Members of Congress joined human-rights groups in urging the Obama administration to take a tougher stance against Rwanda for backing rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa, said the administration has been “reluctant to criticize the government of Rwanda,” which the United Nations says provides direct support to the M23 rebels that captured the city of Goma in Congo last month.
Smith, at a hearing of his panel yesterday, questioned why the U.S. wasn’t seeking sanctions against leaders of the Rwandan government and appointing a presidential envoy to the region. He said President Barack Obama, as a senator in 2006, pushed legislation advocating “more robust” measures than the administration has provided so far.
The crisis in Congo has killed 5 million people since 1997 and displaced millions more, said Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of African Affairs, who testified at the hearing. Also at stake in the eastern part of Congo, bordering Rwanda and Uganda, are deposits of tin ore, gold, tungsten and coltan, a mineral used in laptops and mobile phones.
As many as 1,000 Rwandan troops crossed the border into Congo to support rebel operations last month in the village of Kibumba, according to a letter from the UN Group of Experts that is monitoring the crisis for the Security Council. Congo and Rwanda have fought directly or by proxy since the late 1990s.
After controlling Goma for two weeks, M23 fighters withdrew on Dec. 1 and remained in a ring around the city, according to the UN.
While the U.S. has been faulted for declining to criticize the Rwandan government explicitly for supporting the M23 rebels at the UN, Carson did so in his testimony.
“A credible body of evidence” points to “significant military and logistical support, as well as operational and political guidance, from the Rwandan government to the M23,” Carson said. “Based on this evidence, we continue to press Rwanda to halt and prevent any and all forms of support to Congolese armed groups.”
The U.S. has cut about $200,000 in military aid to Rwanda. Carson defended the continuation of development aid, saying it has been used effectively to provide food, shelter and medicine.
“Our desire is not to hurt the Rwandan people,” Carson said.
Representative Tom Marino, a Pennsylvania Republican, called the cut in military aid a token gesture and “a drop in the bucket. It doesn’t seem that we’re very serious about this,” he said.
The fighting in Congo, Africa’s second-largest country by geographic area, has left civilians without protection and created a security vacuum.
Lawmakers in Washington were joined by 15 human-rights groups, including Freedom House, Refugees International and the Enough Project. Those groups sent a letter to Obama Dec. 10 calling for the appointment of a presidential envoy and cutting off or suspending all U.S. aid to Rwanda.
“Since the M23 was created in the spring of 2012, U.S. officials continued to place faith in engaging Rwanda in a constructive dialogue,” the letter said. “This approach has clearly failed to change Rwanda’s policy.”