UN Human Rights Council must ensure accountability for crimes in Kasai
Published: 28 Jun 2018
By: Thijs Van Laer
Download the joint letter with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on renewing and expanding the Human Rights Council-mandated investigation into human rights violations and abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Kasai Region
“They killed my brothers of 16 and 18 years old. They killed them in my presence, I saw it happening,” Sylvia,* a young Congolese mother, told IRRI in Angola. “Even when the military killed my brothers, I wasn’t allowed to cry. They burned the corpses.” A team of experts, mandated by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), has now concluded that the violence in the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which Sylvia and many others described to IRRI in October 2017, constitutes crimes against humanity and war crimes. IRRI shared the findings of its investigations into the violence by government forces and militia in this region with the experts.
The violence in the Kasai erupted in mid-2016 after a conflict over customary leadership, and quickly spread to a vast region, previously peaceful but underdeveloped. Followers of a traditional leader killed by security forces formed a militia, known as the Kamuina Nsapu, and attacked government officials and other symbols of authority. IRRI interviewed children that were forcibly recruited into the militia. Government security forces conducted serious atrocities when responding to the militia’s presence, targeting real and perceived militia supporters with brutal force. In at least one town, close to the border with Angola, a pro-government militia committed ethnically motivated killings and other serious abuses. IRRI also documented acts of sexual violence and destruction, as mentioned by the UN team.
The experts also confirmed the links between the violence and the national political crisis, in particular tensions around the electoral process and customary authority. This is important, as the preparation of elections, scheduled for December, continues to be marred by controversy, and the ongoing turmoil could stir more violence in the Kasai or other parts of the country.
The UN experts stated that “it is high time for justice to put an end to impunity if we do not want the ethnic dimension of the conflict to worsen” and mentioned the need for disarmament and reconciliation processes. After the publication of its report, IRRI has advocated for similar measures during meetings with policy makers in Kinshasa and Geneva. In one such meeting, the Congolese minister of justice committed to IRRI to bring perpetrators from all sides to book. So far, however, little seems to have been done on the matter, and the Kasai region remains volatile, with incidental flare-ups of violence and abuses against civilians by both militias and government forces.
In order to provide justice, the UN experts recommend reinforcing the capacity of the judicial authorities to investigate and prosecute the international crimes committed in the Kasai. Such capacity building is indeed important, but it is equally important to ensure that the Congolese authorities are sufficiently encouraged to provide accountability for these crimes. A few low-level individuals have already been convicted, but the government should prosecute all those involved in the violence, including senior military and other government officials, and those who supported and incited pro-government militias. At the UNHRC, delegates are now negotiating a resolution to follow up on the previous one that mandated this investigation.
IRRI, together with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, sent a joint letter to delegates to encourage them to reinforce and expand the investigation, given the increasing risk of more violence throughout the country. We have also called on them to ensure that adequate follow-up is provided to the full report that will be presented on 3 July and to the judicial proceedings by the Congolese government. In case it turns out the Congolese judicial authorities are unable or unwilling to prosecute senior individuals involved in these crimes, the UNHRC should consider alternative ways to ensure justice is done to the numerous victims of the violence. The office of the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court stated in the past that her office was closely following the situation and could take action, in accordance with the principle of complementarity. In any case, the UNHRC has a responsibility to ensure that this will not be yet another important human rights report on the DRC that will disappear into a drawer. * Not her real name