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Human rights promotion crucial in DR Congo poll

Some 31 million people have registered to vote in the November presidential poll in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), amid fears by local and international human rights observers of escalation of politically-motivated attacks against civilians and violations of fundamental freedoms.

In 2006, the first ever free presidential elections in the DRC since independence were marred by scores of election-related human rights abuses. Officers of the national police and security forces were found responsible for summary executions, arbitrary arrests and torture of civilians in the capital Kinshasa and the Kivu Provinces in the East, at times based on victims’ suspected political affiliation. The UN found that few, if any, of the alleged perpetrators were ever held accountable.

The Congolese Government has the primary responsibility for ensuring inclusive, peaceful and transparent elections. In this task, it is supported by the UN Stabilization Mission in the DR Congo (MONUSCO), which includes the UN Joint Human Rights Office (JHRO).

In each of the 20 JHRO field offices spread out over a country the size of Western Europe, MONUSCO and the UN Human Rights Office collaborate to monitor, report and prevent human rights violations, including during elections.

A recent report released by the Joint Human Rights Office revealed that 188 human rights violations apparently linked to the electoral process had been documented between 1 November 2010 and 30 September 2011. Violations included death threats against human rights defenders for holding a press conference in which they denounced reforms; beating or arrests of civilians for merely wearing the T-shirts of opposition parties; repeated summons to the National Intelligence Agency; the reported beating of a civilian for asking an “unpatriotic” question and the arrest and ill-treatment of four individuals for discussing politics in a barbershop.

Drawing attention to human rights violations through the report may serve to stop more violations. Further prevention can be achieved by raising public awareness of human rights and building the capacities of political actors, security forces, civil society organizations and national media. In recent days, with increasing tensions and violence between rival political parties, the JHRO has also spoken out against hate speech and incitement to violence by political leaders.

In Goma, North Kivu, the Human Rights Office is currently training over one hundred NGOs in monitoring human rights violations during the elections. The office has also put in place a simple reporting system using accessible technology: each partner NGO will be able to call or send a SMS to the local UN human rights representative to report violations. UN human rights officers will then investigate the allegations and share the outcomes with the relevant local and national authorities, requesting them to take quick appropriate action in order to prevent potential conflicts.

“Not only have we provided training to partnering human rights NGOs but also communication tools and means of transportation,” said Rosevel Pierre Louis, UN human rights coordinator in North Kivu. “This is a practical and promising strategy to support those who have volunteered to observe the human rights situation during the elections in their own country, taking action to contribute to a free, fair, and peaceful process in full respect of international norms.”

A hundred kilometres away in Bukavu, South Kivu, the Joint Human Rights Office and MONUSCO have organized workshops with political leaders from the presidential majority and the opposition to improve their respect for the law and promote tolerance, non-violence and dialogue throughout the elections.

Another workshop on combating hate speech is planned for political parties, radio stations, law enforcement agencies, NGOs, and the National Independent Electoral Commission, with the assistance of the international NGO ‘Benevolencja’.

“So far, some 40 political parties and 30 civil society organizations were represented in these workshops,” stressed Souleymane Coulibaly, UN human rights coordinator in Bukavu. “The aim is to foster a greater degree of confidence in the electoral process and help create an environment in which the rights of all are respected, and peaceful and inclusive elections can be held.”

16 November 2011
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