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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Congo

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1995
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Congo, 30 January 1995, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa3f34.html [accessed 22 October 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.
 

 

The effort to establish democratic government in the Republic of Congo was severely tried by episodes of violent civil unrest during 1993 and early 1994. President Pascal Lissouba, freely elected in 1992, governs with the parliamentary support of a group of parties known as the Presidential Movement. This coalition won a majority in 1993 legislative elections which the political opposition challenged, claiming that the first round of those elections was fraudulent. In May 1993 the opposition boycotted the second round, leading to violence in June and July. The Organization of African Unity and Gabon brokered a peace agreement (the Libreville Accords) in August 1993, but violence in the capital, Brazzaville, erupted again in late 1993 and continued through January 1994. The Government and the opposition signed a peace accord on January 30.

In early February, under the Libreville Accords, international jurists completed their examination of 58 accusations of fraud, finding fraud in nine district elections--three from the Presidential Movement and six from the opposition. A few months later the Presidential Movement, in cooperation with the opposition, began to decentralize power to the regions and the municipalities, a process which culminated in the installation of Bernard Kolelas, a major opposition figure, as Mayor of Brazzaville, and Jean-Pierre Thystere-Tchicaya, another opposition leader, as Mayor of Pointe-Noire.

During the civil unrest, the official security apparatus, composed of the military and police, lost control over certain elements and individuals. The major political parties established private militias, which included police and army personnel who had temporarily deserted their units. These private militias were responsible for the bulk of human rights abuses, but government troops also committed extrajudicial killings, and the police continued to use torture and other brutal measures against detainees. The Government failed in most cases to identify and punish the perpetrators. Drawing from the army, the Government formed the Special Interposition Group (GSIP) in January to dampen continued ethnically- motivated civil violence. The GSIP played an important reconciliation role by maintaining calm in formerly embattled neighborhoods. Public security forces also integrated some members of the private militias into their formal ranks but have insufficient funds to continue this process.

The economy, which is heavily dependent upon petroleum revenues and external borrowing, continued its transition from socialism to a free market system. Faced with low oil prices and an extremely high per capita debt, Congo began implementation of structural adjustment measures and free market economic policies.

The human rights situation remained poor. Abuses perpetrated by the private militias included extrajudicial killing, kidnaping, torture, and looting, but their frequency decreased significantly after the January 30 signature of the peace accord. Deplorable prison conditions, police brutality, societal discrimination against women, and exploitation of Pygmies in remote areas by Bantu farmers persisted. Congo's strong worker rights provisions remained intact.

RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

Supporters of the Government and the opposition were implicated in extrajudicial killings as were some police units--the so-called Aubevillois. Estimates of the number killed from November 1993 to January 1994 range from several hundred to 2,000. Deaths due to continuing political violence after January 1994 are rumored at 10 to 30 persons, but accurate estimates are unavailable. The Government was slow to take measures to end the violence and slow to identify and punish the perpetrators. Victims appear to have been targeted principally on the basis of ethnic and political affiliation. Members of groups at both ends of the political spectrum purged ethnic majority neighborhoods of minority ethnic groups through the use of arson, looting, and assassination. In an industrial strike in September, the army fired into a crowd of machete- wielding protestors, killing one person and injuring several others.

b. Disappearance

There were numerous credible reports of kidnaping and disappearances, both political and for ransom, but no firm numerical estimates exist. Leaders of both sides tacitly admitted, by participating in hostage exchange negotiations, that their partisans engaged in kidnaping. Although substantially reduced, kidnaping remained a political weapon. The Government failed to investigate seriously those security service personnel or private militia members who were implicated in disappearances.

The easing of political tensions has allowed authorities to begin bringing criminals to justice without fear of accusations of political motive. They investigated and arrested individuals of all ethnic origins who had used political conflict as a pretext for their activities.

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

The Constitution prohibits the use of torture and "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" treatment. Nonetheless, there continue to be reliable reports of torture and rape by members of the security forces and the opposition militias. Army, police, and customs officials continued their physical abuse of detainees, both to extract information and as punishment. Some military and security force leaders tacitly condoned such beatings; they failed to punish offenders or to provide effective training in the lawful treatment of suspects.

Prison conditions are dire and life-threatening. The death rate, and the incidence of disease and malnutrition are considerably higher than among the civilian 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. Catholic missionaries work with prisoners to improve living conditions but with limited success.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile. While the Code of Penal Procedure requires that all detainees 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 these 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. The Ministry of Justice estimates that the average detention is less than 6 months. Although the Penal Code provides that defendants have the right to be represented by lawyers of their choice and the State will pay legal fees for the indigent, the authorities do not enforce this in practice.

From November 1993 to January 1994, partisans on all sides engaged in arbitrary arrests and kidnapings, often for ransom or use in hostage exchanges. No reliable estimates of the number arbitrarily arrested and detained exist. At year's end, the Government was not known to be holding any political detainees.

Political exile is not used.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The judicial system consists primarily of local courts, courts of appeal, and the Supreme Court. In rural areas, traditional courts continued 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. There are credible reports of prisoners languishing--sometimes for years--in jail because of lost files, oversights, and bureaucratic inertia. The judiciary is overburdened with a caseload that far exceeds its capacity to ensure fair, public trials.

Supreme Court justices are appointed for life; lower court judges may serve until age 65. There were no known cases of termination or transfer of a judge for political reasons. At year's end, the Government was not known to be holding any political prisoners.

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

The Constitution protects 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 widespread belief that the Government continues to tap telephones.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press.

The Constitution provides for freedom of expression and calls for the establishment of a special council to safeguard speech and press freedoms. Despite constitutional and judicial protections, the media enjoy only limited freedom. People talk openly and opposition newspapers circulate freely, but the Government retains control over broadcast media. Censorship declined from 1993, but the state media still practiced it in 1994. Despite the State's monopoly on local radio and television, which are the principal means of public communication, it increased opposition journalists' access to radio and television and permitted them to broadcast political debates.

In March the Government attempted to prohibit state-employed journalists from serving as stringers for international news agencies, but suspended its efforts after journalists protested. Subsequent to the expulsion of a Radio France International (RFI) correspondent in late 1993, the Government negotiated the rebroadcast from Brazzaville of two foreign stations, including RFI.

In June the Government detained a state-employed journalist for 2 days following an interview with former President and opposition leader Denis Sassou-Nguesso. The Government officially reprimanded the journalist for failing to seek approval to take state equipment to the remote site of the interview. In a similar case in November, the Government suspended a journalist for 3 weeks for failing to obtain prior permission to interview an opposition party leader on television. Incidents of this nature are, however, uncommon.

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 Interior, claiming a threat to public order, denied one of several requests by students seeking to protest the nonpayment of scholarships. There are no restrictions on trade associations or professional bodies, and affiliation with international bodies is permitted.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution forbids discrimination based on religious beliefs. In practice, people are free to join any church and practice any religion.

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 barricades. Nonetheless, soldiers and political militia hindered free movement with barricades in early 1994.

The National Conference Charter of Rights gives all citizens the right to travel abroad and to 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 President and the National Assembly were elected in 1992 and 1993, respectively. The opposition disputed the legislative elections, claiming the results were fraudulent. An international panel of jurists rejected all but 9 of 58 accusations of fraud. Six of the nine fraudulently elected deputies were from the opposition parties, while three were members of the Presidential Movement. Despite President Lissouba's victory in 1992 and his coalition's victory in the 1993 legislative elections, the opposition continued to resist his rule and tried to wrest power from him through political maneuvers and armed resistance until the signature of the January 1994 peace accord. 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 have observed the last several rounds of elections and have found them to be free and fair.

The Lissouba Government sought to create a representative Government by appointing members of each geographical region in the Cabinet. However, members of the President's ethnic group occupy the key ministerial portfolios. Women occupy 2 of the 28 Cabinet posts. 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, including the National Committee on Human Rights, the Congolese Human Rights League, and Committee of the Congolese Association of Women Lawyers. All freely criticize government human rights violations as well as abusive and discriminatory aspects of some traditional local customs.

The Government permits international nongovernmental organizations to operate freely.

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 Pygmies and women.

Women

Although the Constitution prohibits discrimination based on sex and specifically endorses the right of women to earn equal pay for equal work, discrimination against women is widespread. Inequities persist in salaries, employment opportunities, and access to education.

While traditional inheritance customs favor maternal links, 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. 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. Nonetheless, educated women are making some limited progress in professional employment.

Violence against women occurs frequently. Wife beating is a continuing abuse, but cases are usually handled within the extended family; police rarely intervene in domestic disputes. Only in extreme instances of abuse do courts prosecute these cases. The general population and the media largely ignore the issue of violence against women.

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 achievement of these objectives, particularly in rural areas.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

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 in which 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. In the past, Pygmies were denied access to public education, health, and other basic services, and the right to own property. Pygmies have traditionally been excluded from the political process, and they have little ability to influence government decisions affecting their interests.

People with Disabilities

The Constitution provides the disabled "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 is hampered by severe financial constraints. The country has not implemented laws mandating access for people with disabilities.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Both the Constitution and the Labor Code affirm the right of workers to associate freely, allowing no restrictions 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 agriculture and retail.

Unions are free to join or form new federations or confederations. The formerly monolithic Congolese Trade Union Confederation (CSC) fractured into six independent union confederations in 1994; the State has formally recognized all of them. They are dependent on the voluntary contributions of their membership. There are some links between the Government and union leadership. The Secretary-General of the CSC is a member of the National Assembly, and the head of the Union Confederation of Congolese Workers (CSTC), Congo's second largest union, is serving in the office of the mayor of Brazzaville.

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 notification in advance 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 1994 the CSTC called three general strikes for immediate payment of salary arrears by the State. The first strike was postponed by the union leadership, and the second failed to generate support. The Government responded to most union demands before the third had begun. The Government reportedly threatened to keep lists of government employees who failed to report for work, implicitly for use in civil service work force reduction.

In September, sugar factory workers went on strike for standardization of their salaries and allowances, a reduction in workload, and free medical treatment. The Army shot into a crown of machete-wielding protesters, killing one person and injuring several others (see Section 1.a.).

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. Although the CSC has not formally disaffiliated from the once Communist-dominated World Federation of Trade Unions, the relationship has all but dissolved due to lack of interest or funding.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

With union attention absorbed by current economic problems and the Government in the midst of structural adjustment efforts, the National Assembly has only initiated deliberations to revise the Labor Code. In the past many benefits were legally mandated, and industry-specific wage scales ("Conventions") were determined by negotiated agreement between union representatives, employers, the Ministry of Labor, and the CSC. At present, unions may negotiate freely, either independently or in cooperation with other unions, federations, or confederations.

Under the Constitution employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees who exercise their Constitutional right to organize or join a union. There were no reported firings for union activities. There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of 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 concentrated its efforts 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 of about $44 (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 out opportunities beyond their main employment and practice subsistence agriculture. In 1994 this was particularly true for government workers, who were forced to cope with salary backlogs of several months. 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 vacations, 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 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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