"The clock is ticking for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the world is watching," the British Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador Matthew Rycroft, has warned, as the African nation teeters on the brink of a major crisis.
President Joseph Kabila has been in power since 2001 and served two full terms, as permitted by the Congolese constitution. Kabila is due to stand down in a fortnight, but he has been accused of manoeuvring to ensure he can remain in power indefinitely.
"Mr President [Kabila], as I said at the start, the world is watching. But it's watching us in this council just as much as it's watching President Kabila," the British diplomat said at a UN Security Council briefing on the DRC on 5 December as he warned of the urgent need to prevent a deadly conflict from blowing up.
"[We have] two weeks to prevent even more violence, even more deaths, even more conflict, in a country that has already suffered too much."
'Respect the constitution'
Rycroft asked Kabila to make "the right choice", including respecting the constitution and his two-term limit, respecting the Congolese people, and holding elections as soon as possible.
Initially planned in November this year, as per the constitution, presidential elections are now not expected to take place until at least 29 April 2018. But this new date has been rejected by several of the main opposition groups, which have formed a coalition called Rassemblement.
The UK government reiterated its support for the National Episcopal Conference of Congo (known by its French acronym CENCO) and its mediated discussions between the government and opposition groups. It also urged Kabila's government to "undertake confidence-building measures" to ensure a consensual political agreement in line with the constitution is reached before 19 December.
"This means dropping the spurious charges against opposition members, releasing political prisoners, and lifting the media ban. And it means all sides rejecting violence and committing to peaceful dialogue," Rycroft explained. If he fails to do so, the diplomat warned that Kabila will face "consequences" such as the imposition of sanctions – measures the EU threatened the regime with in October. "It cannot be business as usual if nothing has changed in two weeks' time.
'We have an opportunity to stop a conflict before it begins'
The DRC has endured one of the bloodiest civil wars in modern times, and it is feared Kabila's refusal to step down will spark another deadly conflict. "We have seen countless times how difficult it is to bring peace and stability to a country or region after conflict has begun. We are discussing here a situation where the violence has not yet erupted. We have an opportunity to stop a conflict before it begins."
The Security Council said it remains concerned about the risk for destabilisation of the country and the region as a whole, as illustrated by the violence of 19- 20 September 2016 when dozens were killed.
"In truth, there is no other option. We all know what comes next if he makes the wrong decision. We saw it in the bloodied streets of Kinshasa in September. We cannot allow a repeat of such barbarity in a fortnight's time," Rycroft said.
In parallel, Rycroft urged the international community to be "prepar[ed] to help should the worst occur". UN peacekeeping MONUSCO force "needs to have contingency planning in place to respond effectively if needed".
He added: "The biggest peacekeeping mission in the world with a clear mandate to protect civilians robustly cannot stand by if civilians are threatened." MONUSCO has a yearly budget of more than $1bn (£783.8m) and the US remains its major donor.