DRC: Hillary's Broken Vow to Congo Women

Friday, June 17, 2011
New York Post
Central Africa
Congo (Kinshasa)
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

On Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton returned from a whirlwind tour through Zambia, Ethiopia and Tanzania, on which she sat down with national leaders and spoke on the benefits of fair crossborder trade and the importance of ending relations with Moammar Khadafy's Libya.

You'd think that while Clinton was talking commerce in Tanzania and Zambia, two nations that border the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, she'd have had a moment to visit the Congolese women that she swore to protect on her last jaunt through the continent.

In 2009, on her first trip to Africa as the boss at State, Clinton was deeply affected by the severity of gender-based violence. Rape is often employed to humiliate and control populations in eastern Congo, the site of a deadly 16-year war involving armies of up to nine nations and another 30 rebel factions.

She left Congo in 2009 vowing to prioritize the plight of Congolese women -- but has since delivered next to nothing.

Meanwhile, the American Journal of Public Health last month released a report concluding that an average of 48 women an hour are raped in Congo, and that 400,000 women (ages 15-49) were victims of sexual violence there in 2006-7.

Yet legislation that could change the situation in Congo already exists. In December 2005, then-freshman Sen. Barack Obama brought the Congo issue to center stage. Congo "has cost more lives than any other conflict since World War II," Obama said on the Senate floor as he presented "The Congo Relief, Security and Democracy Promotion Act."

The bill -- co-sponsored by then-Sen. Clinton, passed unanimously and signed into law -- declared that appointing a special envoy was essential to ending the war that has claimed 5.4 million lives and displaced some 1.7 million people.

Yet President Obama and Secretary Clinton have yet to give us that envoy.

Why could an envoy make the difference? The expertise of special envoys has helped in many instances, including Bosnia and Northern Ireland.

Congo expert Jason Stearns, author of "Dancing in the Glory of Monsters," argues that if we'd help reestablish political and judicial infrastructure and promote working civil institutions in that failed state, the chaos would subside.

Clinton's State Department sings a different tune. Ambassador Don Yamamoto, the Africa Bureau's deputy assistant secretary, rejected an envoy in private correspondence. "Our experience has shown that leaders in the region have not been particularly receptive to the special envoy structure," he wrote in a letter addressed to Monique Beadle, advocacy director at the Congo-focused campaign, Falling Whistles.

Yamamoto went on to explain that "to strengthen our regional coordination," our ambassadors in the region "come together once a month or communicate through a video-telecommunication network."

Hundreds of thousands of women raped every year, and America is conducting high-level Skype chats?

Such excuses don't wash with Congress. In April, a bipartisan letter from members of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa asked Obama to take measures in Congo before it is too late. A month later, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) spearheaded a similar recommendation.

Outside of government, some 77 human-rights groups sent a joint letter to Clinton echoing the envoy request. A similar petition in circulation has so far collected nearly 25,000 signatures.

Thus far, the White House response to all concerned parties has been silence.

An envoy might not be able to flip a switch and create peace in a country with a complex internal war, but the alternative of allowing innocent women to suffer is unacceptable.

"I believe that the rights of women and girls is the unfinished business of the 21st century," Clinton said in an interview with Newsweek last March. If that's true, it's time to pay attention to Congo.

Clinton has one of the few positions that allows her to act on that 2005 bill and put someone on the ground capable of doing something for Congo's women. Instead, she has chosen the road of false promises. Now, you'll know whom to thank when violence flares in Congo anew.