HRW – Human Rights Watch (Author)
Human Rights Developments
Congo entered its third year of a devastating war in August, with no end in sight. The conflict pitted the government of President Laurent Kabila and allied troops from Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia against the rebel Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD), fronting for forces sent by the governments of Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi. In the northern Equateur province, the better organized Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) also received significant military support from Uganda. Rwanda and Uganda invoked national security concerns for intervening in the Congo, citing the presence of exiled insurgent groups bent on destabilizing their respective countries. As the conflict settled into a protracted stalemate, it became increasingly clear that the two nations' economies were directly boosted by the exploitation of natural resources in areas of the DRC under their respective control. Myriad external actors, the ready availability of small arms, and ethnic mobilization by local warlords favored the resurgence of rural militias in eastern Congo. Locally known by the generic name of Mai-Mai, these autonomous militia groups fought primarily to repel what they perceived as foreign occupation of their homelands.
None of the actors fully respected their commitments under the Lusaka Cease-fire Agreement signed in July and August 1999. Rebel factions and their foreign backers and government troops showed little inclination to respect basic norms of international human rights and humanitarian law in their treatment of civilian populations. The fighting destroyed what was left of Congo's public services and infrastructure after decades of misgovernment under former President Joseph Mobutu, and brought the already moribund economy to a standstill.
Indiscriminate attacks, extrajudicial executions of civilians, rape, and large-scale destruction of civilian property characterized the conduct of the belligerents. Collective punishment for suspected loyalty to rival antagonists generated many of the civilian killings, as did localized interethnic strife fueled by the broader war. Perpetrators from all parties enjoyed total impunity.
By midyear, upward of 1.3 million Congolese were displaced, and another five million completely or partially separated from their traditional supply routes, mainly because of the generalized insecurity. Those uprooted by the war were deprived of access to humanitarian services by the same factors that caused their flight and isolation. From January to September, the number of Congolese refugees in neighboring countries, including Uganda, grew from some 130,000 to an approximate 220,000.
Using the war as a pretext, President Kabila's government continued to freeze its democratization agenda, and actively sought to derail the internal political dialogue with the rebels, opposition parties, and civil society groups provided for in the 1999 Lusaka Accord. Taking aim at these targets, on August 21 the government inaugurated a Constituent and Legislative Assembly/Transitional Parliament whose members it handpicked without consulting the opposition or civil society organizations.
Seeking to capitalize on the serious fallout between Rwanda and Uganda and the increasing unpopularity of the rebel RCD in eastern Congo, the government also gave contradictory signals about its readiness to cooperate with U.N. observers. During three days of government-orchestrated protests in early June, hundreds of demonstrators threw stones at the headquarters of the U.N. Mission to the Congo (MONUC).
The human rights situation throughout the country continued to deteriorate. On February 19, the government decreed a general amnesty for all Congolese prosecuted or condemned for crimes against the internal or external security of the state. More than two hundred people in detention were accordingly released in a matter of weeks. However, as Human Rights Watch pointed out in a letter to President Kabila in March, the government failed to free hundreds of eligible political and security detainees. Furthermore, the government continued to respond to challenges to its ongoing ban on political activities and free expression of opinion with arbitrary detention and stiff prison sentences, helping to fill detention centers and prisons that optimists had hoped the general amnesty would empty. Security agencies particularly targeted vocal opposition parties and groupings for repression. They arrested leaders and militants of the radical Innovative Forces for Unity and Solidarity,dispersed gatherings of the newly formed Collective for the Survival of Democracy, and detained for varying periods dozens of members of the main opposition parties, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, and the Unified Lumumbist Party.
In January and February, the government violated its own pledge to the United Nations not to carry out the death penalty by executing nineteen people condemned to death by the special Court of Military Order. Established in 1997 by presidential decree, ostensibly to restore discipline in the army, the court increasingly became an effective tool for political repression, notably to punish outspoken civilian critics of the government. On September 12, the Court found four journalists guilty of "high treason" and "publication of articles hostile to the government." It sentenced two of them to two years in prison, and condemned the others to one year's imprisonment, with six months suspended.
Several competing security agencies zealously enforced the government's restrictions on political activities and free expression, constantly alternating roles in arresting, interrogating, and detaining suspects. This practice kept the door wide open for rampant abuses: compelling testimonies indicated the continual use of torture, in particular in police stations and in places of detention controlled by the military. Former detainees complained to Human Rights Watch about beatings, sexual abuse, humiliating treatment, and deprivation of food, sleep, or family visits. Victims of torture and ill treatment who protested to the government said that there was no follow-up to their complaints, indicating the prevalence of a culture of total impunity.
An investigation in March by Human Rights Watch in areas controlled by the mainstream RCD-Goma rebel faction, which is backed by Rwanda, documented a pattern of involvement of the rebels and their Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) backers in civilian killings and other extrajudicial executions. These were often conducted in retaliation for earlier raids by the Mai-Mai and Rwandan Hutu fighters, commonly called Interahamwe, operating in eastern Congo against the Tutsi-dominated RPA and its local allies. Human Rights Watch documented the killing of thirty people in a February 5 attack by the RCD and its RPA allies on the village of Kilambo in North Kivu. RCD rebels and Rwandan soldiers tied up men, raped their wives in front of them, and then killed them. In May, the RCD similarly killed at least thirty villagers in Katogota, south Kivu. Human Rights Watch also collected evidence that corroborated reports by a local rights group, Heritiers de la Justice, that RCD soldiers in late 1999 sexually tortured and buried several women alive in Mwenga, reports which the RCD vehemently denied. RCD soldiers also attacked civilians in towns, and routinely arrested and tortured RCD opponents and civil society leaders, often detaining them in secret places, including in Rwanda.
The Mai-Mai and Hutu fighters also committed atrocities against the civilian population, particularly communities identified with the Tutsis. The Mai-Mai reportedly killed dozens of fleeing civilians in late August in Shabunda territory. Hutu militiamen reportedly attacked civilians in Kahuzi-Biega national park in early September. Burundian Hutu and Mai-Mai fighters jointly attacked Congolese Tutsi communities in the Ruzuzu plain and the Haut Plateau areas of south Kivu.
Uganda hastily trained and equipped thousands of young Congolese, many of them children, to build armed wings for its local allies, the Liberation Movement for the Congo (MLC), which controlled Equateur province by mid-1999, and the Congolese Rally for Democracy-Liberation Movement (RCD-ML), which unconvincingly claimed to control northeastern areas in Congo along the Ugandan border. While the MLC enjoyed a measure of popularity among the estimated ten million inhabitants of Equateur, the RCD-ML and its newly trained armed wing had splintered into at least three factions by midyear, largely along ethnic lines. Frequent leadership dispute in the RCD-ML exacerbated ethnic tensions and re-ignited a deadly interethnic war in the region of Bunia between the the agriculturalist Lendu people and the pastoralist Hema, who are identified with the Tutsi and the Ugandan Hema. At least seven thousand people were killed, and another 200,000 were displaced in less than a year. Sparked in mid-1999 by individual disputes over land tenure between the two groups, the conflict flared up when Ugandan officials around the same time unilaterally decreed the creation of a province in the disputed area, and placed mostly Hema officials in control of its administration. Leaders of the RCD-ML told Human Rights Watch and the Kampala press on various occasions that commanders and soldiers of the Ugandan army frequently took part in that conflict on the side of the Hema, mainly to earn lucrative payments from Hema farm owners and businessmen. In August Human Rights Watch wrote to RCD President Ernest Wamba dia Wamba and to President Museveni of Uganda calling for an investigation into the role of the Ugandan army in recruiting children and manipulating ethnic tensions in the region.
Rwandan and Ugandan forces fought particularly destructive battles for the control of Kisangani in early May, and again in early June. Some seven hundred civilians were killed, and another one thousand were seriously wounded as the nominal allies indiscriminately clashed with heavy artillery and automatic weapons in the city. The fighting cut off the supply of electricity and water and caused widespread damage to civilian property.
Defending Human Rights
As Congo's vibrant human rights and civil society movement attempted to build a genuine grassroots movement for durable peace, it faced persistent persecution, both from the government and the rebels fighting to topple it. On January 16, security forces of the RCD-Goma arrested Immaculée Birhaheka, president of the women's group Promotion and Support of Women's Initiatives (PAIF), and her colleague Jeannine Mukanirwa, PAIF's vice president. The two, and other women held like them at the infamous "Bureau 2" detention center in Goma, were whipped with a piece of tire. The brief detention of the two activists was apparently linked to Mukanirwa's leading role in organizing a peace movement with a view to bringing together groups from government and rebel held areas. In late January, RCD-Goma authorities arrested three civil society leaders in Bukavu, in South Kivu and accused them of organizing for a planned general strike to protest the lack of payment of wages, taxation by the Rwandans, and the continuing presence in eastern Congo of Rwandan and Ugandan troops. Despite the arrests and threats by the RCD against several suspected protest leaders, the strike took place peacefully on January 31 in Bukavu. In late April, Rwandan security forces arrested Bruno Bahati, a leading member of the Coordination of Civil Society in South Kivu, on the Rwandan-Ugandan border after finding a Kinshasa newspaper in his possession. He was detained in Kigali for a while and was later transferred to Goma. Women's rights groups in north and south Kivu made of International Women's Day, March 8, an event to mark women's grieving for their husbands and relatives killed in the war. For their suspected role in organizing the event in Goma, RCD authorities summoned and threatened a women's activist, Zita Kavungirwa, and pressured the employer of another one, Marie-Jeanne Mbachu, into suspending her from her job.
RCD-Goma authorities often broadly accused dissenting church and civil society leaders of inciting ethnic hatred, but never prosecuted specific cases, preferring instead to use detention, repeated summons, and internal exile to silence opponents. In late August, the RCDauthorities banished four leading civil society activists from Bukavu for three weeks after accusing them of having passed information to the international press. In September, the rebels allowed Mgr. Emmanuel Kataliko, bishop of Bukavu, to return to the city after seven months of banishment to his hometown in north Kivu. They accused him of fomenting ethnic hatred after he criticized rebel authorities in his Christmas prayer. The bishop's sudden death of a heart attack in early October shocked the population and deepened its distrust of the RCD. In clamping down on the resulting unrest in Bukavu, RCD soldiers briefly detained thirteen human rights activists and publicly beat them.
In Kinshasa, the government similarly restricted the freedom of expression and movement of civil society groups. Alleging that they were in contact with the rebels, the government in late May detained for weeks Félicien Malanda Nsumbu and Georges Kazimbika, respectively the secretary and financial officer of the national umbrella group for developmental organizations. In early June, the government prevented representatives of civil society and the political opposition from leaving the capital to attend preparatory talks for the inter-Congolese dialogue in Cotonou, Benin.
The Role of the International Community
Southern African Development Community
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) tried to spearhead the regional peace efforts in a war that drew three of its member states to the side of its beleaguered member, the Congo. Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia proved ineffective in pressing the Congolese government to comply with the 1999 Lusaka cease-fire agreement at a SADC summit meeting on August 7, and again on August 14 at a summit of the parties to the agreement.
The Security Council in an August 6, 1999 resolution authorized the deployment for three months of ninety U.N. military liaison personnel to the capitals of the belligerent states. Their mission was to establish contact with the Joint Military Commission formed by the belligerents to police the implementation of the truce. From January 24 to 26, the council held intensive deliberations on the Congolese crisis attended by seven African heads of state. This prepared the ground for Security Council resolution 1291, extending the mandate of the United Nations Observer Mission in the DRC (MONUC) to August 31, and authorizing its expansion to include a 500-strong military observer force plus another 5,537 troops for logistical and security backup. The council authorized the mission to take action to protect U.N. personnel and infrastructure, and civilians facing imminent threats of attack, and on October 13 extended its mandate to December 15.
While the ground was laid for a peacekeeping mission to the Congo soon after the parties agreed to disengage, the U.N. showed less resolve in moving to the deployment phase, principally blaming the parties to the conflict for failing to live up to their commitments. MONUC also encountered other crippling hurdles, as it was starved of resources, and member states were slow in pledging troops for it.
A Security Council mission to the region in early May pressed for the full cooperation and support of the belligerents for MONUC as a condition for its deployment, but at the time of writing these conditions had not been met. The council on June 16 demanded that Rwanda and Uganda "which have violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity" of the DRC, withdraw their forces from Congolese territory, and that the other parties to the conflict adhere to the timetable of the cease-fire agreement. The council also declared that Rwanda and Uganda should make reparations for the loss of life and property in Kisangani during their clashes there.
Roberto Garreton, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights for the DRC, visited the country from August 13 to 26 at the invitation of the government. Leaders of the Liberation Movement for the Congo (MLC) and the mainstream RCD-Goma faction also received the special rapporteur in their respective headquarters of Gbadolite and Goma. In a powerful message to the RCD, the rapporteur inaugurated a workshop for the training of human rights monitors in which participants from several rebel-controlled cities were able to take part. The U.N. human rights high commissioner's field office in DRC, and its branch office in Goma, played active roles in monitoring the human rights situation in government and rebel areas. Solidarity with and support for the beleaguered Congolese human rights movement was an important aspect of the commission's interventions, in addition to its advocacy role with government and rebel authorities.
Provided that the signatories respected their own accord, the European Union remained committed to supporting the implementation of the Lusaka Agreement, promising assistance for the resettlement of the war displaced, fostering national reconciliation in the DRC, and supporting the country's rehabilitation plans. Indicative of this stance was the E.U.'s August boycott of the opening ceremony of the DRC's Constituent and Legislative Assembly on the grounds that the institution was not compatible with the national dialogue provided for by the Lusaka Agreement.
At a meeting with Ugandan government officials in mid-May, during which donors were due to confirm pledges they made during the Donor Consultative Group meeting in Kampala in March, the E.U. warned that the conflict between Uganda and Rwanda in Kisangani could jeopardize donors' budgetary support for both countries. In addition to the demand that the two countries end the situation they created in Kisangani, the E.U. appeared to make Uganda's compliance with the Lusaka Agreement a condition for the release of its budgetary support to the country.
A meeting of E.U. foreign ministers in Brussels in May decided to increase the E.U.'s economic assistance to the DRC and Burundi as an incentive for the peace processes there. However, the ministers failed to reach a consensus on the imposition of an arms embargo on the Great Lakes region, with some member states arguing that any such embargo would always be violated. This left member states with only the June 1999 E.U.'s presidential statement, which called on them to strictly adhere to the E.U.'s own Code of Conduct on Arms Exports and recalled that, under the E.U. code, countries agree not to authorize arms exports that might "aggravate existing tensions or armed conflicts in the country of final destination" or risk fueling human rights abuses. The Great Lakes and Central Africa region qualified for a strict imposition of an arms embargo under these guidelines.
Uganda's involvement in recruiting and training thousands of Congolese children, and in deploying them to battlefronts in their own country, completely escaped the attention of the European Parliament when it passed its strong July 6 resolution condemning the use of child soldiers by rebels in Uganda. The parliament strongly condemned the abduction and induction of children by the Lord's Resistance Army, andSudan's role in supporting that rebel group, and called on the E.U. Commission to support rehabilitation efforts of demobilized children in Uganda.
The U.S. repeatedly strongly supported the implementation of the Lusaka Agreement and the deployment of MONUC, as well as the convening of the Inter-Congolese Dialogue. In February, President Clinton lauded the Lusaka agreement, saying that "[i]t is more than a cease-fire; it is a blueprint for building peace. Best of all, it is a genuinely African solution to an African problem." The U.S. at the same time strove to reconcile its mediation effort with the preservation of its privileged relations with Rwanda and Uganda and its broader objective of containing President Kabila. An August 16 Department of State release exposed the inherent contradictions of the approach, asserting that "[e]xcept for the Congolese government, all parties to the conflict have affirmed their collective desire to put in place the conditions for the full implementation of the Lusaka Agreement." True, the Kabila government at the time publicly said it refused to abide by the agreement and obstructed the Inter-Congolese Dialogue. The government also denied MONUC permission to land at Mbandaka, and to deploy observers to Mbuji Mayi. However, the MLC and RCD rebels mirrored that refusal by blocking the mission's access to certain areas under their respective control. The highly publicized withdrawal of Ugandan troops from Kisangani in June was in turn followed by the airlifting of sizable Ugandan reinforcements to shore up the MLC against a punishing government offensive. The State Department statement only strengthened the perception in the region that U.S. policy was far from evenhanded.
The U.S. defined its interests in the DRC as the upholding of regional stability, and the prevention of the resurgence of genocide and mass killings in Central Africa. In testimony before the House Subcommittee on Africa of the International Relations Committee on February 15, Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., narrowly equated the prevention of genocide with the neutralization of the former Rwandan Army (ex-FAR) and Interahamwe militia, who were implicated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide and remained at large in eastern Congo. A more objective reading of the situation in the region, by Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues David Scheffer, later identified other actors involved in perpetrating war crimes there. Scheffer led a government team on an August 24-27 trip to Kinshasa, Kisangani, Goma, and Butembo in eastern Congo to investigate allegations of such crimes. According to an August 29 Department of State statement, Scheffer's team collected information that pointed to violations of international humanitarian law by armed groups supplied by the RCD government, Congolese rebel movements, and the armies of the Rwandan and Ugandan governments. Such strong findings put to a real test the U.S. rhetorical commitment to justice for victims of rampant violence in the Congo and its stated determination to take concrete steps to end the culture of impunity prevailing in the region. Secretary Albright gave an eloquent example of such pledges when she vowed before the Security Council during the "Month of Africa" on January 24 "[t]here is no rationale of past grievance, political allegiance or ethnic difference that excuses murder, torture, rape or other abuse. Here, today, together, we must vow to halt these crimes and to bring those who commit them to justice under due process of law." Months later, there was little progress to this end in the Congo.
The U.S. maintained a modest level of economic assistance to the DRC in FY 2000: U.S. $10 million in development aid through NGOs; $13 million in humanitarian assistance; $15 million in food aid; and $3 million under the Great Lakes Justice Initiative. The U.S. contributed an additional $1 million for the Joint Military Commission, and reserved an additional $1 million for the Inter-Congolese Dialogue. Although it would commit no troops to MONUC, the U.S. government made significant financial contributions to the mission, totaling an estimated 25 percent of the total U.N. cost of $164 million in FY 2000, and an estimated 25 percent of the mission's budget for FY 2001 which stood at $378 million at this writing.
Relevant Human Rights Watch Reports:
Eastern Congo Ravaged: Killing Civilians and Silencing Protest, 5/00