On the map
- Central African country
- Area: 2,345,409km² (nearly 10 times the size of the United Kingdom)
- 67 million inhabitants
- Date of independence: 1960
- 3 out of 4 people live below the poverty line
- 4 out of 10 people can neither read nor write
- Human Development Index*: 186th out of 187 (France is 20th)
- 1 lawyer per 11,166 inhabitants (nearly 3 times less than in the United Kingdom)
*The Human Development Index is a summary measure of average achievement in key dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, being knowledgeable and have a decent standard of living (source: UNDP).
DR Congo: International crime victims confront fear
The victims are essentially civilian populations; women, children and the elderly, especially in rural areas in the east of the country. It is impossible to give a precise figure for the number of victims, given that these are mass crimes committed on a large scale over vast geographic areas. Estimates of victims who suffer from atrocities committed by various rebel groups and armed forces over nearly twenty years run into the hundreds of thousands. Sexual violence, forced conscription of child soldiers, widespread murder, torture and pillaging are among the most blatant human rights violations.
This situation has its origins in the extremely unstable situation in the country since 1996. DRC has experienced two wars and a series of conflicts that have created one of the world’s most serious humanitarian crises. Between 1996 and 2003, the country experienced a war involving more than seven neighbouring country armies. This war enabled the dissemination of massive quantities of arms to be distributed and militias to be formed, primarily via the provinces in the north and the east.
Despite peace agreements in 2006, the human rights situation in DRC, and especially in the east of the country, remains worrying. Different armed groups (of different ethnic origins) and militias (Mai Mai) are still active. This situation threatens security in the region, and contributes to keeping civilians in a state of vulnerability in the face of extreme violence and blatant human rights violations.
Installing a justice system and effectively combatting impunity is extremely difficult under these conditions. Economic progress is restricted and poverty levels are alarming, contrasting sharply with the country’s wealth of natural resources (uranium, gold, diamonds, coltan, etc).
The international crimes are committed by armed groups controlled by warlords or high-ranking officers who deserted the Congolese armed forces (FARDC) and created their own militias. These groups sometimes have political claims or present themselves as defenders of one ethnic group or other (Hema, Lendu, etc).
Only around forty perpetrators of international crimes committed since 1996 have been brought to trial. Only half of those have been convicted. All stages of international justice – inquiries, prosecutions, trials and sentencing – present various obstacles for justice.
Often living outside urban centres, it is difficult for victims to engage with the justice system. Lots of them are hesitant to testify for fear of reprisals or lack of confidence in the justice system.
In order to reach victims and to have better access to evidence, the military authorities organise mobile court hearings. Judges, magistrates, lawyers, defendants, court clerks and police officers all move around in the area where the crimes were committed. These mobile courts require funding and human resources which the military courts do not often have. These mobile courts are however, helped by civil society organisations who raise awareness and prepare the victims beforehand.
The crimes committed by soldiers fall under military court jurisdiction, not civil ones. Yet the independence of judges is often jeopardised by the high military command, and by interference from the political authorities.
Finally, the hierarchical military structure means that prosecutions are often brought against ordinary soldiers, militia members or non-commissioned officers. The higher ranking officers generally escape prosecution. To get around some of these obstacles, a 2013 law grants civil courts the jurisdiction to rule on international crimes committed by civilians, and a draft bill to implement the Rome Statute is being reviewed by parliament.
Nevertheless, a general climate of impunity still reigns: crimes are committed but the perpetrators are not bothered by the justice system.
In DRC, as elsewhere, justice can only work if it has judges, prosecutors, lawyers, a legislative framework, funding and human resources… and people to file complaints.
The DRC justice system is short of all of these elements.
In most Congolese provinces, people find it hard to access the justice system, let alone trust it, because of the excessive costs, remoteness, and lack of knowledge of how it works. The justice sector is widely plagued by corruption, trials can sometimes last years, and less than one sentence out of ten is actually enforced.
In terms of international justice, overcoming villagers’ mistrust toward the justice system remains the biggest challenge, and armed groups continue to spread terror in the east of the country. There is great fear of reprisals by the perpetrators, especially for victims who agree to testify.
However, there have been some positive signs. DR Congo has been collaborating with the International Criminal Court (ICC) since 2004. But it is only really since 2009 that willingness to prosecute perpetrators of serious human rights violations, especially international crimes, has begun to be felt. There are still though many obstacles: the enormous geographic area where crimes have been committed, the current security situation, and the lack of logistical means and human resources continue to hinder investigations.
Magistrates and lawyers, NGOs and victims demonstrate a great deal of courage and tenacity in preparing, opening and pursuing cases, and in the culmination of trials under these circumstances.
Combatting crimes against humanity must be done on two levels: both by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and by the Congolese courts and jurisdictions.
In 2004, the Congolese government asked the ICC Prosecutor to investigate crimes within its jurisdiction committed on DR Congo territory. It is worth noting that this request only relates to crimes committed since 2002, the date when the Rome Statute came into force.
Responding to this request, the ICC opened an investigation, and seven arrest warrants were issued for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Only two of those accused have been convicted
The international community should continue to support justice sector and security sector reform. This is an indispensable stage if lasting peace in the country is to be achieved. In particular, this involves better management of rebel reintegration into the Congolese armed forces. From a military point of view, MONUSCO (United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo) is carrying out its stabilisation work in the east of the country.
The international community must continue to provide logistical support so that the judiciary (police, public prosecutor, magistrates, and prison service) can work under good conditions and deliver justice.
The Crossroads project funded by the European Union continues the work initiated by ASF to strengthen the capacities of magistrates and lawyers to deal with international crimes, and to reinforce the Rome Statute system (in particular the complementarity between national justice systems and the ICC).
Whether sexual violence, murder, or (sexual) slavery, the crime committed is horrifying for the individual who experiences it directly. These crimes also have destructive impacts for the close family, the village and the community. Victims of sexual violence are often rejected by their communities, as are children who were forced to be soldiers or children born as a result of rape.
Deeply traumatised, victims are afraid, with reason, that the atrocities that were inflicted upon them will be repeated. Villages are deserted after having suffered frequent attacks by militias.
People affected often lost everything: house, cattle, harvest… their entire livelihoods. Because of the unstable security situation, they fear that these attacks will be repeated. In some cases the victims have to live side by side with members of the militias, either demobilised or still active.
The victims whom ASF and its partners meet and who have had the courage to testify at trial often ask only one thing: that what happened to them never happens again.
Most people want justice to be done and to get on with their lives, whether through economic activity or access to training.
In spite of elections in 2006 and 2011 that were considered democratic by the international community, DR Congo is struggling to emerge from the cycle of conflict into a phase of real development and good governance. The violence in the eastern part of the country continues intermittently, continuously at the whim of successive peace accords, changes of alliances, and demands by armed groups. Human rights violations continue, as do massive displacement of people in these areas. Political and economic insecurity reigns as people lack the means and security to undertake economic activity and improve their living conditions.
One key element in combatting international crimes is the ruling of the court. For victims, as well as in public opinion, the sentence is a signal not only for the perpetrator, but also for those who are still committing similar acts: human rights violations will be brought to justice. The enforcement of prison sentences however is a problem in DR Congo, due to the deplorable state of the prisons, where large-scale escapes are common.
While respecting the rights of the defendant, it is essential that the rights of victims are guaranteed, and that the sentences handed down against the perpetrators of international crimes be deterrents. The expectation is to avoid crimes suffered by populations being repeated, and to ensure that those militia members still operating in the region stop committing these atrocities.
Get to know the people
“Today I’m proud to have been able to go before the court and give my testimony in the presence of Colonel 106 himself. Without the help of the human rights organisations, I would never have been able to give my testimony.” Fidéline was 12 when she fled—with a gunshot wound to the leg—from Colonel 106’s militiamen. Colonel 106 is a former warlord, once active in the area of Bunyakiri (South Kivu).
(©2014 Alexis Bouvy / Local Voices)
Oscar in front of the ruins of his house, destroyed three months earlier during fighting between the Raïa Mutomboki militia and the national army. Even though a number of trials for war crimes and crimes against humanity are on going in South Kivu, the civilian population continues to suffer the violence of war on a daily basis.
(©2014 Alexis Bouvy / Local Voices)
A young girl leans against the ruins of a house destroyed during fighting between the militia APCLS and the national army in February 2013. During the fighting more that 250 people were killed and five hundred houses burned. Human rights organisations are gathering testimony from victims to include in a file for submission to the Court of Military Justice. Kitchanga, North Kivu.
(©2014 Alexis Bouvy / Local Voices)
Crossroads in Democratic Republic of Congo
Through the Crossroads project, ASF is contributing to the recognition, handling and reparation of crimes of the past and present in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Crossroads supports the fight against impunity of international crimes in DR Congo by placing itself at the side of victims in order to restore their right to justice and to obtain reparations as well as the restoration of their dignity.
With a view to strong and fair justice, and because everyone has the right to be defended, Crossroads can also provide judicial support to defendants.
- To ensure the effective implementation of the principles of the Rome Statute in Congolese law, in particular the protection of victims and witnesses
- To contribute to the adoption of due process, in accordance with international standards on human rights
- To ensure the effective and active participation of victims and defendants by enabling them to contribute fully to the justice process.
The project anticipates a range of activities relating to advocacy, capacity building of professionals of the justice system, especially lawyers and organisations of civil society, conducting research on the fight against sexual violence, the adoption of the law implementing the Rome Statute, the collection and documentation of international crimes, victims’ participation in proceedings and the effective application of their right to reparations.
These activities are developed in partnership with other stakeholders involved in the fight against impunity of international crimes.
By dealing with these crimes, the Congolese and the international justice system make it possible to fight impunity, to defend the victims of violations that have been committed and, more generally, to initiate a process of stabilisation and restoration of peace in DR Congo, especially in the east.
Populations as a whole are targeted by Crossroads via actions designed to raise awareness of their rights and the ability to report international crimes, especially when they include sexual violence as a weapon of war.
Those benefiting from the project include victims and alleged perpetrators of international crimes committed in DR Congo; the members and representatives of Ministries, state institutions, parliaments etc. involved in the legislative process; professionals of the justice system (magistrates and lawyers); universities; law students and organisations of civil society.
Meet The Team
Head of Mission
Program Officer International Justice
Program Assistant International Justice - Eastern Province
Program Assistant International Justice - South Kivu
, Program Assistant - Equateur
Program Assistant - Bas Congo