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African Great Lakes Region: Human Rights Concerns for the 61st Session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights

Objective  
 
The Commission on Human Rights should appoint a Special Rapporteur for the African Great Lakes region (Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi, Uganda and Rwanda) to report on cross border human rights concerns, including the growth of ethnic tensions and the human rights consequences of cross border military activity. As recognized by the Great Lakes International Conference on Peace, Security, Democracy and Development, these countries are linked by a history of interrelated conflicts and by frequent cross border refugee flows. They also share similar post-conflict needs for justice and the protection of civil and political rights.

In recognition of the urgent need to end the impunity of human rights violators from prosecution that has characterized the region, the Commission should urge donor nations as well as UN agencies to support mechanisms for accountability, including reformed national judicial systems and the vetting of appointees to high military rank for evidence of past human rights abuse.  
 
Background  
 
Continuing Armed Conflict and Rising Ethnic Tensions. The DRC, Burundi, Uganda, and Rwanda struggle with the consequences of armed conflict and massive violations of international humanitarian law that have left more than five million civilians dead and millions of others traumatized, physically incapacitated, and impoverished. Movements of refugees, combatants, and ideologies across frontiers have linked conflicts in these countries. The massacre of 162 Congolese refugees at Gatumba, Burundi in August 2004 and the subsequent Rwandan threat to invade the DRC to punish the supposed perpetrators is one example of these close connections. The support of Rwanda and Uganda for armed groups operating in eastern DRC, as reported by the UN expert panel on the arms embargo of eastern DRC, is another example; these groups are responsible for serious human rights crimes including ethnic slaughter. Still another case includes Rwandan armed groups, in opposition to the current government of Rwanda, that kill, rape, and otherwise abuse civilians in eastern DRC.  
 
Military operations, with attendant violations of human rights and humanitarian law, continue in DRC and Burundi. Last year ethnic tensions rose sharply in the DRC where persons linked linguistically or culturally with Rwanda were targeted as necessarily linked to activities of Rwandan authorities in the DRC; in Burundi ethnic balance remains a potentially destabilizing issue as the country attempts to complete its political transition; in Rwanda the government has launched a major campaign against "genocidal ideology," encompassing in that term apparently legitimate exercises of civil and political rights.  
 
Need for Justice. International courts working in the region, including the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the International Criminal Court (ICC), deal with only a tiny fraction of the crimes committed in this region in recent years. Rwanda is moving towards trials of hundreds of thousands of persons accused of genocide in a popular justice system (gacaca) and is to begin trials in a newly reformed national court system. Burundi and DRC are rebuilding national judicial systems and putting truth and reconciliation commissions into operation. Given the importance of ending impunity for widespread past crimes and given the importance of assuring that nascent judicial systems comply with internationally recognized human rights standards, the Commission should closely monitor efforts to establish accountability in this region through a Special Rapporteur.  
 
Screening Military Appointees. National armies being formed in DRC and Burundi, as well as that already formed in Rwanda, incorporate forces from national armies as well as from forces formerly opposed to the current governments. The DRC government recently appointed as generals and other senior officers a score of persons against whom there exists serious proof of grave human rights abuses. The government of Burundi has granted immunity from prosecution for all crimes (except genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity) to members of its armed forces and of one major rebel movement; there remains a possibility of a more general amnesty in Burundi. The Ugandan government has sought to obtain immunity from prosecution for armed groups leaders operating in northeastern DRC despite evidence that they have ordered or tolerated war crimes and crimes against humanity. Without a careful screening process, persons suspected of grave human rights violations may be named, or may already have been named, to high military ranks in the newly integrated armies. Through a Special Rapporteur, the Commission could actively encourage and assist national governments in establishing such a screening process.  
 
Assuring Civil and Political Rights. As the DRC, Uganda and Burundi move towards elections, representatives of political parties in these countries have charged authorities with infringing upon their civil and political rights, including freedom of association and freedom of expression. In the DRC, selected television stations were temporarily shut down in late 2004 after broadcasting information perceived by authorities as unfavorable to President Joseph Kabila. In Rwanda, local and international groups have deplored the arrest and detention of individuals who supported opposition candidates in the elections in 2003 and the harassment and intimidation of local journalists.  
 
Recommendations  
 
The Commission on Human Rights should adopt a resolution that would:  

  • Condemn continuing grave violations of international humanitarian law by armed groups and government armed forces in the DRC and in Burundi;  
     
  • Appoint a Special Rapporteur for the Great Lakes region to monitor cross border human rights concerns between the DRC, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi and to strengthen efforts at achieving accountability for past massive violations of international humanitarian law in these countries;  
     
  • Encourages the governments of DRC, Burundi, and Rwanda to give priority to rebuilding national justice systems by investing the necessary resources and ensuring judicial independence;  
     
  • Urges donor governments and UN agencies to provide essential assistance to these governments in rebuilding their judicial systems;  
     
  • Urges the governments of DRC, Burundi, and Rwanda to set up a screening process to determine the suitability according to human rights criteria of candidates to senior army ranks and request the DRC government to review recent appointments of officers against whom evidence exists of apparent involvement in serious human rights abuses;  
     
  • Commend the staff of the field offices of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the technical advisors in DRC and Burundi, the human rights officers of MONUC and other UN agencies, and national and international human rights organizations for their diligence in gathering evidence of grave violations of international humanitarian law in the DRC, Burundi, and Rwanda and encourage them to continue this work.  

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