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Pope’s visit to South Sudan and Congo shines light on suffering, need for international action

Pope Francis
AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia
Pope Francis on a wheelchair talks to Congolese Prime Minister Sama Lukonde, right, as he arrives in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023 to start his six-day pastoral visit to Congo and South Sudan where he’ll bring a message of peace to countries riven by poverty and conflict.

The visit of Pope Francis and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby to South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo this week presents a unique opportunity to shine a spotlight on some of the most intense human suffering on earth. Given their staunch advocacy for peace and human rights, the visit has the capacity to galvanize forces for reform inside and outside these strife-torn countries.

“Strife-torn” may be too mild a concept to describe what has transpired in these two countries over the past few decades.

The deadliest conflict globally since World War II has been fought in eastern Congo since the mid-1990s, and despite multiple peace agreements and peacekeeping forces, the violence in the east remains catastrophic. South Sudan is the world’s newest country, and it may also be its most dysfunctional, landing at the absolute bottom of most indicators of social progress and human security.

The U.S. and the international community have poured massive resources into both countries, primarily in the form of humanitarian aid, peacekeeping missions, electoral assistance, and governmental capacity building support. The reality is that neither country is much better off after billions of dollars of aid have now been expended. 

Perhaps the main reason for this lack of significant progress — despite good intentions — is the difficulty in addressing what may well be the core driver of human suffering in these two countries: the violent kleptocratic systems at their centers. In both countries, grand corruption and massive repression are not anomalies or byproducts of government, they are the operating system. Governing institutions have been hijacked by kleptocratic networks and repurposed for private enrichment. And with extraordinary natural resource wealth in both countries, the opportunities for mass looting are legion.

The pope and archbishop have been strong advocates of social justice and addressing root causes. Given that lens, it is critical to not let this moment of light pass without spotlighting options for confronting the kleptocratic systems in both countries more directly. Any chance of real change would have to involve altering the very incentive structure that at present dramatically favors violence, looting, and anti-democratic governance.

Dramatically increasing support to local networks battling against the kleptocratic systems would be an essential first step. Civil society organizations in the DRC and South Sudan carry out David versus Goliath missions daily at great personal and organizational risk, pressing for clean elections as well as accountability for human rights abuses and corruption. Finding ways to enhance their capacities, impact, and reach would be a force multiplier for reform. 

However, local civil society organizations have real limits on what they can do about the massive ongoing theft of state resources in both countries. It is incumbent upon governments around the world to help create real consequences for financial crimes and human rights crimes. The U.S. government can lead in this regard by introducing — with allies — an escalating set of financial pressures aimed at disrupting kleptocratic networks, creating consequences for rights abuses, providing leverage for good governance, and promoting clean electoral processes.

Policymakers can utilize lessons learned — both positive and negative — from other crises in which financial pressures have been a primary tool of policy, such as Russia/Ukraine and Iran. Two critical policy instruments that should be utilized in DRC and South Sudan are targeted network sanctions and anti-money laundering advisories. When deployed together, kleptocratic networks can be shut out of the international financial system, creating a real consequence for the destruction for which they are responsible in both countries.

The pope and the archbishop will not get into policy details. They will leave that to governments and other civil society actors. But their message of peace and human dignity should be heeded, and hopefully will inspire governments, banks, multilateral organizations, and others with influence to use that leverage much more robustly to arrest the ongoing hemorrhaging of human life in the DRC and South Sudan. 

John Prendergast is co-founder of The Sentry, an investigative and policy organization that seeks to disable multinational predatory networks that benefit from violent conflict, repression, and kleptocracy.

Tags Africa Archbishop of Canterbury Corruption Democratic Republic of the Congo DRC Human rights Humanitarian aid Justin Welby Kleptocracy Peacekeeping Political repression Pope Francis Pope Francis South Sudan South Sudanese Civil War

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