Next Steps on Congo

Kambale MusavuliFor the past 14 years, more than six million Congolese have perished in the ongoing conflict triggered by U.S. allies Rwanda and Uganda when they invaded Congo in 1996. As the world focuses on the Western intervention in Libya under the guise of moral responsibility to protect the vulnerable, the global community must question the lack of action by the United States and the coalition on the millions dead in the Congo.

On December 15, 2008, the UN published the Final Report of the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This report documented, among other things, satellite phone records for members of one of the rebel groups responsible for destabilizing the Congo, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP). The CNDP was in communication with the Rwandan Defense Force high military command and the Rwandan presidency.

Given the solid evidence of Rwanda’s complicity in support of the group destabilizing the Congo, Sweden and Netherlands took the lead in applying pressure by withholding aid to the Rwandan government. This action played a key role in Rwanda placing under house arrest the rebel leader of the CNDP Laurent Nkunda in early 2009 and causing the rebel group to integrate into the Congolese army.

This diplomatic action showed the world that Rwanda is susceptible to outside pressure. Unfortunately, the United States and Great Britain did not apply any overt pressure. Instead of following the lead of Sweden and Netherlands, the United States pursued a backdoor deal that resulted in a rapprochement between President Joseph Kabila and President Paul Kagame while allowing Rwandan troops to enter Congolese soil once again. This personal backdoor deal precluded a transparent institutional approach, which would have better served the prospects for long-term peace and stability in the region.

What Obama Could Do

The United States has a diplomatic tool at its disposal that can make a difference in the region, the Obama Law, Public Law 109-456. This law, written by Obama and enacted in December 2006, provides the United States with the force of law to hold Congo’s neighbors accountable. It received bipartisan support in the Senate and was also co-sponsored by then-Senator Hillary Clinton. This law also calls for the appointment of a special envoy to the Great Lakes region and gives the secretary of state the authority to withhold aid from neighboring countries that destabilize the Congo.

When U.S. President George Bush met with Congolese President Joseph Kabila in the White House on October 26, 2007, then-Senator Obama released a statement reminding Bush about his commitment to enforce the newly enacted U.S. law. “It’s time the administration stops ignoring the call by Congress to appoint a special envoy to the DRC,” Obama said, “and strengthen the UN peacekeeping force which is working to stabilize the eastern part of the Congo.”

Now that Barack Obama is president, neither he nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has taken steps to enforce this law. Unfortunately, President Obama has demonstrated the same lack of action on the Congo as his predecessor, George W. Bush.

The Obama administration’s lack of resolve in implementing U.S. law in a region where the humanitarian crisis is far greater than in Libya raises the issue of a double standard in applying the principle of the Responsibility to Protect. The United States is quick to act against its enemies while providing cover for its allies, even if its allies are clearly culpable of committing mass atrocities, crimes against humanity, and possible genocide. A recently published report, the UN Mapping Exercise Report, documents the most serious human rights violations committed in the DRC between 1993 and 2003. It identifies countries “that could be held responsible for serious violations of human rights committed by their national armies during the period under consideration in the DRC, and in particular Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Angola.”

During President Obama’s visit to Ghana, he announced that the United States will engage differently with Africa from previous administrations by supporting strong institutions and not strongmen. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has yet to hold to this principle when it comes to Central Africa. It continues to support Central African strongmen such as Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Paul Kagame of Rwanda while the people of the region suffer from ongoing conflict and the plundering of their natural resources.

Students United

Pressure has been mounting for the U.S. government to implement the Obama Law. Students organizing through Congo Week have made their priority demand to the Obama administration the enforcement of Public Law 109-456. American playwright Eve Ensler, along with her supporters, called for the enforcement of the Obama Law in June 2010.

Last year, President Obama signed into law the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (Dodd-Frank Act). Section 1502 of this new law requires companies to submit a new annual report and, in some cases, an independent private sector audit report, to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) if they are using conflict minerals that originated in the DRC or an adjoining country.

A multi-stakeholder group composed of companies, non-governmental organizations, and socially responsible and faith-based investors submitted recommendations to the SEC asking, in addition to the new reporting requirement for companies, that the commission coordinate with the State Department the implementation of the Obama Law to curb the violence and illicit trade of minerals in the Congo.

Furthermore, 35 congressmen, 16 senators, actor Ben Affleck, the Dear Hillary Campaign, a collection of human rights organizations and socially responsible investor groups, and thousands of American voters have also called on President Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton to start implementing PL 109-456 with an appointment of a special envoy to the Great Lakes Region, which is Section 107 of the Law.

Friends of the Congo maintains that the appointment of a special envoy to the Great Lakes Region, as one of the steps to the full enforcement of the Obama Law, should embody the spirit of President Obama’s July 2009 call to support strong institutions rather than strongmen.

Lend your voice to the effort of bringing an end to the crisis in the Congo, the deadliest conflict since World War II, by signing the petition to appoint a special envoy to the Great Lakes Region of Africa.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Kambale Musavuli, originally from the Congo, is spokesperson and student coordinator for Friends of the Congo. He can be reached atkambale@friendsofthecongo.org, on twitter, and Facebook.