Feingold: Rare Piece Of Good News Comes Out Of Congo

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, leaders of the once-powerful rebel group M23 announced they are giving up their insurgency. Renee Montagne talks to the U.S. Special Envoy to Congo Russ Feingold about the hopeful signs that peace may come to the eastern part of the country after decades of war.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

There's been some welcome news this week for the Democratic Republic of Congo: The military commander of a once-powerful Congolese rebel group surrendered today. This comes just two days after his M23 movement announced it was giving up its insurgency. The group is one of several factions in a long-running conflict notorious for massacres, widespread rape and the use of child soldiers. The fighting, along with disease and malnutrition caused by the chaos, has left millions dead.

Former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold is the State Department's new special envoy to the region. He was just there, and may return soon. We reached him in England.

Thank you for joining us.

RUSS FEINGOLD: Well, it's a pleasure, and this is promising news coming out of the Great Lakes region of Africa. It's only one aspect of a very complicated and really horrific problem. But it's a rare piece of good news, and I'm pleased that we can at least help make this happen.

MONTAGNE: In fact, something very unusual happened that might have implications for the rest of Africa, and that is that the soldiers - the Congolese soldiers who have long had a bad reputation themselves for pillaging and raping, I mean, for mistreating their own people, actually performed very well in this instance. And they performed well with U.N. peacekeeping forces, who also don't have a great reputation for getting into the fight.

FEINGOLD: That's right. There have been some efforts made in Congo to upgrade and improve the command that they have in their military and other reforms. I think there's increased confidence. I will say that we would have to be absolutely sure that, at this point, there are no reprisals by the Congolese military, that none of the things you've just described occur in this context. In terms of the military advance, it was effective.

But it's so important to realize that a military solution to this problem, as effective as this was, is not the solution. There are dozens of armed groups. There are very difficult issues of ethnic tensions in the region. And that's why the main issues between these countries have to be resolved in the context of what's called the Framework Agreement.

That is a U.N. and African Union-sponsored agreement signed by 11 nations in the region. And the special envoys are trying very hard to get a broader political dialogue to come after dismantling the M23. We all know that this is only the beginning, not the end, of trying to solve the problems of Eastern Congo.

MONTAGNE: Well, along with the dialogue, what about some sort of punishment? That is, war crimes have been committed in this region. Is this the moment to start bringing those commanders and those responsible to court?

FEINGOLD: Correct. Yes, some of the individuals in M23 are certainly guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. These individuals should be getting no amnesty. What's happened in the past, in order to just stop a rebellion, the Congolese government cut a secret deal that gave full amnesty to some of these actors who keep coming back. That cannot happen this time.

And I don't believe it will happen this time, because the agreement that I hope is signed in a few days in Kampala will prohibit amnesty for those who have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.

MONTAGNE: Let me ask you about, for Americans, what is the strategic interest that the Congo has?

FEINGOLD: You know, this area has tremendous strategic interest for the U.S. First of all, the fact that five to six million people have died in a situation like this is an unspeakable things that should offend all Americans. But it goes beyond that. When you have areas like this, huge areas where there's no real governance, there are lots of groups that like to exploit it. You know, it's not far away from this region that the Al-Shabab attacked a mall in Nairobi.

In addition, this area has some of the best natural resources in the entire world. Your iPhone, that iPhone couldn't operate without the kinds of minerals that are coming from that region, more than any other place in the world. Unfortunately, this area has been exploited by colonial powers and others to take those resources out of that area and not make sure the people of the region benefit.

And we can develop a very positive group of allies and friends if we show a willingness to make sure that the people of those countries get to keep their own resources, instead of having them stolen, as has been done in the past.

MONTAGNE: Senator, thank you very much for joining us.

FEINGOLD: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: That was Russ Feingold, former Senator and now special envoy to the Great Lakes region of Africa and the Congo.

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