Susan Rice, Obama, the Clintons, and the Tragedy in the Congo

The decade-long conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, mostly over control of mineral deposits, is the deadliest the planet has seen since World War II, with an estimated 3 million people killed and 500,000 women and girls brutally raped. Every expert agrees that the governments of neighboring Rwanda and Uganda, which receive hundreds of millions of dollars in American military aid each year, have enabled the militias that perpetrate much of the violence in the Congo. We also know that multinational mining and tech corporations, many of which have deep political influence in the United States, are dependent upon the minerals dug up in rebel-controlled Congolese mines. These materials are used to build cell phones and other small electronic devices.

UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s history of consulting for the autocratic Paul Kagame regime in Rwanda should certainly be on the table as the president, Congress, and public weigh her candidacy for secretary of state. But it is crucial to note that in her repeated attempts to downplay the role of the Rwandan government in the systematic mass killing, rape, and torture of Congolese civilians, as well as in the recruitment of child soldiers, Rice is serving not as a lone actor, but in absolute concert with the Obama administration’s overall Africa policy. Under Hillary Clinton, the State Department committed $17 million to alleviating sexual violence in the region. Most of the money was spent on treating rape survivors, which, while absolutely crucial, did not address the political and economic root causes of the conflict. That’s a problem because no matter how hard health and development organizations work to rehabilitate rape victims and former child soldiers, as long as the conflict continues, these survivors risk being re-victimized once they return to violence-torn communities. That is why so many Congolese women and girls are raped multiple times.

As I reported in 2010:

Obama has long been interested in Africa, both personally and politically. As a freshman senator in 2005, he sponsored legislation, later signed into law by President Bush, empowering the secretary of state to withhold aid from neighboring countries that play a role in destabilizing Congo.

But that prerogative was never exercised, under either Bush or Obama, even as both Sweden and the Netherlands de-funded Rwanda because of its support for armed rebel groups active inside Congo.

In its dealings with Rwanda, the U.S. is “paralyzed,” argued Mvemba Dizolele, a native of Congo and Africa policy expert associated with the Hoover Institution and Johns Hopkins University. “We lost our moral authority in 1994 when the genocide happened, and we allowed [Rwandan President] Paul Kagame”—the leader who ended the genocide—“to become the authority in the region and go into Congo.”

As a veteran of the Clinton administration, Rice is part of the group of policy-makers who deeply regretted America’s inaction in the face of the Rwandan genocide, and who greeted Kagame’s rise to power with relief. In 2009, Bill Clinton presented Kagame with a Global Citizenship Award at his annual Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York. In 2010 I asked President Clinton about UN reports holding Kagame’s administration partially responsible for violence in the Congo. Clinton replied:

“The U.N. said what it did about what happened after the [Rwandan] genocide, in Congo. … Kagame strongly disputes it. Right now I’m not going to pre-judge him because there’s this huge debate about what happened in the Congo and why, and I don’t know.”

In reality, Kagame’s culpability has been broadly documented for years, by the United Nations, by Human Rights Watch, and by Africa scholars and advocates. It’s fine to hold Susan Rice accountable on this, but we have to reach higher, too, into the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the Oval Office.

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