UN report on Congo election violence could spur accountability

The report could urge Congolese authorities to follow-up with independent investigations and bring perpetrators to justice, writes guest blogger Tracy Fehr.

Jerome Delay/AP/File
Supporters of Congolese opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi hurl stones at Congolese riot police outside their candidate's headquarters in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011.

•  A version of this post appeared on the blog "Enough Said." The views expressed are the author's own.

Last November’s controversial Congolese presidential and legislative elections continue to make headlines, further diminishing a sense of legitimacy or credibility in the Congolese electoral process. Last week, the UN released a report documenting acts of serious human rights violations committed during the elections – including killings, disappearances, and arbitrary detentions – by members of the Congolese defense and security forces in the nation’s capital, Kinshasa.

The report, which is based on findings from a UN Joint Human Rights Office special investigation, documents election-related human rights violations that took place between Nov. 26, 2011, two days prior to the November 28 elections, and Dec. 25, 2011.

The report confirms that at least 33 people were killed in Kinshasa, including 22 by gunshot. It notes, however, “The number of deaths could be much higher as the team faced many difficulties in documenting the allegations of violations of the right to life that were reported.”

Furthermore, the report cites that at least 83 people were injured, including 61 by gunshot. At least 265 civilians were detained illegally or arbitrarily, many of whom, according to the report, were targeted due to their affiliation with the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) opposition party of Etienne Tshisekedi. At least 16 individuals remain unaccounted for.

"We have heard multiple accounts of Republican Guards shooting live ammunition into crowds and of the torture of arbitrarily detained individuals," said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay. "The authorities must ensure that such grave violations of human rights are investigated, perpetrators brought to justice and that those who remain illegally detained are released without delay."

Colonel Kanyama, a commander with the National Congolese Police (PNC) in Kinshasa’s Lukunga district, known by locals as “death spirit,” was identified in concurring testimonies as a ring leader in the body removal process. According to the report, “[groups arrived in] a PNC vehicle from which officers fired tear gas; the vehicle was followed by a dilapidated vehicle from which marksmen in civilian clothes fired at demonstrators, and then a covered lorry with body collectors.”

These allegations of election violence are not new. In December, the attorney general of Congo and the general prosecutor of the Congolese army opened preliminary investigations, yet little progress has been made. By documenting particular human rights violations, the UN report serves as a foundation for accountability and urges Congolese authorities to follow-up with independent investigations to bring perpetrators to justice.

This path toward accountability, though, seems off to a rocky start. Congolese Justice Minister Luzolo Bambi Lessa called the UN report “lightweight and incoherent.” He claimed that the report is “selective and partisan (and) has chosen to forget or omit the serious acts carried out by armed protesters against the agents and installations of the police.”

The head of the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), Roger Meece, publicly thanked the Congolese government for opening an initial investigation as a first step toward fighting impunity and offered support to local authorities in efforts to identify and bring perpetrators to justice. Meece said:

Recent prosecutions and trials undertaken with MONUSCO’s support throughout the country have led to the arrest of a significant number of perpetrators of human rights violations. I welcome these recent developments and the positive cooperation between MONUSCO and the DRC military and civilian justice authorities.

Alluding to the seriousness of the human rights violations documented, the report calls for effective and prompt victim reparations. To prevent such violations in the future, it encourages Congolese authorities “to establish democratic institutions respectful of human rights.”

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To begin this process though, the Congolese government must address the underlying issues of oppression and impunity that laid the groundwork for such serious human rights violations. For the 33 dead, 16 missing, 83 injured, and 265 arbitrarily arrested, inaction is unacceptable. Perpetrators must be held accountable, and the Congolese government must make fair and transparent elections a top priority for the future.

The Congolese provincial elections, which have been delayed but could take place by the end of the year, provide an opportunity for the Congolese government, in partnership with regional and international partners, to restore integrity in the country’s electoral process. The Enough Project urged the Congolese National Electoral Commission, or CENI, to resign and reconvene with new members equitably representing the country’s different political parties, including representation from Congolese civil society. Furthermore, the international community should pressure Congolese leadership to ensure increased transparency and accountability in the political process, and demonstrate respect for the rights of its citizens to speak, gather, and organize without illegal or violent oppression.

– Tracy Fehr blogs for the Enough Project at Enough Said.

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