Foreign Policy Blogs

The Math of Human Rights

Numbers can be a difficult thing.  While statistics can be a powerful form of evidence, they can also be misleading or take a situation out of its proper context.   Human rights organizations like numbers – casualty counts and similar statistics can demonstrate the magnitude of a problem in a way that mere prose cannot.  However, too often the numbers spouted by human rights advocates are taken out of context in order to simplify complex situations.  Doing so helps no one and often obscures the heart of the problem being addressed.

The most recent example is the reaction to a letter released by 84 human rights and humanitarian aid organizations regarding the human cost of the joint military operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to root out the FDLR.  The FDLR has been in the DRC in one form or another since 1994 when they fled Rwanda following the genocide there.  Many of the top leaders of the FDLR are suspected of being top leaders in the genocide as well, making diplomacy between the FDLR and Rwandan government difficult to say the least.  However since 1994, the FDLR has largely limited their brutality to the Eastern DRC.  Despite this, their ongoing presence poses a security threat to Rwanda and a barrier to viable peace in the DRC.  For this reason, this past year has seen an increase in the number of military operations undertaken by Rwanda, the Congolese Army, and the UN peacekeeping mission there (MONUC).  And predictably, both the FDLR and Congolese Army have behaved badly with innocent civilians paying the cost.

Just how badly?  Here is where the numbers come in.  For the 1,071 FDLR combatants that have been disarmed since January, there was 1,143 civilians killed, an estimated 7,000 women raped, nearly 900,000 people displaced, and 6,037 homes burned to the ground.  It is accepted that most of these deaths came at the hand of the FDLR in retribution for the increased military pressure, though some came from the notoriously undisciplined Congolese Army.  Thanks to blogger Texas in Africa who articulated these numbers more succinctly, this works out to 1 person being killed, 7 women being raped, 900 people displaced, and 6 people having their homes burned down for every FDLR combatant who was disarmed.  In this context, they correctly ask “Was it worth it?”  Most of the blogosphere has responded with a resounding “no”, but doing so loses sight of the other part of the equation.  What most of the news commentary on this issue has left out is that in addition to the 1,071 FDLR combatants disarmed, another 1,632 civilian dependents and 10,949 refugees were returned to Rwanda where they can now rebuild normal lives outside of the Congolese jungle.  And while the number of civilians killed in this accounting outnumber the number of combatants disarmed, the unknown “x” factor in this equation is how many civilians will not be killed in the future because 1,071 FDLR fighters are no longer there.

This is where context comes into play.  The FDLR (and the Congolese Army for that matter) were not sitting around doing nothing prior to these military offenses; they frequently kill and rape civilians while also using them as slave labor in various mining activities to fund their own military operations.  It is estimated that over five million people have been killed in the DRC in the last fifteen years.  By no means is the FDLR responsible for all of that, but they have definitely played their part.  As long as they are in the DRC, they pose a significant risk to civilians and some basic human rights of those civilians — such as the right to life and the right to be free of slavery — cannot be secured.  This is true regardless of whether there are military operations being undertaken to get the FDLR out of the DRC.  In this context, the numbers can only tell part of the story.  The attitude of some is that because the FDLR is willing to be this brutal, such operations should not be done as they create humanitarian disasters.  But the truth is that the bulk of the Eastern DRC has been a humanitarian disaster area for years, and the choices now facing the international community is whether a large number of civilians should die today or whether a larger number should be left to die from the same forces over a longer period of time.

No one likes this, but it is what it is.  Of course, this is not a defense of the way the Congolese Army conducted itself in a joint mission with the UN.  The letter released by these humanitarian organizations recognized the complexity of the situation and called for better civilian protections in these operations and stronger military justice for crimes committed by the army.  MONUC agreed to all these points in a press conference called after the letter was released.  However in the media coverage of this event, many of those distinctions have been lost.  Instead, it has been all about the numbers.

A recent editorial in the Christian Science Monitor on the situation in Darfur highlighted the damage that numbers can do when they aren’t put into full context.  The article was titled, “The ‘genocide’ in Darfur isn’t what it seems”; the same could be said for the DRC today.  This is not to diminish the suffering being felt in either location, which is immense, nor the human rights abuses that are being carried out because they certainly are occurring.  But it is a recognition that these are complex situations that will require complex solutions and in the end, numbers can only go so far.



Kimberly J. Curtis
Kimberly J. Curtis

Kimberly Curtis has a Master's degree in International Affairs and a Juris Doctor from American University in Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of The Women's Empowerment Institute of Cameroon and has worked for human rights organizations in Rwanda and the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @curtiskj

Areas of Focus: Transitional justice; Women's rights; Africa

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