DRC: Interviews With Key Actors on Public Policies for the Protection of HRDs in Africa. Olivier Ndoole

Olivier Ndoole is a human rights defender, but also a defender of defenders. He specializes in environmental and land rights. In 2008, he co-founded Alerte Congolaise pour l’Environnement et les Droits de l’Homme, an advocacy organization alerting to abuses linked to environmental law, illegal trafficking in animals and natural resources, and land rights. He is a member of the Green Lawyers, a group of lawyers working to protect Virunga Park and its inhabitants.

Megan Thomas. December 2023

What are your main activities at the moment as a human rights defender?

In fact, I’m not just a human rights defender but also a lawyer. I work in the field of the environment, especially on climate justice and land rights. As a lawyer, I assist rural defenders to court to defend the land rights of local communities. I also assist environmental defenders.

There are many environmental defenders in the east of the DRC and they face a number of difficulties, not only with armed groups but also with governments, with the issue of oil exploitation and with multinational companies that threaten and arrest defenders in collusion with certain authorities.

I am also working on the issue of land reform and the implementation of a national energy policy in the DRC. In 2008, we set up Alerte Congolaise pour l’Environnement et les Droits de l’Homme (ACEDH), which specialises in the fight against wildlife trafficking around the town and the Virunga town and region. Through the Avocats Verts (green lawyers), we provide legal support to protect the Virunga park, but we also work to provide legal and judicial support for defenders of land rights and the environment.

That’s why we were monitoring the process around the national law for the protection of HRDs and were the first organisation to take action on certain articles when it was proposed. When the law came out, although some international organisations welcomed it, we were the first to raise a voice of dissent against it.

What action have you taken to date regarding the limitations of this law?

First of all, we gave a position paper on the bill that we sent to the Senate and the Assembly. We criticised certain articles that were contrary to the protection of environmental and land rights defenders. So we sent this position paper to the national level, to the stakeholders and to the provinces. We also lobbied, held meetings, for example, with the Dutch embassy.

Before the law was promulgated, there were organisations who offered us their support, because they realised that, out of all the environmental campaigners, we were the only organisation that had spoken up about this law and was asking for our views – as we are not involved in any of the working groups – to be taken into account by the working groups developing the law. They shared a note with us with which they wanted to call upon parliament to analyse the situation. It was a draft in which we included our elements, but then they were informed that the law had already been promulgated. They stopped the note they had shared with us and it was just three days later that we saw the law promulgated and published in the official gazette.

After that, organisations welcomed the initiative. There was a workshop in Kinshasa with international organisations which congratulated and thanked the authorities. We gave a counter voice in Goma to say that the results that have just come out of this law were not the results envisaged by the defenders. It’s true that I’ve had discussions with some of these organisations to tell them about these concerns.

We also had a meeting at the level of the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office in Goma. This was two days after the law was passed. There were defenders who said that we already had a ‘bible’, a law, and that we should make it our own. I told them that we didn’t yet have the law we wanted. I cited the articles that are very dangerous in relation to that law, in particular Article 2, Article 3. Articles 7 and 11 combined with Articles 26, 27 and 28, empty the very essence of a law for the protection and promotion of the rights and freedoms of defenders.

What are the main dangers of this law for defenders?

We risk to be prosecuted for breaching the duties set out in it. The so-called duties of the law are more like conditions for carrying out the activities of human rights defenders.  If they were duties, they should include duties towards the local communities for which we work. However, they have only stipulated that defenders must register, obtain a national identification card and submit an annual report to the Ministry of Justice at national level and to the national human rights commission.

Many of the farmers who risk their lives to defend the land rights of local communities at grassroots level have not studied and do not know how to file reports. As a result of this law, they automatically no longer have the right to defend human rights, because they will be prosecuted for practising this profession illegally. We believe that defending human rights is not a profession in the same way as I am a lawyer, for example (I have to have a lawyer’s card, for which I have to fulfil certain obligations, etc.).  Even if defending human rights is considered to be a profession, you cannot be prosecuted directly. If you fail in your duty, you should set up a national association for human rights defenders, which should take administrative or disciplinary measures, for example, before you are prosecuted. But if you read Articles 27 and 28, an NGO that fails to meet its obligations is subject to offences that don’t even exist.

Other offences are already provided for in the penal code: anyone can be prosecuted if they break the law. It doesn’t have to appear in the law on defenders, but because it does appear there, this becomes a specific offence for them. For example, the law includes defamation. In other words, if you publish a report about embezzlement or corruption, they might say “that’s defamation, you’ll be prosecuted” on the basis of a law that’s supposed to protect us. And so, in my opinion, the good intention behind this law is the fact that it has the title “law for the protection of defenders”. But in reality, there is no protection at all.

So we think that, and we thank you for having carried out this analysis, because we contacted a lot of international organisations. We understand that some organisations that have supported the process in particular are a little sceptical, and want to show that it is a step forward because it was a request made to the universal periodic review mechanism. But we need a law that protects us, not a law that sets up a mechanism to prosecute us. That’s why, in the coming weeks, we will be taking our case to the Constitutional Court. With regard to certain provisions, we are in the process of drafting our petition.