This week, United Nations officials welcomed the passage of a new amnesty law in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which grants amnesty for acts of insurgency, war and political offenses for any fighting that has occurred since 2000. The law does exclude, however, other criminal activities such as genocide and war crimes. Under the scope of this law, thousands of individuals from the government armed forces as well as numerous armed groups will be able to seek amnesty. This new law was passed as part of a key provision in peace agreements between the DRC and the M23 insurgency late last year that led to the latter group disarming. Proponents of the law also hope that this will provide further incentives for other rebel groups to disarm and join the political process.
Amnesty laws such as this have a significant historical precedent. One example is in Uganda, which demonstrated that amnesty provisions can be successful in encouraging defections from armed groups. The main idea behind these laws is that individuals within armed groups are far less likely to defect and surrender to state authorities if they fear prosecution which prolongs the conflict. This is certainly the hope that observers have for the new amnesty provisions in the DRC, which has dealt with armed rebel groups for decades. Critics, however, have pointed out that this new amnesty law is far from the first such attempt to end fighting in the DRC, and that none of these have worked but have instead created a sense of impunity. These critics fear that perpetrators of violence have begun to feel that there are no penalties for their violent behaviors, and that this might actually increase the number of groups who will use violence. From this view, rebels who feel that they can make a profit from resources don’t fear using violence, because they know that they can seek amnesty should they need it in the future.
Ultimately, it seems that one of the keys for success with amnesty laws is state capacity to challenge the armed groups effectively. In Uganda, the military was able to attack the LRA to some extent, and the amnesty law gave LRA combatants a way out of the fighting. In contrast, the DRC has historically proven that it is not capable of challenging these armed rebel groups. Thus, amnesty laws have seemed to have little effect overall. There might be changes, however, in light of the collaboration between the DRC military (FARDC) and the UN Intervention Brigade. As was seen in the defeat of M23, the combined UN/FARDC forces were able to successfully challenge the M23 rebels who had previously acted with relative impunity. With this additional support, it is plausible that armed groups might have an incentive to disarm and cooperate. If this proves true, then the new amnesty law may prove more successful than its predecessors.