ONE OF THE globe’s worst killing fields is once again aflame. The eastern region of Congo was the epicenter of two wars in the past 15 years that laid waste to an estimated 5 million lives — many lost to hunger and disease that followed in the footsteps of armed conflict.
On Tuesday, a rebel group, M23, seized the provincial capital of Goma as Congolese army forces and U.N. peacekeepers fell back. The fighting has intensified an already dire humanitarian crisis. Since the beginning of this year, more than 650,000 people have been uprooted in the regions of North and South Kivu. A series of fragile peace agreements reached in recent years are in tatters.
The M23 was formed out of a mutiny from the Congolese army in April by several hundred soldiers from a former rebel army that had signed a peace deal with the government on March 23, 2009. They are led by Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, a former high-ranking army officer who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on seven counts of crimes against humanity. The rebels have used and recruited child soldiers by the hundreds, according to the United Nations. By taking Goma, the rebels have raised the prospect of a destabilizing return to a regional war.
In the broadest sense, what’s unfolding is a result of the vacuum created by Congo’s weakness as a state. As the author and Congo analyst Jason Stearns has pointed out, the government in Kinshasa under President Joseph Kabila can’t impose rule of law or its military writ in the region, leading armed groups to fill the space. The International Crisis Group described the latest rebellion as, in part, the result of failure to implement earlier accords, failure to reform the army and failure to start a serious political dialogue. The presence of a 19,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force has done little to halt the conflict.
Rwanda, which borders Congo to the east, sees this mineral-rich swath of Congo as a sphere of influence. Rwanda’s role in supplying arms and support to the M23 rebels cannot be underestimated, despite denials. A U.N. report just published concludes that Rwanda has provided “direct military support” to the rebels, including “arms, ammunition, intelligence and political advice.” Uganda is also believed to be aiding the rebels.
Rwanda and Uganda should stop their meddling, and the United States and Britain must turn up the pressure on Rwanda to halt support for the rebels. That will take more than quiet diplomacy. A U.N. Security Council resolution approved Tuesday called for sanctions against the rebel leaders but stopped short of naming Rwanda. All sides need to recognize they are sliding once again toward the killing fields and to come to their senses before the bloody wars of the past are repeated.