As a longstanding partner of Dr. Denis Mukwege – the renowned Congolese surgeon, 2018 Nobel Prize for Peace co-laureate, and Founder and Medical Director of Panzi Hospital, South Kivu of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is urgently appealing for immediate action to protect the doctor, his family members, his patients, and the vital work of the staff at Panzi Hospital.
During the past several weeks, Dr. Mukwege has been the target of an alarming intimidation campaign, online and offline. General James Kabarebe, former Minister of Defense of Rwanda and a longtime security advisor to Rwandan president Paul Kagame, denounced Dr. Mukwege on Rwandan state television. Dr. Mukwege and his family have become the targets of attacks on social media and have received death threats on his cell phone through text messages.
The intimidation efforts appear to be in response to Dr. Mukwege’s condemnation of a wave of recent killings by local armed groups in the South Kivu and Ituri provinces in the DRC, and in reaction to Dr. Mukwege’s consistent appeals for the implementation of the longstanding recommendations of a UN Mapping Report on the most serious violations of human rights in the DRC between 1993 and 2003. These include investigations and prosecutions for atrocities that took the lives of millions of people in the region and have included the mass sexual violence that caused thousands of women and girls to seek and receive treatment from Dr. Mukwege and his colleagues at Panzi Hospital.
Physicians for Human Rights considers the threats against Dr. Mukwege and his family to be serious and worrisome given his prominence in supporting human rights and justice, including reparations, across the region. This includes his first-hand knowledge of atrocities as a doctor who has treated thousands of survivors who have suffered severe injuries caused by decades of political violence in eastern DRC. His consistent calls for an end to impunity for international crimes in the Great Lakes region is no doubt of concern to many powerful actors who prefer to deny or evade accountability for the long and distressing history of crimes against humanity that have still not been reckoned with in these mineral-rich lands where pillaging, plunder, rape, and killing have left millions of people impoverished and insecure.
PHR calls on the United Nations through its peacekeeping forces MONUSCO to ensure continued protection for Dr. Mukwege and to increase security for the staff at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, DRC.
We urge the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to publicly defend its role in investigating and mapping the atrocities committed in the DRC that still have not resulted in meaningful accountability, and to support effective transitional justice processes in the DRC.
And we call on all governments to refrain from and denounce provocative messages that deny human rights violations and threaten the dignity and security of respected global human rights defenders like Dr. Mukwege.
PHR continues to support an end to impunity in the DRC for international crimes of sexual violence, pillaging, and killing, and is concerned about renewed violence in many locations of the country.
Dr. Mukwege has been PHR’s close colleague for more than a decade, and he and his staff at Panzi Hospital have partnered with PHR’s Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones since 2011. Our partnership works to help strengthen the capacity of local doctors, nurses, police, lawyers, and judges to improve evidence of sexual violence in order to support prosecutions of these crimes. Together with Panzi clinicians, we have been training and mentoring doctors and nurses at Panzi Hospital, as well as at other clinics in eastern DRC, to more effectively document and preserve court-admissible evidence and to improve medical care and treatment for survivors.
Dr. Mukwege’s work and advocacy have made him a target before. In October 2012, he was violently attacked and his family was held at gunpoint at his home in an assassination attempt. Joseph Bizimana, his trusted friend and security guard, was killed. The attack came several weeks after Dr. Mukwege denounced the country’s 16-year-long conflict and called for those responsible to be brought to justice during a speech at the United Nations.
After this attack, Dr. Mukwege and his family fled the country, but his many Congolese patients and colleagues urged him to resume his life-saving work at Panzi Hospital. He returned to the hospital in January 2013 and was celebrated by crowds of people ecstatic to have him home. During this difficult period, PHR worked in close coordination with Dr. Mukwege and other colleagues who felt at risk in DRC to mobilize a global campaign to advocate for, and protect, individuals working on the front lines helping survivors of mass atrocities and prosecuting perpetrators of these mass crimes.
Dr. Mukwege has been fearless in his efforts to increase protections for women and to advocate that all those responsible for sexual violence be brought to justice. When dozens of little girls were raped in the village of Kavumu over a three-year period beginning in 2013, PHR worked side-by-side with Dr. Mukwege and clinicians at Panzi Hospital to document the injuries of survivors and ensure that evidence was properly collected. That evidence was a critical element of a landmark ruling in 2017, in which a powerful regional lawmaker and 10 members of his militia were sent to prison for life for crimes against humanity by rape and murder.
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations.