2011 was a year of unprecedented action on behalf of freedom and human rights. When citizens flooded streets throughout the Middle East and North Africa, the United States and other countries dropped their long-standing presidential allies and demanded new leadership. When massive human rights abuses loomed in Libya and Ivory Coast, the international community acted decisively. That backdrop makes it all the more puzzling why the two countries where human rights abuses are worst in the world — Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo— have received such comparatively tepid international responses.
In the past quarter-century, Sudan and Congo have collectively sustained roughly 7.75 million war-related deaths and unrivaled additional human suffering from the use of rape as a war weapon, the recruitment of child soldiers, mass displacement and chronic poverty.
By contrast, fewer than 1,000 people died in Egypt in 2011 in a year where the violent suppression of protests nonetheless sparked a revolution — and a global outrage — that brought down a longstanding autocrat. In Libya, no more than a few thousand people had died from the violence when President Obama and other NATO leaders and the Arab League admirably chose to support the resistance and protect beleaguered populations. Even after a year of war, perhaps 10,000 to 20,000 died in all — tragic figures, to be sure, but the sort of thing that routinely happens in a month or two in Congo or Sudan. In Yemen and Syria, where many eyes are focused these days, the 2011 tolls were perhaps 1,000 and 5,000 respectively. Yet we quite properly and actively debate how to urgently bring the killing to an end as soon as possible.
Time for ‘Basic Decency’
At a time when the U.S. involvement in Iraq’s war has ended and the Afghanistan mission is beginning to decline in scale, 2012 offers the world a chance to amend its past failings and show the people of Sudan and Congo the kind of basic decency that motivated intervention in Libya.
Policymakers pin their hopes on the separation of South Sudan from the main part of the country in 2011 and recent elections in Congo as signs of progress. But this is pure hopefulness, not policy. The two Sudans are in active dispute over several regions along their new border, where the Abyei area was ethnically cleansed by the Khartoum regime. And now, internally, the Sudan government aims to do the same to the non-Arab populations in South Kordofan and Blue Nile regions. In Congo, the December election was quite possibly stolen by President Joseph Kabila’s cronies, and fighting continues in the east over the illegal extraction of one of the richest non-petroleum natural resource bases in the world.
The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo is large by global standards but deploys fewer than 20,000 foreign troops for a country the size of Western Europe and twice the population of either Iraq or Afghanistan. Darfur and South Sudan have similarly undermanned peacekeeping missions, leaving them front row seats for some of the world’s worst war crimes.
Though more peacekeepers could help protect civilians, the peacekeepers need a peace to keep. Sudan’s border populations need an international community willing to break the Khartoum government’s blockade on humanitarian aid and to protect them from relentless indiscriminate aerial bombardment. They need a diplomatic surge involving China and the United States in support of African mediation. It should apply pressure, including through the threat of biting sanctions, aimed at addressing the myriad conflicts within Sudan and the brewing resumption of war between Sudan and newly independent South Sudan.
The Congolese people need an international community willing to stand up to a government that likely stole the election, just as was the case when Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai and other world leaders took liberties with their countries’ respective votes in recent years. They need international action to deal with the government forces and other armed groups that profit from massive and violent smuggling of minerals that power our cellphones, laptops, and other household products unnecessarily tainted with this conflict mineral trade. Again, economic pressure could be our greatest point of realistic leverage. In both Congo and South Sudan, a serious and expanded investment in professionalizing army and police forces will be crucial to future stability.
The details of what can help promote human rights and freedoms in Sudan and Congo can be debated, but it is uncontestable that united global action is imperative. Libya, Egypt, Ivory Coast and other examples demonstrate that decisive international action led by top government officials can make a huge difference. The long-suffering people of Sudan and Congo hope they are next in line.