Contrary to the generally considered “successful” mission in Libya, the ongoing international intervention in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the antithesis of a model for humanitarian missions. Though the transition to peace and democracy officially “ended” in 2006, the situation in the eastern part of the central African country continues to deteriorate. Why, despite hosting the largest and most expensive peacekeeping mission in the world, does violence persist in the Congo? This is the central question for Séverine Autesserre, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University, and expert on the Congo. Her new article is published in the most recent issue of African Affairs, and features ethnographic data from a recently completed year-long research trip to the troubled eastern Congo.
Dangerous Tales: Dominant Narratives on the Congo and Their Unintended Consequences takes a unique look at how well-intentioned international policies can actually fuel existing conflict and facilitate new, unintended results. Policy makers, journalists, and advocacy groups benefit from simple narratives used to describe a conflict, yet focusing exclusively on these narrow descriptions produces policies and actions that are detrimental to the over-arching goals: peace and an end to human rights violations. Autesserre uses the example of rape and violence against women to elucidate her argument. Unquestionably, the issue of sexual violence in the eastern Congo requires international attention and action. However, the intense focus on this human rights issue alone not only devalues other pressing concerns, but paradoxically, increases instances of rape. Autesserre explains that the intentional community’s focus on sexual violence has effectively made it a bargaining tool for armed groups wishing to garner attention. If they employ rape in their pillaging, militias can ensure they will receive media coverage and be taken seriously as a contender in the ongoing conflict.
Autesserre’s article is well worth reading for a reminder of the dangers that derive from oversimplifying conflicts. As the international community wrestles with the Responsibility to Protect in Syria, and reflects on advising government rebuilding in Libya and Egypt, they would be wise to examine the Congolese case. Even the most well-intentioned actions can produce unintended consequences.