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Combating War Crimes in Africa

Testimony of Corinne Dufka before the U.S. House International Relations Committee, Africa Subcommittee

I want to thank Chairman Royce and ranking member Payne for inviting my organization, Human Rights Watch, to address the Africa Subcommittee about the important topic we are addressing here today: Combating War Crimes in Africa.

My name is Corinne Dufka. I am a senior researcher and the West Africa team leader for the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. I was based in Freetown, Sierra Leone from 1999 through late 2003 where I researched and reported on appalling human rights abuses in the sub-region including those in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire. In 2002-2003, I took one year off from Human Rights Watch to work as an investigator with the Office of the Prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

In the course of my work with Human Rights Watch, I have spoken with hundreds of victims, witnesses to, and perpetrators of unspeakable war crimes and crimes against humanity, almost exclusively committed against unarmed civilians.

I recall the heartbreaking story of a mechanical engineer in Freetown who watched while his six children and only grandchild were lined up against a wall in January 1999 and executed by a rebel soldier. I recall the look on the face of a mother as she described fighting to protect the last of her three daughters from being dragged away by retreating rebel soldiers. Of how a father was forced at gunpoint to watch as his young daughter was gang raped by rebel combatants, some of them children; and of a young man who had dreamed of becoming an accountant who described how rebels hacked off both of his hands with a rusty axe. I heard numerous testimonies including a father's account of how near Tongo Field in late 1997, members of government-backed militias lined up and executed scores of civilians, including his 15-year-old son.

In Liberia, the stories were much the same. A 30-year-old man from Popalahun described how in September 2001, large numbers of civilians from the Gbandi ethnic group were found hiding in the forest by Liberian government soldiers and later burned in a house in nearby Kamatehun. Or how a young mother from Bondawalahun was forced by a Liberian government soldier to choose between dying herself or having her infant murdered in front of her.

Over the last 10 years, at least 18 countries in Africa have been consumed by war, usually internal. At present there are several active conflicts in Africa - they are Côte d'Ivoire, the Darfur region of Sudan, Northern Uganda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Despite the body of treaties, laws and conventions aimed at protecting civilians during times of war, civilians are more and more often the targeted by both state and non-state actors. The methods they employ include mass slaughter, the use of terror, ethnic cleansing, and forced migration. Wars on the Africa continent are increasingly fought by forced recruits, often children who are ripped away from their families and turned into killers.

To combat war crimes in Africa, two key and indeed related components are urgently necessary - the first is ensuring accountability for serious human rights crimes, and the second is implementing preventive strategies to detect, stop and/or mitigate situations with the potential to develop into systematic war crimes.

Ensuring accountability for serious human rights crimes

Every civilian victim who has been brutally mutilated, raped, abducted or murdered has a name, and so too do the individuals responsible for perpetrating such atrocities. The abuses were not random incidents; they were most often the result of a deliberate policy on the part of the highest levels of leadership. And yet very few of those responsible for widespread and systematic abuses or indeed for orchestrating policies of abuse are brought to justice. Recent history has shown that these killers more often than not receive plum ministry positions as part of peace deals that grant them amnesty or fail to hold them accountable, and even reward them for their horrific acts. Often such war criminals and the impunity they receive contribute to future instability.

Human Rights Watch strongly believes that justice is not a moral luxury. Victims whose lives have been torn apart by violence in Africa have just as much a right to see justice done than victims of violence anywhere in the world. The victims of amputation who will struggle without hands everyday of the rest of their lives; the tens of thousands of people who lost those most precious to them - very often in the most brutal of ways and often in front of them - deserve to know that those who designed and implemented such atrocities are punished for the acts they ordered and/or perpetrated.

Human Rights Watch also believes that accountability for past crimes is central to combating future war crimes, particularly in Africa, where a culture of impunity has often prevailed and is too often tolerated by Africans themselves, and by the international community.

Impunity for atrocities committed in the past sends the message that such crimes may be tolerated in the future. In post-conflict societies, accountability for war crimes is essential to laying the foundation for building respect for the rule of law and human rights. The often-heard argument that those who insist on accountability for heinous war crimes are the spoilers, the saboteurs of peace and stability, is illogical and has been proven wrong all too often.

For example, in a quick bid to end the first brutal Liberian civil war and in the face of massive crimes committed against civilians, U.N. and West African leaders agreed to a peace plan that dispensed with justice and rushed an election that installed warlord Charles Taylor as president in 1997. Not surprisingly, within a short time, the country was back at war. The six years of repressive rule by President Charles Taylor that followed and the next war were characterized by the same egregious abuses against civilians as the earlier war and further set the country back. Despite this reality, in the recent peace deal in Liberia, well-known war criminals were given high-level ministry positions within the National Transitional Government of Liberia.

In another example, in Sierra Leone in 1999, the late RUF leader Foday Sankoh, allegedly responsible for some of the most brutal crimes committed against civilians, received not only an amnesty for previous violations, but was rewarded. In exchange for signing the Lomé peace accord he was given control of the ministry in charge of the nation's vast natural resources. Months later he went on to attack both the government and United Nations peacekeepers, taking hundreds hostage.

In the DRC, the recent abuses committed in Bukavu are an example of what results when past crimes committed by some of the same commanders are tolerated and go unpunished. In August 2002, Human Rights Watch reported on the massacres that took place in Kisangani in May 2002 when RCD-Goma soldiers brutally suppressed an attempted mutiny in their ranks. One of the commanding officers involved in these war crimes was Brigadier General Laurent Nkunda, who was never investigated nor charged for his role in these killings. To the contrary, he was proposed by the RCD-Goma as one of its officers to join the unified army. This sent the wrong message; that perpetrators of crimes and human rights abuses would be rewarded with government positions and could continue to commit atrocities with complete impunity, which he and his forces did in Bukavu in May and June of this year. As Nkunda's soldiers marched from Goma to Bukavu, they attacked numerous villages and civilians. In Bukavu, international and local organizations documented numerous cases of killing and rape, including the brutal rape by Nkunda's soldiers of at least six cases of children under five.

Impunity or a failure of accountability also characterizes the current situation of former Liberian president Charles Taylor, in exile in Nigeria. Despite having commanded troops who perpetrated war crimes in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire, and despite having been indicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone on 17 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, Charles Taylor is being shielded from justice by the Nigerian government. In a deal brokered by the United Nations, the United States and ECOWAS, Taylor was offered asylum in exchange for leaving Liberia. The U.S. has failed to take a strong position on the need for Nigeria to hand Charles Taylor over to the Special Court. In February of this year, Secretary of State Colin Powell justified such inaction and characterized the issue as "a matter between him [Taylor] and that tribunal."

This U.S. position is not consistent with U.S. support for the Special Court for Sierra Leone and indeed the position of this committee which has been clear on the importance of Taylor being surrendered to the Special Court. In creating the Special Court, the international community and especially the United States, its biggest financial backer, made an important commitment to bring justice for the horrific crimes committed in Sierra Leone. This initiative to promote justice and respect for the rule of law will be significantly undercut if Taylor is shielded from the court. The same can be said for the U.S. commitment to combat war crimes in Africa or anywhere else.

This unsatisfactory state of affairs is unfortunately representative of other U.S. policy on war crimes in Africa more generally which has often lacked clarity and constancy. For example, the United States has pursued an aggressive and proactive policy in favor of arresting genocide suspects and bringing them to stand trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The US conditioned support to the former Kabila regime on that regime demonstrating willingness to arrest genocide suspects hiding in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), on supporting U.N. resolutions calling for the surrender of Rwandans to the Rwandan tribunal, and on pressuring Great Lakes countries to do the same. However, the United States has failed to actively confront Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi - often identified as the source of support of rebel factions in the DRC. This, added to the US position against the International Criminal Court, an institution strongly supported in DRC brings into questions the US's true commitment to bring justice for war crimes in an even-handed manner.

U.S. pressure for the surrender of indicted war criminals to the ICTR also stands in sharp contrast to its position on the surrender of indicted war criminal Charles Taylor to the Special Court for Sierra Leone. This reluctance to press Nigeria to hand over Taylor fosters a double standard that betrays the people of Sierra Leone and makes light of all that they have suffered. To promote justice and combat impunity, the United States must take a stand on the matter of Taylor's surrender to the Special Court.

The need for US action is particularly urgent given the May 31 historic ruling by the Special Court rejecting Taylor's claim that he enjoyed immunity from prosecution for war crimes and crimes against humanity as a sitting head of state at the time of his indictment. This landmark ruling affirms the principle that no one should be above the law for the most serious crimes. It is exactly this principle that must be enforced in West Africa to promote greater respect for the rule of law and combat war crimes in Africa.

But Taylor's surrender is also needed for a more practical reason. Human Rights Watch has received credible information that Charles Taylor's exile in Nigeria poses a continued risk to stability in West Africa. Sources inside Liberia report that Taylor remains in frequent contact with members of his former government and that an insurgency composed of fighters loyal to him, including combatants from the former Revolutionary United Front (RUF), Anti Terrorist Unit (ATU), and Special Security Service (SSS) as well as numerous Guinean dissidents are training in Liberia near the border with Côte d'Ivoire. We understand this insurgency is being supported by business ventures in which Taylor holds an interest that is not recorded publicly, and that the insurgency's activities may include destabilizing Guinea.

Nigeria's continued shielding of Taylor goes against international law, is an affront to his innumerable victims, and undermines the political and financial investment by the United States to combat impunity in Africa.

We assume U.S. involvement in the negotiations that led to Taylor leaving power in Liberia and obtaining asylum in Nigeria were aimed at stopping the bloodshed of innocent civilians being killed on the streets of Monrovia. We believe it is now time for the U.S. to intervene on behalf of different victims - those from Sierra Leone's war - and in so doing to take an unequivocal stand against impunity in West Africa. If the United States is serious about combating war crimes in Africa, it must take a stand now. The US must use public and private diplomacy to call on Nigerian President Obasanjo to surrender Charles Taylor to the court.

Combating systematic war crimes

1) Control of Arms Flows

Africa is a sad showcase of the human rights and humanitarian costs of the uncontrolled proliferation of small arms and light weapons. Quantities of arms have flowed to the region causing the rampant misuse of such weapons by state and non-state actors alike. The easy availability of small arms, conflict and human rights abuses in West Africa are interwoven. The spread and misuse of small arms helps fuel conflict, and conflict generates a market for more weapons. These weapons, in the hands of combatants who have a history of indifference for the principle of civilian immunity, lead to grave violations against innocent people. Mercenaries and arms traffickers make a tidy profit off their trades, and the combatants can often count on outside support to finance their wars. But, it is civilians who ultimately pay the highest price.

The United States can and should take steps to address these troubling trends including restraining U.S. arms exports to conflict regions, supporting disarmament measures, and promoting legally binding norms to prevent arms from being supplied to human rights abusers.

In West Africa, the ECOWAS small arms moratorium and its implementation need to be strengthened. In our view, the moratorium should be expanded to encompass all weapons categories, developed into an information-exchange mechanism, and made binding. These measures are particularly critical for the potentially disastrous situations in the Côte d'Ivoire, Burundi and the DRC where weapons coming in and out need to be closely monitored.

The United States also should support monitoring of arms embargoes and accountability for sanctions-busters, and do so consistently. It should insist on compliance with arms embargoes by private actors and governments, even those allied to the U.S., as is the case with Guinea and Rwanda. The work of U.N. expert panels in Africa has been valuable and their recommendations should be taken up, which the United States can help ensure in concert with other members of the U.N. Security Council.

On the issue of mercenaries, militias, and roving fighters, the U.S., through its presence in West Africa, could help bring the problem under control by collaborating with relevant bodies to monitor and publicize their activities, especially with respect to how these rogue elements are armed and financed.

The United States also can exercise leadership on the global agenda to address some of the fundamental problems that contribute to human rights catastrophes in West Africa and elsewhere. One key area is the need for global measures to control the activities of arms brokers. Another is developing, adopting, and adhering to minimum global standards for arms exports, so that weapons are not furnished to known abusers. Strict human rights standards also must be upheld when granting military assistance. U.S. legislation circumscribing such assistance on human rights grounds offers a useful model that could be promoted abroad.

2) Corruption

The second strategy for preventing conflict has to do with issues of good governance; of corruption. Sierra Leone is a case in point. In many ways, the jury is still out on whether that country will remain a nation at peace. The guns are silent, however, the deep rooted issues that gave rise to the conflict - endemic corruption, weak rule of law, crushing poverty, and the inequitable distribution of the country's vast natural resources - remain largely unaddressed by the government and the international community.

Corruption within both the public and private sectors in Sierra Leone remains endemic and a source of serious human rights abuses. Meanwhile, the state of the countries schools, hospitals and clinics are in complete disarray and public service employees often go for weeks without pay. Scandals involving the misappropriation of public and international donor funds to key ministries including health and education are common place.

In these countries, the institutions designed to represent and protect civilians; the government, the police and the military, have instead been the source of considerable instability, corruption, and human rights violations, yet they have enjoyed near-complete immunity from prosecution. Today unemployment is over 70 percent in Sierra Leone, the vast majority of the population survives on less than a dollar a day. Although some 40,000 combatants have been disarmed, thousands are part of youth organizations that have maintained their previously held military structures and are angry and disappointed as their lives have not yet improved.

Angola, where the government has consistently mismanaged its substantial oil revenues and, despite rhetorical commitments, has yet to demonstrate a meaningful commitment to reform, provides another striking example. In recent years, literally billions of dollars in oil revenues have illegally bypassed the central bank and remain unaccounted for. Such missing revenues reflect a failure of government accountability more generally and are directly linked to the Angolan government's continuing failure to foster institutions that uphold the rule of law and human rights. The sums involved are staggering. From 1997 to 2002, unaccounted for funds amounted to some U.S. $4.22 billion.

Conditions in Sierra Leone and Angola are similar to many countries across the continent whether coming out of conflict or teetering on the brink of it. The United States can exert tremendous leverage over the policies of the many governments in Africa grappling with this insidious problem. The US must adopt a zero tolerance policy towards corruption and take every opportunity to both privately and publicly underscore the importance of combating it. In resource rich countries the U.S. must press governments to publish financial reports so that a full account of revenues, expenditures, and debt is made public and transparent. The US must be willing to use its influence to press forcefully for change.

3) Monitoring and Control of Hate Speech Causing Incitement

Too often African politicians who should be working to create societies based on tolerance, equality and the rule of law, have instead openly engaged in the political exploitation of ethnicity to both eliminate political rivals and, in time of war, to claim military victory in conflict.

Rwanda is an extreme example. There, a radio station incited fear and hatred against the Tutsi, and gave specific orders on how to carry out such killings, including identifying individuals to be attacked and specifying where they could be found.

Silencing these radio broadcasts would not only have ended this particularly effective form of incitement and delivery of specific orders; it would have shown that the international community rejected the legitimacy of the genocidal message and those who were delivering it. The United States considered jamming the broadcasts from an airplane, but found the cost - about $8,000 an hour - too high.

While mindful of balancing the importance of freedom of expression as a core value of human rights, we believe that any restriction on the content of expression must address speech that is likely to incite violence, discrimination or hostility against an individual or clearly defined group of persons in circumstances in which such violence, discrimination or hostility is imminent and alternative measures to prevent such conduct are not reasonably available.

The U.S. must pay close attention to the media in situations of potential ethnic, religious, or racial conflict and must be willing to use all leverage to pressure governments to act more responsibly. In this regard, the current situation in Côte d'Ivoire demands particular attention. In cases of impending genocide, the US must be prepared to silence broadcasts that incite or provide directions for violence.

Thank you for the opportunity to share this testimony with you today. On behalf of so many millions of Africans whose lives have been torn apart by war, I urge Congress to pressure the U.S. government to do all that it can to provide accountability for the perpetrators of egregious violations, and act with vision to adopt preventative strategies to combat future violations and senseless loss of life.

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