The reports of suppression of Internet accounts began with a report by Jeune Afrique on December 1, 2012. Facebook had suspended the pages of leaders of the Congolese political/rebel movement, Mouvement du 23 Mars (M23/CRA), citing complaints from the NGO “Friends of the Congo,” based in Washington, DC.
Jeune Afrique quoted a spokesperson. “I cannot understand that the rebels who have displaced populations and which were responsible for many atrocities against civilians can have a Facebook page,” said Kambale Musavali. Jeune Afrique alleged that the NGO was one of several groups responsible for a social media campaign on Twitter and Facebook to suspend M23’s access to social media.
On January 3, 2013, the US Treasury Department leveled sanctions on two DRC militant groups for “Using violence against children and contributing to the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.” M23 was added to the sanctions list along with the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR). The FDLR is led by Rwandan Hutus who were involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. There are at least two dozen militias operating in eastern Congo.
It seemed that while M23 was winning on the battlefield against both the FDLR and the regular Congo Army (FARDC), and had gained recognition by the African Union as a partner in peace negotiations, they had lost the social media and Internet public relations battle.
On January 9, 2013 the web addresses of the M23–M23mars.org and www.soleildugraben.com— were suspended by Hostmonster.com after company learned that M23 was on the Specially Designated Nationals List (SDN). SDN is a publication of the Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC ), which lists individuals and organizations with whom United States citizens and permanent residents are prohibited from doing business.
The guilt or innocence of the entities on the sanctions list is not the issue in this discussion, and will be debated for decades to come. International and regional courts are in place to pass judgment or offer exoneration.
However, the issue of freedom of expression and communication is worthy of discussion, and it involves an understanding of the sanctions process and lobbying pressures.
Questions and More Questions
If it all sounds confusing, well it is. In this case, the timeline is critical, unsettling, and directly affects each and every American who is concerned about free speech on the Internet and lobbying by tax exempt organizations promoting a foreign agenda on American shores. If Americans do not stay well-versed in foreign policy, they risk having their voice co-opted by proxy groups for foreign governments.
The narrative promoted by the NGO cited by Jeune Afrique involved US Congressional hearings–costing up to $125,000 each on the taxpayers’ dime.
There are additional questions about the Obama administration’s continued reliance on the legislative tool known as the Executive Order. Executive orders are nothing new in the history of the Republic. It is not a malevolent process. Abraham Lincoln used one to quell an insurrection in Louisiana in 1862, but the process has never been without controversy. By a stroke of the pen the Chief Executive can sign an action into law with no input by Congress and by extension, the American people.
In the case of the conflict in Congo, President Obama quietly renewed a controversial Executive Order written by President Bush in 2006. Executive Order 13413 “Blocks the property of certain persons contributing to the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.” The complete text and subsequent revisions can be found in the Homeland Security Digital Library, along with dozens of other executive orders implemented by Bush under broad powers assumed after 9/11.
Who determines that events unfolding in the Democratic Republic of Congo are a direct threat to the “foreign policy of the United States?” What criteria did the State Department and Treasury use to put M23 on the punitive SDN/OFAC list?
In this particular case, is the sanctions list a legitimate protection of US foreign policy? Or, is the sanctions list a sop thrown to the United Nations by the United States as a consolation prize after the US refused to sign a United Nations treaty on telecommunications and the Internet in December–a treaty which would lead to globalized control of the Internet and suppression of free speech?
The timeline is illustrative and might raise a few eyebrows.
May-June 2012: The Leaks
Calling themselves the M23, members of the Congolese army (FARDC) mutinied in April 2012 because of claims of poor treatment and lack of food and pay. They demanded that the Congolese government honor the Goma Peace Accord of March 23, 2009, which was signed following the arrest of their former leader, General Laurent Nkunda. Part of the peace accord involved integration of Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) troops into FARDC.
In May and June, international media including the BBC and the New York Times began reporting a “leaked” memo from the U.N. Stabilization Mission in the Congo (MONUSCO). The memo claimed that Rwanda was secretly supporting the M23 rebel movement. From that point on leaks from the United Nations Group of Experts (GoE) Report flowed faster that the River Nile amid vehement denials from Rwanda. Rwandan foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo rejected the accusations and claimed the expert panel had been “hijacked” by the political biases of its coordinator, Stephen Hege.
Rwanda hired a law firm to compile a rebuttal and you can read it here.
The Disputed Report
Some consider the GoE findings the Gospel truth, while others have criticized the report as sloppy and riddled with demonstrated bias by its chief author, Hege.
The most egregious charge against the document is that its principal coordinator authored a paper in which he demonstrated clear bias in favor of the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide (FDLR).
Eventually a global narrative evolved that pinned the blame for the failure of the Congo state on neighboring nations. Cuts in foreign aid to Rwanda by the UK and the United States followed with no challenge from the international press, which accepted the GoE findings with no independent analysis.
Even before the emergence of M23, the UK government was having to justify its foreign aid policy in the wake of severe austerity cuts. The British press continues to rail against aid to developing countries when so many Britons are seeing their public services and welfare benefits slashed.
In the US, the GoE findings became a potent political weapon against Susan Rice during speculation that Obama would name her as his next Secretary of State.
In Dr. Clark’s op-ed, Rice, Bill Clinton, Andrew Mitchell, David Cameron and Tony Blair became “lightning rods” for criticism in the wake of the GoE report.
When asked directly in email and phone conversations during the preparation of this article about proof beyond the GoE Report that M23 has engaged in atrocities, a spokesman for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence in The Department of the Treasury cited “an abundance of evidence” against M23 and the FDLR that “has been vetted extensively.” Obama’s Executive Order gives Treasury the authority to impose sanctions while following consults with interagency partners such as the State Department.
In this case, “M23 combatants Baudoin Ngaruye and Innocent Kaina are being designated for their involvement in the recruitment and use of child soldiers in the conflict in the DRC and for being leaders of a group that is impeding the disarmament, repatriation, or resettlement of combatants,” the spokeman said in an email.
A State Department Press Officer offered the partial statement that “The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and M23 are being sanctioned for serious violations of international law, including the targeting of children in situations of armed conflict, killing and maiming of children and civilians, sexual violence, abductions, and forced recruitment.”
Neither agency offered specifics beyond the GoE Report, but they were helpful in explaining the process. Nor would either agency comment of the possibility of illegal lobbying by the NGO.
On January 15, a group called “Scholars Are Eastern Congo” sent an Open Letter to Ban-Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the UN, urging that that the United Nations consider bias inherent in the GoE report.
September 28, 2012-The Lobbying Effort Against Rwanda, a Congressional Hearing, and the Tax Exempt Group
Voters can use the ballot box if they don’t agree with the actions of an elected administration, but voters must rely on federal oversight to protect them from tax fraud and illegal lobbying.
Section 188.8.131.52 (Lobbying Activities) of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Code prohibits tax exempt organizations from “carrying on propaganda” or “otherwise attempting to influence legislation.”
This may include direct lobbying by the organization to influence legislators, or grassroots campaigns in which the organization “urges members of the public to contact legislators for, or in opposition to, or to propose, some piece of legislation.”
Based upon this criteria, the Washinton DC-based “Friends of the Congo (FOC),” mentioned in the Jeune Afrique report, may have some explaining to do to the IRS.
In a September Facebook post, FOC National Spokesperson and Youth Leader Kambale Musavali urged almost 3,000 followers to specifically lobby Congresspersons Chris H. Smith (R), Jeff Fortenberry (R), Tom Marino (R), Ann Marie Buerkle (R), Robert Turner (R), Karen Bass (D), Russ Carnahan (D), and Theodore E. Deutch (D).
Musavali, who was born in Congo, provided direct access phone numbers to the Congressional offices and a “script” that urged participants in his lobbying campaign to weigh in on the hearing, “Examining the Role of Rwanda in the DRC Insurgency.”
The US government should fully implement section 105 of Public Law 109-456 (The Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief Security and Democracy Promotion Act) by withholding aid from Rwanda and exploring other means of accountability for Rwanda’s aggression against the Congolese people.
Is this a violation of US tax law? The IRS is looking at it and we have filed an inquiry using Form 13909, as suggested.
Invoking the OFAC sanctions process and demanding suspension of internet access to the M23, the FOC Spokesman said, “The US Ambassador to the United Nations should explore ways in which targeted sanctions can be levied against individuals in the Rwandan regime identified by the United Nations Group of Experts (GoE) as having supported rebels in the Congo, and that the President should consider adding to his Executive Order 13413 the Rwandan military officials identified in the UN Group of Experts report….”
Then the Spokesperson provided a link to the 2006 Bush Executive Order 13413.
This demonstrated very sophisticated knowledge of US law implemented after 9/11, and was used to influence Congress.
Do we have the moral authority to suspend free speech to a rebel/army revolutionary movement in another country now in active peace negotiations with the African Union?
October 24, 2012- Obama Signs Extension of Executive Order 13413
Just weeks after the Congressional hearing and the lobbying by the NGO, Obama signed a Continuation of the 2006 Executive Order 13413.
The door was opened for the OFAC sanctions.
United Nations Sanctions Follow
On November 21, 2012, the UN Security Council slapped its own sanctions on the M23 Congo rebels. The Huffington Post summed it up in a news item.
The council demanded that the M23 rebels withdraw from Goma, disarm and disband, and insisted on the restoration of the crumbing Congolese government authority in the country’s turbulent East. The resolution adopted imposes targeted sanctions, including a travel ban and assets freeze, on the M23 rebel group leadership.
Treasury Sanctions and a Warning
On January 3, 2013, Treasury leveled its own sanctions, including a scary warning to US citizens. “As a result of today’s action, U.S. persons are prohibited from providing any support to M23 and the FDLR. Additionally, any assets of the designated entities within U.S. jurisdiction must be frozen. ”
Even as a journalist, I was concerned enough to seek reassurance that the mere writing about the sanctions, timelines, lobbying and disputed reports would not land me in trouble–sobering thoughts for an American citizen to have. Could I still interview members of the M23 to get their side of the story?
What About the People of Congo?
The bottom line is that stability in Congo is totally dependent on the UN peacekeeping force, MONUSCO, which at an annual cost of $1.3 billion has so far failed to make a difference. MONUSCO itself been accused of rape and sexual abuse.
The Congolese army also continues to be a predatory force, but no sanctions have been leveled against Congo or the UN. “The Congolese Army– poorly led and rarely paid–will continue to be a predator to, rather than a protector of, the population.”
What prevents any entity, foreign or domestic, from pointing the finger at anyone of us?
Do we stand afraid to speak up that we may end up on a “list?” In these times of instant news and social networking, losing access to an evolving communications platform can be as effective as the medieval practice of cutting out a person’s tongue.
Tuesdya, 15 January 2013
Note: We contacted the offices of Reps. Tom Marino, Karen Bass and Chris Smith asking for data on how many calls they received (if any) on the lobbying campaign by Friends of the Congo, but have not yet received replies to our emails. Phone contacts led to suggestions
UPDATE — WEDNESDAY, 16 JANUARY 2013: A spokesperson for the website http://soleildugraben.com/ said today that after additional conversations with Hostmonster.com, the legal department decided to reactivate the “soleidugraben” domain. The hosting company cited “technical problems with the script on the website” that are now resolved. Because of the sanctions list, the “M23mars” domain remains closed.