While Bernard Kouchner and David Miliband seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis in eastern Congo and the European Union considers sending troops to North Kivu Province, the international community must recognize the role it has played in fomenting the conflict and the need for new, long-term peace strategies.
Two international interventions - the UN peacekeeping mission that has operated in Congo since 1999 and the UN- and EU-backed elections in 2006 - badly misjudged the volatile ethnic politics of the region. Both interventions exacerbated ethnic tensions, leading to mass violence.
Sending EU troops to North Kivu to support MONUC, the acronym for the UN mission in Congo, may temporarily quell the conflict and allow the flow of aid to the estimated 200,000 civilians. But lasting peace can be achieved only by addressing deep-seated ethnic antagonisms - especially between Hutu and Tutsi.
Much of the violence in North Kivu stems from the 1994 Rwandan genocide. General Laurent Nkunda, leader of the Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP), the rebel group responsible for the recent escalation of violence, is driven by the need to protect the Tutsi minority in North and South Kivu. For many Tutsi, the Rwandan genocide never ended.
In mid-1994, more than one million Rwandan Hutu refugees poured into the Kivus, fleeing the advance of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the predominantly Tutsi rebel force that ended the genocide. Thousands of Hutu refugees were still armed and, with the help of Congolese Hutu, began killing local Tutsi.
In 2000, tens of thousands of Hutu militiamen combined to form the Forces Démocratiques de la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), which has maimed, raped and killed thousands of Tutsi civilians in eastern Congo.
Congolese government forces have been widely accused of supporting the FDLR in attacking Tutsi. While Nkunda may manipulate the fears of Tutsi civilians for his own gain, those fears are real and must be addressed.
The international community has ignored the plight of Tutsi in the Kivus. The 2006 elections increased Tutsi fears and led to mass violence.
While UN and EU policymakers declared that the elections - the first since Congo’s independence - would be a guarantee of long-term peace, they ignored the reality that the minority Tutsi were bound to lose at the ballot box.
In early 2005, soon after the elections were announced, Nkunda’s forces deployed to North Kivu and began attacking non-Tutsi civilians. After the voting, the violence increased.
The UN and the European Union complacently equated the vote with a peaceful transition to democratic governance. But an electoral process that failed to address the issue of minority representation was bound to create more conflicts than it resolved.
The second form of misguided international intervention in Congo was the deployment of 17,000 UN troops, the largest peacekeeping mission in the world, which for the first time in the UN’s history was given a mandate that allowed it to use force to protect civilians.
While MONUC has proven effective at securing peace in the Ituri district in north-eastern Congo, it has had much less success in the Kivus.
Late last month, the commander of UN peacekeepers in Congo, Lieutenant General Vicente Diaz de Villegas of Spain, resigned only seven weeks into the job, citing the mission’s lack of strategic clarity, particularly in North Kivu.
UN troops were recently attacked by civilians in the North Kivu town of Rutshuru because of the mission’s failure to protect them. Moreover, MONUC has maintained rhetorical and military support for Congolese government forces in North Kivu, despite the fact that those troops have committed some of the worst atrocities against civilians.
In the eyes of many Tutsi, UN peacekeepers and the government have become a dual threat. The key to securing peace in North Kivu is to take seriously the Tutsi concerns that lie at the heart of Nkunda’s military campaign.
International leaders must pressure the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, to cease all support for the FDLR and other Hutu militias.
At a summit meeting in Nairobi in November 2007, Kabila and President Paul Kagame of Rawanda, agreed to disarm and repatriate all Hutu militias in eastern Congo. So far, Rwanda has held up its end of the bargain by repatriating thousands of former Hutu militiamen.
But Kabila has reneged on the deal and must be pressured to deliver. In the past, he has shown little tendency toward compromise, preferring to play to a virulent anti-Tutsi constituency in the Kivus and Kinshasa.
He initially refused to invite Nkunda and the CNDP to the Goma peace conference in January and only did so after concerted international pressure.
Until the Congolese president displays a willingness to talk peace and the Congolese government and UN peacekeepers move to protect all civilians, including Tutsi, the conflict could escalate rapidly, with violent repercussions for the entire region.
Phil Clark is a research fellow at the Center for Socio-Legal Studies, University of Oxford, and a central Africa specialist.