Press Release: Illegitimate and Dangerous “Mixed Independent Investigation” at Kahuzi Biega National Park in DR Congo Threatens Lives of Witnesses to Atrocities
An investigation into the report, To Purge the Forest by Force, published by Minority Rights Group (MRG) on 06 April 2022, threatens witnesses and investigators, according to the head of an organization working in the region.
“This investigation, which represents itself as independent, is actually being conducted by the very parties alleged to have perpetrated the atrocities and human rights abuses that have been identified in the MRG report,” according to Dr. Deborah S. Rogers, President of the global network, Initiative for Equality (IfE). “As such, this investigation is both illegitimate and very dangerous, because it seeks to identify the witnesses and investigators that could be called in any trial that goes forward.”
In fact, Rogers added, people who have been identified by this “Mixed Independent Investigation” as witnesses or investigators have subsequently received death threats or warnings, and several have gone into hiding.
“This is already having a chilling effect on potential witnesses who could otherwise testify against the alleged perpetrators of the crimes,” she said.
The MRG report issued on 06 April provided documentation of the use of military-style force to drive indigenous Batwa people out of their traditional lands at Kahuzi Biega National Park in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This force included death threats, military raids on villages with heavy weaponry, burning of entire villages, shooting and killing people, burning people alive (including children), mass rape, and other crimes. These activities were documented by MRG to have taken place from 2019 through 2021, despite repeated warnings to Park officials and donors from international NGOs and civil society groups.
An earlier report, What Happens in the Park, released in January 2022 by Initiative for Equality, provided a list of all the abuses and crimes reported to have taken place in Kahuzi Biega National Park from August of 2017 through December of 2021. That report listed the deaths of 29 indigenous Batwa people, as reported by community members and NGOs on the ground, but did not provide detailed documentation.
The MRG report of 06 April, and a later follow-up report called Fortress Conservation and International Accountability for Human Rights Violations against Batwa in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, attempt to assign responsibility to several primary actors, including Park managers, the Congolese agency for the conservation of nature, the donors who continued to fund operations in the Park even after learning of the killings, and large conservation organizations and consultants who implement conservation-related activities for the donors. Those named as potentially culpable immediately put together the “Mixed Independent Investigation”. The German donor agency issued a press release announcing the formation of the “investigation” on 06 April – the same day the MRG report was released (Attachment 1. German Government Press Release).
It has since been reported that during the course of the “Mixed Independent Investigation”, many people have been asked to turn over the names of the investigators who worked on the original MRG report, and of witnesses who can testify about the atrocities that were documented. Believing that they were talking to official investigators in good faith, many people handed over names as requested. People whose names were given as witnesses or investigators then subsequently received direct death threats or were told that they are at risk of harm from certain parties collaborating in this “investigation”. Furthermore, organizations that have vouched for the veracity of the 06 April MRG report have been threatened that their legal standing as non-profit human rights organizations in DRC will be withdrawn.
“We believe that the primary aim of the ‘Mixed Independent Investigation’ is to make a legitimate investigation or court case impossible by scaring off witnesses, in order to protect those parties who have been accused of sanctions violations or serious crimes,” said Rogers.
According to Rogers, the true heroes are the indigenous Batwa community members who have stood up in the face of threats, village burnings and killings. Many such community members were quoted in the MRG report, and in a later Statement sent to Congolese government agencies on 27 April, denouncing the “Mixed Independent Investigation” (Attachment 2. Declaration des PA Buhoyi – 27 avril 2022).
“If the people facing these existential threats are willing to put their lives on the line to defend their lands, their culture, and justice, then it behooves the rest of us in the international community to stand with them,” Rogers said.
“We call for the “Mixed Independent Investigation” to be halted immediately and for steps to be taken to ensure the safety of witnesses and investigators. We also call for a genuinely independent and legally constituted investigation into the abuses exposed in the MRG report, and for its scope to include an investigation into the “Mixed Independent Investigation” itself,” she said.
See related reports and articles at the following links:
MRG Follow-up Report on International Accountability EN: https://minorityrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/MRG_Rep_PNKB2_EN.pdf
MRG youtube video (11 minutes): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsLyqBUZvDY&t=4s
IfE Commentary on Kahuzi Biega in Mongabay EN: https://news.mongabay.com/2022/01/what-went-wrong-with-conservation-at-kahuzi-biega-national-park-and-how-to-transform-it-commentary/
IfE Petition in December 2021 EN: https://www.initiativeforequality.org/petition-calling-cessation-serious-attacks-indigenous-batwa-people/
Deutsche Welle article EN: https://www.dw.com/en/congo-deadly-violence-in-a-national-park/a-61368064
CONTACT: Deborah S. Rogers, President, Initiative for Equality; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org