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February 1999
Vol. 11, No. 1 (A)



Civilians, Rule of Law, and Democratic Freedoms

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As the war that broke out in August 1998 in Congo continued into its seventh month, the central African region slipped further into the cycle of human rights abuses and impunity. The Congolese government has violated the rights of its citizens through incitement to ethnic hatred, resulting in hundreds of deaths, the interning of Tutsis; through arrest and trial procedures that violate due process; and by suppressing political life through censorship, arbitrary arrests, and bans on the exercise of freedoms of association and assembly. The rebel Congolese Rally for Democracy (Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie, RCD), whose forces operate in conjunction with the Rwandan and Ugandan militaries, have committed war crimes by killing civilians in massacres, have caused people to “disappear,” and have carried out arbitrary arrests without regard to due process. International inertia in the face of these violations, as in the face of massacres of the 1996-97 war in Congo, encourages political leaders and militia henchmen alike to believe that they can commit abuses without serious consequence.

In late July 1998, Congolese President Laurent Kabila sent home all Rwandan soldiers, thus officially breaking ties with the allies who, together with Ugandan forces, had helped sweep him into power fourteen months before. Rwanda and Uganda responded by invading Congo and joining forces with troops from the Congolese army (Forces Armées Congolaises, FAC) that had mutinied against the government in Goma and Bukavu. The RCD, composed of former Tutsi members of Kabila’s government, former Mobutists, a number of intellectuals, and others, soon emerged as the political leadership of this coalition. The conflict in Congo grew during August and September, eventually drawing in other states from the region, including Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Chad on the government side, and with Burundi apparently joining the Rwandans and Ugandans to support the RCD and the FAC defectors. Rwanda and Uganda claimed they had sent forces across the border to protect themselves against various armed groups which had been attacking them from bases in the eastern Congo, operating without hindrance from the Congolese government. Burundi continued to deny its involvement in the conflict despite regular sightings of their troops in South Kivu. The RCD proclaimed its goal to be the ouster of Kabila, while his backers stated they were protecting a legitimate government from foreign aggression. Outside observers suspected that the prospect of exploiting Congo’s vast mineral wealth had attracted many of the warring parties. A number of other militia and rebel groups from the region joined the fray, while alliances between them and the warring parties were often unclear. Human Rights Watch takes no position on the merits of conflicts between states, but examines the conduct of all parties during the course of a conflict, focusing on whether violations of international humanitarian law have been committed.

In their efforts to maintain or to seize power, both sides to the conflict in Congo have failed to protect civilians from abuse and have at times committed gross violations against them. When the Congolese government was attacked in August, some important officials fostered popular hatred and fear of Congolese of Tutsi origin, whom they linked with Rwandans, Burundians, and even Ugandans said to constitute part of a larger Tutsi-Hima cluster of peoples. In calling for so-called “popular self-defense,” they encouraged other Congolese to attack Tutsi or those thought to look like Tutsi. As of mid-January, hundreds of Tutsi in detention or interned in government-held territory because of their ethnicity represented vulnerable targets for any future reprisals by government forces or by civilian crowds incited to attack them. The Kabila government chose to intern the Tutsi, claiming this was necessary for their protection, rather than taking other necessary measures to ensure their safety.

Kabila continued to proclaim his commitment to democratization, including to hold elections in April 1999, but in the meantime his government proclaimed a state of emergency (“Etat de siège”, state of siege) throughout most of the country which placed sweeping powers over justice and the civilian administration in the hands of the military. A military court, which superseded civilian courts, conducted trials without due process guarantees and imposed death sentences on political suspects and criminals, some of whom were executed immediately, without the possibility of appeal. Despite a January 29 decree law that called for a return to multi-party politics, excessiveregistration requirements for political parties effectively excluded many of them from participation in the political process. Arrests of civilians and leading politicians increased in early in 1999.

As the conflict continued, the situation in eastern Congo became particularly explosive. Forces backing the RCD committed numerous killings of civilians from almost all different ethnic groups in the east, creating a resentment of the RCD, its military backers, and ethnic Tutsi in general. Killings of villagers were often in retaliation for their supposed support of local militia known as “Mai-Mai,” or former Rwandan soldiers or militia, known as “Interahamwe.” Soldiers acting for the RCD movement arbitrarily detained many of its supposed opponents, often holding them in irregular facilities to which their families and humanitarian agencies had no access. Once arrested, some individuals were not seen again.

The term "Mai-Mai” has been used to describe indigenous militia involved in a number of uprisings in the Great Lakes Region since the colonial era. Mai-Mai fighters often undergo traditional initiation rites which are intended to make them invulnerable to bullets and other weapons of their enemies. Today, the term “Mai-Mai” is used to refer to many of the groups of indigenous militia of different ethnic origins in eastern Congo opposed to the RCD and its allies. It appears that these groups are not well-organized and economic hardship may have encouraged many young men to join. Some of the Congolese Armed Forces (FAC) in the east who did not join RCD forces and former members of the Zairian Armed Forces (ex-FAZ) also reportedly joined forces with groups of Mai-Mai.

The Interahamwe militia were organized by former Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana’s political party. During the genocide in Rwanda, the militia were transformed into bands of killers. Since the flight of many Interahamwe to eastern Congo following the genocide, Congolese increasingly referred to any ethnic Hutu combatant in Congo as Interahamwe, including Hutu who have lived in Congo for generations. Many residents of eastern Congo claimed that the Interahamwe had formed an alliance with the Mai-Mai in their fight against the RCD, Rwandan, Ugandan and Burundian militaries, confounding the exact identification of militia.

Both sides to the conflict have made statements pledging to guarantee human rights in territory under their control while carrying out limited measures to protect some populations. In addition to public declarations regarding their adherence to the human rights standards established by the major international treaties, the RCD established a human rights branch within its Department of Justice and Human Rights. While the department carried out a number of investigations of human rights violations allegedly committed by Kabila’s forces—and televised ceremonies related to them—their pledges to investigate abuses committed by their own troops, such as in the Kasika area of South Kivu, did not materialize. In early January 1999, the Congolese government, after blocking a United Nations investigation throughout much of 1997 and 1998, invited the U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Congo to investigate massacres of Hutu refugees, allegedly carried out by Rwandan forces, and other human rights violations. It remained to be seen, however, if these declarations by both sides would translate into serious investigations and prosecutions of their own agents who were responsible for abuses.

The international community, led by the O.A.U. and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), organized a series of efforts to negotiate a solution to the conflict, thus far without success. Discussions of human rights issues or calls for accountability for those responsible for abuses committed during the conflict were notably missing from the negotiations. While precise and vigorous public calls from donor states and others to respect human rights during the conflict had given at least limited results, such as an apparent end to large-scale killings of Tutsis in August, the international community largely confined its intervention to assessment missions, quiet diplomacy, and vague condemnations of abuses on all sides without stressing the need to hold perpetrators accountable for abuses. The Congolese government reportedly participated in the recruitment of combatants from refugee camps in neighboring countries, including some that provided refuge to members of the former army of Rwanda (ex-FAR) and the Interahamwe militia which fled into exile after perpetrating the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Some of those recruited from these camps, reportedly sent to the front lines in Congo, may have participated in the genocide.

With the disintegration of the rule of law in Congo and elsewhere in the region, Congo has become the battle ground for the interests of its neighbors and a Congolese political and military elite—all at the expense of Congolese civilians. In this context, neither the Congolese government and its allies, the RCD and its backers, nor the myriad of militia and rebel groups in Congo have made respect for human rights a priority. Without firm action from international players in the region and elsewhere, the results for the Congolese are likely to be more abuses and a further degradation of the situation.

This report is based on Human Rights Watch field investigations in November and December of 1998 to eastern and western Congo as well as other countries in the region. Many of the sources in this report are not named due to the serious danger faced by witnesses and local human rights defenders.

Human Rights Watch
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