'The Worst Place'

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DECEMBER 31, 2008

'The Worst Place'

The Congo war is killing tens of thousands of people per month and is widely believed to be the world's gravest humanitarian emergency. For that reason alone, we in the West should be doing everything possible to end it. But, in case the people of eastern Congo needed an additional claim on our conscience, they happen to have one: The roots of the current war lie in the Rwandan genocide--perhaps the costliest error of inaction in the recent history of U.S. foreign policy. If we had acted differently in 1994, in other words, Congo might not be suffering now.

That year, after slaughtering 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis over a period of three months, Hutu extremists were chased by their country's new Tutsi-led government into eastern Congo (then called Zaire), where they began launching attacks into Rwanda. In response, Rwanda surged over the border to secure a buffer zone--overthrowing Zaire's government (led by the infamous Mobutu Sese Seko) in the process. This event sucked a total of six nations into a pair of wars within Congo's borders (one from 1996 to 1997, the other from 1998 to 2003) that claimed millions of lives.

Through it all, the Hutu génocidaires--who now call themselves the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda or FDLR--never disappeared from eastern Congo. And so, today, Rwanda's leaders are supporting a proxy army, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), whose brutal leader Laurent Nkunda promises to protect the Tutsi diaspora in Rwanda's old buffer zone, even as he also threatens to topple the Congolese government. That government, now led by the son of the man who overthrew Mobutu, has hurled ineffective waves of its own troops at the CNDP while continuing to nurse the FDLR as a counterweight to both Nkunda and the Rwandans.

The effect of this fighting on civilians has been horrific. When the armies move, they inevitably kill, loot, rape, and abduct--forcing hundreds of thousands to move to refugee camps where they die of malaria, diarrhea, and wounds from sexual assault. The Congolese army, the FDLR, and the CNDP have all adopted systematic rape as a strategic tool. As a Center for American Progress report put it, "eastern Congo right now is perhaps the worst place in the world to be a woman or a girl. The sexual violence and rape exists on a scale seen nowhere else in the world."

Solving eastern Congo's problems will not be simple, but those who study the situation agree that there are concrete steps we could be taking to help. The first, and most important, task is to figure out some way to protect civilians. There are currently 17,000 U.N. troops on the ground in the region. But, despite having a broad mandate that entitles them to use deadly force, these troops have too often stood by while combatants rape and pillage. The U.N. contingent is disorganized (its new commander recently quit after just a few weeks on the job), overburdened, and apparently reticent to fully implement its mandate. This needs to change. The Security Council has called for 3,000 more peacekeepers, and some of our European allies are considering answering the call. The incoming Obama administration should make clear to these allies that the United States backs this effort wholeheartedly and should offer to provide airlift capabilities to support them. And we should insist that the peacekeepers already in Congo begin using any means necessary to protect civilians from assailants on all sides.

Simultaneously, we should signal a serious commitment to ending the conflict by appointing a high-level Congo envoy who will set up permanent shop in the region and lean hard on Rwanda, Congo, and Nkunda to demobilize. The United States has had friendly relations with Rwanda since the genocide; now we must use our diplomatic leverage to tell its leader, Paul Kagame, that he cannot continue to enable the CNDP's campaign of terror. At the same time, Congo must be convinced to call off its brutal, incompetent army and relinquish all support for the FDLR. If necessary, Hillary Clinton or even President Obama should travel to the region to personally deliver these pointed messages to the leaders of Rwanda and Congo.

Finally, some of the 3,000 additional troops slated to arrive in Congo should conduct an operation intended to kill or capture the FDLR's leaders--many of whom are wanted for genocide. This would remove the key irritant to relations between Congo and Rwanda and deprive Nkunda's army of its ostensible raison d'etre. It would also right an historical injustice and send a strong message to all parties that human rights abuses can no longer be committed with impunity.

American officials have spent years apologizing for the failure to stop the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and apologize they should. But even better than apologizing would be something else: taking steps to mitigate the ongoing fallout from that horrific episode and our own failure to stop it. That means doing everything we can to protect the people of eastern Congo, and doing it now.

By The Editors

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