Human rights defenders: indispensable agents of democracy in DR Congo

Congo (the Democratic Republic of the)Human rights defendersNews

Kinshasa, 5 February 2018 – Over the current election period, there have been many constraints on the rights and freedoms of human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo); this has been a source of political and social tension. Threats, arbitrary arrests, and unwarranted legal action have increased dramatically, indicating growing restrictions on the public sphere.* ASF believes that these actors play an indispensable role in any democratic process. According to Gilles Durdu, Country Director in DR Congo, “A democracy depends on the ability to freely express diverse opinions, and on the votes of well-informed citizens. The role of human rights defenders is therefore crucial at election time. They help citizens to participate effectively in the democratic debate by, for example, putting issues of public interest at the centre of the election campaign. They contribute to the vital civic education of the people, enabling them to take part in the electoral process in an informed manner and to assert their rights.” One of the essential conditions for the promotion and protection of the rights of Congolese people, therefore, is the defence of the rights and freedoms of those who give a voice to others. Since the start of the current election period, ASF has been working alongside these defenders, ensuring, for example, that they have quality legal protection when they are threatened or attacked or when their activities are criminalised, if they face legal proceedings, and/or if they are placed in detention. “As part of a project funded by the Embassy of Belgium that ended at the beginning of this year (2018), we were able to provide legal assistance to nearly 300 human rights defenders,” says Gilles Durdu. This project also assisted people who were placed in detention for participating in the public demonstrations, organised by civil society organisations and grassroots movements, to demand the organisation of the elections; and those who were arrested while simply going about their business near to where the demonstrations took place. “We took action, for example, to help twenty or so people who had been given very heavy sentences, ranging from three to twenty years in prison, following the demonstrations in September and December 2016. They were all acquitted on appeal and freed thanks to the excellent work of our lawyers and the strict application of the law by the judges,” says Gilles Durdu.** ASF is continuing its efforts to protect the rights and freedoms of defenders, within the framework of a project funded by the Embassy of the Netherlands, so that they can play a full role in the pursuit of peaceful and transparent elections, in a healthy and peaceful working environment.
* In 2017, the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office documented no fewer than 1,375 human rights and civil liberties violations connected to the elections across the whole of DR Congo, an increase of 25% compared to 2016, a year in which there were also many violations. The most frequently reported violations were attacks on the right to individual freedom and safety, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of opinion and expression. Members of civil society organisations, peaceful grassroots movements, and journalists were among the main victims of these violations.
** For more on the subject, see the study Exercice et effectivité des droits et libertés publiques des défenseurs des droits humains dans le contexte pré-électoral de la République démocratique du Congo (“Exercise and effectiveness of the public rights and freedoms of human rights defenders during the pre-election period in the Democratic Republic of the Congo”) published by ASF in November 2017.
Cover picture: Yafali Elongo/AJDDH