The United Nations has accused Rwanda of wholesale war crimes, including possibly genocide, during years of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. An unprecedented 600-page investigation by the UN high commissioner for human rights catalogues years of murder, rape and looting in a conflict in which hundreds of thousands were slaughtered. This UN report published on 1 October by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights confirms a draft version of the report leaked earlier. The report says gross human rights violations and abuses over a period of 10 years (from 1993 to 2003) and two invasions by Rwanda, amount to ‘crimes against humanity, war crimes, or even genocide’ because the principal targets of the violence were Hutus, who were killed in their tens of thousands.
Among the accusations is that Rwandan forces and local allies rounded up hundreds of men, women and children at a time and butchered them with hoes and axes. On other occasions Hutu refugees were bayoneted, burned alive or killed with hammer blows in large numbers. It is the first time the UN has published such forthright allegations against Rwanda, a close ally of Britain and the US. The Rwandan government reacted angrily to the report, dismissing it as ‘amateurish’ and ‘outrageous’ after reportedly attempting to pressure the UN not to publish it by threatening to pull out of international peacekeeping missions. Rwanda’s Tutsi leaders will be particularly discomfited by the accusation of genocide when they have long claimed the moral high ground for bringing to an end the 1994 genocide in their own country. But the report was welcomed by human rights groups, who called for the prosecution of those responsible for war crimes.
The report covers two periods: Rwanda’s 1996 invasion of Congo, then called Zaire, in pursuit of Hutu soldiers and others who fled there after carrying out the 1994 genocide of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis, and a second invasion two years later that broadened into a regional war involving eight countries, and more than six million innocent Congolese were killed during this disastrous war dubbed ‘Africa’s first world war. Rwanda’s attack on Zaire in 1996 was initially aimed at clearing the vast UN refugee camps around Goma and Bukavu, which were being used as cover by Hutu armed forces to continue the war against the new Tutsi-led government in Kigali. Hundreds of thousands of the more than one million Hutus in eastern Zaire were forced back to Rwanda. Many more, including men who carried out the genocide but also large numbers of women and children, fled deeper into Zaire. They were pursued and attacked by the Rwandan army and a Zairean rebel group sponsored by Kigali, the AFDL. The two Rwandan invasions led to a complete collapse of state institutions in Congo then called Zaire. There was power and political vacuum and therefore human rights became a key issue.
While focusing on human rights protection, international human rights instruments can be classified into two categories: declarations, adopted by bodies such as the United Nations General Assembly, which are not legally binding although they may be politically so; and conventions, which are legally binding instruments concluded under international law. International treaties and even declarations can, over time, obtain the status of customary international law.
International human rights instruments can be divided further into global instruments, to which any state in the world can be part of, and regional instruments, which are restricted to states in a particular region of the world.
Most conventions establish mechanisms to oversee their implementation. In some cases these mechanisms have relatively little power, and are often ignored by member states; in other cases these mechanisms have great political and legal authority, and their decisions are almost always implemented. Examples of the first case include the UN treaty committees, while the best example of the second case is the European Court of Human Rights.
Mechanisms also vary as to the degree of individual access to them. Under some conventions – eg the European Convention on Human Rights (as it currently exists) – individuals or states are permitted, subject to certain conditions, to take individual cases to the enforcement mechanisms; under most, however (eg the UN conventions), individual access is contingent on the acceptance of that right by the relevant state party, either by a declaration at the time of ratification or accession, or through ratification of or accession to an optional protocol to the convention. This is part of the evolution of international law over the last several decades. It has moved from a body of laws governing states to recognising the importance of individuals and their rights within the international legal framework.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are sometimes referred to as the international bill of rights.
The following are human rights mechanisms regarding the Africa region:
• African Charter on Human Rights and Peoples’ Rights
• African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the child
• Maputo protocol
• International Criminal Court on Rwanda established in Arusha ( Tanzania ) following the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
This historic UN report tackling impunity in Congo describes ‘the systematic, methodical and premeditated nature of the attacks on the Hutus, which took place in all areas where the refugees had been tracked down’. The pursuit lasted months and, occasionally, humanitarian aid intended for them was deliberately blocked, notably in the eastern province, thus depriving them of things essential to their survival, the report said. 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 extensive use of non-firearms, particularly hammers, and the systematic massacres of survivors after camps were taken prove that the number of deaths cannot be put down to the margins of war. Among the victims were mostly children, women, old and ill people. The report goes on to say that ‘the systematic and widespread attacks have a number of damning elements which, if proven before a competent court, could be described as crimes of genocide’.
The UN also adds that while Kigali has permitted Hutus to return to Rwanda in large numbers, which did not ‘rule out the intention of destroying part of an ethnic group as such and thus committing a crime of genocide’, the Zairean army collapsed in the face of the invasion and Rwanda seized the opportunity to march across the country and overthrow the longstanding dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. Laurent Kabila was installed as president. He promptly changed the name of the country to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Rwanda invaded again in 1998 after accusing the new regime of continuing to support Hutu rebels. The following five years of war drew in armies from eight nations (Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Chad on the side of the then Congolese government and Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi on the rebels’ side) as well as 21 rebel groups in a conflict that quickly descended into mass plunder of the DRC’s minerals as well as a new wave of war crimes.
The UN report accuses Angolan forces of using the cover of the war to attack refugees from Angola’s conflict-plagued Cabinda province who had fled to the DRC. Angola is accused of executing all those they suspected of colluding with their enemies. Angolan soldiers also raped and looted, the UN investigation said. The same accusations of war crimes and crimes against humanity are made by this UN report against Uganda, Burundi, Angola and Chad.
That is why it is imperative for the international community, especially the current British coalition government (ConDem government between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats) to ensure that these serious and shocking allegations of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes against Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Angola and Chad committed in the DRC are investigated through an International Criminal Court on DR Congo to be set up and supported by the world community for justice to be done. We need to tackle the culture of impunity worldwide as no one is above the law, thus no one is above international law. A case for the creation of an International Criminal Court on DR Congo to investigate, arrest suspects and bring the perpetrators of these horrible and horrendous crimes to justice is compelling. That is the way forward and I appeal to the international community to support this recommendation from the UN report as there is no peace without justice.
Cllr Jean-Roger Kaseki is Labour councillor for Tollington ward in the London borough of Islington, works at the Human Rights and Social Justice Research Institute Associate/London Metropolitan University and Congolese for Labour Chair. 07903 610 138, Jean.Kaseki@Islington.gov.uk
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