Felix Tshisekedi holds up the constitution after being sworn into office as president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Kinshasa, January 24, 2019.

© 2019 Olivia Acland/Reuters

(Kinshasa) – The Democratic Republic of Congo’s new president, Felix Tshisekedi, should make protecting and promoting human rights a priority during his presidency, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to the president made public today. The administration has taken positive initial steps but faces enormous challenges.

Human Rights Watch outlined 10 key recommendations to improve human rights in the country. The organization urged Tshisekedi, during his first year in office, to remove abusive security force officers and other officials from their posts; enforce the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association; end interference in the judiciary; ensure progress in holding people responsible for the worst abuses to account; and develop a comprehensive strategy for dealing with armed groups.

“President Tshisekedi faces the daunting task of ending the cycles of violence and abuse, fueled by impunity and corruption, that have long plagued Congo,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Tshisekedi should make a clean break from the abusive and corrupt Kabila administration and adopt systemic changes that benefit all of Congo’s people.”

Tshisekedi was sworn into office in January 2019 following disputed elections. He now has an important opportunity to create a rights-respecting administration that abides by the rule of law, Human Rights Watch said.

During his inaugural speech, Tshisekedi promised to “guarantee to each citizen the respect of the exercise of their fundamental rights” and to end all forms of discrimination. He said that his government would prioritize “an effective and determined fight against corruption … impunity, bad governance, and tribalism.” Since then, the president has taken some important steps, including the release of political prisoners and the dismissal of the abusive head of the intelligence agency.

Certain actions by the new administration have raised concerns, however, Human Rights Watch said. Most notable was the appointment of Roger Kibelisa as an assistant to the president’s special security adviser. Kibelisa, the former head of the National Intelligence Agency’s Department for Internal Security, played a critical role in that position in the repression of activists and the opposition. In a public letter dated April 9, activists and former detainees of the intelligence agency urged Tshisekedi to withdraw Kibelisa’s appointment and not to appoint anyone who has been responsible for human rights violations to positions of responsibility.

Pictured from left to right: Paul Nsapu (International Federation for Human Rights), Ida Sawyer (Human Rights Watch), President Felix Tshisekedi, and rights activist Floribert Chebeya’s widow and daughter, Annie and Merdie, in Washington, DC, April 6, 2019.

© 2019 Private

During a visit earlier in April to Washington, DC, Tshisekedi expressed his commitment to good governance and respect for human rights, building transparent institutions, and combatting corruption. He also said that he intended to “dismantle the dictatorial system that was in place” in Congo. Tshisekedi reiterated his concern for human rights and the fight against impunity during a meeting with Human Rights Watch on April 6. The president also met with the widow and daughter of slain human rights defender Floribert Chebeya – an important and meaningful gesture.

“By taking strong, bold, and concrete steps to advance rights, President Tshisekedi would implement his commitment to turning the page on decades of violence, abuse, mismanagement, and impunity,” Roth said. “The Congolese people, and the world, will be watching his actions closely.”