Congo-Kinshasa: Grave Humanitarian Crisis Worsening In Eastern Congo, Where 3.5m Have Already Perished

Washington, DC — Violence continues in eastern Congo, where rebel groups have clashed with United Nations peacekeepers and government forces, in violation of the peace accords signed in 2003, Rep. Ed Royce (R-California) said Thursday at a House Subcommittee on Africa hearing.

The peace pact was based on the Lusaka Agreement of 1999, which called for inter-Congolese political negotiations, disarming of Rwandan Hutu rebels present in the Congo and normalization of border security.

"This turmoil has perpetuated the gravest humanitarian conditions that have existed since the Rwandan genocide erupted ten years ago," Royce said. "An estimated 3.5 million Congolese, mainly in the east, have perished over the last six or so years due to war-related starvation and disease."

Rwanda's involvement in Bukavu, eastern Congo, through supporting rebel forces in the region, threatens the possibility for peace, Royce said. The United Nations released a report Thursday citing evidence that Rwanda has broken the arms embargo by supplying rebels with arms and munitions.

Learned Dees, senior program officer for Africa at the National Endowment for Democracy, called the humanitarian failure in the Congo similar to the crisis in Darfur, Sudan. "In humanitarian terms, over the long term, Congo represents a greater humanitarian crisis because more people have been displaced, more people have been killed, and you have the potential of reaching another level of violence in the Congo," he said.

The United States is working closely with the United Nations and allies in the region to halt the violence, said Constance Berry Newman, assistant secretary of State for African Affairs. Newman reported on the progress of MONUC, the UN Mission for the Congo peacekeeping force. "MONUC is one of the largest UN peacekeeping operations in existence, but it is not a large force when one considers that the DRC is equal in size to the United States east of the Mississippi," she said.

Gareth Evans, International Crisis Group's president, called for the doubling of MONUC's troops, improved technical and intelligence capacity, and a broader mandate in order to enhance MONUC's capability.

Newman said MONUC's mandate has been expanded to include assisting the transitional government in the DRC, working towards disarming and demobilizing the Rwandan Hutu rebels in the DRC and assisting in preparations for elections that were scheduled for 2005. The recent violence has called into question the government's ability to run the scheduled elections successfully.

The occupation of Bukavu has caused a break in humanitarian efforts in eastern Congo, Newman said, but "with the national army now in control of Bukavu, most relief workers have returned and services have resumed."

Rep. Donald Payne (D-New Jersey) questioned Newman's testimony that, "the situation in the DRC remains very serious, but the essential requisites for a peaceful solution are in place." With illegal uranium mining, clear-cutting of tropical forests, and the outright violation of the peace accords by the Rwandans, Payne said that the situation seemed much less hopeful than Newman's testimony suggested. "We need solutions," he said.

Payne and Royce identified Rwanda as having violated the peace accords in order to get access to the DRC's natural wealth. "This conflict is driven by natural resource exploitation," Royce said. "U.N. and other reports have identified Rwanda and other countries as maintaining considerable illicit commercial interests in the DRC. What are the U.S. and the U.N. doing to deter this scramble for resources?'

Newman said the U.S. was making every effort to hold parties accountable. "Bad behavior is not going to be rewarded by the international community, she said. "People will express strong action against the violation of the peace agreement."

"The transition in the DRC is not irreversible, and recent events have shown how easily the process can be derailed, the consequences of which should be apparent to anyone who has follwed the history of the last 10 years in the Great Lakes region of Africa," says Evan. "It is in the interest of the United States to promote peace and stability in Africa, but this cannot be achieved if there is continued conflict and instability in the heart of the continent."

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