The United Nations Security Council's February decision to deploy a peace-monitoring mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo highlights the divisions within the international community over just what moral obligations the West owes Africa.
During a 1998 tour of Africa, President Clinton suggested that mass crimes against humanity in Africa do warrant a Western response. In Rwanda, he offered this apology: "We in the United States and the world community did not do as much as we could have and should have done to try and limit what occurred in Rwanda in 1994."
What occurred was the genocidal slaughter of nearly 1 million Tutsi and moderate-Hutu Rwandans. Ominously, Mr. Clinton went on to say that "the international community is still not organized to deal with it [genocidal violence]."
Having spent six years as a humanitarian aid worker in Africa's Great Lakes region, and having just days ago returned from eastern Congo, I must report that the situation there is deteriorating into - if not another Rwanda - a crisis of overwhelming proportions. More than 130,000 people have been newly displaced by fighting in the north and more than 120,000 in the south. These numbers are in addition to the 400,000 already displaced in the region.
The fighting behind this displacement is linked to a complex mix of economic, ethnic, sectarian, state, and factional interests. Central to this mix are Rwandan government troops pursuing remnants of militias responsible for Rwanda's 1994 genocide - the Ex-Far and Interahamwe. These forces inhabit the forests of the eastern Congolese provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu bordering Rwanda. The Ex-Far, and its Congolese Mai-Mai allies, have increased attacks in North Kivu. But despite the legitimate security interests motivating Rwandan defense forces in pursuit of génocidaires, the Rwandan military has lost all legitimacy among the local population in the Kivus. They are seen as an occupying force. Local populations also view two of the largest Congolese rebel factions as inept, corrupt, and serving Rwanda's interests over their own.
I'm aware that there is great skepticism about the ability of a UN mission comprised of 500 monitors and 5,000 troops and support personnel to effectively monitor the fragile peace accord agreed to in Lusaka, Zambia, last year. Such a slim contingent of troops will certainly not have the capacity to monitor a country the size of Western Europe. Perhaps the only thing worse than deploying this force would be failing to do so.
Were the Democratic Republic of Congo to be considered an area of strategic importance, the paucity of the UN mission in comparison with the magnitude of the threat might be criticized in European parliaments or the US Congress as unseemly. But this is Africa. A continent with 10 percent of the world's population, 50 percent of the world's conflicts, and 95 percent of the world's absence of attention. The laudable efforts of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke who, as chair of the Security Council, dedicated the council's January session to Africa, momentarily helped to put the continent's woes back on the US radar screen.
Rather than squander this momentum and dismiss the US-backed peace monitoring mission as inadequate, it would be better to improve the composition of forces in favor of experienced military professionals with sufficient logistical and material support to adequately defend themselves. Such a robust force could serve as a bridge to renewed efforts at conflict resolution in the Kivus and other hot spots in Congo.
If Clinton's apology to the victims of Rwanda's genocide is to have any resonance in Africa, there must be a sign of unwavering commitment on the part of the West to both the deployed forces and the diplomatic process in the region. For the hundreds of thousands of Congolese, many of them innocent women and children, there is little value in considering the ramifications of failure - only the imperative of success.
*John Keys is the International Rescue Committee's regional director for the Great Lakes region of Africa.