Created by the U.N. Assembly in March 2006 as the principal body dealing with human rights, the United Nations' Human Rights Council (U.N.H.R.C.) is an inter-governmental institution within the United Nations. The main responsibility of the 47 countries that sit on the council is to promote and protect human rights around the world. Its 47 seats are occupied by member states elected for three-year terms.
Based on equitable geographical distribution, the seats are divided as follows: Africa: 13 seats, Asia‑Pacific: 13 seats, Eastern Europe: 6 seats, Latin America and Caribbean: 8 seats, and Western Europe and other countries: 7 seats.
On 16 October 2017, the U.N. General Assembly elected 15 countries by secret ballot to serve on the Council. Those elected were Afghanistan, Angola, Australia, Chile, Democratic Republic of the Congo (D.R.C.), Mexico, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Qatar, Senegal, Slovakia, Spain and Ukraine. All will serve three-year terms beginning on 1 January 2018.
Even though most of the newly elected countries don't have a good score on human rights-related issues, the D.R.C.'s victory was the one singled out for a lot of criticism. Shocked and satirical responses from the U.K., the U.S.A. and rights groups within and outside the D.R.C. followed hard on the appointment's heels.
Few, if any, of those who have been objectively researching the D.R.C.'s conflict can applaud this appointment, because of the country's horrible human-rights record. In 2016, the U.N.'s Human Rights Office reported that of more than 5,190 human rights violations and abuses recorded in the D.R.C. in 2016, 64 percent were committed by the Congolese army and police.
Ida Sawyer, the Central Africa Director at Human Rights Watch, reported that on 30 September last year, D.R.C. security forces arbitrarily arrested 49 activists from several citizens' movements protesting the failure to hold presidential elections before the end of this year. Activists from Struggle for Change (LUCHA), Countdown (Compte à Rebours), and Bell of the People (Kengele ya Raia) were arrested in the eastern cities of Goma and Kisangani.
Another recent Human Rights report is based on interviews with 96 people who had fled to neighbouring Angola to escape the violence in the Kamonia territory of the province of Kasai. The U.N. team was able to confirm that between 12 March and 19 June, some 251 people were the victims of extrajudicial and targeted killings. These included 62 children, of whom 30 were aged under eight. Interviewees indicated that local security forces and other officials actively fomented, fueled, and occasionally led attacks based on ethnicity. The human-rights violation was also reported by the U.N. Mission in the D.R.C., which identified at least 80 mass graves in Kasai.
Marie Ange Mushobekwa, the current D.R.C. Human Rights Minister, told the U.N. Human Rights Committee that 1,300 people have lost their lives during the Kasai crisis; a shocking statistic to those who believe that with this record, the D.R.C. should not be allowed a seat on the council. Yet despite its ugly human-rights record, the D.R.C. was awarded the seat via the secret ballot.
Human rights activism with zero diplomatic support, weak lobbying strategy and an ambiguous understanding of geopolitics does not work against an unjust international system that uses dishonest principles.
Frankly speaking, the above reports and statistics are more than enough to support those who believe that the D.R.C. should not sit with those assigned to protect and promote human rights around the globe.
But even more disturbing is the fact that the D.R.C. won the seat with 151 votes -- although it only needed 97. So the victory sends a clear message to Congolese human rights activists and their allies. The message is that human rights activism with zero diplomatic support, weak lobbying strategy, and an ambiguous understanding of geopolitics does not work against an unjust international system that uses dishonest principles.
Preventing the D.R.C. sitting on the U.N.H.R.C. will not be achieved by simply making declarations and launching sit-ins outside western embassies and consulates. It needs very sophisticated lobbying and strategy at regional, continental and global levels.
Two critical facts that human rights activists must take into consideration are that the D.R.C. is representing Africa as a region, not itself, and that African countries are not the only voters. If the activists and their allies take these two facts seriously, they could do more than just making declarations and protesting outside western diplomatic missions.
Strategically, the Congolese opposition leaders ought to have supported the human rights activists. Their support could have allowed the activists to lobby and get their message across to other relevant and powerful actors within the international system.
In this case, D.R.C. opposition leaders are to blame, because they did not provide the necessary support to human rights activists. They failed to use their diplomatic contacts and lobbying methods in support of the calls made by the activists.
The reason for this may be their inability to understand that for Kinshasa, the U.N.H.R.C. is a strategic global institution. Strategic, because the legitimacy of Joseph Kabila's regime is contested since its inability to organise an election in December last year. In power since 2001, Kabila officially ended his term of office on 26 December 2016, but he was allowed to remain in power after a political negotiation with the opposition and civil society.
However, the deal was signed in exchange for a guarantee that elections will be held in December this year.
Countries that aggressively violate human rights at home should not be in a position to guard the human rights of others.
Even though the majority of the current and newly elected countries on the U.N.H.R.C. do not have a good human rights record, it is difficult to see how the U.K. and U.S.A. can also decry the D.R.C.'s victory. It has to be asked if either the U.S.A. or the U.K. can point moral fingers at the D.R.C. on human rights-related issues.
Shortly after the result was released, the British U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft posted on Twitter: "Political repression, civilian attacks, mass graves. What happened in DRC last year makes their election to the Human Rights Council entirely disappointing." His U.S. colleague Nikki Haley, who has called for the Human Rights Council votes to be competitive, said that the D.R.C.'s election harmed the credibility of the body. She argued that "countries that aggressively violate human rights at home should not be in a position to guard the human rights of others."
While all their statements reflect a love of peace, human rights, and a moral support to the victims of human-rights abuses, the neo-colonial policies on foreigners and the abuse of military power by the countries they represent overshadows their attempts to sit in judgment on the moral high ground.
As a result, their disappointment will not be taken seriously by any objective, peace-loving person who understands the root causes of the collapse of Libya and Somalia, or the genocide in Rwanda, among other catastrophes. The history of the U.K. and the U.S.A. makes their attempts to be credible interlocutors or just advocates of peace ironic. Currently, in almost every conflict in the world, there's an invisible or visible presence of the U.S., the U.K., or their allies.
It seems that the two nations and their allies are convinced that human-rights violations committed by their troops outside their territories should not be taken into consideration. If these were included in global human-rights assessments, they might become much quieter during human-rights conversations.
But because the U.N. continues to espouse unjust principles like the Veto Power, U.N. institutions will continue to operate using philosophies that do little to promote peace or human rights. It could be argued that with respect to the D.R.C., the U.S. and the U.K., not one of the three deserves to sit on the U.N.H.R.C., because of their ugly human-rights records. None of them have any moral standing, when it comes to protecting and defending human rights.
Feruzi Ngwamba is Acting Coordinator of the Access Program and lecturer of Political Science and Sociology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He is currently studying towards a PhD in Public Policy and Development.