Dereliction of Duty

A new U.N. report has highlighted Rwanda's responsibility for continuing conflict in the Congo. Washington's inaction is an outrage.


Observers of African affairs are accustomed to disappointments. But surely one of the bitterest of late has been the Obama administration’s scandalous failure to address the situation in the mineral-rich, eastern border provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There, for sixteen years, a conflict has dragged on that rivals or exceeds the Holocaust in lethality. Five to six million people have perished. (New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof credibly estimates the total at 6.9 million.) American policy toward the region, which is still essentially a reaction to the 1994 genocide in the Congo’s neighbor, Rwanda, predates President Obama’s arrival in the White House. Yet Obama could help staunch the continuing flow of blood in the region even now with a minimal commitment.

He would not have to dispatch American troops. A key culprit in the DRC’s hostilities, according to a United Nations Group of Experts report released on 21 June, is Rwanda, the main U.S. ally in that part of Africa. Rwanda receives $500 million a year in foreign aid, most of it from the United States or international aid organizations in which the United States wields critical influence. By threatening to withhold assistance or cutting it off entirely (see below), President Obama can induce Rwandan President Paul Kagame to halt support for rebels in eastern Congo and help bring about peace.

President Obama is uniquely obligated to take action on the matter owing to Public Law 109-456, of which he served as chief sponsor during his term in the U.S. Senate — the first bill he crafted that was signed into law. Senator Hillary Clinton co-sponsored the legislation. Also known as the "Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act of 2006," Public Law 109-456 calls upon the United States to "engage with governments working to promote peace and security throughout the Democratic Republic of the Congo and hold accountable individuals, entities, and countries working to destabilize the country." It also authorizes the Secretary of State to "withhold assistance made available under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 […] if the Secretary determines that the government of the foreign country is taking actions to destabilize the Democratic Republic of the Congo."

In drafting Public Law 109-456, Obama and Clinton were targeting Rwanda and Uganda, both of which were known to be arming and otherwise supporting militias operating in the Congo on the pretext of combating rebels hostile to them, with the result that the mineral-rich eastern DRC had become a battleground on which civilians, and especially women and children, were the primary victims. In reality, both countries profited — and still do — from the mayhem, which allows their proxies to extract Congolese gold, diamonds, tin ore, and coltan without regard for Congolese sovereignty. The conflict began in 1996, with Rwandan-backed Laurent Kabila’s ultimately successful uprising against dictator Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (as the DRC was formerly called). But the strife stems in part from the Rwandan genocide two years earlier, which saw the murder of eight hundred thousand people (and which the troops of Paul Kagame helped end). The law states that "the Governments of Uganda, Rwanda" — both, it should be noted, U.S. allies — "and Burundi continue to serve as a major source of regional instability and an apparent pretext for continued interference in the Democratic Republic of the Congo by its neighbors." The law aimed to complement a UN arms embargo already in place against the DRC — an embargo that Rwanda in particular was violating with brazen impunity.

Human Rights Watch has consistently backed up claims of Rwandan involvement in the DRC’s troubles. In any case, in 2008 a United Nations report had already established a direct connection between Kagame’s office and rebel groups in the DRC. But damning and more extensive confirmation of Rwanda’s guilt came to light with the United Nations Group of Experts’ report, which the United States tried to block. Only petitioning by Human Rights Watch, the Open Society Foundations in Africa, and the Congolese government won its release. Among other things, the report accuses Rwanda of financing, arming, training, and supplying recruits for the so-called M23 mutiny begun in March and led by renegade Congolese General Bosco "the Terminator" Ntaganda. (The image above shows an M23 soldier in a Congolese town near the Ugandan border earlier this month.) Ntaganda now faces an ICC arrest warrant for war crimes (including deployment of child soldiers, sexual slavery, and rape). According to previous UN reports, he is also a kingpin smuggler of the DRC’s "conflict minerals." (One of the routes of the latter to international markets leads through Kigali, the Rwandan capital.) The UN Group of Experts directly implicates Rwandan Minister of Defense James Kabarebe, the chief of the army Charles Kayonga, and other senior officials of Kagame’s government.

The 137-page report could not be more detailed, or, in places, graphic. But President Kagame responded with flat-out denials and a counter-accusation against the government in Kinshasa: "And you Congolese, don’t run away from your responsibilities and start claiming that this is our problem." Surely he believes he has little to fear, with President Obama still firmly in his camp.

The United States has showered the Kagame government, despite its tarnished human rights record, with all manner of financial and military largesse, quadrupling aid to Rwanda since Obama took office. It has even tried to provide legal cover. In 2011 the State Department recommended immunity for Kagame in a civil case arising from the 1994 genocide and the conflict in the DRC.

Perhaps most significantly, the U.S. and the UN rely on Rwandan troops and police officers for peacekeeping operations across Africa and as far afield as Haiti. Kagame, known for dictatorial policies at home, has carved out a role for his military abroad that few other countries on the continent would or could assume, and may be slated for a seat on the UN Security Council in 2013.

Nevertheless, all evidence in the UN Group of Experts’ report indicates that the current rebellion in the Congo is Kagame’s problem — and, consequently, that of the United States, his principle backer. The State Department, predictably, said it "welcomed" the report it had tried to squelch, and issued a response in boilerplate language: "We are deeply concerned about the report’s findings that Rwanda is implicated in the provision of support to Congolese rebel groups" — as if this were the first time they had heard anything about it. The U.S. government, the statement continued, "has asked Rwanda to halt and prevent the provision of such support from its territory." Clinton herself has not addressed the issue, though she recently congratulated Rwandans on their independence day (1 July), adding, "know that the government and people of the United States stand with you."

Will just "asking" Kagame to cease arming Congolese mutineers work? Doubtful, especially given how profitable the chaos in the DRC is for mineral smugglers. Tougher measures are needed, and are in fact mandated by Public Law 109-456. For Obama and Clinton, failure to act will possibly be illegal — both are duty-bound to uphold U.S. law. Inaction is certainly morally reprehensible, indicative of the rankest political cynicism: Obama and Clinton, both ostensibly liberals, exploited the suffering of the Congolese to burnish their credentials and pass a humanitarian bill when they were both in the Senate, but now that they are in a position to help end the misery they choose to do nothing for fear of inconveniencing their Rwandan ally. This failure to act amounts to de facto complicity with foreign-orchestrated slaughter in the Congo — hardly what the world expects from the first African-American president, the same man who boasted to the Ghanaian Parliament in 2009 that, "I have the blood of Africa within me" and announced that "African doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions."

The United States has, moreover, a special historic responsibility to the Congolese. After all, in 1885 it was the first country to recognize the Congo as Belgian King Leopold’s personal estate (cruelly misnamed the "Congo Free State") which he exploited viciously to extract rubber, committing ghastly acts of carnage that gave Joseph Conrad material for his 1902 novel Heart of Darkness. That carnage incited Mark Twain to accuse King Leopold, in 1905, of "devastation, robberies and massacres of the natives," and warn that "when [Americans] find out the infamies that are being perpetrated in the Congo" they will realize that "our whole nation has a personal interest in the matter and is under written engagement to look after it." The human rights movement — the first in modern times — launched by Twain helped eventually to wrench the "Congo Free State" from the sovereign’s grip.

But further indifference has followed. Adam Hochschild, in his 1998 bestseller King Leopold’s Ghost, expressed his shock upon discovering that between five million and eight million Congolese had died during the Belgian king’s misrule, and asks a question we should update and pose to ourselves now: "Why were these deaths not mentioned in the standard litany of our century’s horrors?" He had a point. And why, today, do the millions of deaths, to say nothing of the rapes, torture, and displacements in the DRC, so rarely make the headlines — or even the back pages — of national newspapers? If they did, some sort of countrywide campaign might arise to compel President Obama and Secretary Clinton to do their duty and comply with the law they brought into being. That would give the Congolese something they have never really had: A chance to recover and build a functioning state.

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