The head of the U.N. mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo warned Thursday that the right conditions are not yet in place for presidential elections this December, and without progress, the credibility of the vote could be compromised.
"As violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms continue to impact negatively on democratic space, some peaceful demonstrations are suppressed," U.N. envoy Leila Zerrougui told Security Council members. "Civil society actors and political opponents continue to be arbitrarily arrested and media workers threatened."
Zerrougui said the parties have not implemented confidence-building measures, and the security situation, particularly in the eastern part of the country, remains volatile and is deteriorating in some areas.
The envoy did welcome progress on the registration of candidates for provincial elections, noting that after a slow start, 18,000 candidates have registered to compete for 715 seats. But she noted that women make up only about 12 percent of candidates, and she urged greater female participation in the elections.
The U.N. has a mission of more than 18,000 peacekeepers in the DRC. The Security Council has authorized it to provide logistical support to the elections, but so far, the electoral commission has not taken up that offer.
President Joseph Kabila, who has been in power since 2001 and was supposed to step down at the end of 2016, has not announced his plans.
"The United States regrets that President Kabila did not use his July 19 address to parliament to resolve the uncertainty regarding his intentions," U.S. Deputy U.N. Ambassador Jonathan Cohen told council members, noting that under Congolese law, Kabila is ineligible to run for a third term. "We are a mere five months away from election day. The time for posturing is over."
Candidates must submit their applications by August 8.
There are other concerns, as well, including how people will vote.
Opposition and civil society groups are worried that new electronic voting machines could lead to voter fraud.
"The DRC currently has a population which is 65 percent illiterate — mostly women and young people — who would consequently have enormous difficulties in using these machines, particularly as they are programmed in the French language, not the local language," said Justine Masika Bihamba, a civil society representative who addressed the council meeting.
"Deploying more than 100,000 unfamiliar, untested and possibly unworkable electronic voting machines for the first time during a critical national election poses an enormous and unnecessary risk," U.S. envoy Cohen said. "What do Congolese authorities plan to do if these untested voting machines malfunction on election day and jeopardize the credibility of the results?"
He urged the use of paper ballots.
But the Congolese ambassador dismissed the concerns and said 40 million citizens are now registered to vote.
"We would stress the fact that the process is going smoothly," said Ambassador Ignace Gata Mavita wa Lufuta.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was supposed to visit the DRC earlier this month with African Union Chairperson Moussa Faki, but Kabila postponed the meeting.
Guterres told reporters on July 12 it was because Kabila was planning to announce "a number of important decisions and that the president doesn't want to give the impression that he's doing so because of international pressure." No new date has been announced for the visit.
The Security Council is also considering a mission to the DRC in October.
Council members urged all Congolese political parties to abide by the constitution and to respect the December 31, 2016, election agreement, which was mediated by the Catholic Church and calls for Kabila to step down after this year's vote.
Last week, the council met with the African Union Peace and Security Council. In a joint communique, they urged the parties to respect that agreement, calling it "the only viable path out of the current political situation."
Rights groups say nearly 300 political protesters have been killed in anti-government demonstrations since the crisis began in 2015, and hundreds more have been arrested.