OPED: UN Security Council visit to DRC opportunity to open up the civic space ahead of December polls

By Stephen Lamony, Amnesty International’s Senior Advocate for Africa

From 4 to 7 October, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) will be visiting the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This will be the fourteenth visiting mission of the UNSC to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The last visit took place in November 2016. As it was two years ago, the topic of discussion will be the ever-upcoming elections, first expected for December 2016 and now set for December 2018.  

At the time of its last visit in 2016, one of the Security Council’s main concerns was President Kabila’s putative candidacy for the presidency. Such candidacy would have been controversial: the Congolese Constitution allows only for two terms and Kabila’s final term should have ended in December 2016. This particular concern of the Council was lifted on 8 August 2018, when Emmanuel Shadary Ramazani, a former Interior Minister, was designated as Kabila’s ‘heir’ and candidate for presidential elections.

The UNSC’s list of issues to raise, however, runs longer than Kabila’s now settled candidacy.

The UNSC's list of issues to raise, however, runs longer than Kabila’s now settled candidacy. In 2016, the UNSC called for ‘the suspension of judicial proceedings undertaken for political ends, freeing political prisoners, (…) the opening of the political space to allow for discussions to be held in peaceful conditions (…) a free and constructive political debate, where freedom of opinion, assembly and fair access to the media are guaranteed and where security and freedom of movement are also ensured.’

Today there is as much, if not more, to say about those human rights concerns in the country than in 2016.

Today there is as much, if not more, to say about those human rights concerns in the country than in 2016. 

Despite the UNSC’s past messages to the DRC authorities, Congolese people have not been able to freely exercise their human rights to express their opinions on issues related to the elections.  Since 2015, the opposition and civil society organizations have regularly organized demonstrations to denounce what they have considered tactics to delay elections.

Demonstrations have been banned or brutally suppressed. Over 300 people have been killed and scores injured or arbitrarily arrested.

Demonstrations have been banned or brutally suppressed. Over 300 people have been killed and scores injured or arbitrarily arrested. Political opponents and human rights defenders have been arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted in politically motivated charges. On 24 September, a court sentenced four pro-democracy and human rights activists, members of the youth movement, Filimbi, to a year in prison for mobilizing people to take part in last December’s nationwide peaceful protests organized by the Catholic Church’s lay committee. Amnesty International has called for their immediate release. Several activists have fled their homes or even the country.

Kabila’s recent decision not to run for the presidency has had no impact on the opening of the civic space.

Kabila’s recent decision not to run for the presidency has had no impact on the opening of the civic space. Many Congolese are still concerned by the Electoral Commission’s ruling out of several key contenders for the presidential elections, the planned use of voting machines and the voters’ registration. However, their attempts to express their discontent continue to be suppressed. On 3 September, during protests about the use of electronic voting machines, at least 23 peaceful protesters were injured while another 89 were arrested in the capital Kinshasa, and in the cities of Goma, Lubumbashi, Bukavu, Mbandaka, Mbuji-Mayi and Tshikapa. In Bukavu, the police sexually assaulted two women activists.

Meanwhile, conflict in Eastern DRC is going through another upward cycle and the situation in the Kasaï provinces remains dire. The August report by the UN Joint Human Rights Office shows that in the Kivus and the Kasais, the DRC security forces remain the principle actors of human rights violations.

This persisting suppression of human rights does not bode well for the months to come before the December elections.

This persisting suppression of human rights does not bode well for the months to come before the December elections.

The UNSC should remind again the Congolese authorities to formally lift any bans on peaceful demonstrations and end the clampdown of opposition and civil society meetings. However, during this visit, the onus is really on the Congolese authorities. They could use it as an opportunity to make a powerful statement on their willingness to open the civic space ahead of the December polls and release all those arbitrarily detained simply for exercising their human rights as well as those arrested on politically-motivated charges, including the four members of Filimbi sentenced last week.

Whether the authorities will seize the chance offered to them by this visit remains to be seen.