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Human Rights: Castañon calls for sustainability in the DRC

MONUC - April 10, 2008

Fernando Castanon

Fernando Castañon, Director of MONUC’s Human Rights Division and Representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in the DRC, reached the end of his mission on 8 April 2008. As division head since February 2005 and a UN staff member since 1989, he talked to us about his work at MONUC and his past experience with the UN.


How different is the human rights situation today compared to when you arrived in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)?

Unfortunately, the case didn't succeed in the sense that now all the perpetrators are free.

The Ituri district is now much better compared to the time when I arrived. There, the situation was complicated because of serious human rights violations and armed confrontations.

Unfortunately, in the other regions such as North and South Kivu, the situation is still similar to what I found when I arrived.

How do you define the mandate of MONUC’s human rights division?

I found the mandate a very good and appropriate one for what MONUC has to do. It comes from the Security Council and also from the agreement of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, concluded with the DRC government in 1996.

The resolutions of the Security Council are very adequate for our objectives. They provide us with the tools for the type of activities that should be conducted in order to assist in the promotion and protection of human rights in the country.

With regard to the agreement of the High Commissioner for Human Rights with the government, it gives us additional responsibilities in the area of capacity building and the strengthening of institutional and social civil society capacity to protect and promote human rights.

How do you translate the words of the mandate into action?

We have the resources that the UN has allocated to us, particularly human resources, but also logistics. We have a team of 130 staff throughout this vast country. We have 18 field offices besides the headquarters in Kinshasa. We have a good structure but, obviously, our resources are a bit limited for the immense task and the huge country we are covering, but we have adapted well.

My work as Director of the Human Rights Division is to make the most of our resources - excellent but limited resources. Then the challenge is how to do it. I can assure you that together with the Congolese people we will succeed in our effort.

The Songo Mboyo case was considered an achievement for MONUC’s Human Rights Division; can you tell us more about it?

This was a very serious case where more than a hundred women were massively raped, and many of them were raped more than once and abused by more than one man. This happened in December, 2003.

The Human Rights Division got acquainted with the case two months after it happened, when two victims and some NGO representatives approached MONUC.

Since then, our first action was to conduct a special investigation from March to April, 2004. We provided that information to state institutions, particularly to Military Justice because that involved the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC). We supported all the activities of the judicial process by the Military Justice.

In this case, not only the Human Rights Division, but also other components of MONUC, including the administration and our military colleagues who were involved in providing protection, really made an effort. MONUC spent around US$85,000 in the movement of helicopters to Songo Mboyo, where the judicial process and the hearings took place.

The population was very happy. They showed that at the end of the process. They expressed their satisfaction and happiness to all MONUC components and the military justice that conducted the process to the end.
Justice should not be delayed and impunity should be fought by all means.

We have been considering this for a while as a successful case; but at the end, and I regret to say it, it was not so successful.

In our special investigation, we identified 79 presumed perpetrators. Of these, only 12 were prosecuted. Out of the 12, only 7 were sentenced. One was acquitted in an appeal and all the rest escaped from prison.

Unfortunately, the case didn’t succeed in the sense that now all the perpetrators are free. All of them escaped from justice. And now the victims are more at risk than in the past.

Could you tell us about your career before joining MONUC?

I have been working with the United Nations since 1989. I consider myself a vocational officer of the United Nations. I started first in Geneva in the High Commission for Human Rights which was then called the UN Centre for Human Rights. From there, I went to the UN Observer Mission in Central America (ONUCA) with a particular focus on the peace process in Nicaragua, where I served most of my time as a Political Affairs Officer, before becoming the principal legal advisor of the mission.

Simultaneously, I was working for the UN Observer Mission in El Salvador (ONUSAL) for three years, working for the peace process. In 1994, I was asked to be the head of the preparatory UN mission in Guatemala (MINUGWA). Then, for almost two years I worked in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia based in The Hague as a senior legal advisor, and I was the coordinator of the installation of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

After working for a while in UNESCO in Paris on the culture of peace concept, I moved back to Guatemala as executive director of the Truth Commission there, until we concluded our work in 1999.

Subsequently, I moved to Kosovo, where I spent over three years working in the area of justice. After that, I was the chairman of the task force on the Kosovo Assembly. Later, I became the first Secretary General of the Assembly.

Then I was working for the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS) in Geneva until my arrival in DRC in early February 2005.

Raising issues from the past can interfere with the peace process; how do you deal with this?

When an arrest has been conducted, some people consider that it would endanger a peace process, but I would say that experience shows us that actions in the fight against impunity do not negatively affect peace, security and stability. On the contrary, there are actions that go in that same direction.

My experience working in the international tribunals, and in the department of justice of Kosovo, as well as my experience here in the DRC and in Central America shows that human rights actions and justice go in the same direction as peace. Sometimes it is a question of scheduling the time of action, as the relevant authorities need to decide when is the right moment to make an action, but justice should not be delayed and impunity should be fought by all means.

How do you see the future of human rights in the DRC?

I see the future of human rights here with hope, as long as the struggle for human rights goes on, and as long as we all together; the international community and the Congolese, continue to work for the cause of human rights in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
All problems have a solution. We need to find a solution; it exists but you need a will to find it.

My main concern is sustainability. Together we should all work for sustainability.

If we abandon this, if the international community’s help diminishes significantly, then I am seriously concerned about the sustainability of the achievements.

What are the most satisfying moments of your time in the DRC?

There have been many moments. If I may give one, it was at the end of the judicial process in Songo Mboyo when the perpetrators were sentenced in line with the law. It was great to see the victims expressing their satisfaction to the United Nations, and to the military justice for this peace process.

Unfortunately this satisfaction became a frustration once all the sentenced perpetrators who were in prison escaped.

Could you describe the necessary steps to make reconciliation possible in the DRC?

From my professional experience working for several international tribunals and The Truth Commission in Guatemala, you need to keep historical memory, justice needs to be done and reparation to victims needs to be provided. And then, forgiveness, obviously.

All problems have a solution. We need to find a solution; it exists but you need a will to find it.

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