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Interview / Valentin Migabo

Interview / Valentin Migabo

[UQAM / Nathalie St-Pierre]

For Valentin Migabo, a political scientist from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), 2019 was a year of new beginnings. He became the first researcher invited by the Scholars at Risk Committee of the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), allowing him to publish his research related to conflict in the African Great Lakes region. Valentin is currently an affiliate researcher at the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism at McGill University (Scholar at Risk – O’Brien Fellow in Residence).

Could you tell us about the situation in the Great Lakes region?

The situation is unstable in the Great Lakes region, which includes the DRC, Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda. On a daily basis, people are experiencing human rights violations, kidnappings, disappearances, and deaths. There was, of course, ethnic division between the Hutus and the Tutsis that led to the Rwandan genocide in 1994, but the authoritarian regimes which refuse to give up power are the main cause of the armed conflicts in this region.

Who is the most affected by the situation in the DRC?

The DRC has been at war since 1996, and more than 137 armed groups are active there. The researchers who investigate the atrocities committed against the people are often targeted by those in power, by militiamen and sometimes by populations fearing reprisals. All research on the memory of conflict victims inevitably must address the organized plunder of natural resources and bad governance. Researchers, human rights advocates, and journalists are therefore often censored; some receive death threats, and others disappear without a trace.

Women, children, and park wardens are the first victims of armed conflicts. The rape of women is used as a weapon of war. Women live in constant terror. The recruitment of child soldiers is also a common practice. These children often have no other viable alternatives for earning a living. Armed groups also kill nature reserve wardens because they are the only ones to resist efforts to exploit the natural resources that abound in the parks and reserves located in areas far from any state services.

What obstacles did you encounter in carrying out your research?

Two days after the theme of my research — it focuses on mass graves in South Kivu — was presented at the Council meeting of my Department, the Dean said, “My brother, the theme that you want to investigate is very dangerous. Is there no way that you could drop this?” Another colleague tried to discourage me, while others reported me to the authorities. I was summoned to answer to people from the intelligence service, who asked: “We have learned that you are working on mass graves. In what way does this concern you? How is this any of your business?”

I have been the victim of censorship and corruption attempts. In 2016, a government minister offered me money so that my article on the causes of the persistence of armed groups in the DRC would be published in his name. I categorically refused to go along with this, and for that reason my article was never published in the DRC. I was able to publish that article only after arriving at UQAM.

How was your arrival to UQAM?

I arrived at UQAM at the end of May 2019 at the invitation of the Faculty of Political Science and Law and the Faculty of Communication, in partnership with Scholars at Risk. I was welcomed by wonderful people who helped me to settle in, and I would like to thank everyone who, directly or indirectly, contributed to my coming to Canada. I received considerable support from the faculty union.

My colleagues provided a lot of assistance in finding a house and bringing my family to join me in Canada. I felt very comfortable both in my work setting and outside of it. I’ve had the opportunity to give public talks and to make presentations during classes given by colleagues. I’ve had the chance to share my knowledge and experience regarding armed conflicts.

What role can academic staff associations play?

Faculty associations already play an important role because their members are interested in the situation on the ground in the DRC. Canadian professors regularly intervene in the media to inform the public at large about the atrocities committed there.

In June 2020, a group of Canadian academics and human rights defenders called on the International Criminal Court to open an investigation into former DRC President Joseph Kabila. My recent article on the violations of women’s and children’s rights at mining sites was the focus of international advocacy with the help of Canadian professors, in particular from McGill University.

Faculty associations can play a greater role by encouraging discussions in academic settings about the situation in the DRC. This will eventually lead, I hope, to an increased interest in this subject among the students who will produce theses on the impacts of armed conflicts. A thesis on natural resources in the DRC was recently published at UQAM. The more intellectual output there is on such issues, the more the public will understand the complexity of the situation.

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