Note: This blog was written by Enough Project Intern Anuli Mefor
On Tuesday, November 29, Enough’s Associate Director of Policy for the Great Lakes Region, Sasha Lezhnev, testified in Congress before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission for a hearing on democracy and human rights in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The hearing was presided over by Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA), the co-chair of the Commission.
Other expert witnesses included Tom Perriello, the U.S. Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region of Africa, Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Ida Sawyer, a Senior Researcher at Human Rights Watch, Fred Bauma of LUCHA, and Mvemba Phezo Dizolele, a professorial lecturer at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The hearing brought together an overflowing room of staff members from Republican and Democratic Congressional offices, Congolese diaspora and activists, professionals, and distinguished guests such as the Chief Diplomatic Advisor to President Kabila, Barnabé Kikaya bin Karubi, and the DRC Ambassador to the United States, François Balumuene.
The hearing focused on how to prevent widespread violence on December 19, 2016, the day that President Joseph Kabila is constitutionally mandated to step down from office to hand over power to his successor. With less than 3 weeks until December 19, Congressman McGovern asked the witnesses what urgent steps the U.S. government should take to prevent the turmoil that could very well take place if no preventative actions are taken.
Lezhnev explained how the latest democracy crisis is the latest manifestation of the core problem of violent kleptocracy in Congo, and laid out a plan of action the United States, banks, and the European Union should take in Congo to prevent crises in both the short and long term. Lezhnev stated that the U.S. and key European states have potent leverage over Congo’s leaders.
“President Kabila’s inner circle relies on financial transactions denominated in U.S. dollars, many of which pass through the U.S. financial system,” Lezhnev said. “This gives the United States the ability to use certain tools that can create financial pressure in order to prevent the escalation of violence and constitutional crisis related to Kabila’s transition.”
In tandem with many of the policy recommendations from his recent report, A Criminal State, Lezhnev provided a three part strategy the U.S. government should utilize in Congo: 1) Financial pressure through anti-money laundering measures (including calling for Congress to urge the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) to issue a public advisory concerning the patterns used to launder the proceeds of corruption from Congo.), 2) Political and financial pressure through enhanced targeted sanctions, and 3) appointing a new U.S. Special Envoy to the great lakes.
The other distinguished witnesses had a number of recommendations. Testifying to the effectiveness of targeted sanctions, Ida Sawyer found that after the bipartisan house resolution of November 14 called for targeted sanctions against three specific Congolese government officials, other officials restrained from repressing protesters, out of fear that their names could be added to the list. Fred Bauma, a survivor of such repressions who spent seventeen months in jail, asked for more investigations be made in the international financial system to discover the international corporations and individuals that enable the corruption that sustains Kabila’s regime. As a leader in the LUCHA movement for democracy, Bauma alerted the audience to the fact that over 100 of his fellow activists have endured arrests by the Congolese government.
Finally, witnesses emphasized the importance of a multilateral approach. Like many concerned Congolese, regional leaders fear how Kabila’s actions may affect their countries. Outbursts of violence post December 19 could mean more refugee flows to surrounding borders. Malinowski said the U.S. government is currently working in coordination with regional leaders and the European Union and will seek for more ways to do so. Sawyer, however, warned against the U.S. government waiting for the EU to come on board before taking any actions. Due to the time at stake, she and Bauma strongly argued that immediate actions be taken.
Recently, President Kabila asked the highly respected Conference of Catholic Bishops (CENCO) to lead discussions in the pursuit of a more inclusive transition agreement. Perriello emphasized the international community’s need to support the process of this agreement and its implementation when or if it does get passed. When Rep. McGovern directly asked him what Congress can do to support the CENCO process, Perriello replied with a strong statement: “The U.S. doesn’t want to have a plan.” He explained that the resolution must arise from the Congolese people, without U.S. interference. Lezhnev highlighted the need to accompany support of the CENCO process with leverage through financial pressure to help ensure a credible deal.
“No one should be President for life,” Malinowski reiterated, quoting President Obama. He said this statement has been widely received in Africa of recent, and it is the duty of the U.S. government to support popular movements that are fighting for government abidance of presidential term limits. In a dire tone, Malinowski alerted the audience of how possible it is for the situation in Congo to play out like the recent occurrences in Burundi if no preventive measures are taken to pressure President Kabila to step down from office.
Rep. McGovern asked the witnesses what may be incentivizing Kabila’s refusal to abide by the term limit, to which they conclusively responded that like many leaders who wish to govern longer than their legal terms, Kabila must be scared of what opposing forces may do to him and his family if he leaves office. As a result, they all were in agreement when Sawyer recommended that a safe exit strategy from power be provided for President Kabila. Dizolele underlined the need to address Kabila directly.
Periello and Malinowski were positive that it is not too late for things to be turned around in Congo. “The door is still open to a reasonable political compromise that enables the Congolese people, the ruling party, the opposition, and President Kabila, to come out of this winners”, Malinowski stated. Even though presidential elections in Congo will no longer be held this year, they can be held in 2017 if the U.S. government and the international community as a whole, continues to stand in solidarity with the pro-democracy advocates in Congo and heeds the recommendations that were offered in this hearing.
The Enough Project applauds Rep. McGovern and many other Members of Congress for their strong work on peace and democracy in Congo, and their efforts in making universal human rights a focus in U.S. foreign policy.