On June 19, Obama administration officials and advocacy group representatives from the U.S. and Africa, including Enough Project Co-founder John Prendergast, met on Capitol Hill to testify before Congress’ Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission about the continuing human rights crisis caused by the Lord’s Resistance Army. The hearing focused on ongoing operations aimed at ending the notorious rebel group, including the deployment of U.S. military advisors in central and east Africa. While government officials painted a rosy picture of the current status of the U.S. military advisors, advocates used this opportunity to sound the alarm and highlight severe shortcomings that threaten the success of the advisors’ deployment and other U.S. efforts.
The testifying administration officials included Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Donald Yamamoto; Assistant Administrator for Africa of the U.S. Agency for International Development Earl Gast; and Gregory Pollock, South and East Africa director in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy. According to their testimony, the U.S. seeks to implement a comprehensive, multi-lateral strategy for addressing the LRA problem. The officials who testified expressed the United States’ commitment to protecting and assisting civilians affected by LRA violence, while still not letting up pressure on LRA combatants and leaders. Efforts along both of these lines include:
1) Providing training, planning, and intelligence-collecting assistance to the regional militaries
2) Aiding and funding the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of former LRA combatants, including distributing leaflets and radio broadcasts to encourage the defections of combatants
3) Providing humanitarian and recovery assistance to affected communities
Both Yamamoto and Pollock stressed the need for patience, emphasizing the enormous operational difficulties of transportation in rough, jungle terrain. Pollock emphasized the low-cost, small-footprint nature of the mission, explaining that the national forces of the affected countries must lead, and the role of the U.S. is solely advisory.
While the administration representatives spoke with cautious optimism, the advocacy representatives were less sanguine about ongoing U.S. efforts against the LRA. Michael Poffenberger, co-founder and executive director of Resolve, and John Prendergast both expressed doubts about the success of the current efforts, delivering what Congressman McGovern referred to as a “kick in the pants” for current U.S. LRA policy. Perhaps their greatest concern was the limited access of the Uganda People’s Defense Force, or UPDF—the most capable force combatting the LRA. Currently, the UPDF is denied access to operate in Congo, where most LRA attacks are occurring, and northeastern CAR and South Darfur in Sudan, where LRA leader Joseph Kony is believed to be operating. This image created by Enough contrasts the areas where the LRA operates with the areas to which U.S.- and African Union-backed forces have access. (Click for a larger view.)
Prendergast and Poffenberger urged the Obama administration to apply higher-level diplomatic pressure on the governments of Congo, CAR, and Sudan to ensure that the LRA does not have any safe haven. Similarly, Father Benoît Kinalegu, the director of the Dungu-Doruma Diocesan Commission for Justice and Peace in Congo, called on the U.S. to push Congolese authorities to take the LRA issue seriously and to cooperate with other affected nations.
Prendergast noted that four additional strategic areas must be improved to ensure that current operations against the LRA are successful:
- Troops: The number of troops provided by regional militaries in LRA-affected regions needs to be dramatically increased—the 900 UPDF troops currently deployed are insufficient for offensive operations and incapable of providing adequate protection to civilians. Special forces are needed for offensive operations and additional troops for civilian protection.
- Intelligence: Better intelligence-gathering capabilities are desperately needed to locate LRA commanders and groups.
- Transport: Enhanced transportation capabilities are needed to act quickly on intelligence. Specifically, the U.S. needs to use the funding allocated by Congress, which remains untouched, to provide helicopters and other transport to regional militaries for rapid response deployment across the vast LRA-affected areas.
- Defection: More efforts are needed to encourage LRA combatants to surrender, including money for reintegrating former combatants.
Both Prendergast and Poffenberger recommended that the U.S. convene a side meeting with the governments of the affected countries and other partners at the U.N. General Assembly meeting in September to discuss the challenges limiting current efforts to end the LRA.
At the hearing’s conclusion, Congressman McGovern suggested that a meeting should be scheduled with relevant administration officials in upcoming weeks, and concluded that the administration should be encouraged to convene the General Assembly side meeting.
Incidentally, on the same day as the human rights commission hearing, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a resolution (S.Res. 402) condemning the crimes of Joseph Kony and the LRA, supporting the international effort to end the LRA’s reign of terror, and calling on the U.S. to increase its involvement in the struggle. Echoing Prendergast and Poffenberger, the resolution calls on the Obama administration to use allocated funds to enhance partner militaries’ intelligence, transport, and logistical capacities in tracking LRA fighters and protecting civilians.
Photo: Prendergast and panelists at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission hearing (Enough / Marjon Momand)