Africa, Armed Conflicts, Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights, North America

DR-CONGO: Widespread Impunity Undermines Upcoming Polls

Lily Hough

WASHINGTON, Aug 10 2011 (IPS) - Controversy over its electoral process has dominated headlines on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the months preceding highly anticipated polls, but an international human rights group shifted the world’s attention to another, not unrelated problem Wednesday – the country’s feeble judicial system.

A report released by Amnesty International Wednesday detailed the prevailing impunity of crimes under international law committed by the Congolese army and other armed groups, notably in eastern DRC.

“The people of the DRC have suffered war crimes and crimes against humanity, including torture, sexual violence and the use of child soldiers, on an enormous scale and yet only a handful of perpetrators have ever been brought to justice,” said Veronique Aubert, Amnesty International’s Africa deputy director.

The rights group said that few people have access to existing justice mechanisms, victims and witnesses are reluctant to come forward because there is no national system to protect them, legal aid services – though guaranteed by law – are scarce, and outreach efforts are inadequate.

Moreover, the judiciary is far from independent, with the political and military hierarchy protecting military figures in the military justice system, the report continued – a particular concern in a country where the army is one of the main perpetrators of crimes.

Even where prosecutions are successful “enforcement of court judgments is rare… [and] prison escapes and extractions (assisted escapes) are common,” the report added.

Amnesty was unable to find one case where a victim was paid compensation.

But a fair trial and due process cannot be guaranteed when judges and other judicial staff regularly face threats and interference from political authorities and military officials, the report noted.

The rights group added that the fight against impunity must be a priority as the scheduled November 2011 presidential elections approach.

“The neglected victims of these terrible crimes need justice – they must be able to contribute to the reform process in a meaningful way and have their voices heard by the government,” said Aubert.

Whether or not the elections will provide an answer to the ongoing violence and impunity in the Congo is questionable. As the electoral process forges on, fears linger that disputes over the vote’s results could disintegrate into further violence.

U.S. Ambassador to the DRC James Entwistle said that the credibility of the elections will be a decisive factor in mitigating that potential.

“Credible elections mean, first and foremost, transparency,” Entiwistle said at a panel hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center here on Tuesday. “It means an environment in which candidates can campaign and voters can vote, votes are collected and tallied and announced in an open and transparent process…candidates can travel and not be hassled or intimidated.”

Almani Cyllah, Africa regional director at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, added that the stakes are heightened by the potential for a spillover to the whole Great Lakes region should violence erupt in the Congo.

“The implications for the destabilisation of the political process will obviously destabilise the country,” Cyllah said, “but also it would destabilise the Great Lakes region. We have seen that happen in other parts of Africa.”

Concerns that the voter registration process was poorly managed have already led to calls for more international monitoring to ensure that problems don’t carry over to the ballot box.

Meanwhile, Entwistle, who maintained that the disputed disorganisation of the voter registration process was due to “physical and logistical challenges”, called the final list of an estimated 31 million eligible Congolese voters “a significant accomplishment” and maintained a “generally positive take” on the success of U.S. efforts to train and equip Congolese observers throughout the country.

“I think it’s going very well,” Entwistle said Tuesday.

Other regional experts are less at ease with the integrity of election preparations.

“There are all kinds of things that have already stopped the elections from being free and fair,” Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, a Congolese professor at University of North Carolina, told IPS. “The registration process was extremely flawed…so it is not possible for the elections to be free and fair.”

Nzongola-Ntalaja cited images of 10 and 11-year-olds registering to vote, accounts of people with multiple cards and registering several times, and complaints from the ground that centre placements are plotted in locations favourable to the current president while people living in areas concentrated with opposition support have been forced to walk miles to the nearest centre.

The new independent electoral commission (CENI) blamed its low budget. Meanwhile, the parliament’s decision to reduce the voting process in the presidential ballot from two rounds to one – a move likely to favour the incumbent president – caused further alarm, while being defended by President Joseph Kabila of the ruling party as an economic decision.

Nzongola-Ntalaja called the financial excuses “utter nonsense”.

“Kabila’s government delayed setting up the electoral commission. It delayed the registration process. It changed the constitution five months before the vote. All of these are costly delays that should have been prevented,” he told IPS. “And all of these decisions are political.”

Kabila came to power in 2006 in the country’s first multi-party elections in 40 years, which passed off relatively smoothly thanks to extensive international monitoring and financial aid.

But even with the relative stability of the 2006 elections, Amnesty International documented “widespread politically motivated human rights violations – including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention and torture and other ill-treatment committed against alleged supporters of the opposition to Kabila’s ruling party in the aftermath of the elections,” that went widely unpunished.

While Amnesty contended that the government’s prioritisation of a comprehensive justice strategy was made urgent by the timeliness of the upcoming elections, Nzongola-Ntalaja told IPS that violence and impunity were not to be blamed for the electoral flaws, but rather, should be attributed to them.

“The failure of free and fair elections will not be because of the insecurity or violence in different parts of the country,” he said. “It is the government – the manipulation of the people in power, to stay in power – that is what’s messing everything up.”

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