Fighting in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has resulted in more deaths than any conflict since World War II. According to the International Rescue Committee, more than 5.4 million people have been killed in the DRC since 1998 by war and the ills that have accompanied it: massive displacement, disease, malnutrition, and forced labor. Sexual violence by predatory armed groups is common and rape is used as a brutal weapon across much of the region. Yet, the ongoing conflict remains largely ignored by the mainstream media.
The extreme complexity of the current conflict is part of a historical pattern of Congolese resource exploitation that dates back to the 19th century. At that time, King Leopold II of Belgium made The Free Congo State his personal property, extracting its resources and enslaving much of the native population in the process. The DRC remained colonized until 1960, when its first democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, came to power. He was assassinated within two-and-a-half months as part of a western-backed coup to bring the anti-communist Mobutu Sésé Seko to power. Mobutu finally came to power in 1965 and went on to rule for over three decades, robbing his country of billions of dollars that came primarily from the systematic plundering of its natural resources. He was finally overthrown in 1997 by Laurent Kabila, who came to power with the assistance of neighboring countries like Rwanda and Uganda as part of the First Congo War. Kabila’s relationship with these neighbors soon soured, forcing him to defend his country from their incursions in the Second Congo War. Following Laurent Kabila’s assassination in 2001, his son, Joseph Kabila, became president.
President Kabila has little control over the country. To retain even the marginal authority he has, Kabila relies heavily on foreign aid and a UN peacekeeping troop of over 17,000 soldiers who are there under the mandate of MONUC (United Nations Observer Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Valuable natural resources such as gold, copper, uranium, cobalt, coltan, cassiterite, wolframite, tin, tantalum, and tungsten are plentiful in the DRC. Still, most Congolese continue to live in abject poverty, unable to benefit from their country’s mineral wealth. Several of these minerals are used to manufacture essential components of electronic goods consumed around the world. With the heavy militarization of eastern DRC, miners there are often pressured into working for little or no pay by whichever armed force is in control of the area. Civilians are regularly shaken down by government officials and militias at all levels.
Over the years, the fighting in the DRC has involved the armies of neighboring countries and armed groups of various sizes and shifting allegiances. In 1994, the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR) – a Hutu genocidaire group – slipped into the DRC from neighboring Rwanda. Its presence in the country provided the justification for Rwanda’s 1996 and 1998 attempts to retrieve members of the group. Rwanda has also backed armed groups in the DRC, like the Rally For Congolese Democracy (RCD) rebels in Goma. Proxy groups like these brought the tensions of neighboring Great Lakes countries to be played out in the Eastern DRC. In January 2009, Rwanda’s military was invited into the country to work with the Congolese Army (FARDC) to attack the FDLR in a joint operation. FARDC, however, are not a neutral force, as they too are fighting for control of the DRC’s valuable resources. Though the overall goal of the Rwandan army once seemed to be retribution for the genocide in its country, it has actually cooperated with the FDLR in the past when the two groups stood to profit through such an agreement. In the DRC’s current state the system allows for a small group of people to make a lot of money by taxing and smuggling out the country’s minerals.
As part of Operation Kimia II, FARDC is currently leading another joint offensive on FLDR-controlled territory, this time with support from MONUC forces. Operation Kimia II has been criticized by several humanitarian organizations for its impact on civilians. Since the start of 2009, 800,000 people have been displaced in the eastern region, according to United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Oxfam International has documented the increased violence against civilians in the region since the start of Operation Kimia II. Oxfam has also reported that civilians in North and South Kivu fear FARDC soldiers as much as they do the FDLR. Ironically, the mandate of MONUC lists the protection of civilians as its first responsibility. Allan Doss, the United Nations Special Representative to the DRC, recently went on the defensive in a Washington Times op-ed, praising the presidents of the Congo and Rwanda for their “courageous decisions to end the CNDP [National Congress for the Defense of the People] rebellion and initiate determined action to deal with FDLR.”
UN representatives like Doss tout the ease with which MONUC repatriates enemy soldiers and internally displaced persons. However, MONUC’s success in these activities remains a moot point if thousands of others are being displaced as a result of its actions. Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights recently charged that “possible war crimes and crimes against humanity” had been committed by both sides. Since there are already substantial private military and security forces in the region (in addition to the government forces), the role of a UN force ought to be seriously reexamined – and perhaps changed to ensuring the safety of Congolese civilians.
The roles and aims of armed groups in the DRC will remain obscure to those who do not see the conflict as a struggle over resources. Groups like FARDC will only stop being part of the problem when their soldiers no longer have economic incentives to continue fighting. Even if the MONUC and FARDC succeed in expelling the FDLR, there would likely be no end to violence, rape, forced labor, and pillage in the region. The mandate of UN troops is to protect civilians, but their alliance with FARDC will never serve this goal. Their embroilment in Kimia II will enable corporations and unscrupulous state actors to continue exploiting the Congo’s resources.
While there is already a large UN mission and a UN peacekeeping force in the DRC, the international community has a further obligation to act, since the world’s hunger for the resources of the DRC fuels the conflict. Despite the documented links between militarized mining and the conflict, few changes in mining practices have been made over the years. Companies involved at different stages of the supply chain have failed to carry out the due diligence required to find out the origin of materials they use. Presently, major electronics companies further down the chain claim ignorance about the origin of their supplies or rely upon dubious assurances from suppliers that their capital does not support violence in Eastern Congo. Inaction by all the major industrialized nations has silently enabled a bloody trade that has been addressed only in name and on paper. Iowa’s own Senator Tom Harkin is a co-sponsor of the Congo Conflict Minerals Act of 2009 which, if passed, would bring more transparency to the process of how minerals pass out of the DRC and into the hands of American consumers.
The deck is stacked against the DRC, because it is a resource-rich country with a history of autocratic rulers, high levels of corruption, and weak infrastructure. Oversight of the country’s mineral trade is not a silver bullet, but such oversight would encourage foreign companies to pursue legal and ethically traded minerals from the DRC. If oversight is coupled with true security sector reform of FARDC, the DRC can move away from the protracted fighting that stands in the way of building a stable country. If it continues, this system will keep the eastern region of the Congo in a state of potentially endless conflict.