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GENEVA - The United Nations human rights office accused members of the ethnic-Lendu community in the Democratic Republic of Congo's Ituri Province of mass violations against the ethnic Hema community, which could constitute crimes against humanity.
Inter-ethnic tensions between the Lendu and Hema communities over land and other resources have gone on for decades. But the U.N. human rights office reports those disputes have spiraled out of control and become particularly dangerous and alarming.
A U.N. investigation from December 2017 to September 2019 found more than 700 people were killed, 168 injured and at least 143 people sexually violated in the territories of Djugu and Mahagi in DRC's Ituri Province. U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said most of the perpetrators are Lendu and most of the victims are Hema.
"The report documents numerous cases of women being raped, of children-some in school uniforms-being killed, and of looting and burning of villages," he said. "The violence could contain some elements of crimes against humanity through murder, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence, pillage and persecution."
The report said the barbarity of the attacks reflects the desire of the attackers to inflict lasting trauma to the Hema communities and force them to flee and not return to their homes. The U.N. said schools and health clinics were attacked and destroyed, houses and villages burned to the ground. The attacks occurred in June and December during the harvest and planting seasons and aimed to prevent the Hema from cultivating their land and have them experience food shortages.
Colville told VOA those tactics have some characteristics of genocide. But he said the burden of proof for genocide is so high one has to be very cautious before jumping to such conclusions.
"I think what they are doing in the report is just flagging this element is there," he said. "It is inter-ethnic. It appears to be targeting on a big scale. It is organized and systematic, and there are elements that could lead to, perhaps depending on what happens in the future to a characterization of genocide. But it is a very tentative reference. It is not dwelled on at any length."
The U.N. human rights office recommended DRC authorities address the root causes of the Lendu-Hema conflict, urged authorities to conduct an independent and impartial investigation into the violence, and to compensate the victims.