UN protection back for threatened Nobel-winning Congo doctor

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — For weeks, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning Congolese doctor faced death threats, leading alarmed supporters to urge the United Nations (UN) to reinstate the peacekeepers who were withdrawn from his hospital months ago. On Wednesday, after international expressions of concern, the peacekeepers returned.

“They will be there as long as necessary,” a spokesman with the UN mission Mathias Gillmann told The Associated Press (AP).

The death threats against Dr Denis Mukwege, famous for his work with survivors of assault at Panzi Hospital in eastern Congo, drew condemnation from UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet, Amnesty International and others. Hundreds of people marched in support of Mukwege in the eastern city of Bukavu, where his hospital is located.

Mukwege has had UN protection over the years since he survived an assassination attempt in 2012 while returning to his home.

On Wednesday, he thanked the UN peacekeepers for returning to the hospital “to assure the security of the patients and personnel”.

The peacekeepers were withdrawn this year amid the coronavirus pandemic. On Tuesday, the UN said it could not provide protection indefinitely and the personal security of Congolese personalities is the responsibility of national authorities.

File photo of Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr Denis Mukwege speaking to the media during a news conference in Oslo, Norway. PHOTO: AP

Gillmann said the UN is working on finding a new security arrangement with national police as the mission in Congo faces an expected reduction. The UN trained Congolese security forces for such protection work in the future.

Those denouncing the death threats against Mukwege have not said where they originated, but a statement from Physicians for Human Rights last month said Mukwege has been the target of an “intimidation campaign” after a security advisor to the president in neighbouring Rwanda General James Kabarebe “denounced Dr Mukwege on Rwandan state television”.

Mukwege received death threats via text message, and he and his family received threats on social media, the statement said.

“I have received various hate mail and members of my family have been intimidated and threatened,” Mukwege said in a separate statement posted by the Panzi Foundation.

Mukwege has long been outspoken about the need for accountability for the years of attacks by armed groups in eastern Congo that have killed thousands of people, and he seeks the implementation of recommendations in a years-old UN human rights report mapping abuses in the region between 1993 and 2003.

Eastern Congo remains one of the world’s most unstable regions, with millions of civilians displaced or living under the threat of attack.

In his Nobel speech in 2018, Mukwege repeated his call to act on the UN report, asking, “What is the world waiting for? Let us have the courage to reveal the names of the perpetrators of the crimes against humanity to prevent them from continuing to plague the region.”

In late July he tweeted about a new massacre in eastern Congo, saying that as long as the UN mapping report is “ignored” such killings will continue.

Rwanda’s government in the past objected to suggestions that its forces had any involvement in the unrest in eastern Congo shortly before and after the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 in which some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame in a nationally televised interview last Sunday said of the UN mapping report, “I don’t know what that nonsense is about.”

He asserted that “people are starting the narrative at the time of their choosing”.

He did not mention Mukwege in the interview.

Rwanda’s state-run newspaper, The New Times, last Sunday published an unsigned commentary criticising Mukwege and the UN report and dismissing suggestions that Rwanda or Kabarebe was behind the death threats as “unfounded allegations”.