Riot police patrol a street in Goma, Democratic Republic
of Congo, during nation-wide protests against a
proposed change in the law that would delay
elections, January 19, 2015.
One year ago today, demonstrations began in Kinshasa and other cities across the Democratic Republic of Congo to protest attempts by President Joseph Kabila to stay in power.
When security forces cracked down on demonstrators, peaceful protests turned violent. Over several days the police and Republican Guard soldiers shot dead at least 43 people, wounded dozens, and forcibly disappeared five others.
Security forces hastily took away some of the bodies, leaving families unable to bury loved ones.
This first anniversary is a stark reminder of what could lay ahead should the security forces respond the same way to future protests. Kabila’s constitutional term limit ends on December 19, 2016, but preparations for elections have been deliberately stalled and Kabila has not declared whether he will step down. Authorities loyal to the president have repressed and intimidated the growing coalition of voices calling for respect of the constitution and credible elections.
Just today, police blocked a series of peaceful meetings organized by opposition and civil society leaders throughout Kinshasa, the capital, to commemorate the victims of last year’s demonstrations. With more demonstrations planned in the coming weeks, the government should take urgent steps to ensure that all Congolese are able to peacefully express their views without fear of being arrested or killed by the security forces.
The authorities should arrest those responsible for past abuses and prosecute them in fair, credible trials. They should also curb all unlawful recruitment and mobilization of “youth leagues” to use violence during demonstrations – a tactic seen most recently during a political opposition meeting in Kinshasa on September 15.
Congo’s international partners and the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUSCO, have a crucial role to play. MONUSCO’s police and military forces should be ready to deploy to strategic locations in Kinshasa and other cities to act as a deterrent to crackdowns and protect peaceful demonstrators when necessary. The European Union, the United States, and the UN should implement targeted sanctions, including travel bans and assets freezes, against those most responsible for the violent repression.
Congo’s donors and the UN have repeatedly called for credible presidential elections and emphasized the importance of a peaceful transition of power, in the interests of promoting democracy, human rights, and stability in Congo.
Now is the time to back up these words with action.