Democratic Republic Congo Must Guarantee ‘Space’ for Opposition Ahead of Vote: UN

KINSHASA:  The United Nations on Sunday called on the Democratic Republic of Congo to respect its citizens’ civil liberties as the political climate has turned tense ahead of key elections next year.

“Political space must be guaranteed, space for the opposition, space for civil society, for the defenders of human rights,” Martin Kobler, head of the UN peacekeeping mission MONUSCO in DRC, said in an interview with AFP.

“It’s very important and we are in contact with the government” on these subjects, he added.

Tensions have been rising in DR Congo since dozens of people died in violent protests in January against a new electoral law that critics say could allow President Joseph Kabila to hold on to power beyond the end of his mandate.

Presidential and parliamentary polls are due in November next year. But opposition forces have accused Kabila of seeking to ensure he stays in office, rather than stepping down after two terms as called for in the constitution.

The arrests of pro-democracy activists in March, some of whom are still being held, also prompted condemnation from international rights groups.

“(MONUSCO’s) mandate is (also) to defend human rights,” said Kobler. “It is not interference in domestic affairs to ask for human rights to be respected,” he added.

The vast central African country has been struggling through a political crisis since Kabila’s 2011 re-election, which was marred by major voting irregularities.

Since January, opposition leaders have condemned the cutting of broadcast signals of certain media as well as the arrest of rights campaigners and government critics. The government for its part has accused activists of thinking they are above the law.

The mineral-rich nation is recovering from two successive wars, during which Kabila came to power in 2001, and a plethora of armed groups keep its eastern provinces unstable.

The UN and the Congolese military were planning a joint offensive against one of those groups at the start of the year, but DR Congo later declared it would fight alone.

The move followed a dispute over the appointment of two Congolese generals to lead the offensive who were on a UN blacklist of army officers suspected of having perpetrated, tolerated or covered up human rights violations.

After Kinshasa refused to sack the two generals, the UN mission withdrew its support for the offensive against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) Hutu militia.

“We are in daily contact (with the authorities) to resume cooperation because the situation is very difficult in the east,” Kobler said.

While the Congolese military says its operation has killed, captured or forced the surrender of hundreds of rebel fighters, Kobler said he could not confirm any figures because MONUSCO “is not currently cooperating” with DRC’s military.


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