UN High Court Wraps Hearings Over Congo Demand for Reparations

Congo is asking for $11.4 billion in reparations for human rights violations committed by the Ugandan military between 1998 and 2003.

The courtroom of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, is seen on April 20, the first day of hearings in a dispute between Congo and Uganda. (UN Photo/ICJ-CIJ/Frank van Beek)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — The International Court of Justice on Friday wrapped up two weeks of hearings over damages sought by the Democratic Republic of Congo from neighboring Uganda for human rights violations committed by the Ugandan military.

In 2005, the United Nations’ highest judicial body found Uganda had breached international law by providing financial and logistical support to armed groups operating in Congo but the two Central African countries have failed to reach an agreement over how much Uganda should pay in reparations. Congo wants $11.4 billion.

“My country asks nothing more but nothing less but the application of those rules which are the best established by international law,” Paul-Crispin Kakhozi Bin-Bulongo, Congo’s ambassador to the European Union and agent in the case, said in his closing statements on Wednesday.

Hearings started last week at The Hague-based ICJ. Congo wants compensation for civilian deaths and injuries, destruction of natural resources, and property damage along the border between the two countries between 1998 and 2003. Beyond killing civilians and destroying their homes, Congo argues Uganda also stripped the border region of natural resources, including gold, diamonds, tantalum, tin and tungsten.

“Uganda acknowledges that damage was done to the DRC,” Sean Murphy, professor of international law at George Washington University, said on Friday as part of Uganda’s closing remarks.

Uganda disputes Congo’s claims as to the extent of the damage caused by the Ugandan military.

“The word ‘conflict’ does not begin to describe the reality of what happened between 1998 and 2003 in the Great Lakes region of Africa. In fact, there were many different conflicts involving the armies of at least nine other states –  Angola, Burundi, Chad, the DRC, Libya, Namibia, Rwanda, Sudan and Zimbabwe – and at least 21 major irregular armed forces taking place at the same time,” William Byaruhanga, Uganda’s attorney general and agent in the case, told the court. 

Uganda accuses Congo of refusing to provide proof of its claims of damages, such as death certificates or photographs of damaged property, and called the amount requested “ruinous” and “inflated.”

“At the end of the day, Congo is essentially proposing that it simply be given a large sum of money for harms to unnamed persons and unspecified property,” Murphy said. 

Congo however, contends that it cannot be expected to provide detailed documentation from a remote war zone.

“It is ridiculous, it is disrespectful and it is offensive,” Philippe Sands of Matrix Chambers told the court on behalf of Congo.

Uganda argued that the International Criminal Court, the world’s only permanent court for atrocity crimes, requires such documentation for proof of crimes. That court has convicted two Congolese men for war crimes and crimes against humanity in related conflicts, ordering one to pay $10 million in reparations and another to pay $30 million. Congo pushed back against this argument, pointing out that the ICC only prosecutes individuals, not states as the ICJ does, so the standards of evidence are different.

Both sides also had the opportunity to question four court-appointed experts tasked with assessing what amount of damages is appropriate. Uganda objected to the appointment of any experts, arguing that making that assessment was the role of the judges, not third parties. 

With help from Uganda and Rwanda, Laurent-Désiré Kabila took control of Congo in 1997, toppling the former president in a coup. During the 1994 Rwanda genocide, displaced ethnic Hutus in refugee camps along the Rwanda-Congo border organized into militias and Kabila initially welcomed continued Ugandan assistance in dealing with these armed groups. 

Ugandan forces, however, were accused of killing civilians, committing sexual assault and destroying property, and Kabila ordered them to leave. Uganda refused, claiming the continued presence of its armed forces was needed to combat militants operating along the border. In 1999, Congo filed a complaint with the U.N. high court, arguing Uganda’s actions amounted to an invasion. Ugandan forces finally left in 2003 and the two countries only normalized diplomatic relations two years ago.

The ICJ is expected to rule later this year. 

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