Opening remarks by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein at a press conference during his mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo
I am grateful to the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo for its invitation to visit this country at such an important time.
Over the past few days, I have listened carefully to many voices. I regret I was unable to meet with President Joseph Kabila. However, I met with Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo, as well as with the President of the National Assembly; the Ministers of Defence, and of Justice and Human Rights; the Head of the ANR intelligence service; the Police Commissioner; the President's Personal Representative on Sexual Violence and Child Recruitment; and with members of the National Human Rights Commission.
In Goma and Bukavu, I was received by the vice Governor of North Kivu and the Governor of South Kivu, respectively. I also listened to women survivors of sexual violence at Panzi Hospital, where I renewed my dialogue with Dr. Denis Mukwege. Finally, and importantly, in every location I have met human rights defenders and members of civil society, as well as the UN community.
My visit marks the 20th anniversary of my Office's presence in the DRC, a relationship characterised by openness and honesty – as true partnerships should be marked, even at times when disagreements can be stark. This is our largest field presence. We feel privileged to have had the opportunity to serve the people and the government of the DRC, and our commitment remains.
I began this visit in the eastern provinces, which have historically experienced so much bloodshed and destruction. Although several foreign and national armed groups in the East continue to inflict sexual violence on women and girls – including very young children – the overall incidence of these crimes appears to be decreasing. I commend President Kabila for his personal commitment to ensuring that justice is done in cases of sexual violence by security forces. Thirty-five perpetrators from the security forces and ranks of public officials have been prosecuted and sentenced since the beginning of the year. In Kavumu and Kalehe, the authorities have swiftly reacted to information we provided and have initiated investigations and prosecutions, including of senior officials. If there is real follow-through, this willingness to investigate and convict the perpetrators of sexual violence, no matter how highly placed they may be, can have decisive impact in preventing such crimes.
I also encourage the authorities to take action to ensure the victims receive appropriate long-term care, as well as protection from retaliation, reparations from a national fund, and acknowledgment from the authorities of the crimes and failures of protection they have suffered. When I met with several women at Panzi Hospital on Tuesday, I was moved deeply by the dignity with which they requested a memorial, to mark the deaths and suffering inflicted on their communities.
These women, who stand for so many other victims, must know that they are valued, and that everything possible will be done to ensure there will never be a repeat of these utterly contemptible violations. In my travels around the world, I have frequently observed this: only when the victims of human rights violations are treated with dignity by the State can there be a durable peace. Their voices must be heard. Ultimately it matters less what I say, or what the authorities say, regarding when the State has done enough: it is only the victims who can make this determination, and who can decide whether reconciliation is real or just a façade.
Although the allegations of sexual violence facing peacekeepers from the DRC in the Central African Republic were very serious, the Government has shown commendable effort in investigating and bringing to trial several of its peacekeepers on their return to the country. This is noteworthy given the reluctance of so many other peacekeeping countries to do likewise. My Office is ready to support the government's efforts in this regard.
The important advances relating to impunity for sexual violence are in line with broader progress in the DRC since I first came here, in another capacity, in 2004. The path to peace and democracy has been established, however imperfectly. There have been two nation-wide Presidential elections – the first in the DRC's history – with some improvements in economic and social rights. We also recognise some positive steps towards reform in the justice sector. All of these constitute gains for the people of the DRC after so many years of turmoil and destruction, and I congratulate the Congolese for these achievements.
But today it seems these advances may be in danger. As crucial electoral deadlines approach, there is rising tension. I receive reports of increasing violations of fundamental civil and political rights by State actors. These notably include violations of freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly – rights anchored in the binding international treaties to which the DRC is party, and enshrined in the Congolese constitution. The public space for the expression of dissent is now clearly under pressure.
I see this as a pivotal moment. This is a country with tremendous assets – including, not least, the legendary drive and creative ingenuity of its people. If it can build a momentum in terms of human rights protection, democracy and rule of law for all, the DRC has the potential to shape a strong and cohesive society – one which truly benefits all its people. If it stumbles into increasing repression, mistrust and grievance, however, there is also the possibility the current political uncertainty could lead to serious crisis, which could undo many of the gains made by the Congolese people.
I am very concerned about reports of increasing harassment of civil society representatives and journalists, as well as the repression of voices which oppose the Government, and the excessive, and sometimes lethal, dispersal of demonstrations. We have documented more than 800 victims of such violations from June 2015 to May 2016, indicating an accelerating trend. I condemn the loss of life during demonstrations in Butembo, Goma, Kinshasa and elsewhere, and I note with concern the arbitrary arrests, acts of intimidation and repression in the main cities.
I have listened very carefully to comments made by senior security officials and I welcome their assurances to me that there is full respect of human rights law. But this must find expression in the streets, the marketplaces, and the gathering places of this country's daily life – and I will continue to follow this very closely.
I am disturbed by numerous accounts of double standards in respect of public gatherings. Demonstrations and meetings by the opposition and civil society are frequently impeded or repressed, while those organized by the presidential majority generally proceed without obstruction. I also have longstanding and continuing concerns regarding apparent political interference in the judiciary, including violations of due process guarantees and unjustified prosecutions of dissenting voices. Furthermore, I am troubled by the disproportionate severity of penalties in many of these cases.
I wish to emphasise, as I do throughout the world, that civil society, human rights defenders and national human rights institutions are the very foundations on which strong and safe societies can prosper. People must feel they have a stake in decision-making institutions, and their voices are respected.
To overcome the many challenges facing the DRC, there must be an open and honest dialogue. The President has called for a national dialogue relating to the forthcoming elections. I support this call. However, this dialogue simply cannot take place in an atmosphere which stifles discussion and the airing of all grievances and opinions, where independent media and respect for fundamental freedoms are being threatened. Respect for the human rights of all is the core of any inclusive credible dialogue, and it therefore should be at the centre of this foreseen process. There must be rule of law guarantees enabling people to express their views and work together without fear of retribution by the security forces or judicial authorities. The youth of the DRC are the greatest asset of this country, so rich in its resource. Young people must be encouraged to contribute – and those who speak out must not be shut down and oppressed for expressing dissent.
As I have said repeatedly over the past week – and these statements are true for every country, not only in Africa but across the world – opponents, too, have rights. Criticism or dissent does not constitute subversion. There is no threat to the State from people who are simply voicing their opinions.
Where there is criminal activity, including a clear incitement to violence, then investigation and prosecution should follow – but where there are conflicting views on these allegations, only adherence to a transparent, effective and impartial rule of law can establish the required clarity. No-one should be above the law. Political parties too must play their part; they must not feed a climate of fear and should seek to ensure their supporters avoid incitement or engagement in violent activities.
I also urge the police forces to refrain from any use of lethal force during peaceful demonstrations. Crowd control must obey the principles of necessity and proportionality. Lethal force may only be used when people's lives are at imminent risk – and if police action causes death or serious injury, a detailed and transparent investigation must be conducted, with further action undertaken without delay. I am particularly glad to note MONUSCO's efforts to assist in training of police units in non-lethal crowd control measures, in compliance with the UN-wide Human Rights Due Diligence policy.
In the course of my discussions this week I noted a number of commitments made to me by the authorities. I can only be satisfied when these commitments materialise. Firstly, I note a commitment to intensify our work together on human rights. In this regard, I will submit a list of those detained persons we believe should be released immediately. I have been told that there will now be a rapid transfer of detainees from the holding cells (cachots) of the ANR intelligence services to ordinary detention centres, where civilian magistrates will make determinations on the status of their cases. I will be attentively monitoring this development. I am also hopeful we will be given full and unfettered access to the ANR cells.
Furthermore, I was informed this week of new nation-wide regulations regarding mandatory use of non-lethal techniques of crowd control by the police. I welcome this measure and will observe its application.
In addition, the Minister of Justice has informed me that a legal moratorium on the death penalty is being considered, and a few weeks ago, the Vice-Minister of Justice and Human Rights said publicly the Government is committed to a policy whereby all death sentences will be commuted into either life imprisonment, 20 years in prison, or forced labour. These are important steps forward.
I have made a number of recommendations with regard to military justice. I have urged that measures be taken to enable prosecutions under the principle of command responsibility for human rights violations, including sexual violence. In addition, I encourage measures to ensure that military courts are not subjected to interference from the military command.
The Speaker of the National Assembly told me the law protecting human rights defenders in the DRC will be adopted as soon as possible during the coming session. I also look forward to renewed progress regarding the development of an active and independent National Human Rights Commission.
The DRC has ratified seven out of the nine core human rights instruments. I call on the authorities to fully harmonize national legislation to reflect these commitments, with implementation of that legislation at all levels. I also request the authorities to ratify outstanding human rights treaties and protocols, including the African charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, and to file their reports accordingly.
Regarding the situation in the eastern provinces, it is crucial to put an end to the pitiless violence and illegal activities of armed groups. There should be much greater support for this effort, and for the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of former combatants. Moreover, I urge much more sustained investigation of allegations of collusion with these groups by State actors. In such cases, and in many other situations, I must emphasise that individuals who have been involved in human rights violations can and should be held responsible and accountable for their acts.
I also hope in the future there can be deeper, searching investigations of any ties between businesses and armed groups who may be violating human rights, including acts of sexual violence, to intimidate communities or drive them off their land. It must be clear that individuals and corporate entities such as multinationals which benefit from, or collude with, the violent abuses of armed groups could be found criminally responsible.
I commend the promulgation of a provincial edict in South Kivu protecting human rights defenders and journalists, and until the national law can be passed, I encourage other provinces to enact such edicts.
I have also asked the authorities of North Kivu to coordinate with humanitarian actors regarding the closure of sites for internally displaced persons, so they do not exacerbate existing vulnerabilities, or create new ones.
On a separate issue, I commend the reception of over 25,000 refugees from Burundi in recent months. At a time of migration crisis, this is a lesson to many far richer countries who demonstrate less compassion.
Ultimately, only the Government of the DRC can take action to shape the future of this country. I, and my colleagues at the United Nations, stand ready to assist actions that can place the DRC on the path of greater freedom, and a society more respectful of equality and the rule of law. It is important not to forget women, who constitute half of society and suffer broad discrimination. We must not, also, forget, the rights of those who are exceptionally vulnerable: people with disabilities, elderly people, children and people with albinism, among others.
This is a nation of impressive abundance and great hardship. It is a great nation. Its people have exactly the same human rights as all other people around the world – and they include the right to raise their voices and participate in decisions.
I thank everyone for their welcome, and I pay special tribute to my exceptional and dedicated staff.