Congo

Human Rights Committee concludes consideration of second periodic report of Republic of Congo

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HR/CT/547
The second periodic report submitted by the Republic of the Congo was outdated, one of the experts on the Human Rights Committee said this morning, as the Committee concluded consideration of that country's compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Many important events that impacted on the human rights situation in the country had transpired since that report's issue and it would have been helpful if the Government had submitted a more recent report, the expert said. While the Republic of the Congo had gone through a civil war and was passing through difficult times, that did not exonerate it from compliance with the Covenant.

Another expert said the Committee could not make a proper evaluation of the human rights situation in the country because the report was outdated and did not give an adequate picture of the reality on the ground. The question of a timetable to achieve human rights had to be addressed by the Government. While the Government should be careful not to go too fast, the creation of a constitutional and legal framework for the protection of human rights was crucial.

Addressing a question raised yesterday by experts on the lapsed transitional period in his country and the failure to hold Presidential elections, Basil Ikouebe, the Permanent Representative of the Republic of the Congo, said the original transition period had been set at three years. The civil war that broke out, however, lasted throughout 1998 and part of 1999. In that context, certain questions had to be asked, such as: should elections be organized over the dead bodies of combatants?

The other alternative was to engage in "democratic window dressing", he continued. But that was not an appropriate choice. He also raised the issue of the 810,000 displaced persons who would not have the right to vote. Would their absence serve the cause of peace and the advancement of democracy? There was now a new timetable and elections would take place next year.

Another issue raised by experts was the extent of women's participation in education, politics, and in the workforce in the country's private and public sectors. Were there any women's non-governmental organizations and was their cooperation sought in promoting and protecting women's rights? an expert asked.

Rebecca Oba-Omoali, Director of Human Rights in the Ministry of Justice, said the participation of women in decision-making was being affirmed. She acknowledged, however, that women's access to decision-making in such areas as the judiciary had not made significant headway. Nevertheless, women were being given greater responsibilities. Men were also beginning to recognize and accept that women were capable of more expanded roles. While the obstacles were not easy to overcome, the principle of equality was enshrined in texts.

The Acting Chairman of the Committee, Elizabeth Evatt, of Australia, in her closing remarks, said the Committee's many concerns could be summed up in the fact that experts did not yet see an established framework for the protection of human rights. It might take years to develop solid institutions. The Republic of Congo needed to have both laws and committed people to ensure that rights were protected in law and in practice. The Government must also ensure that proper remedies were available wherever violations were committed. The country could not build a sound future based on human rights without facing and dealing with the difficulties of the past.

In his closing remarks, Mr. Ikouebe asked that experts show understanding for the circumstances facing his country. Sometimes violence had to be dealt with through a law of amnesty. While it was indeed a "bitter pill to swallow", it grew out of a need to achieve national reconciliation.

The Committee will meet again at 3 p.m. to consider the general comment on article 4 (gender equality) of the Covenant.

Committee Work Programme

The Human Rights Committee met this morning to continue its consideration of the second periodic report of the Republic of the Congo's compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (document CCPR/C/63/Add.5). The Committee began its consideration yesterday afternoon. Under article 40 of the Covenant, all States parties agree to submit periodic reports on the implementation of the agreement. (For further background on the report, see Press Release HR/CT/546 issued on 13 March.)

Comments by Experts

An expert noted that the report submitted was outdated. Many important events having an impact on the human rights situation in the Congo had transpired since the report was concluded and it would have been helpful if the Government had submitted a more recent report. The Congo had gone through a civil war and was passing through difficult times. That did not, however, exonerate the State party from compliance with the Covenant. What was the extent of the participation of women in education, employment in private and public sectors and political life? he asked. Were there any women's non- governmental organizations and was their cooperation sought in promoting and protecting women's rights? It was stated yesterday that customary practices sometimes prevailed over legislation. If that was the case, what measures had been taken to change cultural attitudes, so as to respect women's human rights?

Also, he wanted to know if there were different ethnic groups in the Congo? If so, how were they represented in the National Council and what was the extent of their representation? In addition, could Covenant rights be directly enforced in the courts and in how many cases had it been enforced? He also noticed that the Congo had the death penalty on the statute books. How many death sentences had been passed and executions carried out?

Response by Congolese Delegation

BASILE IKOUEBE, Permanent Representative of the Congo, thanked the experts who had shown their interest in seeing human rights evolve in his country. His Government wanted to see the situation evolve quickly and in the right direction. He remarked that it was sometimes easier to believe the statements of a representative of a non-governmental organization than a government official.

There was not a single Congolese family that was not touched by the drama of the crisis, he said. Personally speaking, he was subjected to attacks by militias and had been kicked out of his house. He had to swim across the river with his family to Kinshasa and had approached the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Several experts had commented on the gap between the reality on the ground and the various documents presented to the Committee. While a number of achievements could be seen in the past few years, their effect had sometimes been blocked by customary practices. There were four regions in the country ravaged during the war, which meant that there had been no respect for human rights in those areas. The gap between reality and the information presented was true. He informed the Committee that all political prisoners were freed three or four months ago.

Concerning the ceasefire agreement, he said his Foreign Minister had sent the resolution adopted by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and that would be distributed to the Committee. As to how to disarm and reintegrate militias into society, his Minister had taken that issue up with the United Nations and requested assistance to ensure disarmament and social integration for ex- combatants. Also, there were now some 500,000 or 600,000 displaced persons who had returned to their homes. Thus, the situation was moving along slowly.

Commenting on the "constitutional coup d'etat" which had taken place in the country, he said that what existed was a situation where people could take power by legal means. Once in power, however, they could find every possible way to remain in power. The whole situation was, therefore, controlled. What had taken place was not a rebellion, but an attack against the government apparatus. The opposition reacted and the country was once more embroiled in a civil war.

Addressing a question raised on the transitional period in his country, he said the current regime was temporary. Transition had been set at three years, but the civil war broke out in Brazzaville, spread to other locales, and lasted throughout 1998 and part of 1999. In that context, certain questions had to be asked. Should elections be organized over the dead bodies of combatants? The other alternative was to engage in "democratic window dressing". He did not, however, feel that was an appropriate choice. He also raised the issue of the 810,000 displaced persons, who would not have the right to vote. Would their absence serve the cause of peace and the advancement of democracy?

He said there was now a new timetable and elections would take place next year. In one year, all refugees and displaced persons would have returned and a census could be carried out. There was no intention to trick anyone, just practical considerations that had to be addressed. For example, there were people who had spent eight months in the forest eating fruits and berries. Social and medical services had to be provided to them. They then had to be reintegrated into society. He reiterated that, despite all the current obstacles, the new election schedule would be respected and dealt with in good faith.

He also shared the concern expressed about amnesty. The Republic of the Congo had been keenly interested in seeing the Statute of the International Criminal Court signed in June last year. It was a good instrument to end the culture of impunity. Addressing the crime of genocide and like actions was difficult. Obviously, rape and the crime of bestiality would not be tolerated, but how were those issues to be handled? Should collective trials take place? Should villages be burned if it was suspected that they harboured perpetrators? Yes, some arbitrary arrests had taken place, but, generally, if a victim identified a criminal, then that person was arrested. There had to be, however, an official complaint and a process of identification when it came to a perpetrator.

The militias should also be integrated into the State. They had to be educated about the ways of the Republic. Doing that successfully would, however, require the help of the international community.

Concerning refugees and displaced persons, he said that an agreement signed between his country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and UNHCR had allowed for the return of refugees. The Congo was a small "amazonia". Even when people were told that the war was over, some did not believe that and hesitated to return to their homes. A committee was created to move from village to village and to go into forests to tell people the war was over. While some had returned, others came back to their homes and then returned to the forests. How could the Government explain to people and make them believe that the war was over? he asked.

Turning to the presence of foreign troops in the Congo, he said that the Angolans had intervened only in the last two weeks of the hostilities, contrary to the allegations by the opposition. The Congo had the right to keep foreign military forces on its territory, as long as they were needed to help reconstitute the Congolese army. They were not roaming around raping people, but were in their barracks. The Congo had requested assistance from a neighbour. He wanted to thank the Angolans, who, while having problems of their own, came to the aid of their neighbour.

Yesterday, someone had brought up the Special Rapporteur's report, he added. Unfortunately, the Special Rapporteur had never gone to the Congo or spoken to Congolese officials when he wrote the report. The Government would be willing to discuss the truth with neutral observers.

Responding to specific questions, REBECCA OBA-OMOALI, Director for Human Rights in the Ministry of Justice, said that what was written in the country report was in fact what was actually happening on the ground. The Government could not and did not accept extra-judicial and summary executions and other such activities. The Congo had a clear Penal Code. More attention must be paid to the source of information. There had been no arbitrary arrests against human rights defenders in the country.

Regarding the amnesty law, she said that when a country was in a situation of tremendous urgency, such as that faced by the Congo, the Government might take great and unusual decisions. She noted, for example, the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. The amnesty measure in her country was one way to guarantee the right to life. Amnesty was helping to re-establish peace. When looking at the amnesty law, whose objective was peace, the entire situation had to be taken into consideration.

As to what measures were taken to ensure that article 81 of Congo's fundamental law enshrined the principles of the Covenant, she said that the authority of treaties ratified by the Congo was clear. The Covenant was part of the overall legal apparatus in the country and was applied in Congolese courts. Human rights defenders and other jurists invoked provisions of the Covenant and it appeared in the Congolese Penal Code.

Regarding the independence of the judiciary, she said that, according to article 82 of Congo's fundamental law, independence of the judiciary must be guaranteed. The Government had not put into place all the mechanisms necessary to ensure that the judiciary was independent. No magistrates had been threatened by politicians. Recently, Congo had signed an agreement with the French Government on setting up a National Human Rights Commission.

The Congo did not have any private detention camps in Brazzaville, she continued. During the war in 1997, officers who had waged war against the Republic were captured. They were kept under arrest, not in prison, but elsewhere, for national security reasons. They had all been set free. There were no political prisoners and there had not been any executions of political prisoners. If not properly indicted within 72 hours, a detainee must be released.

On the treatment of detainees in the Brazzaville and Pointe Noire centres, she stated that detainees were separated by gender and the severity of their crimes. There was a pressing need for proper and adequate staffing to ensure the safety and security of those incarcerated. There was also the problem of restoring physical facilities. Major criminals incarcerated by the Attorney- General could not be thrown in with the regular prison population. Hence, they were kept in areas where their safety could be assured. International assistance was required in that area.

The root cause of the "disfunctionality" of the country's judicial system was the people themselves, she added. Those responsible for carrying out justice who had committed illegal acts were also being brought to justice. More training courses and support were needed in terms of strengthening efforts to raise awareness about and protect human rights. Also, financial and technical assistance was necessary to carry out such efforts.

Continuing, she said the Constitutional Council tried to ensure that adopted local laws were in line with the Covenant. There was, nevertheless, a need for sensitizing and training.

The participation of women in decision-making was being affirmed, she said. Yet, little headway had been made in increasing women's access to decision-making in such areas as the judiciary. Also, in the current Government, only two of the 31 members were women. Nevertheless, women were being given greater responsibilities. There was now a female Minister and responsibilities that had traditionally been confined to social affairs were now expanding into other spheres. Men were also beginning to recognize and accept that women could play expanded roles. While the obstacles were not easy to overcome, the principle of equality was enshrined in texts.

Commenting on custom, she said there were certain practices that were violent. For example, if the death of a spouse left a woman alone with her children, relatives of the dead man could take the children away. That was now a violation of the civil code and just one example of efforts to protect women's rights. On the issue of torture, she said the transitional Parliament had signed an act authorizing the country to become a party to the Convention Against Torture and Other Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

She stated that journalists working for various media were free to do their work. In the past, some Congolese journalists had been hauled into court, denounced for alleged crimes and expelled. That was not the case currently.

With regard to protecting children's rights, Congo had ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in November 1993, she said. The Labour Code set the minimum age to enter the labour market at 16. In addition, the country had a children's tribunal and judicial procedures specific to the needs of children. At the level of the Ministry of Justice, an office for children's protection had been set up. The Congo sought to ensure the physical and moral integrity of children.

The rights of all ethnic groups were guaranteed by the Congolese fundamental law, she said. People, who wished to cultivate their own cultural identity, such as Pygmies, were given the opportunity to do so. The Chief of the Pygmies was given the role of identifying what difficulties impeded the better integration of the Pygmies into Congolese (Bantu) society.

Mr. IKOUEBE added that Congo did not have an ethnic problem, but a practical problem in managing power in certain regions of the country. There was no specific problem with regard to ethnicity. Integration of ethnic groups was not something that could be hurried. The Pygmies, for example, preferred to live in the forests and they could not be forced to do otherwise. It was a slow, gradual process.

Additional Comments and Questions by Experts

An expert said that the Committee had not been able to receive all the information required, perhaps due to the time constraints. The Committee could not make a proper evaluation of the human rights situation in the country, considering that the report was outdated and did not give an adequate picture of the reality on the ground. The question of a timetable to achieve human rights had to be addressed by the Government. While the Government should be careful not to go too fast, the creation of a constitutional and legal framework for the protection of human rights was crucial.

He had not heard how rape victims were treated, he noted. Was the Government offering the proper assistance and to what extent was international assistance required in that area?

Disappointed with the response given to the question regarding the media, he wanted to know what type of a legal regime regulated the media. Also, had there been any civil suits brought against journalists?

On children's rights, he asked to what extent Congo's resources were able to meet the needs of abandoned children. Had the Government availed itself of the technical assistance programme offered by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in that regard?

An expert wanted to know whether the right to judicial address was confined to citizens alone or whether it was applicable to any person within territory of the Congo. Also, was the right to join trade unions confined to just citizens, or did it include foreign workers? Another expert underscored the importance of building an effective and independent judiciary to promote a permanent state of law in the country. Concern was once again expressed at the detention conditions of prisoners. Another question raised concern about the current measures that were being taken with respect to children who were displaced by the war.

An expert drew attention to article 11 (prohibition of detention for non- performance of a contractual obligation) to which the Congo had expressed reservations. Did the Government have plans to change current legal provisions related to that article and withdraw reservations? he asked. Referring to article 22 (freedom of association) and article 25 (participation in public affairs), the expert wanted to know whether regional representation was allowed and, if not, were there plans in the future to allow political parties to represent a particular region.

An expert said it was necessary and even more important at this juncture in the evolution of the Congo that the State party have, at the forefront, the need to give effect to undertakings under the Covenant. The delegation also needed to see the Committee's work from the perspective of the Covenant. The present Report dated from 1996. The prior report was presented in 1987. The Committee thus had to look at situation as it had evolved since then. It had to ask about things since that date, and not just in the present.

Another expert highlighted the gaps between the reality on the ground and the fundamentals of the text, and between affirmation and implementation. For example, in discussions on the independence of the judiciary, there was a great gap between the fundamentals of the law and the reality of how magistrates worked. Was there any single decision within the judicial apparatus that referred explicitly to the Covenant? Was the issue of the Covenant within the framework of Congolese law something to be examined?

Another expert said that among the problems of transitional justice were reconciling the demands for peace with the demands for justice. In the Congo, perpetrators were going unpunished and victims uncompensated. He hoped that the new constitutional structure would give due accord to the Covenant's principles.

Also, he noted the many problems facing women given cultural attitudes. For developing countries, it was important to keep in mind that development could not take place without the participation of half of the population. The problem of development would be all the more difficult and slower if such cultural attitudes were not overcome.

Response by Delegation

Ms. OBA-OMOALI said that children were indeed vulnerable. Many were displaced and had lost their parents to the war. The only way, outside of detention centres, to ensure that children were cared for was through private centres run by churches and other non-governmental organizations. The Government had set up a national committee, independent of the Committee on Children's Affairs, to ensure that children's rights became a reality. While the Government did have a plan of action to deal with children, there was no children's programme. Neither did it have a programme to assist street children.

Regarding the establishment of political parties, she said they were created based on a 1991 law. Inquiries were conducted prior to the establishment and registration of a party. Regionally-based parties were at the root of the disasters the country had endured. There was a draft law on the creation of political parties, which would be considered at the same time the Constitution was considered.

Turning to women, Mr. IKOUEBE said that there were shortcomings in enforcing the existing laws. It was a question of changing mentalities, which were around since time immemorial. Congo was trying to achieve greater equality for women in practice. There were currently only nine women parliamentarians, out of 75, in the temporary parliament. It was an ongoing struggle and was a question of access to education and the job market.

The Acting Committee Chairman, ELIZABETH EVATT, of Australia, welcomed the fact that in practice there had been no executions. She also welcomed the measures taken to establish human rights institutions. The Committee's many concerns could be summed up in the fact that experts did not see yet an established framework for the protection of human rights. It might take years to develop solid institutions. The Congo needed to have both laws and committed people to ensure that rights were protected in law and in practice. The Government must also ensure that proper remedies were available wherever violations were committed.

She was encouraged by the country's commitment to building a sound future based on human rights. At the same time, it could not build a sound future without facing and dealing with the difficulties of the past. Experts noted the failure, due to the amnesty law, of bringing perpetrators to justice. She wished Congo well in its struggle towards a human rights democracy.

In closing remarks, Mr. IKOUEBE thanked the Committee for the direct and frank exchange the delegation was able to engage in. He asked that experts show understanding for the circumstances the country faced. Sometimes violence had to be dealt with through a law of amnesty. While it was indeed a "bitter pill to swallow", it grew out of a need to achieve national reconciliation.