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October 6th, 2014

Armed Groups Losing Ground in DRC

With its enormous size and almost unparalleled bounty of natural resources, you might expect the Democratic Republic of Congo to be one of the most developed countries in Africa. However, history has been unkind to this rich and fertile country. Decades of brutal rule by Belgian colonialists have been followed by years of dictatorship and endless civil war. Since the fall of former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997, the DRC has been subject to the most deadly armed conflict since WWII (known as “Africa’s World War”) in which more than 5 million citizens have died and hundreds of thousands have been displaced (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13283212). As a result, the DRC, in spite of its potential wealth, consistently ranks at or near the bottom of the U.N. Human Development Index (http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/table-1-human-development-index-and-its-components).

While the country is still hampered by poverty, poor infrastructure, lack of government capacity and the continuing presence of armed groups in its eastern provinces, recent developments have led some to believe that a lasting peace for this war-torn region may be in sight. The last year has been a time of almost unprecedented optimism in the DRC, with diplomatic pressure and military interventions leading to significant improvements in regional stability and security.

In late 2013 the Rwanda-backed rebel group M23 – responsible for numerous human rights abuses since its formation in 2012 – was defeated thanks to a joint offensive by U.N. and Congolese Army (FARDC) forces. Since then, DRC officials and members of the international community have focused their attention on the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu-led rebel group known for its ties to the 1994 Rwandan genocide (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/05/us-tells-armed-group-drc-surrender-military-option).

As the largest remaining rebel group in eastern DRC, and a major destabilizing factor in DRC-Rwanda relations, the disarmament of the FDLR would represent a significant step forward in the peace process.

In April of this year, the DRC government and the South African Development Community began programs to encourage FDLR fighters to hand over their weapons in exchange for potential amnesty and resettlement. As a result, more than 200 fighters have since surrendered to authorities, although as many as 1,500 may still remain in hiding (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13283212).

These improvements have been brought about by several factors. Particularly important has been the creation of the United Nations Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) which for the first time has been allowed to directly confront armed groups as ‘peacemakers’ rather than as passive ‘peacekeepers’ (http://www.newsrecord.co/the-u-n-s-new-force-redefines-intervention/). Political pressure from outside the DRC has also proven effective, with the withdrawal of U.S. military aid to Rwanda in 2013 playing a crucial role in the defeat of M23 rebels (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-24802888).

There is certainly still a long way to go in achieving peace in the DRC, with as many as 10 rebel groups still operating in the region. However, the last 12 months have shown that concerted pressure from the international community and national governments can be an effective force for good, even in complex and lengthy conflicts such as this. Rather than a cause for complacency, however, these developments should serve as a rallying cry for governments and concerned citizens around to globe to bring more pressure to bear and, hopefully, to create a better future for the long suffering citizens of the Congo.

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September 26th, 2014

The Legacy of Genocide in Rwanda

We often think of genocide in simple terms as a self-contained, incredibly destructive, conflict between two ethnic groups. However, the causes and outcomes of such violence are often much more complex. In fact, the large-scale destruction, displacement and mutual resentment that results from genocide often creates unintended consequences that reverberate through time and across national borders, laying the groundwork for future conflicts. This has certainly been the case with the Rwandan genocide of 1994, in which around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred by Hutu-nationalist militias.

In Rwanda, the killings left a scar on the nation’s psyche which has proven difficult to remove. Despite ongoing efforts by the Rwandan government to play down divisions between Hutus and Tutsis, ethnic tensions remain just beneath the surface in many areas of Rwandan society. This is true even at the nation’s universities, where young Rwandans split themselves up into “Francophone” or “Anglophone” groups, with these terms serving as code words for Hutu or Tutsi ancestry (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/17/world/africa/17rwanda.html?_r=0).

Some of the government’s reconciliation efforts, while positive in theory, have also had a chilling effect on Rwanda’s political culture. Laws against the spreading of “genocide ideology” and “divisionism” intended to reduce ethnic hatred have frequently been used by the government of President Paul Kagame as a pretext to arrest student leaders, intellectuals, and political opponents (http://www.voanews.com/content/legacy-of-genocide-fuels-political-repression-in-rwanda-101895988/124908.html).

On an individual level, many are still haunted by memories of the events of 1994. These psychological wounds are particularly deep for the women of Rwanda, many of whom were left with unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases due to the wave of sexual violence that accompanied the genocide. Often, their suffering is compounded by social isolation, as neighbours, family members and former friends frequently turn their back on those women who were unlucky enough to become pregnant as a result of these attacks (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/3668387/Rwanda-Legacy-of-genocide.html).

Perhaps the most destructive after effect of the Rwandan genocide, however, has been its contribution to ongoing warfare and political instability in central Africa. Following the rise to power of Rwanda’s new Tutsi-led government in 1994, leaders of the Interhamwe (the genocidal militia responsible for much of the killing in Rwanda) fled across the border into the DRC. After reforming as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), they then staged cross-border attacks against the Rwandan military, who responded with campaigns of their own. Tensions between the two countries eventually devolved into a state of unofficial warfare, in which the governments of Rwanda, DRC and other neighbouring countries have lent support to rival rebel groups (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/nov/04/congo.qanda). This has resulted in millions of deaths and the creation of hundreds of thousands of refugees, while also increasing tensions between Hutu and Tutsi populations in the area.

Though conditions in the eastern DRC have improved somewhat in recent months, the tragic legacy of the Rwandan genocide continues to present obstacles to lasting peace and stability within Rwanda and the African Great Lakes region as a whole. We can only hope that the next time the spectre of genocide rears its ugly head, we, and the policymakers who represent us, will be more aware of the terrible costs of inaction.

 

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August 21st, 2014

Two Pronged Assault: South Sudan State Harasses Journalists in the Name of Fighting Rebels

Two Pronged Assault: South Sudan State Harasses Journalists in the Name of Fighting Rebels

South Sudan is currently being racked by fighting between various rebel groups and government forces. The conflict is fueled by the ethno-political tensions following the December 2013 power struggle between President Kiir and his ex-deputy Riek Machar, with Kirr accusing Machar of orchestrating a coup. The Kiir vs. Machar debacle led to elements of the South Sudanese army to rebel and follow Machar. This political conflict has also propagated communal violence along ethnic lines, with the Dinka primarily supporting the government and most Nuer supporting the rebels. This ethnic division broadly reflects the tribal loyalties of the Kiir and Machar, and in turn leads to sporadic and decentralized acts of reciprocal communal violence by ragtag militias. These pressures on the government have, consequently, led to increasingly heavy-handed measures by the government to maintain control over the conflict’s narrative. Juba is using its security forces to harass news outlets, journalists, and activists who report on rebel activity and/or critique the government’s handling of the internal conflict, as well as human rights, and corruption.

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October 28th, 2013

Media Censorship in Sudan | By Allison Grandish

We generally take free press for granted. Here in Canada, we may complain about bias or criticize newspapers for favouring one perspective at the expense of another. In the case of certain sources that fawn over politicians or refrain from critically analyzing certain facets of an issue, these criticisms are justified. Overall, though, things aren’t that bad. I can read vicious invectives against every political figure in Canada. I can look at satirical concerns that depict our prime minister as a fumbling buffoon, and afterward I can breeze through editorials claiming that Justin Trudeau’s entry into politics harbingers nothing short of Armageddon. Most importantly, I can learn about what the government is doing and criticize it if I am dissatisfied. When organizations like Human Rights Watch are allowed to produce reports about human rights issues in Canada or Amnesty International is able to keep tabs on what our government institutions our doing, I am able to access that information and use to participate in the democratic process. I may as well just repeat the old cliché here: we need free press if we want to influence what the government is up to. The people of the Republic Of The Sudan are not so fortunate to have it.

Sudanese newspapers, online forums, and other sources of media tend to be shut down if they express views that aren’t supported by the ruling government. This tendency has been intermittent but its goals seem consistent: to hinder people from understanding the scope of violence the government is committing. The government of the Republic Of The Sudan has achieved this goal through what scholars consider “a framework of bureaucratic regulations” and intimidation of journalists (Chalk). The National Council for Press and Publications (NCPP) polices newspaper content through licensing of media outlets and government oversight of what’s printed. To start a newspaper, people have to apply for a licence through this body. Applying for a permit may not seem that big of a deal, but the process is political and pro-government groups are favoured when it comes to being allowed to print materials. The National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) branch of the government also carries out media censorship. It imposes punitive measures for newspapers that write insufficiently favourable articles about sensitive subjects like armed conflict with rebels or al-Bashir’s indictment by the ICC. The NISS may phone the business offices of newspapers to tell them not to cover certain issues, harass journalists and threaten them with violence, or simply shut newspapers down. I don’t think I need to say that this can definitely put a damper on what stories newspapers choose to write about!

The 2005 Interim National Constitution, which was adopted in the Republic Of The Sudan as part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, was supposed to guarantee free speech. Journalists were supposed to have more freedom in their reporting and newspapers were supposed to be subject to less pre-printing censorship. However, like other facets of the CPA, this ideal has not yet come to fruition. First, the restrictive Press and Printed Press Materials Law – which enabled newspapers to be arbitrarily shut down and allowed the NISS to approve articles before they were published –  stayed in place until 2009, suggesting that following the obligations of the CPA was not a priority when it came to respecting the importance of free speech. It was replaced by a new law, but the replacement “allows for restrictions on the press in the interests of national security and public order”. In other words, anything subjectively considered to potentially incite violence – i.e. any criticism, really, of what rebel groups or government proxies are doing – is grounds for censoring.

We can look at some examples of media censorship to get an idea of how these policies play out. Commencing April 3, independent daily newspapers al-Ayyam and al-Sahafa have to clear their content with the NISS before they print. Newspapers al-Khartoum and al-Youm al-Tali staff, meanwhile, are regularly harassed by government representatives. In January 2004, the government of the Republic Of The Sudan shut down Al-Jazeera’s offices for “promoting false reports about Sudan” and in April 2004 an employees was sentenced to a month in prison for spreading propaganda (Chalk). A particularly notable example of stifling free speech occurred in the build-up to the 2011 secession of South Sudan, when journalists were harassed, detained, threatened with arrest, and tortured. During that same year, foreign journalists were also targeted: BBC employees were detained and questioned, while more unlucky Al-Jazeera correspondents were assaulted by Sudanese security forces. There’s also this perversely humorous incident: May 15 of this year, Vice President Ali Osman Taha issued a directive to “lift pre-publication censorship on newspapers”. He issued these orders on a Wednesday, stating that they were effective immediately. The NISS banned newspapers from publishing those remarks.
Censuring journalists is a way to avoid sensitive things from being covered. Journalists are forbidden from writing about the conflict in Darfur and the border region, which means that people don’t have access to information that will allow them to understand the situation and formulate their own opinions. Additionally, this lack of public record makes it difficult for people to be aware of the scale and scope of the violence being carried out by the government and its proxies. In response to international reports that referred to the conflict in Darfur as “genocide,” for example, the media in the Republic Of The Sudan referred to such claims as “propaganda” (Chalk). “Vigorously” reacting to international media reports and substituting an alternate reality is only necessary if those media claims posed some sort of danger to the regime – although the Darfur situation has not been resolved, naming the crimes and detailing atrocities may galvanize opposition from those within and outside of the Republic of Sudan. That potential for free press access applies to the Nuba Mountains, too. In 2011, the New York Times published a letter from a Sudanese activist, analyst, and journalist who requested contact with skilled media professionals to help “inform and activate all the very good Sudanese who […] would be horrified by what their government is doing but have no idea what is actually happening”. And the barring of foreign journalists from the Nuba Mountains is so commonly known that it need not be stated. In an era when people are interconnected, when civil society groups can gather and pressure a foreign government to respond to human rights concerns, and when citizens can mobilize to pressure their own governments to respond to the human rights violations of other states, journalism can be a threat. Why would it be done, if not to prevent people from understanding the situation and demanding action to remedy it? As one researcher notes, keeping journalists from doing their jobs is how governments carry out their crimes with impunity. If nobody is looking, why stop? And so journalists must look while governments try to blind them.

 

Sources Cited

Chalk, Frank and Danielle Kelton. “Mass-Atrocity Crimes in Darfur and the Response of Government of Sudan Media to International Pressure,” in The World and Darfur, 2nd Edition, ed. Amanda E. Grzyb (Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010), 112

 

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March 27th, 2013

A Huge Step Forward for Canada

Yesterday marked a huge step forward for Canada, as MP Paul Dewar of the NDP tabled a federal bill on conflict minerals, asking companies for transparency and accountability when sourcing minerals from the Great Lakes Region & Congo!

The Conflict Minerals Act (Bill C-486) was introduced to the Canadian House of Commons at a press release yesterday. The bill seeks to implement the guidelines developed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to end the trade of conflict minerals into Canadian law. These guidelines at the Canadian level would require companies using minerals from the Great Lakes Region of Africa to publicize their supply chain and due diligence practices and ensure the minerals they use in their products have not financed illegal armed groups engaged in the Congo’s war. Not only would this mark one step in improving transparency and accountability within Canadian mining industry abroad, but it would also be the first country to incorporate the OECD guidelines into legislation.

In tandem, Mr. Dewar has also launched the Just Minerals Campaign—a project that runs in partnership with STAND Canada’s Conflict Free Canada Initiative. The campaign will work to raise public awareness and petition the Government of Canada to cut Canada’s ties to Conflict Minerals.

The campaign is similar to the efforts more than a decade ago that led to controls on the spread of blood diamonds, which were used to finance rebels in West Africa. It has been done before and can most definitely, with your help, be done again for conflict minerals.

Help Canada become a world leader in demanding transparency for our minerals. Sign and share our petition today to make Canada Conflict- Free.

 

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