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Democratic Republic of the Congo

Executive Summary

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a centralized constitutional republic. Voters popularly elect the president and the lower house of parliament (National Assembly). Following a two-year delay, presidential, legislative, and provincial elections were held on December 30, 2018. On January 10, 2019, the National Independent Electoral Commission declared Felix Tshisekedi the winner of the 2018 presidential election. The 2018 election was marred by irregularities and criticized by some observers, including the Council of Bishops, who stated the results did not match those of their observation mission. The 2019 inauguration of President Tshisekedi was the first peaceful transfer of power in the country’s history.

The primary responsibility for law enforcement and public order lies with the Congolese National Police, which operates under the Ministry of the Interior. The National Intelligence Agency, overseen by the presidency, is responsible for internal and external intelligence. The Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the military intelligence service operate under the control of the Ministry of Defense and are primarily responsible for external security but in reality focus almost exclusively on internal security. The presidency oversees the Republican Guard, and the Ministry of Interior oversees the Directorate General for Migration, which, together with the Congolese National Police, are responsible for border control. Civilian authorities did not always maintain control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings; forced disappearances; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious abuses in an internal conflict, including killing of civilians, enforced disappearances or abductions, and torture and physical abuses or punishment, unlawful recruitment or use of child soldiers by illegal armed groups, and other conflict-related abuses; serious restrictions on free expression and the press, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests of journalists, censorship, and criminal libel; interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; serious acts of official corruption; lack of investigation and accountability for violence against women; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting persons with disabilities, members of national, racial, and ethnic minority groups, and indigenous people; crimes involving violence or threat of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; and existence of the worst forms of child labor.

The government took some steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses, although there was impunity for many such abuses. Authorities often did not investigate, prosecute, or punish those who were responsible, particularly at higher levels. The government convicted some officials on counts of murder, rape, torture, arbitrary detention, and corruption, and sometimes punished security force officials who committed abuses.

Government security forces, as well as illegal armed groups, continued to commit abuses, primarily in the restive eastern provinces and the Kasai region. These abuses included unlawful killings, disappearances, torture, destruction of government and private property, and sexual and gender-based violence. Illegal armed groups also recruited, abducted, and retained child soldiers and forced labor. The government took military action against some illegal armed groups and investigated and prosecuted some armed group members for human rights abuses.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, but government authorities restricted this right and prevented those critical of the government from exercising their right to peaceful assembly, especially in Upper Uele, North Kivu, and Tanganyika Provinces. The law requires organizers of public events to notify local authorities in advance of the event. The government sometimes used this advance notification requirement to decline to authorize public meetings or protests organized by opposition parties or civil society groups critical of the government. During the COVID-19-related state of emergency, which lasted from March 24 through August 15, public gatherings of more than 20 persons were banned. The SSF beat, detained, or arrested persons participating in protests, marches, and meetings. The SSF also used tear gas, rubber bullets, and at times live ammunition, resulting in numerous civilian deaths and injuries.

Local media reported that on January 17, meetings called by opposition leader Martin Fayulu were banned in six cities. Protesters in Kinshasa and Kindu were violently dispersed.

The United Nations recorded 57 human rights violations committed by state agents related to the COVID-19 state of emergency. For example, on April 4, PNC officers arrested 14 members of the youth activist group LUCHA in Kinshasa as they were preparing to submit documentation to a COVID-19 working group. Police also beat some of them. The victims were accused of failing to comply with the state of emergency’s limit on gatherings of more than 20 individuals.

On July 9, local media also reported that police in Kinshasa broke up a street protest against the COVID-19-related closure of the Zando market. During the scuffle three persons were killed, two were electrocuted by downed power lines, and one was crushed by the stampeding crowd.

MONUSCO reported that the majority of human rights abuses during the state of emergency came from individual SSF agents taking advantage of the situation to mistreat, arbitrarily arrest, or extort victims. The UNJHRO reported that on April 4, PNC officers arbitrarily arrested a woman and her daughter in Nyaragongo, North Kivu Province, under the pretext that the provincial governor’s public health orders allowed police to arrest anyone caught chatting in the streets. The two women were forced to give police a bribe in order to be released.

The UNJHRO reported more restrictions on democratic space and human rights violations related to fundamental freedoms, compared with the same period in 2019. In the first six months of the year, the office documented 573 violations of democratic space, compared with 461 violations recorded during the same period in 2019. These included restrictions on freedom of assembly, the right to liberty and security of person, and of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. Civil society organizations and NGOs are required to register with the government and may receive funds only through donations; they may not generate any revenue, even if it is not at a profit. The registration process was burdensome and very slow. Some groups, particularly within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community, reported the government had denied their registration requests. Many NGOs reported that, even when carefully following the registration process, it often took years to receive certification. Many interpreted registration difficulties as intentional government obstacles for impeding NGO activity.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

The UN Office of the High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that, including individuals displaced for longer than 12 months, there were 5.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), including 3.2 million children, in the country. The government was unable to consistently protect or assist IDPs adequately but generally allowed domestic and international humanitarian organizations to do so. The government sometimes closed IDP camps without coordinating with the international humanitarian community. UNHCR and other international humanitarian organizations worked to close IDP sites where the security situation was relatively stable.

Conflict, insecurity, and poor infrastructure adversely affected humanitarian efforts to assist IDPs. In August, UNHCR stated there were 1.7 million IDPs in Ituri Province; the agency had no access to certain zones in the region due to insecurity and inability to travel. Due to lack of funding, the humanitarian response plan for the country targeted only half of the persons in need in Ituri Province. Population displacements continued, particularly in the east. Many areas with IDPs continued to experience insecurity, such as North Kivu’s Beni Territory, Ituri Province, South Kivu’s Fizi Territory, and Maniema and Tanganyika Provinces. Intercommunal violence and fighting among armed groups in the east resulted in continued population displacement and increased humanitarian needs for IDPs and host communities.

Due to the remote location, weak civilian authority, and insecurity of the Kasai region, humanitarian access was difficult, and IDPs lived in poor conditions without adequate shelter or protection. Women and girls were particularly vulnerable to sexual violence, including gang rape. UNHCR representatives stated that 4,500 Congolese were forcibly repatriated from Angola in May and June. Seventy percent of returnees lingered along the DRC-Angola border, waiting to return to Angola if and when the situation there improved.

Combatants and other civilians abused IDPs. Abuses included killings, sexual exploitation of women and children (including rape), abduction, forced conscription, looting, illegal taxation, and general harassment.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government occasionally cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.

As of June 30, UNHCR reported 528,752 refugees in the country, primarily from seven adjacent countries, of whom approximately 214,000 were from Rwanda. Of the refugees in the country, 63 percent were children.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Continuing conflict in North and South Kivu, Ituri, Upper Uele, and Tanganyika Provinces harmed refugees and IDPs in the regions, with attacks often resulting in deaths and further displacement. UNHCR reported Rwandan refugees in the Masisi Territory of North Kivu were subject to cyclical displacement as a result of FARDC and IAG operations and were forced to relocate to South Kivu Province.

Incursions by South Sudanese forces into areas of northern DRC affected security for asylum seekers, refugees and Congolese returnees, as well as local populations.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government established a rudimentary system for providing protection to refugees. The system granted refugee and asylum status and provided protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

As of June 30, there were 2,807 asylum seekers in the country. The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees and asylum seekers with welfare and safety needs. The government assisted in the safe, voluntary return of refugees to their homes by allowing their entry into the country and facilitating immigration processing. In establishing security mechanisms, government authorities did not treat refugees differently than citizens.

Durable Solutions: As of September, more than 1,100 refugees returned to the Central African Republic from the northern part of the country. COVID-19 restrictions prevented other voluntary returns.

The country did not invoke the cessation clause effective in 2013 for Rwandan refugees who fled Rwanda before the end of 1998. In 2016 the government joined other refugee-hosting countries and UNHCR to commit to facilitating repatriation of Rwandans from countries of asylum. To implement the tripartite agreement from 2014, the National Commission on Refugees and UNHCR began in 2016 the process of biometrically registering Rwandan refugees who opted to remain in the country. Refugees received long-term, renewable permits to remain in the country. The program included a path to citizenship. Conflict impeded the process in North Kivu, where most of the refugees were located. UNHCR continued to support voluntary repatriation, and between January and August it assisted in repatriating 499 Rwandan refugees.

In late December 2019, local media reported that 1,919 Rwandan refugees in South Kivu Province were repatriated following a FARDC offensive against IAGs in the area. The population included former combatants and their family members. Of this population, 529 were refugees registered with UNHCR. UNHCR was unable to meet with the refugee population prior to the event to ascertain whether their return to Rwanda was voluntary. The event was not in accord with the UNHCR-DRC-Rwanda Tripartite Agreement on refugee returns.

As of September 30, UNHCR reported 281 refugees voluntarily returned to Burundi.

Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection to an undetermined number of individuals who may not qualify as refugees (see section 1.g.).

g. Stateless Persons

The country has a population of de facto stateless residents and persons at risk of statelessness, including persons of Sudanese origin living in the northeast, Mbororo pastoralists in the far north, forced returnees from Angola and former Angolan refugees, mixed-race persons who are denied naturalization, and Congolese citizens without civil documentation. There were no accurate estimates of this population’s size. The law does not discriminate in granting citizenship on the grounds of gender, religion, or disability; however, the naturalization process is cumbersome and requires parliamentary approval of individual citizenship applications. Persons whose names are not spelled according to local custom were often denied citizenship, as were individuals with lighter colored skin. Persons without national identification cards were sometimes arbitrarily arrested by the SSF.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law on sexual violence criminalizes rape, but the offense was not always reported by victims, and the law was not always enforced. Rape was common. The legal definition of rape does not include spousal rape or intimate partner rape. It also prohibits extrajudicial settlements (for example, a customary fine paid by the perpetrator to the family of the victim) and forced marriage, allows victims of sexual violence to waive appearance in court, and permits closed hearings to protect confidentiality. The minimum penalty prescribed for conviction of rape is a prison sentence of five years, and courts regularly imposed such sentences in rape convictions. Some prosecutions occurred for rape and other types of sexual violence.

From January through June, the UNJHRO reported at least 436 women and 183 girls were victims of sexual and gender-based violence in conflict-affected areas. IAGs frequently used rape as a weapon of war (see section 1.g.).

Government agents raped and sexually abused women and girls during arrest and detention, as well as during the course of military action. MONUSCO reported 148 cases of sexual violence attributed to FARDC and PNC agents as of June 30. The UNJHRO stated nearly one-third of sexual violence cases committed against girls were committed by the SSF. While it was a problem throughout the country, the majority of cases took place in areas affected by internal conflict. The PNC continued its nationwide campaign, with support from MONUSCO, to eliminate sexual and gender-based violence by the SSF, including through the fight against impunity and the protection of victims and witnesses. The campaign operationalizes the national action plan to combat sexual and gender-based violence; however, as of year’s end the plan had not been fully funded and few activities had taken place.

On July 7, Colonel Jean Daniel Apanza, head of the military’s internal commission to combat sexual violence, reaffirmed the FARDC’s principle of “zero tolerance for cases of sexual violence.”

MONUSCO reported that on January 15, the military court in Bukavu, South Kivu Province, convicted one FARDC soldier and one PNC officer on charges of rape. The soldier and officer were sentenced to 20 years in prison each. During the same hearing, five other FARDC soldiers were convicted of other human rights abuses and received prison sentences.

Most survivors of rape did not pursue formal legal action due to insufficient resources, lack of confidence in the justice system, family pressure, and fear of subjecting themselves to humiliation, reprisal, or both.

The law does not provide any specific penalty for domestic violence despite its prevalence. Although the law considers assault a crime, police rarely intervened in perceived domestic disputes. There were no reports of judicial authorities taking action in cases of domestic or spousal abuse.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law describes FGM/C as a form of sexual violence and provides for a sentence of two to five years in prison and substantial fines if convicted; in case of death due to FGM/C, the sentence is life imprisonment.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: UNICEF and MONUSCO attributed some abuses of children, including sexual violence against young girls, to harmful traditional and religious practices. Perpetrators allegedly targeted children because they believed harming children or having sex with virgins could protect against death in conflict.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment occurred throughout the country. The law prohibits sexual harassment and stipulates a minimum sentence of one year if convicted, but there was little or no effective enforcement of the law.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, timing, and spacing of their children, free from coercion, discrimination, or violence. Many couples and individuals lacked the means and access to information to enjoy these rights. The law also recognizes the rights of all couples and individuals of reproductive age to benefit from information and education on contraception and to have free access to reproductive health services.

According to the UNFPA, during the year 28 percent of women and girls ages 15 to 49 had their demand for family planning with modern methods satisfied. Challenges affecting access to family planning and reproductive health services included a failing transportation infrastructure, funding shortfalls for procuring adequate quantities of contraceptives, and poor logistics and supply chain management leading to frequent stock shortages. Cultural norms favoring large families; misinformation surrounding contraceptive use, including fear that contraception causes infertility; and, especially, the population’s general low capacity to pay for contraceptive services were also barriers.

The adolescent birth rate was 138 per 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19.

The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. The services were free and intended to provide a postexposure prophylaxis kit within 72 hours to avoid unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.  The government established mobile clinics for survivors in remote areas.

According to the 2013-14 Demographic and Health Survey, the maternal mortality ratio was 846 deaths per 100,000 live births, despite sustained high usage of health facilities for deliveries, which suggested a poor quality of health services. Geographic barriers, lack of appropriate equipment, and low health professional capacity also hindered the provision of quality maternal and child health services and led to high maternal mortality and childbirth complications, such as obstetric fistula.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: The constitution prohibits discrimination based on gender, but the law does not provide women the same rights as men. The law provides women a number of protections. It permits women to participate in economic domains without approval of male relatives, provides for maternity care, disallows inequities linked to dowries, and specifies fines and other sanctions for those who discriminate or engage in gender-based abuse. Women, however, experienced economic discrimination. There were legal restrictions on women in employment–including limitations on occupations considered dangerous–but no known restrictions on women’s working hours.

According to UNICEF, many widows were unable to inherit their late husbands’ property because the law states that in event of a death in which there is no will, the husband’s children, including those born out of wedlock (provided they were officially recognized by the father), rather than the widow, have precedence with regard to inheritance. Courts may sentence women found guilty of adultery to up to one year in prison, while adultery by men is punishable only if judged to have “an injurious quality.”

Children

Birth Registration: The law provides for the acquisition of citizenship through birth within the country or from either parent being of an ethnic group documented as having been located in the country in 1960. The government registered 25 percent of children born in some form of medical facility. Lack of registration rarely affected access to government services.

Education: The constitution provides for tuition-free and compulsory primary education. Despite President Tshisekedi’s policy of free primary education, the government was unable to provide it consistently in all provinces. Public schools generally expected parents to contribute to teachers’ salaries. These expenses, combined with the potential loss of income from their children’s labor while they attended class, rendered many parents unable or unwilling to enroll their children. Primary and secondary schools were closed during the COVID-19 state of emergency.

Secondary school attendance rates for girls were lower than for boys due to financial, cultural, or security reasons, including early marriage and pregnancy for girls. There were reports of teachers pressuring girls for sexual favors in return for higher grades.

Many of the schools in the east were dilapidated and closed due to chronic insecurity. Schools were sometimes targeted in attacks by IAGs. Parents in some areas kept their children from attending school due to fear of IAG forcible recruitment of child soldiers.

Child Abuse: Although the law prohibits all forms of child abuse, it regularly occurred. The constitution prohibits parental abandonment of children accused of sorcery. Nevertheless, parents or other care providers sometimes abandoned or abused such children, frequently invoking “witchcraft” as a rationale. The law provides for the imprisonment of parents and other adults convicted of accusing children of witchcraft. Authorities did not implement the law.

Many churches conducted exorcisms of children accused of witchcraft. These exorcisms involved isolation, beating and whipping, starvation, and forced ingestion of purgatives. According to UNICEF some communities branded children with disabilities or speech impediments as witches. This practice sometimes resulted in parents’ abandoning their children.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: While the law prohibits marriage of boys and girls younger than age 18, many marriages of underage children took place. Bridewealth (dowry) payment made by a groom or his family to the relatives of the bride to ratify a marriage greatly contributed to underage marriage, as parents forcibly married daughters to collect bridewealth or to finance bridewealth for a son.

The constitution criminalizes forced marriage. Courts may sentence parents convicted of forcing a child to marry to up to 12 years’ hard labor and a fine. The penalty doubles when the child is younger than age 15.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The minimum age of consensual sex is 18 for both men and women, and the law prohibits prostitution by anyone younger than age 18. The penal code prohibits child pornography, with imprisonment of 10 to 20 years for those convicted. The law criminalizes child sex trafficking, with conviction carrying penalties ranging from 10 to 20 years’ imprisonment and a heavy fine. From January through June, UNICEF assisted 2,018 children (1,999 girls and 19 boys) who were victims of sexual exploitation. Most of these children were provided with a holistic response including psychosocial care, medical care, socioeconomic reintegration, and legal assistance.

There were also reports child soldiers, particularly girls, faced sexual exploitation (see section 1.g.).

Displaced Children: According to the 2007 Rapid Assessment, Analysis, and Action Planning Report, which was the most recent data available, there were an estimated 8.2 million orphans, children with disabilities, and other vulnerable children in the country. Of these, 91 percent received no external support of any kind and only 3 percent received medical support. In 2019 the NGO Humanium estimated 70,000 children lived on the streets, with at least 35,000 in Kinshasa. The families of many of these children forced them out of their homes, accusing them of witchcraft and causing misfortune.

UNICEF registered 2,646 orphans who lost parents to the Ebola virus, during an outbreak in the eastern part of the country that was officially declared ended on June 25. During the outbreak 1,604 children were separated from their parents–either because they were isolated after being in contact with an Ebola-affected individual or because their parents were undergoing treatment. These children received psychosocial support in UNICEF-supported nurseries.

International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Ethnic Twa persons frequently faced severe societal discrimination and had little protection from government officials (see section 1.g.).

There were reports of societal discrimination and violence against foreign minority groups.

Indigenous People

Estimates of the country’s indigenous population (Twa, Baka, Mbuti, Aka, and others believed to be the country’s original inhabitants) varied greatly, from 250,000 to two million. Societal discrimination against these groups was widespread, and the government did not effectively protect their civil and political rights. Most indigenous persons took no part in the political process, and many lived in remote areas. Fighting in the east between IAGs and the SSF, expansion by farmers, and increased trading and excavation activities caused displacement of some indigenous populations.

While the law stipulates indigenous populations receive 10 percent of the profits gained from use of their land, this provision was not enforced. In some areas, surrounding tribes kidnapped and forced indigenous persons into slavery, sometimes resulting in ethnic conflict (see section 1.g.). Indigenous populations also reported high instances of rape by members of outside groups, which contributed to HIV/AIDS infections and other health complications.

On August 8, the International Day for Indigenous Peoples, President Tshisekedi gave a speech condemning the social stigmatization and lack of economic opportunity for the “pygmy” people.

Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

While no law specifically prohibits consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults, individuals engaging in public displays of consensual same-sex sexual conduct, such as kissing, were sometimes subject to prosecution under public indecency provisions, which society rarely applied to opposite-sex couples. A local NGO reported authorities often took no steps to investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed abuses against FLGBI persons, whether in the security forces or elsewhere in the government, and impunity for human rights abuses was a problem.

Identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex remained a cultural taboo, and harassment by SSF and judiciary occurred.

LGBTI individuals were subjected to harassment, stigmatization, and violence, including “corrective” rape. Some religious leaders, radio broadcasts, and political organizations played a key role in supporting discrimination against LGBTI individuals.

LGBTI persons in South Kivu Province reported that in 2018 a coalition of revivalist churches in Bukavu published materials characterizing LGBTI persons as against the will of God. The publications contributed to a deteriorating environment for LGBTI rights in the area. Advocates in the eastern part of the country reported arbitrary detentions, acts of physical violence, including beatings, being stripped naked, sexual abuse in public settings, and rape. In some cases LGBTI persons were forced by threats of violence to withdraw from schools and other public and community institutions.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

The law prohibits discrimination based on HIV status, but social stigma continued.

The Demographic and Health Survey 2013-14 captured a proxy indicator measuring the level of tolerance of respondents towards an HIV-positive person (either family member, businessperson, or teacher) and the necessity of hiding the HIV-positive status of a family member. A total of 72 percent of respondents said they were ready to take care of an HIV-positive parent, but only 47 percent expressed willingness to purchase produce from an HIV-positive seller. A total of 49 percent of respondents would accept having an HIV-positive teacher teach their children, and 26 percent said it would not be necessary to hide the HIV status of a family member. The study estimated a global tolerance level towards HIV-positive persons at 4 percent in women and 12 percent in men.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

Discrimination against persons with albinism was widespread and limited their ability to marry and obtain employment, health care, and education. Families and communities frequently ostracized persons with albinism. Civil society groups reported albinos were killed and their bodies disinterred from their graves and cut up for use in rituals meant to grant special power to anyone, from soccer teams to political campaigns, for example.

Long-standing ethnic tensions also fueled some community violence. During the first half of the year, Hutu populations in North Kivu were subject to forced displacement by both the SSF and IAGs operating in the area. Intercommunal violence between Hema and Lendu groups in Ituri Province resulted in killings and displacement (see section 1.g.).

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