Dr. Denis Mukwege sat behind a desk in a sharp suit with a red tie and his eyes framed by thick black glasses, as his image was live-streamed from eastern Congo during a human-rights meeting of the European Parliament in Brussels on Aug. 31. Dr. Mukwege spoke matter-of-factly about women who had been buried alive after being raped and impaled; about patients who had been murdered in their hospital beds or while seeking refuge in churches. These and other cases have been documented in a groundbreaking 550-page United Nations report published more than a decade ago, on which no action has been taken since.
“Nobody can say we don’t know what is happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The international community is present and has been present for decades,” he said, before launching into a call to support the establishment of a domestic war crimes court, a stance that many people think has won him enemies and may be the source of the more-recent round of death threats directed at him, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
After demonstrations were held last week in two cities in the Congo, a letter to a major newspaper from French parliamentarians and a range of statements by international human-rights organizations calling for peacekeepers to protect the Congolese medical doctor, the UN stabilization mission, known by the French acronym Monusco, finally deployed a detachment of Nepalese peacekeepers to Panzi on Sept. 9, according to sources connected to the hospital. They say, however, that it is a temporary measure to protect Dr. Mukwege and the hospital. The most recent death threats against Dr. Mukwege began at the end of July, so it took Monusco six weeks to act.
In fact, it took an intervention from numerous governments and prominent people, including Margot Wallstrom, a former Swedish foreign minister and the first UN envoy on sexual violence in conflict, to the highest levels at the UN to have peacekeepers reinstated to protect Dr. Mukwege.
Bill and Hillary Clinton have been engaged supporters of the doctor as well, and on Sept. 4, the former president tweeted: “I recently caught up with @DenisMukwege about the great work he and many others are doing to build a better future in eastern DRC, where ongoing violence still threatens innocent civilians. That must be replaced with dialogue and reconciliation to build a safe, prosperous region.”
For months, amid continuing death threats directed against Dr. Mukwege, who survived an assassination attempt in 2012, Panzi — the hospital near the eastern city of Bukavu that he founded, directs and where he and his family live — was being protected by a handful of poorly armed and overstretched Congolese police officers, according to sources close to the hospital who asked to remain anonymous.
A detachment of eight Egyptian peacekeepers, from the Monusco Formed Police Unit, was removed at the end of May, when cases of Covid-19 emerged among the troops, say multiple sources connected to the hospital. These troops were not replaced, and Monusco has been in discussions with the Panzi hospital about the deployment of such security ever since.
A source close to Monusco who spoke to PassBlue on the condition of anonymity said that 12 troops were infected with Covid-19 and the whole unit of around 25 had to be quarantined in Goma, before they were sent back to Egypt at the end of their mission. The source also said there had been cases of infections in the hospital and suggested the absence of troops at Panzi was related to the rotations of Egyptian troops and the Covid-19 outbreak, a claim that those close to the hospital and Mukwege dispute.
The source added in a phone call to PassBlue that the Nepalese would soon be replaced by incoming Egyptian peacekeepers. The person noted that 30 Congolese officers had been selected and would be trained by the mission to protect Panzi in the coming weeks.
While peacekeepers are currently protecting Panzi again, it is unclear how long they will remain and whether there will be another battle to deploy peacekeepers. The renewed death threats are believed to be connected to Dr. Mukwege’s calls to implement the recommendations of the Congo Mapping Project, initiated by the UN Office for Human Rights that was published a decade ago, documenting atrocities and human-rights abuses committed during Congo’s civil wars, spanning from 1990 to 2003. Dr. Mukwege, along with other international human-rights groups, continues to advocate for the report’s recommendation for the creation of a tribunal, or court, within Congo’s judicial system, to prosecute war crimes and atrocities.
PassBlue recently emailed Leila Zerrougui, the special representative of the UN secretary-general who also heads Monusco, asking about these claims and seeking confirmation as to whether an investigation into the threats against Dr. Mukwege was underway and whether talks about Monusco providing security again to Dr. Mukwege and Panzi were occurring.
Mathias Gillmann, a spokesperson for Monusco, responded by email.
“We do not share details about security measures taken by the Mission in any situation, for obvious reasons, but we can tell you that MONUSCO is committed to the security of Dr. Mukwege and the Panzi clinic in Eastern Congo,” wrote Gillmann. “The Mission is working closely with the authorities, including the Congolese National Police (PNC), to ensure the necessary security arrangements are in place. The personal security of Congolese personalities is a responsibility of the authorities but MONUSCO is providing all possible support within its limited means.”
Follow-up questions as to why the peacekeepers were removed and not replaced were sent to Gillmann eight days before this article was published, and have neither been acknowledged nor addressed. Monusco is one of the largest peacekeeping missions in the UN and is now operating with an annual budget of $1.075 billion and about 15,000 personnel, including 1,110 police officers. It is preparing to slowly exit the Congo over an undefined period of time. Its main role in the country is to protect civilians.
Zerrougui, an Algerian legal expert who has headed the mission since January 2018, previously served as the special representative for children in armed conflict during the tenure of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. During this time, she was one of three senior UN officials who were singled out in a 2015 independent report examining how the UN handled claims of sexual abuse of children by French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic that allegedly occurred between 2013 and 2014. Zerrougui was accused of failing to ask French authorities, Unicef and others within the UN for further information about the allegations until more than a year after the abuse became public.
The Nobel Peace Prize Committee is also alarmed about Dr. Mukwege’s precarious circumstances.
“We are very much concerned and very worried about Mr. Mukwege’s situation,” Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee and a Norwegian Supreme Court judge, wrote in an email from Oslo. “We are aware that his situation presently is very severe, and we have sources close to Dr. Mukwege who report on his situation. We support any initiative to improve the circumstances for Mukwege, so he uninterrupted can continue his important work.”
On Sept. 3, the United States-registered Panzi Foundation, headed by Dr. Mukwege, asked for redeployment of UN security on the premises, and a petition with around 30,000 signatures, mainly from France, was sent to Secretary-General António Guterres; Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights; Jean-Pierre Lacroix, under secretary-general for Peace Operations; Pramila Patten, UN special envoy for sexual violence in conflict; David Sassoli, president of the European Parliament; and Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission.
Physicians for Human Rights, a New York-based nongovernmental organization that has worked alongside Dr. Mukwege and his medical staff at Panzi Hospital to collect forensic evidence that has been used to prosecute cases of mass rape in Congo, hit out at Monusco and the UN for failing to respond.
“Physicians for Human Rights is dismayed by the inadequate, slow, and bureaucratic response to date by the United Nations in light of the serious threats against our esteemed colleague Dr. Denis Mukwege,” Susannah Sirkin, the director of International Policy and Partnerships at the organization, told PassBlue by email recently.
“Dr. Mukwege is a human rights champion, a renowned surgeon, and a tireless advocate for the end of impunity for sexual violence and other atrocities in the DRC. He must be protected from these credible threats and acts of intimidation. The UN needs to step up now by restoring the presence of a permanent and around-the-clock MONUSCO unit on-site at Panzi Hospital,” Sirkin wrote.
The organization shared a letter with PassBlue that it sent, along with Donor Direct Action, to Guterres on Aug. 14 outlining the recent threats and calling for UN protection, to which Guterres has yet to respond. Two weeks later, Bachelet condemned the threats that have been made against Dr. Mukwege by phone, text messages and on social media, and she called for an investigation into them. Bachelet’s spokesperson, Rupert Colville, called on the Congolese authorities to “provide comprehensive physical protection.”
When asked about how the investigation would be conducted, Colville told PassBlue in an email: “Ideally such an investigation should be carried out by the competent DRC authorities, with the caveat that it needs to be prompt, thorough, effective and impartial,” adding that the UN human-rights team in Bukavu would continue to monitor the situation.
In a government communiqué issued on Aug. 21, President Félix Tshisikedi of the Congo expressed his commitment to protecting Dr. Mukwege, acknowledging that he was being targeted for “his advocacy for peace in the east of the country” and proposal for “the creation of an international criminal court for DRC to judge the serious crimes committed towards the civilian population.”
Tshisikedi, in another recent government communiqué, also expressed a commitment to “transitional justice” and the “fight against impunity,” a move that Dr. Mukwege said he found optimistic during the hearing he held with the European parliament. Whether Tshisikedi, who was victorious in a highly criticized presidential election and is considered beholden to former president Joseph Kabila, will support prosecutions for human-rights abuses and atrocities committed during and after Congo’s civil wars, which ended in 2003, is unclear. In his remarks to Europe, Dr. Mukwege also cited a UN report that documents 4,000 human-rights violations and 1,300 deaths in Congo this year alone.
While the Congolese government has stated its commitment to Dr. Mukwege’s security, human-rights organizations and his supporters question whether Congo’s security forces, who have been implicated in rights abuses and whose members have come from militias, can adequately protect the doctor.
When asked about these concerns, Colville responded: “The Congolese military has indeed been frequently implicated in human rights violations — however not all of them! Indeed some parts of the military do a good job — including, for example, the military justice people in the Kivus and in Ituri who have been working hard and effectively (in concert with us and with relevant NGOs) to bring people to trial for some of the horrendous crimes that are committed on a regular basis. So it is not fair to dismiss all the DRC military and/or other authorities as incapable of providing adequate protection or justice.”
Dr. Mukwege established Panzi Hospital in 1999. Nearly two decades later, in 2018, he and Nadia Murad, a Yazidi advocate and survivor of sexual enslavement by the Islamic State, shared the Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.” PassBlue was told by a press officer at the Panzi Foundation that Dr. Mukwege would accept interview requests only if reporters were willing to speak about the 2010 Mapping Report and the “reasons behind the threats.” PassBlue’s interview requests were not answered.
In recent years, Dr. Mukwege has grown more outspoken for his support of prosecutions for rapes and other human-rights violations. Many believe that he and his staff at Panzi are targeted because of their forensic documentation of crimes committed, particularly against women, and that they could become witnesses in any future trials connected to rape. While Panzi has not been attacked, hospitals and medical facilities have been targets of violence by armed groups for years. A gynecologist and obstetrician, Gildo Byamungu, who directed a hospital connected to Panzi, in the city of Uvira, in South Kivu, was shot dead in his home in April 2017.
Dr. Mukwege’s security has been a point of contention and subject of high-level discussions within the mission for many years. When he returned to Bukavu after the attempted assassination in 2012, an Egyptian detachment was deployed but then removed and reinstated, according to a former Monusco staffer. Shortly before he won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize, the contingent was pulled out and reinstated again.
“The issue of using Monusco assets to secure Mukwege has in more recent years become a politically contentious issue even within Monusco, with SRSG Zerrougui, at least up until previous elections, not being fully convinced that there was a need to do that,” said a former official from the mission who spoke with PassBlue on the condition of anonymity. (SRSG stands for special representative of the secretary-general.)
“Protecting Mukwege should be part of the UN’s job at a time like this. In a country where various governments have done relatively little to tackle the issue of sexual violence and impunity, Mukwege is something of an institution,” the former official said. “The UN’s peacekeeping mission has a duty here to stop any such threat against a man whose loss would be a significant blow for the country’s hopes for more civil and just future.”
Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for Guterres, said during a press briefing on Sept. 8 that Monusco remained “committed to the security of Dr. Mukwege and the Panzi clinic.”
“Although a number of Covid cases among our peacekeepers have had an operational impact, we have continued to work closely with Dr. Mukwege and the Congolese authorities, as well as international partners to ensure that his security needs and those of the clinic are addressed in an effective and sustainable manner,” he said, adding “the Peacekeeping Mission is providing all possible support within its limited means.” (The UN Department of Peace Operations in New York City said that so far, there have been 77 lab-confirmed cases in Monusco, of which 4 people have died.)
Marietha Dos Santos, a former political-affairs officer for Monusco who was deployed in Bukavu for seven years, said she documented numerous cases of attacks on hospitals that were “ignored” by senior management at the mission. Dos Santos told PassBlue in a phone call that she was 100 meters away the night Dr. Mukwege was attacked in 2012. Entering a restaurant, she heard the crackle of gunfire when armed men stormed Dr. Mukwege’s home nearby, held his family hostage and killed his guard.
Since 2013, when he returned to Congo, Mukwege has lived in the hospital compound “like a prisoner,” Dos Santos said.
“They don’t want to provide security for him and it has nothing to do with resources, that is just a lame excuse,” Dos Santos said. “[I]f you are looking at how many peacekeepers there are in the Congo, what is ten or twenty people? I’m sorry, really it’s ridiculous.”
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Clair MacDougall is an independent journalist who reports throughout Africa and is now based in the Sahel region, reporting on the security and humanitarian crisis there. She holds an honor’s degree in political theory and a master’s degree from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. In February 2021, she won an award from the International Center for Journalists for her article on the first official death of a UN peacekeeper from Covid-19, published in PassBlue and The Daily Beast.