DRC: Nobody is above the law, not even the military

UNDP in DRC
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, UNDP is helping the armed forces to develop a system of military justice that is fair, balanced and importantly, is helping victims of violence to seek closure. (Photo: Benoit Almeras / UNDP DRC)

The atmosphere is tense in Bweremana, Goma, in war-torn North Kivu. A large crowd has gathered outside a tent, serving as an impromptu military court. They wait impatiently for the verdict to be announced.

When the announcement finally comes, there are gasps of shock and relief from the crowd. Eight out of the 10 soldiers on trial for raping and murdering local villagers are found guilty.  

Highlights

  • US $1 million spent to help strengthen military justice and military discipline in the country
  • So far, 31 convictions have resulted from UNDP support to the military justice system
  • 9 investigative missions related to serious crimes (war crimes and crimes against humanity ) under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court
  • 2,432 soldiers and officers trained in human rights and the law

“The result of this case shows us that no one is above the law, not even the military,” says Lieutenant Dale Yanzenge, one of the officers who prosecuted this case. “Military Justice is there to remind soldiers that we must respect the law and protect civilians.”

The trial is one of many that are taking place across the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Years of conflict have resulted in an enormous catalogue of crimes of violence, including sexual violence against civilians. While the civilian courts are struggling to tackle this backlog of cases, many soldiers, subject to a separate military justice system - have benefited from impunity. UNDP is working to change this situation by helping the armed forces to strengthen their justice system.   

And because this is a mobile court, the citizens of Bweremana are able to actually see justice being done today.

"It was important that the case be tried here because it is the exact location where the incidents [of rape and murder] occurred,” says Captain Magistrate Bienvenu Muanansele, from the “Tribunal Militaire de Garnison de Goma,” which tried these cases. “These trials held before the people of Bweremana, show the people how justice does its job. The law prevails, even for the military.”

As well as providing support to the prosecutors, UNDP, together with partners such as the American Bar Association and Avocats sans Frontieres, is helping the DRC Bar Association and the Military Courts to recruit and train legal defenders for those accused, as well as provide legal aid to soldiers accused of crimes. This helps ensure that the justice system conforms to international standards of fairness.

“The defendants also have rights in court. The fact that there were two acquittals in this case show that defendants are not necessarily guilty - and have to be treated fairly,” says Mangobo Chrysostom, one of the legal advocates at Bweremana.

"The continued support of UNDP in the reform of the judiciary means we are able to fight against impunity,” says Nick Hartmann, UNDP’s interim Country Director in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “This is an essential step towards the restoration of the rule of law and the recognition of victims. Through this process, confidence will recover gradually and the population can be reconciled with the law, whether civil or military.”

But prosecuting past crimes is no substitute for preventing them from happening in the first place. UNDP is also helping the military to train soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo so that they understand the law, human rights – and the consequences of harming civilians.

At one such training camp, Colonel Muhima barks slogans into a megaphone. He is one of the facilitators hired through the UNDP scheme to train the troops and raise their awareness of human rights.

“The mission of the military is to protect civilians and their belongings! There have been too many offenses against civilians in the past. Extortion and looting against civilians are strictly forbidden. Civilians are not enemies! If you break the law you will be prosecuted and punished by the Military Justice system.”

“Soldiers have to realize that no one is above the law, not even the military,” he says later, in a quieter voice.

UNDP supports the military justice system in the Democratic Republic of the Congo through projects funded by the US government and the European Union, and implemented jointly with the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DR Congo.