In April 2011 the Archbishop of York wrote: “More notice needs to be taken, I believe, of increasingly unpalatable evidence from countries like Congo… that some returnees from the UK, including those with young children, are subjected to imprisonment, torture, abuse and starvation. By the time we learn of their appalling fate, it is too late to say, ‘we got it wrong.’ A UK Home Office 2012 report also suggested that returned DRC asylum seekers risked extortion and detention, with all that entails. We haven’t taken more notice. Asylum seekers from DRC reaching Europe continue to have a low acceptance rate, with many returned, yet since 2012, things in Congo have only got worse.
This week the UK-based NGO Freedom from Torture published a report based on survivors’ testimonies, eloquently describing the nature and effects of torture, in an effort both to advocate for change and to persuade European governments, including ours, not to return rejected asylum applicants to DRC at all. The report describes torture in DRC detention as routine, both as punishment and deterrent, aiming to, as one survivor put it, ‘make the cost of civic involvement so high… that no one will dare to speak out.’ Even wearing a political T shirt was grounds for such treatment, which ‘normally’ includes repeated acts of sexual violence (irrespective of gender), beatings, electrocution, cutting, biting, asphyxiation, suspension, and being forced to watch it all being done to others too. Survivors also say those who return after seeking asylum abroad are treated as significant opponents of the regime.
Congo is approaching boiling point again as the much-delayed elections finally approach. Last month the UN Security Council declared the elections an “historic opportunity” to achieve a “democratic and peaceful transition,” but it seems increasingly unlikely that the opportunity will be taken. Few of the conditions required for such a process have been met, with voter registration questionable, voting machines undelivered and parts of the country too dangerous to visit. The outgoing president, Joseph Kabila, who inherited the presidency from his father in 2001, does not look keen to go. In recent months he has promoted at least two generals whom HRW say are deeply implicated in violent human rights abuses. The end of his mandated period in office, nearly two years ago, was marked by brutal repression of opposition, journalists and rights activists. Now journalists are again tightly restricted, whilst media outlets, texting and the internet are intermittently shut down. Armed groups in Kivu, and Northeastern and Eastern Congo are committing massacres with guns and machetes with apparent impunity. Last September nineteen UN peacekeepers were killed, and two UN security Council investigators abducted and executed. The government tends to blame Islamists, but the truth is more complex since multiple Congolese army officers are collaborating with them too.
Arthur Schopenhauer said: “All truth passes through three stages. First it is ridiculed. Second it is violently opposed. Third it is accepted as self-evident.” In the case of DRC it’s not clear why we haven’t reached the third.