Congo Case May Show the Limits of UN's Reach

Some question a decision last week to let former Zaire look into its own atrocities.

The United Nations Security Council appears to hope that, sometimes, words can be stronger than actions.

Last week it called on the Congolese government to investigate allegations of crimes against humanity, choosing not to set up a tribunal or send in a new team of investigators. This leaves some analysts wondering whether the international body was taking another step toward addressing human rights concerns or actually beginning to end its involvement in the former Zaire.

"Asking a government to investigate itself is not a good idea," says Ruth Wedgwood, a professor at Yale Law School in New Haven, Conn.

UN human rights investigators had charged that soldiers loyal to Laurent Kabila, during his push to overthrow dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, massacred Rwandan Hutu refugees in 1996 and 1997.

The team also said in a report that the government of Mr. Kabila, which came to power last year, obstructed its investigation by arresting and intimidating witnesses, seizing documents from one of the investigators, and staging anti-UN demonstrations.

"As long as the government ... rejects [the notion that Kabila's forces] had any involvement in the serious violations of human rights which we found to have occurred, it's difficult to see how they would conduct investigations ... with objectivity," says Daniel Michael O'Donnell, who was a member of the UN's investigative team withdrawn last April after an investigator was detained.

The investigators concluded in their report that "the interests of justice can only be served by endowing an international tribunal with competence over these crimes."

But the Security Council has opted not to give an international tribunal jurisdiction in Congo or to send another investigative team.

"We find ourselves in a situation where there are very few options. You cannot just send them back," says Jessica Lang, a member of Costa Rica's mission to the UN, which currently holds a seat in the Security Council. "They're going to encounter the exact same situation, and probably they will be endangering their own lives."

Peter Takirambudde, Human Rights Watch's Africa director, says the Council's decision not to establish a tribunal indicates that the UN is unlikely to do so in the future. "The track record of the UN in this matter does not point to the possibility that they are going to do something robust," he contends.

Some Security Council members say they are trying to give Kabila a chance to act, and that a tribunal can be established later. The issue is not over, says Danilo Turk, Slovenia's ambassador to the United Nations. He points out that there is no statute of limitations on crimes against humanity.

Mr. O'Donnell agrees that there is no sense of urgency, saying that he is not too concerned that a lot of evidence would disappear with the passage of time.

Ambassador Turk further points out that there is a deadline for the government to report back to the UN. "[Congolese officials] say they are willing to investigate. We say fine, let us look ... at your homework by 15 October, by which time there will be another report by the secretary-general, and the Security Council will have another opportunity to look at the matter again," he says.

But one delegate to the Council privately expresses doubts that anything substantial will happen after the deadline.

"The DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo] in their reply to the report said they would be willing to take measures on their own, but I ... don't think they really meant it," the delegate says, speaking on condition of anonymity. "As to the date ... I think it is a way of saving face [for] the Security Council.

"I don't think there will be any action, even then, by the Council," the delegate adds, attributing this to both financial considerations and the difficulty of getting the consensus needed to issue a Security Council statement.

Another possible reason for the Council's reluctance: the case of Rwanda.

"The Rwanda tribunal has had such troubles getting started," says Professor Wedgwood. "It has been a tough assignment trying to get people to serve."

The UN may have a case of "tribunal fatigue," Wedgwood says. A tribunal was set up in the former Yugoslavia, and one was proposed for Cambodia.

When the Council called on the Congolese government to conduct investigations, talks of establishing an International Criminal Court were under way in Rome.

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