The Environmental Defenders demand UN Bodies hold the DR Congo government accountable for the severe conditions faced by Environmental Defenders and human rights activists

Environmental Defenders, strongly urge the UN bodies to hold the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) responsible for the aforementioned human rights situations

The year 2024 will be significant for the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s membership in United Nations (UN) entities, since the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the country is scheduled to occur at the end of 2024. The United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Working Group will assess the human rights situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) this year. This evaluation follows a previous UPR conducted in 2019.

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a distinctive process of the UN Human Rights Council, which mandates that every UN Member State undertake a comprehensive evaluation of its human rights records every 4.5 years. The UPR grants each State the chance to periodically:

  • Provide a detailed account of the measures it has implemented to enhance the human rights conditions inside their respective nations and address obstacles that hinder the full realization of human rights.

  • Obtain suggestions – based on feedback from several stakeholders and pre-session reports – from UN Member States for ongoing enhancement.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo will undergo evaluation at the 47th session of the 4th cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), scheduled to occur from November 4th to November 15th, 2024. During the 2019 third Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) received and agreed to implement eight recommendations related to safeguarding the rights of human rights defenders, including lawyers, against harassment. These proposals also address ensuring access to justice and protecting the freedom of speech of lawyers. Based on reports and information gathered by the Environmental Defenders, it is widely acknowledged that the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has not effectively implemented the recommendations given in past Universal Periodic Reviews that assessed the country’s human rights situation.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has intensified its practices of grave infringements upon freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and demonstration. The civic space in the DRC is at risk of further deterioration due to the enactment of a sequence of repressive legislations targeting both national and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as well as human rights defenders (HRD).Despite the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s pledge to safeguard journalistic freedom, the freedom of the press and the right to information have been significantly curtailed.

Throughout the electoral campaign of 2023, journalists were systematically subjected to intimidation, harassment, arbitrary arrest, and incarceration. Additionally, their equipment was often taken or vandalized. Journalists, particularly those reporting on human rights abuses and unlawful murders, experienced this situation to a significant extent. As an example, Stanis Bujakera, a journalist from Congo, was apprehended by law enforcement in Kinshasa on September 8, 2023, and subsequently sent to a detention facility on Thursday, disregarding objections and several appeals for his release. Stanis Bujakera, the deputy publishing director of Congolese news site Actualité .cd, is under suspicion for allegedly spreading false rumors and disseminating false information.

These actions were carried out for an article published by Jeune Afrique, which implicated military intelligence in the assassination of former minister Chérubin Okende. Stanis was apprehended on the evening of September 8, 2023 at Ndjili airport in Kinshasa, as he was making arrangements to depart for Lubumbashi, located in the southeastern region of the country. Stanis is now incarcerated.

The Environmental Defenders have recorded numerous instances of threats and intimidation towards journalists, media workers, human rights defenders, and environmental activists in the Ituri and North Kivu provinces of the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). These incidents involve officials from the Armed Forces of the DRC (FARDC) who have made explicit threats to harm or kill activists and radio journalists.

Journalists’ equipment has been vandalized in several locations while they were doing their responsibilities.These incidents occurred in the provinces of Ituri and North Kivu, namely in Bunia, Beni, and Goma.

The majority of Congolese inhabitants rely on the exploitation of natural resources, whether via agriculture or mining, for their daily sustenance. Access to land is essential for those employed in rural regions due to this reason. Nevertheless, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the rights of persons who own land under customary law are uncertain due to outdated and inadequate laws. Undoubtedly, the legal status of customary law remains uncertain in terms of acceptance by the central government. Furthermore, while the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) made a commitment to prioritize ensuring the indigenous Batwa people’s access to land and natural resources at its second Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the Batwa people continue to encounter significant barriers in accessing land. Indeed, the Batwa indigenous people often face eviction from their native territory, relegation to inadequately equipped reserves, or disregard of their rights by the government and other Congolese nationals. While the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo, with assistance from civic groups and non-governmental organizations, has initiated land law changes, it remains uncertain how customary land rights will be addressed in the new laws.

Despite the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s abundance of natural resources, it is important to acknowledge that violent wars, political instability, and lack of transparency in governance have hindered the sustainable and fair use of the riches gained by the exploitation of these resources. The presence of armed organizations participating in mining operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is well acknowledged and extensively documented in relation to the extractive industry. Historically, armed groups have mostly gathered in the Eastern regions of the nation, where the mining of gold, tin, tantalum, and tungsten (3TG) plays a significant role in the local economy. Armed factions have been seen to impose unlawful levies, establish barriers around mining locations, and unlawfully regulate entry to these areas. The involvement of governmental personnel, including the national army and the presidential guard, exacerbates the situation by engaging in the illicit extraction of rent from mining sites. Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge that there is still a prevalent practice of using underage minors for labor in the mines.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) currently lacks the implementation of Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) rights across several communities. Consequently, community people face significant challenges in receiving compensation when mining agreements are established between government institutions and private businesses operating inside their villages. Indigenous people and local communities have often experienced forced displacement from their land without obtaining any kind of compensation. Alternatively, they have entered into agreements with commercial entities without proper consultation and without receiving any compensation or restitution for the resulting loss of their means of sustenance. The artisanal miners are in a very vulnerable position due to their labor under insecure and precarious circumstances. Additionally, their ability to negotiate with other economic players in the industry is typically hindered by a lack of organization and formalization.

It is worth mentioning that the DRC is situated in the Congo basin, which is the second biggest rainforest globally. This rainforest is home to a diverse range of plant and animal species, making it a very valuable environment. The Congo basin rainforest include many internationally protected areas that have been officially recognized by UNESCO as “world heritage sites,” including the Virunga and Salonga National Parks. Based on their specific designation, the use of natural resources is prohibited in these parks. Nevertheless, they possess rich reserves of diamonds, lumber, coltan, oil, and gas. Although some investors have shown interest in exploiting resources in the Congo Basin rainforest, it is imperative for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to preserve the integrity of this essential ecosystem and uphold its adherence to international law.

In addition to the evidence provided, it is evident that the DRC has failed to uphold human rights by inadequately enforcing legislation that may have safeguarded the rights of Congolese individuals. In addition, the DRC also neglected to uphold the rights of human rights defenders and ensure the safety of journalists in carrying out their professional duties without intimidation, obstruction, harassment, or unwarranted intervention. In addition, the DRC has not made significant efforts to ensure the right to a fair trial and to provide equitable access to justice and legal aid for all individuals.

Human rights defenders and environmental activists in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are seeing a growing incidence of legal persecution.Multiple incidents have occurred in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) when human rights defenders and environmental activists have been apprehended and held in custody by the Agence Nationale de Renseignement (ANR), the government’s intelligence agency, on unjustified reasons such as being seen as a danger to national security. Consequently, human rights defenders and environmental activists in the Democratic Republic of Congo often have a strong sense of obligation to be concerned about their personal safety. This poses a danger to the effective functioning of human rights advocates inside the nation.

The civic space in DR Congo is now restricted and is further diminishing. The areas in which Environmental Defenders operates are exposed to substantial risks, particularly with the protection of environmental, labor, and human rights defenders.Indigenous peoples in the DRC were disproportionately targeted in a significant number of documented assaults on defenders. These attacks were often connected to the specific areas of interest of Environmental Defenders, including as extractive industries, mining, wildlife preservation, hydroelectric dams, and large-scale agriculture.

Personnel from several Environmental Defenders partner organizations in the provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu, and Ituri have lately faced threats or allegations from the DRC government’s security agency, ANR, about espionage or involvement in rebellious activities. Instances of endangerment against Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in Ituri have escalated, as shown by a recent declaration made by the military governor of the province. The governor explicitly labeled some CSOs as adversaries of the provincial administration and a menace to the peace of Ituri. An Environmental Defenders partner in Beni, North Kivu province, encountered legal repercussions and was suspected of colluding with rebel factions, namely M-23. Within the Mambasa territory in Ituri, the local administration has strengthened its authority over civil society organization (CSO) operations at the territorial level. Furthermore, they are now working on implementing a new legislation that imposes stringent regulations on non-governmental organizations (NGOs), mandating them to submit their financial statements to military authorities.

Indigenous peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo have almost no political representation. Neither the Senate nor the National Assembly currently have any indigenous members. However, up until now, the DRC has not made significant progress in implementing steps to guarantee the inclusion of the nation’s indigenous peoples and women in public institutions.

The Environmental Defenders call for the UN authorities to hold DR Congo responsible for the plight of human rights defenders, environmental activists, and indigenous peoples in the DRC, whose rights have been violated and impacted on all fronts. It is crucial for the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to implement precise legal actions that acknowledge the land rights of indigenous communities and their entitlement to freely provide their informed permission beforehand. The process of militarizing and officially designating Congolese forests and national parks should include a method specifically designed to identify the lands and territories belonging to indigenous peoples. The objective should be to provide them with acknowledgment and safeguard, in line with the international treaties endorsed by the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has enacted Law No.23/927 on the protection and accountability of human rights defenders. This law, approved on 15 June 2023, acknowledges the difficult circumstances in which HRDs carry out their work in the nation. The preface explicitly asserts the need of enacting legislation to safeguard them. Additionally, it emphasizes the necessity of implementing measures to ensure that individuals who advocate for human rights and fundamental freedoms can carry out their work in a safe and supportive environment, free from violence, threats, retaliation, discrimination, unjust arrest and detention, and other forms of persecution by both governmental and non-governmental entities.

Protection International acknowledges that Law 23/027 contains certain favorable aspects, such as the inclusive interpretation of Human Rights Defenders (HRD) and the explicit acknowledgement of the necessity for measures to create a supportive working environment for HRDs. However, it is believed that substantial revisions are required in order for this Law to effectively ensure that “defenders of human rights and fundamental freedoms have an environment conducive to the exercise of their activities without fear of violence, threats, reprisals, discrimination, arbitrary arrest and detention, and other persecution by state or non-state actors”.

Hence, we, the Environmental Defenders, strongly urge the UN bodies to hold the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) responsible for the aforementioned human rights situations. Additionally, we call upon the DRC government to explicitly ensure the protection and security of human rights defenders, safeguarding them from any hindrances that obstruct their freedom, liberty, and work within the country.