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Ursula von der Leyen
President of the European Commission

Josep Borrell-Fontelles
High Representative for Foreign Affairs

European Commission
Rue de la Loi, 200
1049 Brussels

Brussels, 28 October 2022,


RE: Human rights in EU’s strategy for the Great Lakes


Dear President Von der Leyen and High Representative Borrell,

We are writing in the context of the drafting of a new EU strategy for the Great Lakes to ask that it adequately reflects and prioritizes addressing the numerous and serious human rights challenges at both country and regional level. Failure to do so would send the wrong message to leaders in the region that the EU is ready to turn a blind eye to egregious violations.

In all countries of the region, Human Rights Watch has documented extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary arrests of opposition members. Civil society and media face continued harassment and pressure, making it difficult to function effectively. Those associated with the human rights movement – including Tony Germain Nkina in Burundi – are among many facing politically-motivated detention. In Rwanda, the government consistently fails to investigate allegations of extrajudicial executionsenforced disappearances
deaths in custodyarbitrary detentiontorture, and other ill-treatment. In eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the resurgence of the Rwandan-backed M23 has further deteriorated an already dire situation and displaced thousands more civilians in a region where armed groups, and at times government soldiers, have committed widespread abuses over the past year. Foreign military forces have also been implicated in abuses against civilians. Moreover, exploitation and trade of natural resources lead to serious human rights challenges for affected communities.

In the context of the upcoming strategy, we call on the EU to:

  • clearly and publicly acknowledge concerns regarding patterns of grave human rights violations and continued impunity in the Great Lakes region and state its commitment to raise human rights at the highest possible level. The strategy should also flag the EU’s expectation that governments in the Great Lakes region commit to address these concerns and genuinely combat prevalent impunity.
  • commit to concrete and meaningful promotion of freedoms of association and peaceful assembly, freedom of expression, and stand up against harassment, detention, torture, and ill-treatment of civil society activists, journalists, opposition members, and other critics. The strategy should uphold the underlying principles contained in its Guidelines for Human Rights Defenders and its action plan on democracy and human rights.
  • link future improvements of bilateral cooperation to clear human rights benchmarks, including upholding freedom of expression, preventing torture and ill-treatment, releasing human rights defenders and perceived critics detained on politically-motivated grounds and ensuring accountability for grave violations.
  • insist on genuine cooperation with regional and international human rights mechanisms, including thematic and country-specific special rapporteurs, Universal Periodic Review, treaty bodies and the OHCHR, such as the Special Rapporteur on the situation in Burundi and the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office in DRC (UNJHRO), implement their recommendations and promote the ratification and implementation of core human rights treaties and of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
  • ensure that references in the strategy to regional trade and national resources reflect clear commitments to prevent human rights violations against affected communities.
  • make it clear that accountability for serious human rights violations is crucial to ensure respect for human rights and long-term stability in the Great Lakes region and commit to press at national and regional levels for actions to combat impunity.

We thank you for your attention to this important matter and stand ready to provide any additional information.


Mausi Segun                                                                     Bruno Stagno
Executive Director – Africa                                           Chief Advocacy Officer

Human Rights Watch                                                      Human Rights Watch

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