by Shane Quinn
With the focus on North Africa these days, it’s a little difficult to sway observers of human rights issues to other pressing situations such as that of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). After all, DRC has received its fair share of analysis over the years from human rights and rule of law to humanitarian and peace-building perspectives, and yet this conflict continues to bubble accompanied oftentimes by horrendous mass rapes and internecine massacres. DRC has become synonymous with a deficit of accountability and lack of recourse for victims of grave human rights abuses.
So how then, will the recently published UN Mapping Exercise on Grave Human Rights Abuses from 1993-2003 manage to establish some long awaited justice for the many victims of its wars? With great difficulty, is the proverbial answer. Although the report succeeds in pointing out the roles and responsibility for human rights abuses of different actors including the Congolese state and its neighbours in the region, the latter have effectively dismissed the report as groundless. The Rwandan government in particular has been highly critical of the mapping report and related lobbying and advocacy activities of civil society organizations (CSOs) in DR Congo and Rwanda, directly questioning the UN’s mapping methodology and referring to the content of the report as lies.
The Human Rights in Ireland blog gives a very balanced overview of the expectations on the mapping report, while also dampening the expectations felt by many civil society actors within the DRC and the Great Lakes. The fact of the matter is that this mapping report – while initially shaking the regional status quo by accusing Rwanda and Uganda amongst other countries of grave human rights abuses – has failed to ignite a regional push for greater accountability by either civil society or international actors.
It is early days of course, and only three months have passed since the publication of the report, but already plans are being laid for the elections in DRC in June 2011 and the mapping has not been mentioned as a central issue of any electoral campaign. Instead, the danger is that it assumes a similar fate to prior human rights reports conducted in Timor Leste and Sudan, which attracted little more than a passing glance by the international community. The worrying proof is also in the lack of hits on the internet since the publication date of 1 October last year. Having waiting for this report to be published, maybe civil society actors in the region can now start communicating across the region’s borders and try to establish some momentum before the elections.
The mapping is intended to be a first step toward developing transitional justice mechanisms, with truth seeking and reparations high on the agenda amid signs of willingness by the government to embrace such an initiative. Yet, following the failure of Msgr. Kuye’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission prior to the 2006 elections – which is analysed in an excellent report by Laura Davis and Priscilla Hayner, the onus should surely be more on working towards a regional civic anti-impunity campaign. Civil society actors in countries like DR Congo – no matter how united they may be on the content of the mapping – will always have difficulty in influencing political developments. Most Congolese and the victims themselves have not read the mapping report, owing to illiteracy and lack of access to the document. This factor is perceived to be crucial in determining the usability of the report, particularly in relation to the upcoming elections in June 2011.
Last November, in my capacity as programme advisor at the Swedish Foundation for Human Rights, I invited several organisations from the Great Lakes, in particular from DR Congo, Uganda and Rwanda to reverse this trend and participate at a side event at the NGO Forum at the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) in Banjul, Gambia. The aim of the side event was specifically to try to kick-start some form of collaboration on a transnational level in the Great Lakes amongst civil society actors on the mapping report in highlighting the need for greater accountability in DRC and the region in general.
A couple of bridges too far maybe? Possibly, but the DRC mapping report was only mentioned sporadically during the main plenary, despite the extensive time being set aside for updating all Forum participants on the situation of human rights defenders in the different regions of Africa. Incomprehensibly, the panelist updating on human rights violations in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region – where DRC is a member – failed even to mention the report, leading to critical voices from the plenary’s participants.
The ACHPR has its critics for being a weak institution, but it will continue to remain weak if it is not used to force offending states to rethink their approach to human rights. This is particularly the case for DR Congo, which has not reported to the ACHPR at the last three sessions. This contrasts starkly with the presence of Rwanda at the ACHPR, whose National Commissioner for Human Rights, Mrs. Zaïnabo Sylvie Kayitesi, attended the Foundation’s side event before participating in the sessions of the ACHPR.
The side event was essentially the first time since the publication of the mapping report on 1 October that civil society was able to meet a Rwandan government official, and discuss the importance of implementing the report’s recommendations. In the case of one of the Foundation’s invitees from Rwanda, Ligue pour les droits de l’homme des Grand Lacs (LDGL), its Executive Secretary, Pascal Nyilibakwe was forced to flee to South Africa as a result of previous threats from the Rwandan government, with LDGL’s President, Joesph Sanane attending the side event instead.
In spite of low levels of capacity and the tentative confidence of international donors in even the most influential CSOs in the region, there is nonetheless a hard-headed willingness on the latter’s part to bring about greater openness and accountability. But is this enough and can civil society actors use the mapping report as an effective advocacy instrument for these ends? The jury is out, as it has been for the last several years in the Great Lakes, but increasing use of the ACHPR may be one previously untried way to achieve these apparently insurmountable goals.