Hearings Over Congo Reparations Kick Off at UN High Court

Negotiations over reparations for human rights violations began in 2014 but have been delayed for many reasons, including a 16-month delay for Uganda to translate the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s documents from French to English.

The United Nations flag flutters in the wind next to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the Netherlands. (AP Photo/Mike Corder)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Hearings reopened Tuesday over the reparations bill for human rights violations by the Ugandan military in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

The International Court of Justice reopened the 14-year-old case after the two Central African countries failed to reach an agreement over how much Uganda should pay. Previously, the United Nations’ highest judicial body found Uganda had breached international law by providing financial and logistical support to armed groups operating in the DRC. 

“The wrongful act committed by Uganda against the Democratic Republic of the Congo costs the lives of many and had a deep and lasting effect on the country’s infrastructure and environment,”  Paul-Crispin Kakhozi Bin-Bulongo, the DRC’s ambassador to the European Union and agent in the case, told The Hague-based court. The DRC presented its opening arguments on Tuesday in a set of hearings that will run through next week. 

In 2005, the court found the Ugandan government was responsible for human rights violations by armed groups along border regions between the two countries between 1998 and 2003. 

The DRC has asked for a total of $4.3 billion for the violence against the Congolese but also damage to the environment and theft of natural resources. Uganda has claimed the DRC has wildly inflated the amount of damage it is owed. “For us to accept the claims, they have to prove how they came to that figure,” said junior foreign affairs minister Okello Oryem told Kenya-based newspaper The East African. 

But the DRC has pushed back against this argument, calling Uganda’s demands “overly formalistic.”  “There is something profoundly injurious for the victims of Uganda for the state to now complain there are no photos, no invoices,” said Muriel Ubéda-Saillard, professor of international law at the University of Lille. 

The conflict had, according to arguments the DRC made in court, had more than 1 million victims, including civilians killed, injured, or displaced. The DRC estimates 400,000 people were killed in the conflict and nearly half of those deaths are attributed to Ugandan forces. 

The border region is rich with natural resources, including gold, diamonds, tantalum, tin and tungsten, and the DRC also wants to be reimbursed for their theft. “Ugandan soldiers participated directly in mining activity,” said Pierre Bodeau-Livinec, professor of Public Law at University Paris Nanterre, on behalf of the DRC. 

The nearly 25-year dispute dates to the overthrow of then-DRC president Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997. Following the 1994 Rwanda genocide, displaced ethnic Hutus in refugee camps along the Rwanda-DRC border organized to take power from Rwanda’s de facto president, Paul Kagame. Mobutu’s government had welcomed Hutus and, when he moved to evict large groups of ethnic Tutsis from the country — then known as Zaire — his government was overthrown by Laurent-Désiré Kabila with the aid of neighboring Uganda and Rwanda. 

Kabila initially welcomed assistance from both countries in dealing with militias but their presence ultimately became unpopular and, in 1998, he ordered the countries to remove their forces. Uganda finally did so in 2003, arguing that the continued presence of armed forces was needed to combat militants operating along the border. In 1999, the DRC filed a complaint with the U.N. high court, arguing this amounted to an invasion and that Uganda troops were killing civilians, committing acts of sexual assault, and destroying property. 

The two countries only normalized diplomatic relations two years ago but have been unable to agree upon reparations through bilateral negotiations that have been taking place in South Africa. 

Uganda will present its opening statements Thursday.

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