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POLITICS-DRC: Debate Over Truth Commission

Emmanuel Chaco

KINSHASA, May 22 2009 (IPS) - The search continues for the best way to expose the truth surrounding crimes committed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), not least in Ituri, in the north-east of the country, a region which where years of atrocities and massive human rights violations have gone unpunished.

Militia fighters in Bunia: after a decade of atrocities, opinion is divided on how best to handle perpetrators of gross violations of human rights. Credit:  Tiggy Ridley/IRIN

Militia fighters in Bunia: after a decade of atrocities, opinion is divided on how best to handle perpetrators of gross violations of human rights. Credit: Tiggy Ridley/IRIN

Several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) believe that impunity for these crimes could create a new focal point for dissent, leading to a possible violent backlash from the victims.

Gilbert Tandia, human rights activist and Congolese expert in conflict resolution, believes that “the launch of a forum similar to the ‘Amani’ process (Amani means” peace “in Swahili), launched in January 2008 for the restoration of peace in the two eastern provinces of North and South Kivu, would help local people live in greater harmony and foster local development.”

“Taking into account collective memory and the inadequacies of the Congolese justice system,” Tandia says, “(I believe that) in the absence of a Truth Commission, one must set up a mechanism which will help people to express themselves, giving truth its proper place.

“It would help people to freely discuss, as though in a family, those events in which they were the perpetrators or the victims, thus creating an atmosphere for reconciliation.”  

This view is shared by Jean Claude Sady, activist in the Ituri Council of Faiths. “It would be good to have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission tailor-made for Ituri, given that there is a need to know the truth about what was actually taking place over the years.”

Innocent Mayembe, a Congolese army major and president of the Ituri military court, is one of the few judicial figures supporting the proposal. “It is important to establish a platform of reconciliation that would involve all policymakers in Ituri in order to overcome the culture of mistrust.”

He stresses that this mistrust “creates potential for further confrontations.” But for Mayembe, “instead of the Amani process which has yet to yield results in over a year, a Truth Commission would be better, especially for crimes committed between 1998 and 2008 by local militias and troops from some of the DRC’s neighbouring countries.”  

For example, between 1998 and 2001, Ituri suffered atrocities perpetrated by several militias, some of whose leaders are today before the International Criminal Court. These include Thomas Lubanga, president of the Union of Congolese Patriots which he founded in 2001, and Mathieu Ngudjolo, former leader of the Nationalists and Integrationists Front (FNI) and presently a colonel in the DRC army, as well as many others.

DRC’s president, Joseph Kabila, has already decided what mechanism he will use in order to “answer the demands for justice made by victims of these abuses.” In an interview with the New York Times on Apr 4, Kabila said the DRC “will soon put justice first… and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) could come after …”

Recalling earlier failures of the TRC, Kabila said the DRC could not “undertake actions or initiatives which would take it back to where it was yesterday, or the day before yesterday.’

In fact, following the Inter-Congolese dialogue held in 2002 in South Africa – mediated by former South African president Nelson Mandela – the DRC set up a truth commission “whose outcome was a stinging failure,” according to Raphael Nyabirungu, professor of law and senior counsel to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

The DRC’s Truth Commission has been unable to open even a single case after three years of existence, according to Congolese civil society organisations.

Apart from Major Mayembe, another magistrate interviewed by IPS, Fidèle Sindan Kabamba, President of the Superior Court of Ituri, said that “the only mechanism capable of establishing the truth about crimes committed in Ituri is justice.”

For him, “one must first and foremost use the criminal justice system so that, through its ability to deter and intimidate, no person from any tribe – and there are 18 in Ituri – is responsible for any more killings and human rights violations.”  

The problem surrounding the truth about Ituri thus remains. In their reports, several Congolese NGOs including “Justice Plus” and “Lotus Group”, based in Ituri, state that, “The Congolese justice system has no capacity to establish the truth because of its inadequacy.”

But President Kabila remains insistent, saying, “The Congolese justice system is independent and able to give answers to victims of crimes committed in Ituri.” He made the statement in the April interview with the U.S. daily in Kinshasa, the Congolese capital. 

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