We are writing today to urge your delegation to address the worrying human rights situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo during the 33rd session of the UN Human Rights Council, and to support a resolution that would increase the United Nations’ capacity to monitor and report on human rights violations in the country and help prevent an escalation of violence, abuse, and repression in the coming months.
Since January 2015, the Congolese government has imposed a brutal crackdown against those who have spoken out against or opposed attempts to extend President Joseph Kabila’s presidency beyond the constitutionally mandated two-term limit, which ends on December 19, 2016. Government officials and security forces have arbitrarily arrested scores of opposition leaders and activists, fired on peaceful protesters, banned opposition demonstrations, shut down media outlets, accused peaceful pro-democracy youth activists of plotting terrorist acts, and prevented opposition leaders from moving freely around the country. The UN Joint Human Rights Office in Congo has documented 760 human rights violations related to restrictions of democratic space, including 500 violations in 2016.
In one of the latest attempts to curtail human rights reporting during a period of increased government repression, the Congolese government in August 2016 blocked our senior researcher, who has been based in Congo with Human Rights Watch for over eight years, from continuing to work in the country.
There is still no justice or clarity on the mass grave in Maluku, on the outskirts of the capital, Kinshasa, where security forces buried 421 bodies in the middle of the night on March 18-19, 2015. Families of victims killed or forcibly disappeared by security forces, including during political demonstrations in January 2015, fear their loved ones were among those buried there, and a nurse in charge of one of the morgues in Kinshasa – and who likely knew about the mass burial and might have spoken out– died in suspicious circumstances the night of the burial.
Meanwhile, preparations for presidential elections have stalled, and senior government officials have said that elections cannot be held before the end of the year, officially citing technical, logistical, and financial constraints. A “national dialogue” called by President Kabila ostensibly to discuss the way forward, officially began on September 1. However, nearly all of the main opposition political parties have so far been unwilling to participate, fearing that the dialogue is merely a ploy for President Kabila to stay in power by dragging out the process. Kabila himself has shown no indication that he will step down at the end of his mandate, and some members of his ruling coalition have spoken publicly in support of a referendum to amend the constitution.
In what the Minister of Justice announced was an effort to ease political tensions in advance of the dialogue, nine human rights and pro-democracy youth activists were released from prison between August 27 and September 5. They had been arrested over the past year and a half after calling for respect of the constitution or participating in peaceful protests or other activities. Many were held for weeks or months by the national intelligence agency (Agence Nationale de Renseignements, ANR) without charge and without access to their lawyers or families, before eventually being transferred to Kinshasa’s central prison and put on trial on trumped-up charges.
Their release ended their wrongful detention, but in itself does not signify a shift in policy. The repression has not stopped, and much more needs to be done: charges against most of the released activists have not been dropped; at least 20 other activists and opposition party leaders and supporters remain in detention after speaking out against attempts to extend Kabila’s stay in power or after participating in peaceful political activities, including seven held incommunicado by military intelligence; protests in Lubumbashi and Kinshasa on August 29 and September 1 turned violent when police fired teargas on the demonstrators and arrested dozens of protesters; at least seven media outlets close to the opposition remain blocked; and the officials who have led the brutal repression over the past 20 months have not been held to account and remain in positions of command.
Our local network of human rights and other civil society activists tells us that growing numbers of Congolese appear to oppose an extension of Kabila’s term beyond December 19 and that the unemployed and marginalized youth in Kinshasa and other cities could become increasingly discontent in the coming months if the economic crisis deepens. Many say they are ready to mobilize and go to the streets in protest starting on September 19 – three months before the end of President Kabila’s mandate and when, according to the constitution, the electoral commission is due to convoke presidential elections. This raises the possibility of further violations against protesters.
Meanwhile, the security situation in eastern Congo, where dozens of armed groups are still active, remains deeply volatile. In the Beni area, armed forces have killed more than 600 civilians in a series of massacres since October 2014, according to the UN and local rights groups. There is a possibility that the many armed groups in eastern Congo and youth leagues in major cities might be manipulated for political ends in the coming months.
How the situation will play out should Kabila decide not to step down is unclear. But the risk of increased violence, instability, brutal repression, and a further shrinking of political space in the coming months is very real. While the window of opportunity is closing, we believe there is still time to influence the course of events and help to minimize further human rights violations.
The Human Rights Council and its member states have important means to help influence President Kabila and his top subordinates to halt the repression and human rights violations. At the 32nd session of the Council, the Netherlands delivered a joint statement under item 2 on behalf of 44 other countries regarding Congo. The statement expressed concern regarding ongoing violence, which had not abated since the previous joint statement was delivered in March 2016. After a country visit in July, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein expressed concern that the political uncertainty could lead to a serious crisis. Steps can be taken now to follow-up on these past statements to help avoid the worst-case scenarios and play a critical role in helping prevent Congo from descending into a Burundi-type scenario, with potential for large scale violence, instability, and repression.
We therefore urge you to adopt a resolution on the Democratic Republic of Congo at the Human Rights Council’s upcoming 33rd session that would address the above mentioned ongoing human rights violations, and that would:
- Establish a dedicated mechanism for monitoring and reporting on the situation in Congo, such as an independent expert or an OHCHR team of experts with capacity for rapid response;
- Mandate enhanced interactive dialogues on Congo at Council sessions in 2017, including with relevant UN bodies and stakeholders, in order to expand scrutiny of the human rights situation in Congo beyond the current discussions; and
- Request thematic reports by the OHCHR, including on violence in the context of elections or increased political repression, which would provide dedicated attention to areas of particular concern.
Furthermore, we urge your delegation to support the call for an urgent debate during the 33rd session of the Human Rights Council, or a special session should the situation further deteriorate.
We thank you for your attention and would welcome opportunities to provide any further information about the human rights situation in Congo.