Tuesday morning at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum somber talks were held with leading experts on the Congo, its human rights violations and upcoming election. The stakes for the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the coming months are very high, not only for the country, but also for the region. Preparations for elections scheduled for November are inadequate, political intimidation and violence are increasing, and human rights violations continue. Some of the more well known speakers were Michael Chertoff, of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and former head of the Department of Homeland Security, who introduced Cindy McCain who works with the Eastern Congo Initiative. Mrs. McCain in turn introduced her apparent friend and colleague also of the Eastern Congo Initiative, Ben Affleck who spoke via video.
Affleck gave a moving speech via video about his involvement in the Congo and how it needs our help to stop the devastating human rights violations and how the upcoming election holds hope for the country.
The first panel was moderated by PBS NewsHour’s Gwen Ifill. Her guests were: Scott Campbell, UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; Catherine Kathungu, Association des Femmes Juristes pour les Droits de la Femme; and Anneke Van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch.
The first panel featured passionate advocates of the rights of the Congolese people. The most interesting was Ms. Kathungu. Headphones had to be used to understand her as she spoke in French. She talked of the incessant rape of women in the Congo. Even when a woman reported her rape the chance of it going to trial was small and even smaller are the chances the trial goes by the law and if the perpetrator is found guilty he usually walks free because jails are basically nonexistent. The statistics in the Congo are stunning and devastating: 2/3 women have have been raped and 1/5 kids die before reaching adult hood. She wants a safe and transparent election. Ms. Kathungu believes the country is going backwards. The Conogolese people want to see justice. Humans are not being treated like human beings. Nothing is working to stop this violence. The women are marginalized and do not have access to the legislators who make the laws. Women do not help with the decision making. She and her colleagues are trying to raise awareness and empower women. They have different campaigns to break the silence on the human rights abuses. Women need a voice. She wants to help the victims and ensure the laws are respected. She believes the key to stopping the violence is understanding the root of violence and she believes it is impunity.
Ms. Van Woudenberg explained how the first thing to be done is to remove the first layer of the military which is the most corrupt and lawless. She said right now if you rape, kill or torture you get promoted in the military. It is wrong. Elections are critical to move forward. She encourages people to pressure the US to get involved as that has results in pressuring the Congolese government. She described a UN Mapping report that mapped the atrocities across the globe for the past 10 years. Most of the violence centers in the Congo. A mix tribunal would hold people accountable when charges are pressed and will suppress corruption.
Mr. Campbell talked about how children do not have access to healthcare nor school. With the upcoming elections there is a lot of cynicism because of the few voting stations. He said we do have the largest peace keeping force in the Congo, but the Congo is immense with little paved roads. It is a hard country to manage. He said we have to climb that hill and help the Congolese people. He encouraged people to speak up loudly as we do have the government’s attention in the Congo and here in the US. Progress is slowly being seen with 24 convicted for sexual assaults last year. He still wants more UN involvement and the deployment of more troops.
The second panel was headed by Washington Post‘s Colum Lynch. His guests were: Barrie Freeman of National Democratic Institute; Donat M’Baya of Journaliste en Danger; and Chouchou Namegabe Dubuisson of Assocation des Femmes des Medias du Sud Kivu. They also talked about the upcoming elections and the human rights abuses.
To help the Congolese, contact your local representative and/or the Eastern Congo Initiative. Every voice counts and one person can make a difference. Click here for more information on the conference.