Human Rights Developments

November 1995 marked thirty years of President Mobutu Sese Seko's reign in Zaire, and more than five years since he announced the country's so-called transition to democracy. Yet no meaningful transition is on the horizon, and Mobutu continues to control the military and therefore dominates the economy and the justice system. Zaire was plagued by massive corruption and widespread human rights abuses, all of which took place in an atmosphere of utter impunity. Mobutu's government also sought benefits from the Rwandan crisis which, while burdening Zaire with 1.2 million refugees, also gave Mobutu opportunities to bring about his international rehabilitation and to protect the former Rwandan government and military.

The elections scheduled for July 9, 1995 were put off for another two years, thus extending the announced transition to democracy to seven years. In June, the High Council of the Republic-Transitional Parliament (HCR-PT) voted to extend the transition, during which presidential and parliamentary elections are supposed to be held.

The main organized political actors in Zaire are the Political Forces of the Conclave (FPC), comprising the Popular Revolutionary Movement (MPR) and other Mobutu supporters, and the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), headed by Etienne Tshisekedi, who also heads the coalition of parties known as the Radical Opposition. Although these two forces have been struggling for power since 1990, in 1995 allies of Mobutu opposed to Prime Minister Leon Kengo wa Dondo combined with elements of the opposition to block Kengo and attempted to oust the president of the HCR-PT, Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo.

The opposition also sought the ouster of Prime Minister Kengo, whose election was deemed by many to be illegal. Tshisekedi was never lawfully removed as prime minister in 1993, and the subsequent election of Kengo took place under disputed circumstances. In 1994, a compromise was negotiated by Mgr. Monsengwo ensuring that the prime minister would be drawn from the opposition, although the deal created an unwieldy parliament dominated by Mobutu supporters.

The ongoing political crisis also accelerated the economic disaster. With four digit inflation, a fast disappearing transportation and communications infrastructure, and virtually no state provision of educational or health care facilities, Zairians faced a life of terror and misery. In a pastoral letter dated February 21, 1995, Zaire's Roman Catholic bishops denounced "the harmful character of the power that is progressively driving the country to its ruin and the state to its disintegration." The bishops also denounced the armed forces and security services, which terrorized the population.

The massive influx of Rwandan refugees in July 1994 caused rising tensions in Eastern Zaire. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an estimated 1.2 million Rwandans were in Zaire, more than half of whom were in the Goma area. The U.N. effort in Eastern Zaire did not benefit the local populations; rather, they suffered from the devastation of the environment and the increased insecurity in the region.

Throughout the Rwandan crisis, the government of Zaire has supported the former Rwandan authorities and facilitated the training and arming of its troops and militia in the refugee camps (see Rwanda section and the Arms Project section). Former Rwandan government officials, the former Rwandan Armed Forces (ex-FAR) and Hutu militias led by them continue to enjoy impunity from arrest and prosecution for their involvement in last year's genocide. The government of Zaire has permitted its territory and facilities to be used as a conduit for weapons supplies to the ex-FAR, and cargo companies based in Zaire have acted under contracts with Zairian officials to transport these weapons.

In February, the UNHCR deployed Zairian troops to keep order in the refugee camps, known as the Zairian Camp Security Contingent (ZCSC). The UNHCR will spend some US$13 million to pay, clothe, and equip the Zairian troops. The decision to deploy the Zairian troops, despite their well-established reputation for brutalizing their own population, came after other U.N. member states refused to send their troops to Zaire. The ZCSC has a mandate to provide security in the camps, to restrain anyone intimidating the refugees from going home, and to escort repatriation convoys to the Rwandan border.

One cause of the growing problems in North Kivu involves ethnic tensions in that region that have exploded into violence before; in 1993, some 6,000 people were killed and some 250,000 displaced in clashes that pitted the Nande and Hunde (considered to be indigenous to the region) against the Banyarwanda (Rwandan and Burundian immigrants, some of whom have been in North Kivu for generations). While the 1993 conflict focused on issues of nationality and land, the influx of Rwandan refugees has made the situation much more volatile, as has the influx of arms into the region. In 1995, these tensions were close to the surface, forcing many of the Tutsis who had lived in Zaire for many years to leave for Rwanda. In late May and June, the area of Walikale and Masisi in North Kivu witnessed new violence. According to some estimates, some forty people were killed in fighting involving youth bands of Hunde and Hutu. The Zairian military exacerbated the tensions, and pillaged on both sides.

The situation of the refugees in eastern Zaire exploded in August, when the government of Zaire began forcibly repatriating the refugees, apparently in response to the lifting of the U.N. arms embargo against Rwanda. Zairian troops engaged in a range of human rights abuses against the refugees, including beatings, burning of tents, looting, and the expulsion of refugees being treated at hospitals and health centers to Rwanda.

After four days, the government finally suspended the repatriations, but only after expelling more than 15,000 refugees and forcing some 173,000 other into the hills. The government of Zaire warned that all the refugees must leave Zaire by the end of 1995. At this writing, the fate of the refugees in Zaire is very uncertain.

In Shaba province, there have been an increasing number of incidents between the military and the civilian population since 1994. Many of these incidents involve soldiers, including troops of the Special Presidential Division (DSP), who have not been paid for many months and are consequently abusing the civilians. In 1995, the Shaba branch of the Zairian security service, the National Intelligence and Protection Service (SNIP), was responsible for a range of human rights abuses, including detention and torture of political activists, threats against human rights activists, and the expulsion of a foreign human rights researcher (a U.S. citizen).

On July 29, a demonstration was organized by PALU, the Lumumbist Unified Party, in Kinshasa to protest the Mobutu government. Security forces broke up the demonstration, killing at least nine protesters. Antoine Gizenga, the PALU leader, was arrested and charged with organizing an unauthorized demonstration and with possessing an M-16 rifle, which authorities claimed they found when they searched his home. He was released on bail on August 3. Mobutu promised to arrest and prosecute those responsible, although at this writing there is no sign of any progress.

A considerable array of human rights, pro-democracy, development, and church groups have emerged in Zaire in recent years. These groups are responsible for much of the education, health care, training and human rights sensitization that is taking place in Zaire. The Kengo government threatened the operations of NGOs in January 1995, when the Council of Ministers resuscitated a decree from 1965 requiring NGOs to be authorized by the government. Since many of these groups have tried in vain to gain legal status, this attempt to undermine their work was seen as a new effort to harass and threaten them.

The Right to Monitor

The human rights community in Zaire continued to be a vibrant force during 1995. The principal human rights groups in Kinshasa include the Zairian Association for the Defense of Human Rights (AZADHO), the Zairian Human Rights League (LIZADHO), and the Voice of the Voiceless for Human Rights (VSV). Human rights groups have also emerged in various regions, including: in South Kivu—Heirs of Justice and the Justice and Peace Commission of South Kivu; in North Kivu—Grace, the Justice and Peace Commission of North Kivu, and Muungano; in Upper Zaire—Justice and Liberation, Friends of Nelson Mandela, Lotus, and Haki Za Binadamu; in Shaba—the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law and the Justice and Peace Commission.

As in the past, human rights activists have suffered threats, arrest, and harassment from the security services.

The Role of the International Community

Since early 1992 the U.S., France, and Belgium have periodically collaborated to support the transition process begun by the National Conference. These three countries—known as the troika—have repeatedly called on the opposition and the Mobutu government to proceed with the transition. The E.U. suspended all but humanitarian aid to Zaire in 1992; the U.S. suspended aid in 1991. However, the troika never froze Mobutu's assets or pursued his financial sources abroad, despite promises to do so.

In April, the troika pressured Zaire to end its political impasse and move forward with democratization. According to a statement by State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns, the three governments were "deeply disturbed" by the political situation in Zaire and had approached the Zairian leaders to "advance the transition, to cease tactics of obstruction, and to work together in good faith to bring democracy to Zaire." The troika was attempting to pressure the Zairian government to announce when elections would take place.

Due to visa restrictions imposed by the troika, Mobutu's travel has been limited in recent years. The visa restrictions were applied almost universally until 1995, when Mobutu made a number of visits to Portugal and France (he attended last year's francophone summit in Biarritz, France, and has been able to use his transit visa to visit his luxury villa in the south of France). Official policy on visa restrictions has not changed, however.

The United Nations

In March, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights passed a resolution on the human rights situation in Zaire. While "recognizing that some progress has been achieved" by the Zairian government with respect to human rights, the resolution went on to express serious concern about arbitrary arrests and detention, summary executions, torture and inhuman treatment in detention centers, serious shortcomings in the justice system, and the impunity of human rights violators. The resolution also extended the mandate of the special rapporteur on human rights in Zaire for one year, and "invited" the high commissioner for human rights to consider establishing an office of the Human Rights Center in Kinshasa, a recommendation made in the special rapporteur's report.

In July, U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali met with Mobutu at his palace in Gbadolite, and invited Mobutu to New York for the 50th anniversary of the U.N. in October. There is no indication that Boutros-Ghali raised human rights concerns in his meeting with Mobutu.

U.S. Policy

While the Clinton administration has generally distanced itself from Mobutu, some U.S. officials, in keeping with the United States' decades of close covert and overt association with him, still see Mobutu as an indispensable actor in Central Africa. This attitude was fueled by the U.S.'s general disdain for the Radical Opposition, and its support for Kengo's initiatives. Accordingly, U.S. policy revolved around support for Kengo's government and a growing willingness to re-engage Mobutu diplomatically.

In June, the State Department announced that the U.S. would be sending a new ambassador to Zaire, as a sign of support for Prime Minister Kengo's efforts. The ambassador designate is Daniel Simpson, a career diplomat with experience in Africa. The last ambassador was Melissa Wells, who was not replaced in May 1993 to protest President Mobutu's continued rule. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns added that "We continue to view President Mobutu as the chief obstacle to democracy in Zaire." The Clinton Administration hopes that the presence of a new U.S. ambassador will help promote reform.

Mobutu and his family have been banned from receiving U.S. visas since 1993, an indication of U.S. disapproval of Mobutu's rule. U.S. officials have maintained that they will not deal directly with Mobutu or grant him a U.S. visa unless he demonstrates progress toward democratization, including announcing an election timetable and allowing international observers to monitor the process. In July, Mobutu supporters in the U.S. launched an effort to obtain a visa for him for his trip to the U.N. General Assembly in October. Responding to congressional concern about the possibility that Mobutu would get a visa, Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman wrote in June: "The visa sanction has been, and remains, one of most effective measures to influence Mobutu and his entourage, and we have seen no change on the part of the Zairian president which would warrant a reversal of this policy."

The Work of Human Rights Watch/Africa

Human Rights Watch/Africa continued to focus attention on the widespread human rights abuses by the Zairian government. To this end, Human Rights Watch/Africa briefed government officials and journalists about human rights in Zaire, and met with visiting Zairian human rights activists. After the publication in May of Rearming with Impunity: International Support for the Perpetrators of the Rwandan Genocide by the Human Rights Watch Arms Project, Human Rights Watch/Africa was engaged in advocacy in the U.S. and Europe to press for an end to assistance to the former Rwandan government and military in Zaire as well as the investigation and prosecution of all those in Zaire who directed the genocide in Rwanda. In August, when the Zairian military forcibly expelled thousands of Rwandan refugees, Human Rights Watch/Africa issued a press release denouncing the expulsions as a violation of international law.

This report covers events of 1995

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