Delegates arrive for the 34th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, February 27, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

(New York) – United Nations member countries should not vote for the Democratic Republic of Congo in the UN Human Rights Council election because of the government’s widespread human rights violations and lack of cooperation with UN rights mechanisms, Human Rights Watch said today. The annual election for seats on the 47-nation Human Rights Council will be held at the UN General Assembly in New York on October 16, 2017.

“Accepting Congo’s election bid would undermine the founding principles and credibility of the UN’s top rights body and its ability to promote respect for human rights,” said Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch. “It would also be a serious affront to the countless victims of government abuses and to the work of courageous Congolese activists.”

In the UN’s African Group, Congo, Angola, Senegal, and Nigeria are running on a closed slate for the group’s four positions on the council, which virtually ensures a seat for all. But because a majority of votes cast is needed for election, Congo could be denied a spot if half of the member countries voting refrain from casting a vote for it.

Many human rights activists in Congo have spoken out against their country’s candidacy. On October 12, 157 Congolese organizations called on UN member countries to oppose Congo’s candidacy, saying that voting for Congo would “send a wrong signal to a country that is far from exemplary” on human rights. On October 9, the citizens’ movement LUCHA (Struggle for Change) held a sit-in in the southeastern city of Lubumbashi against Congo’s candidacy.

Under UN General Assembly Resolution 60/251, which established the Human Rights Council, UN member states “shall take into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights” and members elected to the council “shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” and “fully cooperate with the council.” Measured against these standards, the Congolese government does not belong on the Human Rights Council, Human Rights Watch said.

The human rights situation in Congo has rapidly deteriorated in recent years. At its last session in September, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution renewing scrutiny of the human rights situation in Congo for another year. The council also expressed deep concerns “about the continued violations of civil and political rights [...] committed by State actors in the context of important electoral events.”

In the southern Kasai region, government security forces have been responsible for many of the abuses since August 2016 that have left up to 5,000 people dead, 600 schools attacked or destroyed, 1.4 million people displaced from their homes, and nearly 90 mass graves scattered across the region. In March 2017, two UN investigators – Michael Sharp, an American, and Zaida Catalán, a Swedish and Chilean citizen – were killed while investigating violence in the region. Human Rights Watch investigations and a Radio France Internationale report suggest government responsibility for the double murder.

When the two experts were first reported missing in March 2017, together with their Congolese interpreter and three motorbike drivers, Congolese government officials and security forces misled, blocked, and distracted UN peacekeepers and prolonged their search until the bodies were finally found on March 27, said UN officials and Congolese security officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch. The Congolese investigation and ongoing trial of those allegedly responsible for the murders have been seriously flawed and may be a cover-up to protect those ultimately responsible for the crime, Human Rights Watch said.

The Human Rights Council adopted by consensus a resolution on June 23 directing the UN high commissioner for human rights to send a team of international experts to investigate alleged human rights violations and abuses in the Kasai region.

President Joseph Kabila has used repression, violence, and corruption to delay elections and maintain his hold on power, despite the end of his constitutionally mandated two-term limit on December 19, 2016. A power-sharing agreement mediated by the Catholic Church in late 2016 called for elections by the end of 2017. But the national electoral commission has now said that the elections could not take place until at least April 2019. Congolese civil society leaders and others have called on Kabila to step down by the end of 2017, and have proposed a brief post-Kabila transition to organize credible elections, led by people who cannot run for office themselves.

The government has systematically banned political opposition meetings and demonstrations, often by firing live ammunition at peaceful protesters. Congolese security forces shot dead more than 170 peaceful protesters in 2015 and 2016, according to Human Rights Watch findings. During protests in December, Congolese authorities refused to cooperate with the UN Joint Human Rights Office in Congo (UNJHRO), denying it access “to several military facilities and camps as well as hospitals and morgues,” the UN said. In recent months, scores of opposition supporters and human rights activists have been jailed, many in secret detention without charge or access to family or lawyers. Others face trumped-up criminal charges.

The government has also rejected any international cooperation regarding a mass grave in Maluku on the outskirts of the capital, Kinshasa. In 2015, Congolese security forces secretly dug the grave and dumped several hundred bodies inside. Many family members of victims of summary execution or enforced disappearance by Congo’s security forces during protests in January 2015, and in “Operation Likofi,” an earlier police operation against gang crime, suspected that their loved ones were among those buried in Maluku. In both operations, security forces took away the bodies of some of those killed and never returned them to their families for burial. The Congolese government has not responded to repeated calls from the UN and others for an independent investigation.

In October 2014, the government expelled the UNJHRO director, Scott Campbell, following publication of a report about summary executions and enforced disappearances during Operation Likofi. Since then, several international researchers and journalists have been forced to leave or were banned from entering the country, including Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher on Congo, showing the Congolese government’s increasing resistance to independent human rights reporting. 

The Human Rights Council was created in 2006 to replace the failed UN Commission on Human Rights, which had largely been unwilling to address real human rights concerns and to which the world’s worst rights abusers could easily get elected. Over the past 11 years, the council has made significant contributions to human rights, reviewing the human rights records of all countries under the Universal Periodic Review process; creating commissions of inquiry on North Korea, Syria, Burundi, and other countries; and appointing numerous special rapporteurs and other independent experts to ensure credible, impartial investigations into alleged abuses even when the government concerned refuses to cooperate.

“Even on a closed slate, a country must still receive a majority of votes cast to be elected,” Charbonneau said. “UN members that withhold their vote for Congo are demonstrating support for high membership standards by rejecting a serial human rights abuser for this important body.”