Former Chief UN Investigator on the Congo, Jason Stearns provides expert insight into the draft UN report that raises concerns of genocide in Congo.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Welcome to this month’s episode of Voices on Genocide Prevention. This is Bridget Conley-Zilkic. With me today is Jason Stearns, who is the former Chief U.N. Investigator on the Congo and now an independent analyst. Jason, thank you for speaking with me today.
JASON STEARNS: Thanks for inviting me.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: So we have you on today to discuss a report that was produced by the Office of High Commissioner on Human Rights at the United Nations on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s a mapping exercise covering the years 1993 to 2003. Jason, what does this report attempt to do?
JASON STEARNS: The report was commissioned to chart out the main human rights abuses, the war crimes, and crimes against humanity between 1993 and 2003. What had happened was that there had been really no accountability for any of the many, many crimes that happened during this period, and the U.N. Secretary General at the time, Kofi Annan, decided that we needed some sort of report to jumpstart the process of transitional justice so he commissioned this report several years ago and then it finally came to fruition. Investigators were sent to the field and they then -- the reason it’s called a “mapping report” is because they didn’t do -- it’s not an international tribunal standard of investigation. It’s a rigorous investigation but it’s supposed to map out and not dig in depth into each individual atrocity.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And the report is broken up into several time periods. Can you talk about the various phases of the conflict that the report attempts to map?
JASON STEARNS: Sure, the first phase I would call sort of prewar phase. This was the dying days of the dictator Mobutu’s regime. The reason that it starts in 1993, in March 1993 specifically, was because that was the date there was a large massacre in the eastern Congo. And really this massacre as well as other massacres under Mobutu had sort of came about because in his dying days he was trying to cling on to power and he used divide-and-rule sort of politics pitting different ethnic communities against each other leading to quite a bit of bloodshed between 1993 and when he finally left power in 1997.
The second phase of the report is then the first war, the war that was called the War of Liberation or the War of Aggression depending on which point of view you come from. But it was the war to topple Mobutu that began in 1996 and lasted for roughly six or seven months. He was deposed in 1997. That period I guess the most -- the biggest massacres covered in that period were the massacres perpetrated by the alliance that had formed to topple Mobutu led by the Rwandan government. In particular massacres against Rwandan refugees that were in the Congo at the time as well as many other massacres during that period. There were various different massacres, local level feuds, that turned into violent conflict.
Then the third phase of the war is really 1998 until 2003, which is the end of the mandate of the report, which is the second Congo war during which the Congo was carved up into a bunch of different zones ruled by different armed groups, and with a startling amount of complexity because each of these armed groups had a foreign backer. There was different bouts of violence in that period, as well. So those were the basic three phases that the report covers.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And the report has subsequent sections on particular abuses against women and children, as well as the role of minerals and resource exploitation. But the most controversial part of the report, as it currently stands comes from that period in 1996 when the Rwandans invaded Congo and initially claiming that they wanted to get rid of remnants of the genocidal regime that had reformed in eastern Zaire at the time. What does the report document though from that time period that has proven to be so controversial?
JASON STEARNS: Well, what happened was that the refugee camps that you spoke about were really the reason for the invasion in the first place. What happened in 1994 after the genocide in Rwanda, a million people roughly fled into the eastern Congo and were based in refugee camps there. This included most of the people who had carried out Rwandan genocide, an estimated hundred to two hundred thousand people were involved in Rwandan genocide, including security forces, police, army, presidential guard, but also many civilians.
But on top of those there were hundreds of thousands of civilians who had little or nothing at all to do with the genocide who fled because they were afraid that the people who took power in Rwanda after this, the Tutsi-led RPF party that had been engaged in the civil war in Rwanda since 1990, that they would then take revenge against the Hutu population that they saw as having perpetrated the genocide. So you had refugee camps in eastern Congo that housed around a million refugees. Also and they also housed the forced that perpetrated the genocide. This was an untenable situation for the Rwandan government of Paul Kagame, who was Vice President at the time. It was basically you had the same forces that perpetrated the genocide lurking across the border running a radio station and rearming.
There were cross-border raids in both directions. The refugee camps as well as into as well as into Rwanda, but I mean it was a completely untenable situation. These people were being kept alive by the United Nations and aid groups in these huge, huge refugee camps in eastern Congo. Something had to happen. Kagame, Vice President Kagame went on numerous occasions to the international community to the United States and said “Take action.” Or “If you don’t take action, I will take action.”
And then finally in September and October 1996, the Rwandan government took action although at the beginning people spoke of Congolese rebels. What really happened was the Rwandan government, as well as other governments in the region had come together in an alliance led by the Rwandans and used a Congolese rebel coalition sort of as a fig leaf to make people believe this wasn’t a foreign invasion, but it really was a foreign invasion. They came in to break up the refugee camps. It was in the process of breaking up these refugee camps that these massacres occurred and the most controversial part was that not only did the Rwandan government come in and kill some of the perpetrators of the genocide, but they committed systematic, generalized massacres against the civilian refugee population including infants, young children, babies, pregnant women, old women and men, who had not taken part in the genocide, and the massacres were so widespread and systematic that the U.N. mapping teams investigators concluded that there may have- this may have constituted acts of genocide. So that’s what the biggest controversy comes from.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And in the various massacres and abuses that the report documents, can you give us a rough sense of how many Hutu the report claims that the RPF killed?
JASON STEARNS: Well, I went back and actually sort of added together on a calculator how many Hutu refugees could have been using the smallest number because often what happens is because it’s not a- you know it’s difficult to find out exactly how many people died because you know people fled. Huge massacres and mass graves and to get a precise figure it was difficult, but if you use the smallest number possible, you probably arrive at a figure around 8,000.
Now it is not clear whether some of these civilians may actually have been militiamen and soldiers. It’s possible but in many, many cases the U.N. documented cases where these were people who had been disarmed or were identified at road blocks, or in many cases, for example, stragglers, who the Rwandan troops were chasing these people down across the Congo over 1,000 miles through the jungles in the Congo. And the people they caught up first with were the sick and elderly and people who couldn’t make it. These were not young, fit, strong Hutu militias and soldiers. These were often people too weak to have made it. So these were the people that were often killed first. So it was those people who were killed. Those amounted to about eight to ten thousand, but the report suggests it could have been many, many more.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: While the report is perhaps the most comprehensive in looking at the wars in Congo over this long ten-year period, there have been reports of abuses throughout. What in your opinion is really new about the information or about the structure of the report?
JASON STEARNS: Well, I mean this is the first time, you’re right. There are many of the massacres in the report. I want to emphasize this is not just a report about the Rwandan government’s abuses, although they do come off very poorly in the report. Many of the massacres have been documented and investigated before, but never so rigorously. Never by a United Nations team and never as comprehensively. So we had news maybe on you know 20 or 30 percent of these massacres were known but nobody had ever gone back and rigorously documented what exactly happened. For example, some of the worst massacres committed by Rwandan army and the proxy against the Congolese civilians in 1998 and 1999, for example, there were several famous massacres that happened in eastern Congo.
So the really the novelty of this report was that it was done by the United Nations with rigorous standards and in a very comprehensive fashion so it comes with much more authority and gravitas than many of the reports that have come previously. And the documents massacres that nobody even knew about. I mean even I who had been working on the Congo for a decade now, you know, I hadn’t heard of many of these abuses before so I think in terms of a historical document this is an incredibly important document.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: What were the key recommendations of the report or the draft report I guess we should say?
JASON STEARNS: We should say the draft report because report is now supposed to be released at the beginning of October, although I gather it’s going to be very similar to the one that’s been leaked. The key recommendations are really to try some sort of process of getting accountability to the Congo. The Congo is an anomaly compared to many post conflict countries around the world. Usually there’s at least some efforts for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a tribunal, vetting out officers out of the army who are known to have committed abuses, something. And in the Congo we’ve had absolutely nothing. We had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was a bit of a sham that never worked, that never published its work so that doesn’t even really count. So we’ve had nothing.
And many of the perpetrators of these massacres are in government in the countries in the region including in the Congo so the key recommendation is to create some sort of tribunal to try the people who committed this. They offer two basic proposals. One is to have a tribunal separate from the Congolese justice system that would include Congolese and foreign judges. That would sit in the Congo probably, but would be an independent institution, funded independently and not dependent on the Congolese justice system. The second proposal would be to create a specialized court within the Congolese justice system also mixed foreign and domestic judges but dependent on the Congolese justice system.
And the last thing is that they propose some sort of means of reparations for the losses of the local population and all of these things of course are going to have to be discussed by Congolese government first and foremost but also its foreign partners.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And the Rwandans have specifically threatened to pull their forces out of the peace-keeping, the joint African union, United Nations peace-keeping force in the Darfur region of Sudan. Have you heard any fears, concerns or grounded suspicions that there would be any retaliation in Congo or along the border?
JASON STEARNS: Well I think the- it’s a complicated situation. The Rwandan government indeed has threatened, says the report is not rigorously documented. It’s a shoddy job, a “hatchet job” I think they called it. And they threatened to withdraw troops from Darfur. That doesn’t seem to be a very productive stance given the fact that their troops are supposed to be preventing genocide in Darfur and the reason they’re withdrawing them is that they’re accused of genocide. It doesn’t make a lot of sense in my mind but they have indeed threatened to do so. They have not threatened to do anything similar in the Congo.
Actually since the release of the report President Kagame has been inaugurated again for another term in office in Kigali just a couple days ago and the guest of honor so to say of that ceremony was President Joseph Kabila of the Congo. So one could say the relations between those two countries are closer now than ever before and that the fact the spotlight has been shown on Rwanda now through this report may make them more hesitant to try to meddle in the business of its neighbor at least for now. So I don’t- I haven’t seen any concrete threats against the Congolese but I’m sure if there were investigations then many of the witnesses provided information for this report who, of course, are anonymous would probably be fearful for their lives.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: The report is dated June 2010 but it was leaked the third week of August, and now this draft report, various countries that have a stake in it are being given until October first, basically to review it. Are you expecting many changes in that report or do you think they will be successful in changing any of the key language?
JASON STEARNS: I’m not privy, I don’t think many people are privy, to the internal wrangling within the U.N. between the U.N. and these different countries. What I’ve been told by the members of the High Commission for Human Rights, which is in charge of the report, is that no, there won’t be a lot that’s changed, and indeed I would imagine it would be difficult to change, substantively change the report after a version has been leaked. Imagine they take out the word “genocide” now and the report is already out there. It would be very easy to compare those two versions and to see that. So it would be very difficult I think at this stage to go back and change the report substantially.
I think this is primarily an effort to give diplomats more time to cool tempers, to prevent the Rwandans from withdrawing troops from Darfur and to give diplomacy a little bit more time. I think it’s true the Rwandans wanted more time to react to this report. But it’s, you know, the Congolese government, for example, had two months, had seen the report two months before it was leaked. It’s not clear that by having more time to react to the report it’s necessarily going to help their case much further. They’ve already rubbished the report in the press. It’s not clear to me what exactly they’re going to do to strengthen their case over this next month but we’ll see I guess come October 1st.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Do you know why the report was leaked?
JASON STEARNS: This is a good question. I mean certainly the- well most people believe it was leaked because some changes were about to be made to the report and people on the inside who had access to the report did not want those changes to be made so they leaked the report. That’s one theory. I should emphasize that the report has been finished for over one year. Was submitted over one year ago by this team that had carried out the investigation, submitted to the High Commission in Geneva and then it was circulated amongst a very small group of people.
You know, having worked with the U.N. for or worked with and worked alongside the U.N. for many years, it’s usually fairly easy to get reports leaked to you. Not with this report. It was very different. Nobody would give me a copy of this report. I saw a page of the report on a computer screen somebody dared to show me. But even that was a little bit audacious on their part, so this was a very closely guarded report. So the leak was not- could not have been a gratuitous leak, I think. I don’t think somebody who just said “Ah, I’m just going to leak it for fun.” There must- there most likely was a very good reason for somebody to leak the report, and that would have been because the report was about to be changed.
Now, since then numerous U.N. officials, anonymously and on the record have said that no, the report was not going to be changed. Those were all just rumors and slander. So some people disagree with that. But if that’s true, if the report wasn’t going to be changed, then I don’t see why release- why leak the report three or four days before the official version was supposed to be made public. It doesn’t make much sense, but I think the answer to that, we’re probably only going to know months or even years from now.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Okay, Jason, thank you very much for your time.
JASON STEARNS: Sure.
NARRATOR: You have been listening to Voices on Genocide Prevention, from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. To learn more about responding to and preventing genocide, join us online at www.ushmm.org/genocide.