On April 5th, during Congo Initiative’s International Justice Conference, Ugandan law professor Dr. Daniel Rhuweza was presenting justice challenges he faces in his country. Half-way through his presentation, he suddenly paused, stepped away from the podium, and dropped to his knees, head bowed. Overcome with emotion, he began to ask the audience of Congolese lawyers and judges for forgiveness for what his country has done to the people of Congo.
In between prayers and deep breaths, a Congolese lawyer from the audience walked forward and embraced Dr. Rhuweza. Dr. Honore Bunduki, Vice Rector of UCBC, also came forward and spoke honestly about the reasons Congo needs the forgiveness of the Ugandan people. The air was alive with a spirit of reconciliation as two lawyers from each of the three city groups representing the International Association of Christian Jurists (IACJ) also came on stage to kneel and pray. It was a powerful time of confession, reconciliation, and healing.
Since 2008, CI has hosted conferences dedicated to confronting challenges and discussing solutions related to justice in Congolese society and particularly within the legal profession. This conference is the foundational event for what we call our Justice Initiative. As a result, the community of legal professionals has grown.
In 2010, the Congolese judges and lawyers formed “city groups” in the eastern cities of Beni, Bunia, and Butembo; and in 2013 the IACJ was formed. The 2017 conference reached an all-time high with 140 registrants, doubling the number from 2015. And for the first time, two lawyers joined the conference this year from the provincial capital of Goma, where they lead a Christian lawyer group which has been operating since 2009, and now wants to join the IACJ.
“It is through these city groups that the real grassroots transformation is happening,” said Ben Chappell, a U.S. based lawyer and CI-USA board member actively involved in the Justice Initiative since 2008. “For example, the Bunia cohort has successfully released 207 adult prisoners who were wrongfully imprisoned. That effort alone would be phenomenal in any of our U.S. cities; but we also learned they broadened the initiative and were able to release 75 children imprisoned unjustly.”
Stories like this demonstrate the impact the IACJ has in shaping justice in the region. The city groups provide pro-bono services to those who cannot afford legal representation, and as such, these courageous lawyers are a voice for the voiceless.
“On many of the justice challenges, there has been good progress,” explained Chappell. “Prosecution of violent crimes against women has increased, ; those wrongfully imprisoned are being released; peace and reconciliation seminars prove successful; and new systems of accurate mapping [developed by UCBC’s Sharing the Land project] have great potential for assisting in land disputes.”
One issue that has been most resistant to change is corruption within the judicial system. However, for first time since the Justice Initiative began, there was a communal acknowledgement of shared culpability and responsibility for the prevailing culture of bribery, followed by a commitment to confront corruption through further training. One veteran Congolese observer called this a significant break-through, explaining, “This [kind of openness] just doesn’t happen in Congo.”
With this as a backdrop, CI’s vision of raising up a new generation of leaders is also becoming a reality. Not only are current legal professionals being transformed, but the 2017 conference also welcomed the first cohort of law students enrolled in UCBC’s new law program, launched in October 2016. The law students were joined by others from surrounding universities in the region, together representing a future generation of legal professionals committed to practicing law with Christian character and ethics.
“[During this conference], I felt at home and realized that as a lawyer I can also serve God. My participation in this conference has been an encouragement, and I intend to share what I’ve learned with the other brothers and sisters who have not had the opportunity to attend,” said Christelle Audiane, law student from Bunia Public University, UNIBU.