Congolese Push for Reconciliation

Talk of reviving truth commission to deal with legacy of civil war.

Congolese Push for Reconciliation

Talk of reviving truth commission to deal with legacy of civil war.

On the last Saturday of each month, perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide can be seen in the fields and hills surrounding the southern city of Butare, working together to repair roads and build houses.

Participants in these projects are known as “tigistes", after the French acronym TIG for travaux d’interet general or community work, and they carry hoes, spades and picks to rebuild their country, which 15 years ago was ravaged by a genocide that killed nearly a million people.

Rwanda’s neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, is also seeking ways to deal with the aftermath of a war that has caused the deaths of over five million people there since 1998.

A truth and reconciliation commission, TRC, is one possibility but a previous attempt in 2004 was riddled with political and financial difficulties. As a result, the commission did not hold a single hearing and was abandoned altogether after the DRC’s first democratic elections in 2006.

But there are recent calls for a new commission, even from the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, ICC, where Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga is currently standing trial for conscripting and using child soldiers in the Ituri region's bloody inter ethnic conflict.

During a July visit to Ituri, ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo told residents that a TRC could help to address atrocities committed prior to 2002, which are beyond the court’s mandate.

“We discussed with some groups the possibility to use other methods to show crimes [committed] here, not only the [ICC] trials,” Ocampo told IWPR

It remains to be seen whether a new commission could overcome the obstacles of the original, which was to investigate crimes committed between independence in 1960 and the peace accords that ended DRC’s civil war in 2002, while also encouraging truth-telling and reconciliation among perpetrators and victims.

There were major problems from the TRC's inception, said Mirna Adjami, chief of mission at the International Center for Transitional Justice in Kinshasa.

“The legislation did not actually define all the issues that should be part of the mandate of the truth commission,” Adjami said. “How is it going to conduct hearings? How is it going to define victims? The whole structure was never completely fleshed out.”

The real problem, however, was that the TRC was mostly composed of the very factions alleged to have committed the gravest crimes, said

Thomas D’Aquin Moustapha Muiti, who coordinated the work of the commission in North Kivu province.

“All the factions were pointed at for having committed crimes,” he said. “You understand that they could not take part in the proceedings.”

The same was true, he said, for the transitional government, which also included members of various rebel groups.

“Most of them were involved in the conflicts which occurred in the country,” Muiti continued. “Therefore, they blocked the commission from carrying out investigations.”

Funding was also problematic. While the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, contributed some funds, the DRC government never gave its share, Muiti explained.

“The UNDP honoured its commitment, but the government did not,” he said.

It was this lack of fundamental support from the government that really led to the TRC’s failure, said Adjami.

“There was no political will to actually look at the past and seek accountability for past crimes,” she said.

That is still the case, Adjami said, even though the former TRC president, Senator Jean-Luc Kuye, last year introduced a senate bill to form a new national commission. The bill, however, has not been scheduled for discussion and appears to have little political support in the senate and broader government.

The government, Muiti said, prefers to deal with these issues in a different way. He pointed to a bill passed in May which grants amnesty to those who participated in “acts of war” – excluding war crimes and crimes against humanity - in North and South Kivu since 2003.

However the amnesty does not begin to address the underlying problems facing the communities affected by years of violence and war, Muiti said.

“Those armed groups committed crimes in the community, even if they are granted amnesty and integrated into the national army," he said.

Still, Muiti and other civil society leaders remain hopeful that a functioning commission can be resurrected.

“People hope to [have] another commission or mechanism which can help them to live together,” said Anaclet Tshimbalanga, who worked with the original commission in the Western Kasaï province. “People have to express themselves, promise not to commit crimes, to be united and reconstruct the nation.”

Pitsen Angunda, head of the South Kivu-based civic group Tusikilizane, also supports the re-establishment of the commissions.

“A new institution can spread truth [and help people] to reconcile and walk together towards democracy,” he said.

At the July meeting in Ituri with the ICC prosecutor, a spokesman from the Lendu ethnic group said that a TRC could help the community to recover from years of conflict and violence.

"To speak of reconciliation, the truth must first be known; then forgiveness must come afterwards and finally reparations," said Deda Tikpa. "None of those steps has taken place in Ituri. No formal opportunities have been given to tell the truth."

Ange Katsuva, who lost three children and her husband during war in 1996 in North Kivu, said that regional conflicts will not stop if people turn a blind eye to them.

“Renew[ing] the TRC is bringing the truth forward, [to] establish facts, [and] to repair and heal our wounds,” she said.

That is precisely what neighbouring Rwanda’s community-based “gacaca” court system seeks to do.

Though originally a local tradition, the gacaca is now integrated into the national justice system. It was designed to ease the burden of imprisoning and bringing to trial the nearly 100,000 suspected perpetrators of genocide who will not appear at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania.

The gacaca allows suspects to confess their crimes and seek forgiveness in return for reduced sentences and community service work as TIGs.

While the system has faced its share of criticism, it has also allowed some perpetrators and victims to reconcile and coexist peacefully.

Juliette Mukakabanda is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide who lost her husband and two sons. She said the gacaca has helped her to live peacefully alongside perpetrators who have expressed remorse for their actions.

"I live in harmony with those who asked for forgiveness at the gacaca," she said. "That is relieving me. I sometimes offer beer to my neighbour Nirimbuka [who was] convicted of [committing] massacres. We even lend each other money."

That level of reconciliation would be a goal for a commission in the DRC, but observers say that any initiative needs to begin with broader changes to the national justice system.

“Congolese authorities have to find effective strategies to achieve a real rule of law and develop the country,” said Joseph Kikamba, a public official from Kinshasa. “That can begin with ‘telling the truth’.”

This, Adjami said, is precisely the challenge: to develop a functioning legal system that is complemented by other transitional justice mechanisms.

“Clearly there is a desire by the Congolese population to shine a light on the massive human rights violations,” she said. “I think there is also an awareness… that it will be necessary to undertake a national prosecution strategy to deal with crimes from the past.”

This strategy should "emerge from a genuine national dialogue on transitional justice", Adjami added.

If the DRC ever decides to implement a new TRC, Adjami said, it needs to be fully independent and transparent.

The presiding commissioners should be chosen on "strict criteria establishing moral integrity, independence and competence...[and] the commissioners should be representative of the population and strive to achieve gender, ethnic, and regional balance".

But most importantly, Muiti said, it should give victims a voice and allow perpetrators to seek atonement for their crimes.

“I think when people can tell the truth, recognise their fault, and confess sincerely, it is significant for the perpetrator, the victims and the whole community,” he said. “That is where we have to go.”

Henriette Kumakana and Jacques Kahorha are IWPR trainees. Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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