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Jean-Marie Guehenno

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Not the Time to Declare Victory

Posted: 05/20/09 12:09 PM ET

Over the last fifteen years, the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo have endured more suffering than any other people of the world during the same period. Hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been raped. Millions of men and women have died. Acts of almost unimaginable savagery have taken place. It has been a horror to match anything from Joseph Conrad, whose Heart of Darkness was set in this tormented land.

Naturally, therefore, some rare good news is being hailed. First, there was the announcement of agreements between Congo and its eastern neighbors of Rwanda and Uganda. Next came the arrest in Rwanda of Laurent Nkunda, a rebel general who had wrecked havoc in eastern Congo over the past two years.

Many in and around Congo, and in the international community, seem satisfied to pin their hopes on a Congo that muddles through -- where violence is kept below the radar screen, while lucrative mining contracts can be concluded and the vast resources of the country can be exploited.

Now, however, is not the time to declare victory. Policy making must not be based on wishful thinking. Congo has not yet reached a strategic turning point.

This is a message nobody wants to hear today. This week, United Nations Security Council ambassadors are visiting Congo and they too would rather hear the good news story. The international community, which has so many pressing issues to confront, is experiencing "Congo fatigue." It will soon be 10 years since a UN mission was deployed in Congo, and members of the Security Council are looking for an exit. Nowhere is this fatigue more evident than among the main European stakeholders. When Congo was in crisis in 2003, Europe -- led by France -- rushed to deploy a bridging force in support of the United Nations. When a similar crisis struck late last year, there were no offers of troops.

There are optimists who tell us that we may not need this sort of commitment any more. The conflict between Congo and Rwanda, they say, is the key: get rid of the Rwandan Hutu genocidaires who took refuge in eastern Congo after the Rwandan genocide and there will be peace.

But Congo's horrors go deeper than that. The majority of Congo's victims die of malnutrition, lack of basic health services, and lack of basic support. The perpetrators of rapes and killings are as likely to belong to the security forces of the Congolese state as to Congolese militias or foreign armed groups. The victims die because of the absence of an accountable and effective state. Better relations between Congo and Rwanda would help a lot, but they are a starting point for building peace, rather than an end in itself.

Besides, the military operations against the Rwandan Hutu militias are bound to disappoint, and will make the situation worse if, as alleged by credible reports, hardened war criminals indicted by the International Criminal Court or by the Congolese State itself are allowed to play a central role in these operations. Not only does this undermine the credibility of the Congolese state and the UN whose peacekeepers support the operations, it also increases the risk that civilians will once again be targeted.

Meanwhile, the political foundations of peace within Congo are being eroded. The resignation of the speaker of the National Assembly has thrown into doubt the independence of Congo's new Parliament. Civil society organizations, journalists and other opponents are harassed, threatened and arrested. Justice is ignored.

President Joseph Kabila, as the first democratically elected leader of Congo in over 40 years, is well aware that in his vast and diverse country, peace eventually depends on trust built between the people and the state. Through stronger national, provincial and district political institutions, he has a unique opportunity to create a different rapport with the people of Congo.

The international community, which has considerable influence in Congo, through international financial institutions and a major peacekeeping mission, ought to use it to support an ambitious agenda based on the rule of law, rather than the rule of the gun.

If we fail to provide this support, and the deadly combination of profound misery, enormous natural wealth, and a weak state with no trusted security force is not broken, people will continue to die, women and girls will continue to be raped, and war will eventually resume.