The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has experienced significant conflict, including long spates of civil war (1996-2003) also involving neighbouring States, and political and ethnic conflict regionally which continues today. The ongoing conflict has led to the mass internal displacement of over 4.5 million people, predominantly from the Kasaï, Tanganyika and Kivu regions, with over 735,000 Congolese having fled to neighbouring countries. State infrastructure, including the healthcare system, is severely diminished following decades of conflict. Human rights violations linked to the conflict are widespread, including physical mutilation, killings, sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention in inhumane conditions. The conflict has been exacerbated by ethnic tensions, competition for access to the State’s wealth of natural resources and foreign involvement. Political violence is perpetrated by both State and non-State actors; these include the army, with a number of regiments particularly notorious, resistance movements, paramilitaries, State-sponsored organisations, corporations and individuals.
Human rights defenders in the DRC work under extremely hostile conditions, and many defenders number among those who have been displaced or forced to flee. Some Congolese defenders have noted that they seek to continue their work in exile, but face new and additional challenges in doing so. Democracy activists, journalists and those who speak out against the government are particularly at risk. Women human rights defenders are at heightened risk of gender-based and sexual violence, which is commonly used in the context of the conflict. As detailed below, environmental human rights defenders working as rangers in the Virunga National Park face extreme violence and many have lost their lives at the hands of paramilitaries and smugglers. The Special Rapporteur is concerned by reports that State actors, including the police, intelligence services and judiciary continue to crack down on defenders and restrict their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. In recent years, defenders including journalists have suffered harassment and intimidation, arbitrary arrest and killings.
Particular concerns have also been raised regarding environmental rights defenders, who face exceptional risks in their work. It has been noted that, in the space of ten months in 2017-18, twelve rangers in the Virunga National Park were killed by paramilitaries and smugglers. In one incident, Rachel Makissa Baraka, a park ranger, was killed and the driver wounded after their vehicle was attacked by members of the Mai Mai militia. In September 2013, Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo, a ranger who has been responsible for documenting widespread corruption by a British-owned oil company in the park was arrested and detained illegally for 17 days where he was subjected to torture and mock executions.
The Special Rapporteur recommends that the DRC urgently revise proposed domestic legislation, including the bill on the protection of human rights defenders, the bill on the regulation of NGOs, and the counter terrorism bill in line with its obligations under international law, in particular the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. The Special Rapporteur calls upon the DRC to bring an immediate end to the excessive use of force, including lethal force, by State security agents to suppress the legitimate actions of human rights defenders in the context public demonstrations. Further, the DRC must investigate and bring to justice the perpetrators of violations against human rights defenders, including with regard to the deaths of Luc Nkulula, Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalan.
Mr. Michel Forst
United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders
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