Background Briefing

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I.          Introduction

Justice is an essential element in the long-term work to rebuild the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  In a recent report to the Security Council on the protection of civilians in armed conflicts, the secretary-general of the United Nations noted that societies in conflict look forward to and deserve justice as one of the benefits of peace.  He underscored the fact that “[p]rocesses of justice and reconciliation are critical responses (…) to sustainable peace,” and that, while emphasizing accountability for past atrocities could destabilize post-conflict situations and compromise national reconciliation, “[i]mpunity…can be an even more dangerous recipe for sliding back into conflict.”1  Systematic human rights abuses cannot be halted until their perpetrators are held to account.

Ituri is often described as the most bloodstained region of the DRC.  Its population has been subject to grave atrocities committed by rival armed groups.  War crimes and crimes against humanity were committed following systematic abuses of human rights.  Justice is a fundamental requirement in this part of the country, both to assist the reconstruction of society and to ensure that those who have committed and continue to commit human rights abuses are no longer at liberty to do so.

Human Rights Watch is pleased with the implementation six months ago of a program for the urgent restoration of the criminal justice system in Bunia, Ituri province (“the program”).  This program is the result of a joint effort by the government of the DRC, the European Commission (EC), and the Cooperation Department of the French government (French Cooperation).  It aims to restore quickly judicial structures in the Ituri district in order to put an end to the impunity that has fostered the cycles of violence and serious crimes there since 1998.

The program is a pilot experiment for the reconstruction of the justice system throughout the DRC and, for that reason, has repercussions well beyond Ituri.  The need for an effective and functional judicial system is thought to be of particular urgency in the entire eastern region of Congo.  The lessons learned from the program should help the government of the DRC and donors in their long-term efforts to rebuild an effective judicial system.  Moreover, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) recently announced the start of investigations into the crimes committed in the DRC.2  Given the necessity of collaboration with Congolese judicial authorities and the limited number of cases that the ICC will be able to try, the effectiveness of the ICC investigations will depend to a large extent on a strong and efficient Congolese judicial system.

As in the rest of the country, the judicial system in Bunia was in an almost total state of dilapidation.  The program is the first real investment in the Congolese judicial system in several years.3  Six months after being implemented, the program has made remarkable progress.  The Tribunal de grande instance (“the court”) of Bunia and the Prosecutor’s Office are once again operating effectively.  Five judges in the court and four investigative judges in the Prosecutor’s Office, appointed in 2003, took office in February 2004.  This is a major development in the Ituri peace process.  The district of Ituri had long been deprived of an effective legal system, during which time armed groups imposed their own law.  The reconstruction of the legal system in Bunia in such a short time has sent a clear message that impunity will no longer be tolerated.  It has also clearly demonstrated both that justice is possible in a post-conflict environment and that, above all, justice is a necessary component of the process of political transition.  In this respect, the program has made Ituri an example that could potentially inspire the entire Congolese judicial system.

To achieve this impact on the judicial system, much remains to be done after this initial phase of the program.  The program will need to be re-defined to make it an instrument to address impunity for serious crimes committed in Ituri, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, and not just for offenses categorized as more minor crimes.  Its basic structure will need to be re-designed so that the contradictions created by institutional management by a nongovernmental organization do not affect the operation of the judicial system in Ituri.  Additionally, the new criminal justice system in Ituri will face many challenges, including security conditions that are still deplorable, the inadequacy of the existing criminal law, the lack of police resources required for investigation, the inadequacy of the material and financial resources to support investigative judges and judges, and the absence at the government level of a clear policy for fighting impunity.

This document is not an exhaustive evaluation of all the obstacles and accomplishments of the program.  It selects the most salient ones with a view to identifying the challenges that will loom ahead in the fight against impunity in Ituri.  It is based essentially on in-depth interviews carried out by Human Rights Watch in Bunia and Kinshasa with members of the judiciary, government officials, representatives of U.N. agencies and European institutions involved in the program, and members of national and international nongovernmental organizations involved in the operation of the judicial system in Ituri.  The main objective of this document is to contribute to the improvement of the ability of the courts in Bunia to prosecute the perpetrators of the most serious violations of human rights.  It makes recommendations to this end, which Human Rights Watch hopes will be taken into account as the second phase of the program is negotiated.

[1] Report of the secretary-general to the U.N. Security Council on the protection of civilians in armed conflicts, S/2004/431, May 28, 2004.

[2] International Criminal Court, “The Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court opens its first investigation,” press release, June 23, 2004.

[3] For information on the state of the judicial system in the DRC, see “Democratic Republic of Congo: Confronting Impunity,” Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, January 2004.

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