Is the Democratic Republic of the Congo deteriorating into a failed state?

By Adotei Akwei

On August 23, 2017, the Lantos Human Rights Commission held a congressional briefing on the bloody political crisis and its corrosive impact on human rights in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (“DRC”). I joined a panel of DRC experts who described the deteriorating human rights situation at a time where there is a void in U.S. leadership on Africa.

The refusal of DRC President Joseph Kabila to hold elections and relinquish power has plunged the country — already reeling from decades of armed insurgencies, human rights violations and paralyzed government — into crisis. With brutal clashes between the security forces and prodemocracy protestors occurring in the country’s main cities and inter-communal violence spreading in different provinces of the country, the question is what can keep the country from exploding.

The consequences of the political crisis are alarming: a report by United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) estimated that 3.8 million people have been internally displaced since 2017. UNICEF estimates that 600,000 children have been displaced as a result of the conflict in the province of Kasai alone; 2,000 children have been used by armed groups and 4,000 have been separated from their families. There have been hundreds of extrajudicial executions by the security forces, with the Catholic Church estimating that the death toll since October 2016 may be possibly over 3,000.

Given the increasing likelihood that the DRC will miss the deadline to organize presidential elections by December 2017 and thereby allow Kabila to cling on to power yet again, the DRC appears headed toward being a failed state — unless the international community stepping up its game. This is where Congress comes in.

The Trump administration has yet to assemble a credible foreign policy team with critical senior positions at the Department of State (DOS) remaining vacant nine months into this administration. US Ambassador to the DRC, James Swan needs the full weight of the State Department behind him if he is going to be able to push forward a process that can help avert a full meltdown into violence. At the same time the Trump administration’s budget proposals would gut the DOS International Affairs budget and severely weaken DOS’s ability to engage in the political and diplomatic work needed to help address this crisis.

What should Congress do to prevent DRC from deteriorating into a failed state? Congress must pass a robust International Affairs budget for Fiscal Year (“FY”) 2018. A meltdown in the DRC could destabilize Burundi, Central African Republic and South Sudan — all volatile fragile states.

In addition, Congress must help press the South African Development Community (“SADC”) to push President Kabila to honour the 31 December Agreement, negotiated between the Kabila government, his political opposition, and civil society. This requires pushing the Trump administration to appoint the personnel needed to implement a diplomatic push.

The 31 December Agreement calls for the release of political prisoners, allows the independent media to operate, independent investigations into human rights abuses, and calls for elections to be held by the end of 2017.

The fight to hold elections in the DRC must continue but while that effort is happening the international community must force the Kabila government to comply with other parts of the agreement. This could provide the people of the DRC with time and space to negotiate and hold the next elections while also helping prevent the further erosion of the rule of law and respect for human rights. For that to happen, the U.S. and SADC need to act and act quickly.

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