I first met Floribert Chebeya in 1992 when he received the Reebok Human Rights Award. Initiated in 1988, the Reebok awards were given to young human rights activists. For the 20 years that these awards were presented, I was privileged to serve, from my perch with Human Rights First, as one of about a dozen advisors who chose each year’s recipients. Each year we recognized a group of three or four courageous, talented human rights advocates, all 30 years old or younger. The class of 1992 was especially impressive. In addition to Floribert we selected a dynamic human rights advocate from Northern Ireland named Martin O’Brien, an embattled activist from East Timor named Fernando de Araujo, and a passionate women rights advocate from the U.S. named Stacy Kabat. I remember the energy and passion surrounding the ceremony in Boston the year they won the award. The four recipients, each in their own way, embodied personal courage and commitment, and each was already making a profound difference in their own societies.
But none was in a more precarious position than Floribert. I remember first meeting Floribert and hearing about his work with Le Voix des Sans Voix, the Voice of the Voiceless. His stories about the political violence in the Congo were shocking and overwhelming. It is so easy in a place like the DRC to lose hope, to adopt a sense of despair, to keep one’s head down and try to survive. But that was not Floribert’s way. He was someone who saw injustice and worked to challenge it, he saw human suffering and had a special compassion – an empathy – to comfort its victims, and he saw official wrong-doing and was there, every day for more than two decades, letting the world know that these violations were occurring and challenging those who were responsible.
Floribert was a kind and gentle man, but also a man with the kind of steely determination that so often characterizes human rights defenders in tough places. One could easily be fooled by his somewhat frail appearance, assuming that this guy was not strong or tough. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Floribert was a force of nature, and a dedicated, principled advocate for human rights and the rule of law. He built Voice of the Voiceless into a major human rights organization in the DRC. Through that organization he and his colleagues engaged in public education, training and sustained public advocacy, both on specific cases and broader human rights issues. Every year Voice of the Voiceless would issue literally dozens of press statements, reports and other materials documenting human rights violations. These materials were the cornerstone, the factual predicate for effective advocacy.
But he did more than that. Floribert became a leader of the human rights movement in his country. His passion and commitment provided encouragement to many others who were entering the human rights field. He inspired them with his speeches, and he helped educate and train them on how to do the nuts and bolts of human rights fact-finding and reporting. Through the conferences, workshops and training sessions he organized, he provided essential venues for collective action. His wisdom and judgment helped the vulnerable human rights movement in the DRC make the kinds of difficult decisions and judgments that come with the territory. As a leader Floibert Chebeya spoke truth to power and in the end he paid the ultimate price for his courageous activism.
The environment in which Floribert worked was extraordinarily difficult and dangerous. As the State Department concluded in our most recent human rights report for 2009 “In all areas of the country, the [DRC] Government’s human rights record remained poor, and security forces continued to act with impunity throughout the year, committing many serious abuses, including unlawful killings, disappearances, torture and rape.” With respect to the government’s attitude toward human rights defenders we concluded, “Security forces continued to harass, beat, intimidate and arbitrarily arrest and detain local human rights advocates and NGO workers, and government intimidation of domestic human rights defenders worsened.”
Repeating those words again is not enough. All of us, in government and outside, must do what we can to ensure those responsible for Floribert’s death be investigated, prosecuted, and brought to justice. The U.S. government has joined many others, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in urging the government of the DRC to institute an independent, robust and credible investigation into Floribert’s death. We have offered to assist this investigation in whatever way we can. To date the government of the DRC has not taken us up on this offer. Whatever investigative efforts the government does undertake, need to be open and transparent. Sadly, Floribert’s death was not the first attack on human rights defenders in the DRC. So, it is critical that the government pursue this investigation expeditiously, openly and to the full extent of the law to break the cycle of impunity.
Today we celebrate the remarkable life of Floribert Chebeya. Let us remember him as a kind and decent man, whose generosity of spirit allowed him to give so much of himself to help so many in need. We have lost a good friend. We will miss him greatly.