Over 1,000 Civilian Casualties a Day in the Congo Means World Military Action is Needed


The persistent conflict in the eastern Congo, which evolved after the Second Congo Civil War officially "ended" in 2004, continues to constitute the largest humanitarian crisis on earth. Belligerents include M23 rebels – thought to be sponsored by the governments of Uganda and Rwanda – local Mai-Mai militia and the Congolese national army (FARDC). Multitudes of other ethnic and tribal military factions have participated at one time or another, illicitly supported by the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s rich mineral reserves. This battle over resource control continues to cripple the nation’s already decrepit political and economic infrastructure.

Today, diplomats and leaders from eleven central and southern African states convened in Ethiopia to sign a UN-mediated peace framework. While the international organization already has 17,700 peacekeepers deployed in DR Congo, the new initiative comes at a time of rising instability. On Friday, it was reported that that rebels loyal to Gedeon Kyungu Mutanga were responsible for displacing over 300,000 civilians in the resource-rich Katanga province. Fears of another major civilian crisis have since been raised. A renewed focus on central Africa should be welcomed, but the international community’s response is wholly inadequate. The conflict will warp into total mayhem unless sovereign governments provide decisive military action.

Considering the inherent political barriers to international monitoring in central Africa’s barbarous bedlam, death tolls in the conflict have been difficult to estimate. They range to upwards of five million, making it the deadliest armed conflict since WWII ended nearly seventy years ago. More disturbing is the number of civilian casualties, thought to exceed one thousand every day, half of which are children. Of course, this does not include the hundreds of thousands of women – and men – who have been raped, or the millions living in lawless refugee camps.

Photo Credit: SSgt. Joycelyn A. Guthrie

The most surprising feature of DR Congo’s conflict, however, is the limited financial and human capital resources involved. Less than 40,000 militiamen were involved at the conflict’s height in 2008. Most soldiers enlisted in FARDC earn roughly $1.35 a day, 10 cents over the international poverty line. Those combatants fighting in the east often retain no salary at all. The humanitarian consequences of affording soldiers such a meager salary are difficult to overstate. Kalashnikovs in hand, Congolese militiamen are known to plunder, rape and pull the trigger with complete disregard for civility. Armed banditry is even more pronounced amongst rebel groups, who derive their funding almost entirely from this process. Cruel behavior is further justified by the nature of warfare in eastern DR Congo, where obtaining local loyalty is critical for the survival of both sides. As the French have learned in Mali, soldiers are quick to blend in with civilian populations to avoid the unsparing ramifications of surrender in the lawless climate that has come to define African warfare.

In 1998, former president Bill Clinton acknowledged that half a million civilian lives could have been saved by decisive American military action during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. An abundance of competing tribal groups and a territorial expanse 90 times that of Rwanda has indeed made ending the DR Congo conflict an international nightmare. But year in and year out, the UN has provided the only military entity contributing to a peace process. At a cost of $1.4 billion a year, the United Nation’s Stabilization Mission in DR Congo (MONUSCO) is the international organization’s most expensive. Despite this, MONUSCO has been an utter failure. Limited enrollment and obsolete terms of deployment have left the force virtually incapacitated. 

Last November, M23 rebels seized the city of eastern city of Goma without firing a shot. Charged with protecting civilians, MONUSCO stood by and watched. Their retreat exemplified a chronic pattern of non-intervention and cowardice. "Across the east of the country, angry mobs surrounded UN positions, threw stones at aid workers and burned UN compounds," wrote Jessica Hatcher in Time magazine. Under MONUSCO "protection", Congolese refugee camps have been raided, civilians publicly beheaded, and intra-force corruption has been widespread. The failure is indicative of an outdated peacekeeping strategy that attempts to employ civility against barbarism and savagery. Rebellious, non-state actors are not interested in defending the Geneva Convention, much less the UN’s courteous rules of engagement. Even if they were, Congolese militant factions are not incentivized by political rewards, as the UN indirectly acknowledged by prohibiting their attendance at today’s peace talks. 

Continuous militant aggression requires a comprehensive military response. Considering the systemic barriers to the UN’s armed intervention, the current approach is unlikely to yield any real progress. Western governments, experienced in combating guerrilla and non-state warfare, must intervene. Without their assistance, billions of international dollars will continue to be wasted.

The UN’s primary goal, it seems, is to prevent the conflict from spreading into the rest of central Africa. Unfortunately, corruption and a lack of transparency plague DR Congo’s neighbors, as regional conflicts endure from the days of European Colonialism. Historically, Western governments have been hesitant to enter African conflicts until an "emergency" surfaces. This approach is not fiscally sustainable, as population pressures and climate change are certain to accelerate a decaying African infrastructure. As Western governments continue to kick the pebble down the road, hoping a symbolic UN force will be sufficient to end the suffering, we risk a humanitarian catastrophe of extraordinary proportions. Now is the time for international cooperation and decisive military action.