Despite an ongoing Ebola outbreak and continued attacks by armed groups, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is nevertheless on track to hold critical elections as planned on 23 December, the top United Nations official in the country told the Security Council today, as delegates expressed hope that a peaceful handover of power could bring longed-for stability to some 85 million people.
Leila Zerrougui, Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), said the upcoming elections — potentially the first peaceful, democratic transfer of power in the country’s history — will also mark a “turning point”. Outlining recent progress made by the Government and supported by the Mission and other partners, she also drew attention to serious challenges on the ground, including increasing numbers of Ebola cases and the potential for armed groups’ interference in the election. In addition, she said, civilians, MONUSCO staff and national security forces are being regularly targeted by the group known as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in some parts of the country.
“It is in this dynamic context that we move towards long-awaited elections in just over one month’s time,” she said, adding that the opposition party remains concerned about the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s dwindling political space and its unequal access to public media. Urging all actors to show a patriotic spirit, seize the opportunity presented by the elections and ensure full respect for freedom of assembly and expression, she also detailed MONUSCO’s support to the Government’s electoral preparations, the training of electoral staff, the accreditation of witnesses and journalists and the facilitation of thousands of independent observers to ensure the election’s transparency and credibility.
Also briefing the Council was Josephine Mbela of the Congolese Association for Access to Justice, a non-governmental human rights and rule of law organization. She said the political environment in the Democratic Republic of the Congo remains strained due to lack of implementation of the political agreement signed by the parties in December 2016, as well as the continued detention of activists and opposition figures. Several leaders have also been forced into exile, she said, adding that the deployment of voting machines — which were not part of the agreed-upon electoral regulations — has exacerbated tensions. Meanwhile, people protesting against the voting machines have been arbitrarily detained and other civil society activists have been detained for a variety of reasons.
As Council members took the floor, many underscored the vast opportunity presented by the upcoming elections, urging political parties — which will officially begin campaigning on 22 November — to seize the momentum and commit to a peaceful process.
“It’s not the politicians that stand to win or lose the most in these elections, it’s the people of [the Democratic Republic of the Congo],” stressed the United Kingdom’s representative, adding that 23 December could mark a major achievement for the 85 million Congolese people who have experienced numerous tragic conflicts over recent decades. A peaceful, democratic handover of power would also help ensure future growth, prosperity and economic stability. Joining other speakers in welcoming positive recent developments, he noted that democracy is not just about a single event but about a continuous process. All actors must work to create the conditions conducive for a peaceful vote, including fully respecting the right to peaceful assembly and expression.
Equatorial Guinea’s delegate emphasized that stability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is crucial to that of the entire sub-region. Encouraging actors to continue to work together to ensure that all citizens are able to vote in a safe and peaceful manner and that the election is both transparent and credible, he said the subsequent peaceful transfer of power will be another critical element and called for the implementation of crucial confidence-building measures to help lasting peace and stability to take root.
The representative of Ethiopia, meanwhile, urged all national stakeholders to engage constructively to facilitate the elections in line with the 2016 political agreement. “It is vital for the peace and stability of the country that the Congolese people are allowed to exercise their democratic rights,” she said, calling on all stakeholders to refrain from inflammatory rhetoric. Among other things, she encouraged the National Electoral Commission to utilize MONUSCO’s technical and logistical support, while also underscoring the importance of regional efforts, including preparations by the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to deploy electoral observers.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s delegate stressed that all activities necessary to hold successful elections in his country on 23 December have been undertaken in compliance with the published timetable. Detailing those actions, he added that mechanisms to manage electoral disputes have also been put in place in the 26 provinces of the country, with the magistrates trained for the task.
Turning to concerns raised about apprehensions over the use of voting machines, he reiterated that such machines are the easiest way for people to vote when faced with polls that include 35,016 candidates for three combined elections taking place at once. The machines will only be used to print the paper to be placed in the voting box and the counting will be done by hand. Emphasizing that all citizens, journalists and activists enjoy freedom of expression — with a record range of media across the country — he pledged to continue to address remaining human rights issues. “The stakes are high and we must ensure that everything runs smoothly,” he said.
Also speaking were representatives of France, the United States, Peru, Côte d’Ivoire, Sweden, Bolivia, Poland, Kazakhstan, Netherlands, Russian Federation, Kuwait and China.
The meeting began at 3:03 p.m. and ended at 5:06 p.m.
LEILA ZERROUGUI, Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), outlined recent developments in the country’s electoral process, noting that campaigning is set to begin in nine days and voting is slated to take place on 23 December. Despite some challenges, she said, all stakeholders are resolutely committed to the process. The main opposition candidates met recently in Geneva and agreed to support one presidential candidate, Martin Fayulu, as the representative of the newly-named “Lamuka” party — meaning “Wake Up”. However, she said, Mr. Fayulu’s selection led to some discord from various opposition factions which decided to withdraw from the agreement previously reached. For its part, the party known as “Front Commun pour le Congo” announced that its presidential candidate will be Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.
Describing MONUSCO’s support to the Government’s electoral preparations, she said some $322 million has been disbursed to the National Electoral Commission in order to deploy the materials needed to successfully hold elections on 23 December. The training of electoral staff is also under way, as is the process of accrediting witnesses, journalists and facilitating the arrival of thousands of observers to ensure the election’s transparency and credibility. Noting that the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union are also supporting the process, she said that the Democratic Republic of the Congo recently convened a Forum for Peace and Reconciliation and the South African National Civic Organisation will hold a plenary in the coming weeks to assess the electoral process.
Despite that momentum, the opposition remains concerned about the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s dwindling political space and its unequal access to public media, she said. The party is also condemning what it presumes to be the use of State resources for the Front Commun candidate. Noting that she has also held meetings with all the candidates, she stressed the need for all actors to show a patriotic spirit, seize the opportunity presented by the 23 December elections and ensure full respect for freedom of assembly and expression. Emphasizing that the elections “will mark a turning point in the history of the [Democratic Republic of the Congo]”, she cautioned that, in many parts of the country, the long-awaited vote will nevertheless take place in a volatile security environment. In particular, she expressed concern over the situation in Beni, where civilians, MONUSCO staff and national security forces are regularly targeted by the group known as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF).
Meanwhile, she continued, the Mission is working to support a major Ebola response, bolstered by recent visits from the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Under-Secretary-General of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO). Noting that the number of cases is still rising in the major population centres of Beni and Butembo — and that women are disproportionately represented — she stressed that MONUSCO will continue its support to Ebola response efforts as a matter of utmost priority. There is also potential for armed group interference in elections in areas throughout the east of the country, she warned, noting that such actions could prevent the population there from voting. Urging the Government to take steps to secure polls, she also drew attention to the situation in the Kasai following the forced return of Congolese migrants from Angola. “It is in this dynamic context that we move towards long-awaited elections in just over one month’s time,” she said, urging the international community to focus collectively on ensuring the credibility of that process.
JOSEPHINE MBELA, Congolese Association for Access to Justice, a non-governmental human rights and rule-of-law organization, said that the political environment in the Democratic Republic of the Congo remains strained due to lack of implementation of the New Year’s Agreement and the continued detention of activists and opposition figures. Several leaders have also been forced into exile. The deployment of voting machines, which were not part of the agreed-upon electoral regulations, has exacerbated tensions. The deterioration of the security situation in the east and elsewhere has further endangered participation in the polls. Meanwhile, people protesting against the voting machines have been arbitrary detained and other civil society activists have been detained for a variety of reasons. Women lacked their required representation in the electoral process, in contradiction of laws requiring specific percentages of female candidates.
She called on the Government to release all political prisons and to ensure effective protection of all political groups, in addition to guaranteeing equal opportunity for all candidates and a level of women’s participation that complies with the law. She called on MONUSCO to expand its protection role, including its patrols in areas vulnerable to militias, such as Beni. She called on the Council to remain galvanized to ensure such protection of civilians as well as the implementation of the New Year’s Agreement and compliance with the complete electoral timeline.
FRANCOISE DELATTRE (France), reiterating strong support for MONUSCO and affirming the importance of women’s participation in the electoral process, called the upcoming elections a historic opportunity to pave the way for stability if they are held in a peaceful and credible manner. Commending technical progress in the process, he cautioned however, that elections will only be credible if conducted fairly, with all candidates having equal ability to campaign. For that to occur, consensus is needed between all stakeholders on outstanding issues. Implementation of the New Year’s Agreement is crucial. Adding that the lifting of the prohibition on demonstrations has yet to come to fruition, he called on all parties to honour their commitments for the sake of the Congolese people. His country would remain ready through MONUSCO to assist with the elections if requested by the Government. He called on MONUSCO and associated units in the east to help neutralize armed groups and commended those combatting Ebola, calling for humanitarian personal to be protected and the drawing up of a regional plan. In all such efforts, he pledged the consistent assistance of France.
NIKKI HALEY (United States), relating her experience in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, during which she spoke to women who wanted to participate in forging a democracy, said that voices who were objecting to democracy must be countered. Cautioning that the achievement of democracy is never easy and requires constant work, she stated that the peaceful transfer of power is a critical milestone. For it to succeed, the leaders of the country must be able to put aside their personal interests for the benefit of the Congolese people. As the elections have been under discussion for some time, all the parties and the Government know what they need to do. “There is no excuse for failure. No reason for delay”. It was critical, however, that key stakeholders follow through on their commitments. The whole world is watching them, she emphasized.
JOB OBIANG ESONO MBENGONO (Equatorial Guinea) commended those partners working to combat the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Ebola outbreak and urged Member States to increase their assistance to that response. Emphasizing that stability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is crucial to that of the entire sub-region, he said elections must be held smoothly on 23 December and welcomed such recent strides as the parties’ adherence to the electoral timetable and the reduction of tensions. In that vein, he encouraged all actors to continue to work together to ensure that all citizens are able to vote in a safe and pacific manner and that the election is both transparent and credible. The subsequent peaceful transfer of power will be another critical element, he said, noting that one of the key lessons learned during the Council’s visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo is that confidence-building measures are needed for lasting peace and stability to take root. The international community should continue to provide support to the Government, while adhering to the principles of sovereignty, independence and non-interference. Expressing concern about the security situation in the town of Beni, he said MONUSCO must protect civilians and the Government must ensure that perpetrators of serious crime are held to account.
GUSTAVO MEZA-CUADRA (Peru) called for the full exercise of freedom of expression and the press and for all actors to stay committed to the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s 2016 agreement as well as the electoral timetable. Also underscoring the need to ensure contingency plans in case of unexpected electoral eventualities, he expressed concern about insecurity in the east of the country and its exacerbation by the ongoing Ebola outbreak. Condemning attacks and kidnappings of civilians, he commended the work being undertaken by personnel of MONUSCO, the WHO and other relevant partners under such difficult circumstances. He also welcomed support from regional and sub-regional organizations to both that response effort and the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s electoral process.
IBRAHIMA TOURE (Côte d’Ivoire) said the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s electoral process will enter a critical phase on 22 November with the official start of the campaign. Emphasizing that all campaigning should be conducted peacefully, he also called on the National Electoral Commission to disseminate information among the population on how to properly use voting machines. Expressing grave concern about the country’s Ebola outbreak and insecurity in areas, he welcomed the holding on 5 November of a joint evaluation mission by Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Jean-Pierre La Croix and WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. He also welcomed the continued support from the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, United Nations system agencies, non-governmental organizations and all other partners providing support to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
OLOF SKOOG (Sweden), welcoming steps undertaken to build confidence in the upcoming elections, called on all parties to re-engage in consultations to resolve outstanding issues. Given the disagreement on such matters as voting machines, she pointed to a need for greater public information outreach about the electoral process from officials and civil society stakeholders, particularly in the regions outside of Kinshasa. It is important, in addition, that all candidates have the same possibilities to campaign and access to media, that civil society be allowed to carry out their work, that women enjoy full and equal participation and that violence and other human rights abuses be addressed. At the same time, efforts must continue to halt the Ebola crisis. Welcoming regional initiatives to support the elections, she encouraged the Government to engage with other international actors in that regard. The support of MONUSCO and the United Nations remains critical, she stressed, underlining the Government’s responsibility to protect their staff and the need for the international community to remain united in its support.
VERÓNICA CORDOVA SORIA (Bolivia) said it is critical for the international community to lend united support to the electoral process of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In that light, she urged the Congolese people to respect the law and condemned any calls for mobilization against the process, so that elections can be held peacefully and credibly. It is necessary, in addition, to ensure adequate participation of women. Commending the National Electoral Commission for its commitment to ensure such participation and to provide instruction on the use of voting machines, she called for all outstanding issues to be worked out by consensus. Supporting MONUSCO’s work, she encouraged them to maintain their engagement with electoral officials while continuing to protect civilians and to fight Ebola. As elections alone will not erase all tensions in the country, the exploitation of resources by transnational entities must be addressed. It is not enough to fight armed groups; countering the criminal networks that employ them is also vital, she stressed.
MAHLET HAILU GUADEY (Ethiopia) urged all national stakeholders to engage constructively to facilitate the elections in line with the 2016 peace agreement. “It is vital for the peace and stability of the country that the Congolese people are allowed to exercise their democratic rights,” she said, calling on all stakeholders to refrain from inflammatory rhetoric. She encouraged the National Electoral Commission to utilize United Nations technical and logistical support and commended MONUSCO initiatives to develop the capacity of polling staff. The recent Heads of State summit of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the region encouraged relevant actors to “create conditions for credible, inclusive and peaceful elections”. She welcomed African Union and SADC preparations to deploy electoral observers. Turning to the Ebola outbreak, she said a recent visit by high-ranking WHO and United Nations officials highlights the gravity of the situation.
MARIUSZ LEWICKI (Poland) welcomed the progress achieved this year as well as the active involvement of all national stakeholders in the electoral preparations. Reiterating calls for the Democratic Republic of the Congo authorities to organize truly fair, credible, transparent and inclusive elections on 23 December, he encouraged all stakeholders to continue engagement in dialogue to build political consensus including on issues pertaining to voting machines and the voter registry. Respect for fundamental human rights is a prerequisite to the democratic transition of power and stability of the country. Persistent reports on restrictions of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly as well as violations of media freedom remain a serious concern. The Government must continue to pursue dialogue and implement confidence-building measures contained in the Saint Sylvester agreement. She welcomed the Government’s initiative on including women in elections both as voters and candidates.
DIDAR TEMENOV (Kazakhstan) called on the Democratic Republic of the Congo authorities to continue executing measures to create conditions conducive to holding credible and transparent elections, including with the meaningful participation of women. All key actors must make further efforts to establish an inclusive dialogue and build confidence in the electoral process. He also welcomed Government measures to deploy electoral materials throughout the country. Calling on all parties to continue to engage in a tolerant and constructive manner, he emphasized the importance of ensuring security at all stages of the election process. He also expressed concern about the continued activity of armed groups in the west of the country, which poses a major challenge to the safety of civilians. Much progress has been made in tackling the Ebola outbreak, however, the situation remains dangerous and unpredictable.
LISE GREGOIRE VAN HAAREN (Netherlands), noting that the first elections leading to a democratic handover of power in the Democratic Republic of the Congo will take place in just 39 days, welcomed progress made in adhering to the electoral timetable and the decision to dispatch independent observers from both inside and outside the country. Efforts to improve women’s participation in the election are also critical. However, lack of trust between parties and dwindling political space remain significant challenges, she said, urging the parties to campaign in a peaceful manner. The Government, meanwhile, should completely lift its restrictions on peaceful protests and release the 130 political prisoners still in its custody. “The challenges and stakes around this historic election are enormous,” she stressed, pointing to the unravelling security situation in the east which also exacerbates challenges facing the Ebola outbreak response. Adding that the resulting humanitarian crisis continues to escalate, she called on all Member States to increase their support. “We now find ourselves at a milestone” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s history, which could help permanently address the roots of its conflict, she said. All partners as well as regional and subregional organizations should continue to monitor the situation, she concluded.
DMITRY A. POLYANSKIY (Russian Federation) said the timely conduct of planned elections will help reduce tensions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo “as we all had the opportunity to see for ourselves” during the Council’s mission to the country. Pointing to a mounting political struggle wherein parties are being consolidated — and drawing attention to the role of political actors located abroad — he expressed support for Kinshasa’s sovereign decision to utilize electronic voting machines, which is its prerogative. He also underlined the importance of respecting the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s decision to rely on national resources to meet its electoral needs, while noting that MONUSCO’s logistical capacity should also be borne in mind. Moreover, he said, the conduct of the upcoming election should take place in line with Council resolution 2409 (2018) and the December 2016 peace agreement. MONUSCO’s protection of civilians in the electoral context should be carried out in line with the principle of State sovereignty, he said, noting that while the election is important, so too is action to combat the illegal armed groups that threaten civilians and risk destabilizing the region.
STEPHEN HICKEY (United Kingdom) said the election could mark a major achievement for the 85 million Congolese people who have experienced numerous tragic conflicts over recent decades. A peaceful, democratic handover of power would also help ensure future growth, prosperity and economic stability. Joining other speakers in welcoming positive recent developments, he noted that democracy is not just about a single event but about a continuous process. All actors must work to create the conditions conducive for a peaceful vote, including fully respecting the right to peaceful assembly and expression. In that regard, he voiced concern about the recent arrest and detention of protesters and called on President Kabila to release all political prisoners. Warning that any violence in the election will diminish its credibility in the eyes of the Congolese people and the international community, he said restoring confidence in the electoral process could be achieved in part by implementing the recommendations of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy as soon as possible. “It’s not the politicians that stand to win or lose the most in these elections, it’s the people of [the Democratic Republic of the Congo],” he said, calling on leaders to put aside their personal ambitions.
BADER ABDULLAH N. M. ALMUNAYEKH (Kuwait) expressed his hope that elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are held on schedule so that the country can experience its first peaceful transfer of power. Noting much progress in that process, he stressed the importance of implementing provisions of the New Year’s Agreement and continuing dialogue on outstanding issues in the time that remained. Consensus is particularly needed on the use of the voting machines. Freedom of expression and freedom to peacefully demonstrate is also of great importance. Underlining that the persistent humanitarian crisis in the country remains alarming, he called on the Government and the international community to double down on their efforts to relieve it. On Ebola, he welcomed the efforts of the Government and the United Nations and expressed hope that they will result in eradication of the epidemic as soon as possible.
MA ZHAOXU (China), Council President speaking in his national capacity, pledged his country’s continued support for MONUSCO and said that Congolese accomplishments in preparing for elections showed the determination of the Congolese people and Government to make progress toward peace and stability. The international community must fully respect their efforts and their ownership of the process. Many challenges remained in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, so the international community should continue to provide support to the Government’s efforts while respecting the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. He expressed hope that MONUSCO will continue to engage with the Government and succeed in its mandated tasks. China, he pledged, stands ready to work together with the international community to foster peace, stability and development in the country under the leadership of the Congolese people.
IGNACE GATA MAVITA (Democratic Republic of the Congo) stressed that all activities necessary to hold successful elections in his country on 23 December had been undertaken in compliance with the published timetable, including: training of 511,901 electoral agents, public education on the use of voting machines and the code of political good conduct, training of trainers for the voting offices and preparation for compiling results, deployment of electoral materials and equipment across the country and accreditation of witnesses, observers and journalists. All manner of transport has been put at the disposition of the National Electoral Commission and financing has proceeded according to the disbursement plan. Supplementary security police have been recruited and trained. Mechanisms to manage electoral disputes have also been put in place in the 26 provinces of the country, with the magistrates trained for the task.
Turning to remaining issues of concern to some in the opposition and portions of civil society, he said that apprehensions over the voting machines on the part of Council members were dissipated during their visit to his country last month, when they themselves tried the machines on site. His country is convinced that voting machines are the easiest way for people to vote when faced with polls that include 35,016 candidates for three combined elections taking place at once, particularly in comparison with using a printed electoral registry of 54 pages. Members of the political opposition and civil society who tested the machines have agreed. In any case, the machines will only be used to print the paper to be placed in the voting box and the counting will be done by hand.
In other areas, he said the voting registry of 40,024,897 voters has been certified after auditing process and the issue of fingerprinted voters is being resolved in conjunction with the International Organization of la Francophonie. All those classified as political prisoners have been released, he maintained, in contrary to the section of the report that claimed otherwise. Those still detained do not fit that category. Citizens, journalists and activists now enjoy freedom of expression, with a record range of media across the country. Acknowledging that there are still improvements in human rights to be made, he told the Security Council they will be addressed. Demonstrations are generally granted authorization when requested; the fact that some are not is solely to prevent public unrest. All candidates will be treated equally and have access to the same conditions. “The stakes are high and we must ensure that everything runs smoothly,” he said.
Acknowledging as well that the holding of elections in North Kivu and Beni was challenged by continued militia attacks in those areas, he welcomed MONUSCO’s effort to assist his country’s armed forces with that problem. “The road to elections remain irreversible,” he asserted, adding that the people of his country are eager to exercise their sovereign right to elect their leaders. Those who refused to accept the voting machines or otherwise rejected the preparations made are not ready to participate in the democratic process, he maintained. In closing, he thanked all those who have contributed to the stability and lasting peace of his country.