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.