Statement by Mr. Andrew Gilmour, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights
40th Human Rights Council session - Item 10
19 March 2019
On 24 January, following elections, Felix Tshisekedi was inaugurated as President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The political transition presents an extraordinary opportunity for the country to move forward with its obligations to respect civil and political rights, ensure accountability for past and ongoing violations, and take measures to fulfil the economic and social rights for its 80 million citizens. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights looks forward to supporting the Government and the people of the DRC in this crucial phase.
We welcome President Tshisekedi’s clear commitment in his inauguration speech to guarantee respect for the human rights of all citizens and end discrimination. The President repeated this pledge when he unveiled his “emergency programme for the first 100 days”, and the recent decrees for the release of all political prisoners is a concrete step in that direction. We look forward to their actual release as well as to the closing of all unofficial detention centres. President Tshisikedi also evoked the possibility of allowing political exiles to return to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Such measures, if fulfilled, would represent an exceptionally positive development towards the opening up of democratic space, which has been increasingly restricted in recent years. We encourage the President to extend his pledge to ensure respect for all rights linked to democratic space, including the rights to freedoms of association, expression and opinion and peaceful assembly.
During the electoral process, restrictions on democratic space were obvious. Between 22 November 2018 and 24 January 2019, i.e. the months preceding and following elections, the Joint Human Rights Office in the DRC documented the killing of at least 36 civilians in elections-related violence; 21 victims were killed by defence and security forces as a result of disproportionate use of force, including the use of live ammunition, in the context of the population’s right to peaceful protest.
During the same period, at least 656 individuals were arrested arbitrarily by State agents across the country, mostly in the context of demonstrations.
In previous statements to this Council on the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the past years, I have stressed the need to urgently lift restrictions on peaceful demonstrations, to put an end to the intimidation of members of opposition, civil society activists and media professionals, and to take measures to end the impunity that perpetuates the violations and abuses which have prevailed throughout the country.
Since President Tshisekedi took office, there have been encouraging signs of an opening of democratic space. The right to peaceful assembly has generally been respected, although some civil society activists have been arbitrarily arrested while peacefully demonstrating following the elections, including dozens of members of the citizens’ movement Lucha.
The report before you underscores that the number of documented human rights violations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo continued to increase throughout 2018 and before the elections.
In 2018, the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) documented 6,831 human rights violations, with 61% committed by State agents (primarily in the context of democratic space) and 39% perpetrated by armed groups (primarily conflict-related). We remain extremely concerned about the situation in conflict-affected provinces, which accounted for 79% of all violations. A worrisome increase in the number of human rights abuses by armed groups and militias in these regions confirms the spread and intensification of their activities, which has been fuelling intercommunity violence.
Last year, more than 1,100 persons were killed throughout the country in conflict-related violence. Almost 900 persons were subjected to conflict-related sexual violence, including 279 children - between two and three victims every day. These are just the cases we were able to document.
OHCHR remains deeply concerned about the continuing inter-community violence in the country, which is not restricted to conflict-affected provinces. The horrific attacks which took place last December in the province of Mai-Ndombe between members of the Batende and the Banunu communities left hundreds of civilians dead, illustrating the urgent need for the State to extend the rule of law to the whole of the territory of the country.
As described in the report recently released by UNJHRO on the attacks in Mai-Ndombe in eastern DRC, at least 535 men, women and children were killed, 111 were injured, and at least 19,000 inhabitants have fled, including some 16,000 who risked their lives crossing the river to the neighbouring Republic of the Congo. The investigations also revealed allegations of sadistic mutilations and cases of sexual violence. In addition, almost a thousand buildings were destroyed in three towns, mainly houses but also schools, health centres and churches.
There is an urgent need to take measures to defuse tensions and promote reconciliation in the region and avoid further bloodshed, and to ensure that those responsible are prosecuted. The violent acts committed may constitute crimes against humanity, and perpetrators must be held accountable. We urge the Government to pursue its efforts towards independent and impartial investigations into the crimes committed, in accordance with international standards. OHCHR stands ready to support the authorities with these investigations, if requested.
OHCHR deployed a technical team as mandated by this Council to provide advisory services to the Auditorat Militaire to complete its investigatory work concerning allegations of violations and abuses committed in the Kasai provinces.
The technical team deployed to Kananga includes five forensic experts, who are assisting the judicial authorities with the exhumation of the mass graves. This will not only provide crucial evidence to strengthen the prosecution of alleged perpetrators, but also enable the families to bury their loved ones with dignity. I would like to express our gratitude to the authorities for cooperating with the Team of International Experts for the Kasais during their visits to the region. I look forward to hearing the Team’s update later today, particularly on the status of implementation of recommendations made to the Government to fight against impunity and promote reconciliation.
To conclude, I would like to reiterate that the commitments made by the President on human rights are very encouraging. OHCHR looks forward to the implementation of these commitments, and hopes that the President will lead the country to embark on a genuine policy to effectively promote and protect human rights, including by opening up democratic space and ensuring accountability for past and present human rights violations committed throughout the country. Our Office looks forward to continue working closely with the President and the Congolese authorities in support of such critical steps, in consolidation of the democratic transition and for greater enjoyment of freedom and rights for all.