Although Congo is not in the daily news today as much as it was a few weeks ago, make no mistake, eastern Congo continues to descend ever more deeply into a humanitarian hell. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced over the last few months, in addition to the more than one million people who had already fled their homes. Rampant sexual violence against girls and women, reportedly the worst in the world, continues unabated.
Insecurity in eastern Congo is a threat to the entire region. If the violence persists, there is very little to prevent it from spilling over volatile borders with Rwanda and Uganda, igniting another conflict that could pull in states from around the continent, as in the late 1990s when African armies from Angola to Zimbabwe fought in the Congo.
The mandate of the UN peacekeeping force in the Congo, MONUC, is up for renewal at the end of 2008, but urgent action is required now to end the violence and instability. Today, the Congolese army, which regularly abuses citizens, is part of the problem. Only the international community, through MONUC, can protect civilians in eastern Congo and create the conditions for a return to peace.
In early November, Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, requested that the UN Security Council approve 3,000 more troops and police for MONUC. Thankfully, on November 20 the Security Council approved the Secretary-General's request. This is a tremendous first step in the right direction, but is insufficient.
Eastern Congo is buried in multiple layers of violence. The current displacement and violence is layered on top of the struggle between the Congolese government and the CNDP of Laurent Nkunda. That is on top of the horrific abuses committed over the last fourteen years by a militia group, now called the FDLR, led by Hutus who were involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. That layer sits on top of the spillover of the genocide itself into eastern Congo. Under that layer is one of longstanding ethnic enmity and conflict over land and other resources that predates the tragedy in Rwanda.
All these layers of conflict and violence ultimately must be addressed. But how? As I argue in a recent Council on Foreign Relations report, underneath these layers is the longstanding ineptitude and inability of the Congolese army to establish and maintain control over territory in eastern Congo. Reports from Goma and throughout eastern Congo demonstrate that they are closer to a band of looters than an effective fighting force.
MONUC has operated to date under the fiction that its mission in the Congo is "in support" of this army. This fiction must be abandoned, with MONUC soldiers, not the army, given the mandate to secure eastern Congo and protect the civilian population.
In 2005, the UN adopted a principle known as the "responsibility to protect," which requires the international community to protect a country's citizenry when their government cannot. This is clearly the situation in the Congo today, and the international community must step up and do what is necessary to achieve stability and end the violence raging throughout the region.
It is important to remember that while the Congo itself is huge -- the size of the United States east of the Mississippi, the zone of intense conflict and displacement is much smaller, roughly the size of the state of Maryland. While a Maryland-sized territory is not tiny, it can feasibly be controlled by an effective international force.
African and European leaders have begun off-and-on discussions on the need for a multinational force (MNF) to support MONUC, which would help. The United States, for its part, should use its influence in the Security Council during next month's debate over MONUC's mandate to ensure that MONUC's peacekeepers are given the clear mission to stabilize eastern Congo -- with the Congolese Army staying in its barracks and out of trouble. Additional troops will give MONUC and an MNF the enhanced capacity necessary to launch surprise attacks on concentrations of rebel militias, disrupt their operations, deny them access to mining sites, and protect concentrations of civilians in both urban and rural areas.
Just two years ago, the situation was much brighter. MONUC brought this chaos under control in mid-2006 and could do so again. I was an elections monitor in Goma in 2006, traveling throughout North Kivu, which, then as now, was dominated by forces loyal to the rebel Laurent Nkunda. North Kivu, if not completely secure, was calm that summer. Nkunda's troops were not fighting. Instead, many were deserting his movement, which appeared to be getting weaker by the day.
On election day, July 30, 2006, there was not a single incident of violence anywhere in North Kivu because MONUC was given the specific mission to guarantee that the elections succeeded. MONUC soldiers, deployed throughout North Kivu in advance of the election, made it clear to Nkunda and other rebel leaders that interference in the electoral process would not be tolerated. On election day itself, MONUC turned out in force, with tanks clearly present on the outskirts of Goma and patrols aggressively moving throughout the region. This strategy worked as Congo held its first democratic elections since winning independence in 1960.
No political agreement will hold as long as eastern Congo, with its rich mineral resources, remains lawless. Once order is re-established, then talks between Nkunda, other militias, and the Congolese government are far more likely to succeed, and the people of eastern Congo, who thought they were voting for a brighter future when they went to the polls in July 2006, might finally have a chance at the peace they deserve.
Anthony W. Gambino, author of a recent Council Special Report, Congo: Securing Peace, Sustaining Progress, served for two and half years as USAID mission director for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, receiving USAID's Superior Honor Award. He first went to Congo (then called Zaïre) in 1979, where he served for three years as a Peace Corps volunteer. From 1997 to 2004, he worked for USAID on the Congo and other countries in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa. He returned to the Congo in 2006 to monitor presidential and National Assembly elections. He has worked on international development issues for the House of Representatives, the State Department, and nonprofit organizations. He presently works as an independent consultant on international development and foreign policy issues.