By Mike Hammer, U.S. Ambassador the the DRC
On December 9-10, 2021, President Biden is hosting a virtual Summit for Democracy. This will be the first of two Summits for Democracy to bring together 100 world leaders from government with civil society, media, and the private sector to discuss their collective efforts to tackle today’s greatest threats facing democracies. The Summit will build a broader community of partners committed to global democratic renewal, including combatting corruption and defending human rights. President Biden has said that the challenge of our time is to demonstrate that democracies improve the everyday lives of citizens and can better address the world’s greatest problems through representation and pluralism. No democracy is perfect, and we must work every day to make progress and deliver results for our people – they demand it and deserve it.
President Tshisekedi is participating in the Summit for Democracy in recognition that there is a historic opportunity under his leadership to strengthen DRC’s democracy, improve human rights, promote peace, and combat corruption. He rightly has said that Congo is not a poor country, it is a country that has suffered from poor governance. To realize DRC’s vast potential, to take full advantage of its mineral wealth, energy resources, agriculture, and dynamic people, first and foremost — corruption must be eliminated. It is the number one concern that I hear when traveling around the country – even the violence in the east is tied to corruption and the illegal exploitation of natural resources that finances armed groups and terrorists. And, combatting corruption is a major theme of the Summit for Democracy.
This past week, I met with President Tshisekedi and with the Prime Minister as well as with civil society leaders to discuss DRC’s commitments to anti-corruption and elections – both key to moving this country forward. The U.S. is committed to advancing democracy in DRC by supporting the difficult work required to make progress on elections, human rights, press freedom, anti-corruption, good governance, the rule of law, and fighting terrorism. Under the U.S.-DRC Privileged Partnership for Peace, Prosperity and Preservation of the environment, American support funds are focused on investing in people — to enhance their capabilities, to build up their networks, and to provide them with the tools to meet the aspirations of the Congolese people. Indeed, at the heart of democratic change are the Congolese people participating in and leading crucial reforms for a better future.
Congolese from all walks of life, have shared with me their deep desire to see change, for DRC to continue on a positive trajectory. As we acknowledge the tough work required to have and maintain a democracy, I want to highlight some of those key areas where progress will reinforce DRC’s democracy.
First, a democracy needs a free press to provide checks and balances to government. Passing the draft Access to Information law and decriminalizing press offenses, including defamation, would signal DRC’s commitment to journalists and transparency and send a clear message to local governments and law enforcement that censorship and suppression of dissent are the tools of past regimes which have no place in a democracy. While press freedom is essential, we also see a rise in hate speech and misinformation in DRC. Political leaders must speak out against these perversions of the freedom of expression. In improving access to information and press freedom, DRC stands a better chance of countering this type of misuse of social media. We are pleased to see the Minister of Communications and Media Patrick Muyaya’s plan to hold an Etats Généraux to strengthen press freedom and protections for journalists. We look forward to supporting this initiative in the upcoming months.
Second, fighting corruption is essential to accountability and economic growth. How is it that a country with natural resources worth trillions of dollars also has one of the world’s poorest populations? President Biden has called corruption a cancer in any society and President Tshisekedi in his intervention at the Summit for Democracy calls corruption « la gangrène » that prevents the development of the nation. In DRC, corruption is responsible for stealing billions of dollars of resources that belong to the Congolese people. Holding corrupt officials and businesses accountable through prosecutions and sanctions is commendable, but more is necessary. The wealth of the DRC needs to be managed transparently and well to address the population’s needs and so the country can prosper. When people ask me why American investors are not coming to DRC, the answer is simple – corruption. American companies are prohibited by our laws – the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act – from doing business when there is corruption. But, the DRC is changing and we welcome the government’s efforts to combat corruption, particularly in the mining sector. American businesses are good for Congo because they abide by local laws, live up to their contracts, take care of worker safety, are mindful about environmental protection, provide good paying jobs, and bring world-class technology and best practices.
One example of how U.S.–DRC collaboration is good for the Congolese people comes from the Mayor of Bayeke, His Honor Mwami Munongo, who spoke at a pre-Summit for Democracy event on Monday. With United States Agency for International Development (USAID) public financial management support to transparently manage mining royalties with the community, he was able to develop a technical university in his chiefdom specializing in electricity, mining, geology, information technology, agronomy, and a Medical Technical Institute including radiography. Further, mining royalties were used to subsidize 500 students, providing them with the credentials and experience to compete for employment. Strong leaders listen to the needs of the people and use Congo’s resources for DRC’s development.
Third, peace and security is essential. DRC’s democracy hinges on stability in the East. Fighting terrorism is essential and requires international cooperation. Yet, there must also be respect for human rights. Prosecutions and sentencing of violators sends a strong signal that impunity has no place in the DRC any longer and will help achieve a lasting peace.
Fourth, a commitment to human rights is a hallmark of democracy. The U.S. is supporting DRC’s commitment to improving human rights through the bilateral human rights dialogue we launched this past June with Minister Puela. We applaud the government’s efforts to draft anti-trafficking in persons legislation to fight modern-day slavery that, unfortunately, to which too many of the Congolese people, especially women and children, fall victim each day. We also recognize its efforts to end use of child soldiers and to eliminate child labor. We look forward to the National Assembly’s passage of this important anti-trafficking law.
Lastly, let us talk about elections. As Secretary Blinken said recently in Abuja, “Americans and Africans share a yearning to live in places where their rights are respected, their voices are heard, their governments answer to them and deliver for them.” The U.S. recognizes President Tshisekedi’s commitment to inclusive, free, fair and transparent elections in DRC in 2023 and per his request that the international community accompany this effort, we stand ready to provide support. The Congolese people’s drive for democracy is innate. I see the vibrancy of DRC’s youth who want the chance to voice their opinions and be part of change. Peaceful demonstrations are a means of freedom of expression that reminds governments of their obligations to their citizens. The U.S. pledges to continue to support the DRC with activities that promote a credible electoral process and inclusive civil society participation, including promoting in particular the voices of women and youth. We are delighted to see Merveille Gozo, a young Congolese lawyer leading civil society on electoral reform, participate in the Summit for Democracy Youth Town Hall this week. She demonstrates the drive of Congolese youth to demand change and to actively participate in that change.
A year from now, President Biden will host another Summit for Democracy. This will be an opportunity for the DRC and its vibrant society to showcase its progress during this coming year of action. The U.S. will continue to support the DRC to empower the voices of its own people and to use its own resources to lift the country and its people from poverty to a more democratic and prosperous future. The time is now to show the world the drive, passion, ingenuity, and democratic ideals of the Congolese people. Le “changement de narrative” needs to be driven by action and results – we do not underestimate the difficulty of the challenge but I am optimistic from what I have experienced in DRC over the past three years about the courage, decency, resilience and strength of the Congolese people, that a better future is not only is what you deserve but is achievable.