Democratic Republic of the Congo: ‘The international community has a big responsibility for what happened’

Land rights activist Olivier Bahemuke Ndoole urges more aid for his fellow Congolese

DRC Lawyer by Sally Hayden

The world must do more to stop the suffering of Congolese people and the exploitation of their land, while collaborating with them on future environmental solutions, a celebrated land rights activist and lawyer has said.

Olivier Bahemuke Ndoole spoke as he was visiting Ireland for the first time to receive an award from Dublin-based organisation Front Line Defenders. The 35-year-old lawyer is usually based in Goma, a city in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

He is the co-founder and executive secretary of an organisation called the Alerte Congolaise Pour l’Environnement et les Droits de l’Homme (ACEDH). It has 18 staff members, including 12 lawyers, and works on issues including protecting land rights, access to sustainable energy and the reform of judicial systems. As well as a cash prize and protection grant, Front Line Defenders said award winners, including Ndoole, would get advice on digital and physical security, advocacy, visibility and general wellbeing.

The DRC, a central African country, has a population of about 100 million people. The country’s east is rich in minerals, but it has long been conflict-ridden, with fighting ongoing between dozens of armed groups. The country is scheduled to have elections in December. “I have hope but hope doesn’t mean that change will come with those elections. We can have an election but we stay with the same system,” said Ndoole.


Ndoole said multinational companies profiting from the DRC’s resources were also abusing its citizens. Some companies come from countries which “are UN Security Council members,” he said. “I think because of that… [those countries] have a moral duty to act on climate justice, but as well as on environmental and social justice.”

He said when multinationals “come to exploit in rural areas, the first thing they do is to chase away all of those citizens… They start destroying the environment and the ecology, they start destroying the rivers.” He said Congolese civilians lost their right to “live in a healthy environment” and their way of surviving and sustaining their families. “They lose their stability and their habitats and their private properties.”

These problems are nothing new. In a report mapping human rights violations between 1995 and 2003, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said that the DRC “has an abundance of natural wealth, including a multitude of minerals such as diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, cassiterite (tin ore) and coltan, as well as timber, coffee and oil. However, these vast resources have scarcely benefited the Congolese people. Instead, they have contributed to decades of conflict, numerous serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law. The link between natural resource exploitation and human rights violations dates back to colonial times.”

Some of the cases Ndoole works on relate to abuses that began decades ago, while others are much more recent. People who are ousted by mineral exploitation end up living “in inhumane conditions. They don’t even have access to water or even a place to build a home and they become homeless,” he said. There is no regard for the environment either, he charged: rivers are being polluted and “turning yellow… and now we are facing flooding every couple of weeks which are displacing more and more people.”

Multinational companies usd militias or the military to forcibly remove residents, he said, and corruption made it easy for them to get permits.

“The international community has a big responsibility for what happened in DRC and what is still happening in DRC,” said Ndoole. He sees the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and how Rwandan refugees and former genocidaires who fled to the DRC were dealt with by the international community, as “the start of our problems”. Rwanda’s presence in eastern DRC to combat the perceived threat by this group was described by a 2002 UN report as a cover, used while its army stripped minerals.

Ndoole would like to see prosecutions at the International Criminal Court for the leaders of countries that financially support armed groups, along with domestic prosecutions targeting certain multinationals.

He said the exploitation of the DRC’s resources was putting his country “on its knees”.

“I think the international community should reinforce the traceability of natural resources to avoid dirty resources [being] exploited at the price of the blood of the peasants and their ashes,” he said. “Climate justice is not just about taking action on the environment in Paris and France, but also having that same energy when it’s happening in the DRC, where it’s way worse.”

Ndoole’s organisation was founded in 2008, though most of its 237 legal cases have been taken since 2017. They have had some success. ”For example the question of the protection of the wild fauna and flora had never appeared in front of a court… Since we have started, the [legal system], the population, and even the militaries, they know that you can be arrested.”

He said one case, which they took against the government, led to the cancellation of fishing permits in a protected area. “The other success I can talk about is there is more and more collective conscience regarding the protection of [Virunga] national park,” he said referring to an almost 100-year-old national park which is said to be Africa’s most biodiverse protected area.

They also push for land law reform and justice. “We didn’t have a national policy on land rights. In [2022] it was adopted. It recognises the land rights of local communities. There is a specific land rights section on young women and indigenous communities.”

Ndoole has faced various threats and security problems, including his offices being raided and robbed while he was arrested and beaten up. In 2015, he says, he was temporarily relocated by Front Line Defenders when the threats became too severe; he spent most of the following year between Kenya, the Netherlands and Belgium.

In 2020, Ndoole’s problems began again: he ended up being threatened by both government agents and the leaders of armed groups. In late 2022, he says, he used a boat to escape, travelling to Rwanda, before returning again to the DRC. Now, “I don’t sleep twice at the same spot. I have my own house but I don’t sleep there. I can come collect some stuff and go. And I cannot sleep with relatives or friends. So it’s really a limited amount of time, when I think about it, that I spend in Goma.”

Conflict has worsened; before that he used to go to Virunga National Park and camp there. “It’s those small measures that I have put in place.”

Despite all he has been through, Ndoole said he wants people to recognise the many good aspects of the DRC too. Goma, for example, has “affordable electricity that is clean and sustainable”.

More broadly, “most of the natural resources that are providing all of those phones and the laptops, it’s coming from DRC”, added Ndoole. “We have the solution for the ecological transition, the resources that will help achieve that. We have the national parks with the rarest animals like the okapi. We have the mountain gorillas. We have several active volcanos… The second-largest [tropical] forest in the world.”

Ndoole said he loves his country. “That’s why I never accepted to go into exile despite whatever I faced. I had all the possibilities to go but I’m staying. I think it’s us that will bring the change even though I might not see it. We have responsibility. We will take lessons from the errors of the past… We have a country that will, maybe, be an example to the climate crisis the world is going through. I think we have the possibility to achieve it because the resources are there, it’s just stability and good governance [that are needed]… In terms of what we need in the future for clean energy, DRC has the resources. Even we have the human resources… And we are well-placed strategically in the centre of Africa.”