Smith Human Rights Mission to Congo Reinforces US Support of Critical Kivus Peace Conference
U.S. Rep Chris Smith arrived here Thursday launching a four-day human rights mission that will focus on combating human trafficking, child soldiers and sexual violence while at the same time underscoring US commitment to critical peace negotiations due to convene on January 7, 2008.
"The DRC and the success of its young democracy is a top priority within US foreign policy," said Smith, who is Ranking Member on the House Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health and a Senior Member of the full House Foreign Affairs Committee. "The ongoing conflict in the eastern area of the country severely threatens the newly-elected government. If the new leaders cannot deliver the benefits of democracynamely citizen protection, accountable government and respect for human rightsthe county could easily fall back into the devastating wars that took the lives of more than 4 million people over the decade leading up to the 2006 parliamentary elections," said Smith.
"The Congolese people want and deserve a working democracy. The US has both a humanitarian and a national security interest in helping them attain stability and security in this critical region of Africa. I'm here to reinforce American support for the peace conference and emphasize our long-term commitment to securing universal human rights as the most effective means to obtaining a genuine and lasting peace."
The US is expected to play a significant role in the January 7th conference scheduled to take place in the North Kivu provincial capital of Goma where insurgent fighting has intensified after the 2006 elections. Rebel forces as well as the government military have recently committed some of the worst human rights abuses in the world in this region of Congo. UN peacekeepers in the region have also come under fire for sexually abusing and trafficking Congolese women and young girls in 2004. As Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations, Smith convened a hearing on the sex trafficking abuse issue in Congo and he remains concerned that the UN must continue to aggressively to address this abuse.
"To my dismay and anger I have learned on this mission that the UN is planning on cutting back and downgrading their investigative effort to combat human trafficking by UN personnel," Smith said. "That is unacceptable and I will be working to restore the anti-trafficking investigative positions here in Congo.
"The UN peacekeeping mission in Congo (MUNUCMission de l'Organisation des Nations Unies en Republique Democratique du Congo") is the largest and most expensive UN peacekeeping operation in history," Smith said. "US contributions to the effort top $300 million per year and we have a deep and abiding responsibility to ensure that those sent to establish peace do not become the abuser, exploiting the young girls, they are sent to protect.
"Hundreds of political leaders, parliamentarians, religious leaders and tribal leaders will come together here in Goma next week in an attempt to end the conflict and enable the people of the DRC to move forward with their democracy. The US is a willing international partner and we will continue to work with the new government leadership as it seeks a nation-wide peace and transparent governance for the Congolese people."
Smith, the author of the nation's first anti-trafficking law, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (P.L. 106-386) and its two subsequent reauthorizations, noted that, "The DRC government must do more to combat trafficking and the use of child soldiers in the current conflict." In the latest Trafficking in Persons Report produced by the US State Department in June, the DRC is listed as a "Tier 2" country and is a source country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation with the majority of known trafficking occurring within the unstable eastern provinces.
The most recent reauthorization bill, the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2007 (HR 3887) of which Smith is the lead Republican, passed the House of Representatives last month by a vote of 405-2. This most recent bill includes a prohibition on U.S. military assistance to foreign governments that recruit or use child soldiers. Congressman Smith introduced similar legislation, the Child Soldier Prevention Act of 2006 (HR 5966) in the 109th Congress.
While in Congo, Smith will also be advancing US support for global health initiatives in the region.
"In addition to security, health matters constitute our most important development effort in Congo," said Smith. "The public health system here is near collapse and many preventable infectious diseases are prevalent, notably malaria, HIV-AIDS and tuberculosis. US expertise and money are desperately needed especially in the areas of pediatric care to help reduce suffering and save lives."