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Great Lakes Policy Forum—Meeting Summary—April 2001

April 1, 2001
Council on Foreign Relations


[Note: A transcript of this meeting is unavailable. The discussion is summarized below.]

At this month's forum we heard from Louis Marie Nindorera, Executive Secretary to the League ITEKA in Burundi, Irène Esambo, President of Voice of the Handicapped for Human Rights in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Marcellin Cishambo, Independent Observer and member of the Board of the Committee for the Reconstruction of the Congo in the DRC. The panel discussed the challenges of transitional justice throughout the Great Lakes Region.


Burundi has been a country at war for several years and it is war that has been characterized as having political and ethnic dimensions. The peace negotiations in Burundi have gone on for a significant amount of time and began with the immense gathering of June 1998 in Arusha. One of the main characteristics of the peace process's dynamics is the ethnic bi-polarization of the respective parties, which has characterized the conflict from the beginning. One of the greatest threats to the peace process is the fact that, although a written agreement has been arrived at, in reality it is not a meeting of the minds with respect to the parties. Rather, there is an agreement to tolerate each other, with distrust still characterizing and influencing all sides. In addition, many of the rebels groups did not sign the Arusah agreement and, as such, the war continues to rage on with 105,000 dead and counting.

Nonetheless, the Arusha peace agreement has provisions for a number of mechanisms to handle the question of transitional justice. First, there is a mechanism to allow provisional amnesty. Second, there is a provision for an international judicial investigation commission which has the responsibility to investigate the grave acts of violence that have been committed since 1962 and, if it does find that acts of genocide and acts against humanity or war crimes have been committed, to ask for the creation of an international criminal tribunal to try to the perpetrators of those crimes. The agreement also provides for the creation of a national truth and reconciliation commission.

With respect to the implementation of the mechanisms needed for transitional justice in Burundi, there are a number of fundamental questions that need to be asked. When considering a criminal tribunal for Burundi, Burundi is in special situation because although an international tribunal is being created to try these crimes, this tribunal is not completely credible in the eyes of the parties. How will judges, at least from a technical perspective, receive the training, and reach the level of competence necessary to do their job? And to a greater degree, how can trust and confidence be infused into the process to ensure that the judges not only do their jobs well, but are also seen as independent, and therefore credible? Has there been another situation where an international tribunal has been able to make up for the lack of political will, trust, equity, firmness and independence for the national judicial system? And if there is a lack of political will within the country to implement this process, will the international tribunal have the collaboration and cooperation necessary to do its work effectively?

Looking at the Arusha provision for a truth and reconciliation commission, the commission is given the responsibility to investigate acts of violence committed in the past, to establish the identity of the authors of these crimes, and to qualify what crimes in fact were committed. However, this truth and reconciliation commission does not have jurisdiction to characterize acts of genocide, war crimes, or acts against humanity. In addition to this, the entire notion of a truth and reconciliation commission in Burundi comes with a series of hurdles. Virtually every Burundian has had a member of their family killed as a result of the conflict. Therefore, truth in Burundi ultimately is a question that has very high stakes around it. The truth of the other party recognizing that certain violations have been committed to the other side in itself constitutes a recognition that certain rights have to be guaranteed. However, in this dynamic, recognition that there are rights for the other side is perceived as threat to ones own group. And that means truth therefore carries a certain price and it is a price people are not necessarily willing to pay.

In conclusion, it would be advisable that in setting up these transitional justice measures, which are envisaged in the courts, lessons should be taken from experiences in neighboring Rwanda, and what is being considered for Sierra Leone, where a hybrid tribunal with international justices would be working. Both of these examples could help in understanding and addressing the lack of confidence and trust in the national judiciary. But before anything else, the continued violence, and lack of involvement of the rebel groups in the peace process must be considered within the framework of the minimal conditions necessary for any of the transitional justice frameworks to be put into place.


In looking at the history of conflict resolution in central Africa and the DRC, one must note that the DRC has had 3 major conflicts since its independence: the 1960 and 1996 wars of liberation and 1998 war of aggression. The first war was an uprising of the Congolese people, the second was Kabila's war which he waged with external support and third, the current conflict is a war of occupation which has lead to a division of the country into two parts: one part under foreign occupation and the other under rebel control.

The consequences of the conflict since 1998 are: a violation of the sovereignty of the DRC with the presence of six foreign armies, the disruption between the states and the region, the presence of a militia, and the violation of fundamental human rights. One of the gravest violations of this war has been the recruitment of child soldiers.

With respect to the perspective of finding solutions to this conflict, and number of parameters must be looked at: foreign troops on Congolese territory, foreign militia from other countries, resistance groups from within the country, the creation of new governmental institutions for the Congolese state, reparations to the Congolese of damage done, the need for solutions of the conflict, and the intervention of the international community.

In terms of the mechanisms towards arriving at this peace, there need to be open forums in respective countries involved in the conflict to address the issues surrounding the return of their troop. The inter-Congolese dialogue is one way to address these issues. Conflict resolution cannot only be aimed at the political level; it must be at the local population level. Civil society in the DRC has been taking on a number of initiatives to set up reconciliation committees and continues to serve as a counter-force to the larger political powers.

In conclusion therefore in order to resolve the conflict in the DRC, there is a need for justice in the resolution of the conflict but also the need for durable lasting sustainable peace. In order to do this there is the need for reparations and consideration of how victims are treated.

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