What are the risks facing human rights defenders in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)?
The risks to human rights defenders in the DRC are many. A worsening cycle of repression against critics of the government presents a major threat to human rights defenders’ work. Activists face violence, threats, intimidation and harassment on a daily basis. Political tensions, as a result of President Kabila pushing for a third term in office, will likely contribute to a more dangerous and difficult environment for human rights defenders.
In the east, armed groups continue to operate, threatening human rights defenders on the ground, many of whom are in isolated areas with no protection from the state. Activists are routinely in danger simply because they denounce human rights violations, including unlawful killings, the recruitment of child soldiers and rape and sexual violence. PI supports them to carry on this important work. Women human rights defenders can be particularly vulnerable as they fight to protect victims of rape and sexual violence.
There is a growing trend of violence and intimidation against environmental activists working to stop illegal logging, land-grabbing and exploitation by the extractive industries. As the competition for Congo’s natural resources increases, individuals who work to uncover abuses of human rights, corruption and environmental damage are placed at enormous risk and are often vulnerable from attacks by a range of powerful state and non-state actors.
What does PI do in the DRC?
The protection needs of human rights defenders range from physical measures, early warning systems, building networks, data management and digital security, assistance for activists’ well-being, and better access to advocacy and support mechanisms. PI provides tools and strategies to defenders to that they may protect themselves by making an informed risk analysis, and then taking all steps to elaborate and implement effective security plans. PI looks to protect the physical security of human rights defenders as well as seeking to find ways to mitigate and campaign against state criminalisation of human rights work including judicial harassment, marginalisation, and other forms of state repression. Protection International works with a range of civil society organisations in North and South Kivu, including the Ukingo Wetu network, SOS Information Juridique Multisectorielle and the emerging Human Rights Defenders Platform in South Kivu.
Congolese human rights defenders work in precarious environments using mobile phones and computers to communicate and store sensitive information. PI holds training workshops to equip defenders with the skills and knowledge they need to adopt new tools and practice in order to minimise risk. Sessions also require individualized follow up with individuals and organisations to evaluate the extent to which PI’s support has meaningfully translated into modified practice for defenders.
Ensuring gender balance
PI also works to ensure that defenders living in rural areas, including activists working on sexual and gender-based violence, benefit from our work. PI works with women human rights defenders, and communities of women, who provide psychological counseling, legal support and document sexual and gender-based violence.
Coordinating emergency responses
With Congolese civil society, PI can support interventions on cases of human rights defenders at risk in North Kivu and South Kivu. PI works with individuals to effectively implement strategies aimed at preventative protection in order to attempt to help individuals avoid emergency situations. Many individuals at risk consequently have the skills and knowledge to put in place their own security plans to reduce their own vulnerability in the face of physical violence, harassment, intimidation and arbitrary arrest. On the occasions that the risk becomes too much, PI can offer advice and expertise in response to emergencies.
If fatal attacks against human rights defenders go unpunished, impunity will continue and all defenders will remain at risk. PI advocates for justice on behalf of individuals and their families, including Serge Maheshe, Evariste Kasali, Pascal Kabungulu and Floribert Chebeya.
Pushing for more effective state accountability
It is essential to improve the response of state actors when human rights defenders are threatened or killed and strengthen the authorities’ awareness of their obligation to protect. PI continues to develop relations with the Congolese army and police in order to push for accountability within state institutions through regular exchange. Protection International also undertakes advocacy in Brussels and Kinshasa with diplomatic representations and other international bodies.
Establishing legislation to protect
On 10 February 2016, the Governor of South Kivu promulgated an edict on the protection of human rights defenders and journalists in South Kivu, following advocacy by Protection International and Congolese civil society. PI continues to work with the provincial authorities in South Kivu to abide by the provisions of the edict and turn it into a reality. Protection International is also calling for the adoption of the draft bill on the promotion and protection of human rights defenders at national level.
Background of PI in the DRC
PI began working in the DRC in 2004. The country work initially began through regular missions in which PI staff conducted security trainings with civil society groups. During the early period of PI’s presence in the DRC, the organisation developed strong relations with civil society in the East, training local activists. In 2009, a Protection Desk was established.
PI has increasingly become an important voice within Congolese civil society in North and South Kivu on security management for human rights defenders.
The organisation currently has offices in both Bukavu and Goma.