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US must help DR Congo

WASHINGTON, Dec 1 – US actor turned Africa advocate Ben Affleck Tuesday warned that the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) could slide back into war and called on the United States to lead an effort to bring security to Africa\’s third largest country.

"The DRC is at a tipping point. It could very easily fall back into chaos or move forward into recovery," Affleck said at a forum to discuss a report released Tuesday by the Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI), an advocacy group that the actor and director founded earlier this year.

The report urges the United States to spearhead an international effort to bring stability to the troubled eastern part of DRC or risk the entire Great Lakes region becoming "another failure of humanity."

"In eastern Congo, conflict and insecurity continue while the guns have fallen silent in other parts" of DRC, which was riven by devastating back-to-back wars that began in the 1990s and ended early this century after claiming some 3.5 million lives, the report says.

"The international community — and the US in particular — must do more to address the challenges in eastern Congo if another failure of humanity is to be averted in central Africa."

The United States has "a critical leadership role to play" in DRC and could positively impact the lives of "millions of people for generations to come," Affleck said.

The report hails "notable milestones" achieved in DRC since its leaders signed a peace agreement in 2002, including demobilizing rebel groups and establishing a democratically elected government.

It also outlines several steps for the United States and other developed nations to take to help bring peace to all of DRC. Key among them is ensuring that next year\’s presidential election is as free and fair as possible.

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Senator John Kerry called the election, in which President Joseph Kabila is running for re-election, "the first step on the big path forward".

The United States has pledged five million dollars to help fund the election, but that amount is far too little, said Kerry and former US international aid agency director for DRC, Tony Gambino.

Gambino said the amount should be multiplied by at least 10 to have an impact.

Kerry compared it to the huge sums the United States has poured into Afghanistan and Iraq in the war on terror.

"We put 106 billion dollars a year into Afghanistan and more than a trillion went into Iraq… In DRC, so stunningly small a monetary requirement could have so huge and dramatic impact on the lives of fellow human beings," Kerry said.

"Frankly, it would do America so much good to be able to say to the world that it\’s not just the war on terror we care about but this kind of humanitarian challenge that excites us and motivates us and brings a whole generation into a new level of engagement that could in the end transform a whole continent," Kerry said.

Eastern DRC is rich in minerals and has huge potential for farming, according to the report by the ECI.

But the wealth from the mineral lodes goes into the pockets of a select few "mafia warlord types" and agriculture remains undeveloped after years of war, said Gambino.

Affleck set up ECI as a way of using his celebrity to raise awareness of situation in the DRC, which has been wracked by war, corruption and lawlessness for most of the 50 years since independence from Belgium.

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Some progress has been made since the 2002 peace agreement, but the situation in eastern DRC has deteriorated as rebel groups from Rwanda and Uganda attacked civilians and targeted humanitarian relief convoys and non-governmental organizations working in the region.

In September, a US medical charity said suspected members of a Hutu rebel group that played a key role in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, raped at least 242 women within a few days in Nord-Kivu province.

According to the ECI, some two million people in eastern Congo are still internally displaced and 200,000 are refugees in neighboring countries, eight years after the peace agreement was signed.

Despite its vast mineral wealth, DRC is the eighth poorest country in the world and the fifth on a list of failed states, Affleck said.

"Failure here would be catastrophic," he said.

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