The genocide in Rwanda in 1994 is often seen as a cautionary tale, an example of how the world failed to react at a time when it could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Chastened by that experience, every time a humanitarian crisis erupts in Africa, a kind of collective cry goes up urging action any action to prevent a comparable atrocity from happening again. The current crisis and the fighting around it are apt to push more buttons than most. First, it is evocative. The Congolese town of Goma that is the center of the crisis was also where the world first had its clearest glimpse of the Rwanda atrocities. Secondly, a huge amount of the world's most important minerals, including one involved in the making of cellphones, emanate from the region and specifically from areas controlled by the combatants. (See pictures of the humanitarian disaster in Congo.)
But what kind of action would really make a difference? Western military intervention would indeed have made a crucial difference in Rwanda back in 1994. But it may not be the most important response this time even as the European Union is discussing sending more troops to shore up the United Nations peacekeeping mission there.
Key leaders in the region are the only ones capable of bringing this crisis to an end, notably the Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, and his Congolese counterpart, Joseph Kabila. But the historical entanglements of Kagame and Kabila in Rwanda's bloodbath and its aftermath raise serious questions about their willingness to do so. Meanwhile, globalization also plays its part. Armed combatants in the area, already accused of rape and genocidal murder, are profiting from Western companies doing business in the region.
Fighting has flared sporadically in eastern Congo since the end of troubles in Rwanda in 1994. Tutsi rebels under the command of the current Rwandan President Paul Kagame drove more than one million Hutus into Congo, mostly congregating there in the town of Goma. Among these fugitives were members of the ousted Rwandan army and the interahamwe death squads who had earlier carried out genocide against some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Since then fighting between Hutus and Tutsis in Congo has persisted on and off. The latest uptick pits the forces of Tutsi rebel leader, Laurent Nkunda, against local civilians, United Nations peacekeepers tasked with protecting them, and the Congolese army, which many observers believe is working with reconstituted Hutu militia groups.
The unresolved hostilities between ethnic Hutu and the ethnic Tutsi and their respective allies continue to play an important role in driving this conflict. Laurent Nkunda was a war-time commander in Paul Kagame's 1994 Rwanda Patriotic Front, the rebel force that routed the then-Rwandan government even as the genocide was taking place. While Kagame categorically denies that he is supporting Nkunda and his militia, the Rwandan president has done so in the past and most observers in the region believe that he still is . Similarly, Congo's president Joseph Kabila's army is widely believed to be working closely with Hutu militia, that is when they are not terrorizing their own citizens. (See pictures of Congo's child soldiers.)
Both leaders can do more to end the war. A peace process already provides the framework; there should be no need for more negotiations. At a summit meeting a year ago in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, Kabila and Kagame agreed to disarm the Hutu militia in Congo and ease their repatriation to Rwanda . But neither leader has upheld his end of the bargain with conviction (Kabila has not disarmed Hutu militia operating his territory). Even before the latest upsurge in fighting by Nkunda there were numerous violations of the ceasefire on both sides. (See pictures of Congo on the break of war.)
Both Kabila and Kagame are major recipients of Western aid from the European Union and the United States. Even if Kagame is speaking the truth when he says that he is not supporting the Tutsi rebel commander Nkunda today, few observers doubt that as a major military player in the region he has the power to rein him in. Similarly the Congolese President can stop his own army chiefs from working directly the Hutu militias and rebel groups. Both say that they have nothing to do with the current fighting; they need to be forced to account by international political and economic pressure.