Thursday, April 15, 2010

Addressing Violence in Eastern Congo

Following a civil war that resulted in the overthrow of notorious dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, the Democratic Republic of Congo experienced another war beginning in 1998 that some called “Africa’s World War” because of the involvement of troops from Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Angola, Namibia, Chad and Zimbabwe. Although a peace agreement in 2003 resulted in the withdrawal of most foreign troops from neighboring countries, violence continues in eastern Congo even as most Congolese have seen relative peace come to their areas.

The driving forces behind the entry of neighboring countries have been rebel groups launching attacks from Congolese territory and the presence of valuable minerals such as diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt and zinc that foreign interests covet. More recently, though it is columbite-tantalite (also known as coltan), tin and tungsten, which along with gold are the vital elements of popular electronic devices such as iPods, laptops and cell phones. Their availability in the largely lawless eastern region of DRC has empowered warlords to continue their plunder despite the presence of what at one time was the largest United Nations peacekeeping force in the world at 20,000 troops.

UN peacekeepers have failed to stem the violence that plagues DRC. According to an extensive Harvard Humanitarian Initiative study in DRC, 60% of rape victims surveyed were gang raped by armed men with more than half such assaults taking place in the family home and often in the presence of the victim’s husband and children. Even more shocking was the finding that rapes by civilians have increased from less than one percent in 2004 to 38% by 2008. This indicates a lawlessness that the UN peacekeepers were supposed to prevent.

Only days ago, fighting between the “Enyélé” rebel group and the Congolese army in northwestern DRC resulted in 18 deaths and the displacement of people from Mbandaka, the area’s largest city. In addition to the violence, people hoarding goods there in anticipation of widening conflict have doubled or tripled prices for necessities. A report commissioned by the UN itself has said that the peacekeepers have done nothing to quell the violence rippling through the country.

DRC President Joseph Kabila has said he wants the UN peacekeepers out by the end of June, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has endorsed a pullout, although not that soon. The first contingent of UN peacekeepers is set to begin withdrawal by the end of June. Of course, if the violence persists and expands, the withdrawal could be put on hold.

Here in the United States, the Enough Campaign has been encouraging the private sector companies that use the conflict materials from DRC to be more discerning about the origin of their purchases to cut down on the revenue to rebels and militias. They are now pushing legislation introduced by Congressmen Jim McDermott and Frank Wolf (the Conflict Minerals Trade Act – H.R. 4128) that would create an audit system indentifying conflict minerals and the mines from which they come. The bill would verify the chain of custody of these minerals and verify information provided by suppliers through investigators in the DRC and other countries involved in processing and selling these materials.

Unfortunately, the bill, which was introduced last November 19th has gone nowhere since its referral to three House committees that same day: Foreign Affairs, Ways and Means and Armed Services. Referral to such disparate committees usually means a bill has little chance of moving absent cooperation among committee leaders. The legislation has the benefit of two influential Republicans – Wolf and Congressman Ed Royce, but in today’s poisoned Congressional environment, even they might not be enough to garner significant Republic support. Even if they did, there is no companion bill in the Senate and little if any indication of Senate interest. The last senator to successfully push a DRC bill was Barack Obama in 2006.

More than five million people have died in conflict in DRC since 1998, and an estimated 45,000 people are believed to die each month from violence or the resulting humanitarian crisis. The Kabila government has restored law and order to much of the country, but it is not likely that Congolese troops alone can restore and maintain order in a country the size of Western Europe that borders nine neighbors.

DRC is a case of the international community failing to live up to its task of protecting the people its peacekeepers were sent to save. When and if the UN peacekeepers leave, DRC could be plunged back into war. Its natural blessings have become its greatest curse. The world’s insatiable appetite for the very minerals fueling this conflict will require measures presented in the Conflict Minerals Trade Act. If you can’t stem demand, which you won’t in this case, then you must control supply.

The lives and social order of millions of Congolese depends on some movement being made on their behalf – soon.

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