WORLD REPORT 1997 - Zaire

Human Rights Developments

The human rights situation in Zaire continued to deteriorate in 1996 as anxiety over the country=s future increased. Continued state-sponsored abuseCincluding harassment of opposition politicians and human rights activists, widespread arbitrary arrest, torture, rape, killings and looting by military and police, and government support for ethnic militiasCraised doubts about the commitment of national political leaders to a promised 1997 transition to democracy. By organizing Acontrolled chaos,@ as some observers have labeled policies encouraging opposition groups to splinter and fostering regional and ethnic divisionsCincluding the inter-ethnic battles and massacres that took place in North and South Kivu in 1996CPresident Mobutu Sese Seko sought to guarantee that he and his allies would remain in office indefinitely, even as Zaire inched toward national disintegration and the population found the struggle for daily survival increasingly difficult.

President Mobutu, now in his thirty-first year in office, regained a degree of international support in 1996 by exploiting the ongoing presence of Rwandan refugees in Eastern Zaire and promising to support upcoming multiparty elections. Within Zaire, President Mobutu remained the dominant political power, even as health problems limited his personal involvement in the day-to-day operations of government. Despite differences on some issues, Prime Minister Kengo wa Dondo generally supported and assisted President Mobutu.

Zaire=s national legislative body, the High Council of the Republic-Transitional Parliament (HCR-PT), meanwhile suffered from deep divisions that limited its ability to check the president=s power. After being forced out of his position as president of the HCR-PT in June 1995, Archbishop Laurent Mossengwo officially resigned in January. The legislative body was unable to agree on a successor, thus two vice-presidents, one a Mobutu loyalist and the other a critic of the president, shared leadership.

The political parties opposed to President Mobutu experienced divisions that raised doubts about their ability to present a unified opposition front in upcoming elections. Several opposition parties entered a newly reformulated cabinet in February, which prompted Etienne Tshisekedi, the leader of the major opposition alliance, the Sacred Union of Radical Opposition, to expel them from the group. In reaction to a second set of purges he initiated in April and May, Tshisekedi was himself ousted from both the Sacred Union and his political party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) and replaced by his second in command, Frederic Kibassa-Maliba. The groups officially withdrew their claim that Tshisekedi was the rightful prime minister of Zaire, a position they had supported since his removal from office in 1993.

Meanwhile, despite promises from both President Mobutu and Prime Minister Kengo to hold presidential, parliamentary, and municipal elections in the coming year, the government undertook only limited preparations for a transition to democracy. A forty-four-member National Election Commission (CNE) was established in January to prepare for elections. In April the CNE announced that elections would be held in May 1997, but the president of the commission, Bayona ba Meya, immediately expressed doubts about whether this timetable was realistic.

In September, less than a week after the first 116 of an expected 9,400 election delegates were installed, Georges Nzongola, one of two vice-presidents of the CNE and a prominent democracy activist, resigned from the commission in protest over the government=s lack of serious commitment to holding elections. Nzongola complained, among other things, that less than 5 percent of the CNE=s budget had been released by the government. Further hampering election preparations, the referendum on a new national constitution originally scheduled for December 1996 was postponed to February 1997, while the HCR-PT was unable to pass a law to govern the elections, despite going into extraordinary session in July for that purpose.

The conduct of President Mobutu and his supporters raised concerns about their commitment to free and fair elections. President Mobutu declared his candidacy even before the CNE announced a date for presidential elections, and army and police harassment of government critics during the course of the year seemed intended to prevent challengers from mounting an effective opposition. In March, soldiers broke up an opposition meeting and arrested several leaders, including Tshisekedi, who was briefly detained. Reverend Steve Hamaweja, president of the Christian Liberal Party, his eight year-old son, and another child of seven years, were detained and tortured in March, according to a letter Hamaweja smuggled out of detention. On September 7, Akerele Iyombi, president of the Congress Lokole Party, was arrested: she was briefly detained at a military camp in Kinshasa. Both Hamaweja and Iyombi had previously expressed an intention to run for president.

Anxiety over Zaire=s political future was heightened in late 1996 by uncertainty about President Mobutu=s health. Mobutu=s September 7 announcement on Zairian national television that he was in Switzerland recuperating from prostate surgery fueled fears that the president=s ill health could be used as an excuse to postpone the promised 1997 elections. Following speculation in Zairian newspapers about a potential army coup, the military high command in September publicly declared its loyalty to the institutions working for democratic transition, but this did little to dispel public apprehensions.

Zaire=s persistent political crisis intensified the country=s grave economic troubles. The government made no effort to address endemic high unemployment, massive inflation, and a deteriorating infrastructure. With little supervision and almost no financial support from the central government, administrative, judicial, and military officials at the local and regional levels participated widely in graft and corruption, exacerbating an already serious crime problem and increasing the level of insecurity among average Zairians.

The most serious and extensive human rights violations in 1996 occurred in Eastern Zaire, where the continuing presence of nearly 1.1 million Rwandan refugees sparked inter-ethnic conflicts and provoked tensions between Zaire and its neighbors. Zairian authorities expressed concern that the presence of the refugees, who were concentrated in camps around Goma, Bukavu, and Uvira, would complicate the upcoming elections. They repeatedly proposed plans to encourage repatriation, but the refugees, many of whom were involved in the 1994 genocide and feared retribution if they return, resisted, and none of the repatriation plans were fully implemented. As a result, the number of refugees who returned to Rwanda from Zaire in 1996 was minuscule.

The former Rwandan army and the Interahamwe militia groups responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda continued to operate freely within the camps, using intimidation and violence to discourage refugees from returning to Rwanda. Insecurity in the camps forced international nongovernmental organizations and United Nations agencies to suspend operations various times during the year. In July, several expatriate workers were detained, interrogated, and beaten by the Zairian Camp Security Contingent (ZCSC), Zairian troops deployed by the UNHCR to keep order. In September, refugees boycotted a UNHCR census intended to determine the size of the refugee population.

The presence of the camps contributed to tensions in the Great Lakes region and a serious deterioration of relations between the governments of Rwanda and Zaire. Rwandan authorities claimed that guerrilla attacks on government officials and survivors of the 1994 genocide were being organized out of the camps in Zaire (See Rwanda chapter). Zairian government officials had, in fact, provided shelter to the former Rwandan army and Rwandan Hutu militias and helped them to rearm. At the same time, Zaire had persistently refused to cooperate with the International Tribunal on Rwanda in seeking out, detaining or cooperating with the extraditing of persons indicted for genocide. In September, fighting between Rwandan and Zairian military around Bukavu left an undetermined number dead and drove hundreds from their homes.

Problems in the camps also helped to reignite ethnic conflicts that first erupted in the region in 1993. Worries that the Zairian government would forcibly close the camps in advance of the 1997 elections fueled calls among some exile leaders for the creation of an ethnic Hutu homeland in Eastern Zaire. Hutu refugees from Rwanda organized local Zairian Hutu populations in Masisi and Rutshuru zones into civilian militia groups modeled after the Rwandan Hutu militia groups known as the Interahamwe.

After several violent incidents in Masisi in late 1995 involving Hunde and Nyanga militia, known as Bangerima or Mai-mai, the Hutu militia launched a series of attacks, apparently seeking to drive other ethnic groups out of Masisi and Rutshuru. The Bangerima and Mai-mai counterattacked, and the conflict steadily expanded in the first months of 1996, killing hundreds and displacing more than 200,000. Zairian Tutsi, who were present throughout the region, were a primary target of both sides in the conflict. Through pillage, rape, and murder, the militia sought to drive Tutsi not simply out of their homes but out of the region. Between February and July, more than 18,000 Zairian Tutsi fled into Rwanda and Uganda.

Government officials were heavily implicated in the conflict. Regional and national officials, including the governor of North Kivu, helped to incite the violence with incendiary statements, while local officials both participated in attacks and profited from pillage. Soldiers and police supported both Hutu militia and the Bangerima/Mai-mai, depending on local circumstances and possibilities for profiting from the situation.

Political leaders in South Kivu also exploited anti-Rwandan and anti-Tutsi sentiments by inciting hostility and violence against the Banyamulenge, an ethnic group whose ancestors migrated from Rwanda and Burundi to Uvira, Mwenga, and Fizi zones in the early 1800s, substantially before colonial occupation. Formerly well integrated into Zaire, the Banyamulenge in recent years were increasingly lumped together with other Tutsi. In 1993, the National Conference, the gathering of representatives of political parties, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), churches and other groups that launched Zaire=s transition to democracy, denied representation to the Banyamulenge, claiming that they, along with the Tutsi of North Kivu, were not Zairian but Rwandan, and they subsequently faced growing harassment and discrimination.

In late July 1996, two organizations serving the Banyamulenge were banned and several prominent individuals were arrested, including three Protestant pastors and two local chiefs. Subsequent attacks against the Banyamulenge community, estimated to number 400,000, by local ethnic militia drove thousands to flee, many crossing into Burundi and Rwanda. Violence intensified in September and, at the time of this writing, appeared to be spreading. In retaliation, armed Zairian Tutsis launched attacks against the Zairian security forces and the Rwandan refugee camps in October, forcing international aid agencies to pull out, leaving hundreds of thousands of refugees on their own. Zaire accused Burundi and Rwanda of supporting the incursions and of invading Zaire.

Right to Monitor

Despite harassment from the police, military, and government officials, human rights organizations in Zaire remained impressively active and outspoken. The Zairian Association for the Defense of Human Rights (AZADHO) regularly denounced corruption by government officials and abuse by the police and judiciary, releasing a major report in December 1995 on violence against women in Zaire and another in June condemning corruption in the judicial system. Other active groups included the Committee for Democracy and Human Rights (CDDH), the Voice of the Voiceless for Human Rights (VSV), the Heirs of Justice, and Grace.

Serious harassment of human rights activists occurred in North and South Kivu. In July, Didi Mwati Bulambo and three other workers for the Collective of Action for the Development of Human Rights (CADDHOM) in South Kivu were arrested following the publication of an article in CADDHOM=s newsletter, Mwangaza, alleging corruption in the prosecutor=s office of Kamitunga. The four were beaten and held in terrible conditions for two months before being provisionally released on September 16.

In August, the commissioner for Uvira zone in South Kivu banned MILIMA, a development and human rights NGO active among the Banyamulenge, and issued an arrest warrant for Muller Ruhimbika, president of the group. Ruhimbika earned government wrath for drawing international attention to the persecution of the Banyamulenge, providing information to the Carter Center and the U.N. Human Rights Commission=s special rapporteur for Zaire.

Harassment of human rights activists and organizations was common in other parts of the country as well. For example, in March and April Ikutu Amba, chair of AZADHO in Idiofa zone in Bandundu, was interrogated several times and beaten by police, eventually forcing him to flee into hiding in Kinshasa. The interrogations followed Ikutu=s denunciation of a local chief whom AZADHO accuses of ordering several thousand arbitrary arrests and illegal fines. During the final interrogation, the police confiscated keys to AZADHO=s Idiofa office.

The Role of the International Community

The international community focused almost exclusively on two issues in Zaire during 1996: the Rwandan refugees in eastern Zaire, and the transition process. The camps continued to present a serious dilemma for the international community, since significant repatriation did not take place during 1996 and the political forces that had controlled the camps since their establishment in 1994 remained firmly entrenched. However, the massive international assistance to the Rwandan refugees in Zaire did not benefit the local Zairian population, who suffered from the impact of the refugees in terms of increased arms flows into the region, growing insecurity, and environmental devastation. In addition, the Zairian authorities played a key role in re-arming the former Rwandan army, providing shelter and protection to them and other Hutu militias in eastern Zaire, and permitting these forces to carry out military training and raids into Rwanda. Although this close association between the Zairian security forces and the Hutu refugees in Zaire was well known, the international community did not respond adequately to end this collaboration.

Overall, efforts to gain President Mobutu=s cooperation with international efforts regarding the refugee camps and the Great Lakes crisis took precedence over the human rights situation in Zaire. Mobutu benefited considerably from this situation, which he used to effectively end his international isolation. The clearest sign of his new stature internationally came in April, when France reinstated its assistance program to the Zairian government. All but humanitarian assistance had been cut off in October 1991.

United Nations

The main U.N. involvement in Zaire revolved around its role in overseeing the Rwandan refugee camps in eastern Zaire. In February 1995, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees funded Zairian troops that were deployed to keep order in the refugee camps, known as the Zairian Camp Security Contingent (ZCSC). Despite the well-established reputation of the Zairian military for abusing its own citizens, for the first several months the conduct of the force was regarded as acceptable. In 1996, however, the conduct of the ZCSC troops deteriorated, and they were responsible for abuses against refugees as well as against expatriate aid workers in the Goma area. UNHCR complained to Zairian authorities and some troop rotation reportedly followed, although there is no indication that any troops were investigated or prosecuted for their actions.

U.N. Special Rapporteur Roberto Garreton was a forceful advocate for human rights in Zaire. He published a strong report in January, and another one in October. After long delays and efforts to undermine the project, the government of Zaire agreed in September to permit the establishment of a small office by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Kinshasa, tasked to provide information to the special rapporteur and to High Commissioner as well as to provide advice and support to local NGOs.

The secretary-general sent two assessment missions regarding the feasibility of elections and the U.N. role. Although the U.N. began providing technical assistance, it conditioned its participation upon measures including passage of the new constitution, disbursement of funds to the electoral commission by the government, and a clear demonstration from the government that it is serious about holding elections. At that point, the U.N. would be prepared to make a larger commitment.

Tensions between Zaire and the U.N. increased in September, when Zaire accused the UNHCR of assisting armed Rwandans to cross the border into Zaire to fight with Banyamulenge Tutsi against Zairian troops. Secretary General Boutros-Ghali sent a special emissary to Kinshasa to defuse those tensions.

European Union

Like other donors, European Union policy toward Zaire concentrated on the refugee camps and the elections, but the E.U. also contributed toward rehabilitation programs for Zaire in areas such as sanitation, infrastructure, and reforestation. Since the suspension of E.U. aid to the Zairian government in January 1992, the European Commission has allocated US$309.81 million for Zaire. In 1995, the E.U. allocated US$176.46 million for Zaire; in 1996, the E.U. provided an additional US$6 million for rehabilitation of infrastructure and US$2.5 million for the displaced from Kasai and Shaba.

The E.U. was also prepared to contribute to the estimated US$250 million needed to conduct the Zairian elections, but did not place public conditions relating to human rights on E.U. assistance. In March, the troika of the E.U.Cthe then current presidency (Italy), the preceding presidency (Spain), and the next presidency (Ireland)Cvisited Zaire to discuss the transition to democracy and concerns about delays in its implementation. The delegation met with a range of Zairian officials, including President Mobutu.

The European Council of Foreign Ministers, meeting in Florence in June, mentioned the situation in Zaire in its final communique, though it only focused on the E.U. support for the transition process and the E.U.=s interest in assisting Zaire to prepare for the elections. At a meeting on October 1 and 2, the E.U. Council of Foreign Ministers agreed on Athe urgency of continuing to prepare elections in Zaire irrespective of the political uncertainties there@ and expressed its hope Athat the UN Secretary-General would send his personal representative to Kinshasa as soon as possible.@

United States

The crisis in the Great Lakes region drew the U.S. into closer involvement with Zairian leaders, especially President Mobutu. In an effort to gain his assistance on issues ranging from the Rwandan refugees in eastern Zaire to the regional arms flows to the crisis in Burundi, the Clinton administration muted its criticism of the government=s human rights record, while promoting the transition to democracy.

In March, Prime Minister Kengo visited Washington and met with U.S. officials. State Department spokesperson Nicholas Burns said the U.S. noted the slow and Adisappointing progress@ towards a transition to democracy, and stressed that Zaire had to create an environment where Ademocratic values and practices can flourish.@

In May, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs George Moose and other U.S. officials met with President Mobutu and Prime Minister Kengo to discuss the situation in Burundi. This was the highest level meeting between a U.S. official and President Mobutu during the Clinton administration. According to the State Department, the delegation also urged Zairian leaders to halt the arms flows through Zaire, to stop allowing their territory to be used as a base for insurgent forces in the region, to detain Rwandan war crimes suspects, and to separate intimidators from the refugee camps.

While a State Department statement was issued on May 21 condemning the ethnic violence in North Kivu, indicating that AZairian military have in some cases either failed to intervene or actively assisted in the violence,@ the U.S. was reluctant to be too critical. In a July 1 response to a letter of concern about the violence by Senators Nancy Kassebaum and Russell Feingold, the chair and ranking member of the Senate Africa Subcommittee, the State Department went so far as to praise the actions of the Zairian government.