Remarks by Senator Richard J. Durbin, Voices from the Congo: The Road Ahead The US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Assistant Majority Leader, United States Senate at Voices from the Congo: The Road Ahead
The US Holocaust Memorial Museum

I want to thank Mike Abramowitz for that generous introduction. I also want to thank the co-hosts of this important conference, The US Holocaust Memorial Museum, The National Endowment for Democracy, and The Eastern Congo Initiative. I am particularly honored to share a program with Annie Chebeya and the brave leaders from the Democratic Republic of Congo who are here today.

I have travelled to Congo twice – in 2005 and again in 2010. It is a nation of breathtaking natural beauty, rich in natural resources. It is also a badly broken country, dominated by relentless poverty, war lords, pillaging soldiers, and horrific, almost incomprehensible, violence. The barbaric civil war in Congo is the most lethal conflict since World War II.

More than 1,100 women and girls are raped every day in Congo. That is nearly one woman every minute. That is the worst record of sexual violence of any nation on Earth. The victims are usually raped by several men at a time in front of family members and neighbors. The rapes are often followed by mutilation and torture. Women who survive are often stigmatized and abandoned by their families. Many are shunned because their rapes are so violent they can no longer control bodily functions. This form of sexual terrorism not only mutilates its victims physically and psychologically; it destroys entire families and society itself.

Like Cindy McCain, I have been to the HEAL Africa hospital in Goma and seen the miraculous work they do there to restore health and dignity to survivors of sexual violence. I visited HEAL Africa in 2005, on a trip with Senator Sam Brownback. I went back in 2010, with Senator Sherrod Brown. Dr. Jo Lusi, who founded the hospital with his wife Lyn, said: “I can’t believe you came the first time, but no one ever comes back!”

Dr. Denis Mukwege runs another hospital in Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu province. Panzi Hospital is a one-storey building on a tree-lined, dirt road. It receives about 10 new rape cases a day, every day. And those are only the tip of the iceberg, since most rape survivors never seek treatment. The victims range in age from 2 to 80 years old. Dr. Mukwege says they arrive “broken, waiting for death, hiding their faces.” In a dozen years, Dr. Mukwege and his staff have repaired more than 20,000 of these women and girls. Their work is supported in part by USAID. Dr. Mukwege is sometimes mentioned – deservedly – as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. On his white coat is a badge given to him from a Jewish organization. It is a cry against indifference. It says, “Don’t stand idly by.”

Three years ago, I chaired the first-ever hearing in the United States Senate on the use of rape as a weapon of war. The hearing was held under the auspices of the newly formed Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law. Among our witnesses was Dr. Mukwege. In his testimony, he said we must stop treating only the consequences of sexual violence in Congo and start addressing the root causes.

It’s been said that the Congo war contains “wars within wars” – and that is true. But fueling much of the violence is a bloody contest for control of Congo’s vast mineral resources. The DRC is endowed with more mineral wealth than the rest of Africa combined. Four minerals found in eastern Congo are especially prized: tungsten, tin, gold, and coltan. Coltan, which is crucial for the production of microchips, is so widely used in cell phones that it’s been said that we are all carrying a piece of Congo in our pockets. According to the UN, the minerals trade in eastern Congo is worth more than $1 billion a year. The profits they make through the plunder of Congo’s mineral wealth enable some of the most violent groups to survive.

One year ago, President Obama signed into law the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act. Included in that new law – section 1502 – are requirements that seek to reduce the atrocities connected to conflict minerals. The requirements are simple and modest: Any US company that uses minerals mined in Congo must publicly acknowledge the use of those minerals … and document what measures they are taking, if any, to ensure that they are not purchasing minerals from armed groups or military units and that their trade is not fuelling the conflict. And their statements must be independently audited. Tell consumers the truth and let them decide if they want to buy products made with minerals that finance gang rape and human rights atrocities. Sam Brownback, Russ Feingold and I co-sponsored the bill in the Senate; Jim McDermott and Howard Berman led a similar version in the House. Some have said it’s one of biggest efforts ever to clean up a supply chain. Motorola, based in my state of Illinois, was among a group of forward-thinking electronics companies that helped us get the law passed. It just announced a new project to source conflict-free tantalum – used in the production of coltan — from DRC. The Enough Project has come up with an index measuring the efforts of electronics companies to clean up their supply chains. The index is posted on their website. By enforcing the conflict minerals law, we can make it harder for warlords to buy guns and commit atrocities. And we can help ensure that Congo’s resources are a source of development, not misery, for the Congolese people.

We must make it clear that genocide and torture, two of the serious human rights violations that are a crime under US law, can include wartime sexual violence. At the very least, we must ensure that US tax dollars do not fund state armies that fail to prevent their own forces from engaging in mass rape. In the last Congress, the Senate passed the International Violence Against Women Act. Among other things, the International Violence Against Women Act would spotlight widespread violence against women and girls, such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, by requiring the Secretary of State to develop emergency response plans. This Congress needs to pass it.

As human beings, we all have a responsibility to ensure that the products that make our lives easier and more convenient are not making life unbearable for others. As Americans, I believe we have a special responsibility to do what we can to end the horror in Congo. For decades in the past, we turned a blind eye to conflict and corruption in DRC because we considered it an ally in the Cold War. Today, America is home to the largest end-user companies of conflict minerals.

Every morning, the brave women and girls at Dr. Mukwege’s Panzi Hospital gather to raise their voices in song. They sing, “Our sufferings on earth,” they sing, “will be relieved in heaven.” We have the power to help them know peace and justice in this life. It is our responsibility to use that power. Thank you for working to see that we do.