In the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, in the city of Bukavu, in South Kivu, on the Rwandan border, Panzi Hospital has been a refuge for survivors of sexual violence. So why is the Congolese government using the tax system to try to shut it down?
The director of the hospital, Denis Mukwege (1), has argued that the pattern of violence that he and his medical staff have encountered there constitutes a new pathology, a kind of weapon of mass destruction (2), deployed by armed actors to destroy the social fabric of the eastern DRC and control the region and its resources. Dr. Mukwege has won numerous humanitarian awards for his work. As a regional hub for survivors of sexual violence, Panzi has attracted international attention and support. Beyond his medical work, Dr. Mukwege has been a strong voice in international forums reminding the world that, as long as weaponized sexual violence continues, the Congo cannot be said to be in a "post-conflict" situation.
The Kivus are still overrun with armed actors. The Congolese Army is a major human rights violator. Militias sponsored by the DRC's neighbours, Uganda and Rwanda, as well as armed groups of exiles from these countries, operate in the countryside and victimize the civilian population. The Ugandan and Rwandan armies periodically enter Congolese territory to conduct operations of their own. And a multinational United Nations force, one of the UN's largest missions, has been in the east for about 15 years. Against this backdrop, Panzi has been a haven for civilians, a place where women could heal, and a place from where a lot of the energy and organization to help the region recover has come.
A major driver of this chaotic armed violence is the region's mineral resources, which have been plundered for more than a century, by Belgian colonialists, Western corporations, local dictators like Mobutu, and neighbouring powers like Rwanda and Uganda. In recent years, there have been numerous efforts to move the mining trade out of the illegal realm and into legal, corporate hands, through legislation like the Dodd-Frank Act. Perhaps the most visible face of corporate mining in South Kivu is the Canadian gold mining company, Banro Corporation, which inherited rights to two big gold mines from the state-run mining company and which, in 2013, had a gross revenue of $111 million USD from its mining operations. A look at Banro's 2013 Annual Report describes the company's tax arrangements with the Congolese government - arrangements that are always sought after by mining companies, even if they are not always obtained:
"In the Congo, the Company is subject to a mining convention signed with the Congolese government that provides the Company with a 10-year tax holiday from the date of commercial production. The tax holiday enables the Company to earn income in the Congo that is exempt from corporate income tax during this period of the tax holiday. " (3)
Unfortunately for Panzi hospital, the Congolese government shows more generosity with its tax holidays towards mining companies than it does to public hospitals. At a press conference at the end of 2014, Dr. Mukwege described the persecution of the hospital by the state (4). The Congo's tax office seized the hospital's bank accounts last October. Panzi sued, and the tax office released the accounts on December 29 - then, re-seized them again the next day. In their press release, Panzi emphasized that none of the other 500 officially recognized public hospitals in the DRC pay taxes, but Panzi has been hit with taxes of $47,000 (already seized) and $650,000 additional dollars for 2013. "If we owe $600,000 in taxes," Dr. Mukwege asked at the press conference, "how much are we supposed to have earned?"
The hospital, which serves an area of 400,000 people, is in danger of closing, and cannot pay its 500 employees. The Belgian government (5) called for the tax to be scrapped, stating that the tax "threatens the care provided to rape victims." If others follow, there is no reason why the tax couldn't simply be scrapped and the hospital return to its important work.
This is not the first attack on Panzi or on Mukwege, who survived an assassination attempt in 2012. The current persecution of the hospital is likely pre-electoral in nature. President Joseph Kabila was elected in 2006 by a population that hoped he would help to restore the country's sovereignty after a decade (then) of proxy war and occupation. His re-election in 2011 was won only with recourse to massive fraud. In order to stay in power after 2016, he will have to change the constitution (it was changed for him once already, because he did not reach the age requirement of 35 when he was first elected). The "post-conflict" continues to be deadly to the people of the east (6). Instead of addressing the violence, Kabila's government is attacking those who are trying to stop the violence and raising criticisms of it. The government would do better to study Panzi carefully, increase its resources, and try to emulate its work in other conflict zones.
(1) I profiled Dr. Mukwege for The Progressive Magazine in November 2009: "Healing in the Congo: A Profile of Dr. Denis Mukwege" -http://www.killingtrain.com/sites/killingtrain.com/files/podur_progressivenov2009healinginthecongo.pdf
(2) Mukwege and Nangini 2009, "Rape With Extreme Violence: The New Pathology in South Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo" PLOS Medicine 6 (12): e1000204 doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1000204. URL:http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.1000204
(3) Banro Corporation, 2013 Annual Report, pg. 47 URL:http://www.banro.com/i/pdf/2013AnnualReport.pdf
(4) Panzi Hospital's press release: http://www.panzihospital.org/archives/2847. Transcription of the press conference: http://www.panzihospital.org/archives/2858
(5) "DR Congo tax on rape victim hospital sparks fury" France 24, January 3, 2015:http://www.france24.com/en/20150103-belgium-urges-dr-congo-scrap-tax-hospital-rape-victims/. Reuters story Jan 2/15: http://in.reuters.com/article/2015/01/02/congodemocratic-health-politics-idINL6N0UH15020150102
(6) See the Congo Siasa blog for updates by academic Jason Stearns and guests like Rachel Sweet, who posted on Jan 6. on the ongoing violence in North Kivu, which has claimed 200 lives in the past three months: http://congosiasa.blogspot.ca/2015/01/guest-blog-politics-and-business.html
First published on TeleSUR English