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Arsène, adding drops of justice in the DRC

Arsène Lumpali – Human Rights Defender, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Written by Patrick van Wersch
Edited by Olivia Ayes

Photo by Bebe Blanco Agterberg

I used to feel lucky to be born in Congo. Now, it’s a problem to be born in Congo.” Arsène Lumpali, human rights lawyer from South Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), has seen the country of his birth, which he describes as “beautiful with extraordinary potential,” go down a dark path.

“As a child growing up in the 1980s, it was a peaceful time. The climate was pleasant, and we had an abundance of local produce like cassava, sweet potato, sorghum, bananas, and other fruits. Rice arrived, which we liked, although it never really became part of our food culture. Foufou, a Congolese starch staple made from cassava and corn flower, was available all over the Congo but most prevalent in the west. People performed traditional dances at weddings and to celebrate the birth of a child. Kids would invent and play all kinds of games. It was a great time to be young. And then the war came.”

That war, known as Africa’s first world war, and the continued violence and unrest that followed, constitute a sad and stark contrast to Arsène’s fond childhood memories. But it’s exactly those memories that help him, and other brave human rights defenders like him, to stay vigilant in the work which Arsène hopes will eventually help restore some of the peacefulness he remembers so vividly.

Human rights lawyer

His jobs are many, but Arsène assures that they’re all linked. He’s the director and co-founder of the organisation ‘Synergy of Initiatives for the Great Lakes’ (SYNIGL), founded in 2010, whose mission is to fight against marginalisation and provide access to basic social services. Arsène also acts as a lawyer for victims of sexual violence on behalf of the prominent women’s rights group ‘Women’s Network for Rights and Peace’ (RFDP) and works in support of the Diocesan Commission Justice and Peace, a service of the Catholic Church of Bukavu which specialises in the defence of rights, justice, and peace.

“Because of my lawyer work in the human rights sphere I’m often involved in projects related to justice and peace. I give workshops, conduct trainings and sometimes I talk about physical security—an important topic for almost everyone living here but for human rights activists in particular.”

Training local leaders on human rights, criminal law, and civil procedures in Burhinyi, DRC.

When Arsène decided to study law he approached the subject as an academic science. He soon realised, though, that the country needed people willing to work for justice. “As part of my studies I worked in community parishes where I would meet and talk to young people. I listened to their stories. About how they had been discriminated against, how women had been raped, how children were left by their parents. I felt disgust and at the same time an urge to plead their cases in court.”

Justice must work

So when he graduated and passed the bar the novice lawyer put his degree to use in service of people that suffered wrongdoing, such as sexual and gender-based violence and abandonment. He learned from taking on numerous human rights cases that justice is not one-dimensional. “There are two sides to justice. One is punitive, the other is preventive. When people break the law they have to be put in their place. At the same time, authorities have a duty of care over their citizens, meaning they should do everything in their power to prohibit crime. The state’s human rights obligations are clear and binding: to respect, realise, and protect. That’s why we, as human rights advocates, have to raise awareness with the police, the magistrate, and the military about what’s happening in the communities and what their responsibilities are.”

Equally important, according to Arsène, are the rights of the victims and their families. “I remember a case of a woman whose arm had been cut off by her neighbour over a land dispute. With my colleagues we did everything we could to save this woman and get justice done. She left the hospital severely traumatised, and she would faint every time she thought about what had happened to her. One day, after passing out again, she didn’t wake up anymore. Although this would by no means make right what was done, her family should at least be compensated for the harm caused. Disappointingly, some judges are indifferent to such cases.”

The human rights lawyer is aware of the imbalances in the judicial system in his country but holds that:

“Everywhere in the world, when justice functions well, it’s the best way.”

Luckily, there are bright spots as well:

“One day, Prosecutor Daniel of the Walungu Peace Court called me about a man who had just had his legs crushed by a Civicom truck. Those responsible had simply left the man to suffer. He was poor and therefore presented no danger to the successful company. The prosecutor told me that this working class victim could assert his rights in court, but that he couldn’t pay for a lawyer. So the prosecutor had thought of me and counted on me to help the man, which I did. Prosecutor Daniel is one of the just magistrates, loved and respected by litigants. We need more people like him.”


Arsène Lumpali is the seventh boy and the ninth child in a family with three sisters and seven brothers. Now, married with kids, he has his own family.

Arsène’s wife encourages him to do the work he does, but there are worries. “My wife thinks it’s important to take care of other people, but she also finds it important that we take care of ourselves and, specifically, that I protect myself. The other day she called me to tell me she and the kids miss me. But they are also happy that I now have an opportunity to sleep well (Arsène is currently staying in The Hague as part of the Shelter City programme). A few nights ago, however, I had a nightmare that someone was going to attack my family. I woke up and immediately tried to call my wife, but the phone didn’t ring. Everything was fine, but it was scary nonetheless.”

His dream might have been a premonition of sorts because a few days later, Arsène received word from a lawyer colleague that a human rights defender from Bukavu had been attacked and tortured. Notwithstanding the distance, Arsène inquired about the man’s name and background to see what he could do—a grim reminder that reality continues.

December elections

One crucial event—a long time in the making—that is expected to impact the direction reality will take in the DRC is the presidential election planned for 23 December 2018. Current president Joseph Kabila announced earlier this year he would not seek re-election after almost eighteen years in office. So a change will certainly come. Unknown is whether the outcome will hurt or help the work done by Arsène and his fellow human rights defenders.

Current Congolese President, Joseph Kabila. [Premium Times Nigeria]

“There are two possibilities. If the election becomes a source of conflict, if political leaders resist, then the situation could escalate quickly. But if we get a new government that starts to improve things, the human rights and justice situation could improve too. A lot is at stake, especially given the fact that our history, when it leaves indelible traces, always pursues us.”

“The state’s human rights obligations are clear and binding: to respect, realise, and protect. That’s why we, as human rights advocates, have to raise awareness with the police, the magistrate, and the military about what’s happening in the communities and what their responsibilities are.”

The upcoming elections consume a lot of Arsène’s time. But it’s worth it, he finds, because people really want a chance to speak out. “We work hard to make sure there will be elections. We try to influence communities to demand them. We raise awareness, organise conferences, and write and share articles. On June 30, one of our conferences in Bukavu was broadcasted live on Radio Maria. We gathered with hundreds of young people in the great hall of the cathedral. The conference was requested by the Diocesan Commission Justice and Peace and Archbishop François-Xavier Maroy who spoke about the role of church pastors in the electoral process. The provincial head of the National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) reported on the actual voting process, while I myself sensitised the young attendees on how to be partisans for peace and how to avoid being manipulated and used as a tool for violence, especially during the electoral period. Bear in mind, the median age in the DRC is close to nineteen. Young people should have a big stake and voice in determining their country’s future.”

Arsène training at a workshop on human rights and civil procedures.

World upside down

There’s a lot of uncertainty, even about whether the election will take place as it was already postponed twice. Arsène also sees other factors that contribute to the challenges ahead of the elections.

“There has been a major Ebola outbreak in the east. Making matters worse is that this area is hit frequently by militant groups. On the night of October 20 to 21, in Ruwenzori commune in Beni in North Kivu province, at least twelve civilians were killed and men, women and children were kidnapped. Of the two hundred Ebola cases recorded in this area, around fifty percent are concentrated in this commune. More than half of the cases identified since August 2018 are dead.”

Arsène continues: “We are facing a premeditated plan to destabilise the Congo. It seems to us that the aim is to make all or part of the country ungovernable to prevent certain communities from voting, to facilitate cheating, to profit from the chaos to pursue a disorderly and illegal exploitation of wealth, to occupy Congolese territory, and to create favourable conditions for balkanisation just as certain power and wealth hungry people have always planned it. It is a ridiculous paradox for a government that claims to be democratic, to cultivate human values, and to fight against terrorism in all its forms, to support terrorists in other parts of the world, and to maintain homes for terrorists in the east of the DRC. If our bellies were deposits, thousands of human beings would be slaughtered every day in search of gold, cobalt, diamonds, oil, cassiterite, and so on. The world is upside down.”

Confront reality

Indeed, it’s difficult to understand the full extent of everything that’s happening in the DRC, a country whose human rights situation is bafflingly critical. In the past two decades at least six million Congolese have died from conflict-related causes. Some 4.5 million Congolese are displaced from their homes—more than in any country in Africa. This year alone, tens of thousands have fled into Uganda, Tanzania, and Zambia—contributing to increased regional instability.

At least six million people have died in the last two decades as a result of the conflict in the DRC [Human Rights Watch]

It is in these circumstances that Arsène carries out his everyday work, alongside other human rights defenders. “The country faces enormous challenges, chief among them is the lack of modern infrastructure and basic social services. There’s no waste management policy, for instance, which creates unhealthy living conditions and exposes people to all kinds of diseases. State funding that should be directed towards filling these voids is misappropriated by dictatorial leaders that only seek to satisfy their small and selfish interests.”

On top of these struggles, Arsène has faced numerous threats and instances of harassment by police officers, for instance for highlighting the injustice of arbitrary arrests. In 2017 he was followed, received threatening anonymous phone calls, and experienced strangers in military uniforms loitering near his property. More recently, in July, police and military officers unexpectedly visited his office.

“They came in without a warrant and intimidated and brutalised the colleagues they found there. They said they were sent by the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) to check our computers. My colleagues resisted, but they were forced to let the officers check all of our computers. It’s the law of the jungle.”

Despite all of this, Arsène sees it as his obligation to fight the good fight. “You can’t run away, you have to confront reality. Even if what you are doing is a small thing. I thank all who support or want to support the good work. All the colleagues who decide not to give up, but also the few policemen, military or magistrates like Prosecutor Daniel who, despite the risks, try to be just and help people. Yes, there are still some role models that deserve to be recognised and encouraged.”

The human rights lawyer compares the work of a change maker to a glass that’s not yet full:

“Each person has to put in a drop. We can’t be scared—we have to keep adding. I always say the evolution of Europe happened because individuals made sacrifices and worked hard. It’s not okay to run from the problem. It’s better to meet it head on.”

Create connections

In his many different professional roles, Arsène regularly develops programs with international donors and partners, such as the International Alert Fund, the International Rescue Committee, and USAID. He’s often hired as a consultant too, just recently by U.N. Women. “I worked with them on evaluating the national strategy on the fight against violence against women. We have many international organisations supporting us. For instance, some donate to the Catholic Church of Bukavu, some donate to SYNIGL. Sometimes I provide trainings on land conflict in collaboration with the Land Program Officer at the Swiss Cooperation based in Bukavu.”

Arsène speaking at a women’s rights workshop.

The international community is visibly involved in the DRC, but isn’t it too much? Arsène doesn’t think so, although he thinks that in the long term things have to change. “The aid the population receives for basic necessities for eighty-five percent comes from international organisations. Schools and hospitals do not receive support from the state. International and national aid organisations do what they can, but the government should be the number one contributor. It’s impossible to succeed as a country when the state does nothing—or for that matter, when it does it all. There has to be a balance. Sadly, there are people who get discouraged and think the organisations helping them do nothing because the situation is still very bad.”

“I thank all who support or want to support the good work. All the colleagues who decide not to give up, but also the few policemen, military or magistrates like Prosecutor Daniel who, despite the risks, try to be just and help people. Yes, there are still some role models that deserve to be recognised and encouraged.”

Arsène thinks that only once there are basic social services such as schools, health care, water, and better infrastructure, life in the DRC can begin to improve. “In the Shabunda territory, east of Bukavu, most of the country’s rice is produced. But because there’s no decent road connecting both regions there is no way to get the rice to Bukavu—a city where people are dying of hunger every day. It doesn’t take a lot of money to create connections. What it takes most of all is time and the political will to implement these kinds of infrastructure programmes.”


He comes across as determined, pragmatic, and analytical—you would most certainly think he’s a lawyer—but there is a strong philosophical and reflective side to Arsène as well. Those traits come to the surface most when he talks about human rights, and the lack thereof, in the communities he works for. “We shouldn’t be too idealistic; we can’t create heaven on earth. But a person can’t continue to live like an animal in the woods. At some point humanism has to be restored. That doesn’t have to result in a situation that is heaven-like, but the living conditions of that place have to at least be acceptable.”

Arsène Lumpali, human rights defender from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo by Bebe Blanco Agterberg.

Letting his pragmatic side speak, Arsène realises that better conditions don’t automatically result in less violence—there are plenty examples proving that point the world over. But it’s a step and by every day trying to mitigate the root causes of violent conflict he is hopeful that the DRC will develop into a society he and many others are longing for.

And Arsène doesn’t feel like he’s up against it alone. “Every day I meet people who give me strength. In my city people know me. Even if they don’t have my phone number they will surely know someone that does. I am rooted; that’s my greatest strength. But sometimes when I do feel down, I remind myself that living and flourishing in the circumstances that are ours is a matter of the imagination. And when you imagine it, you can do it.”

In March 2016, Arsène participated in a security training in The Hague organised by Justice and Peace Netherlands. Arsène is currently staying in The Hague as part of the Shelter City programme. Shelter City is a nationwide initiative of Justice and Peace Netherlands to protect human rights defenders, in cooperation with a growing number of Dutch cities and local organisations.