The student-led movement to end mass atrocities.

Who Are the Prospective DRC Successors?

As the United States prepares for its midterm elections in November, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is preparing for its general elections on December 23rd.  Current President Joseph Kabila was supposed to step down in December of 2016, but he refused and cracked down on protesters who tried to remove him.  Kabila finally agreed in August to abide by a two-term limit, so this election will be the DRC’s first democratic transition of power in several decades (though still marked by violence, coups, and authoritarian rule).

Now, it is time to look at who his successor will be. In early August, opposition leader Moise Katumbi tried to fly back home to the DRC, after being in self-imposed exile since May of 2016.  However, he was blocked twice.  The first time, he was denied permission to land in his home country.  The second time, he landed in Zambia and tried to cross the land border.  Congolese officials allegedly instructed Zambian officials not to let him cross.Communications Minister Lambert Mende has said that Katumbi will be detained as soon as he crosses the border after he was convicted of illegally selling a property and sentenced to three years in prison, during his time out of the country.  Investigations were never finished, including inquiries into allegations that he hired mercenaries. Katumbi and his lawyers deny such accusations and say that they are politically motivated.

It remains unclear whether or not Katumbi did anything wrong, but he has received an outpouring of support, with people lining up at the Congo-Zambia border to welcome him.  Many are simply looking for a change from President Kabila, who has a long history of human rights abuses and crackdowns on all form of protest. However, his inability to come back to the DRC has jeopardized his ability to run for office.  Even if he could return home in the near future, he missed the deadline to register to stand for election. Opposition leaders, however, have demanded that Katumbi be allowed to return and participate in the December election.  It remains to be seen what the future will hold for Moise Katumbi.

On August 7th, opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi filed for his candidacy in the December elections.  His father was a strong opposition leader throughout his life and was slated to run for prime minister in the upcoming elections.  His father unfortunately died in February of 2017, and Felix Tshisekedi had to take over all of his obligations. He does not completely lack political experience , having been elected to Parliament in 2011, but he mainly followed his father’s requests.  His background is in marketing, which he studied in Belgium before he became a member of Parliament. While some members of his party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), have questioned his credentials, many across the DRC have been comforted by the idea of a simple transition within the family.

Tshisekedi has called for unity and peaceful opposition, promoting the democratic ideals and freedoms that he and his fellow opposition members protested for under President Kabila.  If he is able to win the December election and truly execute the ideas he has presented, this would mark a turning point for the DRC. The country’s democratic system would be stronger than it has been in years, and more peaceful transitions of power could be in sight.  He has polled in the top two, but it is unclear just how free the elections will be.

On August 10th, just before the deadline to register candidates, President Kabila nominated Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary to represent his party, the Common Front for Congo, in the coming election.  Shadary is a long-time supporter of Kabila, and he was Vice President of the Interior during Kabila’s time in office.  He oversaw the crackdowns on anti-Kabila protesters in 2017, which bought him support from Kabila and condemnation from the international community (including sanctions from the European Union).

Shadary’s victory is likely, given Kabila’s unwillingness to step down and the recent blocking of opposition leaders.  While this would ensure a somewhat peaceful transition of power, it would also mean the maintenance of the status quo. Human rights abuses would likely continue, with protesters left voiceless.  President Kabila would continue to control the nation’s politics.

On September 3rd, a court upheld an election commission’s decision to block former vice president and opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba from standing for election.  This decision was based on his conviction of witness tampering by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in May.  However, Bemba is better known for the war crimes the ICC convicted him of in 2008. Back in the early 2000’s, Bemba was involved in a conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR), and his militia was accused of murders and rapes.  He was acquitted of these charges and is now allowed back in the DRC.

War crimes aside, the fact that Jean-Pierre Bemba is no longer allowed to run for office is an important enforcement of an international ruling and provides real consequences for actions that obstruct justice.  This could be a key turning point for the DRC, as President Kabila has been known to not follow laws. Preventing his successor from following in his footsteps could help to establish a clear rule of law and a strong government.  It is important to note, however, that many are concerned that this ruling had nothing to do with the rule of law and was a convenient political decision.

The fact that there is a concrete plan to move forward with the election of a successor to President Kabila is a huge step in and of itself, but it is not enough.  The election of an opposition leader would confirm the credibility of the elections, the viability of a peaceful transition of power in the DRC, and the sustainability of the DRC as a democratic nation.  However, given Kabila’s desire for power and a history of crackdown on critics, it is more than likely that there will be interference in the election.

As we get closer to the elections, it is critical that we pay attention.  If a fair election and transition of power cannot happen, violence is a likely response, whether in regular protest or in a coup.  The people of the DRC, and the world as a whole, could use more democracy and peace.

miraMira Mehta is a writer and a student at Westfield High School.  In her spare time, she enjoys debating and running on the cross country team.  This is her second year as a member of the Communications Task Force at STAND.

New Accounts of Abuse in South Sudan

*Content Warning: The following piece includes graphic content, including descriptions of sexual violence*

On February 23, the UN released a report on human rights abuses that detailed Sudanese soldiers as perpetrators in the five-year conflict. The report implicated at least 40 military officials in war crimes and crimes against humanity. There have been several accounts of gang rape, other forms of sexual assault, and execution of civilians.

This information is not new. It has been widely known for years, yet neither the South Sudanese government nor the international community has adequately responded. Before its independence from Sudan in 2011, the United States had sanctions in place on Sudan due to its atrocities in South Sudan and Darfur – but they were removed in 2017. Despite that move, the United States placed oil sanctions on 15 South Sudanese oil operators on March 21. Although the South Sudanese government stated that these sanctions would hinder their plans to increase their oil production, the U.S. Department of State stated that “The South Sudanese Government, and corrupt official actors, use this revenue to purchase weapons and fund irregular militias that undermine the peace, security, and stability of South Sudan.”

The unsettlingly lax approach to the South Sudanese military’s human rights abuses leaves little hope that the information being prepared for a presentation to the UN Human Rights Council will yield tangible results. It is important to note that the UN has already condemned these crimes, although this is the first time they have uncovered any specific details. There have not been any real punishments to the government of South Sudan, and although the country has been urged to bring consequences upon perpetrators, very little action has been taken. Human rights observers are hoping that a African Union-South Sudan hybrid court, which would be responsible for legal investigation of human rights abuses, will be established soon, but it is unlikely that action will actually be taken.

Impunity has plagued human rights efforts for the past century. People continue to be horrified by crimes, but they do not take appropriate action to prevent them from occurring in the future. Thus, the cycle of human rights abuses continues.

The situation in South Sudan is particularly precarious now, as, in addition to violence, people also face famine. A comprehensive solution is difficult to formulate, as efforts to punish South Sudan’s government could worsen the situation and hurt the people of South Sudan even more. Now, more than ever, action must come from within.

The situation of South Sudan is not unique. These crises often exist in cycles, and it is nearly impossible to restabilize a country through one individual effort. At the same time, external punishment can be dangerous to the people currently living through the crisis. Even humanitarian aid organizations can perpetuate the very problems they are meant to alleviate (see recent reports of sexual abuse within the ranks of Oxfam and the Red Cross). It is therefore crucial that thought be put into sustainable solutions and accountability for all abusers.

South Sudan has been in turmoil and instability for the past five years, and has become a vacuum for human rights abuses. What it needs right now is thought and care to solve the deeply-rooted problems that have been ignored for far too long.

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Mira Mehta is a writer and a student at Westfield High School.  In her spare time, she enjoys debating and running on the track team.  This is her first year as a member of the Communications Task Force at STAND.

Ratko Mladić Convicted of Genocide

On November 22, former Bosnian Serb army leader Ratko Mladić was sentenced to life in prison on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Mladić , dubbed the “Butcher of Bosnia,” led the Bosnian Serbs to victory in the Bosnian war in which 100,000 people were killed more than two decades ago. He emerged victorious, completing his stated objectives of creating an “ethnically homogenous Bosnia-Serb republic” by actively terrorizing and targeting ethnically Bosniak (Bosnian Muslims) and Croatian civilians in an ethnic cleansing campaign from 1992 to 1995. This included the destruction of homes and mosques, mass murders in Bosniak villages, mass deportation, starvation and torture of Bosniak prisoners, and the assault of Bosniak women. Many other officials led and participated in these terrors, including former president Slobodan Milosevic, who died before a verdict was reached, and Radovan Karadžić, who was convicted in 2016.

Though many believe that there should have been little doubt of his guilt, the conviction and verdict nonetheless were a welcome outcome of the protracted five year trial. There haven’t been many genocide rulings by the ICTY, and most of these cases have been heard long after the atrocities themselves occurred. The world has seen several other cases of genocide and mass atrocities since Bosnia, including ongoing atrocities against the Rohingya in Burma, where perpetrators have thus far escaped punishment.

Issuing an indictment for genocide is an extremely complicated ordeal for the international community. Around the world, most states are reluctant to make this accusation, often because it necessitates action to intervene. In fact, the United States did not ratify the 1951 Genocide Convention until 1988, when Kurdistan was facing genocide. Throughout history, the United States has failed time and time again to act in the face of international mass atrocities, often citing a lack of information as in the case of the Rwandan genocide. By the time the international community responds, it is often too late for the victims.

The ideal use of punishment is as a deterrent. Unfortunately, because so few perpetrators of genocide are actually punished, the evidence base for justice as a deterrent for future genocidaires leaves much to be desired. This was certainly the case for the Bosniaks. While Mladić’s conviction is a step in the right direction, the 8,000 deaths that he was personally charged with should have been prevented – and at the very least, the 1951 Genocide Convention should necessitate more preventative measures for the future.

Problematically, the United States has shifted attention away from these issues.  After inaugurating President Donald Trump, who largely advocates an “America First” foreign policy, the U.S. approach to humanitarian issues has shifted. Notably, the administration has sought to decrease the foreign aid budget – already less than 1% of the U.S. budget – by 31%.  The U.S. is not the only culprit, however – ludicrously, since its formation in 2006, the United Nations Human Rights Council has allowed genocidal and abusive countries like Burundi and Saudi Arabia to serve as members.  As one Burundian leader put it, “Burundians can die, as long as the Americans or Belgians are safe.”

Political movement across the globe over the past two years has shifted from that of international cooperation to nationalism.  While each government must take care of its own people, some state governments prove unwilling or unable to do so. When this is the case, the forgotten targets of ethnic cleansing and genocide need global citizens to step in and help them.  

It is time to begin treating this responsibility as a true obligation. World leaders have a responsibility to act in the face of mass atrocities and genocide, not to turn inward and ignore life outside their borders. Following the atrocities in Rwanda and the Balkans, the Canadian government convened the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which issued a report in which it was explained that all states have a Responsibility to Protect (R2P) those within their borders, and when they are unable or unwilling to do so, the burden falls to the international community. Today, the R2P doctrine represents a global commitment to the prevention of mass atrocities. However, leaders continue to fail at fulfilling this responsibility. Rather than waiting for leaders, we all can do more to advocate for those in need. There are several organizations, including STAND, Aegis Trust, and Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, dedicated to mobilizing activists and helping victims of human rights abuses. Everybody should get involved in one.

Ratko Mladić’s conviction was certainly deserved, but it was by no means a decisive victory. Two decades of waiting for a conviction serves as a reminder that more needs to be done. Genocide is a part of modern reality, and its denial must become a thing of the past. International law has not been strong enough to spur action, but domestic pressure could be the key and awareness is only a few clicks away.

 

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Mira Mehta is a writer and a student at Westfield High School.  In her spare time, she enjoys debating and running on the cross country team.  This is her first year as a member of the Communications Task Force at STAND.

DRC Elected to UN Human Rights Council

In a remarkable vote on October 16th, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was elected a member state of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the branch of the United Nations responsible for promoting and protecting human rights across the world. Despite its appalling track record with human rights, the DRC received 151 of the 193 votes cast by the UN General Assembly. This election has left many, including US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, concerned about the legitimacy and credibility of the Council as well as the strength of global efforts to prevent human rights abuses. The ability of the DRC to join the Council is attributable to the widespread culture of complacency and overall lack of accountability that plague our world.

Until late December of 2016, when a peace treaty was signed, the DRC was two years deep in political conflict that left many civilians vulnerable to abuse. In fact, the UN Human Rights Office reported that 64 percent of the over 5,000 human rights abuses that occurred that year were committed by the Congolese army and police. The UN Human Rights Council even wrote a letter to the President of the DRC, Joseph Kabila, demanding that stronger efforts be made to combat and report out on human rights abuses in the country. While the treaty was signed in December, the country has not yet enforced a comprehensive reform plan to address human rights abuses. Many are concerned that adding the DRC to the UN Human Rights Council sends the wrong message and allows the country to maintain the status quo rather than work towards higher human rights standards.

For others, the concern is not only about the DRC, but also about all other countries perpetrating human rights abuses. Notably, Venezuela,  Burundi, and Saudi Arabia are all serving terms on the Council. By including the DRC on the UN Human Rights Council, the credibility of the Council is undermined, as is its ability to hold abusers and violators of human rights accountable.

With these consequences and recent human rights abuses at the forefront, many leaders were quick to criticize the decision.  Ambassador Haley said in a statement that “countries that aggressively violate human rights at home should not be in a position to guard the human rights of others.” Louis Charbonneau, UN Director at Human Rights Watch, called it a “slap in the face to the many victims of the Congolese government’s grave abuses.”

The culture of complacency at the UN is troubling, especially when noting that many power struggles lie at the root of human rights abuses, including in the DRC. Recent history has proven that a stable power structure and strong, credible leadership are critical to ensuring the preservation of people’s rights.  In Burundi, political conflict has flooded the streets with blood and left refugees with wounds as deep as the divisions in the region. In Sudan, a quest for absolute political control has left the government standing on the tenets of  murder, assault, and repression. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s coalition has violated laws of war, causing famine and halting aid delivery by blockading all ports of entry.

The world needs stable leaders who are willing and capable to take on the responsibility of protecting human rights across the globe rather than simply posturing. The UN Human Rights Council is meant to be a group comprised of such individuals from around the world. Their mission is to help preserve human rights, but that cannot be done if their integrity is not maintained in the public eye. It is crucial that stricter rules and standards regulate elections to the Council. With the election of the DRC, a country that is a prime example of why the world needs the UN Human Rights Council, it is time to reevaluate the member selection process.  It is long past time to make human rights a genuine priority.

 

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Mira Mehta is a writer and a student at Westfield High School.  In her spare time, she enjoys debating and running on the cross country team.  This is her first year as a member of the Communications Task Force at STAND.

Vicious Crisis in Venezuela

The effects of poverty, corruption, and governmental ineptitude in Venezuela have spiraled into a humanitarian disaster. For most, the easiest way to get food is by rummaging through garbage can after garbage can, hoping that something edible will appear. For most, the next day is not guaranteed. There are no vaccines, very little medication for chronic conditions, and insufficient amounts of medicine in hospitals to treat even the most basic diseases.  Venezuela is devoid of the essentials of life, and the people are suffering beyond anything an outsider could possibly fathom, as layers of problems root themselves deeper in their country.

At the most basic level, Venezuela suffers from an economic crisis.  It stems from poor management of money, exacerbated by the fact that oil, which has recently seen a sharp decline in prices, makes up 90% of its economy. This has led the value of the Venezuelan Bolivar to decrease by more than 99% since President Maduro came to power in 2013. The Bolivar is currently worth less than 10 American cents. The government is only digging itself deeper into debt by printing more currency, which costs more to print than it is worth in circulation.

This economic crisis has harshly manifested itself in the lives of the Venezuelan people. The Venezuelan people face food shortages, periodic blackouts, and unmatched levels of inflation. With the economy in shambles, families cannot get back on their feet, and the government cannot provide enough aid to sustain their people. 11.9% of children in affected areas suffered from acute malnutrition in April, and the number is on the rise. Food is not the only thing that the Venezuelan people are missing. They are also in desperate need of medicine, missing 80% of the medical supplies they need to receive adequate care.

The current state of affairs begs to question — what is the Venezuelan government doing to address these issues? President Maduro has been largely insensitive about his country’s food crisis, saying, “We need to reduce extreme consumption….”. Government officials have also stopped aid from entering the country and simply keep the food and medicine in the packages to themselves. To make matters worse, the government has put new restrictions in place that would prevent household items, like Neosporin, from being brought into the country. All of this is part of the government’s overall prioritization of maintaining power over the citizens rather than ensuring the prosperity of its people.

Venezuela is a democratic country, but in recent years, President Maduro has been consolidating power in what many see as a transition into a dictatorship.  In response, those Venezuelan citizens who can remotely afford it and are willing to take the risk have engaged in numerous protests.  Over the past four months, these protests have become violent, leaving more than 100 people dead so far. Many protesters face imprisonment, with high-profile opposition leaders being taken from their homes in an effort to instill fear in their followers.

The humanitarian crisis facing the Venezuelan people has left them suffering — from grief, from disease, from oppression — but it has also shown the world what courage looks like. Despite numerous obstacles in their lives, the Venezuelan people endure, and they deserve help. The world needs to support them with the material resources and political might that are so critical for their survival. It will take focus and commitment to help the Venezuelan people, but the world must be ready to embrace it.

It is imperative that the world act now, as impoverished countries are more susceptible to civil war, especially countries like Venezuela that are already facing bitter protests and turmoil.  The instability associated with conflict often worsens humanitarian crises and creates a cycle that is nearly impossible to escape, even with the aid of other countries. It can give rise to more conflict with no set government entity or enforcement of peace agreements once a conflict has been resolved. This is one of the reasons why there is conflict in Sudan today — after a series of conflicts, peace agreements and ceasefires were not upheld. Throughout the world, conflict and mass atrocities would be much easier to prevent and resolve if addressed when such problems first appear.

Venezuela needs assistance now if it is to avoid further turmoil, loss, and grief.

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Mira Mehta is a writer and a student at Westfield High School.  In her spare time, she enjoys running on the cross country team.  This is her first year as a member of the Communications Task Force at STAND.