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Feingold's Departing Remarks to Foggy Bottom Require an Addendum

02/26/2015 11:35 am ET | Updated Apr 28, 2015

Former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) delivered his final speech as the U.S. Special Envoy to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Great Lakes region of central Africa yesterday. Media coverage, unfortunately, has focused only on the possibility that Feingold will seek a rematch against Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), and looked for "hints" in his speech that he may do so. There has been no critical analysis, so far, in U.S. media about what Feingold accomplished in his 18-month State Department post since Secretary of State John Kerry appointed him in 2013.

Speaking at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Feingold read remarks concerning the situation in the DRC. He began by outlining three areas: ongoing militia violence, the root causes of conflict, and future initiatives.

I am not sure that anyone unfamiliar with the history of violence and oppression in eastern Congo will learn anything from Feingold's rendering of what ails Congo. Perhaps that is why media has steered away from doing so. By omitting the significant body of evidence detailing the human rights abuses committed by the Kabila government does Feingold support these activities while condemning the Rwanda government of Paul Kagame? This is puzzling given the outspoken nature of the U.S. position on human rights violations and the reality on the ground in the Great Lakes region.

Feingold offered the standard State Department analysis of the beginnings and end of the M23 rebellion. He discussed the signing of an agreement, brokered by the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region and the Southern African Development Community region, known as the Kampala Talks. Feingold stressed the U.S. position that there should be "no amnesty" for war crimes, but neglected to mention that the most instances of war crimes during the rebellion were attributed to the Congolese Army (FARDC) and not the M23.

Military Human Rights Abuses

I was surprised that Feingold did not refer to a document, that has not been widely publicized, but which is an impartial accounting of who is committing atrocities in eastern Congo. The onus falls squarely on the Congolese army in 2014 and less so on rebel forces.

As part of its mandate, defined by the United Nations Security Council, the Office of the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) in the DRC provides close monitoring of human rights abuses. Information on these trends, which are regularly shared with the Congolese authorities, is presented monthly at U. N. press conferences.

Feingold did not mention a letter from the Congo representative to the United Nations Security Council calling for the expulsion of the head of UNJHRO, Scott Campbell, from Congo. The Kabila government accused him of bias against the government. The UNJHRO reports focused squarely on the Congo army as primary human rights abusers. This letter is illustrative of Congo's attempt to exonerate itself.

By omitting this information, is DOS tacitly supporting Kabila?

Of 2,360 recorded violations of human rights in DRC the most affected provinces were the provinces of eastern DRC (over 1,730 violations), the province of North Kivu (975 violations), the Eastern Province (525 violations) and the province of South Kivu (230 violations).

Government agents were named as being responsible for 1,354 violations, representing over 57 percent of the total number of violations of human rights UNJHRO recorded in 2014. Among state officials, the military and the FARDC PNC officers were primarily responsible for 1245 violations of human rights committed in 2014. The FARDC soldiers were allegedly responsible for 699 violations and PNC officers were allegedly responsible for 546 violations.

Other armed groups were responsible for 1,004 violations in 2014. Among the armed groups, the Mai Mai fighters were the main perpetrators of human rights (285 violations), followed by the fighters of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) (157 violations).

Root Causes

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Working the mines near Beni. Hey, it's a job. Photo by William Quam

Personally, I was hopeful that Feingold would speak to the root causes of armed rebellions in the region. It was puzzling that the speech offered no mention of why armed groups are there in the first place. Does this reflect a fundamental misunderstanding, or worse, omission by State that illegal mining (aided and abetted by armed groups) and illicit financial flows contribute to extreme poverty and deprivation?

On paper, DRC is a member of The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). This global standard exists to guarantee accountable management of natural resources. Feingold completely ignored the graft and corruption in the mining sector in the "root causes" portion of his speech.

Consider this one example.

In Katanga Province, the central government collected $90 million from mining royalties in 2012. Only 12 million were donated to the province, well below the 40 percent required by law.

As a contact in the mining sector told me, "children work at gunpoint for $1 a kilogram or less and all the mineral wealth slips out of Africa and into Switzerland and Washington DC via hidden bank accounts."

As far as eliminating armed groups, Feingold went on at great length to laud the government of Congo for its pledge to eliminate the FDLR, which consists of some former members of the Hutu Interahamwe responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. But, Feingold also avoided the reality that The United Nations mission (MONUSCO) suspended its support to the Congolese Army (FARDC) as part of these operations because of the presence of two Congolese generals suspected of serious human rights violations.

The United Nations told Congolese Foreign Minister Raymond Tshibanda during a meeting in Ethiopia at the end of last month that he had two weeks to remove two generals, General Bruno Mandevu and General Fall Sikabwe, who U.N. officials accused of being heavily involved in widespread human rights violations.

I doubt it was coincidence that at the same time that Feingold was talking, FARDC began an offensive, without the support of MONUSCO against FDLR positions. Was this designed to "soften" public opinion on the offensive and deflect criticism away from Kinshasa for not removing the generals accused of human rights violations?

Firing with heavy weapons and machine guns were heard this Tuesday, February 24th from early morning in the villages of Ruvuye Mulindi and overlooking the trays means Lemera in Uvira (South Kivu). The sources of the 33rd Military Region indicate that these heard shots marked the official start of military operations against Rwandan FDLR rebels in South Kivu.

One thing that needs to be clarified is the constant use of the descriptor "Rwandan FDLR rebels." The FDLR was responsible for the genocide against Tutsis in Rwanda. Yes, they lived in Rwanda at that terrible time in history, but the distinction must be clarified.

The African press is tired of the charade.

If the crimes committed by the members of the FDLR - both during the Genocide against the Tutsis and in the past two decades in the eastern DR Congo - weren't so serious, one would be tempted to start laughing with the farce currently surrounding their forced 'disarmament.'

In a strange moment, Feingold also wrapped the United States in the mantle of Pope Francis. After tying peace in eastern Congo to the "security interests" of the U.S., he quoted the Pope.

"Peace is always possible. But we've to seek it.

I feel like a naysayer when it comes to commentary on Congo. But as a Christian and a Catholic, I am tired of politicians dragging my Pope into their false political narratives.

The Future

Still, there is one element in Feingold's speech that holds promise.

Freshwater holdings in the North American Great Lakes, combined with the Great Lakes of Central Africa, hold almost one half of all of the fresh water resources on the planet. North America and central Africa face similar environmental challenges from big oil, pollution, runoff, and industrial contaminants. Feingold proposed a "Great Lakes to Great Lakes Initiative," to share solutions to these environmental challenges.

Before this can happen, and it should, the State Department should offer a realistic assessment of the root causes of extreme poverty in Congo. Wrapping itself in the mantle of peace without just and honest resolution of injustice gets us nowhere. The American people deserve an honest explanation of why peace in Congo is so vital to our "security" interests, as Feingold says.

"Security" equals access to strategic minerals; equals poverty; equals armed rebellions.