On September 13, the United States Senate unanimously passed S.Res.485 – A resolution urging the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to comply with constitutional limits on presidential terms and fulfil its constitutional mandate for a democratic transition of power in 2016.
Co-sponsored by Senators Ed Markey (D-MA), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Chris Coons (D-DE), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), and Chris Murphy (D-CT), S.Res.485 urges President Obama to take a range of actions, including imposing targeted sanctions on Congolese President Joseph Kabila’s inner circle – such as travel bans and asset freezes – with the goal of pressuring Kabila to respect Congo’s Constitution and refrain from using violence and human rights abuses to silence and repress civil society.
The resolution also urges the Congolese government to demonstrate commitment to elections by accelerating critical processes such as voter registration, and to protect freedom of speech particularly in relation to partisan political activities.
There is currently a similar resolution moving through the House (H.Res.780), which is awaiting a vote on the House floor.
This resolution comes at an increasingly tense and critical time in Congo. According to the Congolese constitution, September 19th is the deadline for the elections commission to announce that presidential elections will be held in time for President Kabila’s departure from office on December 19.
Since September 1, President Kabila’s ruling party as well as several opposition parties have been participating in what the regime is calling a “national dialogue,” claiming it is meant to set a course for the future. The dialogue has been marred, however, by vague agendas and a lack of participation by several groups who say the process is a ruse, and run by a partial mediator. Kabila has still not indicated when or under what terms he intends to step down from the presidency, but senior officials have said publicly that the elections will not be held on time. As of September 12, the opposition groups that were taking part walked out of the talks, confirming a deep-set impasse between parties, and an end to the process for now.
The U.S. can increase pressure on Kabila through the use of financial tools, such as targeted sanctions, which would create leverage for diplomacy by limiting Kabila’s allies’ ability to travel and access their assets. S.Res.485 adds to the growing call for the U.S. to take a tougher stance on Congo’s elections, and sends a strong message to President Kabila that constitutional violations, including electoral delays and repression of civil society, will not be tolerated.
The violent repression and abuses resulting from Congo’s elections crisis have already instilled fear and violated the fundamental rights of individuals and communities in many parts of Congo. As noted in a recent Amnesty International report, the Congolese government is using state institutions to prevent people who oppose a prolongation of President Kabila’s term in office to organize and express themselves. The risk of violence and abuse of fundamental rights will likely rise dramatically on September 19th if on-time elections are not announced. The Obama administration should follow the recommendations unanimously supported by the Senate and take steps to mitigate risks to civilians and support timely and peaceful elections in accordance with Congo’s constitution.