17 March 2006

As Human Rights Committee Concludes Review of Report by Democratic Republic of Congo, Country's Minister Says Government Doing Everything It Can to Remedy Situation

Committee Chair Cites Problems of Lack of Authoritative Control over Whole of Country, Lack of Women's Legal Protection, Continuing Practice of Forced Marriage

NEW YORK, 16 March (UN Headquarters) -- The Minister for Human Rights of the Democratic Republic of the Congo appealed to the expert Human Rights Committee today for "more elbow room" when it considered that country's record of compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights since it had struggled with persistent political disquiet, rebellion and war in the 15 years since its last report.

Explaining, on the second day of the Committee's examination of her country's implementation of the 1966 Covenant, that she had come to the United Nations to uphold and defend her country's report, Marie-Madeleine Kalala asked the experts to consider the circumstances.  There had been many urgent priorities in the initial transitional period.  The Government had been plunged into a complex political landscape requiring new laws on amnesty, decentralization, the electoral process, judicial reform, and so forth.  The Parliament had been heavily burdened.

"Believe me, I talked about the glitches and the slip-ups here", she said.  Noting that one of the experts had said he was concerned about discrimination against Congolese women, she replied, "Well, so are we".  The Government was doing everything it could to address that, starting with closing the gap in education.  People's mindset had to be changed, she acknowledged, in order to reverse the discriminatory trends and advance the status of women in her country.

Replying to a series of questions about the sexual exploitation of young girls, the Minister said that girls of 8 and 10 years old were asked for sex in exchange for a loaf of bread.  Now, girls of 13 and 14 had children of their own in Kisangani and Kinshasa and elsewhere, wherever there were troops of the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC).

Her Government had tried to "flush out" those soldiers who thought they were "on holiday", she said.  But, when violators of the recent "zero tolerance" policy were found, they were sent home to be judged by a court there.  Sometimes, all the punishment they received for those very serious crimes was a three-month suspended sentence.  Ways must be found to ensure that those responsible were tried by domestic courts so light could be shed on those cases and the truth could be uncovered.  That would be the beginning of rehabilitation for the victims.

Wrapping up the Committee's consideration of the country's second periodic report, Chairperson Christine Chanet, expert from France, reiterated the 18-member body's concern that the presentation had focused almost exclusively on the laws and reforms under way and in their "embryonic" stages.  Thus, the Committee could not consider that those laws had been adopted; it could only encourage the Government to pursue those efforts.  The problem seemed to be a lack of mastery of the situation, a lack of authoritative control over the whole of the country.

She said the future looked promising and close, but it was not there yet.  The delegation itself had agreed with the experts that women, especially married women, were not really protected by law.  Congolese women must be convinced of the need for change, and only education would do that.  They must be assured that the new laws were not just paper, but reality.  Regarding forced marriage, for example, she had the impression that there was impunity for that practice and that it was still the "order of the day".  That did not conform to the Covenant.

Additional members of the delegation of the Democratic Republic of the Congo were:  Kashama Ngoyi, Magistrate; Kenge Ngomba Tshilombayi, Councillor of the Ministry for Human Rights; and Gatanga Anifa Josee, Personal Assistant to the Minister for Human Rights.

The Committee will meet again at 10 a.m. on Monday, 20 March.


The Human Rights Committee monitoring implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights continued its consideration today of the third periodic report of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (document CCPR/C/COD/2005/3).

Continuing Statement of Delegation

The head of the delegation and Minister for Human Rights of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, MARIE-MADELEINE KALALA, acknowledged that the country was having some difficulty implementing the Covenant since the end of the civil war.  It was still working to secure peace and to endow itself with new institutions.  It had made clear, however, that anyone seeking to undermine the authorities would be taken to task.  The reform law commission had been engaged in revising the Family Code, for which it had inventoried the various customs, especially those which "flew in the face" of the Covenant or existing law, and it had devised punishment for those.  The Government was steadfast in its commitment to conform to the Covenant, which trumped domestic law.  Thus, all legislation must be attuned to all covenants and conventions to which the Government had adhered.

She explained that several efforts had been undertaken to improve women's image in Congolese society, although women were still victimized in various ways, especially in the remotest parts of the vast Congolese territory.  Married women had particular concerns with respect to their status, but once the Family Code was revised, their situation would improve.  To advance women's status overall, the Government had set in motion an integrative policy that involved gender mainstreaming, advocacy programmes, sensitization and consciousness raising, including at the level of Parliament.  Efforts and major campaigns were also under way to elevate women's status in the home and in institutions.  Domestic violence against women was also being addressed, and efforts were under way in that regard to abolish certain provisions from the Family Code.  In Bukavu, a sentence had been handed down that recognized married women's right to invoke their rights under international law.

"So, let's not despair here -- the situation will improve over time", she said, while acknowledging, however, that the low number of women in Parliament had not allowed major reforms for women to flourish yet.  Regarding women's health, a vast family programme was already under way.  A mother-child centre had been designed to receive mothers and help them with such issues as family planning and maternal health.  A nationwide multisectoral programme had been developed to combat AIDS and related issues, and health clinics were being updated countrywide.  Slavery and prostitution, especially involving young girls, remained a major problem, flowing from poverty.  The Government deplored that practice.  Sexually violated and victimized women and girls must be rehabilitated under the revised Family Code and reintegrated into society.

Nevertheless, she said, her country had suffered terribly from the sexual abuse foisted upon its women and girls, including by United Nations personnel, and that problem had not been satisfactorily addressed.  She had recently visited a community of more than 300 mulatto children with very young mothers -- victims of prostitution -- who had had no recourse.  There had been impunity for the United Nations staff, and the need to rehabilitate and educate the victims had gone virtually unattended.  Those responsible for the sexual abuse had returned home to lands very far away and had stood trial far from the victims.  She believed the Covenant imposed a better defence for the victims than that, including being present at their own trials.

She reiterated that it was tough to get information on many of the subjects that had been raised by the Committee, not only because of the vastness of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but because the country was still suffering the ravages of so many years of war.  That was particularly true of matters relating to the justice system and tribunals, such as the one set up to try those charged with violating human rights in the country's strife-torn eastern Ituri District.

Indeed, in many regions of the country, judges and judicial officials were often forced to flee from those criminals that were on trial in their jurisdictions.  But nevertheless, efforts were being made to see that justice was being done throughout the country.  Judgements were being handed down, she declared.

Stressing that the lack of information and reporting in the past was not because the Government was indifferent or derelict in its duties, she implored the Committee to recognize that her delegation's presence in the room today was proof of her Government's willingness to live up to its obligations and live up to the tenets of the international instruments which it had ratified.  She also said that many records, including some regarding communications, had been lost during conflict or were out of reach in rebel held areas.  Still, the Government was struggling to help the Committee fill in its reporting gaps, particularly in providing information on torture -- which was a particular priority -- and forced disappearances and arbitrary arrests.

On that particular matter, she said that when her Ministry received word of such arrests or police misconduct, it moved quickly to address the matter.  On measures to deal with internally displaced persons, she said that every effort was being made to see that people returned to their home regions in safety, particularly so that they could participate in elections that were under way.  To one expert's concern about the differences between the police and armed forces, she said that police forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo dealt with public order, while armed forces handled protection.

On the drafting of the report, she said that the information presented had been compiled from submissions by the country's various ministries.

Experts' Comments

Opening the first round of experts' questions and comments today, MAURICE GLÈLÈ-AHANHANZO, expert from Benin, said he was pleased to hear that the delegation was prepared to provide further information to fill in the reporting gaps.  He also asked for clarification about overlap between the Ministries of Justice and Human Rights.  Did the two work together on certain questions?  Did the country have a human rights ombudsman?

NISUKE ANDO, expert from Japan, said that so many questions had been raised and, in several cases, very few answers had been provided.  He assured the Congolese Minister that the Committee understood the vastness of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the fragile situation throughout the country after so many years of war.  The Committee's exchange was not meant to criticize, but to discover facts on the basis of which, the experts and Government officials could work together to find answers to particular problems.  He urged the delegation not to think they were being attacked in any way.  He also suggested that education and awareness-raising campaigns, perhaps launched with outside assistance, were the best ways to change attitudes towards human rights in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

ABDELFATTAH AMOR, expert from Tunisia, wondered why the Minster had moved so rapidly through her description of the situation of Congolese children, particularly girls, and sexual exploitation by armed forces or peacekeeping troops.  Could the delegation give more complete details?                

NIGEL RODLEY, expert from the United Kingdom, said that one could not help but understand the difficult situation the delegation was in.  But nevertheless, as a State party to the Covenant, there was a responsibility to report and, particularly to reply to requests from the Committee.  Indeed, the experts' requests for information had been met with "no reply" after "no reply".  That was not the usual way that a State party informed the Committee that it was actively seeking information.  Meanwhile, desperate people were out there -- other than the judges -- who were without remedy.  He hoped that in the future, the Committee's requests were answered in good time.  On the pending legislation on torture, he stressed that this particular violation of human rights and dignity was not just any violation.  He said that even if a law on the matter could not be enacted immediately, the Government must address the situation of torture and take a stand against it, for the benefit of the country at large.

PRAFULLACHANDRA NATWARLAL BHAGWATI, expert from India, asked if non-discrimination clauses in the country's legislation covered employment, particularly providing remedies or protections for women that would ensure equal pay for equal work or ensure that they were considered in all fields of employment regardless of sex.  He also wondered if any laws had been enacted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to cover the worst forms of child labour.  What was the country's definition of the worst forms of child labour?  Was primary education compulsory?  What efforts were under way to ensure that girls regularly attended school?

Delegation's Response

The Human Rights Minister explained that the ombudsman intervened when citizens found it difficult to make their voices heard, when it was necessary to ensure that the rights of the victims were respected.  In addition to the Human Rights Ministry, close attention was paid throughout the Government to the promotion of human rights.  For instance, there was a national observer for human rights, which could also play the role of ombudsman and sometimes had powers that the Human Rights Ministry did not.  Her Ministry had supervisory functions, but its current mandate was mainly preoccupied with education and changing attitudes in society.  That was why it had launched the decade of human rights education in 2004.  It was very important for national reconstruction to really change the mindset of individuals, and to do that, people needed to be taught to respect each other and each other's human rights.  A human rights course was now being integrated into universities and being taught by law faculties.

Replying to the series of questions about the sexual exploitation of young girls, she said that young girls of 8 and 10 years old were asked for sex in exchange for a loaf of bread.  Today, girls of 13 and 14 had children, and not just in Kisangani, but elsewhere, where there were United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) troop contingents, including in Kinshasa.  Fortunately, two years ago, measures were taken towards "zero tolerance".  There were always violators, but there was a lot more discipline today than before.  Her Government had tried to "flush out" those people who thought they were not soldiers but people "on holiday camp".  When violators of the zero tolerance policy were found, they were sent home to be judged by a court.  Sometimes, however, all the punishment they ever got was a three-month suspended sentence for very serious crimes.

"So what protection did we as a Government give to our people?  How did we respond to our people's needs -- when there are infringements such as sexual abuse of young women and girls?" she asked.  Ways must be found of ensuring that those responsible for such abuses were heard by domestic jurisdictions.  Those cases should be prevented from going abroad so light could be shed on them and the truth could be uncovered.  "We need to, at least, be able to hear those cases ourselves to provide appropriate compensation for the victims", adding, "This was certainly a very serious problem for us."

To a related question, she said that attempts were made to find jobs for some of the "mothers", but she reminded the expert that they were children, themselves, with no job skills and often little or no education.  She said she was trying to come up with responses to the experts' questions, but she needed their help for the benefit of all the victims.  She felt the experts were being very harsh on the delegation.  They were aware of the real difficulties between the North and the South, of the great lag in communications, for example.  She was here to uphold and defend her country's report, but the mail did not always reach her.  When the experts complained she had not responded, she would ask for a bit more indulgence; that was not reluctance or refusal on her part to cooperate or communicate with the Committee.

Concerning torture, she said that until the bill was "put in the hopper" -- and that had happened in mid-2004" -- the Parliament had been working as hard as it could to settle a plethora of issues, to establish a juridical framework.  First, it had had to adopt laws to support democracy, and that had virtually taken up the first transitional year.  After that, they had plunged into issues concerning the Armed Forces, and those decisions were no easy thing to come by given the political landscape with which the experts were familiar.  It had also taken time to formulate an amnesty law, another on nationalities, another on decentralization, a draft law on referendums, another on electoral processes.  Needless to say, the Parliament's agenda was very, very burdened.

She said she was not defending the Parliament.  She only wanted the experts to begin to understand what was happening in her country.  There had been so many priorities to tackle in the initial turnaround of the country's situation, including the human rights situation, sexual exploitation and violations.  She only wanted some more "elbow room" with respect to the many, many difficulties facing her country.  "Believe me, I talked about the glitches and the slip-ups here", she said, and called on those responsible to be brought to justice for the violations.  Mr. Bhagwati was concerned about discrimination against women, "Well, so are we", she said.  But, people's mindset had to be changed.  It was not so much discrimination against women with which she was wrestling today, but the fact that a major gap had opened up, in education, and the fact that Congolese women were disadvantaged.  The Government was doing everything possible to address that.

Delegation's Response to Written Questions

Minister KALALA said that major efforts were under way to address matters related to children's rights, and later this year, the Government would take a look at the impact of all its initiatives in that area.  On freedom of opinion and expression, she assured the Committee that members of the media were free to do their jobs, so long as they did not break the law or interfere with the free movements of the wider citizenry.

She stressed that the Congolese media often behaved in an unprofessional manner, however, so when the Government moved to address such situations it could be called "repressive".  Indeed, Reporters Without Borders had recently denounced the behaviour of reporters and media figures in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  She went on to tell the Committee that the Government respected the work of human rights defenders and was carefully following up cases in which such non-governmental organizations had charged that they had been harassed.

Turning to family protections, she laid out the particulars of the country's Family Code on marriage and spousal relations.  She highlighted legislation regarding forced marriage, and noted that the age for marriage had been set at 18.  She went on to say that current legislation forbade any form of forced conscription, although she admitted that there were pockets of the country where the edicts of the central authorities were being denied.  But with the help of MONUC the Government was helping root out resisters or those who wanted to revert to the old ways regarding child soldiers.  The Government meanwhile was actively trying to re-integrate former child soldiers, as well as young girls that had been victims of sexual exploitation, into society.

Further on children, she said that she did not feel that her country suffered particularly from trafficking in children for sexual exploitation.  Meanwhile, major efforts were under way to address the situation of street children, and programmes had been enacted to give many of them jobs so they could be reintegrated into society.  Turning to the "delicate issue" of prostitution, she said that while, unfortunately, that problem was growing, particularly as family poverty deepened, the Government was trying to work with international financial institutions and non-governmental organizations to help deal with the many root causes that led women and young girls to prostitution.

She went on to describe the many ways in which the Covenant, as well as the Committee's comments on the report would be disseminated to society.

Experts' Comments

Mr. AMOR, expert from Tunisia, asked about the Congolese Constitution, wondering if it contained any reference to the duties of traditional or village-level judges.  What was their relationship to federal judicial officials?  Overall, he was concerned about the apparent dearth of judges and other judicial officials throughout the vast country.  At the same time he had noted what appeared to be a very small number of persons being held in prison.  While in some cases, that might be considered a good thing, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, did that mean that there was some level of impunity?

EDWIN JOHNSON LOPEZ, expert from Ecuador, asked for clarification concerning the basis on which a person would obtain a birth certificate or passport in the country.  The Committee understood that there was a lack of financial resources, but it was up to the State to set up and maintain and adequate civil registry.

AHMED TAWFIK KHALIL, expert from Egypt, focused his remarks on the freedom of expression, specifically, freedom of the press.  He was concerned about reports that there was a kind of harassment and censorship of journalists and publishers by the authorities.  He wanted to know whether the general atmosphere was one of promotion of freedom of expression and, first and foremost, of freedom of the press.

Turning to the "abominable" crimes of sexual exploitation and abuse by Congolese and non-Congolese armed forces, especially rapes of young children, he asked whether there had been any prosecutions or convictions.

Mr. GLÈLÈ-AHANHANZO, expert from Benin, pressed the issue of forced marriage, questioning whether customary law in that regard superseded that of the Covenant.  It was incumbent upon the State to deal with the matter of forced marriage, beginning with education at the earliest levels.  Four hours were spent discussing it, yet he had not clearly understood what the Government was doing to achieve adequate sensitization about that issue.  Specifically, how were the authorities explaining to the Congolese people that forced marriage was bad, and how were they encouraging the people to move forward in dealing with that?

On the issue of birth registration, MICHAEL O'FLAHERTY, expert from Ireland, wanted to know what specific efforts were being made to deal with that in the areas of the country that had been most affected by emergencies.  He also sought information about "catch-up" registration programmes for adults, and what programmes were under way to register adults and older children who missed registration at birth owing to the situation prevailing in the country.

He also sought clarification on whether or not the recruitment of child soldiers had ceased categorically.  The Minister had assured the experts that there was no more recruitment of children under the age 18 into the Armed Forces, but to what extent was prosecution being considered for past recruiters?  Also, were former child soldiers of non-State armed groups treated the same as for State armed groups in the country's disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programmes?  To what extent were they receiving equal treatment?

On trafficking, he noted that the Minister had said she did not believe that was a problem in her country, yet the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) had reported in 2004 that the Democratic Republic of the Congo was a source country.  He asked the Minister to again share her thoughts, from a programmatic and policy way, how the country might deal with that issue.  Also, was the country participating in initiatives being undertaken regionally in the Great Lakes?  The problem had been well documented in Burundi and Rwanda, so to what extent was the country engaged at the regional level?

Delegation's Response

Ms. KALALA said that, generally, the country was not abandoning its customs as long as they did not "fly in the face" of the law.  Admittedly, there were not enough judges, and their status was too low.  The Government was seeking to improve the judicial system overall, including the status of judges, and trying to encourage citizens' recourse to the courts.  Budgetary constraints, however, were preventing the recruitment of more judges.

She said she did not at all share the idea that her Government was severely repressing journalists.  There was a population of 60 million of many different players, and at times, Congolese journalists had invented things about the Head of State.  But, democracy today favoured self-criticism and self-monitoring by the media, whose activities were not "bothered" by the Government.

On forced marriage, she said she could not agree more that the Family Code should be revised in a way that did not tolerate that practice.  Adult education and awareness-raising was also important.  Her ministry organized campaigns, but there were great distances to be covered at the grass-roots level, requiring finances which often were lacking.  But when her staff could, they explained the range of rights to women, men, young girls and boys, and explained parental and family duties.  They sought to cover it all, disseminating knowledge about the Family Code, and so forth.  The Ministry was doing its part, and the non-governmental organizations were doing theirs.  Congolese women still did not have a right to inheritance when their husbands died; they only had the right to "cry their eyes out".

Regarding registration, steps were being taken to register people in faraway places, she said.  Three years had elapsed since the country had been unified, but attempts were still under way to register the citizenry.  Non-recorded children and adults complicated an already onerous procedure.

In terms of trafficking in Rwanda and Burundi, she said that given attempts to re-establish relations between the three countries, she did not think that children were transited through her country -- they would choose another route.  She was at the Chair's disposal, however, for any supplementary information in that regard, and she would try to supply additional information in writing as that came to light.

Statement by Committee Chairperson

Committee Chairperson CHRISTINE CHANET, expert from France, said she understood that sometimes the delegation might have felt its hands were tied in some circumstances, but she, nevertheless, hoped that 15 more years would not pass before they returned.  She also understood that the report really contained information on laws that were in their embryonic stages, but hoped that perhaps a supplemental report on the progress of that legislation could be presented later.  Still, the Committee noted that when one read the report of the Commission on Human Rights' independent expert dealing with the country alongside the Government's response, it appeared that they were describing two different countries.

She expressed concern that the Government had almost no control over the Armed Forces in the country.  This was particularly troubling because serious accusations had been levelled regarding sexual exploitation and recruitment of child soldiers, among others.  She hoped that the Government would move quickly to address matters related to the actions of the military.  On the situation of women, she expressed concern that there appeared to be some hindrances to women's inheritance of or access to land or property.  There were also laws that seemed to give the impression that impunity for forced marriages was the order of the day.  She urged the Government to remove such clauses from its marriage codes.

She went on to express concern that the Government seemed to be unable to respond to the Committee's written requests for information.  There must be a way to address that problem.  Indeed, the Committee could not accept that this was simply a problem of slow or sketchy mail service between Geneva or New York and Kinshasa.

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