Amnesty International on Friday gave a bleak assessment of President Felix Tshisekedi‘s human rights record, asserting that despite some positive steps, insecurity and impunity continue to threaten human rights progress in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) one year after he took office.
“Although President Tshisekedi has taken some positive steps, such as pardoning political prisoners and allowing exiled critics to return, his government’s failures on accountability mean warlords and suspected perpetrators of appalling violations and abuses remain at large,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern and Southern Africa.
“Meanwhile brutal crackdown on peaceful protests has continued to cast doubt on respect for the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in the DRC.”
Right to peaceful assembly
Amnesty International highlighted several recent instances where peaceful protests were banned or violently dispersed.
For example, on 17 January 2020, meetings called by opposition leader Martin Fayulu were banned in six cities, and violently dispersed in Kinshasa and Kindu, leaving at least five people injured.
It recalled that in November 2019, at least 10 protestors were shot dead by Congolese and UN security officers in Beni as they protested civilian killings by rebels. Only a handful security officers have been prosecuted in connection with brutal crackdown on protesters in the past 12 months, and during the electoral crisis which began in 2015.
“All the country’s authorities and security agencies must respect, protect and promote the human rights of peaceful protesters. Those suspected to be responsible for use of excessive force must be held to account in fair trials,” said Deprose Muchena.
Failure to protect civilians
Amnesty said the eastern stretch of the DRC “continues to be wracked by inter-communal violence and armed conflicts that have left hundreds dead and thousands homeless in the last 12 months”.
It said the Ugandan Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels attacked Beni in Nord-Kivu killing at least 206 civilians between 30 October 2019 and 16 December 2019, according to the Kivu Security Tracker, at the height of a government military operation to rout rebels.
Inter-communal violence and armed conflicts in Djugu in Ituri and Hauts-Plateaux in Sud-Kivu also left a trail of death, injuries, displacement and a sense of helplessness among the Congolese people.
“Concerns remain about the safety and security of the people of eastern DRC despite repeated commitments by the president to address insecurity. People have heard enough promises and want their lives to be effectively protected,” said Deprose Muchena.
Military operations have disarmed about 3,000 Rwandese and Congolese rebels in Kasai, Ituri, Maniema, North and South Kivu. The authorities forcefully repatriated over 1,500 family members of the surrendered rebels back to Rwanda, yet most of them were refugees. The authorities also neglect the general welfare and wellbeing of surrendered rebels, some of whom have starved to death in cantonment.
In a shocking statement, President Tshisekedi declared in September 2019 that he had “no time to rummage into the past” and hold suspected perpetrators of human rights violations and abuses accountable.
Not surprisingly, impunity has reigned over the past 12 months, with barely a handful of investigations and trials on human rights violations and abuses.
In November 2019, a senior official in the Office of the President wrote to Congolese courts asking them to “suspend” arrest warrants issued in 2013 against officials of the former March 23 Movement (M23) suspected of committing serious human rights abuses during the 2012-2013 rebellion.
“President Tshisekedi has a constitutional responsibility to the Congolese people to deliver accountability for all crimes, past and present, committed against them and their families,” Deprose Muchena said.
“Pursuing peace at the expense of justice is an illusion the DRC authorities must not fall for.”
Warlords at large
An arrest warrant issued by a military court in June 2019 for Guidon Shimiray Mwissa for recruiting child soldiers and rape was a ray of hope, but the warrant is yet to be enforced.
Guidon is the second recognized warlord out free after Gédéon Kyungu Mutamba, who was sentenced for war crimes and crimes against humanity by a Congolese court in 2009. Gédéon broke free from prison in 2011 and “surrendered” to the authorities in 2016 but remains at large, engaging in politics in what used to be known as the Katanga province.
The trial of another warlord, Ntabo Ntaberi Cheka, which began in November 2018, has stalled.
“President Tshisekedi declared 2020 the year of action. Restoring justice, full respect for human rights and the rule of law must be at the core of any action taken by his government. Without accountability and justice for human rights violations and crimes under international law, it will be impossible for the Congolese people to move on from the trauma of past violations,” said Deprose Muchena.