The student-led movement to end mass atrocities.

“Treat the Disease Not Just the Symptoms”: Current intervention efforts in DR Congo could benefit from genuine civilian protect

The Fall 2009 Pledge2Protect conference held in Washington DC was off the hook; I have never been more proud of STAND. I was able to understand so much material, digest many perspectives and in the end left very educated, challenged and encouraged.

Naturally, the material about DR Congo stood out to me. Starting with the introductions through the detailed sessions to examining the role of the international community, I couldn’t help but think of how big a task we still have ahead of us. Having listened to two formerly high-level officials speak about attempted interventions in Congo, my focus in this blog is on the international community’s role, past mistakes and necessary future steps. The speakers’ names will not be used for purposes of privacy, and some of the material is the writer’s opinion.

One former worker on the USAID project in DR Congo said that he thouht that the international community could be more serious with intervention projects. He assesses that while the current Congolese government is weak and in need of external help, the help being offered is often half hearted, delayed or aimed at the wrong targets. He said that we would need to dig deeper than the obvious symptoms of the war, like rape victims and deaths, and so while caring about these, also aim to deal with underlying structural weaknesses, which if they aren’t worked upon, will continue to undermine any progress, including the ‘best laid’ plans like MONUC.

Another speaker, a Congolese national who has also served in the US Army, noted the lack of sustainability of the peace operations, including those from NGO’s. Using an example of a rape victim whose fistula gets treated, goes back to the village and returns 3 months later with an even worse injury, he makes the point that we are treating symptoms and not the disease. There is urgent need to not only deliver immediate needs like health care and food, but also to disband the rebels and destroy their footing which enables them to repeat their atrocities. This footing is, most prominently, the minerals which provide constant income from ‘cash in briefcase’ transactions with international dealers and corporations. This speaker echoed the sentiment projected by most members with firsthand experience, that time has come to stop proclaiming empty ideals and signing meaningless contracts; if we are going to denounce ‘blood minerals’, we need to stop buying them, corporations need to ensure they aren’t fuelling conflict and we, consumers, need to lobby and pressure our governments to make only meaningful and not manipulative interventions in disadvantaged countries.

A third speaker, associated with the ENOUGH project asserted that according to his assessment, the MONUC operation was never built to succeed. He echoed his colleagues’ view that the capable countries are doing more containing than resolving of the conflict. He compares the number of soldiers sent to DR Congo to those sent to a much smaller Bosnia and concludes that it is very obvious which of the two conflicts is a priority to the USA and UN and which one they are engaged In just so that the public can stop blaming them for indifference.

Between 1991 and 2004, USA spent about $15b in Bosnia, over $13b of this going to military activities. Today however, the USA boasts of covering only almost one third of the almost $1b annual UN military budget in DR Congo, which is over 100 times bigger than Bosnia. It took about 17,500 troops to bring relative peace to Sierra Leone which is 1/32 the size of the Congo, where MONUC started with just 5,500 . DR Congo could use about 100,000 well equipped troops who have taken time to understand what they are dealing with, not desperate troops from poor countries who are seeking not ideological satisfaction and human protection, but a chance to earn a little more on a UN mission than they could have in their home military operations. Then we would see less events like the October 2003 Ituri massacre, near which stood 8 helpless MONUC personnel.

In the end I was left with this question; being well aware of the current global system where capable countries are only going to intervene for strategic purposes, where do we look next for a solution, beyond pushing these very countries to intervene and end humanity’s plights? David Gibbs noted in his book that the first time USA went to DR Congo, they wanted the uranium they dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Belgium, the then colonial master, unlike Congolese nationals, benefitted from the deal), The next time they came, they helped to assassinate Congo’s only could have been independent leader, Patrice Lumumba in 1961. They followed this up by financially propping Mobutu to make sure he wouldn’t join the communists, and today, when mineral corporations are benefiting from Congo’s constant chaos, the USA is ‘working hard’ at countering many surface problems, and ignoring the deep ones, most which have roots in the 1994 Rwanda genocide upon which the West initially looked with indifference. The task ahead of us is huge: how do we start to turn the tables and care about what really matters? What is the magic concoction of attitudes and actions that will help us elevate human life and freedom above profits and prestige? When will we stop doing lip service and containing symptoms and start taking action and resolving conflicts?

And when will the international community begin to treat the disease instead of merely struggling to address the symptoms?

Sharon Muhwezi,
DR Congo education coordinator,
Dartmouth College.

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