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The high stakes of the next Congo election

The high stakes of the next Congo election

After years of violence, abuse, impunity, and plunder, the people deserve a government committed to protecting their rights.

Analysis | Africa

With presidential elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) scheduled for December, concerns about pre-election human rights violations are already being raised in Washington. Given the alleged role the United States played in anointing the election victor in 2019, many expect the U.S. to be influential again, even if its original decision to recognize Félix Tshisekedi tipped the scales of that contested election.

Many are hoping U.S. influence will result in an election period more respectful of human rights. In the five years since Tshisekedi was declared the winner, much-anticipated human rights reforms have not materialized. Still, the U.S. has an opportunity, and obligation, to center human rights in its relationship with the DRC, especially amid increasing human rights violations in the pre-election period. Failure to do so would expose the hard reality that the Biden administration continues to fail at following through on its human rights agenda.

A New Partnership

Since Tshisekedi assumed the presidency, the U.S.’s working relationship with the DRC has warmed. Almost immediately upon taking office, President Tshisekedi visited Washington and quickly joined the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. He further solidified his position as a strong ally by voting with the U.S. in the U.N. General Assembly. In return, the U.S. increased its bilateral aid to the DRC, resumed military cooperation, and explored new opportunities for U.S. investment, including in the mining sector. Both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and acting Deputy Secretary Victoria Nuland have proffered coveted visits to Tshisekedi, demonstrating a strong and privileged relationship.

The upcoming elections present an urgent opportunity for the U.S. to demonstrate a commitment to human rights by pushing their protection in the pre-election period and setting policy priorities that will benefit people living in the DRC regardless of the election outcome. The Congolese people should have a government committed to protecting their rights, after years of violence, abuses, impunity, and plunder of resources at the expense of human rights protections.

The US-Congo Bilateral Relationship

The relationship between the U.S. and the DRC is a complicated one — made more so by the DRC’s rich deposit of critical minerals the U.S. government wants to access and that the Chinese government currently dominates. While the U.S.’s engagement with the DRC has rarely centered on human rights, it has engaged on these issues across several administrations as human rights violations became harder to ignore. This renewed focus has led to concrete actions. In 2006 President Bush established an Executive Order to sanction those fueling the conflict, and accompanying human rights abuses. He also met with the leaders of both the DRC and Rwanda to press them to end violence in the east.

The U.S. Congress also played a critical role in driving policies aimed at protecting human rights, most prominently by passing legislation such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act of 2006 and section 1502 of the Dodd Frank Act in 2010. While imperfect, these policies have sought to protect the rights of the Congolese people to their own wealth and elevate human rights when under threat.

Human Rights Context Leading into the Elections

While Tshisekedi’s election was touted as one of change by both Trump and Biden officials, the reality for many Congolese is that little has changed. Tshisekedi came into office committing to critical security services reforms, judicial reforms, civic space expansion, and anti-corruption efforts. However, few of these have been implemented.

In addition, demonstrable examples exist of shrinking civic space. Take the “State of Siege” which has been in place in eastern DRC since May 2021. Under this measure there are restrictions on civilians gathering and the military has taken over all aspects of civilian governance. Amnesty International found that under the “State of Siege,” the security situation has deteriorated further while authorities have used it to silence critics. The crackdown on freedom of expression goes beyond eastern DRC with Amnesty that two years into the Tshisekedi administration there was an increase in oppression against journalists. This has only escalated in the pre-election period.

What US Policy Should Do About It

While some may argue that human rights concerns are less important than the domestic need for access to clean energy minerals, this is a false dichotomy. Ignoring human rights violations for the sake of investment not only hurts the Congolese people who first and foremost should be benefitting from the wealth but does little to secure access long term. Tshisekedi may still make deals with other countries giving better offers. Furthermore, U.S. companies would benefit from the confidence in their investments created by a government committed to anti-corruption, human rights, and to ensuring that communities thrive alongside companies. It is in the long-term interest of the U.S. to promote a rights-first approach.

Furthermore, the U.S.’s credibility will be lost if it does not leverage its partnership it has cultivated with the Tshisekedi administration to secure respect for human rights. Instead, civil society and the Congolese people will see another example where the U.S. meddles in the country’s affairs but fails to center human rights in its diplomacy. In the spirit of a rights-forward relationship, there is much Washington can do to help ensure rights are respected in the pre-election period. U.S. officials should take advantage of their close relationship to have candid conversations about necessary human rights actions and reforms.

First, there are already instances in the pre-election period where Congolese security forces have disproportionately reacted to opposition rallies and protests. Meanwhile journalists are increasingly harassed and arbitrarily arrested. Despite this, the U.S. has remained largely silent publicly, giving the impression to civil society and citizens that they are accepting of a violent and repressive pre-election environment.

The United States has also not issued a single public statement condemning the “State of Siege” despite repeated pleas by Congolese and other human rights organizations. The Biden administration must publicly call for an end to this measure, which is in violation of the Congolese constitution and international human rights law, before any more criticism is silenced or people are denied their rights to freedom of speech or assembly.

Finally, the Biden administration must center its relationship with the DRC moving forward around human rights, justice, and accountability. Indeed, much of the instability can be addressed if those involved stop focusing on a military response and instead focus on ending impunity and ensuring justice. The U.S. can do that by funding programs that address impunity and build the capacity of the Congolese justice system.

When Blinken launched his foreign policy he argued that human rights would be central. Yet in the DRC the Biden administration has been silent as its partner has failed to implement promised reforms and instead further restricted the rights of the Congolese people. There is still time for the U.S. and DRC to work together and solidify respect for the rights for the Congolese people. Washington must not miss this opportunity.

Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com

Supporters of Congo's President Felix Tshisekedi gathered during a visit to the Congolese diaspora as part of the official visit of President in Belgium.

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