The Challenge of Neutrality in Reporting on the DRC

Last week Human Rights Watch released a report documenting abuses committed by the rebel group M23 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and citing new evidence of Rwandan support for the group. Among these human rights violations, gathered from eyewitness testimony of civilians and former M23 rebels, among others, are summary execution, rape, recruitment of children, and other violations of the laws of war.

The day after the report was made public, an error was pointed out, which the rights group acknowledged. The original news release said that two former M23 members reported hearing Rwandan fighters in their units say they had served in Somalia or Darfur as part of Rwanda’s contingents in the peacekeeping missions there. In their correction, they stated:

“In fact, Rwandan peacekeepers served in Darfur but not in Somalia. Only one of those we interviewed mentioned Somalia (whereas others mentioned Darfur).  We erred in including it because we ordinarily do not rely on only one uncorroborated witness in our publications. This was a mistake on our part.”

While the news release mentions abuses by the FDLR (another militia in essence opposed to M23) and alleged Congolese army support to the FDLR, the focus on M23 makes it highly politicized, even without the error. Even if the rest of the report was meticulously corroborated, the error led Rwanda’s ambassador to the UN to dismiss the entire report and gave other observers an excuse to question the motivations of Human Rights Watch. They accuse Human Rights Watch of bias, despite the fact that they have also documented and reported on FDLR violence, Congolese army abuses, and mistreatment of captured M23 fighters.

In a region where rumors fly and perceptions of events are highly polarized and subjective, attention to political sensitivity is even more important than usual. Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society, recently said that he disagrees that reports of international watchdogs like Human Rights Watch “need to be read in the political context of their own organisation as well as that of the conflict.” Instead, he says, “international monitors should be what it says on the tin – globally objective – trying to get at the facts however uncomfortable that might be.”

Yet “should be” and “are” are two different things. While I agree that being “globally objective” is certainly what these organizations should aim for, however uncomfortable it may be, I question the extent to which that can truly be achieved. All human beings and all organizations created by them operate within certain social and political contexts, and it’s important to acknowledge that. This is particularly the case when dealing with serious crimes in a highly sensitive conflict where emotions run high. While it’s possible to be rigorous in documenting evidence of abuses, and I think the Human Rights Watch report provides valuable evidence of such abuses by M23, it’s possible to come across as being biased if one group is singled out for investigation — not only because there are so many other armed groups operating and committing abuses in eastern Congo, but because doing so reveals a particularly Western interest in foreign meddling at the expense of internal conflicts that may be just as damaging (but harder to understand).

International rights monitors need to be aware of the political repercussions of what they publish, or they risk being caught off guard by unintended consequences. This can include accusations of bias, whether justified or not. Writing a report (or deploying an intervention brigade) which focuses on a particular side in a conflict is bound to lead to controversy. If being objective, or neutral, is the aim, then the broader political context of the report has to be taken into account.

None of this should diminish the importance of scrutinizing M23 or the Rwandan military, or the crimes they are responsible for. Reports like this may help put pressure on governments to take diplomatic action, as indeed the US has called on Rwanda to cease support for M23; a powerful gesture as one of the country’s staunchest allies.

At the same time, rights watchdogs need to continue doing what they’ve traditionally been good at and be explicit that they are not singling out one side of a conflict. It was a good move on Human Rights Watch’s part to accompany the report with a press release on the Congolese army desecration of the bodies of M23 fighters. When rights groups don’t adequately take into account the political context in which they operate, nothing less than their credibility may be at stake.