(New York) – Governments around the world should intensify efforts to bring to justice those responsible for grave abuses documented in the United Nations’ October 2010 “mapping report,” Human Rights Watch said today.
One year after the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights published the report, there has been insufficient follow-up by governments in Africa’s Great Lakes region and by the UN itself, Human Rights Watch said. However, the Congolese government has taken steps to create a specialized mixed court in the country’s justice system, with international and Congolese staff, to try those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
“With the best will in the world, the Congolese government cannot deal with the legacy of the country’s massive abuses alone,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The crimes committed in Congo involved border-crossing perpetrators, placing responsibilities on many governments to ensure that justice is done.”
The mapping report’s findings are important not only to help prosecute past crimes, but to address similar patterns of abuses against civilians in Congo today, Human Rights Watch said.
The UN mapping report addressed the most serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in Congo between March 1993 and June 2003. It detailed 617 incidents across the country and described the role of all the main Congolese and foreign parties responsible. These included military or armed groups from Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, and Angola, among others, who all fought during Congo’s wars at different times between 1996 and 2003.
The report brought angry reactions and blanket denials of involvement from some of the countries cited, notably Rwanda. Its troops, along with those of its allied Congolese rebel group, the Alliance for Democratic Liberation (Alliance des forces démocratiques pour la libération du Congo-Zaïre, AFDL), were allegedly involved in some of the most serious crimes in 1996 and 1997.
“While some of the incidents covered in the mapping report were well known, the compilation of so many atrocities into one report was a shocking wake-up call,” Bekele said. “All concerned governments, as well as those named, should ensure that the report is not simply shelved, and take action on its findings.”
Human Rights Watch said that countries implicated in the report are primarily responsible for prosecuting suspected perpetrators within their borders. But other countries may have suspects living in their territories and should consider prosecutions where legally possible, such as under the principle of universal jurisdiction. UN member countries should provide political and financial support to the Congolese government to set up appropriate mechanisms to try these crimes.
Since the publication of the report, the Offices of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Secretary-General have done little to follow-up on the findings. Human Rights Watch called on them to organize a conference with the Congolese government, other governments named in the report, and international legal experts to formulate an action plan to provide accountability for the crimes.
The mapping exercise was conducted with the support of the Congolese government. Its publication revived hopes among Congolese and Rwandan survivors and relatives of victims of massacres and other abuses in the late 1990s – one of the most violent periods documented in the report – that they might one day see justice done.
In August 2011, the Congolese minister of justice and human rights presented a draft law to parliament to establish a specialized mixed court to try those responsible for the most serious crimes committed in Congo, including those detailed in the mapping report. International judges and prosecutors were considered necessary to work alongside Congolese judicial personnel to bolster Congolese capacity to try such complex crimes and to help shield the court from political interference. The Senate rejected the draft legislation and asked the government to harmonize its proposal with other draft laws, including one set to incorporate into domestic legislation the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
Some senators called for the establishment of an international criminal tribunal, which they believed would be a more appropriate mechanism to try the crimes documented in the mapping report. The Congolese government is considering the next steps.
Human Rights Watch supports the establishment of a specialized mixed court, with jurisdiction over past and current serious international crimes, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, committed in Congo.
Congolese civil society groups have also expressed strong support for this proposal. Representatives of nongovernmental organizations from each of Congo’s 11 provinces, as well as international organizations, met in April in Goma, eastern Congo, where they adopted a Common Position on the government’s initial draft legislation. Several important amendments that they recommended were later included in the draft legislation.
The UN mapping exercise was not the first time that the UN had tried to investigate crimes committed in the Congo between 1993 and 2003. Attempts by the UN to investigate massacres and other abuses, notably in 1997 and 1998, were repeatedly blocked by the Congolese government, then headed by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, father of the current president, Joseph Kabila. Nevertheless, information about massacres, rapes, and other serious abuses against Rwandan refugees and Congolese citizens was published at the time by the UN and by human rights organizations, but no action was taken to hold those responsible to account.
The UN mapping exercise had its origins in these earlier UN investigations. In September 2005, the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUC, discovered three mass graves in Rutshuru, in North Kivu province of eastern Congo, relating to crimes committed in 1996 and 1997. This discovery acted as a trigger to reopen investigations. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, with the support of the UN Secretary-General, then initiated the mapping exercise and broadened the mandate to include crimes committed from 1993 to 2003.
“The perpetrators of terrible crimes in Congo have remained free for far too long,” Bekele said. “If the atrocities detailed in the UN mapping report lead to credible prosecutions, potential rights violators may think twice about committing crimes against the population. Only then will the rule of law prevail in this troubled region.”