Wrong Time for Congo Debt Forgiveness

Given the recent murder of Congolese human rights activist Floribert Chebeya, we should delay debt relief for the DRC pending an independent investigation, a delivery of justice and an improvement of the human rights situation.
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Co-authored by Kerry Kennedy and Guillaume Ngefa

Tomorrow the World Bank Board and International Monetary Fund Board of Directors will decide whether to forgive a significant portion of the "odious" debt of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) accumulated to a large degree during the autocratic and kleptocratic regime of President Mobutu. Bilateral donors owed significant sums will probably follow suit.

Human rights advocates, like us, are normally for debt forgiveness. Often, governments -- like our own -- provide support to regimes for political reasons: as the US supported Mobutu during the cold war despite his atrocious human rights record. This debt can crush progressive policies of new governments and facilitate a neo-colonial type relation between debtor and creditor, but forgiveness should not be given if the government is undeserving.

But as DRC is not presently servicing its debt (neither paying interest nor principle), the act of debt forgiveness does not mean more money for schools, health care and for the justice system. It is also the wrong signal at this moment and should be delayed until the human rights situation in that country improves.

Less than a month ago Floribert Chebeya, the DRCs leading human rights defender, was murdered, implicating high level officials close to President Kabila. For twenty years Floribert courageously endured imprisonment, torture, and constant death threats as he investigated, reported on, and sought to hold Kabila and his henchmen responsible for rape, murder and untold cruelty. We knew Floribert as a colleague in the struggle for human rights, and, as a friend. The politicized response was to have the intelligence service handle the "investigation" as opposed to the prosecutors. It was announced that a police Major and Colonel had been arrested and a police general that has been the right hand man of the President was suspended.

This political reaction to the crime has appeased the international community, but it should not. The intelligence service has no jurisdiction over this case and these "arrests" are arbitrary and the detentions related to them illegal (as are so many in DRC). At present, only the Major seems to have been transferred to the custody of the prosecutor. He is now detained in prison and has been visited by UN human rights officers to whom he claimed his innocence. The Colonel supposedly is still detained at the intelligence service to which UN human rights officers have no access despite UN Security Council Resolutions legally mandating it. The General? Clearly not charged.

The political response to a crime is not comforting. Statements made by the DRC government about high profile cases have proven to be false in the past. Take for example the international effort to push the government to take the President Kabila's own zero tolerance policy for rape by government officials seriously. A list of 5 officers of the government army directly implicated in rape was drawn-up over 2 years ago. Now, after much effort, 3 of the 5 are detained, but charges are coming slowly. The other two, we in the international community were informed, are in hiding. We were specifically told the Major on this list was in South Africa. Now UN human rights officers have found this same Major in active duty in the Mbandakar Province. He has been receiving his pay and is in a command position.

Ban Ki Moon, the Belgian King, and other dignitaries were relieved to learn that the funeral for Floribert won't be on the 30th of June to interfere with their participation DRC's 50th independence celebration. Floribert would not be impressed, as one possible reason for his murder after being called to the national police headquarters for questioning was that he was advocating for a boycott of the 50th by international dignitaries to bring attention to the extremely problematic human rights situation in DRC. This record includes, but by no means is limited to, ongoing killings, rapes and torture (which could have taken Floribert's life) by state authorities. Most of these crimes go unpunished and those authorities who are responsible for the policies that facilitate this enjoy even greater impunity..

If the Boards of the WB and IMF, which are made up of Member States with the US having the largest vote, believe DRC has satisfied all the conditions for reaching the completion point under the Enhanced Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative this conclusion paves the way for a formal cancellation of the DRC's debt. We would lament it as a missed opportunity to leverage the DRC government to end the widespread human rights violations being committed by its state agents.

For the US, as the most important Board member, there is even a little known law that prevents the US from supporting debt relief when there are systematic human rights violations. In honor of Floribet and his efforts, the Boards should vote to delay debt relief until Floribert death is independently and properly investigated, those responsible are brought to justice and the human rights situation in DRC has improved.

Researching, recording, and exposing grave human rights abuses committed by Zaire's notorious dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, Guillaume Ngefa risked his life on a daily basis. As founder and president of his country's premier human rights organization, L'Association Africaine de Défense des Droits de l'Homme (African Association for the Defense of Human Rights or ASADHO), Ngefa also monitored the bloody seizure of power by President Laurent Kabila. Ngefa is now living in exile in the Ivory Coast, where he continues to work for human rights as the Deputy Director of the UN Human Rights Office there. His story is told in Kerry Kennedy's book, Speak Truth to Power.