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Human Rights Abuses in PNKB: So-called ‘independent’ findings of ICCN Investigation cannot be taken at face value

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On 1 June 2022, the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) published the findings of a ‘mixed and independent’ commission established to investigate allegations of human rights abuses committed against Batwa civilians by its personnel in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park (PNKB), documented in the MRG report ‘To Purge the Forest by Force’.

The ICCN commission report deliberately downplays the weight of evidence uncovered during their investigation corroborating the findings of MRG’s report. It attempts to impugn the methodology of MRG’s investigation and foregrounds the narratives long deployed by the park and its supporters to deny that human rights violations against Batwa civilians are taking place inside the PNKB.

While regrettable, this is not surprising given that the ICCN commission is comprised of representatives of the ICCN and the park’s international supporters, themselves complicit in the human rights abuses documented. Put simply, the ICCN commission report represents the perpetrator’s rebuttal to the 14-month, independent investigation commissioned by MRG.

Despite this, certain findings buried in the ICCN commission report are particularly salient and provide further corroborating evidence of the abuses documented by MRG. Examples include:

  • Information uncovered by the commission places park guards and soldiers on the dates and at the specific locations where human rights abuses against Batwa civilians are alleged to have taken place during the three joint operations documented in MRG’s report;
  • Joint operations targeted civilian sites, not just armed groups active in the park;
  • In relation to the July 2021 operation where multiple eyewitnesses and survivors reported that park guards and soldiers group-raped Batwa women, the commission confirmed the death of a Mutwa woman who was the victim of rape by park guards and/or soldiers;
  • The joint operation that took place in November-December 2021 is named ‘Operation Safisha’, literally translating to ‘Operation Purge’.

Some of the more egregious crimes documented in MRG’s report were altogether discounted by the commission because they were purportedly unable to find ‘three independent sources’ as corroboration. It is unclear what is meant by ‘independent’ sources or why multiple Batwa and non-Batwa eyewitnesses, who were interviewed by the commission and corroborated allegations, failed to meet that threshold.

Further, the commission only spent two days among affected communities in the field. Its failure to find corroborating sources does not necessarily mean such corroboration did not exist or that effort was made to track them down. In contrast, accounts characterizing the violence as the PNKB’s response to armed Batwa resistance, or the presence of armed militia groups in the park, were taken directly from park sources and uncritically incorporated into the report without independent corroboration. This methodological approach suggests that the ICCN commission report was a fait accompli – designed largely to exonerate the PNKBrather than an honest, rigorous and independent investigation.

While concerning, the outcome of the ICCN investigation is unsurprising given the conduct of the members of the commission during its work. Although MRG had initially agreed to participate in the investigation in good faith, MRG was forced to withdraw its participation following serious security concerns implicating ICCN personnel leading the commission. An advance copy of our report, which had been shared on a confidential basis with international supporters of the park, was leaked to the ICCN, leading to reprisals against civil society organizations suspected of having provided evidence of human rights abuses to MRG’s investigative team.

MRG’s concerns around the integrity of the commission and its work are well founded. At least seven individuals, including the author of MRG’s report and a member of the research team, have had to relocate after receiving death threats as a direct consequence of their participation in the ICCN investigation. Efforts to harm these individuals are seemingly ongoing and show no signs of abating. Similar tactics have been deployed against other civil society actors and members of the Batwa community in an effort to silence those with evidence of human rights abuses committed by the PNKB.

The conduct of the members of the commission during its investigation raises serious questions about the ICCN’s ability to investigate allegations meaningfully of human rights abuses taking place in the protected areas it manages in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The findings of the ICCN commission cannot be taken at face value, used to assess the veracity of the crimes documented in MRG’s report or used to deny systemic wrongdoing by the PNKB and its supporters.

Click here and here to read our publications about human rights violations against the Batwa in the PNKB.

Photo: Kahuzi-Biega National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Forest Service photo by Roni Ziade). US Forest Service, 2018. Image in the public domain.

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