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Congo report

October 1, 2010

A United Nations Human Rights report states a number of African nations were involved in ethnically-motivated massacres in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) but softens its language after protests from those named.

A young woman, carrying her sibling on her back
Experts hope the report will lead to improved justice in DRCImage: AP

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) report, which was leaked in draft form in September, has already caused outrage in Rwanda after it was revealed that the UN intended to accuse Rwandan troops of having killed and raped Hutu refugees in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) between 1993 and 2003.

However, while the report still contains accusations that African armies and rebel groups committed massacres and rapes in the eastern Congo, the official report tones down the language used in the draft in response to protests from Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi.

"The apparent systematic and widespread attacks... reveal a number of inculpatory elements that, if proven before a competent court, could be characterized as crimes of genocide," the report said.

It added that "it was not a question of people killed unintentionally in the course of combat, but people targeted primarily by AFDL (Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo)/APR (Rwandan Army)/FAB (Burundi army) and executed in their hundreds." The report also includes documentation of actions involving troops from Angola, Zimbabwe and Chad.

"The extent of the crimes and the large number of victims, probably in the several tens of thousands, are demonstrated by the numerous incidents detailed in the report," the report says. "The extensive use of non-firearms, particularly hammers, and the systematic massacres of survivors after camps were taken, could possibly prove that the number of deaths cannot be put down to the margins of war."

Softer language follows protests and submitted objections

Members of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army
A number of African groups and armies are accused of crimesImage: AP Photo

But rather than categorically state that genocide had been carried out by those armies, groups and governments mentioned, the official report inserts the words "allegedly," "possibly" or "apparently" into the final version of descriptions of violations. These amendments could be linked to claims by Rwanda that the UN report was based on unsubstantiated documentation and testimony.

The official report also references the involvement of the Ugandan, Rwandan and Burundi armies in the first Congo war of 1996-1998, presumably as a response to Rwandan objections that the UN report lacked historical context.

These concessions will undoubtedly be seen by some as the UN caving in to pressure. But Amnesty International's Deputy Africa Director Veronique Aubert praised the report, saying it was definitive enough to prompt real action and change.

"This report does not only support our own information and evidence of crimes in DRC during the period covered but it goes further than that," she told Deutsche Welle. "It is a comprehensive and strong report and Amnesty International supports its analysis of the crimes listed. We believe it is strong enough to lead to prosecutions but now we need to see concrete action and for those responsible for these crimes to be held accountable."

Prosecution of perpetrators the next hurdle to justice

However, the toned-down language of the official report is likely to add to the belief among other experts that prosecution of perpetrators and the obtaining of credible proof won't be easy to come by if the case now goes before a court.

"It was very murky at the time and it is very murky still," Robert Gribben, American ambassador in Rwanda during the post-genocide period, told Deutsche Welle. "It will be difficult to find first-hand sources to legitimate what happened. There are plenty of third- and fourth-hand sources who have an opinion, but that would not be an acceptable criterion."

Amnesty's Aubert believes that the next step should be taken by the UN and the government of the DRC to create a structure in which the cases can be heard and trials conducted.

A militia member from the Congolese Revolutionary Movement
The UN and DR Congo need to work together for justiceImage: AP

"Of course we want to see prosecutions and there is some debate as to what mechanism will be put in place for these to happen," she said. "First the report needs to be endorsed by the Congolese government and then the UN and the Congolese should set up a task force to develop a plan to reform and rebuild the justice system so not only can past and present crimes can be prosecuted but also future crimes."

"There is a real need for the judiciary to be rebuilt," she added. "At the moment the Congolese system is not efficient enough. Only 12 trials have been held in response to the crimes during the period covered by the report. So we want to see a longer-term strategy where there is investment from the Congolese, the UN and international donors to improve justice so national laws and institutions can be strengthened."

Any move to bring members of those armies, groups and governments named in the report will undoubtedly fan the flames of anger, especially in Rwanda, a country with which the word 'genocide' sits extremely ill.

To read more about Rwanda's history of genocide, click below

Rwanda's anger based on distrust of UN sources

Paul Kagame
Rwandan President Kagame was incensed by the reportImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Rwanda first voiced its anger in September when the Kigali government labelled the leaked draft report as "flawed and dangerous" and an "insult to history." It also threatened to pull its 3,000 plus UN peacekeeping troops out of the Sudanese region of Darfur if the draft report were endorsed for publication.

This threat was echoed by Uganda, the mainstay of an international peacekeeping force in Somalia, which threatened to review the deployment of its troops in peacekeeping missions and pull them out of existing operations.

It was later revealed that Rwandan President Paul Kagame had decided to keep his troops in the conflict-torn territory after consultations with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

After Rwanda's angry response, the UN said it would not go ahead and publish the report in September as planned, but would give "concerned states" a further month to comment on the draft and would publish any comments alongside the report itself if said states so wish.

Rwanda presented seven objections to the UN report this week, adding that publishing the official report would threaten regional stability. It claimed the UN draft report lacked historical context, used flawed methodology, relied too much on the use of anonymous sources and that it contradicted eyewitness accounts.

The genocide charge included in the draft report also contradicted Rwanda's efforts to repatriate, resettle and reintegrate several million Hutu refugees, the Rwandan statement said.

Horrific past complicates genocide issue for Rwanda

The OHCHR report reopens a brutal chapter in central African history. It goes back to the months and years after the current Rwandan President Kagame led Tutsi troops to end the Hutu genocide against his people.

A man in Nyamata looks at hundreds of skulls
The genocide in Rwanda remains a painful era in historyImage: AP

As he took control of the capital in 1994, more than a million Hutus fled across the border to Zaire, since renamed Democratic Republic of Congo, to seek refuge in the massive camps set up as part of an international aid effort. Among the refugees were the surviving perpetrators, the genocidaires, who militarized and politicized the camps, using them as bases from which to launch fresh attacks on the newly proclaimed Rwandan president.

Unable as the international community was to find a solution to the problem, the Rwandan army crossed into Zaire to break up the camps. Hundreds of thousands of Hutus were forced back to Rwanda, while others moved further away from the border. Tens of thousands of these refugees, which included genocide perpetrators and innocent women and children, are subsequently thought to have died from starvation, illness and violence.

Since then, Kagame, who was reelected in a disputed landslide victory last month, has implemented 'genocide ideology' laws which make 'revisionism, negationism and trivialization of genocide' punishable offenses.

The Rwandan government insists that Rwanda's intervention in the DRC was a matter of survival and a result of "the irresponsible and insensitive management of the refugee camps by the UN and the international community subsequent to the genocide."

Authors: Nick Amies / Tamsin Walker

Editor: Rob Mudge