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HRW's Ida Sawyers gives UN Security Council candid briefing on brutal crackdown in DRC

A man walks in front of the Commission Electorale Nationale Independante (CENI) headquarters on 5 November 2017 in Kinshasa, following an announcement of the new electorial calendar for 2018 elections
A man walks in front of the Commission Electorale Nationale Independante (CENI) headquarters on 5 November 2017 in Kinshasa, following an announcement of the new electorial calendar for 2018 elections

JOHN WESSELS/AFP/Getty Images

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 12 February 2018.

Intervention at UN Security Council Arria Formula Meeting - "The Electoral Process in the Democratic Republic of the Congo", by Ida Sawyer, Director, Central Africa

Ambassador Haley and members of the Security Council, thank for you inviting me today to speak on behalf of Human Rights Watch. Your Excellency Okitundu and President Nangaa, I'm honored to be with you here today.

On January 21, security forces shot 24-year-old Thérèse Kapangala just outside her church in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, soon after Sunday Mass. The bullet entered her arm and went to her heart. She died on the way to the hospital. Thérèse was studying to be a nun and planned to enter a convent in July. Thérèse's family - including her father, a police officer, and her uncle, a priest - were prevented from taking her body from the morgue for over two weeks before they could finally bury her last Friday.

Thérèse is just one of many Congolese killed as part of the government's brutal campaign to crack down on those speaking out for democracy and fundamental rights in Congo - and to keep one man in power in violation of the country's constitution.

On December 31 and January 21, tens of thousands of Catholic worshipers and others protested in several cities and towns, calling for President Joseph Kabila to abide by the constitution's two-term limit, allow for new elections, and step down. Military, police and intelligence forces responded with unnecessary or excessive force, firing teargas and live ammunition to disperse crowds - including in some cases by firing within church buildings and on parish grounds. At least 16 people were killed, and scores of others were injured or arrested, including many Catholic priests. The actual number of victims is likely much higher, as security forces took some bodies to unknown locations.[1]

Over the past three years, President Kabila and those around him have used one delaying tactic after another to postpone elections and entrench their hold on power through brutal repression, large-scale violence and other human rights violations, funded through systemic corruption. Security forces shot dead nearly 300 people during political protests during this time. Kabila's ruling coalition has systematically banned meetings and demonstrations by the opposition while jailing hundreds of opposition leaders and supporters, as well as human rights and pro-democracy activists. Many have been held in secret detention facilities without charge or access to family members or lawyers. Others have been tried on trumped-up charges. Last July, unidentified armed men shot and nearly killed a judge who refused to hand down a ruling against an opposition leader. The government has also shut down Congolese media outlets, expelled hard-hitting international journalists and researchers, and periodically curtailed access to the internet and text messaging.[2]

A Catholic Church-mediated power-sharing agreement signed on New Year's Eve 2016 provided Kabila an excuse to stay in power another year - beyond the end of his constitutional two-term limit on December 19, 2016 - but also a commitment to implement confidence-building measures and organize elections by the end of 2017. But instead, these commitments were largely flouted: the new government, the so-called National Follow-up Council (or CNSA), and the electoral commission (CENI) excluded members of the main opposition coalition and are in full control of Kabila's presidential majority coalition, while repression and election delays continue.

Despite CENI's publication of the electoral calendar in November - which set December 23, 2018 as the new date for elections, with the caveat that numerous "constraints" could push the date back even further[3] - Kabila has not demonstrated that he is preparing to step down or create a climate conducive to free, fair, and credible elections. In a rare press conference last month, Kabila refused to say explicitly that he will step down by the end of 2018 or that he will not attempt to run again.[4]

Some in Kabila's majority coalition are still talking about a possible referendum or other changes to the electoral process that would allow Kabila to stay in power.

Many Congolese civil society groups have denounced CENI's calendar as merely another delaying tactic, and they have called on Kabila to step down immediately and for a citizens' transition to be organized without Kabila that would restore constitutional order and organize credible elections.[5]

While Mr. Nangaa has touted the CENI's many accomplishments to date, concerns have already been raised about potential fraud during the voter registration process - with inexplicably high numbers of voters registered in some areas, and no independent observation.[6] Many have also expressed concerns that the proposed electronic voting machine[7] will create new opportunities for fraud in the way votes are tallied, and that many Congolese will need to be shown how to use the machine, preventing them from casting a secret ballot. The international electoral experts from regional and international bodies - mandated during a meeting here last September to help restore confidence in the electoral process - have yet to begin their work, with CENI officials resisting the idea that the experts could maintain their independence.[8] With no transparency and the ruling coalition in control of the entire process, it's no surprise that there is little confidence among Congolese democracy activists and opposition leaders.

Kabila's refusal to abide by the constitution and relinquish the presidency can partly be explained by the considerable fortune[9] he and his family have amassed during his tenure and the millions of dollars in mining revenue that have gone missing. Such corruption has helped leave the government bereft of funds to meet the basic needs of an impoverished population.

To make matters worse, well-placed security and intelligence sources have described to Human Rights Watch official efforts to sow violence and instability across much of the country in an apparently deliberate "strategy of chaos" to justify further election delays.

Since August 2016, an outbreak of violence in the country's central Kasi region, involving Congolese security forces, government-backed militias, and local armed groups, has left up to 5,000 people dead.[10] Last March, two UN investigators - Michael Sharp, an American, and Zaida Catalán, a Swedish and Chilean dual national - were killed while investigating serious human rights abuses in the region.[11] As the Congolese authorities continue to blame members of a local militia and have repeatedly interfered in the Congolese judicial investigation into the murders, Human Rights Watch research and Radio France Internationale and Reuters reports[12] suggest government responsibility.

Largescale violence has also continued in eastern Congo's North and South Kivu and Tanganyika provinces, and most recently in Ituri province, where inter-ethnic fighting reportedly killed over 30 people earlier this month.[13] Today, over 120 armed groups are active in eastern Congo. Many of these groups receive support from the Congolese government and security forces, while others have formed coalitions against the Kabila government. Yet the gravest threat to Congolese civilians comes from the security forces meant to protect them. According to the UN human rights office in Congo, some 1,180 people were extrajudicially executed by Congolese "state agents" in 2017, far more than those killed by any of the armed groups and a threefold increase over two years.

The consequences of this violence have been devastating. Nearly 4.5 million people are displaced in Congo today, more than in any other country in Africa.[14] Last October, the United Nations named Congo to its highest "Level 3 humanitarian emergency," a category only given to three other countries: Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.[15] Neighboring countries have shown growing concern about the deteriorating situation in Congo and the risks the country's political crisis poses to stability in an already fragile region.

As the security forces are themselves fomenting much of the violence in Congo, this has in turn been used as an excuse for election delays. Last July, Mr. Nangaa said that violence in the Kasais was one of the main reasons why elections would not be held in 2017.[16] Just last week, he said the renewed violence in Ituri could have a "negative impact" on the electoral calendar.[17]

While the logistics of organizing elections in Congo are no doubt challenging, the country has managed in the past - both in 2006 and 2011 when Kabila was elected for his first and second terms, despite persistent security threats.

What additional excuses can we expect in the coming weeks and months? How many more promises will be broken? And most importantly, how many more Congolese will be killed, injured and imprisoned as they seek to exercise their basic human rights to peacefully demonstrate, speak out and freely associate?

This Council and UN member states have recognized that a credible and peaceful electoral cycle are crucial for lasting peace and stability in Congo. Many strong declarations have been made and Security Council resolutions have been adopted, insisting first that elections be held by the end of 2016, in accordance with the Congolese constitution, and then that elections must be held by the end of 2017, in accordance with the New Year's Eve agreement.

The key question today is, what makes this time different? What will convince Kabila and other senior officials that the international community will not tolerate further delays, and that human rights violations against protesters, civil society activists, opposition members and journalists need to end to allow for a credible, fair and peaceful process?

Further election delays, possible Kabila manipulation of the constitution to permit a third term, or a fraudulent or violent election will not resolve Congo's underlying problems or bring the country greater peace and stability. Such scenarios need to be avoided.

The Security Council, its peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUSCO, UN member states, and the African Union have important leverage. Now is the time to use that leverage for the well-being of the Congolese people.

First, the Security Council should be clear that December 23, 2018, is the final deadline for holding credible elections. In the interim, the Council should be ready to challenge the government if it fails to create an enabling environment for credible elections, one in which all Congolese are free to express their choice, contest in elections and protest peacefully.

Second, when renewing MONUSCO's mandate, the Security Council should retain strong language on protecting civilians, including in the context of elections. It should also call on the Department of Peacekeeping Operations to provide the mission sufficient resources to effectively protect peaceful protesters from unlawful force by Congolese security forces, including by deploying UN police units trained and equipped to work in urban settings. In line with the UN Human Rights Due Diligence Policy, the Council should ensure that no UN support is given to Congolese security forces responsible for abuses. In light of widespread government abuses, this might necessitate suspending all joint operations and support to Congolese security forces until concrete steps are taken to end widespread rights abuses and hold those responsible, regardless of rank, to account.

Third, clear benchmarks and redlines should be established to determine whether continued human rights violations undermine the enabling environment for planned elections. Such benchmarks could include the deadlines set in the CENI calendar, and summarized in the concept note for this meeting, as well as the following measures to open political space:

  • Release all arbitrarily detained political prisoners and activists;
  • Drop politically motivated charges against political leaders and activists and allow those living in exile to return freely, starting with those named in the New Year’s Eve agreement;
  • Open arbitrarily closed media outlets;
  • Allow the political opposition, civil society and citizens’ movements, and religious leaders to organize political meetings and peaceful demonstrations without fear of repression;
  • Ensure that UN human rights monitors have unhindered access to official and unofficial places of detention, medical facilities and morgues;
  • Cease arbitrary interference with the internet, SMS text messaging, and social media platforms;
  • Ensure transparency in CENI’s operations and cooperation with international electoral experts.

Fourth, the Council should request regular briefings from Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Congo, Leila Zerrougui, to assess whether the necessary progress is being made and be willing to impose measures if serious human rights violations continue. Such measures could include changes to MONUSCO's mandate, supporting possible new regional efforts, calling on UN member states to refrain from providing lethal weapons to Congolese security forces, and expanding targeted sanctions, including against President Kabila and other individuals responsible for serious violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law. Earlier this month the Council announced important sanctions against a Congolese army general and three militia leaders who have been implicated in serious abuses in eastern Congo. The impact of such actions would be much greater if the Council reached higher up the chain of command.

The Security Council, together with the African Union and other UN member states, have a critical opportunity to demonstrate that their interests lie with respecting and advancing the rights of the Congolese people. But that will require moving quickly from strong declarations to concrete actions.

Please refer to HRW's statement for further information on the footnotes.

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