UN report on Congo genocide could be game-changer

Guest blogger Lauren Seay says that the leaked UN report on the possible Congo genocide, which implicates the Rwandan government, brings crucial facts to light that could bring justice to the region.

Mary Knox Merrill/The Christian Science Monitor
Over 15,000 refugees are living in a UNCHR camp known as "Mugungu 2" in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. Each person receives a monthly ration of six kilograms of corn flower, three kilograms of beans, and half a liter of oil. The refugees have been displaced due to Congo's ongoing war that has lasted since 1998 and killed over three million people.

"...no report could adequately describe the horrors experienced by civilian populations in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Every individual has at least one story to tell of suffering and loss. In some cases, victims have turned perpetrators, and perpetrators have in turn been victims of serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in a cycle of violence that continues to this day."

It's been several months since I first heard that the long-awaited mapping report of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights contained some serious language about the role of Rwandan troops in committing human rights abuses in Zaire/DRC. The report was finished more than a year ago, but has yet to be officially released. However, the report was leaked to Le Monde, which reported on it last week, and the report quickly spread in the universe of people who closely follow the region.

As Jason Stearns notes, the leaking of the report almost certainly happened in order to ensure that the word "genocide" got out lest someone scrub it from the final version. It happened in late August, when half the UN is on vacation, and just before the final version was supposed to be released.

I have seen the draft report. It is long and it is damning. Those who have followed the region will not find much about which we didn't already know; it wasn't exactly a secret that the RPA forces supporting Laurent Kabila's campaign to take over the territory in 1996-97 were responsible for serious human rights violations. The report deals with many more issues than just those involving Rwanda, however. Just about every armed group that operated in the DRC since 1993 committed war crimes and/or crimes against humanity, and a large number of them are discussed in the draft. It's horrifying. A few excerpts:

  • "All parties to the conflict in the DRC recruited and used CAAFAG. Between 1993 and 2003, these and other children were subjected to indescribable violence, including murder, rape, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, forced displacements and the destruction of their villages, and were deprived of all their rights. This situation continues to this day." (Paragraph 719)
  • "In November 1999, elements of the ANC/APR buried alive 15 women from the villages of Bulinzi, Ilinda, Mungombe and Ngando, near to the town centre of Mwenga, 135 kilometres to the south-west of Bukavu. Before being buried alive in the town centre in Mwenga, the victims were tortured and raped, some with sticks, and subjected to other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatments..." (Paragraph 352)
  • "Around 27 August 1998, civilians and members of the popular defence groups burned several people alive in the neighbourhoods of Vundamanenga, Kimbiolongo and Ndjili Brasserie in the village of Mbuku, in the municipality of Mont-Ngafula. Several infiltrators, exhausted, were arrested, burned alive and then buried in the forest by residents of these neighbourhoods." (Paragraph 313)

These things are hard to read. They are harder to have endured. It will take years to sort out the myriad of transitional justice issues outlined in the later sections of the report, and most of those victims who are still alive will probably pass on before a functioning court system can hear their cases.

The big story, of course, is Rwanda and the accusation that Rwandan-controlled forces played a significant role in massacring Hutu refugees who fled into Zaire as a result of the Rwandan genocide. Jason Stearns has covered the relevant sections in detail here, as well as begun to provide an overview of the rest of the report here. The report's authors are careful to note that it should be up to a court to decide whether the crimes constitute "genocide," but clearly they believe that the potential for such a finding is there.

Predictably, Rwanda's government responded by saying that the accusations in the report are "outrageous" and referred to the report as an "amateurish NGO job." They have issued threats to pull out of UN peacekeeping operations if the report is released, which would not be good for the already pitiful operation in Darfur, among other places.

Max Fisher at the Atlantic Wire has a nice write-up of reaction to the leak and the draft report here. A few more thoughts on related issues:

  • The facts are not on the Rwandan government's side.Western reporters, Zairian/Congolese NGO's, and international NGO's were aware of and keeping track of these human rights abuses as they happened. That's not to say it was all cut and dried - there were certainly genocidaires among the Hutu refugees who fled across Zaire in advance of the rebel and RPA forces. But there were also women and children. All of them were massacred. Even Kristof covered it.
  • This report vindicates Howard French, whose masterful reporting from the ground for the New York Times in 1996-97 was what got me interested in the region in the first place. French covered the use of Hutu refugees as human shields and the attacks when they happened. He wasn't allowed access to some of the areas in which these abuses happened, but it was evident to everyone what was going on - when bulldozers head out to fields to bury bodies and the smell of death is heavy in the air, locals know what has happened. French covers this in much more detail in his book, which you should absolutely read if you haven't already. His coverage of the leaked report appeared in the Times this weekend. You won't find a piece that puts the report into better context.
  • Philip Gourevitch covers the leak and the Rwandan government's reaction to the report for the New Yorker. He implies that the methodology for the report, the standards by which it defines "genocide," and the fact that Kofi Annan arranged for the report to be conducted somehow discredits his findings. He implies that Annan was interested in spreading the blame after Annan's failure to stop the 1994 genocide.
  • I disagree. Even if Annan did want to do penance for his errors, that does not change the facts on the ground. Gourevitch is a brilliant writer, but his reporting is rarely critical of Rwanda's regime. He has long taken far too much of what Kagame and other RPF representatives tell him at face value. I think this stems from a fatal error in perception that Gourevitch made while reporting in the immediate aftermath of the genocide. Faced with the incredible horrors around him, he assumed that since the genocidaires were the bad guys, Kagame and his team were the good guys. What Gourevitch failed to understand then - and seems to still be missing now, despite all evidence to the contrary - is that there were never any good guys in this fight. Blood is on almost everyone's hands, and there's plenty of blame to go around.
  • The methodology on this report is about as solid as it could be given the circumstances. A team of local and international human rights workers used a two-witness standard for corroborating witness testimony, interviewed over 1200 witnesses, and is clear about the limitations of their methodology and the applicability of these findings in a court of law. They do not claim to provide definitive evidence that something happened, only that there is "reasonable suspicion that the incident did occur" (Paragraph 7). Given that some of the crimes they detail happened seventeen years ago, it's remarkable that they were able to corroborate as much as they did.
  • This report highlights the importance of seeing violence in Rwanda, the Kivus, and the rest of the eastern DRC as interrelated. You can't understand one without the others. The Rwandan genocide did not happen out of thin air; it was a product of the country's civil war, and decades of historical events before that. The fight for control of Rwanda extended onto Zairian territory and, in one form or another, continued at least until early 2009 and arguably until today. It may well break out in Congo again; there are some worrying signs involving death threats and shootings in North Kivu of late.
  • What court will handle this? It's still an open question as to whether this report will be released in its final form, but whatever happens, someone will probably try to use a mechanism of international justice to hold the perpetrators to account. I'll leave it to friends who know more about transitional justice than I do to explain what could happen. Two important things to note: 1) Rwanda is not party to the Rome Statute of the ICC, and 2) the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda only has a mandate to hear cases concerning acts of violence committed in calendar year 1994. The ICTR does, however, have the authority to hear cases involving related violence that occurred in neighboring countries, but, again, these are limited to acts of violence from 1994. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. In the meantime, I'd suggest that perhaps President Kagame won't want to allow himself to be photographed on the same dais as Omar al-Bashir again any time soon (see photo 3, HT @RachelStrohm).
  • The use of the term "genocide" is intentional and significant. I am not an international lawyer and I do not know whether the crimes committed by these particular forces in Zaire constitute "genocide" or not. The draft report concludes that there were "tens of thousands" of Hutu victims of this violence; that's a far cry from the counter-genocide claims of hundreds of thousands dead that many Hutus in Rwanda's diaspora have made for years. But in the end, it doesn't matter what you call it. Summary executions of women and children refugees who are fleeing violence or forced to serve as human shields is wrong. It doesn't matter how many people were killed, whether they were targeted because of their ethnicity, or who did it. And no one ought to be allowed to get away with it.

The importance of this leaked report cannot be overstated. If released as such, it will disastrous for what's left of Kagame's reputation, and he knows it. Even if it's not released, it's unlikely the donors can now simply ignore what they have long known to be true. What happens as a result of this is anyone's guess. Kagame is already sitting atop a powder keg of resentment and division in his own party. But there are many potential consequences, and no donors want to see instability in Rwanda. As Ari Kohen points out, nobody's thought much about what a post-Kagame Rwanda would look like.

Finally, I am once again moved by the courage of the people of Africa's Great Lakes region. Human language is inadequate to describe the inhuman abuses detailed in the report. The men and women and children who endured them, kept their communities going, treated survivors, buried their dead, provided public services, and continue to live with insecurity to this day are remarkable human beings. We owe them justice.

-- Laura Seay is an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga. She travels frequently to Central Africa and blogs at Texas in Africa.

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