Activists from Burundi, Rwanda and DR Congo join forces

on 3 December 2008

Several abolitionist organisations from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi got together on November 17 to launch the work of their Regional Coalition Against the Death Penalty.
Some 120 participants, including lawyers, magistrates, academics, journalists and students met in Kinshasa with representatives from the region’s human rights organisations, the French embassy and French NGO Together Against the Death Penalty (ECPM).
“We have had some experience in founding and managing the World Coalition in the past six years”, said ECPM director Cécile Thimoreau. “What we do here is capacity building.” In other words, the idea is to help abolitionists from the Great Lakes region organise.
Because of the conflict at the border between Rwanda and the DRC, Rwanda’s League of Human Rights Associations Group had to send a representative of Congolese origin to Kinshasa.
“Despite our divisions, we all have something that brings us together: respect for life”, said Liévin Ngondji, founder of the NGO Culture for Peace and Justice (CPJ) in the DRC.
“In the region, we have one common idea: to abolish the death penalty”, added ACAT-Burundi president Merius Rusumo.

A book to explore the region’s situation

A book published by ECPM and launched at the meeting is the first outcome of regional cooperation. It was written in co-operation with local activists and details the death penalty situation in Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC.
Since 2005, researchers have been exploring the three countries’ courtrooms and death rows. Their work is collected in a 350-page book available from ECPM (in French).
Now that information is available, action is the next step. Regional Coalition members adopted a founding declaration and an action plan, which was immediately implemented.
They called on their “parliaments and governments to take a clear stance, as in Rwanda, to abolish the death penalty in the region” and decided to work towards three objectives.

Political “pressure” applied immediately

Firstly, they want to “apply pressure on political and judicial institutions in the DRC and in Burundi to abolish the death penalty”. On the day of the meeting, the participants invited the DRC’s minister for human rights and vice-minister for justice, who said that legislation was being prepared to abolish capital punishment in the country.
The next day, a delegation met the president of the National Assembly (photo below), who told them he and President Joseph Kabila were abolitionists. He offered to circulate a letter by the Regional Coalition highlighting the need for abolition to every Assembly member.
Fresh co-ordinated action is under way in the DRC as the country failed to support a UN resolution calling for a global moratorium on executions in a committee vote. Together, activists are now trying to get the country to vote in favour of the text at the UN General Assembly’s plenary session.
The Regional Coalition had more immediate success in Burundi, where an abolition bill had been frozen for more than one year. “The next week, the National Assembly of Burundi passed the abolition of the death penalty on November 21. It must now go through the Senate”, said Cécile Thimoreau. The news gave the region’s abolitionists a boost and confirmed their strategy.

Media attention and education

Apart from political lobbying, the Regional Coalition aims to attract media attention to the abolitionist cause through press releases and interventions on radio and television programmes.
The Regional Coalition’s action plan also includes a broader educational aspect. Member organisations will disseminate documents, including the recent book on the death penalty in the region, to university libraries across the three countries. The distribution will associate political leaders and the media at local book-launch events.
The November 17 meeting started a new dynamic. “We have been sending each other emails every day”, said Cécile Thimoreau.
Liévin Ngondji of association CPJ, which holds the executive secretariat of the Regional Coalition, benefits from the information he receives from his partners in Burundi on the abolition process there: “I use this element to show that DR Congo is the only country left to retain the death penalty in the region”, he explained.
CPJ already co-ordinates a national coalition comprising 23 organisations in the DRC. It will soon organise a general meeting to set up the Regional Coalition’s permanent structure.
Merius Rusumo, for his part, focuses on the long term. He said: “Abolishing the death penalty is not enough. Our States must train their magistrates, improve jail conditions… We must work on all this as a network.”

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