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'There is a Demand for Human Rights'

  • "I've learned that you have to invest in the people, because they are the ones who are feeling their country," says Halidou Ngapna, former manager of the Carter Center's Human Rights House in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.

Thirteen years ago, The Carter Center opened the Human Rights House in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It is home to a small team of staffers who perform a large amount of work – providing training and assistance to more than 100 local civil society organizations working on issues related to human rights, supporting a protection network that helps keep human rights defenders safe, and overseeing a variety of projects designed to spark youth engagement in democracy and human rights.

The manager of the house, Halidou Ngapna, left the position earlier this month, but before his departure, we sat down with him to talk about the good work that took place during his time there and the important jobs still to do.

Q. The Carter Center works with civil society organizations, the government, the general public, the U.N. and other international NGOs. How do you balance priorities and build trust among different groups?

Ngapna: We build our message on the fact that human rights contribute to the common good. They benefit the state by bolstering security and economic growth. They benefit the public because if people know their rights and they are involved in their protection, that builds a good relationship between the state and the people. In the middle, you have civil society organizations. Peoples’ confidence in civil society organizations is based on their results. If the organizations are assisting human rights victims, providing access to justice for the public, and supporting the government in their laws and training government officials, people will have confidence in them, and this will build good relationships.

Q. Can you give us a little bit of the context of the DRC? Why are network-building and trust-building important?

Ngapna: The Congo has a history of violence, of oppression – a history of distrust between communities, between the state and the citizens, and between groups.

People don't trust the state because the state has either been nonexistent, or its existence has been problematic. There are also other groups, armed groups, who have been the main spoilers in the east. This context has also been marked by a troubled electoral process, where you have political parties and groups of people that were excluded from the process. And the process was not transparent, in their opinion.

In that social environment, trust is key. Civil society organizations were often labeled by the state as agents for foreign intervention. They have to prove that they are there for the good of the people. And the state also has to build a relationship with citizens, because people are talking about government corruption and government oppression.

Q. The DRC has been scarred by conflict. Ebola is now a threat. But the Congo is also very rich in natural resources. How does all this play out in human rights work?

Ngapna: Congo is a melting pot of issues and opportunities. The mines, the soil – which is fertile – are opportunities for the country. But unfortunately, the recent history of the Congo has proven that its wealth is a problem for the people. We have this image that the closer you go to the mines, the poorer people are. It is striking when you visit regions of the DRC that are actually rich and see children with signs of malnutrition.

But at the same time, you have the youth; you have this energy in people. There are good examples of people fighting every day to promote the rights of the people. And people understand that human rights in the DRC is the entry point for prosperity for all. But people need to have ownership on human rights on the ground.

The discourse – how the human rights story is told to the people – needs to be integrated into their languages, needs to be told through some creative tools, like music. There are very creative people in the DRC; art, music – even religion – can be used to channel human rights values into the society. People know there is a need. There is a demand for human rights in the country. Everybody talks now about rule of law. People like it. People want it. Now, it's our duty to give our expertise so that human rights can be embedded into the governance.

Q. How specifically does The Carter Center work to address women's issues within the context of human rights violations in the Congo?

Ngapna: The Carter Center is currently implementing a project called Women's Voice and Leadership, funded by the Canadian government, and it's one of the most important programs right now that has given a voice to women. We believe that if women are empowered, if they have economic autonomy and then access to political and public life, women’s rights will advance.

The new government appointed many women to government positions. It's not enough, but the numbers are higher than before, and the speaker of the National Assembly for the first time is a woman. These are signs that women’s rights are on a good path.

Congo used to be labeled as the world capital of sexual violence, but the narrative is changing. There is still a long way to go. Women and girls, they face insecurities when they are going to fetch water, and even at school, which is supposed to be a safe environment. Sexual violence remains an issue. Sexual exploitation remains an issue.

People are working to combat this. You have women from the grassroots that need to be supported. Their voices need to be heard. That's why The Carter Center has agreed to implement this program and has selected core partners that will be able to carry out the project and reach out to women whose voices you’ve never heard. I'm thinking about indigenous women, women living with handicaps. We believe that if they have more voice, there will be less violence against them.

Q. Tell us about an opportunity for advancing human rights in the DRC.

Ngapna: We have very conscious youth in the DRC. They are the ones at the forefront of every battle for democracy. The youth are in the streets. The youth are thinking about their country, and that's the biggest opportunity we have.

I've learned that you have to invest in the people, because they are the ones who are feeling their country. They are the ones who will be the future of their country, and they will take their country in their hands. If you do human rights education, that's investing in the people. That's how human rights will be embedded into the DRC as well.

Learn more about the Center's Human Rights Program »

Learn more about the Center's Democracy Program »

Learn more about the Center’s work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo »

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