Supporting California's Call to go "Conflict-Free"

Last year, President Obama signed into law the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.  Buried within the Act is a provision that addresses an ongoing activity at the intersection of business and human rights: the mining of minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Section 1502, or the Conflict Minerals provision, essentially requires publicly traded companies to submit annual reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission disclosing whether their products contain minerals from Congo or adjacent countries. If so, these companies must explain the actions taken to trace the origin of the minerals and whether they come from mines that help fund armed conflict.  While the Commission is still working out the rules pertaining to how exactly this gets done, the provision itself has received strong support.

Here’s why such disclosure and due diligence are necessary: armed groups perpetrating the violence finance themselves through trade in four main minerals – tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold.  These minerals are turned into metals that are then sold on to be used in the very mobile phones and laptops you are using now.  If we as consumers knew which products contained the minerals from these mines, we could use our purchasing power as a force for change.


Mass Rapes in Congo Must Be Stopped

Today the BBC reported that a Congolese army commander led an attack that saw up to 50 women raped over the new year in Fizi, Democratic Republic of the Congo.  This devastating report comes on the heels of another account of mass rape in the DRC last summer.  The need to end impunity in the Congo has never been more urgent.

The Fizi events are another telling example of the consequences of the virtual impunity the Congolese forces benefit from. The failure to hold the Congolese army to account when they fail to carry out their protection role or commit crimes themselves in turn encourages further violations.

Amnesty International welcomes the initial commitment shown by the Congolese authorities to ensure that those responsible for these recent violations are held to account – notably the arrest of 12 officers of the 43rd sector of Amani Leo and initial investigations by the Military Prosecutor of South Kivu. Such steps must however be taken forward – more often than not investigations in the DRC are never brought to a conclusion. A recent example of this is the investigation into the mass rapes that occurred in Walikale, North Kivu, in August 2010 which have now stalled.

The Congolese authorities must ensure that those responsible for these violations are held to account- through thorough investigations and free and fair trials. No one, regardless of their status, should be above the law.

Join us in calling for justice for survivors of sexual violence in the DRC.

Standing Up for Women in the DRC

This post is part of our Write for Rights Series

Yesterday, the UN Group of Experts on the DRC just released their newest report. In it, they describe how army units have been accused by local populations of “looting and burning entire villages and torturing and raping civilians in the course of their operations.” 
The recent mass rapes in the territory of Walikale this past August were a sharp reminder that this type of violence happens on a frighteningly regular basis in the DRC and at an equally frightening scale: at least 15,000 rapes were reported in the DRC last year – a figure which is likely to be much higher, as most survivors are too afraid of stigmatization and thus do not report the crimes.

What these rapes tell us is that both the DRC government and the United Nations have failed to protect civilians and to respond effectively to these crimes. Until we take the right action to ensure these crimes are effectively stopped, countless women will continue to be at risk of such violence.

This year, we’re highlighting the issue of sexual and gender-based violence in the DRC during our annual Global Write-a-thon. Starting tomorrow, the United Nations is rotating into the Presidency of the UN Security Council. So we’re asking Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to use that opportunity to ensure that measures aimed at ending widespread sexual violence in the DRC are implemented.

Here’s what you can do to make a difference:

1. Participate in a local write-a-thon event
2. Send an email to Secretary Clinton today
3. Tweet to Stop Violence Against Women

Victims Testify to End Sexual Violence in the Congo

(c) Amnesty International

Unimaginable and unacceptable.” These are the words Margot Wallstrom, the U.N. special envoy for sexual violence and conflict, recently told the U.N. Security Council after finding out that Congolese government soldiers may have been the perpetrators of murder and rape against at least 200 women, in Luvungi, Congo.  And all the while, U.N. peace keepers were stationed 20 miles away.

After the mass rape, the United Nations released a report on the incident detailing the failures of the peacekeeping mission in not acting on reports of increased treatments of rape in a nearby hospital.

Victims are now testifying in front of a U.N. panel, but moving forward, the key to ending mass violence against women in the Congo is ending impunity for the offenders.

The international community and specifically the United States must play a lead role in demanding an end to impunity for the horrific sexual violence that reoccurs in Congo.  We are calling for an urgent investigation of government soldiers who failed to protect civilians or perpetrated crimes themselves.  In addition, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo must implement a plan to better protect Congolese civilians and ensure that an atrocity like this never happens again.

I will not be safe until all Congolese women are safe

We wanted to share with you this beautiful letter women’s rights advocate from the Democratic Republic of Congo Justine Masika Bihamba sent out to Amnesty members yesterday during our annual pledge drive.  We hope you are as inspired by her words as we are.

Justine Masika Bihamba visits Amnesty USA headquarters in September 2010.

Amnesty International refuses to forget me.

In 2007, armed soldiers broke into my house in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), held my children hostage and assaulted two of them. They did this not to rob my family, but to punish me for providing services to women who are sexually assaulted.

Despite my having identified the attackers to the police, no action has been taken against them.  I continue to face threats because I refuse to stop fighting for women’s rights.

Amnesty International members have sent thousands of letters to the president of the DRC urging him to investigate the attack on my family, including the sexual assault of my daughter.  Members have also sent me numerous letters of solidarity, inspiring me to continue my work to eradicate sexual violence.

Join Amnesty International today to ensure their work in all areas of the world continues. If you donate by September 30th, a generous donor will match your gift, dollar-for-dollar.

Congolese women who defend human rights have paid a heavy price for their actions. Many have been murdered, arrested, intimidated, threatened, tortured or disappeared. Others have been forced from their homes, their cities and their country to save their lives. Family members have also been harassed, intimidated and held against their will.

I will not be safe until all Congolese women are safe. Amnesty International understands that building international solidarity for women’s rights is essential to bring change to the DRC.

Amnesty is a driving force behind the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA), which aims to revolutionize the way U.S. foreign policy confronts abuses like domestic violence, rape, honor killings and human trafficking worldwide. If passed, IVAWA will support measures to prevent violence and bring perpetrators to justice. It could help people like me assist survivors around the world.

It is Amnesty International’s commitment to fighting human rights violations everywhere that inspires me to pass on the candle to you.

Stand with me in support of Amnesty.


Justine Masika Bihamba

Conflict Minerals Legislation Becomes Law

We were already ecstatic when both the House and the Senate voted in favor of a Wall Street Reform bill that included strong provisions requiring companies that use minerals from Congo to be more transparent. But now that President Obama has signed that bill into law, we can really celebrate. Companies that use minerals from the Congo in their products – like our blackberries, computers, digital cameras… – will now be forced to disclose to the Securities and Exchange Commission the steps they’re taking to ensure they aren’t using minerals from the Congo that fuel human rights abuses.

While this is by no means a fix to all of Congo’s problems, it is a crucial first step in breaking the link between the minerals trade and the human rights violations it fuels. In the coming months, we will be closely monitoring how that legislation is being implemented, to ensure that it doesn’t get forgotten amongst the many other regulations and rules that will come out of the Wall Street Reform bill.

Between today’s vote in the House in favor of the Tribal Law and Order Act, front-page news coverage of Congo in the Washington Post and the signing into law of the conflict minerals legislation by President Obama, this is a great day for human rights.

Many thanks to all of you who took action. Congress supported this legislation because of you – because you let them know that you care about the people of Congo.

BREAKING: Leading Human Rights Activist Found Dead in Congo

Mr Floribert Chebeya, was Executive Director of the Kinshasa-based organisation: "La Voix des Sans Voix" VSV (Voice of the Voiceless).

We are stunned and appalled by the suspicious death of a prominent and respected human rights defender today in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Floribert Chebeya Bahizire was found dead early Wednesday morning after being summoned by the police in Kinshasa on Tuesday.

Chebeya has been arrested and harassed by the authorities in the past but it seems he may have paid the ultimate price for his valuable work.   He was the executive director of one of Congo’s largest human rights organizations, Voix des Sans Voix (VSV), and of the national network of human rights groups.

The Congolese government must immediately launch a thorough, impartial and independent investigation into the death of one of the country’s leading human rights activists.

Chebeya told Amnesty International on several occasions that he felt he had been followed and that he was under surveillance by the security services.

On the morning of June 1 Chebeya received a telephone call requesting his presence at the office of General John Numbi, the General Inspectorate of Police in Ligwala, Kinshasa. He left his offices at 5pm to go to the Inspectorate.

Chebeya was in phone contact with his family until just after 9pm on Tuesday night. Just before 8pm he sent a text message to relatives saying he had not yet met with Numbi but was still waiting at the Inspectorate.

His last message said he was leaving the Inspectorate and stopping briefly at the University on the way home. Since then his phone has been unreachable.

His body was found by passersby early on Wednesday in a suburb close to his home.

“The government must urgently investigate this cold blooded murder and prosecute those responsible,” said Veronique Aubert, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Africa Program. “Those who defend the rights of others must be allowed to continue their work free of harassment and persecution.”

Amnesty International has observed in the past year increased oppression of human rights defenders in the Democratic Republic of Congo, including by illegal arrest, prosecution, phone threats, repeated summoning to the offices of the intelligence services.

“Floribert’s death is a great loss for the human rights community,” said Aubert.

Fight Poverty by Protecting Human Rights

(Originally published on the Boston Globe)

On the evening of Sept. 18, 2007, six men broke into the home of Justine Masika Bihamba in Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Bihamba wasn’t home, but six of her children, ages 5 to 24, were. The men, reportedly government soldiers, tied up the children at gunpoint and abused two daughters in their 20s, sexually assaulting one with a knife. Bihamba and her children identified the attackers to military police but authorities refused to arrest the suspects, saying there was no evidence against them. They remain free today.

The men targeted Bihamba’s children because of her work coordinating medical and psychological care for women and girls who have been sexually assaulted. In the violent conflict that has raged in Congo for a decade, rape is a weapon of war.

The conflict has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and forced more than a million to flee; it is the latest in Congo’s long and bloody history. During the colonial period, ivory and rubber were the prizes for which Europeans sacrificed African lives. Today, the fighting is fueled by the country’s vast mineral resources – diamonds, gold and coltan, which is used in all mobile phones and laptops. Armed groups control mines and export minerals illegally, using the cash to buy arms.

The mineral wealth is of little benefit to the impoverished Congolese population.

More than 1,000 people die daily from preventable diseases such as cholera and dysentery. Most are children. These preventable deaths are human rights abuses in violation of international treaties on the right to health and the rights of the child. Until corporations that benefit from the mineral trade, together with the Congolese government and the international community, are persuaded to end the abuses, cases like Bihamba’s will keep recurring.

Amnesty International campaigns to ensure that human rights defenders like her can carry out their vital work in safety. But to stop the carnage in Congo, we recognize that we must also fight poverty – what Mahatma Gandhi called “the worst form of violence.”

People are accustomed to thinking of human rights violations as abuses committed by repressive regimes – torture, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, enforced “disappearances,” political assassination, and the like.

But the international human rights framework is much broader. Sixty years ago, following the brutality of World War II when the Nazis denied Jews, Roma, gays, and others their very right to exist, the response of the international community was unequivocal – human rights had to be based on the principle of inclusion. That is, everyone is entitled to the same set of rights by virtue of being human. These include the right to freedom from torture and arbitrary imprisonment, and no less importantly, the right to adequate food and shelter, basic healthcare, education and employment. In short, the right to live a life of dignity.

People living in poverty are trapped, much like political prisoners.

Now, as the global economic crisis threatens to push an estimated 53 million more people into poverty this year, Amnesty International is launching the most ambitious campaign of its nearly 50-year history.

Just as we have fought effectively to protect civil and political rights on behalf of tens of thousands of political prisoners, we intend to mobilize our volunteers and supporters to hold governments, corporations, armed groups, and others accountable for the human rights abuses that drive millions around the world into poverty.

Governments have reneged on human rights obligations in the belief that economic growth alone would lift all boats. But now the tide is receding. Virtually none of the growth of the last two decades benefited poor and marginalized communities; instead, the gap between rich and poor only deepened in many parts of the world.

All human rights are interlinked, as the Congo demonstrates. If development was based on the fulfillment of basic human rights instead of skewed toward enriching a few at the expense of many, we might not be witnessing the violent upheaval of Congo and elsewhere.

Without an approach to poverty and development that puts human rights first, there will be many more stories like that of Justine Masika Bihamba.

Congolese Women Fight Sexual Violence

In a powerful new video Oxfam America shows the fight of Congolese women against sexual violence (thanks to for bringing this to the attention of a wider audience). It features the courageous story of Justine Masika Bihamba, a women’s human rights defender for who we are actively campaigning for. Justine is coordinator for Synergy of Women for Victims of Sexual Violence (Synergie des femmes contre les violence sexuelles), an organization that helps survivors of sexual violence. In the context of the Democratic Republic of Congo, her story is truly impressive, to say the least.

DRC: 40,000 Signatures for Obama

When I came to work one day this week, I found two thick packages at my desk: They were filled with signed petitions on ending sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was really impressed by how much activists continue to speak out about human rights violations in the Eastern DRC, even when the issue has once again disappeared from the headlines of major media outlets.

The petition was initiated by Raise Hope for Congo and AIUSA signed on to it last fall. Among other things, it asks President Obama to urge Congress to pass the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA) when it is reintroduced later this year. In total, 40,000 people signed the petition, including 9,000 AIUSA members! The Raise Hope for Congo campaign delivered the signatures to President Obama this week, asking him to make an announcement on International Women’s Day on March 8. We’ll definitely look out for that!

Here are some of the things I-VAWA would do in cases such as the crisis in eastern Congo:

  • Increase legal and judicial protection to address violence against women and girls;
  • Increase health sector capacity to address violence against women and girls;
  • Change social norms to end violence against women and girls;
  • Increase U.S. training of overseas foreign security forces on violence against women and girls.

If the International Violence Against Women Act is adopted, the current situation in eastern Congo could be drastically changed by directing U.S. foreign aid towards programs that prevent and respond to violence.

The situation in eastern DRC remains extremely volatile. The recent arrest of CNDP leader Lauren Nkunda is a step in the right direction, but it’s too early to lean back and relax. I have no doubt activists around the country will agree with me and keep up the great work.