Dear Ambassador,

We write in advance of your visit to Africa to highlight key human rights concerns relevant to the Great Lakes region, Liberia, and in your meetings with the African Union, with suggested action points.

Great Lakes region

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

Despite the dramatic shift in alliances in eastern Congo in recent months and an improvement in relations between Congo and Rwanda, and between Congo and Uganda, the fundamental problems have not improved. Peace, safety, and stability for individual Congolese remain as elusive ever. The humanitarian and human rights situation in eastern Congo remains desperate: marginal improvements in some areas offset by sharp deteriorations in others. More than 1.4 million people are still displaced, of which 250,000 in North Kivu have fled violence since January 2009.

Human Rights Watch has long documented brutal attacks in the Kivu region against civilians by two Rwandan militia groups, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and the Rally for Unity and Democracy (RUD). The most recent attacks seem to be a deliberate response to military operations against these groups by the Congolese and Rwandan armies. UN peacekeepers are now supporting follow-up military operations, known as Operation Kimia II, but the reprisal attacks on civilians continue. Civilian protection is never easy to manage in the face of such tactics, but efforts to date by government forces and the UN have been insufficient.

The Congolese army (FARDC) is also a big part of the problem. Ill-disciplined, poorly led and badly paid, FARDC soldiers in eastern DRC have killed dozens of civilians, raped women and girls, and burned hundreds of homes indiscriminately this year. Civilians tell us that they fear the FARDC as much as the Rwandan militias. Human Rights Watch research shows that the number of women and girls who are victims of rape has increased dramatically since January 2009. In Lubero territory (North Kivu), the FARDC are responsible for over half of them.

The UN mission, MONUC, has a difficult job. It is the world's largest peacekeeping operation but it is operating in one of the most difficult environments. At the same time, UN peacekeepers working alongside the FARDC in Operation Kimia II have been unable to stop Congolese soldiers from committing many serious abuses, nor have they demanded (as a pre-condition for their cooperation) the removal of known human rights abusers from Congolese ranks. Bosco Ntaganda, wanted under an International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant for war crimes, even has a leadership role in these operations, as confirmed by Congolese army documents leaked last month to Reuters and the BBC. So does Jean-Pierre Biyoyo, who was found guilty by a Congolese military court in March 2006 for recruiting children into a militia. It is unacceptable for the UN and the Security Council to tolerate abusers in such positions: it entrenches a culture of impunity, undermines MONUC's role in promoting justice, and makes the Council complicit in putting civilians at risk. 

MONUC has internal challenges. But it is also overstretched and under-resourced.  The 3,000 additional peacekeepers authorized and promised by the Security Council in November 2008 are still not deployed. Desperately-needed helicopters, rapid-reaction and intelligence capabilities remain elusive. On April 9 in New York, Alan Doss, the head of MONUC, warned the Council that without such assets MONUC's "capacity to respond quickly to emerging threats and protect civilians would be curtailed." Few Council members have shown leadership and committed meaningful military forces of their own to the UN.

The failed attempt by the Congolese, South Sudanese and Ugandan People's Defence Forces (UPDF) to apprehend the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) leaders in northern Congo in December 2008 had devastating consequences for the local population. A January 2009 Human Rights Watch fact-finding mission to the area documented the LRA's brutal "reprisal" attacks, including the killing of at least 865 civilians and the abduction of at least 160 children. We also documented the inadequate attention paid to civilian protection before, during and after the military operation. MONUC has since deployed troops to the Dungu area and other locations, but these measures are still insufficient for the task required.

Abuses by the LRA continue, including at least 11 civilians killed and 24 abducted in the first two weeks of April 2009. Over 200,000 civilians have been displaced in Orientale province since December. The Security Council has an important role in ensuring that LRA abuses remain on the international agenda, that civilian protection is addressed, and that justice for victims is guaranteed. If it does not, civilians in Congo and neighboring countries will continue to be at risk, especially in Sudan and the Central African Republic.

Human Rights Watch supports efforts to disarm Rwandan and other militias. But simply replacing one set of abuses and displacement in Congo for another is not a long-term solution. High-level political fixes between the region's governments do not guarantee improvement on the ground.

We urge the Security Council to ensure that:

  • Those responsible for serious human rights abuses are held to account. Members of foreign armed groups, local militias, or the Congolese army who commit or order attacks on civilians should be prosecuted for war crimes. The Council should insist that all military operations in Congo respect international human rights and humanitarian law and that MONUC cease cooperation with FARDC and foreign armies if serious violations recur.
  • MONUC has the troops and resources it needs to protect civilians. Council members could show a lead by offering the desperately-needed helicopters, rapid-reaction, and logistical and intelligence support. In the case of LRA-affected communities, this means giving priority to the protection of populations at greatest risk, namely Faradje, Duru, Banda, and especially Doruma
  • Known human rights abusers are immediately removed from Operation Kimia II and condition future MONUC operational support on their arrest. Ntaganda and Biyoyo should be arrested first, but arrests should not end with them. A credible vetting mechanism for the Congolese army and police should also be implemented
  • A detailed, properly-resourced, and transparent strategy for civilian protection is developed and made central to all UN-supported military operations. MONUC should reach out to civil society and humanitarian actors to ensure that the strategy follows best practice and international humanitarian law. It might include safe zones for civilians, better communication with affected communities, providing escorts for civilians, and delivering humanitarian aid.
  • MONUC puts in place a mobile monitoring unit with clear benchmarks to regularly report on and review Operation Kimia II's adherence to international humanitarian law. Reports from this unit should be reviewed regularly at the highest level, and timely actions taken.
  • A clear and properly resourced international strategy is developed to apprehend and bring to justice LRA commanders wanted by the ICC, plus others implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity.
  • UN civilian teams with strong human and children's rights components are deployed to LRA-affected areas around Dungu, to monitor abuses by all parties to the conflict.

Rwanda

Fifteen years after the genocide, President Paul Kagame's government is tightening controls on political space, civil society, and the media. Opposition to government policies often leads to official accusations of "genocide ideology," based on a vaguely-defined law that requires no link to any genocidal act or incitement to violence. Instead of minimizing ethnic divisions, the law merely forces the issue of ethnicity in Rwanda beneath the surface. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and extradition courts in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have ruled that the law is one reason why an accused may not receive a fair trial in Rwanda.

Another key issue affecting long-term reconciliation and stability in Rwanda is accountability for crimes committed before, during, and after the 1994 genocide. Those responsible for the genocide need to be held to account. But justice also means holding to account those members of the now-governing Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) who committed crimes in violation of international law. To date, Rwanda's ruling party has refused to cooperate with the ICTR even on the most serious cases, making it impossible for victims of RPF crimes to receive justice.

Most Rwandans are left with a sense of one-sided, or victor's, justice. The UN estimates that 25,000 to 45,000 people were killed by RPF soldiers between April and August 1994. Yet, until 2008, only 32 RPF soldiers had been brought to trial for crimes committed against civilians in 1994, with 14 found guilty and given light sentences. In June 2008, Rwanda nominally charged four military officers with war crimes for the killing of 15 civilians, including 13 clergy. However, the RPF-appointed military prosecutor did not vigorously pursue the case on the basis of the evidence in the government's possession concerning those responsible for the crime.

The June 2008 case did nothing to enhance Rwanda's reputation for judicial impartiality. In jurisdictions beyond its borders, Rwanda has also aggressively sought to avert prosecution of its soldiers, by impeding the travel of witnesses for genocide trials at the ICTR in 2002 (forcing the suspension of several trials for months) and later breaking diplomatic relations with countries whose prosecutors issued or implemented warrants for RPF officials.

RPF crimes are not equivalent to genocide. But the rights of the victims are equivalent: all have the right to justice and redress, regardless of the nature of the crime and regardless of their ethnic and political affiliation and that of the alleged perpetrator. Without some discussion of- and accountability for- the atrocities committed in 1994 by all sides, long-term reconciliation and peace in Rwanda will remain elusive, and stability in the Great Lakes region could be undermined.

The Security Council established the ICTR to ensure that those responsible for heinous crimes be prosecuted. It has demanded in several resolutions that all parties cooperate with the Tribunal and that the ICTR Prosecutor's office investigate crimes committed by all sides. Yet the Council has consistently allowed the Rwandan authorities to ignore their obligations.

We urge the Security Council to:

  • Encourage President Kagame to acknowledge that the RPF committed war crimes in 1994 and to allow victims of those crimes the right to obtain redress.
  • Challenge President Kagame to allow the ICTR to do its work unimpeded.
  • Press the ICTR's chief prosecutor, Hasan Jallow, to forge ahead with RPF indictments when he briefs the Council in New York on June 4.

African Union

Somalia

In your meetings with African Union officials in Addis Ababa, Somalia will be a key concern. Everyone wants an end to the humanitarian and human rights catastrophe in that country, but this means learning the lessons of the past. These show that misguided external interventions, shoring up unrepresentative or ineffective leaders in the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), and financing abusive security forces merely repeats previous cycles of violence. 

For example, recent international interventions in Somalia's security sector have exacerbated problems rather than eased them. In 2007, donors began training and other assistance for TFG police forces through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). This included direct financial support for police salaries. However, during that period, the police were implicated in serious human rights abuses, including the indiscriminate killing of civilians during combat operations, arbitrary detention of civilians in Mogadishu to extort ransom payments from their families, looting, armed robbery, and murder.

At a donors' conference in April 2009 in Brussels, the United States, the European Union and others pledged increased resources for TFG security forces and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). While efforts to bolster security are a justifiable priority, governments promoting them need to recognize that deeply entrenched patterns of impunity for serious abuses have been a primary cause of violence in Somalia over the long term. The conference paid insufficient attention to these issues. Rather than blindly bolstering existing institutions and the TFG per se, the Security Council and others should focus on improving security for Somali civilians.

We urge the Security Council to ensure that:

  • Action is taken to make the security forces more accountable: the removal of police commissioner Abdi Qeybdid, who has a history of human rights abuses, would be a positive start.
  • Effective vetting mechanisms are set up for anyone being considered for recruitment to any official security organization.
  • Effective human rights components are part of all security forces' training.
  • An independent mechanism is set up to investigate alleged abuses by TFG and AMISOM personnel.
  • A UN Commission of Inquiry into human rights abuses in the country is established. Such an inquiry need not have the backing of the parties to the conflict and could begin its work outside the country by interviewing the hundreds of thousands of Somalis in external refugee camps.
  • Somalia's terrible humanitarian crisis is addressed urgently - 1.2 million Somalis were displaced from their homes as of March 2009, and 3.25 million need humanitarian assistance. Human Rights Watch has reported extensively on the failure to protect the rights of Somalis seeking refuge in Kenya.

Sudan

Also in Addis, the Security Council will discuss its approach to Sudan with its African Union counterparts, including the arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, and the need for the Sudanese government to cooperate with the ICC. 

Human Rights Watch hopes that the Council will explain that the horrific abuses in Darfur committed by forces directed by the Khartoum government led the UN to establish a Commission of Inquiry in 2004. Council members could further explain that the gravity of the crimes and inadequacy of domestic Sudanese accountability mechanisms - as documented by the Commission of Inquiry- became the basis for the Council's referral of the Darfur situation to the ICC in Resolution 1593 in 2005.  The Council should add that Resolution 1593 obliges Sudan to cooperate with the ICC even though the country is not a party to the Rome Statute.

We also call on the Council to highlight that the ICC is an independent judicial institution and that Sudanese government obstruction of the Court's warrants for two other Sudanese officials, plus the recent expulsion of humanitarian aid agencies from Darfur, shows Khartoum's flagrant disregard for the victims in Darfur and international humanitarian law.

The Council should also debunk the notion that peace efforts in the region are being undermined by these warrants: the fact is that peace has eluded Darfur for years and the region is no closer now to a durable peace for the victims of the violence. Similarly, there is no evidence that the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the National Congress Party and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement is at risk of unraveling due to the ICC warrants. Finally, the Council should make clear that- even though it has the authority- it will not consider any deferral of the arrest warrant for President al-Bashir. Given the record of the al-Bashir government, such a decision would clearly set an appalling precedent in international justice.

Liberia

The government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has made tangible progress in addressing endemic corruption, creating the legislative framework for respect for human rights, and facilitating economic growth, but little headway in strengthening the rule of law. Frequent incidents of violent crime, mob and vigilante justice, and bloody land disputes continue to claim lives and expose the systemic and persistent weaknesses within the police, judiciary, and corrections sectors. The disappointing progress in these sectors, five years after the end of armed conflict, highlight the fragility of the security situation in Liberia.

Human Rights Watch is concerned about the Liberian government's failure to establish three key commissions which we believe could both reinforce respect for rule of law and address issues which gave rise to Liberia's brutal armed conflicts: the Independent National Commission on Human Rights, the Law Reform Commission, and the Land Reform Commission.  We are also concerned about the July 2008 passage of a law that allowed for the death penalty for certain offenses. The legislation, passed in response to high rates of violent crime, contravened Liberia's obligations under the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Human Rights Watch is also concerned about the lack of national strategy for holding to account perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity during Liberia's brutal armed conflicts (1989-1996 and 1999-2003). Liberia's armed conflicts were characterized by the commission of widespread and systematic violations of international humanitarian law. The gravity of these abuses - massacres, mutilations, sexual violence, the recruitment and use of children as soldiers - have been tragically illuminated during the ongoing public hearings of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). While the TRC - empowered to recommend for prosecution the most serious offenders - has made significant progress chronicling a record of abuses, there appears to be little discussion by Liberian or international actors about how to hold perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity to account. Human Rights Watch believes that the many victims of these unspeakable crimes deserve justice for what they have suffered, and that prosecutions of the most serious crimes committed would go a long way towards consolidating and firmly anchoring respect for the rule of law in Liberia.

During its discussions with representatives of Liberia's government and civil society we therefore request that the Security Council urge the Liberian government to:

  • Establish without further delay the Independent National Human Rights Commission, the Law Reform Commission, and the Land Reform Commission.
  • Repeal the July 2008 passage of a law that allowed for the death penalty for certain offenses.
  • Act to ensure accountability for past human rights violations, and also develop a strategy for prosecuting those allegedly responsible for the most egregious crimes. Given the persistent weaknesses in the Liberian justice system, international support will be necessary to ensuring justice for these crimes.

We are available to answer any questions or requests you may have. We wish you a successful trip. 

Georgette Gagnon
Executive Director, Africa Division

Steve Crawshaw
UN Advocacy Director