Today in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—the former property of Belgian King Leopold II and third largest African nation by land mass—tens of thousands of people are living in displaced peoples’ camps located throughout the eastern region off that nation. According to a Congolese woman interviewed by the BBC, “The fighting began near our home in the middle of the night. There was a lot of gunfire and ‘mabombi’ —explosions [shelling]. Some people were caught in the middle of the fighting. I saw them die; and after seeing them I knew we had to run away or else we would also die with them.” And later, “Of everything though, the only thing I am asking for is peace.”
A potential humanitarian disaster resulting in the starvation of thousands of refugees of the fighting may ensue if aid is not provided soon, according to a representative of the UK charity, Save the Children. According to the witness, “Women were grubbing vegetables from the surrounding countryside.”
The obvious reaction to this crisis is a call for the United States to send aid. But because this situation is fully entangled in international diplomatic bureaucracy and constrained by the very instable power structures that exist in the region, that simple task is never simple. Without utilizing these traditional channels of bureaucrats, the U.S. could possibly violate the sovereignty claim of the Congolese government. However, as the stakes are demarcated in human lives, the cost of an international scandal should not stand in the way of any humanitarian aid that is deemed necessary for the subsistence of the Congolese refugees.
Rather, the pertinent questions should be pragmatic and not legal: What can we do to help? How bad is the crisis? Through which mechanisms can we save the most lives?
If the answers to these questions involve direct military intervention, the U.S. should remain hesitant while realizing that the channeling of capital, material resources, and other resources through the European powers and the United Nations could be very effective in preventing both military and humanitarian crises. The UN Peacekeeping forces are undermanned and underfunded, resulting in a frustration and helplessness that in the past has manifested itself in alleged rape, prostitution, and pedophilia in UN peacekeeping efforts in the Congo, Haiti, Burundi, Liberia, and elsewhere. While the allegations are typical of most military campaigns, better pay and a more promising military outcome could reduce their incidence.
Thus, intervention must only come as a result of wise deliberations and careful considerations. As of Tuesday’s election, we remain optimistic that an Obama administration will be capable of maneuvering through and perhaps reforming the diplomatic maze that so often impedes humanitarian aid in similar situations. Obama’s multilateral and diplomatic policies will be much more effective at providing the aid sooner and more effectively than the Bush administration’s contentious deliberation style. Furthermore, an Obama administration will be more likely to view such massive and terrible displacements out of the context of their potential economic consequences for the United States.
An Obama administration that reinserts itself into the UN instead of overtly acting against its wishes would strengthen this international body significantly. Instead of the UN and UN peacekeeping troops viewing themselves as acting counter to the will of the United States, they would see themselves as carrying out the will of the more truly United Nations.
As we see the disturbing pictures and hear the tragic stories of displaced and hungry Congolese families, there is a moral imperative to do something. The mechanics of that something should be for the international community to decide, but the moral imperative must remain in each of us.