GOMA, January 31, 2017 — Potential political interference, poor evidence gathering and difficulty accessing remote areas are some of the main challenges to prosecuting economic and environmental crimes related to armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Overcoming these challenges was the focus of a two-day workshop for judges and prosecutors in Goma and Bukavu, organized by the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), in collaboration with the United States Institute for Peace (USIP).
The workshops, which took place from January 23-27, explored ways to strengthen the Congolese judicial system and its ability to investigate and prosecute cases of economic and environmental crimes related to conflict, adopting a prudent approach in a context where there is very limited political will to prosecute such crimes. The workshop’s aim was to refine and advance recommendations adopted at a symposium on the same topic held in Kinshasa in 2016, which was also organized by USIP.
The focus was on tackling the exploitation of natural resources, particularly when used to fund armed groups and conflict in the country. Given the complexity of the crimes, an in-depth understanding of the current dynamics surrounding the illegal exploitation of minerals, fauna and flora by armed actors and criminal networks in Eastern DRC is needed, in order to try to dismantle the criminal networks that continue to let them happen.
During the workshop, these dynamics, of organized criminal enterprises enabling the illegal exploitation of natural resources by non-state armed groups national forces and other agents, were described in detail by experts in the field and discussed by participants in working groups.
The event brought together prosecutorial and judicial authorities from the High Council of the Magistrates, the High Military Court, the Military and Civilian Attorney-General’s Office, and the military and civilian courts and prosecutor’s office from Eastern DRC. Representatives of the Ministries of Defense and Justice as well as provincial authorities also took part in discussions, along with representatives from local non-governmental groups.
Although violations of economic and environmental laws related to armed conflict are well known and documented in the DRC, such crimes are rarely prosecuted. Ending armed conflict in the DRC requires removing the sources and incentives fueling them.
“When we examined the judicial aspects of ending these crimes, we found that the low number of prosecutions of economic and environmental violations in the country was due to limited knowledge of the legal framework condemning these crimes as well as a lack of strategy and prioritization in selecting cases,” said Myriam Raymond-Jetté, ICTJ’s Head of Office in DRC.
“Having a targeted approach is essential to ensuring an effective response, especially when resources are limited, as they are in the DRC.”
Participants also examined the applicable national laws and the importance of developing a prosecutorial strategy to specifically tackle these crimes when committed by members of the DRC’s Armed Forces, armed groups and broader criminal networks.
“We are hopeful that these workshops, as well as upcoming initiatives, will lead to an effective deterrence policy and implementation of laws related to economic and environmental crimes in the DRC, and in North Kivu and South Kivu in particular," stated Steve Hege, Senior Program Officer, Rule of Law, Justice and Security, USIP.
As a result of the workshops, magistrates, in consultation with local civil society groups, came up with a set of criteria for prioritizing cases that are specific to the nature of economic and environmental crimes. These criteria include: coverage of the different types of economic and environmental crimes being committed; emblematic cases of violations being regularly committed; and the impact of economic and environmental crimes on affected communities.
Going forward, magistrates will identify priority cases based on these criteria, in closed sessions.
Progressively building experience and capacities needed to investigate conflict-related economic and environmental crimes, participants were hopeful that such an approach would help to open a window of political opportunity to prosecute these crimes.