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US must step up aid, diplomacy to DRCongo

WASHINGTON, Mar 9 – US actor and Africa advocate Ben Affleck urged US lawmakers on Tuesday to step up aid to the Democratic Republic of Congo or risk seeing rampant violence driven by minerals trafficking plunge the vast country back into war.

"Austerity demands that we turn a blind eye to Congo, but it would be pennywise and pound foolish to allow the Democratic Republic of Congo to fall again," Affleck told the African affairs subcommittee of the House of Representatives\’ foreign affairs committee.

"We have to take a hard look at our current commitment, and then we have to do more," said Affleck, who last year founded the Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI) advocacy group and uses his celebrity to shine a spotlight on continuing violence in the central African country ravaged by 13 years of war.

The Oscar-winning screenwriter and actor began his testimony with the story of a girl called Laba, who was kidnapped in DRC when she was 14 and raped daily during her two years in captivity.

When she was finally able to escape, she realized she was pregnant with the baby of one of her kidnappers. She is now 22, raising her child, studying law, and advocating for women\’s rights.

DRC was embroiled in back-to-back wars from 1998 to 2002, one of which drew in six other African countries and has been dubbed Africa\’s World War.

More than five million people died in the wars and continue to die because of ongoing conflict, hunger or disease at the "staggering rate of 45,000 a month," Affleck said.

Some 200,000 women were raped or sexually brutalized since 1998, and even now, with the country supposedly at peace, more than 1,000 women and girls are still raped every month in DRC, said Affleck.

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Much of the violence, including rape, is fuelled by the country\’s mineral wealth, said Affleck and fellow panellist John Prendergast, another advocate for greater US involvement in Africa to promote and preserve human rights.

DRC is the world\’s largest producer of coltan, a mineral used in mobile phones.

A report issued last week by Global Witness said rebel groups in eastern DRC have flouted a ban imposed by President Joseph Kabila on mining operations in the troubled eastern Kivu provinces, and continue to trade illegally in minerals including coltan, tin ore and gold.

"We have to focus first and foremost on getting a certification system for conflict minerals," not unlike those used to halt violence driven by "blood diamonds" in West Africa, Prendergast told AFP.

"There are many other issues that are fuelling conflict in DRC, but the biggest source of gasoline for that fire is conflict minerals," he said.

Prendergast also criticized Washington for dragging its heels in appointing a special envoy for DRC.

"It\’s shameful, frankly, that we\’re waiting around months and months to see if the administration\’s going to do something about the deadliest war in the world," Prendergast said.

"They should just go ahead and appoint a senior significant person and bring to bear the kind of influence the United States has, work internationally to help bring about a resolution of Congo\’s troubles."

The United States must also fund elections due to be held in DRC in November and help reorganize the DRC military, said Prendergast and the other panellists, including Cindy McCain, the wife of former Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

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DRC soldiers earn about a dollar a day, if they are paid at all, and to make up for the shortfall, they resort to violence and minerals trafficking, panellists said.

And the elections in DRC face a $25 million funding gap, said Affleck, citing a report by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

"The path to stability in today\’s Congo requires fostering stable elections and preventing another disaster that could easily require hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian assistance," he told the lawmakers.

The plea for continued US aid came amid proposals by the Republicans, who took control of the House of Representatives in November elections, to make sweeping spending cuts including to foreign aid, which currently makes up just one percent of the US budget.

But Affleck insisted the United States must do its part for the Congolese people.

"It doesn\’t unduly burden the deficit but it does add to the moral standing of our country… and it can ameliorate terrible suffering."


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