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In January 2018, the Democratic Republic of Congo takes up its seat in the UN Human Rights Council despite its widely documented abysmal human rights record. DRC’s election, despite spirited opposition by activists, elicited international criticism. Yet sanctimonious Western nations like Britain and the US have absolutely no moral standing to castigate the DRC.

Created by the UN Assembly in March 2006 as the principal body dealing with human rights, the United Nations Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental institution within the United Nations system. The main responsibility of the 47 countries that sit in the council is to promote and protect human rights around the world. Its 47 seats are occupied by member states elected for three-year terms. Based on equitable geographical distribution, the seats are divided as follow: Africa 13 seats, Asia‑Pacific 13 seats, Eastern Europe 6 seats, Latin America and Caribbean 8 seats, and Western Europe and other countries 7 seats. On 16 October 2017, the UN General Assembly elected, by secret ballot, 15 countries to serve in the council. Those elected were Afghanistan, Angola, Australia, Chile, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Mexico, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Qatar, Senegal, Slovakia, Spain and Ukraine.  All will serve three-year terms beginning on 1 January 2018.

Even though most of the newly elected countries don’t have a good score on human right related issues, the DRC’s victory has sparked a lot of critics. The shocked and satirical critics came from Britain, the United States and rights groups in and outside the DRC.

To those who have been objectively following and researching on the DRC’s conflict, few if not nobody can applaud the DRC’s victory because of its horrible human rights record. In 2016, the UN's Human Rights Office reported that of more than 5,190 human rights violations and abuses recorded in the DRC in 2016, 64 percent were committed by the Congolese army and police.  At the same time Ida Sawyer, the Central Africa Director at Human Right Watch, reported that on September 30, DRC security forces arbitrarily arrested 49 activists from several citizens’ movements protesting the failure to hold presidential elections before the end of this year. Activists from Struggle for Change (LUCHA), Countdown (Compte à Rebours), and Bell of the People (Kengele ya Raia) were arrested in the eastern cities of Goma and Kisangani.  

In a recent human rights report that is based on interviews with 96 people who had fled to neighboring Angola to escape the violence in Kamonia territory in Kasai, the UN team was able to confirm that between 12 March and 19 June some 251 people were the victims of extrajudicial and targeted killings. These included 62 children, of which 30 were aged under eight. Interviewees indicated that local security forces and other officials actively fomented, fueled and occasionally led attacks based on ethnicity. The human rights violations were also reported by the UN Mission in the DRC, which identified at least 80 mass graves in the Kasais. Marie Ange Mushobekwa, the current DRC’s human rights minister, told the UN Human Rights Committee that 1300 people have lost their lives during the Kasais crisis. Despite its ugly human rights face the DRC won the UN seat.   

The above reports and statistics are more than enough to support those who believe that the DRC should not sit together with those who are assigned to protect and promote human rights in the globe. It is very disturbing and frustrating that the DRC won the seat with 151 votes while it only needed 97.

This victory sends a loud message that may be tactically unknown to the Congolese human right activists and their partners. From this result, the message is simple: human right activism with zero diplomatic support, weak lobbying strategy, together with ambiguous understanding of geopolitics does no work in an unjust international system that uses unfair and dishonest principles. Stopping the DRC from sitting in the council could not happen by simply making declarations and sit-ins outside western embassies and consulates. It needed a very sophisticated strategy and lobbying at the regional, continental and global levels. This is explained by two critical facts, which the human rights activists should have taken into consideration: the DRC is representing Africa as a region not itself; and African countries are not the only voters. 

Strategically, the Congolese opposition leaders should have supported the human rights activists. Their support could help the activists to lobby and get their message across other relevant and powerful actors within the international system. In this case the opposition leaders are to be blamed because they did not provide support.  They failed to use their diplomatic contacts and lobbying methods in support of the call made by Congolese activists. This can be explained by their inability to understand that for Kinshasa the UN Human Rights Council is a strategic global institution. Strategic because the legitimacy of the Joseph Kabila regime is contested because of its inability to organize elections last December. In power since 2001, Joseph Kabila officially ended his term in office on 26 December 2016, but he was allowed to remain in power after a political negotiation with the opposition and civil society. The deal was signed in exchange for a guarantee that elections will be held in December this year.      

Even though the majority of the current and newly elected countries, including the DRC, do not have a good human rights record, it is quite difficult to provide a clear reason for Britain and US’s disappointment with the DRC’s victory. The difficulties arise from the question of whether both the US and Britain can morally point a finger at the DRC on human rights issues. Shortly after the result was released, the British UN Ambassador Matthew Rycroft posted on Twitter: “Political repression, civilian attacks, mass graves. What happened in DRC last year makes their election to the Human Rights Council entirely disappointing.” His American colleague Nikki Haley, who has called for the Human Rights Council votes to be competitive, said Congo’s election harmed the credibility of the body. With a disappointed voice, he argued that, “Countries that aggressively violate human rights at home should not be in a position to guard the human rights of others.”

While these statements reflect love for peace, human rights and moral support to the victims of human rights abuse, the neo-colonial foreigner policies and the abuse of military power by the countries they represent overshadow their views.  As a result, their disappointment may not be taken serious by any objective peace-loving person, who understands the root causes of the collapse of Libya and Somalia, genocide in Rwanda, Africa’s World War I… The history of the countries they represent does not allow them to be the correct interlocutors and just advocators for peace.

As far as human rights are concerned it is very ironical to witness the US and Britain accusing or judging any other country. Currently in all most every conflict in the world there’s an invisible and visible presence of the US, Britain or their allies. The strange thing is that it looks like US, Britain and their allies are convinced that human rights violation committed by their troops outside their territories should not be taken into consideration.

Because the UN is governed by unjust principles such as the use of veto power, its institutions will continue to operate under philosophies that are far away from peace and human rights. In fact just like the DRC, the US and Britain don’t deserve to sit in the UN Human Rights Council because of their ugly human rights records. The both don’t have any moral standing to claim to protect and defend human rights anywhere.

* FERUZI NGWAMBA is Acting Coordinator of the Access Program and lecturer of Political Science and Sociology at the University of KwaZulu Natal. He is doing a PhD in Public Policy and Development.



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