Amidst bitter political fighting on the U.S. budget, a bi-partisan Congressional coalition came together today to unite on a solution to the crisis in eastern Congo. Thirty-five members of Congress from both parties, led by Don Payne (D-NJ) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), wrote to President Obama today to urge the administration to appoint a Special Envoy for Congo and the Great Lakes region.This letter comes just at the right time. Having just returned from Congo, I saw that the need for an envoy is greater than ever. Just four days ago, Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson stated: “We have heard numerous calls for the appointment of a roving special envoy, but we believe for a variety of reasons that our ambassadors and their embassy teams in Kinshasa, Kigali, and other capitals are in a strong position to tackling these problems."
But the reality is that an envoy would complement the roles of the ambassadors, and that this is wholly necessary now. The new U.S. Ambassador to Congo, James Entwistle, is a day-long journey from the east in Kinshasa, and the need to engage the Congolese, Rwandan, Ugandan, and Burundian governments on conflict minerals is greater than ever, following the Congressional legislation on the issue and the urgent need to follow up on it through a robust certification process. The region has talked about certification for over a year through the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, but strong U.S. engagement is needed to see it carried forward with actual monitoring and penalties for non-compliance.
Moreover, there are several moving parts within the administration’s Congo policy apparatus, including conflict minerals, sexual violence, elections, and there is a clear need for a focal point to provide the leadership and coordination to channel these pieces into a focused strategy. Given the cross-border and cross-continental aspects of the mineral trade, an envoy would butress the work of the ambassadors.
A Great Lakes Special Envoy would also better position the U.S. government to permanently eliminate the threat to civilians and regional stability posed by the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA. The LRA is a regional problem that demands a comprehensive and coordinated regional solution. Originating in Uganda almost 25 years ago, it now operates in Congo, the Central African Republic, and Sudan. As required by the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009, the administration developed a regional strategy for the LRA in November 2010. However, there currently is no one person tasked with integrating LRA-related initiatives throughout the region and between agencies. The Special Envoy would ensure that the strategy is implemented, and would lead interagency coordination within the U.S. government and more robust engagement with regional governments, the U.N., the African Union, and other key partners.
In their letter, the members of Congress stated:
As you are aware, the Congolese—especially in the eastern Congo—endure hardships well beyond our realm of comprehension. Rebel groups from inside and outside of Congolese borders, using sexual violence as a means of control, trample on every step the people of the DRC make toward stability. The human rights and humanitarian crisis is heightened by severe food and medicinal shortages. If the DRC continues on this path, the nation may return to the lawlessness that made Congo the site of the bloodiest conflict since World War II. A destabilized DRC could cause a ripple effect through the region and could threaten U.S. security. The need for a Special Envoy is well recognized and was specifically required in the 2006 Democratic Republic of Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act (P.L. 109-456). Further, reappointment of the position would complement recent enactment of the Dodd-Frank Act (PL 111-203) which requires the Secretary of State to develop a strategy to address the link between conflict minerals, human rights abuses and armed groups in the DRC, and the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act (PL 111-172) which addresses the dire need for protection of civilians in the Great Lakes Region from armed attack.