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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Congo

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1994
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Congo, 30 January 1994, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa4bc.html [accessed 31 August 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.
 

During 1993 the Republic of Congo's young democracy was severely tried by several episodes of violent civil unrest. Throughout the year, President Pascal Lissouba, who was freely elected in 1992, governed with the support of a group of parties known as the Presidential Movement. The authority of his Government, however, faced challenges from a changing coalition of opposition parties. Strikes in March and tensions following first-round legislative elections in May gave way to armed conflict in June and July. Mediation efforts by the Organization of African Unity and the President of Gabon succeeded in avoiding civil war in August, but combat in the capital, Brazzaville, again erupted in November between opposition supporters and elements of the Government's security forces. Fighting continued sporadically through the end of the year.

The August agreement, known as the Libreville Accords, stipulated acceptance of the results of the first round of elections – with a panel of international arbiters to decide whether new elections should be called for a limited number of contested seats awarded in the first round and scheduled a rerun of the second round of elections. The opposition alliance, the Union for Democratic Renewal-Congolese Workers Party (URD-PCT) won 8 of the 11 seats contested in the second round of elections held October 6. The seating of these opposition deputies in the new National Assembly in late October appeared to signal the success of the Accords, but was soon overshadowed by renewed fighting between the army and opposition militias.

The armed forces, which had played a critical role in earlier, successful steps toward the establishment of a democratic system, ultimately demonstrated loyalty to the chain of command and carried out the orders of President Lissouba. However, opposition parties continued to maintain independent militias, and the presidentially recruited Aubeville militia, along with the Presidential Guard, remained outside the regular military chain of command. In December the Government acknowledged the danger of this proliferation of irregular forces and pledged to integrate all groups into the official security forces. Individual soldiers, and members of the Presidential Guard and the partisan militias, were implicated in a full range of abuses. In November the army's strategy included firing heavy artillery rounds into residential neighborhoods, causing many civilian casualties.

The economy is in transition from socialism to a free market system, and the 1992 Constitution recognizes private property rights. In recent years, the economy has been heavily dependent on petroleum earnings and external borrowing. Faced with the collapse of world oil prices after 1985 and saddled with one of the world's largest per capita debts, Congo has been under pressure from international lending institutions to implement strict structural adjustment measures and free market economic policies. Despite political turmoil, Parliament began to implement necessary austerity measures in late 1993.

Following the enormous strides achieved between 1990 and 1992, the human rights situation seriously deteriorated in 1993. While citizens now legally enjoy many civil and political liberties denied them in the recent past, 1993 saw the perpetration of widespread abuses. Militias loyal to faction leaders held hostages from rival groups and engaged in numerous instances of looting, burning, rape, and physical assault. In the violence, at least 200 and perhaps many more persons died, many homes were destroyed, and tens of thousands of people had to flee their neighborhoods in which other ethnic groups dominated. The Government exercised tight control over the media and expelled a Radio France International correspondent for failing to stick to the Government's preferred message. Other human rights problems persisted: reports of police brutality, deplorable prison conditions, societal discrimination against women, and the exploitation of Pygmy villagers in remote parts of the country.

RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

The death toll from the June-July unrest was probably between 35 and 50. Military actions in November, centered against armed militias in the opposition stronghold of Bacongo, and the fighting in December produced even more casualties. Supporters of both the Government and the two main opposition parties were equally implicated in politically motivated violence. Except for the Presidential Guard, the armed forces and police in their institutional capacity were not directly involved in political killings, though individual soldiers and police officers, acting in support of the President, and some members of the President's irregular militia committed offenses while dressed in police and army uniforms. The Government ignored calls from international groups to investigate human rights abuses and took no steps to identify supporters who participated in extrajudicial killings in 1993. While the army assault in November was directed at opposition militias, many deaths occurred in incidents apart from that conflict, and victims appeared to have been targeted on the basis of ethnic and political affiliation.

b. Disappearance

Each stage of civil unrest throughout the year produced numerous credible reports of kidnapings and disappearances, both political and for ransom. Many people fled to their home villages without notifying local friends or family, and thus may wrongly still be reported as missing. There were also numerous reports of varying credibility of bodies thrown into the river or buried in the neighborhoods of Brazzaville, making an accurate accounting for those missing at the end of the year virtually impossible.

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

The Constitution prohibits the use of torture, but there were unsubstantiated, but reliable and persistent, reports of torture employed by partisans of both the Government and the opposition during the crisis in June and July. These abuses included reports of rape and mutilation, e.g., allegations of the amputation of fingers and hands. Videotaped accounts of abuses inflicted by both officials and civilians and interviews with victims on both sides of the conflict lent credence to such claims.

Military and security forces continue to employ unacceptable interrogation methods. Army, police, and customs officials beat detainees, particularly accused thieves and those who resisted arrest, to extract information and as punishment. Military and security force leaders tacitly condoned such beatings, failing to try and punish offenders and failing to provide effective training in the lawful treatment of suspects.

Prison conditions remained dire. Buildings are dilapidated, security lax, constructive activities such as classes or exercises are nonexistent, and food and medical care are inadequate. Most prisons, built during French colonial rule when convicted felons were sent out of the country, were never designed for long-term prisoners. Dozens of prisoners are often kept in the same cell for long periods of time, sleeping on the floor and subsisting on only one meal per day. Malnutrition and disease in prison are generally untreated, and some deaths occur.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The new Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile. While the Code of Penal Procedure requires that all detainees be brought before a judge within 3 days and be charged or released within 3 months, these limits are often ignored in practice due to official indifference and limited resources. Delays in bringing cases to trial and arbitrary denial of bail continued to be problems in 1993.

During the July crisis, partisans on all sides engaged in arbitrary arrests and kidnapings, often solely to exchange hostages. The total number of these extralegal detentions was probably in the hundreds, but most were for very short periods. Partisans seized many people at roadblocks, at schools, and on the streets, including in late October two government officials from their homes. The officials were released on November 1, but subsequent violence led to many new arbitrary arrests and detentions by official and unofficial forces.

Exile is not used as a means of political control.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Modeled on French institutions, the judicial system consists primarily of local courts, courts of appeal, and the Supreme Court. The National Conference in 1991 abolished all special courts and secret trials. Defendants have the right to be represented by lawyers of their choice, and the State will cover legal fees in cases of destitution. 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 trial.

In rural areas, traditional courts continued to handle many local disputes, especially property cases and probate functions. Dispute resolution in these traditional courts is by extended debate, with no known instances of resort to physical punishment. Many domestic disputes are also adjudicated under traditional law or within the context of the extended family.

During the state of emergency in June and July, the President suspended constitutional guarantees, but the Government promptly rescinded the declaration when order was restored. The violence in November did not produce a new state of emergency declaration.

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

Correspondence

The Constitution protects the privacy of the home, correspondence, and telecommunications. Under current law, all official searches of private properties and communications require a warrant. The transitional government announced publicly in 1992 that the police have limited powers and encouraged citizens to insist on their rights. It also prohibited the maintenance of security files on citizens who had not been accused of violating the law. These measures remained in force. However, there was a widespread – if only anecdotally supported – belief that the Government continued to make use of the telephone-tapping equipment remaining from the days of East Germany's tutelage of the secret police. During November, without first attempting to undertake lawful search, the army responded to unconfirmed reports of weapon caches by bombarding some houses with tank cannon fire.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

Like the bill of rights that preceded it, the 1992 Constitution provides for freedom of expression and calls for the establishment of a special court to help safeguard freedoms of speech and press. That court has not been established, however, and, despite constitutional and judicial protections, the media enjoy only limited freedom.

While people speak freely and opposition newspapers are permitted to circulate, censorship became pervasive in 1993. Prime Minster Yhombi-Opango declared on June 24 that "only information emanating from state organs" would be broadcast by state radio and television and that news and declarations of political parties and associations would not be carried. Since the state media have a monopoly on local radio and television – the main means of communicating with the public – opposition parties were effectively excluded from official broadcast and print media, having only indirect access to radio and television through broadcasts from neighboring Zaire.

The Government announced but did not implement its statement that ll parties would have equal access to radio and television during the October elections. Actual coverage of the opposition was nearly nonexistent, and accusations of censorship remained unanswered. The opposition's attempt to establish its own radio station was one of the precipitating events leading to the outbreak of hostilities in November. In a November 9 speech, President Lissouba committed to providing radio and television time to opposition parties. At year's end, however, no steps had been taken to implement the proposal.

During November's disturbances, the Government objected to the reporting of a Radio France International journalist, Frederique Genot, the only resident foreign correspondent in Brazzaville. After she failed to change her reporting despite several reprimands, the Government took Genot into custody for 2 days and then expelled her from the country.

Academic freedom is respected.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution also provides for freedom of assembly and association. In practice, any group wishing to hold a public assembly must inform the Minister of the Interior, who reserves the right to forbid assemblies which threaten, in the Government's view, public peace or welfare. There were no reports of government denials of such requests in 1993. However, the Government placed strict limits on the time period during which campaigning was permitted before elections, and some opposition gatherings were broken up by uniformed and armed military shortly before the opening of the September-October legislative campaign.

c. Freedom of Religion

There is no state religion; people are free to join any church and practice any religion. Denominations not already established must register with the State, a sometimes cumbersome process. Many different creeds were represented in President Lissouba's administration.

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

The Constitution declares the right of all citizens to circulate freely within the country and specifically prohibits roadblocks and barricades. Barricades were nonetheless widespread during civil disturbances, erected by army troops, members of the Presidential Guard, and opposition supporters. The National Conference Charter of Rights gives all citizens the right to leave the country and to return.

The country maintained its traditional hospitality toward refugees and asylum seekers. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has registered over 8,000 refugees from Cabinda, Angola, and almost 3,000 Cabindans live in a camp run by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent. The UNHCR also list over 2,200 Chadian refugees in 1993, as well as over 400 Zairians, and 300 Central Africans. A large number of other Zairians – mostly economic refugees currently live in Congo.

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

Citizens have this right, but disagreement between the political groupings over the constitutional powers of the Presidency and the National Assembly led to near civil war in 1993. After disagreements with the National Assembly, the President dissolved Parliament in November 1992 and called for new elections in 1993. The opposition disputed his right to form an interim government, charged that the first round of legislative elections on May 2 were fraudulent, and refused to participate in the second round of elections on June 6, provoking the civil disturbances. During this period, the new 125-seat National Assembly opened on June 22 despite a boycott by the 49 URD-PCT members and the President appointed the former army head, General Joachim Yhombi-Opango, as the country's new Prime Minister.

Subsequently, in the Libreville Accords, the parties, inter alia, recognized the published results of the first round of elections and stipulated that the second round of elections would be rerun. In the new second round of elections held October 6, the opposition won 8 of the 11 National Assembly seats at stake, thereby reducing the Presidential Movement's majority. A College of International Arbiters is considering claims that results for 56 seats in the first-round elections were tainted. The disputed seats include 22 now held by Government supporters and 34 held by the opposition.

Women are poorly represented in the political process. The Lissouba Government includes 2 women as part of its 28-member Cabinet. Women also represent only a tiny minority in the security forces. While not officially prohibited, the 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 in 1993. These included the National Committee on Human Rights, the Congolese Human Rights League, and a committee of the Congolese Association of Women Lawyers. Other special interest organizations included groups representing the rights of prisoners, women, children, and the handicapped. All freely criticized past government human rights violations as well as abusive and discriminatory aspects of some traditional local customs.

In addition, the Government actively encouraged and even solicited the presence of international and nongovernmental (NGO) observers for elections held during the year. However, it refused to establish a committee to investigate past human rights violations, including torture and extrajudicial executions, as requested by international groups.

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

The new Constitution specifically forbids such discrimination, but much traditional discrimination persisted, particularly against women and Pygmies.

Women

Although the new Constitution prohibits discrimination based on gender and specifically endorses the right of women to earn equal pay for equal work, discrimination against women is endemic. Inequities persist in salaries as well as in employment opportunities and access to education. According to one 1991 U.N. study, females receive only 33 percent of the schooling provided to males. While traditional inheritance customs favor maternal links, marriage and family laws overtly discriminate against women; for example, adultery is considered illegal for women but not for men, and polygyny is accepted. Women in rural areas are especially disadvantaged in terms of education and wage employment and are confined largely to family farm labor and child-raising responsibilities.

Nonetheless, educated women are increasingly finding pay equity and promotion opportunities more in consonant with their individual abilities, notably in white-collar and government jobs. Their qualifications are often enhanced by scholarships and foreign-sponsored studies. Women are also filling jobs once reserved only for males, such as magistrates and customs inspectors.

Violence against women occurs frequently. In particular, wife beating is an accepted practice, and cases are usually handled within the context of the extended family. Only in extreme instances of abuse are cases prosecuted in the courts. The issue of violence against women is largely ignored by the general population, including the media. The police rarely intervene in domestic disputes.

Children

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

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The Pygmies, an ethnic minority numbering about 7,000 persons and living primarily in the northern forest areas, are theoretically provided by the Constitution with the same rights as other citizens. However, in practice – in a society in which Bantu Congolese predominate in all respects – they do not enjoy equal treatment. In particular, they are exploited as a source of cheap labor. 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 is reinforced by an ancestral tradition of Pygmy slavery by Bantus, and in 1993 there were still reports that this practice continued in isolated locations. One human rights monitor reported "incontrovertible evidence" that Bantus in the north exploit Pygmies in slave-like conditions. In the past, Pygmies were denied access to public education, health, and other basic services and to the right to own property. Pygmies have traditionally also been excluded from the political process.

People with Disabilities

The Constitution provides the handicapped "specific measures of protection in relation to their needs." In practice, this means very little, though the Government has provided handpowered tricycles to some polio victims, and some special education is provided to the handicapped. The Government has an office charged with the welfare of handicapped persons, but its efforts in this area are limited by severe resource constraints. A Congolese NGO works actively to better conditions for the handicapped. There is no law mandating accessibility to buildings.

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 or on the right of workers to join a union. Nearly all workers are union members in the formal (wage) sector, and efforts have been made to unionize the informal sector. There is a small agricultural union.

Unions are now free to join or form new federations or confederations. However, the Congolese Trade Union Confederation (CSC), formerly the only officially recognized union confederation, is still a powerful force and in 1993 remained the only umbrella labor organization. After the 1991 National Conference revoked CSC's monopoly status and abolished the checkoff system, which gave CSC much of its power advantage, numerous small competing unions organized. The Secretary General of the CSC is also a member of the National Assembly.

Unions are free to strike but must file a letter of intent to strike with the Ministry of Labor beforehand, which starts a process of arbitration. In theory, a strike may not take place until after 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 also include notification of a strike date, at which time the strike can legally begin even if arbitration is not complete. Employers theoretically may fire workers if no notification is given before a strike. In practice, these aspects of the Labor Code are seldom enforced, and many strikes have occurred without prior attempts to resolve disputes through arbitration.

There were a number of strikes in 1993, including actions against oil companies, oil-related service firms, and state-owned companies employing railway and electrical maintenance workers. The public sector was particularly hard hit by labor disputes which erupted in strikes at the Ministries of Agriculture, Mines and Energy, Commerce, Culture, and Finance. Strikers most often sought increases in pay or other monetary benefits or, in the case of civil servants, back wages now overdue for 8 months. Public workers' strikes in March 1993 were resolved with relatively little civil disturbance, and unions remained relatively quiet as more serious unrest erupted later in the year.

Unions are free to affiliate with international trade unions. Exercising this new freedom, some trade unions signed cooperative accords with other African, European, and American trade union organizations. Although the CSC has not formally disaffiliated from the formerly Soviet-controlled 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

Still adapting to the new freedom of trade union pluralism, the old Labor Code, dating from 1975, remains unreformed. Neither have laws been adopted to create a new legal framework for collective bargaining. In the past, many benefits were legally mandated and industry-specific wage scales or "conventions" were determined by negotiated agreement between representatives of the union, the employer or employers' association, the Ministry of Labor, and the ruling Congolese Workers Party. Independent unions may now negotiate freely on their own or in cooperation with other unions, federations, or confederations.

Under the Constitution, employers are forbidden from discriminating against employees who exercise their constitutional right to organize or join a union. There have been no reported recent cases of firings for union activities.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Forced or compulsory labor is prohibited by law, and there is no evidence of its practice in the formal economy. (See Section 5, however, for a discussion of allegations of the slave-like exploitation of Pygmies.)

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The Constitution specifically prohibits children under the age of 16 from working. The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcing child labor laws but concentrates its efforts on the formal wage sector. Children often work at younger ages on small family subsistence farms in rural areas and can be seen working in the informal economic sectors of the cities without government intervention.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Government sets a minimum wage of about $80 a month (23,500 FCFA), a level which in theory allows for "human dignity." In those trades still subject to "conventions" (see Section 6.b.), the negotiated minimum wages are without exception considerably higher than the legal minimum. Yet, even these preferential salary scales often set minimum wages quite low relative to the exorbitant cost of living. To make ends meet, many workers are obliged to hold second jobs, practice subsistence agriculture, or receive help from the extended family. During 1993, this was particularly true for government workers, who were forced to cope with salary backlogs of several months.

The Constitution provides for not only reasonable pay, but also paid holidays, periodic paid vacations, and legal limits on allowable hours of work. The standard legal workweek is 42 hours. There is no specific requirement for a 24-hour rest period. 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, but unions are generally effective in protecting members.

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