Joseph Kabila, newly installed president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), has inherited an intractable war, a near void of civil institutions, and a legacy of human rights abuses committed under the rule of his father, the late President Laurent Kabila. The new president has tried to spark renewed peace discussions and has stirred hope for improvements on the domestic political front. He has promised new respect for civil liberties and has ordered legislation to be drafted recognizing political parties. He has established a commission to set terms for the national dialogue with other political forces, as specified in the Lusaka Accords.
During his nearly four years in power, former President Kabila regularly and ruthlessly violated the human rights of the Congolese people, killing, torturing, imprisoning, and causing the "disappearance" of any who he thought threatened him or his regime. Among those who suffered most were political opponents, leaders of civil society, human rights activists, and journalists.
Joseph Kabila has promised to return to a state based on law but has not yet initiated any reform of civilian justice. Part of the action on this urgent question should include a review of persons currently detained in prison and the prompt release of those held without charge or credible suspicion of guilt.
The new president has promised improvements in the military justice system. The commission of inquiry established to investigate the assassination of the elder Kabila may show how likely this effort is to succeed. The assassin, reportedly shot dead immediately after the crime, was said to have been part of the Kadogo unit and several other soldiers from that unit have been arrested. Kadogo, a term which means child soldier, refers to a unit of soldiers recruited when they were very young, many of them from the eastern provinces of the Kivus. If Kabila can ensure an orderly, transparent inquiry into the sensitive issue of his father's death, his commitment to improving military justice will gain credibility.
A number of sometimes competing security services operated during the time of the elder Kabila. Joseph Kabila reportedly forced the resignation of the heads of these services for their "incompetence and failures" in preventing the assassination of his father. He should also order investigations of how these services violated the basic rights of ordinary Congolese, particularly by making arbitrary arrests and by ill-treating and torturing detainees. For the rule of law to materialize, those responsible must be held accountable for their abuses.
Kabila has ordered a tightening of military discipline, but it is not clear if this involves new orders for troops to henceforth observe the Rules of war. During the 1996-1997 war which put Laurent Kabila in power, Congolese soldiers and their Rwandan and Ugandan allies attacked tens of thousands of civilians, slaughtering, raping, and otherwise injuring them, and driving hundreds of thousands from their homes. The U.N. made two efforts to document these war crimes but failed to complete their work, in part because of obstruction by the elder Kabila. After the team of experts appointed by the Secretary General delivered a report implicating Congolese and Rwandan soldiers in crimes against humanity and possible genocide, the U.N. Security Council charged the Congolese and Rwandan governments with carrying forward the investigation. Neither did so. Were Kabila to signal clear readiness to facilitate the work of a new international investigation, he would begin to substantiate his proclaimed commitment to justice. Presumably any new international investigation would also address violations of international humanitarian law during the current conflict.
During the course of the war, some of the national belligerents have meddled in local ethnic-based conflicts, often delivering the arms and military training that made such combat even more lethal. Because Rwandan and Ugandan troops in eastern Congo are seen as hostile occupying forces by many Congolese, ethnic groups identified with these outsiders have become increasingly vulnerable to attack by their neighbors. Kabila could play a major role in reducing ethnic tension by speaking out firmly about the common citizenship and rights of all Congolese, regardless of ethnic group or region of origin.