Ask many Americans to name the bloodiest war since World War II and chances are that most would not know the answer. If you told them it was in Africa, they might guess Rwanda or the ongoing conflict in Sudan. They’d be wrong.
By far, the deadliest conflict was in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1998 to 2003. Eight African nations participated in the fighting on Congolese soil, many hoping to seize control of its vast mineral wealth. Some 4 million Congolese died during the conflict and nearly another 1 million have died in the lawless aftermath from starvation, conflict and preventable disease. Tens of thousands of children were forced to become soldiers, and as many as two out of three women were victimized by rape and other forms of sexual violence.
This is still happening today.
Perhaps the lack of attention toward these atrocities explains the disconnect in Washington between the compassion felt for the people of eastern Congo and the nominal advancement of specific policies to bring sustainable change to the region. Fortunately, that began to change this summer with passage of the Dodd-Frank Act, which required reporting the origin of potential conflict minerals from Congo. I hope that the incoming Congress will continue the bipartisan movement for sustainable peace and prosperity in that region.
Much remains to be done to help the Congolese people secure their region for the long term. In a defiant response to circumstances beyond their control, the resourceful and resilient Congolese people have flourished and begun to rebuild the foundation for effective government. This potential was evident in the national elections held four years ago and in the relative stability that has followed.
The potential can also be seen through local organizations such as Synergy of Women for Sexual Violence Victims in North Kivu. I am amazed how Synergy – despite regular threats – works to end gender-based violence and to provide survivors with critical support. This is just one of the many effective community-based solutions that bring about substantive change.
Through extensive time spent in Congo and my work with the Eastern Congo Initiative, I can attest to the authenticity of progress. But I can also speak to its fragility. Supporting Congolese efforts to move beyond their nation’s violent past and ultimately stabilize civil society requires strong leadership and a more holistic approach from the United States.
To secure the peace, we must continue to support local leaders and trust their ability to manage their own destiny. At the same time, we cannot refuse to recognize that the reinforcing cycle of poverty and corruption still rules and that many crimes are still committed with impunity. We need to also acknowledge that achieving stability within Congo’s borders requires understanding the dynamics outside those borders and throughout the Great Lakes region.
This isn’t just altruism. The United States has security, economic and diplomatic interests in a peaceful and stable Congo. That is why the Eastern Congo Initiative has developed a set of recommendations for U.S. policymakers that can lead to a mutually beneficial improvement in the lives of the Congolese people. The four most significant recommendations happen to be the easiest to implement, with several already mandated by existing legislation.
First, it is imperative that the United States maintain the State Department office of special adviser for the Great Lakes region with a new appointment and open a renewed political dialogue.
Second, Washington must effectively implement the provisions in the Dodd-Frank Act designed to strengthen enforcement sanctions related to conflict minerals. Only in an equitable and transparent business environment can Congo’s mineral wealth pay for Congo’s future.
Third, the United States and the international community must continue to provide technical assistance and ensure the appropriate environment for the elections scheduled for 2011. Fair national, regional and local elections, in which the outcomes are accepted by the people, are vital for reestablishing confidence in civic institutions.
Finally, we must support Congo’s efforts to deploy administrative and judicial reforms to root out political interference, stop corruption and foster the rule of law. Sealing the security vacuum with something other than militias will place the Congolese people in control of their destiny.
Following bipartisan leadership in the United States, the world can ensure that Congo never again experiences the violence and exploitation that defined much of its past two decades.
Synergy’s creator, Justine Masika Bihamba, began helping women after rebels broke into her house and sexually assaulted her daughter. Her family is under constant threat because of her efforts. When asked why she stays, she says, “I have to do my work.”
For the same reason, to help realize a vibrant Congo with abundant opportunities for economic and social development, we can’t leave either.
Ben Affleck, an actor and director, first visited Congo in 2008 and founded the Eastern Congo Initiative early this year.