After Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) President Joseph Kabila failed to step down when his second term ended in December 2016, protests spread quickly through the country. State security forces killed forty anti-Kabila protestors and arrested 460 others after the government failed to hold elections before Kabila’s term ran out. A United Nations (UN) official warned that the government might use the rising violence as justification to further delay elections. In an effort to bring the violence to an end, the Congolese Catholic Church mediated negotiations between Kabila’s government and opposition representatives. Although a deal was reached, Kabila still has not vacated his position as of January 2018. In the months since President Kabila failed to step down, the state has committed many violations of its international obligations. As a member of the United Nations, the government is bound by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The DRC is also bound by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified in November 1976. By responding to protestors and the Catholic church with violence, the state is in violation of UDHR Articles 18, 19, and 20 and ICCPR Articles 18, 19, 21, 22.
In December 2016, the Catholic Church was instrumental in bringing an end to violence and protesting in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) after President Kabila failed to step down and hold elections at the end of his presidential term. The December protests were part of a much longer history of violence in the DRC; over six million people have died in a series of revolts and rebellions over the last twenty years. The church successfully facilitated an agreement between the government and opposition groups on December 30, 2016, which included provisions blocking Kabila from changing the Constitution to allow for a third presidential term, and mandating that elections must be held by the end of 2017.
In early 2017, the death of an opposition leader and other political conflict threatened the fledgling peace agreement. Catholics were frequently attacked and churches and convents ransacked. Throughout 2017, militia violence controlled the country and the peace deal eventually collapsed. In March 2017, two UN experts were killed while investigating crimes committed during a rebellion. Human rights groups suspect the government may have been involved, and in December 2017, a militia member was arrested for their murder.
As the one-year anniversary of the 2016 peace deal approached, protests were seen country-wide. Permits were denied for many demonstrations and several people died in clashes with security forces in Kinshasa, the capital. The government cut internet and texting services across the country in anticipation of planned demonstrations on December 31, 2017. The Catholic Church called for peaceful demonstrations after Sunday services, and local Catholic activists called for marches demanding that Kabila honor the peace agreement. On New Year’s Eve, Congolese security forces surrounded 134 Catholic churches and erected roadblocks. Any individuals wearing religious symbols or in possession of a bible were sent away and told Mass was cancelled. State security forces stormed into Kinshasa Catholic churches during mass and fired teargas and stun grenades at churchgoers as they attempted to march. Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo, head of the Catholic Church in the DRC, condemned the government’s crackdown on peaceful protestors and accused security forces of desecrating places of worship. The violence continues into 2018, and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has urged the government to investigate the “alleged killings by security forces during anti-government protests” that took place early in January 2018.
The pervasive state violence against the Catholic church and Catholic citizens, along with the violent crackdown on anti-government protestors, is a clear violation of the DRC’s international obligations and core human rights norms. UDHR Articles 18, 19, and 20 include the rights of freedom of expression and opinion; peaceful assembly and association; thought, conscience, and religion. ICCPR Articles 18, 19, 21, 22 establish similar rights. The state’s commitment to quashing dissent and silencing the Catholic church’s criticism of Kabila’s government means that citizens are not free to express their opinions, advocate for change, or freely practice their religion without fear of retribution. Kabila could suffer sanctions and international involvement if he does not adhere to the state’s international obligations and his own peace treaty with the opposition and Catholic Church.
Until President Kabila’s government successfully holds elections, currently planned for December 23, 2018, there is little doubt that skirmishes between protestors and government security forces will continue. As the year progresses, it remains to be seen whether the Catholic Church will continue to be targeted for its important organizing role in the country.