberment and removal of body parts of the victims as trophies of war – reflects the desire of the attackers to inflict lasting trauma on the Hema communities and to force them to flee and not return to their villages,” the report said.
“Certain elements constituting genocide” – a rare designation under international law – may be present, it said.
The FARDC army and police failed to stop violence and themselves carried out executions, rapes and arbitrary arrests, it said. Congolese authorities must deploy more security forces and investigate abuses, it added.
At least 701 people were killed and 168 injured during inter-ethnic violence between Hema and Lendu communities in Djugu and Mahagi territories from December 2017 to September 2019, the report said. At least 142 people suffered acts of sexual violence, it added.
Most victims are from the Hema community, but UN investigators also documented acts of reprisals by some Hema, including burning villages.
Nearly 57 000 Congolese fled to Uganda while more than half a million are displaced in their homeland, it said.