Thank you to the briefers for updating the Council on elections planning in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In particular, thank you, Madam President, for calling this very important and timely meeting because we are, in fact, running out of time.
Today, the DRC is 118 days away from election day – that’s less than four months for the government to finish organizing free, fair, and credible elections. Fortunately, we have already reached an important milestone. President Kabila did not register as a presidential candidate before the deadline, guaranteeing that he cannot legally stand for reelection or legitimately serve as president past January 2019.
The United States welcomes reports of President Kabila’s intent not to seek a third term. This is an important step towards a peaceful transition of power. History will look favorably on President Kabila’s decision if it culminates in free, fair, and credible elections that translate into a lasting democracy for the Congolese people, a legacy that we hope he earns in the coming months.
While we recognize progress, we cannot deny the red flags and unanswered questions that remain. With less than four months to go, how will CENI transport elections materials to more than 90,000 polling places? Will there be enough voting machines, or will authorities extend voting by days or even weeks? Can the authorities recharge voting machines with only a 12-hour battery life? Have election organizers widely tested the machines? Will voters, many of whom have never used a touchscreen, know how to use them? Are organizers preparing paper ballots as a back up if the electronic voting machines fail?
These questions raise problems, but there are solutions. The Congolese authorities should permit MONUSCO to provide logistics and transportation support. MONUSCO has already available assets that the mission is ready and willing to deploy. The Congolese authorities should also let voters use paper ballots; this is a trusted, tested, transparent, and easy-to-use voting method. The DRC can and should use the same operations that it successfully implemented in 2006 and in 2011, including with support from the United Nations. Paper ballots were good enough to get President Kabila elected, and they should be good enough as a fail-safe to elect his successor.
I had the opportunity to meet with President Kabila last year. If he were here today, I would tell him that it is admirable that the DRC government wants to self-finance and self-support its elections, but is it doable? Is it realistic? Is it even necessary?
It does not insult the DRC’s sovereignty for CENI to accept logistical support from MONUSCO. Instead, the DRC is wasting precious resources to buy capabilities that are already available to them. Meanwhile, my government and others are devoting tens of millions of dollars in life-saving humanitarian assistance for their country. It is troubling that President Kabila and the CENI refuse the assistance. We respect the DRC as a sovereign Member State of the United Nations. But it can’t help but raise suspicion when the Congolese government refuses the assistance that would help make free, fair, and credible elections a reality, but continue to take the humanitarian assistance that so many of us continue to give them.
Other red flags add to our suspicion. We are deeply concerned about the CENI’s decision on August 24 to disqualify some opposition presidential candidates for what appear to be political reasons. This is not how an electoral process, or any independent electoral commission, should function.
We also praise those candidates who feel they have been unjustly disqualified for using the appeals process that was open to them. By abiding by the rules of the domestic process, opposition and civil society organizations further reinforce just how much independence DRC’s National Independent Electoral Commission has lost during Mr. Nangaa’s tenure.
The National Assembly President also continues to deny the wish of an opposition party to replace its CENI candidate in violation of the December 2016 St. Sylvester Agreement. The Minister of Justice continues to detain dozens of opposition members and civil society activists, again in violation of the St. Sylvester Agreement.
There must be a political space for candidates to campaign, citizens to assemble, and opposition members to speak freely, without fear. There can be no violence, intimidation, harassment, or silencing of the opposition. Political parties must be able to compete on a level playing field. We will never know the will of the Congolese people without an environment conducive to elections.
We have 118 days. These problems are fixable. There is still enough time. The suspicions we have may come up to nothing. Ultimately, though, the Congolese government must choose. The hopes for self-determination of more than 80 million Congolese citizens are riding on the decisions that President Kabila and the CENI will make in days and weeks ahead.
Now is the time for choosing. We ask them to choose support from MONUSCO. Choose free, fair, and credible elections on December 23. Choose a peaceful transition of power in January 2019. And, by doing so, choose a better future for generations of Congolese to come.