CAPITOL HILL— Actor Ben Affleck has urged members of Congress to push for more U.S. leadership in efforts to bring peace to the Congo. At the same hearing, a top U.S. diplomat said President Barack Obama's administration considers security in the Democratic Republic of Congo to be a top priority.
Hollywood movie star Ben Affleck has visited Congo 10 times and has started an agency to provide relief to civilians in eastern Congo, who have been suffering since M23 fighters rebelled against the government and took control of the region in April. Affleck said Wednesday the latest violence is nothing new for the people of the DRC.
"From 1998 to 2003, eight African nations fought on Congolese soil, causing the deaths of millions, forcing tens of thousands of children to become child soldiers, and in some areas of Congo subjecting as many as two of every three women to rape and other forms of sexual violence," Affleck said.
The United Nations estimates that since the M23 rebellion began earlier this year, nearly 1 million Congolese citizens have been displaced. Some lawmakers at Wednesday's hearing criticized the United Nations peacekeeping forces in the region, and the Obama administration, for failing to end the violence, particularly sexual attacks against women and children.
James Jay Carafano of the conservative Heritage Foundation told the House Armed Services Committee it is time for U.S. policymakers to take a good look at the deteriorating situation.
"Stop doing what is not working. The U.N. peacekeepers have been a failure. Our efforts to reform the Congolese Army have been a failure," Carafano said.
The United States is spending $480 million a year to help the people of the Congo, including training some Congolese army units.
State Department officials say the money is well spent, and that efforts to train the Congolese forces should be expanded. Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson assured lawmakers that the DRC is a priority for the Obama administration.
"The highest levels of the United States government are committed to helping the DRC and the region achieve a sustainable peace," Carson said.
The ranking Democratic member of the House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith, said the DRC has national security implications for the United States.
"We have seen in recent months that Africa is increasingly important in our national security interests, the instability there has given rise to many al-Qaida-inspired insurgencies," Smith said.
Affleck says that U.S. leadership is needed, but he is not asking Congress for more money.
"Resolving the cycle of violence does not necessarily require significant new financial investment by the United States, or U.S. boots on the ground. It does, however, require American political leadership, moral leadership even, to bring the parties together to address the larger sources of instability in the region," Affleck said.
The U.S. Treasury Department has stipulated that any U.S. assets of two M23 rebel leaders be frozen because the group uses child soldiers and targets children in the conflict.