Deaths from violence, hunger, and disease in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) over the past dozen years now likely exceed six million, with no end in sight. Violence against civilians in the region has persisted since 1998, with the outbreak of fighting in the Congo involving numerous states and agendas. Because of its magnitude and horror, this conflict is often called Africa’s first "world war." The 1999 Lusaka Cease Fire Agreement--signed by Angola, Congo, Rwanda, Namibia, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe--ended fighting among nations, but not violence perpetrated by residual elements. As a result, millions of non-combatants continue to be displaced and killed; most of the formal economy and infrastructure has been destroyed; and hunger and disease are rampant.
While Western governments have not ignored the eastern Congo tragedy (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Goma as recently as December), media attention has been more focused recently on Sudan, Somalia, and Guinea. Hence, Nicholas Kristof’s recent series in the New York Times profiling ongoing violence in eastern Congo against civilians, especially women, is an important wake-up call about this continuing humanitarian disaster.
The current round of violence dates from January 2009, following a rapprochement between the DRC and Rwanda. With logistical support from the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC), the two governments joined forces to purge the eastern Congo of a Hutu rebel group, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), which seeks to overthrow the Rwandan government.
Like rebel groups and other irregulars, members of the FARDC also appear to use rape to terrorize and control the local populations, a reason why violence against women is so ubiquitous.
Despite two campaigns, efforts to rein in the FDLR have largely failed, and Rwandan troops have returned home. The current fighting is among a shifting kaleidoscope of Rwandan Hutu opponents of Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s government, elements of the Congolese army, and local militias ostensibly defending their turf against all-comers. In a huge territory largely outside the control of the Kinshasa government, there is also widespread criminal and warlord behavior. Underpinning the violence often is a struggle to loot the region of its abundant natural resources.
Since 1999, the MONUC has been the principal international presence in eastern Congo. Its mandate includes protection of civilians and the disarmament and demobilization of combatants. MONUC is now the UN’s largest peacekeeping mission, with a budget of almost $1.35 billion and over 20,509 uniformed personnel and support staff. It has assisted with the demobilization and repatriation of thousands of ex-combatants back to Rwanda, and with the demobilization and reintegration of thousands more into the Congolese army.
However, MONUC’s civil protection mandate is hampered by a lack of resources. Its numbers are drawn from a variety of countries including a significant African contingent. In addition, by the end of 2009, it had deployed only 2,050 of its 3,085 newly authorized personnel.
Equipment is similarly sparse. At the close of 2009, there was one Belgian C-130 aircraft and two helicopters from Uruguay. Both countries have also recently pledged an additional helicopter each. There have been no pledges toward MONUC’s request for an additional C-130 transport and fourteen utility helicopters, as of the end of 2009. Shortages of helicopters and transport aircraft have limited MONUC’s flexibility and rapid-reaction capability. The vastness of the eastern Congo results in MONUC’s personnel being so thinly stretched that it is unable to effectively carry out its protection mandate.
[MONUC] should seek increased personnel, including from other African countries. Better-trained and French-speaking officers are especially needed.
Furthermore, with little formal government authority in place, and with the DRC only slowly emerging from failed-state status, there is a culture of impunity with respect to violence against civilians. The Armed Forces of the DRC (FARDC) are ostensibly charged with maintaining security. But soldiers are often untrained, undisciplined and unpaid. Some are also former rebels who have been integrated into the official armed forces as part of an earlier peace agreement, but maintain loyalty to outside groups or warlords.
Like rebel groups and other irregulars, members of the FARDC also appear to use rape to terrorize and control the local populations, a reason why violence against women is so ubiquitous. Some non-governmental organizations have charged that MONUC’s supporting role in various FARDC operations made it complicit in some of those crimes. When the UN Security Council renewed MONUC’s mandate in December 2009, it reiterated that civilian protection and humanitarian assistance takes precedence over its other activities. At the same time, DRC President Joseph Kabila issued a "zero tolerance" policy toward human rights abuse committed by FARDC personnel.
MONUC should evaluate its personnel and equipment needs in light of its civilian protection mandate. It should seek increased personnel, including from other African countries. Better-trained and French-speaking officers are especially needed. For its part, the Obama administration should urge committed donor countries to fulfill pledges already made to MONUC in a timely manner and seriously consider increasing its own. It should then take the lead in approaching the donor community to provide the additional resources required.
Given the weakness of the DRC’s central government as well as Rwanda’s inability to defeat the FDLR, it is unlikely that either government can do much more on the ground. This reality complicates Western and African diplomatic pressure on the two states to hold accountable their nationals involved in violence against civilians. Nevertheless, notorious perpetrators of crimes against civilians do fall into official hands from time to time, and MONUC and FARDC efforts to bring them to a speedy trial should be supported. The international community must continue to insist to Congo and Rwanda that a culture of impunity with respect to violence against civilians is intolerable, and that the guilty are held accountable.