Being a lawyer … in DR Congo

Mr. Sylvestre Bisimwa

Born in 1963 in Bukavu, in the eastern part of DR Congo, Sylvestre Bisimwa obtained his law degree at the University of Burundi; he has been a member of the Bukavu bar since 1995 and is a member of the Bar Council. He specialises in human rights and international criminal law.

What is the main challenge facing justice in DR Congo?

Primarily, it is the inadequate budget allocated to the justice system, which has negative effects on its functioning, and thus on the quality of services.  In effect, justice system actors are not able to meet the expectations of people seeking justice.  One example is the mass crimes committed here in the province of South Kivu; the perpetrators have been identified, the evidence is there, but the prosecutor cannot reach the places where the crimes took place due to the lack of transport. The result of this situation is impunity. Another challenge relates to the distances and the remote location of some areas ; certain places are only reachable by airplane.

It sounds as if the torturers are making the law…

Let me say it in this way: the efforts undertaken by the Congolese authorities and supported by the international community are reducing the level of impunity, but the Congolese government must absolutely be more engaged and ensure that its declarations of intent are translated into action. The obstacles blocking the adoption of important legislation, such as the law to implement the Rome Statute (founding act of the International Criminal Court) must be removed.  Crimes against humanity and war crimes committed before the adoption of the Rome Statute in 2002 could be tried before a specialised court, but in that case as well, the adoption of the legislation to create such a court is still blocked.

In many countries, poverty goes hand in hand with limited access to justice….

True. The poorest often have no knowledge of their rights. There are also financial hurdles. To file a court case in DR Congo, one has to pay about 20 US dollars, which is too much for someone in need.  However, whether the case is one of a farmer dispossessed of his field or a worker wrongfully dismissed by his employer, to enforce one’s rights allows a person to avoid poverty. In the area of international criminal justice, the fight against poverty can also be advanced by a court decision that restores stolen property to its rightful owners.

Have you ever been threatened as a human rights defender?

Yes, in 2005 and 2006. As coordinator of the “Radhoski” network of human rights organisations in South Kivu, I received threats from the rebel authorities. The office of the network was illegally searched and some of my colleagues were arrested and tortured. Today, I have no particular concerns in relation to my protection, but that is far from true for many of my colleagues who still suffer from threats. My experience has taught me that respect for the codes of conduct, including the rights of the accused, helps to reduce the risk of threats and other problems related to security.

As a member of the pool of ASF lawyers in Eastern Congo, you receive specific training organised by ASF. How have these trainings been useful to you? 

These trainings have helped to strengthen our knowledge in the area of international criminal law, on the Rome Statute and on the protection of victims and witnesses, for example. They have also enhanced our professional skills in relation to questioning of witnesses and pleadings.

What motivates you to practice the profession of lawyer?

In all societies, there is a need for people who devote themselves to fighting for human rights, because it is always possible to change the situation. To obtain the release of a person who has been unfairly arrested or the conviction of a torturer is a source of satisfaction.

For seven years I have been assisting victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity. I have found that the most important thing for these people is that a court of law recognises the damage that they have suffered and that the guilty party be convicted. Only after that comes the question of damages and redress.

For me, to be a lawyer is to be at the service of all people whose rights have been violated, and who are thirsty for justice but do not have the resources to have access to it (especially to pay the fees of lawyers).  It is to confront the perpetrators who have power and money. I know that I am not the only one engaged in this fight; there are other organisations such as ASF.

June 2013

Maître Sylvestre Bisimwa

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