The Conflict Within: The Struggle for Human Rights In the Democratic Republic of the Congo

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The Conflict Within: The Struggle for Human Rights

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Abisola Adekoya

Department of Politics and Government

Illinois State University


This paper identifies the historical origin of current human rights implementation challenges present within the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The political regimes of Mobutu-Sese Seko, Laurent and Joseph Kabila are examined in-depth in order to illustrate the state’s consistent violations of human rights during times of political transition and military conflict. After an historical analysis of human rights within the Democratic Republic of the Congo is presented, the current situation is examined, with particular attention given to the following issues: orphaned children, the systematic rape of women by soldiers, the torture and ill-treatment of detainees, and the repression of free speech. Finally, a proposal for reform is offered.

The Conflict Within: The Struggle for Human Rights

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo

The human rights record of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formally Zaire) has historically fallen far short of international standards. Every statistical measure of a country’s standard of living indicates that the Congolese people are struggling to survive. In the year 2004, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Human Development Index ranking reached 167, out of 177 countries. Furthermore, as of the year 2005, the GDP per capita PPP had fallen to US $460 (Human Rights Development Indicators 268). In order to assess why there has consistently been a sizable gap between human rights principles and the reality of life within the Democratic Republic of the Congo (henceforth DRC), one most identify the most significant challenges to the implementation of human rights within this nation and their historical origin. An examination of the historical development of human rights within the DRC reveals that armed conflict and violence have been the most significant challenges to human rights. Historically, the implementation of human rights has been a secondary concern to the Congolese government during times of political transition and military conflict, a policy that still occurs today. The dictatorship of Joseph Mobutu-Sese Seko is the source of this historical pattern and thus the entry point of this analysis of the current state of human rights in the DRC.

Mobutu’s Archetype for Social and Political Oppression

Mobutu’s thirty two year reign over the DRC began in 1965 and finally came to an end in 1997. As Lieutenant-General, Mobutu was able to seize power of the nation through a coup d’état that removed President Joseph Kasa-Vubu from office. Kasa-Vubu had been the first president of the DRC following the state’s independence from Belgium in 1960 (Emizet 204). Once in power, Mobutu claimed that politicians had begun to ruin the country in the five years following its independence and therefore suspended all political party activity. After a state of emergency was declared, Mobutu began to concentrate power within the nation (Emizet 204).

The process of concentrating power began by abolishing the position of prime minister, creating a new constitution that enhanced Mobutu’s executive powers, and replacing the two chamber parliament with a one chamber legislative body called the National Assembly (Emizet 210). Other reforms initiated by Mobutu to consolidate power resulted in a reduction of provincial autonomy. Increasing the visibility and strength of the military was the vital component of establishing unchecked control over the state. Only a year after the start of Mobutu’s regime, military spending reached 5.5% of the state’s GDP, an increase of 3.7% from three years earlier. In 1967, Mobutu amended his previous ban on political party activity by declaring the Popular Movement of the Revolution, which he created, the only legal politcal party (Emizet 212)

Mobutu’s rigid dictatorship had a devastating impact on the observance on human rights in DRC during his three decades of rule. According to Human Rights Watch, Mobutu’s regime lead to consistent violations of human rights, such as: public execution, torture, cruel inhuman or degrading treatment of government officials or civilians who posed a threat to his power, denial of the right to a fair trial, violence against women, arbitrary detention, and inhuman or degrading prison conditions, particularly for children within army run detention centers (H R Developments 1994). Yet, many within the international community anticipated improvement when in 1990 Mobutu announced the end of his one-party system, appointed a transitional government, and promised to hold elections. However, two months after Mobutu’s promise for reform, security forces murdered a group of college students that were peacefully demonstrating in response to a recent speech in which Mobutu had backtracked on his promises.

This massacre intensified national opposition and international pressure on Mobutu’s regime, which resulted in the creation of the Sovereign National Conference in August of 1991(H R Developments 1994). Despite several attempts by Mobutu to prevent the Conference from reaching a decision, in April of 1993 a compromise agreement was reached. Under the agreement, Étienne Tshisekedi, who opposed Mobutu, was given the position of Prime Minister and Mobutu remained President. A Transitional Charter, which replaced Mobutu's constitution, set the terms of power-sharing between the two. Additionally, the High Council of the Republic replaced Mobutu’s National Conference as a transitional parliament. The three governmental bodies were to collaborate on issues of defense and foreign policy. However, the transitional government disintegrated as tensions from the Rwandan war and genocide in 1994 spilled over into the DRC and played a instrumental role in the overthrow of Mobutu. (Annual Report 1995).

From Mobutu to Kabila: the end of one authoritarian regime - the start of another

Mobutu’s rule over the DRC finally came to an end during the First Congo War in 1997. At the conclusion of that war, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, supported by a coalition of Tutsis and the governments of Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda known as the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo, took over control of the nation (Emizet 220). Kabila gained the support of the Tutsis as a result of their long time opposition to Mobutu, as he openly supported Rwandan Hutus who were responsible for the genocide. Tensions between Mobutu and the Tutsis escalated into the rebellion, which became a war, when the Mobutu government moved to strip the Banyamulenge, ethnic Tutsi settled in the South Kivu, of their citizenship and drive them from the country (Annual Report 1997). The seize of power by the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo, which lasted seven months, ended in May of 1997 when Mobutu fled the country to exile in Togo and Kabila named himself president (H R Developments 1998).

Once in power, Kabila imitated his predecessor by initiating reforms that violated human rights in an effort to supress opposition, such as reinstating the ban on political parties, except of course for his own (Annual Report 1998). Less than two years into Kabila’s presidency, in early August of 1998, another war of so-called liberation broke out in the DRC. In this war, Kabila fought against the same ethic Tutsis, Banyamulenges, that helped him to overthrow Mobutu in the First Congo War (H R Developments 1998). Kabila’s former allies turned against him because they claimed that he failed to resolve their nationality concerns and continued to utilize the same polices of ethnic exclusion that existed during Mobutu’s rule. The Banyamulenge found support from Uganda and Rwanda and named their rebellion the Rally for Congolese Democracy. Determined to remain in control of the nation, Kabila found new allies in Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe (Emizet 223).

During this time of violence, activists working with Human Rights Watch reported that Kabila utilized hate propaganda and urged his citizens to help track Tutsis. There were also allegations that he blatantly violated the human rights of his citizens by ordering the police and army to arrest and arbitrarily detain hundreds of civilians, most of them ethnic Tutsis, in connection with the conflict (H R Developments 1999). Women picked up at random and later released claimed that they were raped by soldiers and held in overcrowded and filthy detention centers. Soldiers also withheld food and medical care, and even tortured and executed some detainees. Additionally, all parties to the war abducted and recruited children to be trained as soldiers (H R Developments 1999).

Numerous domestic efforts to obstruct Kabila’s oppressive hold over the nation were promptly blocked. Journalists who wrote critically of the government were detained for indefinite periods of time. Both Kabila and rebels groups employed tactics intended to intimidate and silence human rights activists working within the nation who witnessed their abuses. The judicial system was too weak to protect citizens basic freedoms offered under Congolese law or international human rights as a result of decades of neglect and corruption. The Congolese government hindered the United Nations from investigating the arrests and delayed allowing the International Committee of the Red Cross to have regular access to detainees. The government’s repression of civil and political rights eventually resulted in international outrage and diplomatic isolation (Annual Report 2000).

However a collaboration between regional powers resulted in an agreement intended to halt the violence. On July 10, 1999, Kabila’s government, Angola, Namibia, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zimbabwe signed a ceasefire agreement entitled the Lusaka Peace Accords. The Southern African Development Community facilitated the negotiation with significant backing from the UN (“DRC Mandate”). The agreement sought to stabilize the DRC by controlling the illicit trafficking of arms by infiltrated violent groups. The agreement also established a Joint Military Commission, composed of two representatives from each party under a neutral Chairman appointed by the Organization of African Unity. Regrettably, there were several shortcomings of the agreement. These include failing to hold the rebels of the Rally for Congolese Democracy accountable for abuses of human rights and failing to recognize the involvement of several other rebel groups (H R Developments 2000).

Strides toward Democracy

Despite the lofty goals of the ceasefire agreement, none of the actors fully complied with their commitments. There appeared to be little movement toward adherence to basic norms of international human rights and humanitarian law. The widespread fighting destroyed what was left of Congo's public services and infrastructure and nearly crippled the nation’s economy. As there appeared to be no end in sight to the violence, in November 1999 the UN agreed to establish a small peacekeeping force of 500 military observers known as the UN Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC), however the size of the operation grew as the situation worsened (“D RC Mandate”). Although the UN Security Council repeatedly expressed concern about the continuing war in the DRC prior to the commencement of MONUC, this was the first tangible attempt to intervene (H R Development 2000). Four years into the Second Congo War, on January 17, 2001, one of the bodyguards in the presidential palace assassinated President Laurent Kabila. One week after Kabila’s death, supporters of the late president promoted his son, Joseph Kabila, to the presidency (“Profile: Joseph Kabila”).

At this point, four years of war had resulted in the loss of more than two million lives, hundreds of thousands of which were civilian due to hunger or diseases. Few believed that the change in political leadership from Laurent Kabila to his son Joseph Kabila would improve the situation. Yet in April 2002, Joseph Kabila, signed a power-sharing agreement at Sun City, South Africa, under continued international pressure. The agreement established a transitional government, which kept Joseph Kabila as president but added four vice-presidents, each from one of the main groups who had fought in the war.  By June 2002, after four brutal years of fighting, the transitional government was able to announce the official end of the Second Congo War (“DR Congo Mandate”). Unfortunately, the weakness of this transitional government combined with substantial political and logistical obstacles caused elections to be postponed (Annual Report 2003). However after a referendum approved a new constitution in December of 2005, elections were finally held, for the first time in forty years, on July 30, 2006. On November 15, 2006, it was declared, and generally approved by international monitors, that Joseph Kabila won the election with 58.05% of the vote (“Kabila named”).

The True Cause for Violence and its Impact on the Struggle for Human Rights

According to the International Rescue Committee, an estimated 4 million people died during the 8 years of internal conflict within the DRC. This astonishing death toll makes the DRC’s civil war the deadliest war since World War II (Special Report: DRC). The consequences of such a devastating war present a significant challenge to the protection of human rights within contemporary Congolese society. Today the country is plagued by bad sanitation, disease, malnutrition, and dislocation (Robinson 39). The results of a series of detailed mortality surveys recently conducted by the International Rescue Committee reveal that 1,250 Congolese still die every day because of war-related causes. The vast majority of these victims succumb to diseases and malnutrition that would not exist in peaceful times (Special Report: DRC). Furthermore, an estimated 1.6 million people have been displaced by this internal conflict (“Children on the Run”). Every dimension of Congolese life has been affected by the violence.

Given that armed conflict and violence has devastated the DRC during its 46 years of independence, one must inquire into the cause of this constant warfare in order to examine how it is still preventing the Congolese from freely enjoying their human rights today. There are many theories as to why peace in the Congo has been so evasive. Although there have been frequent divisions along ethnic lines, the desire to control the wealth of the county’s natural resources, such as gold, diamonds, copper, cobalt and timber, appears to have been the main source of conflict. Recognizing the potential link between economic activities and conflict within the state, the UN Security Council appointed a panel of experts to investigate the issue in 2000 (Van Woudenberg 27).

A series of reports published between April 2001 and October 2003 by the panel conclude that all major parties, including Rwandan, Ugandan, and Zimbabwean, and the Congolese elite, were funding their actions through and growing rich from mineral exploitation (“Report on Panel”). The states alleged of wrongdoing made no indication that they planned to alter their behavior, rather, they questioned the principles forming the basis of the investigation and the quality of the evidence presented (“Report on Panel”). The panel also considered the connection between mineral exploitation and international business. It found that eighty-five companies, based in Europe and North America, had violated international business standards in their activities in the Congo. However, since Security Council members were reluctant to sanction companies based in their own countries, there was no action taken to deal with the role of international companies in the devastating Congo wars (Van Woudenberg 29).

The significant opportunity for economic exploitation within the DRC explains why anti-government militias continue to fight over territory and natural resources today. As a result of this continued violence, there is still a need for MONUC within the nation. Although the UN Security Council originally established MONUC to facilitate the implementation of the Lusaka Accord in 1999, 17,000 UN peacekeepers still remain (“DRC Mandate”). The budget for the peacekeeping program in the DRC exceeds one billion dollars, making it the largest and most expensive mission in the Department of Peace Keeping Operations. Perhaps the most significant way in which MONUC works to address the challenge widespread violence poses to the implementation of human rights within the DRC is by facilitating the disarmament, demobilization, repatriation, resettlement, and reintegration process. The work of this intergovernmental organization is crucial because the physical safety of Congolese is needed in order to address the protection of all human rights (“DRC Mandate”).

Current State of Human Rights

An analysis of the research conducted by various non-government human rights organizations is necessary in order to assess the current gap between the principles established within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the reality of life within the DRC. Unfortunately, many of the violations of human rights that were initiated under Mobutu’s rule and continued by Laurent Kabila still exist today. The next section will analysis the current state of human rights in the DRC and the national and international response to abuses through an evaluation of five crucial issues: orphaned children, violence against women, torture and ill-treatment of detainees, repression of free speech, and finally access to justice.

Orphaned Children:

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes that, “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medicine and necessary social services” (5). However, the most vulnerable members of Congolese society do not enjoy the crucial right to an adequate standard of living. The millions of lives lost in the civil wars of the DRC have contributed to an estimated doubling of the number of orphaned children living on the streets in the last decade. Referred to as “street children,” tens of thousands of Congolese orphans have no home family, care, or support (“What Future?”). A rapid increase in the number of street children began in the early 1990’s. Because of the dramatic economic downturn the nation began to face in this time period, many parents turned their children away as they could no longer afford to feed them (Annual Report 2003). These street children are victim to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse from law enforcement personnel and ordinary civilians. Exploitation also comes in the form of hazardous employment in child labor and recruitment in political demonstrations. Unfortunately, due to a lack of support or guidance many children and adolescents on the streets have formed into gangs (“What Future”).

In an attempt to respond to this dreadful situation, which is largely caused by the government, Laurent Kabila introduced a national program in 1997 that continues today. The objective of this program is to bring homeless children within state supervision by giving them agricultural and disciplinary training on isolated farms. Though this program may have been a good faith attempt, it has failed to adequately address the issue (Wild 3). Authorities rely on police to collect children they believe might become a danger to the public. Once in police custody, these children are sent to remote camps in the distant southern province of Katanga without their consent, and they are not guaranteed decent living conditions. This program does not address the root of the problem, which is the lack of education and support these children need in order to strive (Wild 3). Jeunesse Moissonneuse (Youth Harvester) is one of several local non-governmental organizations created to address this problem. This organization strives to achieve social integration of displaced or orphaned youth through spiritual, moral, vocational, and intellectual training( “NGO Directory”). International organizations such as UNICEF have also offered aid to Congolese children. UNICEF has used a substantial portion of its resources within the DRC to provide emergency assistance to children and women in particular. With the UN and other partners, UNICEF has set up systems to reach the immediate needs of the worst affected Congolese, assisting as many as 120,000 individuals per month (“Children on the Run”).

Violence against Women: Article 3 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes that, “everyone has the right to life, liberty and “security of person” (3). The prolonged state of civil unrest within the DRC has resulted in frequent violations of this right. The strategic use of sexual violence as a weapon by most of the forces involved in the civil wars of the DRC has resulted in particular appalling abuses of a women’s right to “security of person.” Combatants of the Rally for Congolese Democracy, Rwandan soldiers, Congolese solders, armed groups of Rwandan Hutu, and Burundian rebels of the Forces for the Defense of Democracy, and Front for National Liberation have frequently and sometimes systematically raped women and girls during periods of armed conflict. However, the end of the war did not result in the end of this savage sexual violence against women (“War within the War”). During the last year, large numbers of women and girls continued to be victim to rape and other forms of sexual violence or extreme forms of torture by government forces and armed groups. In some cases, particularly in eastern DRC, girls under five and women over seventy were among the violated. A portion of these rapes were even committed in front of the victim’s children, family or community. In some cases, the girl or woman was killed or deliberately wounded after being sexually brutalized (Annual Report 2006).

Although few Congolese victims of rape are fortunate enough to receive appropriate medical care, local NGOs such as the private hospital Docs-Heal, are helping survivors recover from many consequences of rape including genital and physical injuries, vaginal fistulae, unwelcome pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections including HIV/AIDS, and emotional trauma (“DRC: Local NGO”). Supported by UNICEF and other organizations, the center has been able to treat approximately 3,848 survivors, 17% of whom were children, since July 2003(“DRC: Local NGO”). While Docs-Heal facilitate the recovery process for rape victims, other non-governmental organizations like Eveil de la Femme (Awakening of the Woman) help victims seek justice. Eveil de la Femme combats impunity by investigating claims of violence against woman (“NGO Directory”). Both of these organizations work hard to address the issue of violence against women, however, they do not have the ability to prevent sexual abuse from occurring. The government of the DRC is within the best position to accomplish such an objective. Reforming military hierarchy to better discipline soldiers who commit sexual violence against women, is one change that would significantly reduce the number of sexual attacks Congolese women experience, as soldier are among the most common perpetrators (“Seeking Justice”).

Torture and ill-treatment:

Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes that, “no one shall be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (2).

Yet in hundreds of cases throughout the country, police, military, and other security forces arbitrarily detain and torture citizens, often with the objective of extorting payment from them. Practices that were reported include sustained beatings with sticks, lengths of metal or rifle-butts; death threats or mock executions; prolonged suspension by the arms or legs from walls or doors; and the forcing of detainees to stare for long periods into strong sunlight (H R Developments 2005). Additionally, the conditions in many prisons and detention centers amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, as they are often overcrowded, unsanitary, and dangerous. Consequently, deaths from malnutrition or untreated medical conditions are common, especially since prisoners are frequently refused medical care. Many prisons also made little effort to adequately separate children from adult inmates, or women from men, which frequently lead to physical or sexual abuse (Annual Report 2006).

Since 1993, the International Committee of the Red Cross has been working within the DRC. In addition to the organizations efforts to improve the situation of civilians affected by armed violence by providing necessities, workers also visit national prisons and official detention centers in order to promote respect for human dignity and to improve conditions where necessary (“DRC: ICRC Activities”). National non-governmental organizations, such as the Center for Research on the Environment, Democracy, and Human Rights and Congo Watch, defend human rights and promote public education by publicizing human rights abuses through regular reports. International organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, also play a significant role in protecting Congolese from torture and ill-treatment by giving international attention to human rights violations.

Repression of Free Speech:

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes that, “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” (4). However, in recent years government authorities have systematically arrested journalist or closed their operations if they criticized those in power. For example, in July 2005, government authorities arrested a Kinshasa editor after his newspaper reported that a government minister had misappropriated US $300,000 (H R Developments 2005). Moreover, in January and June 2005, security forces killed dozens of men, women, and children protesting electoral delays. So far this year the government has detained more than 40 journalists. Members of human rights organizations and opposition activists have also been subject to arbitrary detention for denouncing human rights violations or criticizing government authorities. (Annual Report 2006).

Unfortunately, due to the very nature of this issue, there is little Congolese civilians can do to put an end to this violation of human rights without risking their own personal safety. However, just as with incidents of torture of ill-treatment, Congolese organizations, such as the Center for Research on the Environment, Democracy, and Human Rights and Congo Watch have routinely reported abuses to international organization, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. These organizations play a vital role in protecting rights by alerting the global community when the freedom of expression and the free flow of information is repressed within the DRC (“DRC: Activist Beaten”).

Access to Justice:

Regardless of regular violations of human rights, very few criminal were brought to justice through the legal system of the DRC during the last year. Inadequate funding prohibits the justice system from functioning properly. Justice officials have limited resources, office equipment, and even basic legal texts. Corruption in the legal system is exacerbated by non-payment of police and judicial salaries. Detainees were forced to remain in prison cells until there were enough funds to transport them to court and hold their trial (Annual Report 2006). Flaws in the justice system also prevented many victims of human rights abuses from pursuing legal action. One obstacle for victims who attempted to find justice through the legal system was a lack of finances, as they had to pay for the costs of summons and court proceedings. The fear of intimidation and retaliation is another barrier to the legal system because authorities have failed to protect victims and witnesses. This is particularly true for rape victim as they often live in the same communities as their attackers and fear further assault (Annual Report 2006).

On March 3, 2004 the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was referred to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC). On February 10, 2006 the Pre-Trial Chamber of the ICC issued a warrant of arrest for Thomas Lubanga Dyilo. Before the end of March 2006, Dyilo was transferred from custody in the DRC to the ICC. Dyilo is the founder and leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots, an armed militia in the northeastern region of the DRC (“Prosecutor v. Thomas Lubanga Dyilo”). Dyilo is accused of violating the human rights of civilians on numerous occasions and of murdering UN peacekeepers. Officially, Dyilo has been charged by the ICC for the war crime of "conscripting and enlisting children under the age of fifteen years and using them to participate actively in hostilities" (“Prosecutor v. Thomas Lubanga Dyilo”). Although this case being heard by the ICC marks a significant move toward justice for victims, the court will most likely only be able to prosecute a handful of suspects. Therefore, national organizations, such as Heritiers de la Justice, are making the legal process accessible to a larger proportion of victims by training judicial monitors and rural mediators (“NGO Directory”). However, it is imperative that the DRC government perform significant reforms to the national legal system in order for even more human rights abusers to face justice.

An Analysis of the Current Situation and Proposal for Reform

After examining the historical development of human rights in the DRC, the importance of international intervention within the nation becomes clear. On one hand, the damage foreign involvement can inflict on the state is illustrated through the rule of Mobutu. His anti-soviet position resulted in significant financial support from the U.S. until the corruption of his government became too obvious to ignore (Emizet 204). Although the end of the Cold War did fortunately result in the end of U.S. support for Mobutu, in many respects, it was too late. A model for governance was already established. From Mobutu to Joseph Kabila, there has been a pattern of ignoring human rights in times of political transition, military conflict, or any other time of convenience. The current state of human rights in the DRC demonstrates that the Congolese government has not fully adopted the principles of human rights thus far. The services utilized for the betterment of the nation remain insufficient. As recently as the year 2003, only 1.5% of the GDP was spent on reducing poverty (“Poverty Reduction”).

Armed conflict and violence continues to present the biggest challenge to the implementation of human rights in the DRC as it often causes violations. Orphaned children, the systematic rape of women by soldiers, the torture and ill-treatment of detainees, and the repression of free speech are each a direct result of armed conflict. Furthermore, corruption and inadequate funding has left the judicial system in disarray. The horrendous state of human rights in the DRC is an unequivocal result of armed conflict. Given that violence in the DRC has resulted from fights over the nation’s wealth and the exploitation of natural resources, creating other opportunities for economic development is vital to the future implementation of human rights within this nation. It is within this respect that international involvement is necessary. As the research presented illustrates, local and international human rights organizations have made significant attempts to address the result of human rights violations, however, very little has been done to tackle the cause, which in this case is a lack of economic opportunity for the Congolese people. Alleviating poverty should be the main concern of national and international human rights organizations and the government. With the recent change in political leadership through a democratically held election, there is renewed hope for social development; however, the issue of poverty must be at the core of any reform in order to narrow the gap between human rights principles and reality within the DRC.

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