ABC News’ Mary Bruce and Amy Bingham report:
Advocates and government officials joined actor Ben Affleck today in an impassioned plea to Congress for increased government aid to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“In this time of heightened concern over federal spending some suggest that austerity demands we turn a blind eye to the crisis in Congo,” Affleck said to a full crowd at today’s hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee. “I believe nothing could be more misguided. It would simply be a penny wise and a pound foolish to allow the Congo to again fall into a state of crisis or further humanitarian chaos.”
The Academy Award winning actor has teamed up with Cindy McCain, wife of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to highlight the intense suffering of the Congolese people. Affleck’s star power was on full display as the usual calm of the committee room was shattered by a constant hum of camera clicks.
After visiting the country multiple times, Affleck founded the non-profit Eastern Congo Initiative to help form schools and bring medical assistance to victims of sexual abuse. The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the poorest countries in the world and had been plagued by political turmoil since the Rwandan civil war spilled into its borders in 1996. More than 1,100 women and girls are raped every month, 50 percent of which do not have access to medical treatment, according to the State Department.
“Our moral compass is fixed. Our sunrise, our East as a nation, even when we have failed, has always pointed us toward what's right,” Affleck said. “We must be able to look ourselves in the eye and say that we did what our principles demanded. We helped democracy emerge in a place where tragedy was the alternative.”
Affleck urged the U.S. to increase its involvement in the Congo ahead of November’s elections. “The path to stability in today's Congo requires fostering stable elections and preventing another disaster that could easily require hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance,” he said. “I humbly suggest that the US government take a hard look at its current commitment and find a way to do more.”
In a war where women bear an unimaginable brunt of the violence, Francisca Vigaud-Walsh, of the Catholic Relief Services, said that additional support should be targeted to helping women in positions of power.
“We’re at a critical juncture and we’re not seeing women represented, in fact not only are they being sidelined, but they are being cast out of the process,” she said. “If women do not represents themselves and their needs… then who will? We’re not seeing others in the DRC represent their needs”
The panelists called for Congress to appoint a special envoy to coordinate the efforts of NGOs and government agencies working in the country. Ambassador Donald Yamamoto, who also testified, said the United States gives $6.8 billion in assistance to the war-torn nation. NGOs account for 85% of that aid.
“To be able to move that needle away from the status quo, towards action, that’s what you need a special envoy for,” Co-founder of the Enough Project, John Prendergast said.
Looking forward, Prendergast highlighted the importance of breaking the link between mining in the Congo and the use of mass rape, a connection which he said was “crystal clear.”
Quoting advocate Justine Masika, Prendergast explained “the first and foremost priority for ending the war here in Congo is to set up a system to regulate the minerals trade and the upcoming election is the critical window to push the government of Congo on this issue.”
“This is an unparalleled moment of opportunity to make real changes in Congo. The election is the primary internal factor, no question,” he said. “But the United States Congress’ conflict minerals legislation… is the primary external factor and it has created a moment full of uncertainties and anxieties but also of huge opportunities within the country.”