Will Clinton press for peace in Congo?

The US should encourage Congolese President Joseph Kabila to move beyond a military response to rebel groups to a more strategic effort to bring lasting peace, say security experts and human rights advocates.

Aladino Jasse/Reuters
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addresses a press conference in Luanda, Angola, on Aug. 9. Congo is Clinton's next stop on her seven-nation Africa tour.

As a top representative of the world's most powerful nation, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton might feel a certain tug to "fix" the next country on her seven-nation African tour, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

And why not? Congo has been the center of an on-again off-again civil war – funded largely by the control of lucrative mines by rebel militias – that has killed some 5 million people since the mid-1990s and turned one of Africa's richest sources of minerals into one of the world's poorest countries.

At present, Congo is carrying out a joint operation with the world's largest United Nations peacekeeping operation to eradicate a foreign militia that has had free reign in the eastern part of the country for more than a decade and that is blamed for the genocide of more than 800,000 Rwandans in 1994. If ever there was a country that would seem to need America's support, it is Congo.

Yet security analysts and human rights activists warn that the US should be careful in how it gives its support in Congo. The US should press the Congolese government to protect its citizens more, they say, and should press Congolese President Joseph Kabila to move beyond a purely military response to rebel groups to a more strategic effort to bring lasting peace.

Turning point?

"We are at a turning point for the DRC, and this might be the right moment for more international involvement in Congo, led by the United States," says Guillaume Lacaille, a Congo analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group in Nairobi, Kenya. Pointing to a recent joint operation between Rwandan forces and Congolese forces that has flushed out some Rwandan rebels known as the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), Mr. Lacaille says that Congo has finally reached a point where it can end its many wars and work towards true governance.

"Rwanda and Congo are working together jointly; there is fresh thinking among the international community about how to bring peace to Congo," says Lacaille. "While there are problems with the Congo's current operations, the FDLR [ARE] now totally isolated, and the fact that they have decided to go after the population is a sign that they have lost their political backers and lost all legitimacy as a political movement. This is the time for the international community to act, now."

Military operation provokes backlash

A purely military solution simply won't work, Lacaille and many human rights activists agree. While an ongoing joint operation between the Congolese Army and the UN peacekeeping force has managed to push FDLR rebels deeper into the bush, it has only managed to disarm about 500 FDLR soldiers (out of a 6,000-strong standing force). Meanwhile, the operation has radicalized the FDLR, who have intensified brutal attacks against civilian populations in FDLR-held areas.

Since the military operations began in January, more than 600 civilians have been killed in eastern Congo, and some 800,000 displaced from their homes.

"The UN-backed offensive that was supposed to make life better for the people of eastern Congo is instead becoming a human tragedy," said Marcel Stoessel, head of Oxfam for the DRC, in a statement. "Secretary Clinton needs to make it very clear that US support for the UN's efforts in Congo is not a blank check and that civilians should be protected."

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