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Human Rights Council holds enhanced dialogue on the human rights situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Human Rights Council  
EVENING 

20 March 2018

The Human Rights Council this evening held an enhanced dialogue on the human rights situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo under its technical assistance and capacity building agenda item.

Vojislav Šuc, President of the Human Rights Council, in opening remarks, said that the Council had requested the High Commissioner for Human Rights to dispatch a team of international experts to determine the facts in accordance with international standards, while ensuring the protection of all persons who would cooperate with the team.  The current enhanced interactive dialogue was being held at the Council’s request to the High Commissioner.

Andrew Gilmour, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights and Head of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in New York, expressed hope that the election of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the Council would be an opportunity for the Government to renew its human rights commitments.  In 2017, there had been an increase in extrajudicial killings perpetrated by State agents in the Kasai provinces, leading the Council to request three experts to investigate allegations of human rights violations.

Leila Zerrougui, Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Head of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said this dialogue was taking place at a crucial moment for the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Elections scheduled for December were the object of great hope for a peaceful transfer of power.  Noting her recent field visit to various communities in the country, Ms. Zerrougui said she was alarmed by the level of suffering she had witnessed.

Bacre Waly Ndiyae, Team Leader of the International Team of Experts on the Situation in the Kasai Regions, said the team had focused on the most serious allegations such as the attacks on the right to life, and attacks against children, including sexual and physical violence.  They had also focused on crimes that could constitute violations of international humanitarian law.  Two visits had been undertaken, unhindered by the Government.  Kasai was facing numerous conflicts with the involvement of numerous actors.  There was no time to waste and the uncountable violence must be stopped.

Marie-Ange Mushobekwa, Minister of Human Rights of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said she was aware that certain States had opposed the membership of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the Human Rights Council.  It was important to note that the country was in the Council and would remain for its entire mandate.  The Democratic Republic of the Congo would prove to be worthy of the trust that the nations had afforded it.  The Government would correct its errors.

In the ensuing discussion, speakers expressed serious concern about the deteriorating human rights situation, the shrinking democratic space and the harassment of political opposition members ahead of the upcoming elections.  They were anxious about the excessive use of force by the authorities and the intimidation of human rights defenders and journalists, political opponents, the violent repression of protests, arbitrary arrests and detention.  They were profoundly worried about the alarming increase in refugees and internally displaced persons noting that 13.1 million Congolese depended on humanitarian assistance, out of which 7.8 million were children.  Speakers called for an end to the impunity for sexual violence, of which children were increasingly the victims.  They called upon the Government to reduce tensions and realize measures supported by the National Independent Electoral Commission.  They also called upon the Government to refrain from torture or other abuses of detainees, and to grant them access to legal counsel.  Many urged the release of detained civil society representatives.

Speaking were the European Union, United Nations Children’s Fund, Russian Federation, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, United States, Australia, France, China, Angola, Netherlands, Botswana, Algeria, Sudan, United Kingdom, Ireland and the Republic of Congo.

Also taking the floor were the following non-governmental organizations: World Evangelical Alliance, African Development Association, International Service for Human Rights, International Federation for Human Rights Leagues, International Federation of ACAT Action By Christians for the Abolition of Torture, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Action internationale pour la paix et le développment dans la région des Grands Lacs.

The Council will reconvene on Wednesday, 21 March at 9 a.m. when it will separately discuss the situations in Mali, Libya, Ukraine and the Central African Republic under its technical assistance and capacity building agenda item.

Opening Statements

VOJISLAV ŠUC, President of the Human Rights Council, said that in its resolution 35/33 the Council had requested the High Commissioner for Human Rights to dispatch a team of international experts, including experts from the region, to determine the facts in accordance with international standards, while ensuring the protection of all persons who would cooperate with the team, in cooperation with the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, including by facilitating visits to the country, sites and persons, concerning alleged human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law in the Kasai region, and to forward to judicial authorities of the Democratic Republic of the Congo conclusions of the investigations to ensure that perpetrators of the crimes were held accountable.  The Council requested the High Commissioner to provide an oral update and his team to particulate in an enhanced interactive dialogue.

ANDREW GILMOUR, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights and Head of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in New York, in his introduction, expressed hope that the election of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the Council would be an opportunity for the Government to renew its human rights commitments.  In 2017, there had been an increase in extrajudicial killings perpetrated by State agents in the Kasai provinces, leading the Council to request three experts to investigate allegations of human rights violations.  A general ban on the activities of the political opposition and civil society and the repression of demonstrations had become a constant feature of the country.  Most recently, in December and January, the police had resorted to violent means to disperse peaceful demonstrations, resulting in the killing of 17 persons and wounding of 281 persons.  However, the actual figures could be higher.  Arbitrary arrests of 406 persons were carried out during demonstrations.  The staff of the Office of the High Commissioner was denied access to some morgues, hospitals and detention centres.  A report was published, together with United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on the disproportionate use of force by security services and defence forces.

The authorities were urged to uphold the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.  Efforts of the Government to bring to justice some perpetrators were welcomed, as was the establishment on the national commission of inquiry.  Deep concern remained about the situation in Tanganyika, Maniema, North and South Kivu, Ituri and in the Kasais where inter-communal and ethnic violence had further intensified, with the involvement of ethnic militias and armed groups.  A large majority of human rights violations had occurred in the east and in Kasai.  The number of internally displaced persons had reached 4.49 million in December 2017, marking an increase of over 100 per cent in just 12 months.  Sexual violence remained a major concern.  The Office of the High Commissioner was currently deploying a technical team mandated by the resolution 35/33 to provide advisory services to the military authority in Kananga and Mbuji Mayi to complete its investigatory work concerning allegations of abuses committed in the Kasai provinces.  In conclusion, it was stressed that the Council had to retain a sharp focus on the ever-deteriorating situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, especially in the context of the electoral process.

LEILA ZERROUGUI, Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Head of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said this dialogue was taking place at a crucial moment for the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Elections scheduled for December were the object of great hope for a peaceful transfer of power.  Noting her recent field visit to various communities in the country, Ms. Zerrougui said she was alarmed by the level of suffering she had witnessed.  Efforts were being undertaken to assist stakeholders in the political and electoral process to achieve trust in institutions and find a solution to the ongoing crisis.  There was a need to take urgent corrective measures to end acts of violence.  She pointed to a joint commission of inquiry investigating violence that took place from December 2017 to January 2018 and its role in opening spaces to civil society as a success story.  The stabilization mission would spare no resources in ensuring the opening of the democratic spaces and ending attacks against churches and national institutions.

Concerns over the respect of rights and fundamental freedoms continued to influence, and be influenced by, the country’s political and electoral processes.  The overall security situation posed a real threat to civilians.  The country was still facing one of the world’s most serious humanitarian crises as insecurity continued to spread.  The number of internally displaced persons in need of humanitarian assistance had reached 4.5 million.  Additionally, some 2 million children were severely malnourished.  Ms. Zerrougui voiced particular concern over the rapidly deteriorating situation in Ituri as attacks related to the Hema-Lendu intercommunity conflict persisted.  Reports from the past few months stated that dozens of civilians had been killed.  The Special Representative reiterated the Stabilization Mission’s commitment and active engagement towards accompanying the Congolese authorities in their efforts to address the current challenges to human rights.

BACRE WALY NDIYAE, Team Leader of the International Team of Experts on the Situation in the Kasai Regions, said the team had focused on the most serious allegations such as the attacks on the right to life, and attacks against children, including sexual and physical violence.  They had also focused on crimes that could constitute violations of international humanitarian law.  Two visits had been undertaken unhindered.  Due to road conditions, challenges had been faced.  The team had undertaken more than 300 interviews with witnesses and victims.  Throughout the visits in November 2017 and February 2018, the team had also undertaken meetings with members of the Government, including the Minister for Human Rights, those working in the justice and military, as well as members of civil society.  It was premature to draw conclusions on the proof; however, the first month of inquiry had allowed them to better understand the waves of violence in Kasai.  Kasai was facing numerous conflicts with the involvement of numerous actors.  The nature varied according to different zones.

As of May 2016, in central Kasai, Chief Kamuina Nsapu had constructed a militia recruiting numerous children, and had undertaken attacks on the public authorities.  This had quickly spread to the five other provinces of Kasai.  The defence and security forces had used excessive force in quelling the militias, causing numerous victims, including civilians.  There had also been a great many attacks, including sexual violence.  Children had been at once the instruments of violence, as well as targeted by the violence as victims.  Violence had undertaken ethnic dimensions with the creation of the Bana Mura militias by members of the Tshokwe and Pende ethnicities.  The Bana Mura militias had undertaken attacks on the Luba and Lulua ethnic communities, which had been reduced to slavery, including sexual slavery.  The fact that crimes of such severity continued was of high concern.  While the security situation had improved, acts of violence and intercommunal tension persisted.  It would be a mistake to think that the human rights violations had ended in Kasai.  The team was alarmed at the situation and the danger and peril in which many hundreds of thousands of people found themselves.   The team would be speaking on this in their June report.  There was no time to waste and the uncountable violence must be stopped.  An end to impunity must be undertaken.

MARIE-ANGE MUSHOBEKWA, Minister of Human Rights of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said she was aware that certain States had opposed the membership of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the Human Rights Council, and while some remarks were relevant, others were not.  It was important to note that the Democratic Republic of the Congo was in the Council and would remain for its entire mandate; it would prove to be worthy of the trust that the nations had afforded it.  The Government would correct its errors.  Constructive exchanges with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights would allow the Government to better tackle the problems and find appropriate responses.  The Government also appreciated the cooperation with the non-governmental organizations which had an important educative role.

The Government deeply regretted that numerous people had died during the protests, among the forces of order and civil society.  The authors of these crimes would be brought to justice.   While not everything was rosy, progress had been made.  This included the fact that the electoral process would continue, and elections would be held on 23 December 2018.  The suspension of events in public spaces had been lifted in order to allow for preparations by all political parties in view of the upcoming election.  A mixed Commission of Inquiry made up of members of the government, civil society, the United Nations and the African Union, had been established and had collected information on the protests.  The conclusions from its inquiries had been made public and the judicial bodies had opened the said cases and would prosecute those responsible.  The individuals who did not deserve to be detained would be released.  The individuals suspected of being involved in atrocities had been sentenced.  Though these steps were not enough, they were steps forward and showed the commitment of the Government undertaken before the Human Rights Council and the United Nations.  If the Government persevered, it would succeed.

Enhanced Dialogue

European Union remained concerned about the profound crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, adding that the great increase in the number of refugees and internally displaced persons was alarming.  It called attention to the shrinking of the democratic space, and impunity for sexual violence. United Nations Children’s Fund reminded that 13.1 million Congolese depended on humanitarian assistance, out of which 7.8 million were children.  Children were increasingly the victims of violence, including sexual violence, and were recruited by militias. Russian Federation regretted the deterioration of the security situation, especially in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  A key condition for reducing tensions was the timely realization of measures supported by the National Independent Electoral Commission.  Russian Federation opposed external mentorship, noting that the Congolese people themselves needed to resolve the crisis.

Germany regretted to hear that at least 94 persons in the Democratic Republic of the Congo remained in State custody for political reasons and without being taken to court.  It called on the Congolese authorities to refrain from torture or other abuses of detainees and to grant them access to legal counsel. Belgium remained concerned about the excessive use of force by the authorities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and about the security situation in the Kasai, Tanganyika, Kivus and Ituri provinces.  It called on the Government to secure access to international experts to all places where human rights abuses had taken place. Switzerland expressed concern about the intimidation of human rights defenders and journalists, violent repression of protests, arbitrary arrests and detention in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  In Kasai, inter-communal violence was worrying, as well as the emergence of new crisis hotspots, such as in Ituri.

United States said the Congolese Government had the primary responsibility to ensure that human rights abusers were held accountable.  Many reported acts of human rights violations were attributable to Government forces.  The Government was urged to release detained civil society representatives. Australia voiced concern over the reported spread of violence across the country which was characterized by gross human rights violations.  Australia asked what obstacles to achieving accountability in relation to human rights violations existed. France reiterated its great concern over the deteriorating human rights situation.  The shrinking democratic space and the harassment of political opposition members were concerns ahead of the upcoming elections.

China hoped relevant parties would be guided by the interest of national unity and supported efforts to promote and protect human rights.  The international community must work constructively and fully respect the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s national sovereignty. Angola remained concerned over human rights violations, particularly in the Kasai region.  Noting international commitments on refugees, Angola said it was providing humanitarian assistance for thousands of refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Netherlands said that, for most human rights violations, no credible investigations were being conducted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Timely and peaceful elections were essential to ensuring sustainable peace and development.

Botswana urged the Government to ensure transparent and fair elections and to uphold the Southern African Development Community principles governing democratic elections.  The Government was asked to ensure the implementation of the 2013 Peace Agreement. Algeria said that the humanitarian situation, particularly displacement, demanded increased solidarity and assistance from the international community.  The creation of the mixed commission of inquiry was welcomed and the Government was encouraged to address human rights violations. Sudan applauded the swift response of the Government to events in the Kasai region.  Legislative reform and setting up of a national human rights commission in line with the Paris Principles was supported and willingness to provide technical assistance was offered.

United Kingdom noted a particularly worrying fact that 60 per cent of the 744 recorded human rights violations in January 2018 had been committed by State agents.  The shrinking of political space and the failure to implement the Saint Sylvestre Accord of December 2016 was noted with concern. Ireland deplored the ongoing recruitment of child soldiers and recent attacks on schools and hospitals in the Kasai region.  Investigation of conflict-related gang-rape cases initiated by the judicial authorities in Tanganyika were welcomed. Republic of Congo welcomed the progress in pacification of the Kasai region which would allow the return of displaced persons.  The Democratic Republic of the Congo was encouraged to actively continue its efforts, with the support of the international community to bring the perpetrators to justice.

World Evangelical Alliance said the massacres in the region of Beni continued while new massacres in Djugu had happened this month.  All this had led to the displacement of more than 300,000 people, while 40,000 had taken refuge in neighbouring Uganda. African Development Association said over 6,000 deaths had been documented in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2017 alone, which was an average of 500 per month.  How could a country that had become a slaughterhouse, and contributed to war crimes and crimes against humanity be a member in the Human Rights Council? International Service for Human Rights said the right to freedom of assembly, association and expression were under great threat in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  In addition, it had become very complicated for journalists or defenders likely to expose the human rights situation in the country to be granted a visa.

International Federation for Human Rights Leagues said in the absence of firm action by the international community, the military operations would continue their atrocities.  It called upon the Council to seize the situation, stating that more than 8,000 persons had fled to neighbouring countries. International Federation of ACAT Action By Christians for the Abolition of Torture said Joseph Kabila maintained his position in total violation of the Saint Sylvestre Agreement signed on 31 December 2016.  In the past few months, the Government had systematically repressed all peaceful manifestations organised by the Coordination Committee and persecution by the intelligence services and the republican guard persisted. Human Rights Watch said violence had broken out in Ituri province whereby militias had launched deadly attacks on villages, killing scores of civilians, torching thousands of homes and displacing more than 100,000 people, including nearly 60,000 refugees who had fled to Uganda.  This was just the latest outbreak of violence in which the response by the Government and security forces had been grossly inadequate.

Amnesty International was concerned over ongoing suppression of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly in the context of the disputed electoral process.  Amnesty called on the Government to lift systematic and unlawful prohibitions of peaceful protest. Action internationale pour la paix et le développment dans la région des Grands Lacs referenced comments by the Government in which it stated that it had had no alternative when responding to violence against religious groups.  Such comments were evidence of a repressive regime, the organization asserted.

Concluding Remarks

ANDREW GILMOUR, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights and Head of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in New York, welcomed the constructive tone of the Minister of Human Rights of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the announced ending of the ban on peaceful demonstrations.  He expressed hope that it would trickle down to the provinces, and that there would be further releases of detainees.  It was very important to put an end to the use of excessive force and to ensure accountability for its use.  The security forces should have at their disposal non-lethal weapons.  Regarding technical expertise to the judiciary, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was ready to support it and to help the professionalization of the security forces.  Those were standing offers to the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  As for measures for the opening of the civil space, any partners should support that and continue enabling the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to provide technical assistance to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

LEILA ZERROUGUI, Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Head of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, stressed that the conditions conducive for elections were contained in the political agreement of 31 December 2016.  It was the question of interpretation by the Government and the opposition that was problematic.  The peace process had to be implemented in good faith, and political solutions should be found instead of legalistic solutions.  Each side had to make concessions.  The Government had a responsibility to ensure that elections were held.  Obviously, the opening of the political space and the liberation of detained persons were necessary.  People had to be convinced that credible elections would be held.  Ms. Zerrougui reminded that it was also important to find a solution for the duplication of political parties, and to disburse funds for the elections.  As for violations against women, Ms. Zerrougui noted that there was a risk of political manipulations by several actors, including at the local level.  Women paid a heavy price and faced sexual violence.  They needed assistance to be reintegrated into their communities.   In conclusion, Ms. Zerrougui stressed that there should be clear instructions to the police and army not to use excessive force when securing public demonstrations.

BACRE WALY NDIYAE, Team Leader of the International Team of Experts on the Situation in the Kasai Regions, thanked everyone for helping with the investigation which had been conducted.  The cooperation with the Government was functioning well and access had been provided to provincial authorities, military authorities and civil society.  Of course, security could not be guaranteed everywhere and some areas were more difficult to reach due to their remoteness, but overall the access had been unhindered.  A wish was expressed that the cooperation with the Government remained.  Concerns over the level of violence, especially sexual violence, voiced by different delegations, were shared by the team.  Humanitarian assistance was mobilized and provided but still this was covering only 10 to 15 per cent of the overall needs.

MARIE-ANGE MUSHOBEKWA, Minister of Human Rights of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, shared other speakers’ concerns regarding the situation in Kasai.  The Government was willing to cooperate with the United Nations to allow investigations into the atrocities in the region.  Courts in the country had already opened related cases and perpetrators were being prosecuted.

Freedom of expression and religion were guaranteed by the Constitution and a suspension of public gatherings had been lifted.  This would allow all political parties to prepare for the upcoming elections.  Each group must be able to organize relevant demonstrations and meetings considered useful for campaigns.  The Government agreed that greater professionalization of the law enforcement agencies was needed.  The United Nations was assisting to enhance the capacities of security forces and sensitize them to human rights responsibilities.  The Minister said she refused to engage in arguments with speakers who stated the Government had said it had the right to shoot demonstrators.  Out of respect of those killed, she would not respond to such hateful comments.
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