Congo: Rights groups seek revision of outdated laws

BRAZZAVILLE, 5 February (IRIN) - Activists in the Republic of Congo (ROC) have called on the government to bring outdated laws on human rights into line with international conventions, and to ratify the International Criminal Court.
The appeal was issued on 31 January, at the conclusion of a major multi-sectoral human rights conference held in the capital, Brazzaville.

More than 50 participants from a variety of domains, including human rights NGOs, lawyers, prison officials, and officials of the justice ministry, took part in the four-day conference. It was organised by the Federation internationale des ligues des droits de l'homme (FIDH) and the Observatoire congolaise des droits de l'homme (OCDH).

Among other recommendations, participants called on the government to be more welcoming of missions to the ROC by special rapporteurs of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, to include the teaching of human rights principles in school curricula, and to push for greater understanding of and respect for human rights among public servants, and the police force in particular.

"You can count on the diligence of our department, supported by the government under the direction of the president of the republic, Denis Sassou-Nguesso," said Jean Martin Mbemba, the minister of justice and human rights, after hearing the recommendations.

The FIDH delegation and leaders of the OCDH were also received by Sassou-Nguesso himself, with whom they discussed the state of human rights since the end of civil war in 1997, as well as the national human rights commission currently being established.

"The installation of this body should serve to reinforce the ties between public officials and human rights NGOs," Christian Mounzeo, the secretary-general of the OCDH, said. "This strengthened partnership will better serve in furthering the cause of human rights than would a myriad of uncoordinated efforts."

Despite a generally congenial atmosphere prevailing throughout the conference, differences of opinion remained on some matters, most notably on the issue of the "Disparus du Beach" - a case based on the events of May 1999, when thousands of Congolese who had fled fighting that had plagued Brazzaville since 1998 chose to return to the capital, taking advantage of a "humanitarian corridor" established by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Many sources present at the time established that over 350 individuals had "disappeared" during their return from exile, and these have become known as the "Disparus du Beach" - those who disappeared from Brazzaville's port, known as "le Beach", on the Congo river.

Although preliminary hearings on the "Disparus du Beach" have begun in Brazzaville, the case has already come before the High Court in the French town of Meaux for alleged crimes of torture, forced disappearance, and crimes against humanity.

Government officials contend that France does not have jurisdiction over incidents occurring in the ROC. Rights activists, however, counter that the French judicial system is better equipped to hear such cases, because its laws have better kept pace with international human rights law developments, including ratification of the international Convention Against Torture.

France is the former colonial ruler of the ROC, which gained its independence in 1960.


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