Did the Catholic Church Save the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or Will the Human Rights Violations Continue?

By: Steve Ragatzki

Constitutional Concerns

“People should be allowed to express their views and peacefully protest without the fear of being killed or arrested.”[1] Joseph Kabila, President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, clearly thinks otherwise. Kabila’s government has viciously suppressed opposition voices, and Kabila has thus far refused to leave office despite the expiration of his second term.[2] Kabila has been the President of the DRC since 2001.[3] According to the Constitution of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the President shall be elected by a direct election from the people for a five-year term.[4] The President may seek reelection only once.[5] However, the President shall remain in office until the President-Elect “effectively assumes his functions.”[6] Whatever the reason, Kabila has stayed in office well beyond the expiration of his term.          

Analysts speculate on several reasons that Kabila is unwilling to step down. First, he could be scared for his safety.[7] Familial precedent likely strikes a nerve—Kabila’s father, former President Laurent Kabila, was assassinated in 2011 by one of his own teenage soldiers when his policies grew stale.[8] Joseph Kabila’s policies haven’t been kind to the Congolese people either. In 2015, the United Nations reported finding a mass grave of 421 bodies just outside of Kinshasa, the capital.[9] Kabila’s government admitted that the bodies were placed in the gravesite, but would only admit to the burial being a “normal procedure” to dispose of the poor and stillborn.[10] Congolese residents suspect that the bodies in the mass grave were killed when Kabila’s government suppressed demonstrations opposing an extension of his political term.[11]

Second, Kabila will likely forfeit a large portion of his wealth if and when he leaves the presidency.[12] The U.S. government has already started sanctioning Congolese officials,[13] with Kabila likely to follow. The Office of Foreign Assets Control within the U.S. Department of the Treasury froze the assets of Congolese officials Evariste Boshab and Kalev Mutondo “for engaging in actions or policies that undermine democratic processes or institutions in the DRC.”[14] Boshab, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior and Security, was identified as a “key player” in Kabila’s quest to remain in power past the expiration of his Constitutional term.[15] Boshab offered bribes to National Assembly members, appointed commissioners for newly-created provinces without holding elections, ordered opposition party officials to leave their posts, and supported neutralization of opposition demonstrations.[16] Mutondo, the General Administrator of the National Intelligence Agency, ordered the surveillance, torture, and neutralization of opposition party members; he also engaged in the illegal exportation of minerals from the DRC.[17]

Human Rights Violations

The United Nations Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) issued a report on October 7, 2016 detailing a litany of human rights abuses committed by the Kabila government in the wake of protests demanding that Kabila step down from office at the end of his term.[18] The UNJHRO Report found that Kabila’s government violated numerous rights of the Congolese people, including: the right to freedom of peaceful assembly; the right to life, the right to physical integrity; the right to liberty and security of person.[19] The UNJHRO Report also documented cases of destruction, looting of property, and attacks against political parties’ premises and public and private properties.[20]

Frustration with these human rights violations appears to be coming to a head. In late March 2017, Congolese security forces came under attack in various parts of the country as local leaders expressed their displeasure with Kabila’s refusal to step down and recognize them as valid political entities.[21] Militia fighters in the Kasai province attacked Congolese police forces and decapitated forty police officers in response to violent crackdowns by the Kabali government.[22] When will the violence stop?

The Catholic Church Steps In

Amid the escalating violence, the Catholic Bishop’s Conference has led mediation efforts.[23] Around New Year’s Day 2017, the Kabila government and opposition party allegedly agreed to a deal for a peaceful transition of power.[24] Under the terms of the deal, Kabila cannot amend the constitution to extend his mandate and run for a third term, a transitional government will be put in place by March next year, and a prime minister from the opposition party will be appointed.[25] Some news outlets have reported that Kabila has signed the deal;[26] others disagree.[27] Should Kabila accept the deal, it will mark “Congo’s first peaceful transfer of power since independence in 1960.”[28] But doubts remain—after all, Kabila, as President, was entrusted with “represent[ing] the nation,” being a “symbol of national unity,” and “ensur[ing] respect of the Constitution.”[29] With pressure from the Catholic Church, U.S. Department of Treasury, and United Nations Human Rights Council,[30] it may be now or never for substantive change to take place.


[1] DR Congo: Deadly Crackdown on Protests, Human Rights Watch (Jan 24, 2015), https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/01/24/dr-congo-deadly-crackdown-protests (quoting Ida Sawyer).

[2] Jeffrey Gettleman, Pact Would Force Joseph Kabila from Congo. If, of Course, He Agrees., N.Y. Times (Jan. 3, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/03/world/africa/congo-joseph-kabila-elections.html?_r=0.

[3] Gettleman, supra note 2.

[4] Constitution of the Democractic Republic of the Congo, art. 70, available at http://www.constitutionnet.org/files/DRC%20-%20Congo%20Constitution.pdf.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Gettleman, supra note 2.

[8] Revealed: How Africa’s Dictator Died at the Hands of his Boy Soldiers, Guardian (Feb. 10, 2011 9:34 PM), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/feb/11/theobserver.

[9] Ida Sawyer, 2 Years on, DR Congo Mass Grave Still a Mystery, Human Rights Watch (Mar. 18, 2017), https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/03/18/2-years-dr-congo-mass-grave-still-mystery.

[10] Id.

[11] Id. See also Deadly Crackdown on Protests, supra note 1

[12] Gettleman, supra note 2.

[13] Id.

[14] Treasury Sanctions Two Congolese Government Officials, U.S. Dep’t Treasury (Dec. 12, 2016), https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl0682.aspx.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Preliminary investigation report on human rights violations and violence perpetrated during demonstrations in Kinshasa between 19 and 21 September 2016, UNJHRO (Oct. 7, 2016). https://monusco.unmissions.org/sites/default/files/unjhro_report_on_the_preliminary_findings_kinshasa_sept_2016.pdf.

[19] Id. at 6-9.

[20] Id. at 9-11.

[21] Thomas Fessy, DR Congo Unrest: Why are Police in Kasai Being Decapitated?, BBC (Mar. 27, 2017), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-39378901.

[22] Militia Fighters Decapitate 40 Police Officers in DR Congo, BBC (Mar. 25, 2017), https://www.apartments.com/thirty-eight-grand-rapids-mi/1p1jh46/.

[23] Kabila to Step Down After Elections in New Deal, Al Jazeera (Dec. 31, 2016), http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/12/drc-kabila-step-elections-deal-161230210226827.html.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Congo: President Kabila Signs Exit Deal, News Agency of Nigeria (Jan 1, 2017), http://www.nan.ng/news/congo-president-kabila-signs-exit-deal/.

[27] See Gettleman, supra note 2.

[28] Kabila to Step Down After Elections in New Deal, supra note 23.

[29] Constitution of the Democractic Republic of the Congo, art. 69, available at http://www.constitutionnet.org/files/DRC%20-%20Congo%20Constitution.pdf.

[30] Human Rights Council Interactive Dialogue on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, Statement by the Assistant Secretary General Andrew Gilmo, (Mar. 22, 2017), http://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=21431&LangID=E#sthash.70xIPGOy.dpuf.