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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Congo

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1996
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Congo, 30 January 1996, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa3218.html [accessed 28 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
CONGO

 

The Republic of Congo continues to progress in its transition to democratic government. Pascal Lissouba became the first President in 1992; elections for the multiparty legislature followed in 1993. The Government continued to build upon the stable foundation provided by the Libreville Peace Accords, which ended a period of violent civil unrest in 1993 and early 1994. The Government also continued to devolve power to regions and municipalities. The judiciary is independent.

The national police and gendarmerie maintain internal security. The army and the border guard are responsible for external security but also have domestic security responsibilities. While the civilian authorities generally maintain effective control of the security forces, some members of the security forces committed human rights abuses.

Congo is a very poor country. The economy depends heavily upon petroleum revenues and external capital, and the country has one of the highest per capita levels of debt in the world. Annual per capita gross national product is $650; economic conditions began to stabilize in 1995. In the face of these difficulties, the Government made some progress in the implementation of structural adjustment measures and free market policies.

The Government's human rights record improved, although serious problems remain in certain areas. Members of the security forces were implicated in instances of extrajudicial killing. Security force members continued to use torture and rape and to abuse detainees. Prison conditions remain deplorable, and there were isolated instances of criminality by members of the security forces and private militias. Societal discrimination and violence against women are problems. Exploitation of Pygmies in remote areas by Bantu farmers persisted. Although the law contains strong worker rights provisions, on two separate occasions the Government challenged union efforts to protest economic conditions.

Respect for Human Rights

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killings

In June members of the security forces tortured to death a prisoner in a Pointe-Noire police station holding cell. The chief of police was arrested upon allegations that he had ordered his agents to torture a detainee to extract a confession. At year's end, the police officer remained under arrest and had not been brought to trial.

Members of the security forces and private militias continued to be implicated in increasing crime against civilians. At least several deaths were related to this criminality.

The Government continued its efforts to curb abuses by the security forces. It made progress in its plan to recreate the gendarmerie, which was dissolved 20 years ago; over 400 gendarmes completed training. The integration of private militias into the formal security structure continued to be an important part of this process.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Constitution prohibits the use of torture and "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" treatment. However, there continued to be credible reports of torture and rape by members of the security forces. Army, police, and customs officials continued to abuse detainees physically, both to extract information and as punishment. The Government attempted to identify and punish the perpetrators of such abuses, including the head of a police station who was imprisoned following the torture death in June of a prisoner in a Pointe-Noire holding cell (see Section 1.a.).

Efforts to identify and prosecute those responsible for abuses in prior years continued with some success. A Brazzaville court imposed death sentences upon five security force members convicted of murder, rape, and robbery.

Prison conditions are dire and life threatening. The death rate and the incidence of disease and malnutrition are considerably higher than among the general population. Buildings are dilapidated, security is lax, and food and medical care are inadequate. Most prisons, built during French colonial rule, were not designed for long-term incarceration. Dozens of prisoners are often kept in overcrowded cells for long periods of time, sleeping on the floor and subsisting on one meal per day. Although men, women, and children are imprisoned in separate areas, rape and sexual abuse of women and children by guards and fellow prisoners is commonplace. The Government endeavored to improve conditions in Brazzaville prison, but progress stalled with the death of a Catholic missionary who had been central to the effort.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile. While the Code of Penal Procedure requires that a detainee be apprehended openly and have a lawyer present during initial questioning, police often ignored these requirements. According to the Code, the prosecutor's office must issue warrants, and the authorities must bring detainees before a judge within 3 days and charge or release them within 4 months. The authorities often fail to enforce these requirements as well.

Lawyers have free access to their imprisoned clients. Over half of all persons in custody are pretrial detainees--70 percent at the central prison in Brazzaville. The Ministry of Justice estimates that the average detention is less than 6 months. The Penal Code provides defendants with the right of representation by lawyers of their choice. However, while the State must pay legal fees for the indigent, the authorities do not enforce these provisions in practice.

Political exile is not used.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and this is observed in practice. The institutions are gradually being legally constituted and commencing operations. The judicial system consists primarily of local courts, courts of appeal, and the Supreme Court. In rural areas, traditional courts continue to handle many local disputes, especially property and probate cases. Many domestic disputes are adjudicated under traditional law and within the extended family.

Some cases never reach the court system, however. For example, it is common practice for citizens to beat thieves caught in the act, sometimes to death. In general, defendants are tried in a public court of law presided over by a state-appointed magistrate. The defense has access to, and the right to counter, prosecution evidence and testimony. Defendants are presumed innocent and have the right to appeal. The judiciary is overburdened with a caseload that far exceeds its capacity to ensure fair, public trials. However, there are credible reports of prisoners languishing in jail--sometimes for years--because of lost files, oversights, and bureaucratic inertia.

Supreme Court justices are appointed for life; lower court justices may serve until age 65. There were no known cases of termination or transfer of a judge for political reasons.

There were no reports of political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The Constitution provides for the privacy of homes as well as correspondence and telecommunications. Official searches of private properties and communications require a warrant, but in practice warrants are not uniformly served. There is a widespread belief that the Government continues to monitor telephones.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The 1992 Constitution provides for freedom of expression and calls for the establishment of a special council to oversee private and electronic media and to safeguard speech and press freedoms. The lower house of the National Assembly approved a press bill in September which defines the rights and responsibilities of journalists and which outlines the procedures to be followed to establish private radio and television broadcasting stations. By year's end, the upper house had not acted on the bill. If the bill is adopted, a special council will be established.

The Government, however, retains monopoly power over radio and television pending the establishment of private broadcast media. While there were instances in which journalists from the moderately influential independent press were convicted of libel, the Government tolerated extreme criticism by private newspaper.

There were no known abridgements of academic freedom.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for freedom of assembly and association. In practice, any group wishing to hold a public assembly must inform the Minister of Interior, who reserves the right to forbid assemblies which in the Government's view threaten public order. The Minister of the Interior, claiming a threat to public order, denied a request by one labor union to protest nonpayment of salaries and imposed a ban on demonstrations surrounding the National Day celebrations. There are no restrictions on trade associations or professional bodies, and affiliation with international bodies is permitted.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Constitution provides for the right of all citizens to circulate freely within Congo, and it specifically prohibits roadblocks and barriers. Nonetheless, military forces, political militias, and opportunists sometimes hindered free movement with barricades--generally demanding money.

The National Conference Charter of Rights gives all citizens the right to travel abroad and return. At year's end, Congo hosted some 13,500 refugees, the majority of whom were Angolans from the Cabinda enclave. Refugees are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations Development Program, and the Government and are allowed to work and to establish residency. They may apply for citizenship after 10 years of continuous residence. There were no known cases of forced repatriation or deportation of refugees.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

The Constitution provides for popular election of the President and National Assembly.

The President was elected in 1992 and the National Assembly in 1993. The opposition disputed the legislative elections, claiming that the results were fraudulent. Following the signing of the Libreville Peace Accords in January 1994, an international panel of jurists rejected all but 9 of 58 accusations of election fraud. Runoff elections in 1995 resolved seven of the nine disputed districts. Two contests remain undecided. In one case the candidate withdrew from the vote-counting, and in the other no agreement was reached on the electoral list.

The Constitution divides power between the presidency and a government headed by a Prime Minister and formed with the approval of the National Assembly. The Constitution provides for 5-year terms of office for the President and National Assembly Deputies, all elected by universal suffrage, and 6-year terms for senators, who are chosen by local councils. International monitors observed the last several rounds of legislative elections and have found them to be free and fair.

The President sought to create a representative government by appointing members of each geographical region in the Cabinet. Women occupy 4 of the 28 cabinet posts. There are no legal restrictions on representation by women or minority populations, although indigenous Pygmies living in remote regions are largely excluded from the political process (see Section 5).

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

Several local human rights organizations remained active and operated without restriction. These included the National Committee on Human Rights, the Congolese Human Rights League, and the Committee of the Congolese Association of Women Lawyers. All freely criticized government human rights violations as well as abusive and discriminatory aspects of some traditional local customs.

The Government permits international nongovernmental human rights organizations to operate freely. Several visited in 1995.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution specifically forbids such discrimination, but it persists in fact, particularly against women and Pygmies.

Women

Violence against women occurs frequently and is reportedly on the rise due to worsening economic conditions. Rapes occur with increased frequency, according to press reports and women's groups. Wife beatings are handled within the extended family. Only in extreme instances of abuse do the police intervene or do the courts prosecute these cases. The general population and the media largely ignore the issue of violence against women.

The Constitution guarantees the equality of all citizens, specifically prohibits discrimination based on sex, and specifically endorses the right of women to earn equal pay for equal work. In practice, discrimination against women is widespread.

Marriage and family laws overtly discriminate against women. For example, adultery is illegal for women but not for men. Polygyny is legal; polyandry is not. While the Legal Code provides that 30 percent of an inheritance goes to the wife, in practice the wife generally loses all rights to the property.

Women in rural areas are especially disadvantaged in terms of education and wage employment and are confined largely to family farm work, petty commerce, and childrearing responsibilities.

While inequities persist in salaries, employment opportunities, and access to education, educated women are making some limited progress in professional employment. The government Ministry for the Integration of Women into Development is working with a number of nongovernmental organizations to educate women as to their rights and to reform the legal code.

Children

The Constitution states that the Government must protect children in accordance with international conventions. Child labor is illegal, and education is mandatory until age 16. In practice, limited state resources prevent public action toward achievement of these objectives, particularly in rural areas.

People with Disabilities

The Constitution provides for "specific measures of protection in relation to their needs." In practice this means very little, although the Government has provided special education to some disabled students and hand-powered tricycles to some polio victims. The ministry charged with the welfare of the disabled has severe financial constraints. The country has not implemented laws mandating access for people with disabilities.

Indigenous People

The Constitution provides the same rights for Pygmies, an ethnic minority numbering approximately 7,000 and living primarily in the northern forest regions, as it does for other citizens. In practice--in a society where Bantu Congolese predominate in every respect--they do not enjoy equal treatment. Pygmy workers are generally underpaid for their work relative to others, with compensation often being in the form of clothing, food, or other goods instead of wages. This practice has its roots in the ancestral tradition of Pygmy slavery maintained by Bantus. Pygmies are no longer denied access to public education, health, or other basic services, nor denied the right to own property. Pygmies have been traditionally excluded from the political process, and they have little ability to influence government decisions affecting their interests.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Both the Constitution and the Labor Code affirm the right to associate freely, allowing no restriction on the formation of trade unions. Nearly all workers in the formal (wage) sector are union members, and unions have made efforts to organize informal sectors such as agricultural and retail. The Constitution prohibits members of the security forces from forming unions or striking.

Unions are free to strike but must file a letter of intent with the Ministry of Labor beforehand, thereby starting a process of arbitration. In theory, a strike may not take place until both parties have submitted to a process of nonbinding arbitration under the auspices of a regional labor inspector from the Labor Ministry. The letter of intent must include the strike date, at which time the strike may legally begin even if arbitration is not complete. Employers have the right to fire workers if they give no advance notification of a strike. In practice, the Ministry seldom enforces this aspect of the Labor Code, and workers have initiated many strikes without prior attempts to resolve disputes through arbitration.

In January and February, civil servants protested wage cuts and delays in salary payments in strikes conducted in Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire. The Government temporarily detained the leaders of the opposition Union Confederation of Congolese Workers (CSTC) for inciting violence. In July the Government evicted the CSTC from a government-owned office and confiscated the union's papers. After an unsuccessful attempt to prevent one CSTC demonstration in August, the Government forcibly prevented a second demonstration (see Section 2.b.).

In March the president of the taxi and cabdriver union in Brazzaville was detained briefly upon allegations that a strike was illegal. The strike was called to protest the conduct of traffic police and to demand road repairs.

Unions are free to join or form new federations or confederations. There are six independent union confederations, all formally recognized by the State. They are dependent on the voluntary contributions of their membership.

Unions are free to affiliate with international trade unions. Some trade unions have signed cooperative accords with other African, European, and American trade union organizations.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

Under the Constitution, employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees who exercise their constitutional right to organize and join a union. There were no reported firings for union activities.

With union attention absorbed by economic problems, and the Government in the midst of structural adjustment efforts, the National Assembly did not complete deliberations on a revision of the Labor Code. Under the current Labor Code many benefits are legally mandated, and industry-specific wage scales ("conventions") are to be determined by negotiated agreement between union representatives, employers, and the Ministry of Labor. In many sectors, the Code is not strictly followed, and unions may negotiate freely, either independently or in cooperation with other unions, federations, or confederations.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition on Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, and there was no evidence of its practice in the formal economy. There were, however, allegations that Pygmies experienced exploitation (see Section 5).

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The Constitution prohibits children under the age of 16 from working. The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcing child labor laws but concentrates its efforts only on the formal wage sector. Young children continued to work on small family subsistence farms in rural areas and in the informal sector in cities without government intervention.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Government sets a minimum wage about $47 (cfa 23,500) per month, a level which the Government claims allows for "human dignity." However, high urban prices and dependent extended families oblige many workers to seek opportunities beyond their main employment or to practice subsistence agriculture. This was particularly true for government workers, who were forced to cope with salary backlogs of several months and a 27.5 percent cut in salary. In those trades still subject to conventions (see Section 6.b.), the negotiated minimum wages were without exception considerably higher than the legal minimum.

The Constitution provides for not only reasonable pay, but also paid holidays, periodic paid vacation, and legal limits on allowable hours of work. The Labor Code stipulates that overtime must be paid for all work in excess of 40 hours per week and that regular days of leisure must be granted by employers. Although health and safety regulations require twice yearly visits by enforcement officers from the Ministry of Labor, in practice such inspections occur on a much less regular basis. There is no specific regulation granting workers the right to remove themselves from hazardous situations without jeopardy to continued employment, but unions were generally vigilant in calling attention to such situations.

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