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Dictators poses a serious risk to Great Lakes region stability

Ambassador Samantha Power
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
March 21, 2016


Thank you, Foreign Minister Chikoti, for being here today and for hosting this timely debate on an incredibly important set of issues. Let me also thank the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Commissioner Chergui, Special Envoy Djinnit, and Mr. Pillai of the World Bank, for your remarks and for your determined work across the Great Lakes region.

The Private Sector Investment Conference co-hosted by Special Envoy Djinnit’s office in Kinshasa last month spoke to the economic and security gains made across the region over the last decade. This progress is tenuous, fragile, and there is still a long way to go – but the trajectory over recent years has clearly been positive.

I would like to use my remarks to underscore the inextricable connection between democratic accountability, human rights, and the rule of law on the one hand, and economic progress and lasting stability and peace on the other. On the very same day that the investment conference began, a court in the Democratic Republic of Congo ruled on the case of six young activists – five men and a woman – who had been charged with attempting to incite civil disobedience. They had been arrested eight days earlier at a private home in Goma, at 4:30 in the morning, as they prepared banners for a general strike to protest potential election delays. One of the banners read: “In 2016, we won the Cup” – referring to the African Nations soccer championship – “we can also win democracy.” That was the banner. They were convicted and sentenced to two years in jail, a term reduced on appeal to six months.

The DRC is not the only country in the region where civil society is threatened, or where democratic processes are being deliberately undermined. This, unfortunately, has been the accelerating trend in recent months – evident at the top, where leaders make increasingly blatant power grabs to remain in office; and on the streets, where their governments close media outlets, arrest opposition members, intimidate civil society groups, and otherwise squeeze the political space available for competing views.

This widening disregard for democratic processes threatens to undermine the political, security, and developmental progress achieved over the last two decades, and it imperils the progress still to come. It defies the ability of citizens to freely choose their leaders and hold them accountable. It drives them into the streets or out of the country. It threatens to plunge communities back into the cycle of poverty and violence from which many are only now beginning to emerge.

Let me speak briefly to the situation in four countries where this trend is most pronounced, and where there is still time to change course.

The economic achievements of President Kagame’s Rwanda are well known, and rightly celebrated. Per capita income has doubled since the year 2000. Rwanda’s advances on the Human Development Index are greater than any other country in the world over the last 25 years. It has become a leader in international peacekeeping – in numbers as well as in performance, with its forces admired for their bravery and their commitment to civilian protection.

When one reflects on the horrors of the genocide that killed some 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu 22 years ago next month, one sees the epic scale of the achievements by President Kagame and by the Rwandan people. The results on the ground for Rwandans are remarkable. Unfortunately, despite Rwanda’s progress on economic rights, on women’s rights – on so many development axes – its record on protecting and promoting civil and political rights is less impressive. The United States remains deeply committed to our partnership with Rwanda, but the continued absence of political space – the inability of individuals and journalists to discuss political affairs or report on issues of public concern – poses a serious risk to Rwanda’s future stability. Rwanda can achieve lasting peace and prosperity through a government centered on the principle of democratic accountability, not centered on any one single individual.

The same applies in Uganda. Uganda is a critical contributor to peace and security, especially through its longtime contribution to the AU force in Somalia. It is also a generous host to more than 500,000 refugees, providing the right to work and access to social services to refugees just like to Ugandan citizens. However, when it comes to democratic accountability, the run-up and aftermath to last month’s elections shows real issues. The government and its security forces detained opposition figures without legal justification, harassed their supporters, and intimidated the media. It passed legislation restricting the operations of NGOs, banning them from acting against the “interests of Uganda.” President Museveni’s actions contravene the rule of law and jeopardize Uganda’s democratic progress, threatening Uganda’s future stability and prosperity.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, President Kabila appears to be considering a similar path. His country remains one of the poorest in the world, but it has begun to see gains in democracy, stability, and economic growth; in 2014 its economy grew by 9.5 percent – 9.5 percent. Yet as President Kabila’s term nears its end, this fragile progress hangs in the balance. Continued development depends on further advances against armed groups and the extension of state authority – and, of course, it depends on free and fair presidential elections in November.

There is no credible reason that the DRC election would not occur on schedule. The national election commission said in January that it would need 18 months to update voter rolls; but election experts assure us that this can be done in six months. As the representative of a country that continues to debate its own electoral processes, I recognize that elections are not always perfect, and certainly not always easy, but fidelity to the constitution – not to mention long-term stability – means that they must occur on time.

Not only must ballots be cast, but individuals must be allowed to campaign for their preferred candidates and express their opinions freely. There is no excuse for the harassment and detention of peaceful activists and opposition leaders in the DRC, like the six activists I mentioned earlier, or the eighteen other members of the pro-democracy youth movement LUCHA who were detained last Tuesday and held for four days. Their offense was peacefully protesting the Supreme Court’s refusal to release two activists, Fred Bauma and Yves Makwambala, who were arrested a year ago and still have yet to receive a trial. It should go without saying that this is not the path to lasting stability. Fred, Yves, the Goma six, and all the other young people who have done nothing more than seek a better future for their country, should be released.

The government’s attempt to limit its cooperation with the UN peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO, in order to force a reduction of troops is also concerning. Let us be clear: this Council should not allow peacekeeping missions to become pawns in political games. When blue helmets are deployed, they must be allowed to fulfill their mandate – in the DRC or anyplace else.

We need look no further than Burundi to see the dangers of pursuing personal power over the people’s interests. Burundi’s economy grew steadily for a decade, but contracted by an estimated 7 percent last year. President Nkurunziza’s decision to stay in office in defiance of the Arusha Accords and his crackdown on political opposition have swiftly undone the country’s progress of recent years. This is evident in the widespread reports of sexual violence, the more than 400 people who have been killed, the 250,000-plus who have fled the country, and the even-more challenging economic times that unfortunately lie ahead.

What remains to be seen is whether President Nkurunziza will take decisive action to correct course. Some of his government’s recent commitments are encouraging – but none have yet been matched by meaningful action. Of the 2,000 prisoners he pledged to free, just 158 have been released to date – and only 47 of those were political prisoners. Two of the five radio stations shuttered have been allowed to reopen – but that’s just two of the five – and one of those allowed to reopen is pro-government. We will welcome and support constructive steps when we see them, but rhetoric is not enough.

Let me conclude. The United States has historically been a strong partner of all four of these countries, as it has been for others in the region. These partnerships are not tied to any particular individual leader, but to the people in these countries. This has been evident in our longstanding aid programs, our efforts to encourage stability, and our commitment to institution building. It is evident too in our strong support for the Public-Private Alliance for Responsible Trade in Minerals, which we hope will enable supply chain solutions that encourage the legitimate trade of natural resources.

All four of the leaders I’ve mentioned today have led their countries through extraordinarily difficult times. But the choices they make now will determine whether their countries’ gains are sustained, and how they themselves will be remembered decades from now. President Obama told an audience in Ethiopia last year, “Sometimes you’ll hear leaders say, well, I’m the only person who can hold this nation together. If that’s true, then that leader has failed to truly build their nation.”

These nations are ready: if they are given the opportunities to fully participate in democratic processes, to hold their leaders accountable, to be subjected to and to benefit from the rule of law, they will not merely survive, they will prosper.

Thank you.