Why the UN must respond to rebels splitting Congo

Before rebels known as M23 split up Congo any further, the United Nations must help this giant African nation find a unifying identity. The same goes for Rwanda.

People flee a town near Goma, Congo, after rebels known as M23 took over parts of eastern Congo last week.

Some countries that split apart should trouble the world’s conscience more than others. Congo, as one of the largest and most violence-prone in Africa, is one of them.

Last week, a few thousand armed rebels known as M23 took over Goma, the most important city in the eastern part of Congo. Given that more than 5 million people have died in fighting there since 1997, the United Nations is right to be alarmed.

It is one thing if Spain’s Catalonia or Britain’s Scotland should split off. Separatism by voting, whether caused by ethnic or religious differences, doesn’t usually entail violence. Europe knows by experience not to change borders by war. But a fracturing of Congo by arms might be akin to the current civil war in Syria, where Alawites and Kurds could splinter that country at the heart of the Middle East.

Congo lies at the heart of Africa and has long been burdened by killing over its vast mineral wealth, tribal hostilities, and interventions by troubled neighbors. Mass rape has become a favored tactic of armed groups. And UN peacekeepers in the eastern provinces, known by their acronym Monusco, have too often stood by as massacres took place.

UN passivity in Congo is in contrast to the NATO and UN action in the 1990s to defend Kosovo from Serbia and later help it become independent. With so many nations now troubled by secession movements – from Myanmar (Burma) to Belgium to Mali and even in the United States – the world needs a consistent, nonviolent response to such tensions over national identity.

Congo, like many former colonies, has yet to develop a unifying identity based on shared values and interests. It held its first democratic elections only in 2006. The government of President Joseph Kabila is weak, causing a corrupt Army to falter in defending the nation’s territory.

The size of western Europe, Congo can barely stand up to tiny Rwanda, which backs the M23 rebels, according to the UN. The rebels are part of a proxy fight between Rwanda’s ruling Tutsis and the Hutus who were behind the country’s 1994 genocide. Carving out a new country in eastern Congo under Tutsi control would serve the interests of Rwanda’s ruling (and minority) Tutsis.

Western pressure on Rwanda to end its meddling in Congo can only be effective if it also addresses the fears of Tutsis. The UN also needs to bolster Congo's unity and nationalism through better peacekeeping and massive development. Land disputes in the eastern provinces are a big driver of violence.

The world has one recent example of how to help a fractured nation. The UN, led by the US, assisted southern Sudan and its largely non-Muslim population in splitting off from the Arab-dominated north. Now the UN must focus as intently on Congo, where some 60,000 people have already been displaced by last week’s rebel action. The world needs to set up more models of nations that have overcome their internal differences peacefully.

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