Rampant sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo now ranks as the worst in the world. Authorities report twenty-seven thousand sexual assaults in the eastern Congo province of South Kivu in 2006. Humanitarian workers there see no change in the trend this year. The perpetrators include rebel groups, Congolese armed forces, the police, and civilians. “It is even worse than in Rwanda during the genocide,” a Canadian consultant who works with aid groups in the region told the New York Times. Eastern Congo still suffers from the aftermath of its neighbor’s genocide, as well as a late-1990s war that drew troops and mercenaries from eight countries. The scope of violence against women is just one marker of the thorny situation in the country’s eastern provinces, where armed men proliferate amid 17,000 UN troops in blue helmets—the UN’s largest peacekeeping contingent.
Long-simmering conflict in eastern Congo has flared in recent weeks. About 405,000 Congolese have been displaced in the last year, and the UN’s refugee agency estimates the number of displaced persons is about 800,000. A UN representative calls the situation worse (Economist) than Sudan’s Darfur region. At the heart of the fighting are the Congolese armed forces and a rebel group led by Laurent Nkunda, who professes to represent Congo’s Tutsi minority. Earlier this year, Nkunda flirted with a peace deal that would have integrated his group with the army, but the agreement broke down in August. Since then both sides seem to have hardened. “Have we ruled out the possibility of a negotiated solution?” asked President Joseph Kabila. “I don’t know what a negotiated solution is” (Reuters).
A new military offensive by the Congolese army targets (VOA) Nkunda and his forces. Many analysts say this purely military approach is the worst possible option. Instead, the Congolese army and the UN peacekeeping force should work to contain and disarm the militias, says a report from the International Crisis Group. Yet it appears that the UN peacekeeping force will join the Congolese army in directly battling Nkunda; on December 4 a UN force spokesman said the force was ready to “provide fire support” (BBC). Mauro De Lorenzo of the American Enterprise Institute, in recent congressional testimony, warns that this collaboration could result in “greater tragedy” for the region.
Other armed groups further complicate the landscape. Rwandan Hutu rebels roam North Kivu, and the Rwandan government worries that the Congolese government may be backing them. Pressure from the United States resulted in an agreement between the Congolese and Rwandan governments to disarm (New Times) the Rwandan Hutu rebels, but it’s not clear how disarmament will take place. Experts agree that disarmament and reintegration of all eastern Congo’s armed groups is necessary to stabilize the region. Congo has such a program, as discussed in this Backgrounder, but lack of funding has crippled reintegration efforts.
While the outlook for the region appears bleak, U.S. engagement offers a sliver of hope. A U.S.-facilitated mechanism for the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda has allowed security officials to discuss their differences. The American Enterprise Institute’s De Lorenzo says the mechanism is effective and “welcomed by the regional governments, because it allows them to maintain control of the agenda.” An op-ed in Kampala’s Monitor notes its positive influence on Uganda-Rwanda ties. In a meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Addis Ababa on December 5, the group reiterated (VOA) its pledge not to harbor illegal armed groups, and committed to strengthening the DRC’s security institutions.