Tom Perriello: „Pressure for a peaceful solution“

TAZ Interview by Francois Misser with Tom Perriello, U.S. Special Envoy for DRC and African Great Lakes, conducted in Brussels on 10 October 2016

A shorter German translation appeared in TAZ on 13 October

  • A couple of weeks ago, you were aggressed verbally at Kinshasa airport in such conditions that the question is whether there is still anything to be discussed with the DRC authorities when they treat an American diplomat in such a way?

  • Well, it was an unfortunate incident but it was not really as unfortunate as what happened the next day with security forces using violence against protesters leading to dozens of deaths, most by summary execution. We continue to hear reports about what exactly happened during two days of protest. Only one month earlier, a million people showed up in the streets for the return of opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi without violence occurring, because there was responsibility on the government and on the opposition side. We hoped that in additional protests, professional standards would be met by all sides. They were very violent and fatal days. We did see a fallback from the precipice. And I think there is window for all us, as partners of the Congolese government and people, to try to pressure now for a peaceful solution to the situation.

  • We are on the verge of a precipice – is this why the US called back its non essential staff from Kinshasa ?
  • Well, we are extremely concerned by the situation and I think we have two lines on this. One is that this could end very badly and you need to be honest about the risk of real violence and instability. But at the same time, we still believe this could end very well. This could be the first peaceful transition in the history of DRC. This is a process that is overwhelmingly supported by Congolese from the North, the South, the East and the West. There is tremendous unity of public opinion about the desire for the Constitution to be respected. We know from not just across Africa but across the world that peaceful transition of power is often a turning point, not just in terms of stability but economic progress. So this is still an opportunity I think for DRC to turn the page in a positive direction. But the window for that positive outcome is certainly shrinking. And we believe now that this is the time to act with whatever positive and negative incentives we have to try to encourage that positive result.

  • The US has been giving strong signals to those who violate human rights. Officials are subject to targeted sanctions such as visa bans and assets freezes. But it looks like this does not impress your Kinshasa interlocutors very much …

  • We have gone down the path of individual sanctions on those most responsible for human rights abuses and violence. There was significant evidence that this helped deter some of the violence around the initial return of opposition leaders. We believe it will be useful. We hope that Europe will continue in the direction of applying individual pressure, not on the people as a whole but on those individuals that are responsible. We had strong signals from the region, the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region calling together for an emergency session later this month on DRC. So I think that as unfortunate the incidents in September were, I do think we see a renewed sense of urgency from across the African continent and the broader world community. This is a time to have eyes on DRC and find a way to be helpful.

  • What will be the outcome of your consultations with the European partners ?

  • Certainly it is up to the Europeans to decide what are the next steps the EU will take. There is a ministerial meeting coming up next week. I was in New York for the General Assembly, and the Security Council has been quite clear and called on the need to move forward for the presidential elections. Security Council Resolution 2277 was very clear in that regard. So I think this is a situation where there is a fair amount of harmony between the region, the Europeans, the United States, the UN on the need to find a path towards alternance. And the question is whether the political will is there, particularly from President Kabila and the government, to allow that transition to happen.

  • The President has been urged by the Roman Catholic Church to state he will leave on the 19 December. Yet the President is unwilling to do so. What is the US proposing in order to step up the pressure to make him understand he should respect the Constitution?

  • I think the US has been very clear from the time President Obama gave his speech in Addis Ababa about how committed we are about constitutional terms being respected. In the case of DRC, where we spend over 300 million dollars a year on the largest peacekeeping force in the world, we know there is a particular need to take stability seriously. We remain invested in the country. I think this is a situation that could be again an opportunity for a real positive step forward or a step backwards. All sides, including the government, agree that President Kabila’s constitutional mandate ends on December 19. It is their view that if he gets to continue after the constitutional court decision, it’s widely believed by most of the population and the civil society that that is not in fact what should happen. And that is why we think that between now and December, it is urgent to try to get a compromise that all sides can agree on the path for alternance. Because if we get to mid-December without that, we will be facing potentially a very very serious situation. So I think this is case where we want to be trying to prevent a crisis rather than react to a crisis, and I think the Europeans have a significant role to play in that.

  • But prevent it how?

  • Well, I think that what we want is to create the right incentives for everyone involved to see the value of going forward with what the Constitution really requires. It’s been our belief that individual consequences targeted at those actors that are leading violence, human rights abuses or undermining democratic institutions have some role to play. At the same time, I think it is important to support a genuinely inclusive dialogue process so that we can bring people to the table to explore what opportunities exist for a common  ground and find a compromise that all sides accept.

  • How can confidence be crated ? At the moment, there is a dialogue process to determine the terms of a transition and of the organization of the next elections, but it  is stalled. The main opposition parties are not participating. Neither does Kabila release prisoners to improve the climate…

  • We were disappointed that some easy opportunities were missed to build confidence in the process. They initially released some key civil society leaders, which we appreciated and acknowledged. But then they went and arrested others and brought charges against some of the top opposition leaders or didn’t reopen media space. I think this is where ultimately the government has a unique responsibility, because they have the power of the state to ensure that this process goes forward. This is a manufactured crisis, unlike others we see around the world. This is not an intractable regional/ethnic problem. If the government came forward with elections, there would be no crisis. There is no ambiguity in the Constitution. This is the clear position of the Constitution. It is clearly supported by the Congolese people across the country. They want this election to go forward. And the only problem is that government does not organize elections. And the President has not publicly stated his intentions. So, those sorts of statements could immediately reduce tension, with the President expressing with clarity his intention to the Congolese people. We hope he will do thatm and we think it is is still time for that to happenm and I do believe that it would build a greater confidence in the dialogue process for people to come together. But we do ultimately hope that, even if this is an imperfect dialogue, that it is better for people to participate than not participate. Congolese bishops deserve particular credit for their willingness to join the dialogue process and keep lines of communication open while also making clear that they have certain principles that are not negotiable.

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