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."
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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.