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Informal briefing to the Human Rights Council: Statement by Andrew Gilmour, Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights on the Democratic Republic of the Congo

30 November 2016

I visited the DRC last week for five days, following the High Commissioner's visit in July. I listened carefully to many voices. I met with the Vice-Prime Minister, several cabinet ministers, two Governors, the Heads of Intelligence and the Police, and both speakers of Parliament. Also the National Human Rights Commission; dozens of human rights defenders and members of civil society in Kinshasa, Lubumbashi and Goma; the diplomatic corps; and the UN community.

I am grateful to the DRC authorities for seriously engaging in discussions, and the evident seriousness with which they take the work of our professional and courageous colleagues, even when they disagree with our findings. This year is the 20th anniversary of our office in the DRC, and there can be no doubt that the human rights situation has improved in the country in that time. I welcomed the clear commitment from the authorities and others to clamp down on flagrant acts of sexual violence and the recruitment of children.

But we are deeply concerned over some recent developments which I discussed in detail with the authorities – especially their refusal to open the democratic space, and their restrictions on fundamental freedoms. A ban on all public demonstrations by opposition parties or civil society is now in effect throughout most of the country but this doesn't seem to apply to the ruling Majority, whose gatherings continue to take place. I echo the sentiments expressed by several Special Rapporteurs earlier this month, who underlined that “the current situation in the DRC does not justify a general ban on demonstrations in several cities”.

Therefore, I urged the authorities to lift the ban and to allow peaceful demonstrations throughout the country.

The DRC Government arguments, for me, were based on the logic that restricting rights enshrined in their own Constitution will somehow bring security, and therefore, reduce tensions. I told them that it was our conviction that this will result in exactly the opposite. The continued suppression of basic rights will exacerbate tensions and almost certainly bring more violence, and therefore less security

Restrictions on the media have increased since the Human Rights Council session last September. At least seven journalists have been arrested, two newspapers closed. Radio France Internationale (RFI) signal has been discontinued since 5 November in Kinshasa, and the signal of the UN Radio Okapi has been jammed for four days. I called on DRC authorities to allow all media to operate freely, and to allow the voices of all sections of the population and political actors to be heard.

I was a little alarmed by the tendency of the various DRC authorities I met to delegitimize and denigrate civil society organisations, the opposition and all demonstrators. They accused the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) of being the mouthpiece, or in the pocket of the opposition and human rights defenders. Conversely, they accused the opposition and the NGOs of being in the pay of foreign powers. The implications were clear that any active support for Human rights or for opposition parties were somehow illegitimate. In discussions with me they continually dismissed the demonstrators against the Government as thugs, rapists and drogues addicts. I made it very clear that I didn’t accept these characterizations: either of the UN of being in the pocket of the opposition, nor the claim that the opposition and Human Rights Defenders were at heart, merely criminals.

One of the main goals of my mission was to follow up on the assurances given by the DRC authorities to the High Commissioner in July, focusing on two areas.

Firstly, the issue of detainees. At the end of my mission, I sent a list of 61 political detainees to the Head of the National Intelligence Agency urging him to effect their release or rapid transfer to relevant judicial authorities, as had been pledged to the HC. We are counting on his full cooperation.

Secondly, the use of excessive force by security and defence forces. I told the authorities that the High Commissioner had been encouraged to be told during his own visit that the Congolese armed forces will not in future use lethal force against demonstrators. Which was why we were gravely disappointed to see that just two months later, nearly 50 demonstrators were shot and killed with live ammunition, often in the heads or chests, which hardly indicate that those assurances were given in the good faith we hoped for. The Deputy High Commissioner briefed the Human Rights Council a few days after those awful events, in September. The Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly called them "excessive", while the Special Rapporteur on summary executions called them "indiscriminate and unlawful", stressing that “firearms and other potentially lethal weapons should never be used simply to disperse a demonstration”.

Accountability is absolutely crucial. Therefore, I informed the group of Cabinet ministers and security forces officials that we stand ready to collaborate with them in a joint, credible, independent investigation. The Vice-Prime Minister accepted the proposal, which I welcomed.

During my visit to the country, I underlined to the Congolese authorities that there can be no credible and peaceful electoral process without respect for fundamental freedoms. In every meeting, I advocated the implementation of confidence building measures, which in this case basically means lifting restrictions on human rights. I strongly condemned all acts of violence in the DRC, irrespective of the perpetrator.

In the area of legislation, I encouraged the adoption of the law protecting human rights defenders, the law defining the freedom of assembly and peaceful protest, and the ratification of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance.

We encourage members of the Human Rights Council to remain seized of the situation in the DRC to prevent a further escalation of violence and human rights violations. For my part I will continue my engagement with New York-based stakeholders and mechanisms in that regard. The recent visit of Security Council members to the DRC indicates that a shared concern and commitment to a peaceful solution that fully respects the human rights of all Congolese. The international community should explore all means at its disposal to support this effort.

But let's be clear: there is a profound and widespread concern that in three weeks time – 19th December marking the end of the second and last term of President Kabila – there may be mass demonstrations in many parts of the country. They may be met in a similar way to the demonstrations in September – in which case we could see a truly terrible escalation. This is why confidence building measures need to be implemented now, to head off that scenario.
For two decades, OHCHR has worked alongside the Government of the DRC, as well as its civil society, its population as a whole, and vulnerable groups. Whatever happens next month and thereafter, we will be there for the Congolese people.

Thank you.