Congo

Human Rights Committee continues consideration of Republic of Congo Report

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Press Release HR/CT/546 - 20000313
The Government of the Republic of the Congo was deeply concerned with the whole issue of human rights, especially since much had been written about the human rights situation in the country in the past few years, its Permanent Representative, Basile Ikouebe, told expert members of the Human Rights Committee this afternoon.

Introducing the Congo's second periodic report on compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, he said that the Government was working under difficult conditions to ensure basic human rights. It had adopted the necessary political, judicial, administrative, legal and, hopefully soon, consciousness-raising measures in the area of human rights protection. Working under a period of civil war, when human rights were most imperiled, meant that the Government needed to be ever more vigilant in protecting human rights.

Rebecca Oba-Omoali, Director for Human Rights in the Ministry of Justice, said civil war had ravaged the country. Nevertheless, a National Forum for Reconciliation had been set up to strengthen the democratic process and 75 members had been elected to a transitional parliament called the Transitional Council. The transitional period had been set for three years.

She said the Forum believed that three years was necessary to organize credible elections. The first two years should be used to establish peace, security, economic recovery and set the groundwork for elections. The third year should be used to select electoral bodies. A draft constitution had been drawn up, but unfortunately, due to the lack of the necessary financial resources, they were unable to continue the programme. She appealed for aid from partner States to help her country finish the process.

A Committee expert noted that, after listening to the Congolese delegation, one could see the progress made in a short amount of time, as well as the political will to change the current situation as quickly as possible. What remained to be done, however, was perhaps more important than what had been accomplished. There was still a long way to go.

Another expert said the report provided affirmation of human rights at all levels, but said very little about the practice of such rights. Was there an independent mechanism for monitoring human rights violations and monitoring complaints? There was reference to a specific commission in that respect. Would such a commission have wide-ranging jurisdiction and would it be able to protect human rights in the country? he asked.

The answers from the delegation today had proved disappointing because they had not shed real light or answered with any precision the questions raised by the Committee, an expert said. For example, enough light had not been shed on the right to free self-determination of the people. And it was also not clear whether there was any genuine division in the branches of the Government.

Another criticism of the report was that it had said nothing about the extent of the violations to the right to life. According to an article in Jeune Afrique, from June to October 1997, between 10,000 and 15,000 people had died. Would there be impunity for those responsible for all those deaths? an expert asked.

A large gap could be seen between reality and the situation described by the delegation, noted one expert. Did summary and extra-judicial executions, arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances still occur today? he asked. How was the State handling the situation, especially since it was not a new country? In 1999, there had been a large number of rape cases and, according to the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in the country, that crime was increasing. What were the authorities doing to address that issue and what penalties were being applied?

The Committee will meet again at 10 a.m. tomorrow to continue its review of the report of the Republic of the Congo.

Committee Work Programme

The Human Rights Committee met this afternoon to begin its consideration of the second periodic report of the Republic of the Congo (document CCPR/C/63/Add.5) on its compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Under article 40 of the Covenant, all States parties agree to submit periodic reports on the implementation of the agreement.

According to the report, two major changes have taken place in Congolese institutional law since the submission of the country's initial report in 1986. First, the adoption of a new Constitution, whose preamble refers repeatedly to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights and the other international human rights instruments duly ratified by the Congo. It also embodies fundamental new national legislation, namely the Charter of National Unity and the Charter of Rights and Liberties, each adopted by the Sovereign National Conference at Brazzaville on 29 May 1991. Second, there have been changes made in the law on criminal procedure and in the judicial system in order to bring judicial practice into line with the standards laid down in the Covenant.

With regard to article 1, the right of self-determination, the Congo's Constitution provides that the Congolese people have the right of self- determination, on the basis of the principles of equality, reciprocal interest and mutual respect, sovereignty and territorial integrity, with all peoples who share its ideals of peace, liberty, justice and human solidarity. The Government has consistently striven for the observance of the right of peoples to self-determination and has always refrained from any interference in the domestic affairs of other States.

In compliance with article 3, equal rights of men and women, the report states that women have the same rights as men in private, political and social life. Also, women are entitled to the same wages as men for equal work, and they have the same rights with respect to social security.

Article 4 of the Covenant provides that in time of officially proclaimed public emergency, States parties may derogate from their obligations when the situation so demands. The Congo, on which events have imposed such periods of restriction, has provided for such situations in article 109 of its Constitution.

In addition, articles 6, 7, 8, 11, 15, 16 and 18 of the Covenant concern respectively, the right to life, the rights not to be subjected to torture, held in slavery or imprisoned for failure to fulfil a contractual obligation, and the rights to equality before the law and to freedom of thought and conscience. Those rights are enshrined in the Congolese Constitution and there can be no derogation from them, even in duly declared exceptional circumstances. The death penalty is still in force in the country and may only be imposed for the most serious crimes, such as voluntary homicide.

Unlike the 1984 Constitution, the Constitution of 15 March 1992 provides, that all acts of torture and all cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment shall be prohibited. This constitutional change should enable the Congo to accede to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Regarding article 10, the right of detainees, the report states that the conditions of detention in police premises and prisons are no longer appropriate to the constantly rising number of prisoners. The prisons, many of which were built during the colonial era and designed to hold only a few prisoners, are dilapidated and the sizes of the cells are not up to modern standards. Because of the country's economic problems, prisons are unable to meet minimum welfare requirements (as regards leisure, food, health, training, and so forth). The flare-up of political violence as a result of the electoral disputes has led to fatalities and the establishment of private detention centres outside the authorities' control. Consequently, the potential exists for practices contrary to human dignity and to the country's laws and regulations.

The Constitution of 15 March 1992 guarantees citizens liberty of movement (article 12), the report continues. Further, concerning the expulsion of aliens (article 13), apart from expulsions decided on by the political authorities in the light of various considerations related to national sovereignty, aliens residing in the Congo may only be expelled pursuant to a duly rendered judicial decision consequent upon the commission of an offence.

The report states that in connection with freedom of conscience (article 18), the restrictions on freedom of belief and worship have been abolished, with the existence of multi-party democracy. This has led to the establishment of a number of faiths and sects in various parts of the country.

In conclusion, the report goes on to say that the implementation of the Covenant has not been without difficulty, the country having been going through the first stage of democratization. After a long period of single-party rule, the "wind of change" reached the Congo in 1990 to 1991, altering the country's institutional structure. Serious political problems emerged immediately after the period of transition and even before the definitive establishment of the full range of institutions provided for in the 1992 Constitution. The President, chosen as head of State by universal suffrage with over 61 per cent of the vote, found himself confronted with the rejection of the results of the election, with a consequent risk of institutional collapse.

At the time the report was written, only the Government and the Parliament had been set up. Other national institutions have still to be established, although the enabling legislation has already been passed. They include the High Court of Justice and the Supreme Court.

The National Forum for Culture and Peace, held at Brazzaville from 19 to 24 December 1994, identified the true causes of the social and political disturbances, which so endangered national unity and the Republic's institutions. That resulted in a gradual decline of the intolerance, violence and insecurity of the previous two years. It is the common concern of the Government and the entire nation to build on that trend towards peace. Among the foci of that concern are the promotion and observance of human rights, and the cultivation of democracy and peace.

Introduction of Report

BASILE IKOUEBE, Permanent Representative of the Republic of the Congo, introduced his country's second periodic report on compliance with the Covenant. He said the Government was deeply concerned with the whole issue of human rights, especially since much had been written about the human rights situation in the Congo during the past few years. The Government was working under particularly difficult conditions in ensuring basic human rights. It had adopted the necessary political, judicial, administrative, legal, and -- hopefully soon -- consciousness-raising measures in the area of human rights protection.

The Government, however, was working under a period of civil war, which was when human rights were most imperiled, he continued. It meant that the Government needed to be ever more vigilant in protecting human rights. In order to give a more concrete overview of ongoing efforts in Congo to protect human rights, other members of his delegation would speak to various areas.

REBECCA OBA-OMOALI, Director for Human Rights in the Ministry of Justice, said that the report was drawn up in 1996, which was before the turmoil of civil war hit the country in 1997. The report was written under the framework of the 1992 Constitution, which was replaced with a new Constitution in 1997. Divided into three parts, the report was formulated based on the 27 articles of the Covenant. The first part related to the right to self-determination, which was reaffirmed by the Constitution adopted in 1997. Article 3, equality of men and women, had been affirmed in both the 1992 and 1997 constitutions. The third part of the report dealt with guaranteeing children's rights. The Congo had a children's tribunal, as well as legislation for protecting children's rights.

As for the freedom of movement, she said that the Congo was a victim of civil war and, as such, in certain parts of the territory, that freedom was not respected. Now, however, as a result of ceasefire agreements, people would soon be free to come and go as they wished. The freedoms of expression and association were also affirmed in the Constitution.

Response to Questions

Responding to written questions given to the delegation by the experts, Ms. OBA-OMOALI said that during the transitional period that began in her country in October 1997, efforts so far had focused only on presidential, rather than legislative elections. In 1998, a National Forum for Reconciliation was set up to strengthen the democratic process and 75 members had been elected to a transitional parliament called the Transitional Council. The transitional period had been set for three years.

She said the civil war had ravaged the country. The Forum believed that three years was necessary to organize credible elections. The first two years should be used to establish peace, security, economic recovery and set the groundwork for elections. The third year should be used to select electoral bodies. A draft constitution had been drawn up, but unfortunately, due to the lack of the necessary financial resources, they were unable to continue the programme. She appealed to partner countries to help her country finish the process.

She said on 18 December 1998, incidents had taken place that further paralyzed the transitional process. The return to peace in 1999, due to the ceasefire agreements, constituted an important step forward in the quest for an electoral process.

Mr.IKOUEBE said the new outbreak of violence in 1998 had lasted more than a year and had led to massive displacement of people. Approximately 800,000 people, one-third of the country's population, fled to remote areas and neighbouring countries. Elections could not, therefore, be organized, with a large portion of the population missing and a big chunk of the territory inaccessible. All the symbols of the State were ransacked by armed militias, as a way of showing their hostility and disagreement with the regime.

With the ceasefire, he said, some 400,000 people had returned home. In the next few months, nearly everyone would have returned, since they would be allowed to circulate freely in the various conflict zones. The country would be able to assert its presence as a State and would count on the help of international partners in that endeavour. Political dialogue was another aspect of the scenario that could not be rushed. The constitutional referendum would take place soon in 2000 and, thus, provide the necessary legal framework for a return to normalcy.

Ms. OBA-OMOALI said the election would take place in 2001. With respect to the application of the Covenant in Congolese law, it was now a part of applicable legal jurisprudence of the Republic of the Congo.

She said there was an independent mechanism for monitoring human rights violations and considering complaints. The constitutional document reaffirmed the principle of the separation of legislative, executive and legal powers. Legal power was handled by the national courts. Those bodies were all independent mechanisms for monitoring human rights violations. Any citizen who believed their rights had been abused could, therefore, go before the courts and make a case for respect of their rights. Parliament could also proceed in cases by questioning people, both orally and in writing, and summoning members of the Government.

Every three months, Government members were called on to answer for their actions, she said. Within the Department of Justice, there were two directorates which were entrusted with human rights matters. There were also a number of non-governmental organizations, who were actively involved in the field of human rights.

She said that raising awareness of the Covenant was being carried out throughout the country. The Faculty of Law was teaching human rights and the Department of Justice had drawn up an action plan to protect human rights. Among the documents the delegation brought today for the Committee's examination were activity reports and a three-year plan. Also, the head of the International Civil Liberties Union had been received and welcomed by the Congolese President. Basically, the protection of human rights was in the forefront of the Government's activities as a whole.

With regard to how the enjoyment of human rights had been affected by the operation of private militias and foreign intervention in the country, she said that private militias no longer existed and had been dissolved. Everyone was in favour of peace and wanted to ensure the enjoyment of human rights.

Also responding to the question on foreign intervention, Mr. KOUEBE assured that there were no foreign armies in the territory. During the civil war, some mercenaries had been recruited, but they had been arrested. Angola did intervene in the Congo in a defensive mode, defending its national interests. The Congo had no national forces and, therefore, had asked the Angolan Government to come in and assist in setting up Congolese national forces. There were no foreign armed forces in the Congo at this time.

Any foreign military presence in Congo was due to bilateral agreements with other governments to build up national institutions and organize national armed forces, Ms. OBA-OMOALI added.

Turning to the right to life, she said that the agreements that put an end to the war had striking effects on the ground. Since the signing of the agreements, thousands of rebels and civilians had emerged from the forests to regain their former lives. That was due to a Government committed to peace and reconstruction. The Government was determined to establish a State of law, justice and respect of human rights. The President had involved himself in protecting the human rights of Congo's citizens. There was no impunity in the Congo, under the current circumstances.

She said that, with regard to prison conditions, the central prison in Brazzaville had been modernized and had one of the best detention houses throughout all of Africa. It now had modern beds, instead of just mattresses, as well as television sets in every cell. Detainees and facilities were entitled to inspection visits from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The Government was mindful of facilities that were not so modernized and was working to improve them. The prison facility in Pointe Noire was under reconstruction and was being upgraded.

With regard to the elimination of discrimination against women, she said that Congolese legislation had enshrined equality between men and women. The Government had a ministry responsible for promoting women's issues. Also, the Congo was party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and non-governmental organizations in the country had worked to bring the country's legislation in line with international instruments. However, difficulties cropped up with regard to customary practices. A text that postulated equality between men and women was difficult to implement when practice dominated over texts. Customs and usage took precedence over legal texts. Initiatives had been taken to produce jobs and to translate the Beijing Platform for Action into concrete measures. The Government was waging the struggle, together, with women to translate theory into practice.

Ms. OBA-OMOALI, addressing the issue of the right to freedom of movement, said that the 1992 Constitution affirmed that fundamental right. That liberty, however, was violated in a number of places, particularly in the southern part of the country, during the civil war of 1997 and 1998. Her delegation was not here to point fingers, since they were all Congolese. Yet, responsibility had to be determined, in some cases. People had been taken hostage in the jungle by militias, such as the Cocoye. But, today, those freedoms would progressively become a reality again. In addition, the railway connection was not yet restored and that had become a key issue in the restoration of the total freedom of movement.

Addressing the right to due process, she said the fundamental law of the country and its 1992 constitution enshrined certain related rights. The situation on the ground was such, however, that some of those principle were being violated.

Mr. IKOUEBE said rape was an issue of great concern. Many displaced women had been subjected to it. Women coming into shelters in the capital had told their rape stories to non-governmental organizations. One of the most dramatic consequences of the war was a veritable explosion of the male animal instinct. Young men with weapons could use them to claim forced sexual favours, money and material goods. It was atrocious behaviour and the intent was to make sure that it did not go unpunished.

Turning to the return of refugees to their own country, specifically Congolese who fled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo or from there to Gabon, he said his country had signed an agreement with its neighbours to help them repatriate those individuals.

Ms. OBA-OMOALI said that there was legislation covering the independence of the judiciary. Article 24 of her country's penal code provided that the Attorney-General could be given instructions to take civil or court action in the interest of public order and peace. He could both institute a legal proceeding or have it suspended. The Attorney-General, however, could take other action. The Attorney-General, thus, had no limits placed on him or her in terms of rendering justice or taking a legal decision.

She said the Judiciary still needed training. The Department of Justice had sent individuals to France for training so that the phrase "rendering justice" would mean exactly what it was supposed to mean.

Follow-up Comments and Questions by Committee

An expert noted that, after listening to the Congolese delegation, one could see the progress made in a short amount of time, as well as the political will to change the current situation as quickly as possible. What remained to be done was perhaps more important than what had been accomplished. There was still a long way to go. In listening to the answers, he sensed a hesitation on the part of the delegation and wondered whether they were talking of the difficulties of the present situation, or what one might have wished for.

A large gap could be seen between reality and the situation as described by the Congolese delegation, he continued. Did summary and extra-judicial executions, arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances still occur today? he asked. How was the State handling the situation, especially since the Republic of Congo was not a new country? He noted that, in 1999 there had been a large number of rape cases and according to the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in the country, rape was increasing. What were the authorities doing to address that issue and what penalties were being applied?

With respect to displaced persons, he noted that some 400,000 had come home. At the same time, what was being done to encourage the remaining 410,000 to return home as soon as possible? Were they provided with a minimum guarantee of safety and security upon their return? Also, was amnesty being offered to those who did not deserve it and did that run counter to the rights of others? How was the Government to reconcile a policy of amnesty with that of impunity? What measures were being taken to ensure that the Covenant took precedence over Congolese law?

Continuing, he asked whether the ceasefire agreement of 29 December was holding up. What happened to those who tried to undermine the ceasefire? To what extent had the Government been successful in demilitarizing political parties and in disarming the militias? The Angolan forces that had been in the territory had been accused of committing human rights abuses. Had they left and what was being done to bring to justice those among them, who had committed human rights violations? Had justice been done?

He was surprised to hear that the Congo did not have the appropriate technology to examine what was going on in terms of correspondence. In the past, there had been systematic violations of secrecy, in terms of correspondence and mail. In that context, there had been numerous arbitrary arrests, even against children.

An expert said the report provided affirmations to human rights at all levels, but very little about the practice of such rights. Was there an independent mechanism for monitoring human rights violations and monitoring complaints? The courts and the justice systems had been cited. That was not an answer. Was there a specialized independent body? There was reference to a specific commission in that respect. Would such a commission have wide-ranging jurisdiction and would it be able to protect human rights in the country?

In addition, he drew attention to the issue of measures considered by States parties for the participation of women in the country's political, social and economic life and said more concrete answers were needed to address that question.

Another expert said the answers had proved disappointing because they had not shed real light or answered with any precision the questions raised by the Committee. Enough light had not been shed on the right to self-determination. It was also not clear whether there was any genuine division in the branches of the Government. He added that elections envisaged for 1997 had been prevented by civil war. Had any thought been given to holding a constitutional referendum this year to replace the 1992 Constitution? he asked.

Referring to the presence of foreign troops in the Republic of the Congo, he said the Angolan forces had been described as friendly troops who had provided assistance when the uprising took place in the Republic of the Congo. It had also been claimed, in September of last year, that there were no so such troops on the ground anymore. Yet, according to a report published in Jeune Afrique one month later, there was an admission that there were still Angolan troops in the country. Clarification on that issue was needed.

He said that today's country report had said nothing about the extent of the violations to the right to life. From June to October 1997, between 10,000 and 15,000 people had died, according to an article in Jeune Afrique. Would there be impunity for those responsible for all those deaths?

The country report also said that, by and large, prisoners were well treated and Congolese prisons were a model on the African continent, he observed. Detention camps where prisoners of war were held had, however, not been mentioned, even though various non-governmental organizations reports had drawn attention to the treatment in such camps. More detail on the deeds that were taking place in those camps was required.

Who was going to deal with barbarities and atrocities committed by the Angolan troops in the Republic of the Congo? the expert asked. The Angolans had committed very serious human rights violations, including raping numerous women. Additional information was needed on that score.

One expert was concerned that the march to normality had been delayed in the Republic of the Congo. For several reasons, in particular the lack of money, the Constitution could not be completed and elections had been delayed until next year. That delay was affecting the functioning of human rights in the country, as there was no firm and stable basis for the functioning of State institutions. Would the new constitution come into effect and when it did, what would be the status of the Covenant in regard to it? he asked.

With regard to war crimes, he wanted to know how the State could punish and bring to justice those who committed such crimes when there was an amnesty law in place. Impunity was the wrong path because it might encourage others to follow those who committed such crimes. The actual situation in the country was still far from satisfactory.

There were a number of positive elements in the report, said one expert, such as the visit of the International Civil Liberties Union to the country. With regard to prisons, she wanted to know whether the provisions under article 10 of the Covenant were being respected. Was there a separation between genders, and between adults and children in prison facilities? She requested further clarification on the conditions of the Brazzaville prison under article 10 of the Covenant.

Also, as of 1999, the two chambers in Brazzaville rendered only five decisions. She wondered how the prisons could be bursting at the seams, as the Director had stated, if only five decisions had been rendered by the magistrates. Was the Penal Code still effective? It seemed that the courts were clearly organized and that the conditions for incarceration were clear. Thus, it would appear that those provisions were not being correctly applied.

Another expert understood the Government's difficulty in protecting human rights, but