The UN releases a hotly-contested report Friday on massacres in eastern Congo, including a possible genocide by Rwandan troops, which its top rights officer hopes will end a culture of impunity.
A draft of the report seen by AFP records 600 violent incidents including massacres, rapes and pillaging by various armies and rebel groups through two wars that raged in the Democratic Republic of Congo between 1993 and 2003.
Most controversial is the detailed inventory of instances where Hutu refugees were rounded up by Rwandan forces on the pretext of repatriation, before they were executed with gunfire, machetes or a hammer blow to the head.
"The systematic and widespread attacks described in this report reveal a number of damning elements that, if proven before a competent court, could be classified as crimes of genocide," said the draft report.
The Rwandan government has reacted angrily to the report, with President Paul Kagame dismissing its claims as "absurd".
Kagame himself was at the vanguard of the Rwandan force which drove the Hutu militias behind the 1994 genocide in his homeland across the border into eastern DR Congo.
The country's threat to pull its troops out of peacekeeping forces in Sudan prompted UN chief Ban Ki-moon to fly to Kigali this month to mend fences. Rwanda has since assured the UN that its peacekeepers would stay.
But speaking ahead of publication, the UN's high commissioner for human rights said the report demonstrated the world body's determination to end the violence and lawlessness which pervades the war-torn region.
"This report reflects the commitment of the United Nations and my office to assist the government of DRC in its effort to eradicate the culture of impunity which has fuelled sexual violence and other serious human rights violations," said Navi Pillay.
Beyond Rwanda, the 500-page report also accused Congolese and Burundian troops of perpetrating atrocities against civilians in the former Zaire during the 1990s, accusations that have been rejected as baseless.
Observers are hoping that the final document has not been altered amid pressure from the various governments.
"As soon as any report uses the word genocide, it's going to be controversial," said Carina Tertsakian from Human Rights Watch.
"Especially for the Rwandans because the very army that was implicated in this crime was the same army that put an end to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994," she said, adding that she hoped that the report would be faithful to the original findings.
A UN diplomat also noted that the significance of the report went beyond the question of whether or not genocide had been committed.
"What is more important is the number of victims and the acts committed, whatever their qualification," he said.
In particular, experts are hoping that the report would help break a cycle of impunity that is still helping to fuel violations today.
"What's most important is that this report becomes the beginning of an accountability process. This region has faced innumerable human rights violations, many of which have gone without any accountability for an extended period of time," said Peter Splinter from Amnesty International.
"Without the accountability, these events repeat themselves," he warned.
UN rights chief Pillay pointed out that the "overarching objective" of the report is to "enable the government of the DRC to identify appropriate transitional justice mechanisms to deal with the legacy of these violations in terms of true justice, reparations and reform."
Prosecutions could however lead to political upheavals in neighbouring countries.
But campaigners noted that this should not dissuade the international community from pushing for justice.
"Somewhere it has to stop. Somewhere there has to be an accountability process. Somebody is going to have to pay the price for them," said Splinter.
© 2010 AFP
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