African Press International (API)

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Congo-Kinshasa: War victims speak

Posted by African Press International on August 31, 2008

Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo) – In Africa’s worst conflicts, victims’ voices are rarely heard during the elite debate that treats peace and justice as though they were an either-or. However, thousands of victims in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have told researchers for a newly-published survey that peace and justice must go hand in hand.

The survey of 3,753 Congolese is summarized in the report Living with Fear, which reveals the extent of suffering in a nation that over the past decade has suffered one of the deadliest wars since World War II. The survey was carried out by the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, the Payson Center at Tulane University, and the International Center for Transitional Justice.

Nearly half the population surveyed in eastern Congo said they had faced death threats, suffered beatings, or been enslaved by armed groups. One-third had been abducted and held captive for more than a week, and fully 80 percent had been forcibly displaced from their homes either permanently or temporarily during the conflict.

In spite of the horrors they have endured, an overwhelming majority expects the Congolese government to be able to deliver peace and security, and believes in a multi-faceted approach to these goals. When asked what means should be used to achieve peace, the Congolese offered an array of answers: arresting those responsible for crimes, dialogue between ethnic groups, dialogue with militias, establishing the truth, and military victory over armed groups.

In a sharp rebuke to those who portray peace and justice as mutually exclusive, 85 percent of those surveyed said it was important to hold perpetrators of war crimes accountable for their actions. Eighty-two percent said that accountability for war crimes was a necessary step toward securing peace.

In a country with a desperately weak justice system, who should be holding perpetrators to account? More than half (51 percent) of the respondents said the Congolese national court system should be at the center of pursuing justice. At the same time, there was widespread recognition of the current weakness of the courts, leading 82 percent to say the international community should help in national prosecutions.

Though all of the suspects currently in the custody of the International Criminal Court (ICC) are Congolese, awareness of the institution among those polled was low. Just over a quarter of the populations of both eastern DRC and Kinshasa had heard about the ICC or its potential first trial, of Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga.

Where the ICC is known, however, support is strong: 67 percent of those who had heard of the court said they would like to participate in its work, though only 12 percent said they knew how to access it.

The pursuit of justice through the ICC faces many obstacles, as was clear when the court stopped proceedings against Lubanga earlier this year, citing errors on the part of the prosecution. And when the ICC prosecutor requested an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in June, the “peace versus justice” debate that followed showed that many continue to treat these goals as an either-or.

But if lasting progress is to be achieved in war-torn societies such as DRC and Sudan, victims’ voices must be at the center of the debate, and their calls for both peace and justice must be heeded. Only then, with security and judicial reforms and the help of the international community, can the murderous culture of impunity finally be brought to an end.

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API/source.allAfrica.com, by Suliman Baldo – August 26, 2008.

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