Freedom in the World
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Congo, Republic of (Brazzaville)
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Following years of intermittent civil war, the Republic of Congo saw improvements in human rights and political stability in 2004 with the consolidation of a 2003 peace deal between the government and the Ninja rebel group in the northeastern Pool region. However, reports persisted of occasional abuses by both sides. More than 20 opposition political parties formed a new alliance to pressure the government to institute reforms before the next round of legislative and presidential polls.
A decade after Congo's independence from France, a 1970 coup established a Marxist state in the country. In 1979, General Denis Sassou-Nguesso seized power and maintained one-party rule as head of the Congolese Workers' Party. Domestic and international pressure forced his acceptance of a national conference leading to open, multiparty elections in 1992. Pascal Lissouba won a clear victory over former prime minister Bernard Kolelas in a second-round presidential runoff that excluded Sassou-Nguesso, who had run third in the first round.
Disputes over the 1993 legislative polls led to armed conflict. The fighting subsided but flared once again among ethnic-based militias in 1997. Sassou-Nguesso, who has had military support from Angola and political backing from France, built a private army in his native northern Congo and forcibly retook the presidency in October 1997. Peace agreements signed in late 1999 included an amnesty for combatants who voluntarily disarmed. A new constitution was adopted by referendum in January 2002, providing for a multiparty system and establishing wide-ranging powers for the president, who would be directly elected for a seven-year term.
The March 2002 presidential poll was marred by irregularities, and there was no independent electoral commission, but international observers hailed the peaceful nature of the vote. Sassou-Nguesso was virtually assured a victory when his main challenger, former prime minister Andre Milongo, dropped out of the race just before the election, claiming irregularities. Sassou-Nguesso won the election with 89 percent of the vote. Elections for the 137-member National Assembly in May and June were dominated by Sassou-Nguesso's Congolese Workers' Party and other parties affiliated with it.
In August 2004, the political opposition, including supporters of Kolelas, formed a new party, the Coordination de l'Opposition pour une Alternance Democratique. They pledged to boycott government initiatives until Sassou-Nguesso took steps to ensure that parliamentary elections set for 2007 and presidential polls scheduled for 2009 are free and fair, including reviewing Congo's electoral code and creating a genuinely independent electoral commission.
Since the signing of a ceasefire agreement with Ninja militias in early 2003, peace has gradually returned to the northeast Pool region. Train service to the capital resumed after a six-year hiatus, and most of those internally displaced by the fighting returned to their villages. The government is working with international donors to rebuild the Pool region's shattered infrastructure. However, unidentified armed elements remained active, restricting citizens' freedom of movement, and there were reports that government security forces killed civilians in the region.
A major stumbling block to improved relations with the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was lifted with an agreement to repatriate 4,000 former combatants of the now disbanded Zairean Armed Forces. The former fighters' presence in Congo had fueled tensions, particularly following attacks against targets in the DRC that were apparently launched from Brazzaville. Former fighters living in the DRC, who had served under ousted Congolese president Pascal Lissouba, are also covered by the agreement.
In July 2004, Congo was suspended from the Kimberly Process, a global diamond certification initiative seeking to end the trade in so-called blood, or conflict, diamonds - which are used by rebel movements to finance wars against legitimate governments - when Congo was unable to account for large discrepancies in the number of diamonds it exports and the number it actually produces. The disparities raised concerns that Congo was a transshipment point for illicit diamonds from the DRC and other neighboring countries. The government said that it would institute new oversight measures and temporarily halted all diamond exports.
Although Congo is the fifth-largest producer of oil in sub-Saharan Africa, poverty remains widespread, affecting some 70 percent of the population. After several years of shrinking oil revenues, which account for 95 percent of Congo's export earnings, the economy is expected to rebound as new oil fields come on-line. The government has proceeded with privatization plans under the direction of the IMF and complied with requirements that it disclose government audits of oil revenues and other transparency measures.
Since the outbreak of civil war in 1997, Congolese have been only partly able to exercise their constitutional right to change their leaders through democratic elections. Competitive multiparty elections were held for the first time in 1992 and 1993. Presidential and legislative elections held in 2002 were not deemed fair, in part because of irregularities and the absence of an independent electoral commission.
The Republic of Congo was ranked 114 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index. There were media reports of government bribery and corruption, particularly regarding oil revenues.
The government generally respects press freedom, but continues to monopolize the broadcast media. In 2000, the government abolished censorship and sharply reduced penalties for defamation. About 10 private newspapers appear weekly in Brazzaville, and they often publish articles and editorials that are critical of the government. There are approximately 10 domestic Internet service providers and no government restrictions on Internet use.
Religious freedom is guaranteed and respected. Academic freedom is restricted, and university professors often exercise self-censorship to conform to the views of the government. However, there were no reports of students or professors being overtly censored.
Freedom of assembly and association is constitutionally guaranteed, and this right is generally respected in practice, although public demonstrations are rare. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) generally operate freely. Workers' rights to join trade unions and to strike are legally protected, and collective bargaining is practiced freely. Most workers in the formal business sector are union members, and unions have made efforts to organize informal sectors, such as those of agriculture and retail trade.
The judiciary is subject to corruption and political influence. The court system was generally considered to be politically independent until the civil war, although the judiciary was ranked fourth in a 2004 government survey of the most corrupt public bodies. Scarce resources and understaffing have created a backlog of court cases and long periods of pretrial detention. In rural areas, traditional courts retain broad jurisdiction, especially in civil matters. Prison conditions are life threatening, with reports of beatings, overcrowding, and other ill treatment. Women and men, as well as juveniles and adults, are incarcerated together. Human rights groups and the International Committee of the Red Cross have been allowed access.
In April 2004, Congo's chief of police, Jean-Francois Ndengue, was arrested during a trip to France in connection with the disappearance of 353 Congolese refugees who had returned from exile in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 1999. Ndengue was released shortly afterward when a French court ruled that he had diplomatic immunity. The detention stemmed from a lawsuit filed in France by human rights groups and survivors against Ndengue, President Denis Sassou-Nguesso, and other high-ranking government officials for alleged crimes of torture, forced disappearance, and crimes against humanity. The Congolese government contends that France does not have jurisdiction over incidents occurring in Congo and has sued France in the Hague-based International Court of Justice to suspend the prosecutions. The Congolese government is currently conducting its own parallel hearings into the disappearances before a tribunal in Brazzaville, although relatives of the missing have denounced the legal proceedings as biased.
In accordance with the country's new constitution, a human rights commission consisting of members from civil society organizations, professional associations, and public institutions was formed in August 2003. While its establishment has been hailed by local rights groups as a positive development, the commission's powers are limited. Members are named by presidential decree and have no authority to summon accused parties. The president also appointed the members of a social and economic council and freedom-of-speech council, completing the range of constitutionally required bodies. In September 2003, the government ratified the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, although local human rights groups say police abuse of detainees remains a serious problem. Human rights violations against the civilian population abated with the 2003 ceasefire between the government and Ninja militias.
Ethnic discrimination persists. Pygmy groups suffer discrimination, and many are effectively held in lifetime servitude through customary ties to Bantu "patrons." According to local human rights groups, rape of Pygmy women by Bantu men is widespread. Members of virtually all ethnic groups practice discrimination in hiring practices.
Legal and societal discrimination against women is extensive, despite constitutional protection. Access to education and employment opportunities, especially in the countryside, are limited, and civil codes regarding family and marriage formalize women's inferior status. Violence against women is reportedly widespread. After declining in 2000 and 2001, incidents of rape increased in 2002 with the renewed outbreak of hostilities. NGOs have drawn attention to the issue and provided counseling and assistance to victims.