DRC: The admissibility decision of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on a case involving the eviction of indigenous people from their ancestral lands represents a beacon of hope
Minority Rights Group International (MRG) and Environment Natural Resources and Development (ERND) welcome the adoption by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights at its 64th ordinary session of its decision on the admissibility of the Communication presented on behalf of the Batwa from the Kahuzi-Biega National Park against the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The decision concerns the admissibility of the complaint brought to the Commission by MRG and ERND on 7 November 2015 on behalf of the Batwa from the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, a community of hunter-gatherers who, without having been properly consulted or adequately compensated, were evicted from their lands on which they had resided for centuries, as a result of the DRC government’s decision to extend the National Park established during the colonial era. By declaring the communication admissible within the meaning of Article 56 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Commission found that the domestic remedies provided by the DRC authorities were neither sufficiently available, effective nor efficient to ensure adequate redress for the violations suffered by the complainants.
‘This decision has the potential to bring real change in the way the Democratic Republic of Congo addresses the issue of indigenous peoples’ right to land and the reparations they are due,’ says Jennifer Castello, Head of Law at MRG.
In the first place, the Commission found that domestic remedies were not available, in particular because of the numerous inadmissibility decisions rendered by the Congolese courts. Secondly, the Commission has criticized the ineffectiveness of the remedies as provided for by Congolese legislation, particularly the absence in domestic law of measures whose purpose would be to protect the collective and individual rights of the Batwa. Thirdly, the Commission determined that ‘domestic remedies could not provide adequate reparation for the violations suffered by the Batwa’. Despite the fact that the last appeal submitted by the Batwa community in 2013 is still pending before the Supreme Court of Kinshasa (former Court of Cassation), the Commission has confirmed its jurisdiction to examine the merits of this case as these ‘proceedings have been prolonged abnormally and is therefore in total violation of the rights of the complainants’.
‘MRG has been supporting this case since 2015 and with this decision, we can now hope that justice will be served for the Batwa community of Kahuzi-Biega National Park, following the total failure of the Congolese justice system to protect and consider them,’ adds Castello.
‘This is a big step towards the recognition and protection of the right to land and access to resources for the Batwa, evicted from their traditional land and for which no measures of compensations nor reallocations have been taken by the authorities. They have been denied justice and access to a fair judicial process since they brought their claim back in 2008, this is therefore a historic decision for the rights of indigenous people in the DRC by recognising the case admissible,’ says Innocent Bisimwa, lawyer for ERND.
Background to the case
The Batwa of Kahuzi-Biega National Park are part of DRC’s largest indigenous community and have inhabited the forests of the Kahuzi mountains for centuries. Around July 1937, the Belgian colonial administration had created on these lands a small nature reserve then further extended in 1957. These decisions did not at the time affected the Batwas residing there to the extent that they were able to continue to occupy the forest by practicing their traditional way of life. The situation changed abruptly in November 1970, when the area was transformed into ‘Kahuzi-Biega National Park’ by Law No. 70-316, which resulted in a formal ban on all human presence in the Park. The Batwa families were then expelled without prior consultation or compensation. Moreover, in July 1975, with Law 75-238, the Congolese government extended the area of the national Park from 60,000 to 600,000 hectares, resulting in extensive evictions of Batwa families, of which about 6,000 were expelled. These families are forced to live in extreme poverty in makeshift camps among other communities, outside their lands where they had lived for centuries and forced to abandon their traditional way of life. They face discrimination of all kinds and do not have access to the most basic social services.
For these reasons and with the support of ERND, these Batwa communities brought an action against the government before the Uvira High Court (TGI), Kavumu headquarters in South Kivu, in an attempt to recover their lands. But in a decision of 28 February 2011, the TGI declared it inadmissible, alleging that the question posed by the Batwas concerned a problem of constitutionality of laws. This decision was later upheld in 2013 by the Bukavu Court of Appeal. The victims then lodged an appeal with the Supreme Court of Justice of Kinshasa, still pending for a hearing more than six years after.
Faced with the inaction of the domestic courts and the apparently arbitrary decisions of inadmissibility, the Batwa represented by MRG and ERND, seized the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to make their case heard and obtain justice following the violation of various rights as recognized by the African Charter, including the right to life (Article 4); freedom of conscience and freedom of religion (Article 8); respect for property (Article 14); health (Article 16); the promotion and protection of their traditional values (Article 17 (3)); the free disposal of their wealth and natural resources (Article 21); their economic, social and cultural development (Article 22) and finally the right to a satisfactory and comprehensive environment conducive to their development (Article 24).
Notes to Editors:
- Minority Rights Group International is an international human rights organization that strives to guarantee the rights of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples. We work with more than 150 partners in more than 50 countries.
- Environment Natural Resources and Development (ERND Institute) is a Congolese civil society organization working in the field of environmental protection, with particular emphasis on protecting and promoting the rights of forest communities and indigenous Batwa peoples. It provides legal and administrative support to local and indigenous communities who are victims of poor nature conservation, logging and customary land management policies in the DRC.
For more information and interview opportunities, contact:
Jennifer Castello, Head of Law, MRG
Innocent Bisimwa, Lawyer, ERND