By Mike Hammer, US Ambassador to the DRC
From December 9-10, 2021, President Biden will hold a Virtual Summit on Democracy. This is the first of two Democracy Summits that will bring together 100 world leaders, representatives of governments, civil society, the media and the private sector, to discuss their collective efforts to address the greatest threats to democracies today. The summit will make it possible to form a wider community of partners committed to global democratic renewal, in particular through the fight against corruption and the defense of human rights. President Biden said the challenge of our time is to demonstrate that democracies improve the everyday lives of citizens and can better address the world’s biggest problems through representation and pluralism. No democracy is perfect, and we must work every day to make progress and deliver results for our people. He demands and deserves.
President Tshisekedi attends the Summit for Democracy in recognition of the historic opportunity presented under his leadership to strengthen democracy in the DRC, improve human rights, promote peace and fight corruption. He rightly said that Congo is not a poor country, but a country that has suffered from poor governance. To realize the vast potential of the DRC, to make the most of its mineral wealth, energy resources, agriculture and population dynamics, it is necessary, above all, to eliminate corruption. This is the main concern I hear when I travel across the country. Even the violence in the east is linked to corruption and the illegal exploitation of natural resources that fund armed groups and terrorists. And the fight against corruption is an important theme of the Summit for Democracy.
Last week, I met with President Tshisekedi and the Prime Minister, as well as civil society leaders to discuss the DRC’s anti-corruption and electoral commitments – two key elements in moving this country forward. The United States is committed to advancing democracy in the DRC, supporting the arduous task needed to advance elections, human rights, freedom of the press, the fight against corruption, good governance, the rule of law, and the fight against terrorism. As part of the privileged partnership for peace, prosperity and the preservation of the environment between the United States and the DRC, American support funds are focused on investing in people – to build their capabilities, develop their networks and provide the necessary tools. to respond to the aspirations of the Congolese people. Indeed, at the heart of democratic change is the Congolese people leading and participating in crucial reforms for a better future.
Congolese from all walks of life have told me of their deep desire to see change, to allow the DRC to continue on a positive trajectory. As we recognize the hard work required to establish and sustain democracy, I would like to highlight some of the key areas where progress will strengthen democracy in the DRC.
First, a democracy needs a free press to exercise control over the government. The passage of the bill on access to information and the decriminalization of press crimes, including defamation, would mark the DRC’s commitment to journalists and transparency, and send a clear message to local governments and law enforcement authorities that the Censorship and the repression of dissent are the tools of past regimes that have no place in a democracy. While press freedom is essential, we are also seeing an increase in hate speech and misinformation in the DRC. Political leaders must speak out against these perversions of free speech. By improving access to information and freedom of the press, the DRC is more likely to combat this type of misuse of social media. We welcome the plan by the Minister of Communication and Media, Patrick MUYAYA, to organize the Estates General of the press with a view to strengthening press freedom and the protection of journalists. We look forward to supporting this initiative in the coming months.
Second, fighting corruption is essential for accountability and economic growth. How is it that a country endowed with natural resources worth trillions of dollars also has one of the poorest populations in the world? President Biden called corruption a cancer in any society and President Tshisekedi in his speech at the Democracy Summit called corruption “the gangrene” that impedes the development of the nation. In the DRC, corruption is responsible for the theft of billions of dollars in resources that belong to the Congolese people. Holding corrupt employees and companies accountable through prosecution and punishment is commendable; but more is needed. The DRC’s wealth must be managed transparently and correctly to meet the needs of the population and allow the country to prosper. When people ask me why American investors don’t come to the DRC, the answer is simple: corruption. Our laws – including the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act – prohibit US companies from doing business when there is corruption. But the DRC is changing and we welcome the government’s efforts to fight corruption, particularly in the mining sector. American companies are good for Congo because they respect local laws, honor their contracts, ensure worker safety, care about the environment, provide well-paying jobs, and bring world-class technology and best practices.
An example of how US-DRC collaboration benefits the Congolese people comes from the mayor of Bayeke, Her Majesty Mwami Munongo, who spoke on the sidelines of the Democracy Summit Monday. Thanks to the support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in public finance management to transparently manage mining royalties with his community, he was able to provide his leadership with a technical university specializing in the areas of electricity, mining, geology, computer science, agronomy, as well as a medical technical institute, including radiography. Additionally, royalties from mining were used to subsidize 500 students, giving them the skills and experience needed to compete in the job market. Strong leaders are attentive to the needs of the people and use Congo’s resources for the development of the DRC.
Third, peace and security are essential. DRC democracy depends on stability in the East. The fight against terrorism is essential and requires international cooperation. However, human rights must also be respected. Prosecuting and convicting offenders is a strong signal that impunity no longer has a place in the DRC and will contribute to the establishment of lasting peace.
Fourth, commitment to human rights is a barometer of democracy. The United States supports the DRC’s commitment to improving human rights through the bilateral human rights dialogue we launched last June with Minister Puela. We commend the government’s concerted efforts to draft anti-trafficking legislation to combat modern slavery, which unfortunately many Congolese, especially women and children, are victims of every day. We also recognize your efforts to end the use of child soldiers and to eliminate child labor. We eagerly await the approval by the National Assembly of this important law against trafficking in human beings.
Finally, let’s talk about elections. As Secretary Blinken said recently in Abuja, “Americans and Africans share a desire to live in places where their rights are respected, where their voices are heard, where their governments are accountable to them and work for the people.” The United States recognizes President Tshisekedi’s commitment to inclusive, free, fair and transparent elections in the DRC in 2023 and, in keeping with his request that the international community follow this effort, we stand ready to lend our support. The Congolese people’s desire for democracy is innate. I see the dynamism of the youth of the DRC who want the chance to express their opinions and participate in change. Peaceful protest is a form of free speech that reminds governments of their obligations to their citizens. The United States is committed to continuing to support the DRC through activities that promote a credible electoral process and inclusive civil society participation, especially promoting the voices of women and youth. We are delighted to see Merveille Gozo, a young Congolese lawyer and civil society leader on electoral reform, among the participants at this week’s Summit on Democracy Youth Conference. It illustrates the desire of Congolese youth to demand change and to actively participate in that change.
A year from now, President Biden will host another Democracy Summit. This will be an opportunity for the DRC and its vibrant society to showcase the progress made over the next year of action. The United States will continue to support the DRC so that it can raise the voice of its own people and use its own resources to lift the country and its people out of poverty, towards a more democratic and prosperous future. The time has come to show the world the dynamism, passion, ingenuity and democratic ideals of the Congolese people. The ‘narrative shift’ must be driven by action and results – we do not underestimate the difficulty of the challenge, but we are optimistic, based on what we have experienced in the DRC over the last three years in terms of the courage, decency, resilience and strength of the Congolese people, who a better future is not only what you deserve, it is also achievable.