The student-led movement to end mass atrocities.

Conflict Update: October 3, 2018


STAND’s conflict updates come to you from STAND Education Task Force, a group of student experts from across the U.S. dedicated to providing through analysis of STAND’s conflict areas to our grassroots base. This conflict update focuses on international action regarding the Rohingya crisis in Burma and Bangladesh, struggles surrounding Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah and the man-made famine that has ensued, and several tentative ceasefires and peace deals, including in Darfur, South Sudan, and Djibouti.


Southeast Asia


Violence against the Rohingya in Burma continues to contribute to a mass exodus, with the number of refugees in Bangladesh topping 725,000. Even in exile, Rohingya face inhumane conditions as the Bengali government is not able to adequately meet the material needs of the refugees, and insists Burma uphold their agreement to readmit Rohingya refugees. Despite Burma’s expressed intention to comply, the vast majority of Rohingya refugees do not want to return unless they are guaranteed citizenship rights, recognition as a minority group, justice for crimes committed against them, return of their homes and property, and assurance of their security. The Burmese government granted permission for the UN to assess 23 villages “where Rohingyas were allegedly murdered and subjected to attacks, imprisonment and sexual violence at the hands of the Myanmar military.” The investigation will aim to determine the potential dangers associated with return of Rohingya refugees and could be the first step towards repatriation back into Burma.

Last month, two journalists were sentenced to seven years in prison for documenting a massacre of Rohingya Muslims. Their arrest prompted major international uproar, as world leaders condemned Burma’s disregard for freedom of religion and press. Aung San Suu Kyi, a nobel laureate and the de facto political leader in Burma, denied allegations that the arrests violated freedom of expression. In the same speech, Suu Kyi admitted that the plight of the Rohingya “could have been handled better,” but failed to admit to the scope of atrocities committed. Canada has been the latest to publicly condemn Suu Kyi, voting to publicly declare the situation a genocide last month, and stripping Suu Kyi of her honorary Canadian citizenship this week.

The U.S. State Department released a report last week that surveyed over 1,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and documented atrocities in Northern Rakhine State over the past two years. The 20-page report contributes to a growing body of evidence surrounding crimes committed by Burmese security forces, but provides no policy recommendations for the U.S. government.

Sudan and South Sudan


A British delegation visiting Sudan in late September condemned the hastened pullout of the UN-African Union Hybrid Operation (UNAMID) that was halved just 3 months ago. The parliamentarians in the delegation posited that the relative stability in the Darfur region may be disturbed by the withdrawal and that displaced persons still living in camps would likely be negatively impacted. Delegation leader and MP David Drew warned that “Withdrawing too quickly without a clear plan puts the progress made in Darfur at risk.”  

President Omar al-Bashir reduced the number of government ministries from 31 to 21 on September 10 due to economic hardship and a lack of funding. Economists have denounced the move, saying it will have little impact on Sudanese markets. Last month, Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) selected Bashir as its candidate for the 2020 election. Bashir, who has ruled the country since 1993, had previously said he would step down when his current term ends. The International Criminal Court first issued a warrant for Bashir’s arrest in 2009 for crimes against humanity, murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture, rape, war crimes, and three different counts of genocide.

In the wake of governmental uncertainty, violence and natural disaster continue to threaten the lives of civilians. More than 50 people died in a remote part of Jebel Mara when heavy rainfall caused a hill to collapse on a village in mid-September, and, in a rare demonstration of concern, on September 19 the Sudan Liberation Movement-led by Abdel Wahid al-Nur (SLM-AW) declared a three-month ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid to access civilians in affected areas.

South Sudan

On September 12, President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar signed a peace deal in the latest bid to end the civil war. The agreement, which was mediated by Sudan and signed in Ethiopia, formally reinstated Machar as vice president and made plans for a transitional government to be established in the coming eight months.

The peace agreement stems from a preliminary deal drafted in June and negotiations throughout the summer. Machar had previously refused to sign the latest version of the deal in late August due to disagreements over power-sharing mechanisms and the new constitution. In early September, the UN Refugee Agency brought sixteen South Sudanese refugees to the talks to share their hopes and expectations for the peace process.

Large segments of the international community look upon the deal with cautious optimism, as various peace agreements and approximately ten ceasefires have failed in the last five years. In June, for example, a ceasefire was violated just hours after it began. Kiir acknowledged international skepticism in a statement, stressing that doubt would fuel his resolve to consolidate peace. Two days after this statement was issued, however, fighting broke out in Central Equatoria state. The Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangements Monitoring Mechanism announced an investigation in the ceasefire violation on September 14. The inquiry has not yet identified the actors who initiated the violence or discussed potential implications for the peace deal.

The UN Human Rights Commission on South Sudan called for the government to establish a hybrid court to prosecute war criminals on September 17. The Commission heard testimonies of wanton killings and sexual violence that same day and examined food scarcity in the country. On September 19, Amnesty International published a new report based on testimonies of approximately 100 civilians who fled a government-led offensive between late April and early July. Anything that was breathing was killed’: War crimes in Leer and Mayendit outlined shocking cases of unlawful killing of civilians, abduction, sexual violence, detention, looting, destruction, and forced displacement.

Middle East and North Africa


With Yemen’s largest port, Hodeidah, continuing as a battleground in the country’s civil war, humanitarian efforts in the country are rapidly deteriorating. Since July, the Saudi Arabia and UAE-led coalition has intensified the conflict between rebel groups and the Yemeni government in the Hodeidah area, resulting in more than 100,000 civilians fleeing the city. Those who remain live in constant fear of violence. Humanitarian efforts have been reduced as the port is no longer safe for use, placing all Yemenis at risk.

The Hodeidah port is critical to the stability of the Yemeni population, serving as the primary location for the international community to distribute aid during the conflict. The port routinely received food, water, medicine, and other resources before the coalition turned began its campaign in the area.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE first began the initiative to defeat and weaken the Houthi rebels’ control of Hodeidah in 2015, with a coalition of 9 African and Middle Eastern countries, aiming to defeat the Houthis’ challenge to the legitimacy of the Hadi Yemeni government. While the coalition and rebel groups continue to fight, a fundamental issue remains: the safety of the Yemeni people. Since the war started in 2014, 50,000 people have died from the ongoing, and man-made, famine. Nearly 10 million are at risk of famine, half of whom are children. The situation in Hodeidah continues to exacerbate the effects of the ongoing famine, putting the lives of millions more at risk. If a solution is not found, and soon, the entire population will become more susceptible to famine as no food nor aid will enter the country.

In addition to food resources, Yemen must be able to accept medicine and vaccines through their ports in order to fight the growing cholera outbreak. Crumbling water and sanitation sources have cut off clean water for an estimated 15 million people, with The World Health Organization estimating that more than 1 million cholera cases are present in the country.

Horn of Africa

Eritrea and Djibouti

Last weekend, Eritrea and Djibouti underwent a “full normalization” of relations after almost a decade of border disputes between the two nations and multiple failed mediation efforts by neighboring countries and the UN Security Council. Past alterations at the border have cost dozens of Djiboutian lives and have brought diplomatic relations between the two countries to a halt. Many hope that the returning of border land will bring back trade and peace to the region.

Despite the thawing of relations between the two nations, many critics and foreign affairs experts remain skeptical. State Department Assistant Secretary for Africa Tibor Nagy admires the progress that the leaders have made in fomenting regional peace but retains that it is too soon to gauge whether United Nations sanctions imposed in 2009 should be lifted. Furthermore, Eritrea’s authoritarian inclinations continue to strain regional cooperation, with events such as an apparent weapons purchase from North Korea calling into question the country’s commitment to its neighbors.


Ethiopia has continued to take slow steps toward improving civil society by freeing journalists and lifting internet and media restrictions. Rebel groups and famous opposition leaders have returned to Ethiopia amidst the newfound peace.


The United States government is still slowly fighting Al-Shabaab forces in Somalia. Earlier last month, two Al-Shabaab militants were killed by the U.S. military on Somali soil. To date, the government of Somalia has paid over $400,000 to lobby the U.S. to end the ban on travel between Somalia and the U.S.

Two young girls have bled to death after their genitals were forcibly mutilated. Somalia’s Deputy Prime Minister has spoken out against the practice of female genital mutilation, but since an initial push in 2012, the practice has practically remained untouched by policymakers. According to Time, “in Somalia, 98% of women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 have been cut, the highest rate anywhere in the world.”

Ellen Bresnick is a sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and is serving as STAND’s Great Lakes of Africa Coordinator for the 2018-2019 academic year.

Angela Wei Jiang is a sophomore at Columbia University and is serving as STAND’s Horn of Africa Coordinator for the 2018-2019 academic year.

Abhav Soni is a junior at Middleton High School in Madison, Wisconsin, and is serving as STAND’s Middle East and North Africa Coordinator for the 2018-2019 academic year.

Maya Ungar is a junior at the University of Arkansas and is serving as STAND’s Southeast Asia Coordinator for the 2018-2019 academic year.

Isabel Wolfer is a senior at The George Washington University in Washington, DC, and is serving as STAND’s Communications Coordinator and Sudan and South Sudan Coordinator for the 2018-2019 academic year.

Lasting Legacy of Colonization in the DRC

One of the greatest developmental crises of the 21st century has been the mass exploitation and violence that has persisted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) since colonial times. In order to properly understand the institutional deficit that has so visibly stagnated any semblance of development in Congo, it is important to first situate the discussion of Congolese institutions in a historical context. This will be critical in formulating strategies for development, as past institution building and modernization efforts continue to inform the political and economic landscape of the DRC today. This sentiment is echoed by several scholarly studies, including the work of Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson, whose investigations find that in particular, institutions formulated during the colonial period tend to persist to present times and impact current performance of countries. In support of the dependency school of thought, a theoretical framework which holds that poverty in the developing world is tied to exploitation during the colonialist era, these authors find that Europeans developed and promoted exploitative colonial institutions which destroyed human capital and set the stage for the institutional pitfalls that have fallen upon the Global South today. The performance of contemporary Congo, in spheres of policy, economy, and society, is primarily impacted by two interrelated sets of institutions: those developed before and those developed after colonization by Belgium in the nineteenth century.

Prior to colonization, the area that today makes up the DRC was a conglomeration of multiple incorporated states that together made up the Kingdom of Kongo: a centralized, developed state with unique institutions of its own. Records of the region by explorers and through oral tradition suggest that the area was created by the unification of two smaller kingdoms, brought together by their common usage of the Kikongo language, which served as a common language throughout Central Africa. The Kingdom was divided into six provinces, which were incorporated both voluntarily and by coercion. In this arrangement, each province was governed by a noble representative or close relative to the Mani Kongo (king), and the government was primarily set up in order to assure both the protection and relative subjugation of constituents.

The degree of this subordination is a matter of disagreement among historians, as many assert that in most cases, and in particular near the beginning of the kingdom’s creation, incorpo130981-004-41DDEE12ration was carried out through marriage alliances and for the purpose of protection. In any case, the social fabric of relations was remarkably similar to that of Europe during their feudal era, with a rigid, hierarchical structure defining most facets of life and forming the backbone of societal organization. At the most basic level, Kongolese society was organized in a clan-based system, composed of villages inhabited by several large families called kandas who shared a common ancestor. This wide dispersal of local power, running parallel to the absolute authority of the Mani Kongo, allowed for the development of sprawling villages which produced goods such as cloth and palm wine.

The goods produced in these primarily agricultural communities were circulated among family members for consumption, as the land was owned communally and regarded as a public good. As such, harvest was divided and shared among families informally. Excess produce was expropriated by the king through his appointed governors at the head of each province. These governors were responsible both for the application of the rule of law as well as tax collection. This economic system served the dual purpose of meeting the basic human needs of the population, and thus bolstering the legitimacy of the king, as well as providing a substantial stream of revenue which supported the state.

The structuring of pre-colonial Kongolese civilization is relevant to the discussion of present-day institutions for a variety of reasons. First, the rigid social stratification introduced and justified the existence of both formal and informal norms which perpetuated sharp divisions in Congolese society. By situating all economic and political power in the hands of the king and a select few, the feudal organization of the Kingdom of Kongo set into motion stark wealth and representational inequities that persist to this day. This culture of inequality would be important both in European plans for conquest of the region as well as in shaping the culture of the people, embedding a structure of expropriation which would later give way to corruption. Additionally, the centralized structure of Kongo’s society meant that the death of each king brought about intense civil war, as kings were elected and not entitled to the crown through inheritance. This made the country far more susceptible to influence by European colonizers, who were able to leverage internal divisions to their advantage in 1885 with the establishment of the Congo Free State.

The “one-man show” of the Congo Free State, administered entirely under King Leopold II of Belgium, caused what is widely considered to be one of the greatest mass atrocities of the modern era, with an estimated 10 million casualties over the period 1885 to 1908. King Leopold’s unfettered intrusion into the Congo Basin is a main cause of the failed development of the modern DRC state, as his government brought about an utter destruction of human capital and created an exploitative economy which haunts the country to this day. The institutions set up under Leopold’s authoritarian reign exacerbated many of the deficits of the pre-colonial era, magnifying inequalities created under a rigid hierarchical pre-colonial system to an unprecedented extreme, and further solidified underdevelopment in the region. In formulating policy for sustainable development in the Congo, it is absolutely critical to take this history into account.

Due to Belgium’310px-Punch_congo_rubber_cartoons position of relative weak economic and military power amongst its European counterparts, King Leopold sought to consolidate the Congo Free State as a consistent source of revenue for the Crown. He achieved this by partitioning the territory into commercial zones and encouraging European companies to set up industries to extract natural resources while harvesting the most abundant of resources: labor. By forcibly compelling the indigenous population to work in the harvest and production of primary commodities, notably rubber, Leopold set up a system of slave labor designed to transfer wealth from Congo to Europe with no regard for the livelihood of the Congolese.

Leopold’s economic strategy in the Congo Free State is directly responsible for the economic stagnation of the country following independence due to its intensively exploitative nature. By imposing slave labor and introducing a worthless coin to the native population, Leopold destroyed the accumulated wealth of millions of Congolese laborers and brought unprecedented levels of inequality to the region. Long after his withdrawal in 1908, Leopold’s policies continue to impact economic development in Congo because, at their core, by destroying personal wealth they devastated the region’s internal economy and made the country entirely reliant on commodity exports for growth during the independence era. This is only confounded by the fact that exported goods were traded at a value that greatly undercut international prices, leading to commodity dependence that characterizes the region today.

Equally important to the economic ramifications of Leopold’s rule is understanding the political repercussions. In contrast to other European colonies in Africa, the Congo Free State was considered to be Leopold’s personal property, and he was responsible for all decisions that took place in the colony. This is significant in that it shifted political and economic power from a loosely connected Mani Kongo and his accompanying noble class to the hands of a single external actor, destroying the accumulated political capital needed for proper self-government. Due to the colony’s administration as a personal project, there was absolutely no investment in human capital and governmental infrastructure, both of which would be crucial for the creation of a successful state. By the time the Congolese gained independence in 1960, the entire colony had been thoroughly depleted of human capital and was unable to rebuild and modernize the institutions necessary for entry to the world stage as a sovereign democratic state. The human capital deficit left behind by Leopold opened the door for the brutal dictatorships that marked the years after independence, a period characterized by continued control by foreign powers. Indeed, Belgium was unambiguous in its sustained interest in the region, collaborating with the United States to assassinate the first legally-elected prime minister of the country, Patrice Lumumba.

What must be understood by advocates and policymakers focused on the DRC is the profound and overwhelming psychological damage waged against the Congolese people during Leopold’s period of terror. Of the 10 million Congolese who lost their lives, many were whipped and beaten to death, others worked into the ground, and still others brutally murdered by Belgian security forces, who were instructed to amputate limbs of survivors and those who did not meet production quotas. The lasting legacy of state coercion and trauma is difficult to erase in the minds of the Congolese, and has led to a profound distrust in government, authority, and the international community throughout the country. In order to adequately address the developmental crisis in Congo, a multifaceted approach which integrates institutional modernization and social development must be adopted.

Screen Shot 2018-07-13 at 2.23.42 PMSael Soni is STAND’s Education Coordinator for the 2018-2019 school year. He hopes to bring a fresh, multifaceted approach to STAND’s education efforts and to spread the message of its advocacy. A sophomore at Vanderbilt University, Sael’s interests lie primarily in understanding how economic and social policy impact societies in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East.