In recent years, countries in the Congo Basin and elsewhere have witnessed an alarming rise in violence and other restrictions on civil society organisations’ (CSOs) ability to operate, despite the undeniable contribution CSOs have made to both environmental and social justice. In the Republic of Congo, repressive measures range from constraints on freedom of assembly, to excessive red tape and limitations on NGOs’ being able to freely express opinions without fear of retaliation – restrictions and laws designed to hamper CSOs’ activities and stifle critical voices. Yet intimidation does not stop at administrative measures, and to prevent bullying, the EU must make emergency mechanisms available to activists.
Observatoire congolais des droits de l’Homme (OCDH), Fern’s local partner in the Republic of Congo, has been facing intimidation because of its work to advance human rights and accountability in the country’s forest sector. This has included verbal threats, abusive gatherings of public officials and security services agents intruding on the organisation’s premises.
On 11 May at Brazzaville International Airport, Trésor Nzila, OCDH Executive Director was prevented from boarding a flight to attend a United Nations conference on human rights in Nairobi, Kenya. According to airport authorities, the ban was based on an order by the Deputy Prime Minister in charge of social security requiring a certificate from the Director General of the National Social Security Fund stating that the traveller “is free from any obligation”. OCDH is affiliated with the National Social Security Fund (CNSS) and regularly pays its social contributions.
It appears likely, however, that the government’s decision is linked to the publication, two days earlier, of OCDH’s 2019 annual report on the state of human rights in the Republic of Congo. The release had prompted official accusations and threats against OCDH by the government spokesperson.
The right to freedom of movement is enshrined in Congo’s Constitution and can be impeded only under exceptional, justified circumstances. The Congolese Government also has committed to ensuring effective participation of civil society in governance processes in the natural resource sector, including the Voluntary Partnership Agreement. It is thus critical that the government stop interfering in civil society’s work, and support rather than block constructive criticism.
Fern calls on the EU to strengthen and facilitate access to emergency protection mechanisms for environmental and human rights activists. As one of Congo’s main development partners, the EU should ensure that the Congolese government meets its obligations to guarantee constitutional rights to all its citizens. It should also be vigilant about the security of CSO leaders as a free and open civil society is critical to hold governments to account, and to deliver and shape progress.
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