The world's new threat: conflict fatigue

As violence escalates again in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, the world must recognize the need for sustained attention and intervention.

By Colin Thomas-Jensen and Rebecca Feeley

This winter, the militaries of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda -- much to our surprise, given their historical antipathy -- joined forces in an offensive against a rebel group based in eastern Congo: the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or the FDLR. Led by the architects of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the FDLR has terrorized Congolese civilians for nearly 15 years. The group's presence has also served as a pretext for Rwandan intervention that has frequently worsened an already grim humanitarian situation in eastern Congo.

We and many other observers predicted at the time that the joint offensive would lead FDLR rebels to conduct reprisal attacks upon civilians. So, we weren't surprised to hear that atrocities against civilians have escalated dramatically in recent weeks. In one instance, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Congo, MONUC, reported that the FDLR had massacred more than 60 people in the village of Busurungi. Local officials tell us that the FDLR killed nearly twice that number, after clashes with the notoriously inept Congolese Army.

While human rights groups catalog atrocities and advocacy groups sound the alarm, U.N. officials tell us that the situation in eastern Congo is "tense but under control." The gap between the rosy assessments we frequently hear from MONUC and the grim accounts we hear from Congolese affected by the conflict is outrageous and infuriating. And as the Congolese government launches a new offensive this summer, we think the worst is ahead.

Doing research and advocacy to help end the crisis in the Great Lakes region around Congo can feel like screaming into an empty room. The region has been so violent for so long that the United Nations, donor governments, and the press have become numb. But there is a cure to even the worst cases of "conflict fatigue": an understanding that solutions are within reach if we just have the will to pursue them -- solutions that can prevent thousands of senseless deaths.

With greater operational capacity, firmer direction from the U.N. Security Council, and decisive leadership on the ground, MONUC could provide greater protection for civilians.

With high-level multilateral diplomacy led by the United States and the European Union, the Congolese and Rwandan governments could go beyond their current uneasy military cooperation and achieve lasting political solutions to the regional conflict. With bigger incentives for disarming, an emphasis on civilian protection, and tactical support from Western militaries, a regional counterinsurgency strategy could succeed against the FDLR.

With greater coordination among donors, conditioned support to the Congolese government could begin to end impunity, professionalize the Army, and improve governance. And with corporate due diligence in the mining sector, the Congolese could begin to benefit from their country's immense natural resources while drying up the trade in conflict minerals that remain a lifeblood for predatory militias.

That's a laundry list of "coulds," but in a place like Congo -- a desperately poor country where nearly 6 million people have died from 13 years of chronic conflict -- the world has a lot of work to do. Anyone advocating for an end to the conflict must be content with slow and steady progress and not expect a quick fix. In fact, this is true of most conflicts. Conflict fatigue only takes root when we forget that.

Colin Thomas-Jensen is policy advisor to Enough, the Center for American Progress's project to end genocide and crimes against humanity. Rebecca Feeley is Enough's former field researcher based in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.  

UN Photo/Marie Frechon