Democracy and Human Rights Officer for the Bureau of African Affairs, U.S. Department of State
It is with deep sadness that I learned today of the apparent assassination of Floribert Chebeya, the Doyen of the Congolese human rights community.
I have known and admired Floribert for nearly 20 years. I last saw him in 2007 when he visited Washington and I was between assignments and we talked at length about the human rights challenges in DRC. Floribert was a human rights lifer, having started out as a student human rights activist in 1980s as an underground organizer during the height of Mobutu Sese Seko’s repressive regime. Despite his long tenure, he never lost his sense of optimism that things should and, indeed, could change.
After the political opening in 1991, the organization that he founded, the Voice of the Voiceless (VSV) led the human rights surge that highlighted the deplorable human rights conditions in the country. Although all human rights reports in what was then Zaire were by nature political, VSV focused on cases of ordinary Kinshasa residents who were often the victims of successive brutal regimes. VSV chose the cases of ordinary citizens as its raison d’etre. It wasn’t the glamorous political fare but it was a key niche.
But at the same time he was not afraid of the sensitive cases. VSV investigated political murders and political prisoners including those accused of having killed Laurent Kabila and Bunda dia Kongo. It is possible that his death resulted from his work on of these politically charged cases. But in a greater sense, Floribert represented a classic case of risk to the state not because of a single case but because he dared speak the truth and his often lone voice became a threat to those who knew he was documenting their nefarious deeds.
Floribert, with his oversized glasses and studious demeanor, often would go to the police military and security offices himself to ask about cases. He had a driver, (who is still missing) but he owned an aged vehicle that seemed to be constantly in the repair shop. Floribert was old school, and an incessant letter writer, forever asking the Zairian/ Congolese government to explain the inexplicable; seeking a rationale for the latest incident of arbitrary detention, torture or murder.
Sometimes the government would relent and release the hapless victims. Most of the time, they would respond by threatening him. Floribert was arrested, detained, and threatened numerous times over the last two decades. His last major run in with the State security services ended up with him having a gun put to his head, and dozens of times he took study trips to escape threats about reports issued by VSV. He knew his work was risky, and more than once his wife and family begged him to do something else, but he was committed to an ideal.
The offices of VSV were always filled with ordinary citizens and family members of victims of human rights abuse. On any given day you could also usually find international visitors and diplomats who had come to hear Floribert’s earnest take on the human rights situation. In 1992, he won the Reebok Human Rights Award for young human rights activists and with it a $25,000 prize. In typical Floribert fashion, he donated the money to several other local human rights groups and created a victim’s fund to help victims of human rights abuse.
He leaves behind a wife and six children, and an army of admirers, friends and colleagues, in DRC, around Africa, and here in DC.
Floribert Chebeya, may his soul rest in peace, was truly a human rights hero.