More Atrocities in the Congo

Drifting from my previous posts on international family law, I will focus today on the recent Human Rights Watch report on the Lord’s Resistance Army atrocities in the Congo.  I have chosen to highlight this report for two reaons.  First and foremost, I believe that the direct and indirect victims of the situation in the Congo deserve—at the very least—the world’s attention.  Secondarily, I believe the report points out the nuanced and interdependent relationship between human rights and humanitarian law.

The 73-page report is heartbreaking.  It contains information from 128 interviewees interviewed by three Human Rights Watch staffers.  The accounts of murder, violence against children through child soldiers, rape, torture, abduction, and unimaginable brutality are not easy to read.  I did, however, feel a duty to pay attention to these accounts.

Astonishingly (at least to this Western writer), the 312 murders and 250 abductions went relatively unnoticed for months.  The area’s remoteness slowed communication, assistance, and investigation.  This persistent isolation surely devastates the local population, who were unimaginably terrorized by these atrocities.  Thanks to the courageous interviewees and interviewers, the world can take notice and seek some measure of justice.

The Human Rights Watch report calls for justice by addressing several stakeholders.  It first demands that the LRA cease its attacks and release its prisoners.

The report then addresses the governments of the Congo, Uganda, Central African Republic, and Southern Sudan, calling on these governments to focus on protecting civilians.  Part of the problem seems to stem from these government’s politically- and strategically-based shortcomings.  The governments failed the people of Congo by misrepresenting the strength of the LRA, by not contingently planning for the aftermath of failed military attacks on the LRA, and by lacking sufficient resources to respond to the attacks.

For these shortcomings, Human Rights Watch has asked these countries to improve on their future efforts and provide some measure of assistance to the traumatized Congolese citizens.

Congo in particular has been asked to tighten its policy against human rights abuses, particularly on the apparently abusive Congolese military’s own soldiers.  Regardless of rank, nationality, or circumstance, Human Rights Watch has called for zero tolerance for human rights abuses.  To reduce these abuses, Congo should provide soldiers with sufficient compensation and food.  Human Rights Watch has also called on the Congo to set up additional judicial mechanisms with international support to hold violators accountable.

Human Rights Watch has further called on international actors—Uganda, the UN, the ICC, individual donors, regional organizations, and the United States—to increase support in the struggle against the LRA.  Considering the LRA’s bloody history, this broad coalition of actors should answer the call to eliminate the LRA—a group of only an estimated 250.

Of course, international law plays a role here.  On the surface, humanitarian law calls for international criminal prosecution of the LRA’s leaders.  Clearly, the LRA’s war crimes and crimes against humanity beg for international criminal accountability.

The human rights implications are perhaps more subtle.  You see, while international human rights law may not provide a direct remedy against the LRA, it does hang in the background to push the Congolese government to act in support of the people of Congo.  In fact, several international human rights treaties could apply here.

In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Articles 3, 4, 5 respectively deal with the right to life, the protection against slavery, and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Congo must respect, protect, and promote its people’s civil and political rights.  In an atmosphere of poverty, isolation, and terror, the rural Congolese people are unlikely to have access to effective remedies (Art. 2), let alone to enjoy the right to life (Art. 6), freedom from cruel and inhuman treatment (Art. 7), slavery (Art. 8), or the basic respect for human dignity.

The ICCPR also binds the Congolese government to afford adequate judicial safeguards in prosecuting the perpetrators of these crimes (Art. 14).  Paradoxically, the Congolese government must also afford protection to the LRA—even in the face of its atrocities.

Other human rights treaties likewise loom in the background.  The Convention of the Rights of the Child screams out a laundry list of protections here, considering the role of child soldiers in the LRA (see, e.g., Arts. 6, 9, 11, 19, 20, 24, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 40).  Many of these obligations not only bind Congo to increase prevention efforts—they also require Congo to provide rehabilitative help for the child victims of these atrocities.

Also, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women binds Congo to “take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women.”

Finally, in the spirit of African self-reliance, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights binds Congo to protect its inhabitants.  Like the ICCPR, this treaty requires respect for life (Art. 4), dignity (Art. 5), liberty and security (Art. 6), legal remedy (Art. 7), information (Art. 9), mental health (Art. 16), family (Art. 18), and peace and security (Art. 19).

Now, the Congolese government will not likely face direct international legal action as a result of these international human rights treaties.  Nonetheless, their obligations under these instruments provide additional impetus to act to the full extent possible to respect, protect, and promote human rights in this devastated area.  Further, Congo’s compliance with these obligations will play hand-in-hand with the much needed support from outside actors, be they fellow African nations, international organizations, or the U.S.

It seems each of these actors has a role to play, especially the U.S.  Through its relatively new organization, Africom, the U.S. has pledged to support countries like Congo who desperately need assistance.  While the U.S. has already provided a large amount of aid to stop the LRA, more action appears to be on the way.

In fact, a bill before the House Foreign Relations Committee called the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act could further bind the Obama Administration to stop the LRA in short order.  Hopefully, the Human Rights Watch report will reach the U.S. people who will in turn urge their representatives to take all reasonable measures to end such atrocities at the hands of the LRA.

Todd M. Heine Todd M. Heine spent spring 2010 at McGill while pursuing a joint-J.D./LL.M./Master 2 Droit from Vermont Law School and Universite de Cergy-Pontoise. He holds a certificate from the University of Chicago and a B.A. in German from Longwood University. Todd is primarily interested in family issues all across the globe, regularly maintaining a blog about international family law.

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