Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Human Rights Watch Blasts Kabila

Human Rights Watch has issued a report on the status of democracy in Congo titled "We Will Crush You: The Restriction of Political Space in the DRC." The contents can be inferred from the title. But what makes the report unique--to my knowledge--is its presentation. Unlike most HRW reports, which feature very matter-of-fact prose interspersed with one or two photos for illustration, this report includes a sharp-elbowed, animated political cartoon, depicting both Congolese and Western figures as complicit observers in Kabila's authoritarian takeover of the government. (Former MONUC chief William Swing is shown urging President Kabila to pay no attention to a growing accumulation of human rights reports. He speaks in strongly accented French.)

I enjoy political cartoons, and I think these are well done, but I wonder if Human Rights Watch is taking a risk with this style. An organization like HRW has no police force, no army, to back it up. Yet it is widely viewed as being authoritative: HRW says this or that, so it must be true. If it gets into the business of political cartooning, it runs the risk of becoming another opinion-monger, no better than anyone else (me, for example). On the other hand, HRW's old style limited its audience, whereas everyone will "get" the cartoons.

On substance, I think the report is right to flag the issue of Kabila's growing authoritarianism. In a country like Congo, where everything lies in a state of ruin and disaster, it can be hard to develop priorities. The roads, the social services, the health system, the poverty, corruption, basic security, the rule of law, reform of the army--the list of tasks is endless. But I think there are three underlying issues that need to be addressed--three issues that, depending on how they turn out, will determine whether anything else is possible. They are: 1) regaining state control over the east, to put an end to the upheavals that have cost so many lives; 2) reversing the logic of the patrimonial state, because a government that exists primarily to benefit its members through rent-seeking and corruption will never get serious about rebuilding the country's infrastructure and social services; and 3) maintaining democratic possibilities, so that the people of the Congo keep the final political trump card--the power to throw the bums out.

The report focuses on the third of these. It says that Kabila's lack of popularity in the western regions of the Congo--including Kinshasa and Bas-Congo--and his fear of a military overthrow (natural, given what happened to his father) have left him with an almost paranoid attitude towards any opposition. He speaks frequently of "neutralizing" or "crushing" the "savages" and "terrorists" who oppose him. After the run-off against opposition leader Jean Pierre Bemba in August 2006 and March 2007, Kabila's forces executed as many as 500 of Bemba's supporters, and attempted to cover up the crimes by dumping bodies in the Congo river or in mass graves. Kabila's forces have also launched pre-emptive strikes against a political-religious movement in Bas-Congo called Bundu Dia Kongo, killing hundreds in March 2008.

The report also has harsh words for the international community. In its effort to establish good relations with the newly elected president, says the report,
donor nations and other international actors have given little attention to the grave human rights violations of the first two years of the Kabila government and the failure to hold accountable the perpetrators of these abuses. The rare UN reports detailing abuses were buried and others published too late to have a significant impact on policy decisions by diplomats in the immediate aftermath of the events.

The immense toll of the war in the east can distract us from what is happening in the west. Yet it is important to keep Kinshasa in our sights. After all, it is the failures of the central government, due to its corruption, incompetence, and misbegotten priorities, that allow the situation in the east to fester. A competent administration, with clear priorities and access to the sort of mineral wealth available to the Congolese government, should have no problem imposing its rule on the country.

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