Earlier this year, President Obama asked how one might weigh the “tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?” But as tragic and devastating as the Congo conflict is, Congolese are not asking for the United States - or the international community - to militarily intervene.
The United Nations (U.N.) says the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is the world’s deadliest since World War II. Millions have perished since 1996 as a direct and indirect result. Half of those lost lives have been children under the age of five, and combatants have raped hundreds of thousands of women, often as part of a deliberate strategy.
The Congo catastrophe, however, has gone largely unnoticed by the world’s media, and global leaders have placed the crisis on the back burner. This neglect is astonishing in an era of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P). After all, R2P was the US’s rallying cry in Libya and again now in Syria. And yet, the US has not made similar calls in the far more deadly and tragic Congo conflict in the heart of Africa. Addressing the Congo conflict, moreover, does not require the mobilization of militaries worldwide; to save lives and advance peace in the DRC and its surrounding region, a bevy of diplomatic tools are at the disposal of world leaders.
Since 1997, the U.N. and Congolese civil society have documented the conflict’s dynamics and offered a range of prescriptions, starting with the 1997 Garreton report to the 2010 U.N. Mapping Exercise Report. This seminal, 550-page report described 617 alleged violent incidents in the DRC between March 1993 and June 2003, but the Obama administration was virtually silent. The State Department did not respond to questions from the Associated Press and Susan Rice, one of the most fervent R2P advocates, refused interview requests on the issue.
In 2005, then Senator Obama introduced and sponsored S. 2125, The Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security and Democracy Promotion Act (PL 109-456), signed into law by former President George Bush in December 2006. The former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and the current US Secretary of State, John Kerry, were co-sponsors. Section 105 of the law states that “The Secretary of State is authorized to withhold assistance made available under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (22 USC. 2151 et seq.), other than humanitarian, peacekeeping, and counter terrorism assistance, for a foreign country if the Secretary determines that the government of the foreign country is taking actions to destabilize the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”
President Obama has yet to fully implement this law in spite of the fact that his own government has said that “credible evidence” exists that Rwanda is destabilizing the Congo. A key reason the Obama administration had refused to hold Rwanda and Uganda accountable, at least until the summer of 2012 when the Obama administration cut portions of its military aid to Rwanda over its support for rebels in the DRC, is because both countries have been staunch allies of the United States. The United States pursued what it called quiet diplomacy, which did not include public condemnation much less diplomatic or political acts of accountability. Both nations were given carte blanche to do as they pleased in the Congo.
When addressing Rwanda’s “unhelpful” and negative involvement in the Congo former US Ambassador to the U.N. and current National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, said, “it’s complicated.” In fact, the matter is not complicated at all. The US has given Rwanda and Uganda free reign in the Congo. As Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Susan Rice has been quoted as having said of Rwanda and Uganda’s transgressions in the Congo that all the US has to do is “look the other way.”
Rwanda and Uganda have been able to escape U.N. sanctions and significant global pressure in large part due to US diplomatic and political cover. Philippe Bolopion of Human Rights Watch nailed it in a January 2013 New York Times commentary in which he intimated that Rwanda would not have been able to get away with destabilizing the Congo without powerful friends such as the United States. Though the US has recently stepped up its engagement in the Congo and the Great Lakes region by appointing a Special Envoy and by backing a U.N. peace framework signed by 11 countries and four regional and/or international bodies in February 2013, this has yet to result in a fundamental shift in the US policy of supporting ‘strongmen’ in Africa.
In spite of the role that these leaders have played in the mass atrocities in the Congo, the US has persistently run interference on their behalf, providing them with diplomatic and political cover, especially at the U.N.Such actions are in stark contrast to the US calls for the responsibility to protect in places like Sudan, Libya and Syria where the perpetrators were not US allies, and US interests would not be fundamentally altered or negatively affected as a result of US advocacy for the principle of R2P.
The Obama administration and a number of its key figures show concern when it comes to the prevention of mass atrocities mainly when it is in alignment with US interests, however in the case of the deadliest conflict in the world where US allies are the aggressors, R2P is rarely if ever mentioned or invoked. In fact, its strongest proponents do more to protect those responsible for mass crimes and atrocities than to hold them accountable.
Despite the current focus on Syria, the administration’s biggest test, however, is in the DRC, where millions have died, largely as a result of a war of aggression waged by two key US allies, Rwanda and Uganda. Both have waged a 17-year war of aggression against the Congo by invading twice (in 1996 and in 1998), fighting each other on Congolese soil (in June 2000), and sponsoring militia groups inside the Congo (from 2004 to the present).
The US has provided military training, arms, intelligence and financing to Rwanda's military who in turn sponsors and directs war criminals who commit war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Congo, perpetuating the deadliest conflict in the world. Here, the US earns a failing grade. The Obama administration’s “quiet diplomacy” and its “complicated” response are wholly inadequate reactions to the greatest humanitarian crisis of the early 21st century.