(Washington, DC) - Thank you, Madam Chair, for the invitation to testify at this hearing on the human rights situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). My name is Suliman Baldo, and I am a senior researcher at the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. This morning I will be commenting on the human rights abuses committed by the warring parties and the ensuing humanitarian crisis in the DRC.
Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned about the continuing carnage and waste that the war has unleashed on the population of the DR Congo. From our own coverage of the humanitarian and human rights costs of local conflicts spawned by the larger war, we find tragically realistic the recent estimates by the International Rescue Committee and other humanitarian agencies that the conflict has caused upward of 2.5 million deaths among the Congolese population, resulting mainly from forced displacement and the resulting lack of food, water, and medical aid.
The link between rampant human rights abuses and the obviously man-made humanitarian disaster is becoming all too familiar, in particular throughout the areas controlled by the foreign occupying armies of Rwandan, Uganda, and Burundi, and the Congolese rebel groups backed by these regional powers. In addition to these forces, other perpetrators in the eastern half of the country include Rwandan and Ugandan insurgents fighting the armies of their respective national governments on Congolese soil. Among the Rwandan insurgents are some who participated in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. In many localities, local rural militia known as Mai-Mai are also committing abuses against the civilian population, although other Mai-Mai groups are protecting their communities. In the disputed territories of Equateur and northern Katanga, government forces (Forces Armées Congolaises, FAC) have also conducted recent reprisal attacks on civilians accused of supporting the rebels.
Whenever any of these forces attack villages, markets, churches, hospitals, or other civilian locations, large numbers of civilians flee their homes and fields. The destruction of their properties and crops renders them totally destitute and undermines their traditional survival strategies and community based support structures. Many heads of households are killed, and many of the young either are forcibly conscripted by the rebels and their backers, or opt to become Mai-Mai fighters to defend their communities against the generalized insecurity. A dearth of outside humanitarian assistance contributes to the aggravation of the crisis. As a result, malnutrition rises; infant mortality skyrockets, and people succumb to curable diseases because they can no longer afford even minimal medical care.
This conflict has spawned serious and widespread human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law throughout the entire region. To achieve lasting peace and security in Central Africa, the administration and the international community must make accountability for these abuses a fundamental tenet of their policy.
Parties to the conflict generally ignored the Lusaka ceasefire agreement for more than a year and a half, responding hardly at all to diplomatic initiatives like the three days of discussion at the U.N. Security Council in January 2000 and numerous diplomatic missions to the region. But they finally began to move towards implementation in February 2001, following the death of Laurent Kabila and the installation of his son Joseph Kabila as the Congolese president. All of the major parties began pulling their troops back from their most advanced positions along the frontline of the international war.
Promising though these developments are, it is unlikely that this withdrawal will immediately end the many local conflicts that have been exacerbated by war at the national and international levels. We want to caution against early optimism: troops are disengaging but not withdrawing at present; the Rwandan Patriotic Army reportedly increased its presence in the Kivus; and support by the Kabila government for the Hutu combatants fighting the governments of Rwanda and Burundi has not yet entirely stopped.
Promises of internal reforms
Joseph Kabila has promised new respect for civil liberties and a return to a state based on law but he has yet to initiate any reform of civilian justice. Action on this urgent question should include a review of persons currently detained in prison. President Kabila should order the release of all those held without charges or credible suspicion of guilt. The African Association for the Defense of Human Rights (ASAHDO), one of the leading monitoring groups in the Congo, estimates that at least 200 political prisoners continue to be detained without charge. ASAHDO itself has been harassed by the Congolese government and its security forces. Authorities detained the head of the Association's chapter in Lubumbashi in mid-February, and continue to hold him without charges on suspicion of involvement in the assassination of the late President Kabila. On May 15, agents of the National Intelligence Agency briefly detained the acting chairman and an activist of ASADHO in Lubumbashi and interrogated them overnight about a meeting they had at the Belgian consulate. Indicative of the distance between discourse and realities in the DRC is the fact that ASAHDO's national office in Kinshasa remains closed down following a 1998 government raid, despite informal promises by Joseph Kabila's minister for human rights that the association would be allowed to function openly. The new president has promised improvements in the military justice system. He should begin by abolishing the abusive Court of Military Order, whose rulings cannot be appealed. He should also insist on greater order and transparency in the investigation into the assassination of the elder Kabila. The international commission of inquiry in charge of this investigation, which has representatives from the allied governments of Zimbabwe and Angola in addition to Congolese officials, now detains fifty-eight persons incommunicado, without charges or legal representation. In January President Joseph Kabila established a commission to set terms for the national dialogue with other political forces, as specified in the Lusaka Accords. On March 4 the government and three main rebel groups signed the "declaration of Lusaka" which laid down the general principles for the inter-Congolese dialogue. However, leading opposition parties in Kinshasa continued to boycott the preparatory commission since the current legislation does not recognize the existence of political parties. The political opposition and civil society groups continue their own preparations for the dialogue but are increasingly apprehensive that the government will focus its attention on the participation of the armed opposition and try to marginalize them. Much of the current ethnic tensions in the Congo are rooted in Mobutu Sese Sekou's attempts to strip Congolese of Rwandan ancestry of their right to Congolese citizenship. President Kabila should speak out firmly about the common citizenship and rights of all Congolese, regardless of ethnic group or region of origin.
The Congolese Rally for Democracy-Goma in Rwandan occupied areas
The rebel Congolese Rally for Democracy, known as RCD-Goma, controls parts of North Kivu, South Kivu, Maniema, Orientale, and Katanga provinces in the east and southeast. Human Rights Watch holds that these areas should be considered as under the occupation of Rwanda. Parts of South Kivu are also jointly occupied by Burundi. We have received credible reports indicating that Rwandan Patriotic Army troops withdrawn in mid-March from the front lines have not left the country, but were instead redeployed elsewhere in South and North Kivu. They may be intending to try to eliminate Rwandan combatants now known as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda. Redeployment may also be meant to permit more intensive exploitation activities in certain mining zones.
As amply documented in Human Rights Watch's reports "Eastern Congo Ravaged: Killing Civilians and Silencing Protest, May 2000" and "DRC: Casualties of War: Civilians, Rule of Law, and Democratic Freedoms, Feb. 1999," combat between the RPA and its Congolese allies of the RCD-Goma, on the one hand, and Rwandan combatants, on the other, frequently results in indiscriminate attacks on Congolese civilians accused of supporting the other side. Since the beginning of the current war, RPA-RCD-Goma soldiers have committed massacres against civilians in several villages of eastern Congo, including Kasika (19998), Makabola (1999), Katogota (2000), and Lusende (2000). Equally Hutu rebels and Mai-Mai militias have committed grave abuses, including massacres at Shabunda and Sake in 2000. Both parties have used sexual violence against women as a weapon of war to punish and humiliate communities they suspect of supporting their opponents. The RCD-Goma and the RPA continue to forcibly recruit Congolese adults and children, a campaign that has reached alarming rates as of the last quarter of 2000. They have also transferred from Rwanda the system of Local Defense Forces, which enroll local people, many of them children, in counterinsurgency at the village level.
Rwanda has recently launched an effort to assure it a lasting influence in the Kivus, even if it were to withdraw from the Congo. It has sent hundreds of Congolese community leaders, civil service officials, and youth and women activists to training sessions in Rwanda where they undergo intensive indoctrination and limited military training. On March 18, 2001, the top leadership of the RCD-Goma was on hand in Rwanda for the graduation ceremony of some 400 Congolese local leaders who had just finished a two-month session.
The RCD-Goma has a long record of harassing human rights defenders. The activities annually organized by local women rights groups in Bukavu to mark the international women day on 8 March were forbidden this year. Recently, RCD security agents repeatedly interrogated activists of Heritiers de la Justice, a leading monitoring group in South Kivu. In October 2000, RCD-Goma security agents broke up a coordination meeting among several human rights organizations in Bukavu; beat up the participants publicly, and briefly detained them in a military camp. In Goma, agents summoned activists of two other human rights organizations and told them not to speak to Roberto Garreton, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the DR Congo, during his March visit to the region.
The Front for the Liberation of Congo in Ugandan occupied areas
The Movement for the Liberation of Congo (Mouvement pour la Libération du Congo, MLC), headed by Jean-Pierre Bemba, controls much of Equateur province in the north. By early 2001, it had established its sway over another, less well organized rebel group, the Congolese Rally for Democracy-Liberation Movement (Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie-Mouvement de Libération (RCD-ML), which claimed to control parts of North Kivu, and Orientale provinces in eastern Congo. Uganda engineered this merger among its Congolese rebel allies to unify their military against the government alliance, and to shield it from increasing international scrutiny of its role in manipulating local political divisions and ethnic conflicts as a means of consolidating its control over these resource rich areas.
Uganda reacted angrily to the release in mid April of the report of the U.N. Panel of Experts on the Exploitation of National Resources and other Forms of Wealth of the DR Congo, threatening at one point to withdraw from the Lusaka peace process. Under international prodding, Uganda dropped the threat and committed to withdraw its troops from the country, saying that they have accomplished their mission of defeating the insurgent Allied Democratic Forces (ADF).
Human Rights Watch in March 2001 published the report "Uganda in Northeastern DRC: Fueling Political and Ethnic Strife" which documented the following abuses in areas occupied by Uganda near the border between Uganda and the DRC:
Ugandan military forces have played a decisive role in local affairs, even changing administrative boundaries and designating provincial officials, taking advantage of an administrative void resulting from continuing disputes among the various offshoots of the Ugandan-sponsored RCD-ML.
Within the context of the broader war and the continuing political conflicts, a small-scale dispute over land between Hema and Lendu peoples in northeastern DRC, one of many which previously appeared to have been settled peacefully, grew in scale and intensity. The Hema were thought to enjoy general support from the Ugandans, attributed to a supposed ethnic bond between the Hema of the DRC and those of Uganda. From the first violence in June 1999 through early 2000, an estimated 7,000 persons were killed and another 150,000 were displaced. In the most recent incident of violence in January 2001, another 400 people were killed during one day of violence in Bunia and at least 30,000 people were forced to flee the region.
The perception that the Ugandan army supported the Hema was made real in many communities by Ugandan soldiers who helped Hema in defending their large farms against Lendu attack and who helped Hema militia attack Lendu villages. In some cases, these soldiers provided support in return for payments to themselves or their superior officers. In at least one case, Ugandan soldiers also assisted Lendu in attacking Hema. In one reported clash Ugandan soldiers backing different sides engaged in combat against each other. The assistance of Ugandan soldiers as well as the provision of training and arms to local forces resulted in a larger number of civilian casualties in these conflicts than would otherwise have been the case.
Under the guise of creating an army for the rebel movement, Congolese political leaders developed their own groups of armed supporters, bound to them by ties of personal and/or ethnic loyalty. On several occasions in the last two years, these armed supporters have engaged in operations in which civilians were killed. Uganda trained these groups even when it seemed likely that they would be used in local ethnic and partisan conflict rather than as part of a disciplined military force.
All parties, including the Ugandans, recruited and trained children to serve as soldiers. In August 2000 Uganda transported some 163 children, part of a larger group of 700 recruits, to Uganda for military training. Only in February 2001 did the government of Uganda grant various international agencies access to these children with a view to their demobilization and resettlement.
Contending RCD-ML political leaders Wamba dia Wamba and Mbusa Nyamwisi as well as Uganda People's Defence Force (UPDF) soldiers have illegally detained political leaders whom they have identified as opponents and held them under inhumane conditions. In some cases the UPDF and RCD-ML forces have tortured political opponents in detention.
The RCD-ML's "prime minister" Mbusa Nyamwisi, a local leader from a third powerful ethnic group, the Nande, sought to increase his power base by allying with Mai-Mai forces, groups of local militia who had been fighting largely to expel foreign occupiers of their territory. Originally ready to tolerate this alliance, the Ugandans then rejected it. In subsequent conflicts with the Mai-Mai, Ugandan forces as well as Congolese rebels loyal to Mbusa extrajudicially executed captured Mai-Mai combatants. Subsequently, the UPDF attacked local people thought to have assisted the Mai-Mai, killing civilians and laying waste to their villages.
Ugandan soldiers also formed and supported the front organization called RCD-National, which appeared to be an operation to extract and market the rich mineral resources of the Bafwasende area rather than the political party which it claimed to be. This blatant exploitation of Congolese wealth for the benefit of both locally based and other more highly placed Ugandan military officers symbolized the larger exploitation of the whole region for the benefit of outside actors.
Recommendations to the United States
1. Strongly and publicly denounce violations of international humanitarian law by all parties in the DRC war and insist upon accountability for the perpetrators. Exert strong and consistent pressures on all foreign countries involved in the war as well as on the Congolese government to observe their obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law. Exert similar pressure on rebel groups and local militia to also observe the prescriptions of such law.
2. Support measures to document crimes against humanity and other gross violations of international humanitarian law during this conflict. The U.S. should encourage the U.N. Security Council to resume an investigation into these crimes stalled since 1998. It should ensure that adequate resources are provided for these investigations.
3. Press President Kabila to implement the promised reforms of the civilian and military judicial systems, to permit the promised openness to political parties, human rights groups and other forms of civil society. It should insist that he issue immediate orders that the Congolese army observe the rules of international humanitarian law and bring to justice those who violate this law.
4. Call on rebel groups and their backers to ensure that civil society be permitted to function undisturbed in zones under their control.
5. Insist that all parties to the conflict instruct their forces to immediately observe the rules of international humanitarian law and hold accountable any of their combatants who fail to do so. All parties should allow unfettered access and the neutral provision of humanitarian assistance to all populations in need.
6. Demand that all parties involved in the war immediately cease the recruitment and use of child soldiers and provide for their demobilization and reintegration into society.
7. Increase its humanitarian aid to the DRC and involve local nongovernmental organizations in its distribution.
8. Support the strengthening the human rights part of the mandate of the UN force in the DRC so that human rights monitors are deployed in all locations where observers are present.