4 June 2012
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been the focus of substantial international and regional attention throughout recent years. The political turmoil surrounding the presidential elections of 2006 and 2011,won by the current president Joseph Kabila, have posed a number of questions regarding the theoretical connections between democracy, stability and human rights. The violence that dominates political action in the DRC has been particularly problematic, with reports of widespread abuse carried out by supporters of the Kabila regime against members of the political opposition.
Most recently, allegations have emerged of targeted violence directed at individuals returned to the DRC following failed bids for asylum. With reported abuses including illegal detention and torture, accounts of such human rights violations are representative of an endemic disregard for international norms and standards by the Congolese regime.
This paper examines the evidence of targeted victimisation orchestrated against refused Congolese asylum seekers, with emphasis placed on the treaty obligations violated by such abuses. The analysis also notes that international denial of this violence stands as a fundamental misinterpretation of wider patterns of political oppression and human rights abuses in the DRC.
An escape from fear?
The violence surrounding the 2006 presidential election, the first multiparty election in the DRC for 40 years, facilitated the growth of an environment of fear and instability. As the first election since Joseph Kabila’s accession to power in 2001, following the assassination of his father, the international community had been hopeful that the process would represent a smooth and successful narrative of democracy. These hopes were marred, however, by widespread violence leading up to and following the victory of Joseph Kabila at the polls. With Kabila’s political opponents facing arbitrary arrest, systematic abuse, and a military campaign launched against them in March 2007, many opposition members chose to flee the country in hope of escaping victimisation.
Recent investigations of the treatment encountered by individuals unsuccessful in their bid for asylum and returned to the DRC have, however, indicated that systematic violence and abuse remains a likely scenario. Identified to the Congolese authorities as failed asylum seekers, these individuals are subsequently believed to be “perceived or actual political opponents of the current DRC regime.”With continued political oppression a reality in the DRC, returned asylum seekers are inevitably viewed as suspect individuals. As such, investigations monitoring the treatment of these repatriated persons have identified that “a pattern of alleged inhuman and degrading treatment of returnees began to emerge.” Evidence has indicated “that returnees were subjected to some form of ill treatment in the course of an interrogation process or during detention shortly after arrival.”
Firsthand accounts of asylum seekers regarding their experience upon return to the DRC appear to confirm a systematic victimisation and subjugation to numerous human rights abuses. A report compiled by Catherine Ramos monitored 15 refused Congolese asylum seekers that had been working with the non-governmental organisation, Justice First, in the United Kingdom (UK). Interviews with these individuals, following their repatriation and often carried out under conditions of heightened security and disguise at the request of the interviewees, indicate a failure by the international community to recognise the reality of the situation. Thirteen of the returnees “were subjected to some degree of interrogation, arrest, imprisonment, verbal, physical and sexual abuse, rape and torture.” One interviewee, identified as RAS1, described his treatment upon arrival at N’djili airport: “They took me in their car and drove me straight to Kin Maziere Prison where I’ve been put in the cell. It’s was an awful experience: very bad conditions of life because have to pee and to eat, to sleep at the same room and on the floor. No food was been given and sometimes we were forced to drink out own human urine,” [sic]. This description is mirrored in the experiences of several of the 15 individuals interviewed by Ramos in the process of compiling the report.
Descriptions of torture were particularly pervasive; one interviewee, RAS10, “received two stab wounds to his upper back and was electrocuted.” Another, RAS9, described the condition of other detainees: “words may lack to express it, it was horrible, people were half agony, beaten and naked, some their skins were burned with fire or liquid such as acid…You could not breath properly. It was a real hell,” [sic]. Such treatment represents an undeniable failure on the part of the Congolese authorities to recognise their legal obligations. As a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the United Nations Convention against Torture (CAT), the DRC is failing to fulfil its commitment to prevent the use of torture, cruel and inhuman treatment. In working to eliminate the use of torture as a weapon, the CAT is particularly stringent in the obligations to which it commits signatories, stating in Article 2 that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, international political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification for torture,” [emphasis added]. It is also important to note that the CAT outlines a prohibition, under Article 3, to “expel, return (‘refouler’) or extradite another person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” As shall be described in the final section of the paper, there is a substantial failure on the part of the international community to meet this obligation.
The investigations and interviews carried out by Ramos demonstrate a pattern of targeted abuse, directed specifically at refouled asylum seekers as a perceived threat to the Kabila regime. While the report was limited to the 15 individuals connected with Justice First, the pattern of abuse indicates a systemic use of violence to eliminate those identified as political threats. As described by RAS4, “the reason for my arrest was because I am from London, from UK. I am supposed to be one of the people against Kabila regime. They said to me I must be punished. I was beaten severely and if you saw my body you could understand what happened to me.”
Fear as a political weapon
As the final section of this paper shall address, the refoulement of Congolese asylum seekers has typically failed to acknowledge the substantial indications of victimisation greeting these individuals upon their return to the DRC. While there have been periods of debate regarding the allegations of ill-treatment, particularly within the British administration, these discussions have typically failed to understand suggestions of targeted violence as a consequence of continued political oppression within the DRC. The argument must be made that an individual’s status as a failed asylum seeker identifies him or her to the Government as a potential threat, regardless of the extent of their involvement with opposition politics. The mere fact of their attempt to flee the DRC in fear of political oppression may be enough to ensure their victimisation; taken alongside evidence of ongoing systemic abuse of individuals perceived as political threats, the firsthand accounts offered by Ramos appear to represent an endemic issue.
The prevalence of human rights violations, wielded as a political weapon, have been widely acknowledged and documented. Those detained as political opponents have indicated that “they were repeatedly beaten with belts, cords, branches and planks, kicked punched, and threatened with death.” Kin Maziere prison, described extensively in the evidence offered in Ramos’ report, has long been the location of violence and torture orchestrated against those deemed to be threats to the regime: “[detainees] provided consistent descriptions of means of torture used against them, including the use of electric batons on their genitals and other parts of their bodies, beatings, whippings, and mock executions.” Denial of due process to detainees has also been used systematically as a means to institute fear and further violate rights; as noted by Human Rights Watch (HRW), “in violation of Congolese and international human rights law, detainees were initially denied access to lawyers and often to family members. Lawyers who attempted to assist clients were not permitted to see arrest warrants or other judicial documents.” These allegations are corroborated by indications within Ramos’ report of the denial of due process to failed asylum seekers.
The most recent United States (US) Department of State Human Rights Report, published in 2011, further evidences continued politically-motivated human rights violations. It confirms the prevalence of “severe and life-threatening conditions in prison and detention facilities, prolonged pre-trial detention,” in addition noting that “state security forces continued to act with impunity throughout the year, committing many serious abuses, including unlawful killings, disappearances, torture, rape and engaging in arbitrary arrests and detention.” With specific regard to the targeting of political opponents, the report notes evidence “that the government or its agents committed politically motivated killings” and estimates that, in 2009, “there were at least 200 political prisoners in detention at the end of the year. The government permitted access to some political prisoners by international human rights organisations and MONUC [United Nations Organisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo]; however, authorities consistently denied access to detention facilities…” The US State Department’s analysis of the situation in the DRC indicates widespread failure to meet human rights obligations and a conscious violation of rights in the regime’s dealings with those perceived to be political opponents.
A failure to protect
Consideration of reports that document the general pattern of human rights violations in the DRC is vital to the analysis of evidence regarding the treatment of refouled asylum seekers. The international community has typically disregarded evidence that seemingly indicates the targeting of repatriated individuals; this is contrary to the narrative of the Kabila regime’s generalised disregard for the rights of its citizens. With torture widely acknowledged to be wielded by security forces as a weapon against threats, the international community is also violating its obligations under Article 3 of the CAT.
The UK has been a particularly dominant forum for the discussion of the treatment of failed Congolese asylum seekers upon their return to the DRC. Despite acknowledgement of extensive rights violations in the UK Border Agency’s 2008 Operational Guidance Note on the DRC, governmental practice has failed to connect these violations with the potential suffering of refouled individuals. A recent Country Guidance Case, heard before the UK’s Court of Appeal and widely known as the BK Case, intended “to resolve the issue whether failed asylum seekers, involuntarily returned to DRC, were likely, merely because of their return, to suffer a well-founded fear of persecution…” The decision to reject BK’s application for asylum on the basis that she “has no opposition profile beyond that of being a low-level member of the UDPS (Union pour la Democratic et le Progres Social) when she was in DRC” represents a failure to appreciate the ongoing prevalence of politically-motivated violence in the DRC.
While there are undoubtedly questions still to be asked regarding evidence of targeted abuse against refouled individuals, the acknowledged pattern of violence and torture in the DRC arguably indicates an extensive network of victimisation. The return of failed asylum seekers necessarily entails their identification to local authorities; in a country plagued by continued instability and oppression, this identification is enough to highlight an individual as a potential threat. That they felt motivated to abandon their country for fear of victimisation runs contrary to a decision to return them, identify them to authorities, and assert that they will suffer no reprisals upon their arrival. A failure to monitor the treatment of refused Congolese asylum seekers upon their repatriation exacerbates a situation in which denial appears endemic.
Ultimately, the story of violence waged against individuals refouled to the DRC is dominated by two narratives. The first narrative indicates a pattern of extensive disregard for human rights and a widespread use of arbitrary arrests and torture as a means to suppress political opposition. The abuse of failed asylum seekers, identified as a threat to the regime, fits within this narrative as a consequence of instability and a desire to cling to power at all costs. The second narrative is found within the discourse of the international community; it fails to connect a systematic disregard for human rights with the return of failed asylum seekers. It does not choose to frame the refoulement of Congolese citizens within the context of political oppression in the DRC.
The mounting evidence suggests that the first reading of the situation is most reflective of reality; the international narrative of denial may be most likely a consequence of national politics and controversial immigration policies. Ultimately, the question that must be asked is whether the torture of even one individual, based on his or her status as a failed asylum seeker, is enough to warrant a re-examination of approach. Denial undoubtedly comes at a cost; in this case, it may be the life of those who risk everything to request protection and freedom from fear.
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