Human Rights Watch World Report 1999 - Democratic Republic of Congo

Human Rights Developments

In early August 1998 another war of "liberation" broke out in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)—less than two years since President Laurent Kabila's Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (ADFL) fought to rid the country of the dictatorial and corrupt rule of Mobutu Sese Seko. Civilians bore the brunt of the conflict as both sides resorted to extrajudicial executions and arbitrary detentions, with their perceived ethnic adversaries the main victims. The government maintained a policy of exclusion by strictly enforcing a ban on political activities introduced in 1997. The Banyamulenge, ethnic Tutsis settled for generations in south Kivu, had spearheaded the ADFL rebellion in 1996 to assert citizenship rights that Mobutu's government moved to deny them. They again rose in August, this time against their former ally President Kabila, claiming that he had usurped power and failed to resolve their nationality concerns. Neighboring Rwanda and Uganda intervened on their side, as they did during the first war, exposing a dramatic falling out between them and the man they helped carry to power. The continued violence during 1997 and 1998 in the eastern provinces of north and south Kivu accelerated the slide to war. During the ADFL's rebellion, its allies from the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Army massacred thousands of Hutu refugees, including women and children. The systematic obstruction by the Congolese government of United Nations investigations into the killings contributed to the country's diplomatic isolation and prevented the revival of its economy. Extremist Hutus responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which more than half a million minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed, regrouped, and used the Kivus as springboards to launch devastating raids on their country. The Ugandan rebel Alliance of Democratic Forces similarly fought its own government out of north Kivu. The exiled groups had increasingly allied themselves with the Mayi-Mayi, traditional warrior groups opposed to the Rwandan presence and influence in their region, in joint attacks against government troops and ethnic Tutsis. Joint military operations by forces from the three countries failed to flush out the insurgents. The triggering factor in the second war was president Kabila's decision in late July ordering Rwandan troops home. The rebel Congolese Rally for Democracy drew troops from disenchanted brigades of the Congolese Armed Forces. Its political branch brought together a diverse coalition of anti-Kabila groups, including, in addition to the Banyamulenge, figures from the national opposition and former dignitaries of the Mobutu era. Accusing President Kabila of corruption, nepotism, and failure to bring about democratic reforms, ethnic harmony, and regional stability the rebels vowed to correct these ills and to open the democratization process to other political forces. Their bid to remove the government in a lightening campaign was, however, thwarted when forces sent by the governments of Angola, Zimbabwe, and Namibia came to President Kabila's rescue. Their intervention saved the capital Kinshasa from an imminent fall to rebels attacking it from bases in western Congo. Labeling the rebellion an invasion of his country by Rwanda and Uganda, President Kabila accused ethnic Tutsis collectively of supporting the aggression on his country. Other officials amplified the accusation by resorting to hate propaganda as they urged the population to help in tracking Tutsis. In the capital and other government-held areas police and the army arrested and arbitrarily detained hundreds of civilians in connection with the conflict, most of them ethnic Tutsis. According to relatives, soldiers raped dozens of detained women. Those picked up at random and later released said afterwards that they were briefly held in overcrowded and filthy lockups. Soldiers denied inmates food and medical care, they said, and tortured and summarily executed some detainees. In the face of a growing international outcry at the arrests, the government formed an inter-ministerial commission to oversee the detainees and after some delay allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross regular access to those held in the capital. By mid-September, the government said it had reached a decision to expel many of the detainees to countries willing to grant them asylum. Rebels also targeted civilians. Many humanitarian agencies operating in eastern Congo and the public complained about the confiscation of their vehicles and communications equipment by the rebels. In advance of their attack on the capital, rebels cut its power supply, interrupting the distribution of drinking water to its five million inhabitants, and disrupting health and other essential services, breaching international humanitarian law provisions prohibiting the destruction of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.. All parties to the conflict subjected prisoners detained in connection to the conflict to ill-treatment and extrajudicial executions. When the attack on the capital was pushed back in August, soldiers and angry mobs summarily executed dozens of captured orsuspected rebels. Retreating government soldiers in late August reportedly killed dozens of detained civilians in the town of Kisangani, Congo's third largest city. In reprisal for the killing of six of their colleagues in an ambush near Bukavu in August, rebel soldiers rounded up and summarily executed hundreds of villagers including six priests and nuns, in the locality of Kasika and surrounding villages. Government and rebels systematically recruited child soldiers into their armies. The government mobilized for its counteroffensive thousands of child soldiers already enlisted in the army since the first civil war. It launched a recruitment drive in August that enlisted thousands, many of them as young as twelve. The rebels reenlisted hundreds of former child soldiers they found in transit camps run by humanitarian agencies in Bukavu and Kisangani where they were following skill-upgrading programs prior to their planned reunification with their families. On both sides of the conflict, children typically were attracted into joining armies because of the appeal of the gun and the uniform and the promises of a regular pay and meals. The year was marked by the escalation of the government's repression of the civil and political rights of the Congolese. The enforcement of a ban on political activities by parties other the ruling ADFL was tightened following a warning in January by the minister of interior to politicians to either abide by the ban or risk trial before a special military court. Authorities dispersed a meeting on January 17 of the youth branch of the main opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress - UDPS, shortly before a scheduled address by Etienne Tshisekedi, the party's leader. The police arrested dozens of participants, and subjected them to ill-treatment and torture in its headquarters. Citing Tshisekedi's persistent defiance, the government in mid-February exiled him to his home village where he was held in conditions of virtual detention. Forty-eight party militants and twelve senior advisors arrested in two raids on his home after his release in mid-July, were ill-treated during their brief detention. During one of many attacks on political parties, police on January 20 stormed the headquarters of the opposition Innovative Forces for Union and Solidarity (FONUS) and arrested its outspoken leader Joseph Olenghankoy. By late October, about sixty soldiers and civilians convicted mainly of armed robbery were publicly executed following sentences passed by the Court of Military Order and the rejection of their appeals for presidential clemency. Trials before this court lacked the minimum guarantees of fairness since its decisions could not be appealed to a higher court. Initially established in 1997 to discipline Congo's unruly military and try civilians charged with armed robbery, the court increasingly became part of the government's arsenal for the intimidation of its political opponents. In January it condemned Kabila Kalele and Jean-Francois Kabanda, both prominent members of the UDPS, to two years imprisonment for a press article critical of the government. In May the court sentenced Joseph Olenghankoy to fifteen years in prison for "threatening state security," following hearings in which prosecutors argued for the death penalty. The government continued to routinely detain journalists and writers for articles on topics it deemed sensitive, such as official corruption and security matters. The editor of the leading Kinshasa daily La Référence Plus was briefly detained in late April for covering a claim by a local rights group that the private residences of some military commanders doubled as secret detention places where detainees were tortured and "disappeared." He was released only after being obliged to lead other journalists under military escort to one of the houses mentioned to demonstrate that no prisoners were held there. An editorial on the internal exile of the UDPS leader and the publication of a "message to the people" from him led to brief detentions of the editors of Le Potentiel and Le Palmerès in February and April respectively. The government prevented private radios from broadcasting press reviews and political commentaries. For challenging that restriction, and its alleged "complicity with the BBC," the government in April shut down Radio Amani (peace), which is run by the Catholic archdiocese of Kisangani.

Defending Human Rights

Although the Congo's dynamic nongovernmental sector preserved its autonomy, the government routinely lashed back at critical rights groups. In April the government dissolved the country's leading monitoring group, the African Association for the Defense of Human Rights (ASAHDO) shortly after it published a report about civilian killings by government troops in eastern Congo. In May, ASAHDO's annual report on the human rights record of the government triggered the confiscation of the document, a raid on and the sealing of its national office, and the arrest of its acting executive director. Concurrently with this broad attack, the government de-registered all but twenty-two of the estimated 150 human rights groups in the country. Two leaders of the League of Voters, one of the authorized groups, were detained for two months following a work visit in mid-May to the Belgian embassy. President Kabila publicly accused them of "espionage" shortly after their arrest. Although the government authorized an official Human Rights Watch mission in April-May, agents detained the organization's researcher for a day as he prepared to leave the country, and sought to identify his contacts and activities during the mission.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

The U.N. in April pulled out from the Congo the Secretary-General's Investigative Team (SGIT) which was probing massacres of Rwandan Hutu refugees there during President Kabila's rise to power. The decision followed months of government obstruction of the SGIT's work, including harassment of witnesses and the detention of an investigator. The Investigative Team's June 30 report, admittedly incomplete, cited individual massacres of refugees and called for more investigations and a tribunal to try the perpetrators. In a weak response, the Security Council issued a presidential statement on July 13 condemning the massacres, but stopped short of authorizing an independent investigation and prosecution of perpetrators. It referred these tasks to the Congolese and Rwandan governments and required them to report back to the council by mid-October. When his country's relations deteriorated with Rwandain August, the Congolese Foreign Minister Jean-Charles Okoto Lolakombe in an address before the U.N. General Assembly admitted for the first time that massacres did occur during the 1996-97 war, and entirely attributed these to the Rwandan Patriotic Army. For the second consecutive year, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Congo, Roberto Garretón, appointed under a 1994 resolution of the Commission on Human Rights, remained persona non grata in Kinshasa. His January 1998 report to the commission concluded that President Kabila's government "has eliminated the civil rights to life, liberty, physical integrity, etc." and that "the rights of political participation have been suspended." The commission voted in April to continue the special rapporteur's mandate for another year. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights maintained a field office in Congo, with a focus on monitoring, cooperating with the authorities in implementing the relevant international instruments, strengthening NGOs, and reporting to the special rapporteur. In March, several ministers and high officials participated in a three day seminar organized by the field office and hammered out an official "national plan for the defense of human rights." The severity of the government's attack on ASAHDO and other national rights groups which coincided with the announcement made a mockery of that promise. The U.N. backed regional initiatives seeking a peaceful resolution to the renewed Congolese conflict. On August 31, the Security Council issued a presidential statement that expressed alarm at the plight of the civilian population throughout the country and urged all parties to respect and protect human rights and respect humanitarian law. The statement also called for a cease-fire, the withdrawal of foreign forces, and the engagement of a political dialogue to end the war in the Congo. Donors pledged U.S.$ 32 million by mid-year to a Trust Fund set up by the World Bank to support the health, education, and transportation sectors.

Regional Organizations

The war in Congo shattered the regional alliance that backed President Kabila's own rebellion less than two years before. Several rounds of regional talks between leaders of the six countries with troops in the Congo broke down, among other factors, over the representation of the rebels. Human rights issues did not figure prominently in these initiatives, and a cease-fire remained elusive by the end of October. President Mandela of South Africa spurred SADC all along to push for the opening up of the political process in the Congo if lasting solutions to that county's problems were to be found. Like the U.N., the Organization of African Unity (O.A.U.) followed the lead of sub-regional states in the search for peace.

European Union

The European Union (E.U.) repeatedly voiced some rhetorical commitment to human rights in the Congo, with little results. A high-level E.U. delegation visited Congo in June and stressed in discussions with the government the need for a transition to democracy, an impartial judiciary, and human rights improvements. A 1992 freeze from the E.U. on direct development aid, in protest against the slow pace of democratic reforms and rampant human rights abuses under Mobutu, remained in force. Despite the freeze, the E.U. provided $100 million for road construction and health infrastructure in the Congo in 1998. This mirrored the $400 the E.U. provided from 1992 to 1997 for a wide range of programs implemented by nongovernmental organization in Congo. The E.U. pledged $33 million to help organize elections on condition that all political parties be allowed to participate, and allocated about $150 million to humanitarian assistance to the Great Lakes region as of September. In presidential statements on August 11 and 27, the E.U. expressed its concern about the growing crisis in the Congo, called for political dialogue among all the parties involved, and strongly condemned human rights violations by all of the forces involved. The E.U.'s special envoy to the Great Lakes, Aldo Ajello, toured the troubled region in an "evaluation mission" in September. Although he did not dwell on the human rights aspects of the crisis, he called in public statements for a solution that would guarantee the long term security of the Congo and its neighbors. At the political level, he called for dialogue between all the Congolese political factions, and their participation in the transitional process.

United States

The December 1997 visit by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Kinshasa solidified an uncritical policy of engagement with the Kabila government. The lack of attention during the secretary's visit to human rights and democratization in Congo drew wide criticism which the secretary sought to deflect by arguing, in a Los Angeles Times article of December 24, that working with leaders who are "at best, imperfect democrats" requires the U.S. not to sit on the sidelines. In the absence of public U.S. condemnations of rampant rights abuses, the Congolese authorities could easily discount protests forwarded to them through the channels of quiet diplomacy. Relations between the U.S. and Congo began to visibly deteriorate in February, when Rev. Jesse Jackson, U.S. special presidential envoy for promoting democracy in Africa, met with leaders of civil society and the opposition and, as a consequence, Kabila and his foreign minister refused to meet him. Opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi was arrested and internally exiled shortly thereafter. Secretary Albright announced during her visit that the administration would pledge $10 million for the World Bank's Trust Fund for Congo, and would seek an additional $35-40 million in aid to the government. In fact, the administration faced legislative constraints on providing significant aid to the Congo, including the Faircloth amendment to the Foreign Assistance Appropriation Act tying any assistance to the Congolese government to its full cooperation with the U.N. probe in accounting for civilian massacres in Congo. A waiver obtained under the authority of the secretary of state, for aid going to the central government, allowed the U.S. to provide the $10 million it had pledged to the World Bank Trust Fund in addition to $10 million for the regional small-scale development programs overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development, and another $10 million for heath, environment,and private sector activities. The U.S. also earmarked $500,000 for eventual constitution drafting, elections, or judicial reform initiatives. During President Clinton's Africa trip in March, he held a short, private meeting with President Kabila at the summit in Entebbe, Uganda, attended by other African leaders. Clinton reportedly told Kabila that he had followed Kabila's march across Zaire with great interest, and that he had come too far to fail. Apparently, no specifics were discussed. However, no sooner did Kabila return to Kinshasa than he began spinning his participation in the Entebbe summit and his short meeting with Clinton as an endorsement of his policies. This further soured his relations with the U.S. Relations continued to slide following the withdrawal of the U.N. investigative team in April. On April 23, the White House press secretary issued a statement expressing concern about the withdrawal of the team. It went on to note that the lack of progress on political reform, including the banning of political parties and of a leading human rights organization, the exiling of a prominent opposition leader, and the trial of civilians before military courts, "calls into question the commitment of the government to democratic principles." Despite the stronger rhetoric, the U.S. failed in July to push for a stronger Security Council resolution on the investigative team's report. The rules of quiet diplomacy still governed U.S. relations with Rwanda and Uganda, its staunchest allies in the region. At the outbreak of the current Congo crisis, the administration initially adopted a remarkable silence on the two countries' military involvement, even faced with evidence that their troops were part of the rebellion which was feared to be responsible for serious abuses against civilians. It was not until August 19 that a State Department spokesman acknowledged Rwandan and Ugandan military intervention, and even then it was couched in terms apparently intended to justify their actions. "Countering genocide is in the national security interest of Rwanda and other countries in the region. The failure of the Congolese government to deal with border security and citizenship for the Banyamulenge population has undermined regional security. Nevertheless, we can in no way condone or accept military intervention into Congo by Rwanda, Uganda or any other government in the region." The statement called on the Congolese government, the rebel leadership, and foreign forces to prevent human rights abuses in areas under their control, and to ensure the safety of humanitarian workers. At the same time, U.S. policy toward the Congolese government was increasingly forceful, focusing not only on the protection of Americans but also on the protection of other civilians caught in the conflict. The U.S. quickly condemned abuses perpetrated by government forces against Tutsis in Kinshasa, and pushed for access to the detainees by the ICRC. The policy of the United States came under increasing attack in many parts of Africa, with many voices—including heads of state like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe—accusing the U.S. of supporting the Rwandan and Ugandan actions in Congo. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Susan Rice responded to such allegations in testimony before the House Subcommittee on Africa on September 15, calling them "specious and ridiculous." She reiterated that the U.S. "fully understands their legitimate security interests in countering insurgent attacks from Congolese soil," and shared "regional and international frustration with the Kinshasa government's failures with respect to both democratization and human rights." Nevertheless, she contended that foreign intervention to overthrow the government was "not acceptable." Rice said nothing about reports that Rwandan or Ugandan troops might have themselves been implicated in rebel abuses against civilians. She went on to state that the U.S. considered Angolan, Namibian, and Zimbabwean intervention as "destabilizing and very dangerous as well."
This report covers events of 1998

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