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UN releases D.R. Congo report listing 10 years of atrocities, identifying justice options

GENEVA (1 October 2010) – The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released Friday a 550-page report* listing 617 of the most serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law over a ten-year period by both state and non-state actors in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Tens of thousands of people were killed, and numerous others were raped, mutilated or otherwise victimized during the decade. The report also examines in detail various options for truth and reconciliation, as well as for bringing those responsible for serious crimes to justice, thereby ending a climate of near-total impunity and setting the foundation for sustainable peace and development in the DRC.

The report is the product of a “Mapping Exercise” that took more than two years to research and produce, including eight months work on the ground in the DRC by a 33-strong team charged with interviewing witnesses and examining other information from a wide range of sources. Many of the attacks were directed against non-combatant civilian populations consisting primarily of women and children, the report says. Over 1,280 individual witnesses were interviewed to corroborate or invalidate alleged violations, including previously unrecorded incidents, and more than 1,500 documents were collected and analysed.

The genesis of the Mapping exercise dates back to 2005 when, two years after a peace agreement in the DRC became operative, three mass graves were discovered in the eastern part of the country. Several UN bodies agreed the following year to recommend a Mapping Exercise. Led by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), this was intended as a crucial step towards achieving justice and ending the cycle of impunity in the DRC. The Secretary-General advised the Security Council in June 2006 of the intention to conduct the mapping exercise, and the terms of reference were approved in May 2007. Discussions were also held with the Congolese government, including President Kabila, which extended its cooperation to the project.

In December 2007, the Security Council endorsed the exercise in Resolution 1794, calling upon the Congolese authorities “to fully support the human rights mapping exercise initiated in the country by the High Commissioner for Human Rights.”

The agreed overall objectives were to:
Conduct a mapping exercise of the most serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in the DRC between March 1993 and June 2003.
Assess the existing capacities of the DRC's justice system to deal with such violations.
Formulate a series of options to assist the DRC government in identifying appropriate transitional justice mechanisms to deal with the legacy of these violations, including truth, justice, reparation and reform.

“The period covered by this report is probably one of the most tragic chapters in the recent history of the DRC,” the report says. “Indeed, this decade was marked by a string of major political crises, wars and multiple ethnic and regional conflicts that brought about the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people.”

Aside from providing a historical record of serious violations, the exercise is aimed at assisting the Congolese government and civil society in developing a holistic policy of transitional justice mechanisms and institutional reforms that will lay a firm foundation for sustainable peace and development. This includes identifying both judicial and non-judicial options for achieving justice for the many victims of serious human rights violations and ending the widespread impunity of those responsible for serious crimes.
The report notes the involvement of at least 21 armed Congolese groups in serious human rights violations, as well as operations by the military forces of eight other states inside DRC. While the exercise was not about establishing individual criminal responsibility, information on the identities of the alleged perpetrators of some of the crimes is being held in a confidential database maintained by the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The report does, however, identify armed groups – both domestic and foreign – involved in specific incidents.

The report devotes particular attention to an inventory of massive violence against women and children amid a climate of near-total impunity, which continues today.

“Violence in the DRC was, in fact, accompanied by the apparent systematic use of rape and sexual assault allegedly by all combatant forces,” it says. “This report highlights the apparently recurrent, widespread and systematic nature of these phenomena and concludes that the majority of the incidents of sexual violence reported, could if judicially proven, constitute offences and violations under domestic law, international human rights law, and international humanitarian law.”

Declaring that children in the DRC “have suffered far too much,” the report cites estimates that at least 30,000 children were recruited or used by the armed forces or groups during the conflict. Moreover, it says, children have been subjected to “indescribable violence,” including murder, rape, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, forced displacement, destruction of their villages and deprivation of all their rights.

“If this situation is allowed to continue, there is a risk that a new generation will be created that has known nothing but violence, and violence as a means of conflict resolution, thus compromising the country’s chances of achieving lasting peace,” the report says.

Serious violations of human rights linked to the exploitation of the DRC's natural resources by both domestic and international actors are also listed.

In her foreword to the report, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay states that “no report can adequately describe the horrors experienced by the civilian population” in the DRC (formerly Zaire), “where almost every single individual has an experience to narrate of suffering and loss.”

“While it neither aims to establish individual responsibility, nor lay blame, the report – in full candour – reproduces the often shocking accounts by victims and witnesses of the tragedies they experienced,” she says.

“The report is intended as a first step towards the sometimes painful but nonetheless essential process of truth-telling after violent conflict… it looks to the future by identifying a number of paths that could be pursued by Congolese society to come to terms with its past, to fight impunity, and to face its contemporary challenges in a manner that prevents the re-occurrence of such atrocities.”

While the report's gruesome inventory of serious violations dramatically underscores the need for justice, the DRC's ability and willingness to address the issue remains severely limited, the report says, noting that poorly functioning judicial institutions “have left millions of victims with nowhere to turn and no opportunity to have their voices heard.”

The very limited number of prosecutions of those allegedly responsible for serious violations of human rights and of international humanitarian law committed in the DRC “has only encouraged further serious violations, which continue to this day,” the report says. “… Because of the multiple dimensions of seeking justice for the possible crimes committed in the DRC, it is crucial that a holistic policy of transitional justice be implemented, which will involve the creation of diverse and complementary mechanisms, both judicial and non-judicial.”
Those mechanisms could include a variety of options examined in the report, including creation of a mixed jurisdiction, possibly involving “hybrid courts” with both national and international staff; creation of a new Truth and Reconciliation Commission; reparation programs; and reforms of both the legal sector and the security forces. Inclusive national consultations should be held to give the overall process credibility and legitimacy.

The report notes that reform of the security and justice systems is crucial if the DRC is to guarantee that serious human rights and international law violations are not repeated.

The report demonstrates instances in which the Zairian (later Congolese) security forces were “directly or indirectly responsible for serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law,” it says. “…Some armed group units responsible for these types of violations were integrated into the transition government and the security services.” Calling for a “vetting” of official ranks to root out those responsible, it also notes that the country is still plagued by persistent violence and other abuses committed by the security forces, as well as by other actors.

High Commissioner Pillay writes in her foreword that the report “presents a number of options to be considered by both Congolese and international actors in the difficult task of reforming the justice system, which faces multiple challenges. It calls for renewed Government commitment to ensure that justice becomes one of the fundamental pillars of Congolese democracy.”

Commenting Friday, as the report was made public, Pillay noted that the leak in late August to the French newspaper Le Monde of an earlier draft, after it was distributed to six states in the region in June and July, had led “to intense focus on one aspect of it” – namely the raising of the possibility that the armed forces of Rwanda and their local allies may have committed acts which could constitute crimes of genocide.

“The report stresses that this question can only be addressed by a competent court,” she said. “It is important to remember that the report is about the DRC, as well as about the conduct of the forces of neighbouring states within the DRC. I hope that, now that the report is out, people will examine it carefully, and in particular the measures it proposes which are designed to bring real progress in the areas of accountability and justice in the DRC, in the wake of such a litany of dreadful acts. The millions of Congolese victims of violations committed by an extraordinarily wide range of actors deserve nothing less.”

Addressing speculation about the timing of the report’s release and influences on the content, the High Commissioner stressed the report was a work in progress up until late August. “By then, we had received constructive comments from the Government of DRC, which we took into account during the finalization process,” she said. “However the substance of the report remains essentially the same.”

The release date was extended by one month to give all concerned states more time to make comments. “I committed to publish any such comments alongside the report, if the states so wished. It is important to record their views,” the High Commissioner said, noting that comments received thus far had been posted on her Office’s website (www.ohchr.org).

The High Commissioner noted that the report has “the potential to stimulate much-needed debate, soul-searching and concrete changes in the DRC, and I sincerely hope that it does indeed become a positive force for change. Because – as the recent horrific mass rapes in August, of hundreds of women and girls, and some men and boys, has so starkly illustrated – significant and lasting change is desperately needed in the DRC. The fact that 220 Congolese NGOs have already signed a joint message of support for the report is, I think, an expression of the hopes that are invested in it.”

(*): Check the full report: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/AfricaRegion/Pages/RDCProjetMapping.aspx