While the civil war in Syria continues to grab headlines, prompting some in the international community to call for immediate intervention, another major conflict, displacing thousands of civilians, rages in Central Africa. Despite the rising number of refugees and internally displaced persons, as well as the reports of massive human rights violations being committed against the local population, the ongoing struggle in the Democratic Republic of Congo has not received the attention warranted of the two-decade battle.
The DRC, which has been riddled by war since the 1994 Rwandan Genocide spilled across its borders, posts a reported death toll of over 5 million since 1998 and remains the most deadly conflict since World War II. Despite numerous peace agreements between the government, foreign states and the multitude of rebel militia groups, the eastern provinces of the DRC have seen little peace over the last 20 years. This year is no different.
In April, soldiers that were integrated into the Congolese army as a result of a March 23, 2009 peace agreement between the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) and the DRC government, mutinied in protest that the government had not held its end of the bargain. Since that time, M23, as they are now known in reference to the March 23rd agreement, have carved out a rogue state just north of the capital city of Goma, on the border of both Ugandan and Rwanda.
The leader of this rebellion, General Bosco Ntaganda, is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of recruiting and using child soldiers, war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Ituri region of northeastern Congo from 2002-2003. It is speculated that the DRC’s attempt to arrest Ntaganda led to the mutiny. He has since joined forces with another rogue commander, also formerly of the CNDP, Colonel Sultani Makenga.
However, this renewed fighting is only the latest chapter in what has become a dangerous and lawless land, where sexual violence is so common that some studies show a staggering 400 thousand women raped during 12-month periods.
So what is the international community’s response to such atrocities?
Over the summer, a U.N. report surfaced implicating Rwanda in not only aiding the rebels, but in initiating the conflict from the start. Rwanda has denied the accusations, but several countries have significantly cut funding to the tiny nation, including the U.S., Germany, the Netherlands and most recently the EU, Rwanda’s largest aid donor. This week, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, called for Rwanda to publicly denounce the rebel group, which it has thus far failed to do.
In addition, while the U.N. has supplied a large number of troops to the area through the peacekeeping mission in the DRC, labeled MONUSCO, the actual soldiers on the ground is almost 2,000 less than the mandate for the mission and provides just one soldier for every 130 square kilometers. This is simply not a large enough force to control the vast land mass of a country approximately the size of Western Europe.
At the heart of the conflict in the Congo — especially in the eastern provinces — is the resource rich land which holds seemingly limitless amounts of tin, gold, tantalum, zinc, copper and cobalt. Many of these resources are surfacing, as they are used in electronics such as smart phones and laptops, which unknowing consumers utilize in everyday life. Control of these mines fuel conflict between militia groups, foreign governments and the DRC itself.
The U.S. has attempted to address the use of conflict minerals from the DRC through section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act, which requires companies to “make public disclosures regarding their use in the products they manufacture of conflict minerals that originate from the DRC or an adjoining country.” But even they have recognized the difficulties in addressing the grave war crimes committed on a daily basis.
So what is the world community to do?
First, while inquiries and arrest warrants by the International Criminal Court look good in the form of public statements, only three arrests and one conviction have occurred for the entirety of the war. The massive mandate of the court itself is simply unable to tackle the problem of bringing to justice the constant perpetrators in this war-torn region. The court must exam violations in all states that are signers to the 1998 Rome Statute. The ICC does not possess the staff, budget or capacity to address all of the violators in the Congo with so many other violations occurring worldwide. This spawns a pattern of militia groups just promoting the next in line when one of their leaders is arrested, as was the case with General Ntaganda stepping into the lead role when his mentor, Thomas Dyilo Lubanga was arrested by the court in 2006. A more case specific organization, such as the ad hoc tribunals established for the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda, needs to be considered.
Second, the failures of the Congolese state itself must be addressed in order for a permanent peace to be established and followed. The DRC has a record of rarely paying its soldiers, who consequently possess little motivation to maintain security in the country and often turn to human rights abuses themselves, such as looting and slavery, to generate income. Transparency International places the DRC near the bottom of its annual corruption perception index, with a score of 2 out of 10 and falling. Without a plan to end government corruption, increase the funding for security and encourage lasting development, the DRC will simply continue its pattern of war and poverty indefinitely.
Finally, the international community must ensure that interference from neighboring nations ceases. The current accusations stem from a long and well-document history of meddling in the Congo by neighboring countries to exploit vast minerals illegally. How can the Congo fix itself when it behooves neighboring nations to continue the fighting so they can access the resources under the mask of a civil war?
It is clear that this issue cannot be fixed by the DRC internally and that the U.N. Mission — which has been operating since 1999 — is not sufficient. The mandate of the International Criminal Court only starts in 2002, which means that many of the perpetrators of horrific crimes do not fall under the court’s jurisdiction. The violent offenders often continue to walk among those they tormented. Simply denouncing actions and cutting aid will not bring peace. The establishment of a permanent international committee designed to work with all facets of the conflict is required. Without further assistance, it appears the Congo will be left to its fate, which does not bode well for its 70 millions inhabitants.
While human rights violations on a massive scale should be motivation enough for increased intervention, unfortunately that is not always the case. However, the growing need for the minerals used by the international community should spark an interest in creating and maintaining the peace in the region. Hopefully leaders realize this need sooner rather than later.