Democratic Republic of the Congo

Emmanuel Umpula Nkumba: Human rights defender from the Democratic Republic of Congo

Emmanuel Umpula Nkumba highlights the systemic challenges facing human rights defenders in DRC, emphasising the struggle for corporate accountability amid governmental and legal indifference.

In the build up to the third UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, ISHR will publish a series of articles by key human rights defenders and experts in this field, before launching a special edition of its Human Rights Monitor on 1 December, in both English and Spanish. Click here to join our Spanish language mailing list.

Emmanuel Umpula Nkumba is a human rights defender from the Democratic Republic of Congo. After working with Association Contre l’Impunité pour les Droits de l’Homme (ACIDH), Emmanuel is now executive director of AFREWATCH, an NGO that works towards a sensible and sustainable use of natural resources.

‘Our main advocacy objectives are to ensure that the exploitation of those resources fully respects the norms and benefits the whole population.’

However, Emmanuel’s first area of focus was civil and political rights. ‘In 2002, new legislation was introduced, mainly the new Investment Code and the Mining Code, bringing private actors into the sector of natural resources, and since then, the problems were multiplied’ he recalls. The spectrum of issues is broad: pollution, displacement of populations, negative impacts of mine exploitation on the environment, child labour, etc. Many NGOs were created or expanded their work to the protection of human rights in the context of development projects, extractive industries and exploitation of natural resources.

The challenges for defenders working on business and human rights in DRC are of giant scope. Covering the loopholes of the legislation is, of course, a priority, but it needs to be followed by a correct process of implementation. When there is no political will to respect the law, any efforts made on the shaping of a legal framework that upholds the rights of local populations are in vain.

‘In the DRC, all the institutions habilitated to give answers to the problems that arise from the exploitation of natural resources are almost completely dysfunctional.’

This is the second – and probably the biggest – obstacle that defenders encounter. Whenever an organisation decides to take action on a given case, they know in advance that there will be no adequate response from either the judiciary or the administrative mechanisms at the national level.

‘Of course, the regional and international mechanisms can be used to tackle the shortcomings, but to my opinion, only to a certain extent’, Emmanuel states. According to him, using those mechanisms is not an easy task: they are less accessible than national institutions, too complex for local communities, and they require the deployment of a great load of resources. On top of that, international mechanisms imply a process of selection: all the cases cannot be brought before them, otherwise they would saturate. ‘They should remain means of last resort, used only when all domestic remedies are exhausted, yet they are seen as a primary remedy,’ Emmanuel laments. That is why he believes it is better to focus on the capacity-building of national institutions in order to tackle cases in a quicker, more effective and more comprehensive way. ‘Victims should have access to justice and reparation at a national level, and not be forced to come directly to the international arena,’ he adds.

‘Some UN initiatives, such as the ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework, are very promising, but their success relies on the way they are operationalised.’

The main concern of Emmanuel when it comes to international tools such as the UN frameworks and special procedures, the OECD guidelines, or all the ‘naming and shaming’ campaigns, is that they are not binding. ‘When victims decide to take action against perpetrators of human rights abuses, what they seek, mainly, is reparation for the damages they suffered,’ M. Umpula explains. The ‘voluntary’ character of the available international means holds back victims from spending their time and energy into something that does not guarantee any remedy.

Some regional mechanisms are also praiseworthy but insufficient. Emmanuel has engaged in the past with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. He believes that the concerns are very similar: it takes time to come to the final stage of the procedure, some cases remain pending up to five years, and time weakens victims. In addition, it is common that the condemned State avoids taking steps to fulfil its obligations, and victims are left without remedy.

‘Human rights defenders in DRC face obstacles in all aspects of their work, especially because neither companies nor the Government understand, or are willing to understand, their important role in the society.’

It is thus very common that members of NGOs, journalists or other actors of civil society that undertake a legitimate struggle to ensure the monitoring and respect of human rights suffer from threats, detention and other hindrances to their work. When this happens, the first reaction is to issue press releases and try to reach an international echo. Then, judicial and administrative procedures are triggered. ‘However, if in some cases we manage to put an end to the attack, there is very little hope that the perpetrator will be sanctioned’.