Paris, France, May 20 – A growing campaign for justice for war victims in the Democratic Republic of Congo has caused fresh tensions with neighbouring Rwanda and its leader Paul Kagame whose troops took part in two invasions in the 1990s.
In an interview with AFP, DRC leader Felix Tshisekedi threw his weight behind calls for accountability for the more than two decades of devastating violence in the east of the country that has left millions dead or missing.
But he said he did not wish to “pick a dispute” with Kagame.
Tshisekedi urged the international community to build on the findings of a landmark UN investigation in 2010, known as the Mapping Report, which concluded that atrocities had been committed in his vast, resource-rich country.
“The Mapping (Report) was produced by the international community, they must continue it because we need justice to be delivered to our victims,” Tshisekedi said in Paris on Wednesday after a summit on post-pandemic financing for Africa.
The report, carried out by international investigators for the UN Human Rights Commissioner, described 617 serious crimes between 1993-2003 that could amount to war crimes and possibly genocide.
The report recommended further investigation and the prosecution of the perpetrators by an international war crimes court.
Rwanda, whose troops were identified as being responsible for massacres during two invasions in 1996 and again in 1998, along with rebels they backed, has categorically rejected the report.
Tshisekedi said that if there were Rwandan war criminals “it’s in the interest of President Kagame to deliver them to justice because it is a question of honour for his country too.”
– Outrage in DR Congo –
Kagame caused anger this week in the DR Congo following an interview he gave on the sidelines of the same African financing conference attended by Tshisekedi.
Asked about the Mapping Report, he rejected it as “extremely politicised” and “highly disputed by people”.
“There were no crimes,” he told journalists from France 24 television and RFI radio.
In response, Congolese politicians and public figures have accused him of “negationism” and insulting the memory of the victims.
“Paul Kagame has never gone so far in his taunting of Congolese people,” Juvenal Munubo, a close ally of Tshisekedi and head of the parliamentary defence and security commission, told AFP.
“Dignity, justice and reparations are the only appropriate responses faced with the negationism of Kagame,” 60 Congolese public figures including artists and scientists wrote in a joint statement published this week.
The flare-up risks complicating efforts to patch up relations between DR Congo and Rwanda, which have been strained ever since the 1990s wars and by allegations that Rwanda backs militias in eastern DR Congo.
Tshisekedi has reached out to Kagame since coming to power in 2019.
In the same interview with France 24 and RFI, Kagame had hailed “good discussions” with his Congolese counterpart and “the environment where we can talk to each other which was lacking before.”
Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta attempted to clarify his comments on the Mapping Report on Wednesday, saying there was “confusion” and that the president had been “interrupted”.
– Nobel winner –
Civil society groups and Nobel Peace Prize winner Denis Mukwege, a gynaecologist specialised in treating victims of sexual violence, have led calls for justice in the region.
Mukwege, who lives under UN protection at his hospital in Bukavu because of persistent death threats, has called for an international tribunal to try war criminals which could mean troops from Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, as well as regular Congolese troops and militia leaders, landing in the dock.
Kagame, whose government has been linked by rights campaigners to disappearances and assassinations of opposition figures, said Mukwege was “told what to say” and implied he was part of a conspiracy against Rwanda.
Tshisekedi rejected Kagame’s statements, saying that Mukwege was a “figure of national pride” as the country’s only Nobel laureate and that the 65-year-old had “all of our support”.
Kagame ordered troops into the DRC in 1996 to pursue ethnic Hutu militia who had fled there after taking part in the genocide against ethnic Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994.
As well as pursuing the militia, Rwandan troops backed a rebel group known as the AFDL which overthrew Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997 and seized power, with help from neighbouring Uganda and Burundi too.
Many Congolese and Hutu civilians were allegedly killed, along with Hutu militia members.
Rwandan troops invaded the DRC again in 1998, which resulted in the country splitting between rebel-controlled areas in the east and north and a government-controlled area in the west.
The vast central African country, one of the poorest in the world despite its immense mineral wealth, has been dogged by chronic instability, violence and insurgencies ever since, with militias that continue to kill, rape and extort people in the east.