As the seemingly intractable Congo crisis reaches fever pitch yet again, Alanna O’Malley asks if there is any hope left for humanitarianism in this country?
If anarchy were said to exist in the 21st century, surely the best example one could find would be the Congolese state.
Since the country gained its independence from Belgium in 1960, there has been almost constant upheaval, from secessionist wars, to social and political crises and most of all, rebel fighting, especially in the east of the country.
In the last week another rebel uprising in the eastern region has greatly exacerbated the humanitarian catastrophe facing the country to the extent that the Secretary General of the United Nations’ Ban Ki-moon has described the situation as a “humanitarian catastrophe”.
This was following a motion in the UN Security Council on Wednesday last which called for an end to the fighting between rebels from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Though a ceasefire was agreed between Tutsi rebel CNDP leader, Laurent Nkunda and FARDC, the Congolese army, the current UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo, known as MONUC, confirmed that Tutsi rebels had encircled the provincial town of Goma in eastern DR Congo.
Insurrection in eastern Congo has traditionally been linked to the economic wealth of the region, which has vast recourses of copper and gold. Historically the provinces of Kivu and Katanga are also the sites of the greatest investment of European capital in companies, which processed these resources, and therefore always had strong secessionist tendencies.
This time however, the fighting is complicated further by ethnic divisions, which also permeate the province. The Tutsi rebels claim they are fighting to protect Tutsi communities in the east of DR Congo from Hutu enclaves in the area, some of which are said to shelter the leaders of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
This situation is confused further by the seemingly duplicitous position of the Congolese government that is accused of cooperating with the Hutus over the exploitation of the resources and also in fighting against the Tutsi rebels. For their part, FARDC deny these claims but counter that the Rwandan government is arming the rebels against them, leading to escalating tensions between the two states.
The general argument regarding the reason for the fighting is commonly linked to who should profit from the region’s vast resources, and so fighting for control of these resources would appear inevitable until a democratic resolution is found.
This however, is one of the crucial elements of the seemingly intractable problem of the Congo- whether or not democracy and diplomacy can bring peace to the country once and for all.
Following the collapse of several governments after achieving independence, the dictator Colonel Mobutu Sese Seko ruled the country for 32 years until he was overthrown by the current president, Laurent Kabil in 1997.
Though elections were held in July, a certain amount of internal political and social anarchy remains, especially in the eastern provinces. It is often argued that the cause of these difficulties was Belgium’s failure to originally prepare the country for independence by not allowing the Congolese to work in their own civil service during colonial rule and blocking their access to education.
For example, there were exactly eleven Congolese university graduates in 1960. However, it may be contended that the social and political turmoil which has thrived in the almost sixty years of independent rule, has less to do with historical hangovers, and more to do with the failure of the democratic model for this state. Not only is the sheer scale of the Congolese electorate difficult to account for, in a country the size of Western Europe, but there has also been almost a complete failure to bond the traditional tribal entities together.
In this instance, ethnic and tribal factions have thrived outside the democratic structure, this is, arguably, due to the lack of firm control over the resources of the state.
Between the copper and gold mining in the east and the diamond mines in the south, the country has been plagued by insurgency and infighting over who should control these resources.
To a certain extent, European powers like Belgium and Britain, in particular, had significant economic interests in the region, connected to the processing of these resources. This raises the question of the extent to which state sanctioned business interest in an area of conflict thereby compel the countries involved to help alleviate the crisis.
If British, American and Belgian companies, can or have in the past, profited from the resources of the Congo, does that imply that they should bear a certain amount of responsibility to at least ensure that their business interests do not exacerbate internal conflict? The answer would appear to be simple; but the case of the Congo is a good example of how the doctrine of humanitarian intervention does not always produce results.
Though the UN force in the country numbers almost 17- 000, the biggest peacekeeping mission anywhere in the world, recent fighting is said to have stretched its resources to the limit. In addition, and potentially extremely problematically for the organisation as a whole, some Congolese have accused the peacekeepers of being mere ‘tourists’, and have attacked their offices in the eastern town of Goma.
Parallels may be drawn between this and the 1994 mission in Rwanda where the UN were accused of standing by ineffectually and allowing the genocide to happen, largely on account of their use of force directorate which maintains that weapons only be fired as a last resort in self-defence.
The predicament which arises, is that force may not be used to protect innocent civilians and to do so, opens the peacekeepers up to accusations of partisanship which is contrary to the fundamental role of the peacekeepers as impartial observers.
The occupation of this middle ground between warring factions points to the central dilemma of humanitarian intervention; just how effective can outside help be without taking sides in a conflict?
As the UN attempt to keep the peace in the Congo, it may be argued that this will only become tangibly achievable when the peacekeeping force becomes an actual force.
Until then it appears that, as in the case of Rwanda, the international community is willing to do no more than wring its hands despondently over the intractability of the Congo.