In a podcast interview on Voices of Genocide Prevention, Jason Stearns discusses the draft UN report on atrocities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Leaked to the press in August, the report raises the possibility that Rwandan troops and their rebel allies killed tens of thousands of Hutu civilians in the Congo in 1996 and 1997 in what could amount to genocide.
Here, in an extended transcript of the interview, Jason talks about the report’s methodology, the controversy over using the word ‘genocide’, and the history of violence in the region. Listen or read the original interview here. Jason Stearns is the former Chief UN Investigator on the Congo. Learn more about the full UN report here.
Bridget Conley-Zilkic: One of the ways that people have been criticizing this report is by attacking the methodology that the researchers undertook to produce it. Can you comment on how they went about their work? And what standards they used to guide their work?
Jason Stearns: They didn’t have the same sort of high standards of evidence that the judicial investigation would have. They did not try to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the crimes were committed. They also therefore didn’t try to prove who or which commander exactly committed the crime but just roughly which armed group committed the crime. Having said that — it would have been very difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt that these crimes occurred over ten-year period in a country the size of Western Europe. I mean, this would have been a ridiculously difficult undertaking.
Having said that — there were 34 people deployed throughout the country, experienced human rights investigators, two at least in each province with local researchers helping them, who interviewed 1,280 different people, many of whom were eyewitnesses or witnesses to the abuses they testified to. They collected thousands of documents from human rights, local human rights organizations, and foreign human rights organizations to corroborate the testimony. From what I have read of the report, it looks very thorough. It does not look like they’re engaged in hearsay or spurious accusations.
Each incident has at least two independent and reliable sources to back it up. That means that they had to find and often each incident has at least one eyewitness although not always. So they had to find people who were credible, who were not getting information from the same source. In many cases, they tried to find people who were actually witnesses. And in the case, for example, of the massacre of Rwandan refugees, they found people who buried the bodies. They found people who survived the attacks, who had seen the attacks, so I think it’s difficult with just the overwhelming amount of evidence they have to contest most of the central findings of the report.
Bridget Conley-Zilkic: In terms of the report’s argument that particularly Rwandan forces should be investigated whether or not they committed genocide in Congo, what is your conclusion on looking at that time period?
Jason Stearns: Well, the word “genocide” is very controversial, and I should flag here that the report itself does not say definitively that there was genocide committed by these troops. What they said is that if the facts they collected are corroborated by an independent tribunal or court judicial investigation then they could constitute acts of genocide. They were pretty rigorous in their argumentation.
In order for there to be a crime of genocide there has to be proven, the intent to exterminate parts or a whole of a group. So the investigators went through bit by bit and tried to figure out what is the part of which group and was there intent? They think there was intent. The kind of the extent of the massacres shows that there was an intent to kill these people. These were not people killed by stray bullets. These were people who they rounded up and systematically massacred. Now was there intent to wipe out a part of a population? If it’s 10,000 refugees who were killed out of a population of 5 or 6 million Hutus, I think many people would argue that’s not a significant part of that population. You have to have a significant part of the population. Now, what I have heard people argue was that this was a significant part of the refugees left in the Congo.
Bridget Conley-Zilkic: So the initial part is the one million essentially who crossed the border?
Jason Stearns: No, actually the initial part is fewer than that because the initial part of the one million, about half of one million were repatriated immediately after the Rwandan attacks, and what many believe is that the reason that the Rwandan government hunted down the rest of them and massacred so many was because they considered anybody who remained in the Congo to be pretty much guilty of genocide. They thought the people who returned to Rwanda were the innocent ones, and the people who stayed in the Congo were the guilty ones. That’s a bit of a spurious argument especially since tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees didn’t have an option of returning to Rwanda because they would have been basically running into gunfire, and they fled because of that.
But that’s what some people feel like so the whole group that would fall into the definition of genocide would be the remaining Rwandan refugees in the Congo and the people killed. So then, in that case, ten or twenty thousand would be a significant part of a group of say three hundred thousand people. And that’s why they feel it could be.
But once again, they’re careful in their language, and they said that we were given a mandate by the Secretary General to look into these massacres, and we were particularly given a mandate to look into crimes of genocide. You asked us, and here’s our answer. There could have been an act of genocide committed. Some of the evidence we have could constitute acts of genocide under the Convention against genocide, but it will have to be proven by an independent court.
Bridget Conley-Zilkic: Outside of the crimes that the report documents by the RPF in ‘96, what are some of the other more serious abuses detailed in the report?
Jason Stearns: Well, it’s a 545-page report. I encourage people to read it. It’s really just this cornucopia, if you will, of crimes against the Congolese population as well as against refugees committed by all sides.
Bridget Conley-Zilkic: It’s a very painful report to read.
Jason Stearns: It is a very painful report to read, but I think it’s very necessary reading. It’s difficult for anybody who’s really read the report to argue, “You know what? Let’s just close this chapter of history and not look back. We don’t need to deal with this stuff.” It’s so vivid that it’s difficult to argue with. Something needs to be done to bring these people to justice.
Bridget Conley-Zilkic: Most shocking is really the scale across time, across different regimes, and by the full range of armed groups that at one point or another are present in Congo.
Jason Stearns: Yeah, absolutely. It’s difficult to understand, and, as you said, the report doesn’t really try to put this in any sort of analytical context. It just gives you the raw data. But the Congo during this period really became an ungoverned country to a large extent. And in this vacuum many armed groups and militias were able to carve out a piece of territory. Then a lot of the worst crimes were committed during counterinsurgency operations between these various armed groups, whose borders were constantly shifting.
You would have an armed group controlling the eastern Congo or a part of the eastern Congo. Another one would be vying for control of that area. But it would be sort of hit and run tactics, guerilla tactics, and because the dominant armed group couldn’t get a hold of those guys, they would turn on the local population, who were often from the same ethnic group and just proceed to butcher them. In many cases, that’s exactly what happened.
It was a scorched earth campaign, if you will, against these various militia groups. The worst massacres all follow that model. You’d have a guerilla attack by a weak-armed group, local rebel group, against a stronger army. They kill a couple of officers. In retaliation, they can’t get those bandits, so they go around to the local population, who are often related to those guys and put them in houses and burn the houses to the ground. So that’s how a lot of the massacres happened, and many sides were guilty of exactly that.
Bridget Conley-Zilkic: What do you see from your expert vantage point in the near future for Congo? For folks that follow it and try to draw attention to it — but are not intimate on the day-to-day or even month-by-month changes — it doesn’t feel like the story changes.
Jason Stearns: Well, the story has changed quite a bit. But, it wouldn’t be apparent because the violence has continued more or less unabated in the east of the country.
Basically, the report ends in 2003, when there was a peace deal. And the peace deal at that point unified a country that had been split between half a dozen, at least, main armed groups. All of those armed groups were brought to the national government. After three years elections were held and Joseph Kabila, the President today, won those elections in 2006.
The problem was that one of the armed groups, in particular, in the east of the country was served very poorly by the electoral process. They were very unpopular, and they went basically from controlling a third of the country to two or three percent in elected institutions. This was the same armed group that was backed by Rwanda during the war, and it’s pretty much directly caused that sort of marginalization of that group and caused a new rebellion in the east of the Congo.
It was compounded by the fact that some of these Hutu refugees and militia that had been chased into the Congo after the genocide were also in eastern Congo. So you had two armed groups. One of them predominantly Tutsi supported by Rwanda, one of them predominantly Hutu, sometimes linked to Joseph Kabila, himself. They were vying for control of the various areas in eastern Congo, and the Rwandan government and the Congolese government got involved in the fighting, as well. That was the main reason for the violence that continued in the east of the country.
Now there is a peace deal between Rwanda and the Congo. The Tutsi militia in eastern Congo that was led by General Laurent Nkunda is now more or less integrated into the Congolese army, so that’s sort of the bright side of the story but-
Bridget Conley-Zilkic: And is that integration functioning?
Jason Stearns: No, it’s not functioning very well, but it is a tenuous compromise, I guess you could say. They’ve integrated these people. In return, they’ve pretty much given them free reign, deployed them to lucrative mining areas, given them control over parallel administration in part of the country, so it’s been a very tenuous compromise. In addition, those troops together with the Congolese army have continued counterinsurgency operations against those Hutu militias in the east of the country displacing a million people, killing thousands of others, and that has continued to be very, very nasty for the local population.