“These last years your country has lived through a series of deadly conflicts that have left deep scars in the memory of its peoples… At a time when the Catholics of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in union with all people of goodwill, prepare to participate in some important events for the future of their nation, I would like to express my spiritual closeness to them by raising up a fervent prayer to the Lord that they persevere, with unshakable hope, in the construction of peace and fraternity!”
- Pope Benedict XVI to the Congolese Bishops, January 2006
In a deadly cycle of violence and destruction that has largely prevailed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) since the end of former dictator Mobutu Sese Seku’s three decades of rule in 1996, nearly 4-million people have died, either directly as a result of the conflicts or as a consequence of the ancillary collapse of the health services that followed the fighting. The DRC continues to suffer the world’s deadliest humanitarian crisis, with approximately 1,200 people perishing daily from the lingering effects of the wars. Tragically, the DRC remains among the world’s forgotten emergencies, without the generous response that might enable the Congolese people to escape this downward spiral of violence and grinding poverty.
Although most major fighting ended in 2002 at the conclusion of what has been described as “Africa’s First World War,” insecurity, poor access to health care and insufficient international assistance still entrap the Congolese people in what has thus far proved an inescapable cycle of misery. Latest figures indicate there are 1.7-million internally displaced persons (IDPs) throughout the country, while more than 450,000 Congolese are refugees elsewhere, chiefly in neighboring countries, hoping to be able to return home in dignity and security.
Despite the deployment of the world’s largest UN peacekeeping mission (MONUC) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, its troops are thinly stretched across a country the size of Western Europe. Armed groups still plague regions of the east and south, while unpaid and poorly trained government troops sent to defend them often prey upon hapless civilians. The Catholic Church there continues to call upon neighboring countries to withdraw support for proxy militias, halt all illegal exploitation of natural resources, and cooperate both with the UN peacekeeping mission and the DRC’s transitional government.
Last month the National Episcopal Conference of the Congo (known by its French acronym, CENCO) called on the Catholic faithful and all people of goodwill to work together to establish the rule of law in what was described as the “re-founding” of their country at this turning point in its history. The Congolese bishops expressed their fervent hope that a series of elections for the presidency and the parliament, scheduled for this year, would mark a new era. Their aspirations were tempered by several realistic concerns on the security, political and social fronts. Unlike many international actors who appear to see the elections a panacea for all of the DRC’s problems, CENCO called the attention of the international community to the danger of accepting elections with a mere semblance of legitimacy, and thereby endorsing fraudulent practices that could place in jeopardy the post-electoral peace. The country’s bishops stressed the need to face such challenges as the promotion of non-violence, national reconciliation and forgiveness, corruption and the climate of impunity, in order to ensure that the first democratic elections in over four decades do not produce the “nightmare” that befell the DRC soon after independence in 1960 when the five-year “Congo Crisis claimed the lives of at least 100,000 people.
USCCB continues its support for the efforts of the Church in the Congo, which has the largest Catholic population in Africa. In July 2005, Bishop William Murphy and USCCB staff visited Bukavu, in eastern Congo, to learn about the continuing crisis in that part of the country from religious, community and political leaders. These leaders expressed their hopes for the emergence from the upcoming elections of a peaceful, united and democratic Congo.
CRS and USCCB were instrumental in developing S.2125, The Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act, a bipartisan legislative package initiated by Senator Barack Obama that would allocate $52 million to help create conditions favorable to the electoral process and to improve development and security in the DRC. USCCB and CRS are now collaborating on mobilizing wider support for the legislation, as well as for other initiatives to increase humanitarian assistance and strengthen peacekeeping operations.
Some key policy objectives of S.2125 include: ensuring government commitment to democracy, transparency, human rights, peace, rule of law, and anti-corruption measures; expediting the process of disarmament, demobilization, repatriation, reintegration and resettlement of armed rebel groups; ensuring governmental commitment to responsible and transparent management of natural resources; protecting IDPs, addressing basic humanitarian needs and the special problems of vulnerable members of the population; and engaging with other governments working to promote peace and security in the region, while holding accountable those working to destabilize the country.
Significantly, the proposed legislation would also require the United States to use its seat on the UN Security Council to strengthen the authority and capacity of MONUC by clarifying its rules of engagement, increasing the availability of resources, and providing authority and support for assisting with the elections and monitoring arms trafficking and natural-resource exploitation.
- Urge your senators to support The Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act (S.2125), as well as members of both houses to retain urgently needed funding for the DRC in the FY 2006 Emergency Supplemental Appropriations bill.
- Ask the U.S. to maintain diplomatic pressure on neighboring countries to respect the territorial integrity of the DRC, halt all acts of aggression and withdraw their support for proxy militias operating in eastern Congo.
- Ask the U.S. to increase diplomatic pressure on the transitional government in the DRC to move forward with the electoral process to ensure security, transparency and fairness at the polls.
Resources: See the recent correspondence from Bishop Thomas G. Wenski urging Senate action on the Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security and Democracy Promotion Act (S.2125) and other documents on the DRC at: www.usccb.org/sdwp/international/callafrica/drcstatements.shtml.
For further information: Theodore Rectenwald, Office of International Justice and Peace, USCCB, 202-541-3149 (voice), 541-3339 (fax), TRectenwald@usccb.org