Government crackdowns on protests across the Congo have increased over the past year. On December 18, a coalition of citizen movements called for a ville morte in Goma, or general strike, to denounce an upsurge in insecurity in eastern Congo since the government imposed martial law in May. Witnesses said that after some demonstrators took to the streets and blocked public roads on December 20, the police opened fire without warning on the protesters. The police arrested at least 17 demonstrators, who remain in detention.
“An impartial investigation is needed to determine if police unlawfully resorted to lethal force against the protesters in Goma,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “People should be able to protest government policy without being shot.”
Family members of victims suggested that the police may have fired their weapons indiscriminately. The relative of one victim with three children said, “My brother-in-law was not in the protests. He was going to work around 8 a.m. when he was shot by the police while discussing the price of transport with a motorcycle taxi driver.”
Human Rights Watch received accounts that some protesters threw stones at the police, but found no evidence that protesters carried guns.
The Congolese government is obligated under the constitution and international human rights law to respect and uphold the right to protest peacefully. Regional and international partners should press the government to protect the rights to peaceful expression and assembly.
The Congolese authorities should conduct a prompt, impartial, and independent investigation to establish what happened and whether the police use of force was lawful, Human Rights Watch said. An investigation should also be conducted to ascertain how the police officer was killed, and those responsible should be held to account.
Congolese authorities should publicly order the security forces to abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, Human Rights Watch said. The Basic Principles state that security forces shall “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms.”
Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials should exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense and the legitimate objective to be achieved, minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life. The intentional lethal use of firearms “may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”
The Basic Principles also provide that in cases of death and serious injury, “a detailed report shall be sent promptly to the competent authorities.”
“Congolese authorities should ensure that all police officers found responsible for the unlawful use of force are appropriately disciplined or prosecuted,” Mudge said. “Holding officers to account regardless of rank is critical for ensuring that force is only used as a last resort.”
*Human Rights Watch