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Amnesty and the Culture of Impunity in Congo

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Amnesty and the Culture of Impunity in Congo

Posted by Laura Heaton on May 10, 2009

News out of Kinshasa this week about the Congolese parliament’s decision to grant amnesty to rebels in the eastern region is certainly raising a few eyebrows, even as Congolese officials touted it as step toward peace.  

"We want to open new paths to peace in our country. The nation truly hopes to turn the page," said Information Minister Lambert Mende, according to Reuters.

However, impunity is widely seen as a driving force behind the ongoing conflict in the east, where fighting between various rebel groups — some aligned with and some against the Congolese army — has displaced an estimated one million people. In this lawless environment, it’s difficult to even guess how many people have had a hand in the violence that has long destabilized eastern Congo.

Of course, this same logic explains the practical thinking behind the parliament’s decision; in a region where rebels are often loosely affiliated and motivated by opportunistic rather than ideological goals, it would be a massive undertaking to try to locate and bring to justice all those who served in rebel group. (As an aid worker in North Kivu once memorably explained to me, “A farmer can arm himself with his shovel and become a Mayi Mayi one day, and then put it down and return to being a civilian the next.”)

However, the national government has now effectively rubber stamped this culture of impunity by choosing to excuse many of the atrocities committed in eastern Congo. The parliament rightly drew the line at pardoning those accused on war crimes, but a transitional justice process — challenging, as it would be — must be put in place to send the message that there are legal consequences for all those who commit abuses.