Ending Impunity: Bringing Truth to Light in the Great Lakes Region

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report which attempts to systematically document human rights and international humanitarian law violations committed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo between March 1993 and June 2003. A little over a month after a draft version was leaked by French newspaper Le Monde, the comprehensive 550-page report contains descriptions of 617 alleged violent incidents. For the purposes of the report, 1,280 witnesses were interviewed and 1,500 documents were gathered and analyzed to try and paint a picture of what happened in the Democratic Republic of Congo over the course of  a decade.

The report is damning and points to egregious and relentless violations that took place in the DRC by a wide variety of regional actors. There are three broad goals to the terms of reference for this report: conducting a mapping exercise to document violations during that time period; assess the capacity of the Congolese justice system to “deal appropriately” with these violations; and to make recommendations regarding setting up mechanisms of justice, truth and reconciliation in the DRC.

The fact that Great Lakes region, and in particular the Eastern DRC, has been the backdrop to systematic violence against civilians, human rights violations and war crimes in a climate of near complete impunity is nothing new. But the efforts to bring justice and ensure that the records of history are clear have been sparse and inadequate, and the report commissioned by the OHCHR is an important step towards accomplishing that.

As Human Rights Watch executive director notes, “this detailed and thorough report is a powerful reminder of the scale of the crimes committed in Congo and of the shocking absence of justice. These events can no longer be swept under the carpet. If followed by strong regional and international action, this report could make a major contribution to ending the impunity that lies behind the cycle of atrocities in the Great Lakes region of Africa.”

The mapping exercise looked at many dimensions of the conflict and its effects on the civilian population: the actions of various armies and rebels groups, the impact on women, children and the elderly, the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, the role of natural resources and the involvement and responsibility of neighboring states. The latter point provoked the ire of the countries involved, most notably Rwanda.

The Rwandan Perspective

Since the draft report was initially leaked by Le Monde back in August, the Rwandan government has been actively trying to diminish the importance and credibility of the report, which levels serious accusations against the Rwandan army led by Paul Kagame. The message has been that the conclusions of the report are “an insult to history.” The Rwandan government insists that its army was never involved in the deliberate killing of innocent civilians, and that the mapping exercise “contains flawed methodology and applies the lowest imaginable evidentiary standard that barely meets journalistic requirements.” Rwanda issued a 30 page document with criticisms of the report, noting that “the manipulation of UN processes by organizations and individuals – both inside and outside the UN – for the purposes of rewriting history, improperly apportioning blame for the genocide that occurred in Rwanda, and reignite the conflict in Rwanda and the region”

Paul Kagame’s leadership and legacy in Rwanda is strongly underpinned by a narrative that gives him and his forces credit for restoring peace. This brought a form of social consensus upon which Rwanda’ reconstruction was built. But as Reed Brody notes in the Guardian, “Kagame’s forces played a crucial role in ending the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, but this does not absolve them of scrutiny for crimes they may have committed in the years that followed, both in Rwanda and Congo.”

Prospects for Justice

The Rwandan reaction – as well as the criticism expressed by Burundi, Uganda, and Angola (the latter expressed “indignation”, “surprise” and “outrage” in their comments to the OHCHR report) – signals that these countries will not support efforts at bringing justice for the events that took place in the DRC. The argument that this would undermine regional stability and “reignite conflict” has already proved to be a convincing one. Rwanda threatened the UN that it would pull its 3,500 troops out of Sudan unless some of the strongest language regarding its responsibility was removed. In particular, Rwanda is livid about the accusation of genocide leveled in the report. In Foreign Policy, Colum Lynch analyzes some of the language used in the draft and final reports. She finds that caveats were added, and that the report was “watered down.” Already, political objections are getting in the way of justice.

This is not the first time that the international community, through the UN, commissions reports to try and shed some light of the events in the Great Lakes region, and, thus far, justice has been elusive. In 1994, a report to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees which documented serious crimes committed by Kagame’s forces in Zaire during their offensive against Hutu refugee camps which harbored Hutu genocidaires. It was never published.

In a column for the Guardian, Reed Brody, who was the deputy chief of an investigative team sent by UN secretary-general Kofi Annan to investigate crimes committed in Congo from 1993 to 1997, describes how the report he was commissioned to prepare was effectively “buried.” He notes: “The key question now, as it was when our team delivered its report in 1998, is whether the international community has the political will to take the next step: identifying the killers and bringing them to justice.”

The new OHCHR report concludes that “a full judicial investigation into the events that occurred in Zaire in 1996 to 1997 will be necessary, in order to permit a competent court to decide on the matter.” The mapping exercise and the ensuing report, while significant in their own right, are only the first steps to bringing justice to the Great Lakes region – political will and a strong commitment to justice are required for these initial steps to lead to the establishment of legal and reconciliation processes.

The report suggests that a “hybrid prosecution mechanism – made up of international and
national personnel – is necessary to do justice to the victims” given the lack of capacity of the DRC’s existing mechanisms “and the numerous factors that impede judicial independence.” Human Rights Watch supports the creation of a mixed chamber, which would be embedded in the Congolese justice system, and would deal exclusively with war crimes and human rights violations. This would be more practical and less costly than an international tribunal, and would allow the region to begin addressing the culture of impunity which has prevailed there for much too long.

The broader context

Shedding light and getting the record straight on what happened in the DRC is essential to ending the culture of impunity which has been defining the ongoing cycle of violence in the Great Lakes region. Following the genocide in Rwanda, an international tribunal was set up, and local courts also sought to bring perpetrators of violence to justice. These processes have been important in restoring a sense of social stability, and have been supporting the country’s healing and recovery.

No such processes have been put in place for the atrocities committed in the DRC, in spite of all the evidence accumulated and the obvious crimes committed there. The perpetuation of a climate of impunity, where grave criminal violations of international law continue to occur, undermines the DRC’s search for peace and prosperity.


Further reading and analysis:

-For contextual analysis and a collection of useful links:  Texas in Africa

Howard French and Jeffrey Gettleman (NYT)

– For a thorough review of the report’s importance and implications Human Rights Watch

DRC Mapping Report webpage (OHCHR website)