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Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja: Moved by nature, not by man

By Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, Professor of African Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Posted on Wednesday, 24 March 2010 14:22

Washington’s policy of intervention is uneven

– rushing to assist earthquake victims in Haiti while ignoring those

suffering in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a 12-year war has

killed more than seven million people

Humanitarian crises caused by natural forces such as the earthquake of 12 January 2010 in Haiti and the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 attract more rapid and massive responses than human-made disasters such as the resource war ravaging eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) since 1996. More dramatic and immediate in their destructive fury, natural disasters are easier to understand and to deal with politically than disasters due to human agency, as these may involve complex issues of history and geopolitics. As the world’s only superpower in the post-Cold War era, the US has played a leading role in dealing with humanitarian crises as part of its self-proclaimed ‘duty of care’ for disaster victims, but a major reason for its humanitarian interventions is to mitigate the adverse consequences of these crises for US and Western interests.

If it is true that American history and the country’s missionary tradition are instrumental in the role that the government plays in support of or alongside religious and charity groups in disaster relief around the world, there is no doubt that its humanitarian interventions in underdeveloped countries are political. They are undertaken to prevent crises from giving rise to fragile or failed states, large numbers of refugees and health emergencies.

In the case of Haiti, proximity to the United States – the shores of which are some 150km away – is a major factor in policymakers’ decisions to provide emergency aid and long-term reconstruction support. Since most Americans are ignorant of the historical responsibility of the US in Haiti’s underdevelopment – including the military occupation of the country from 1915 to 1934, its backing of the rule of Haiti’s mulatto elite and its support of the brutal kleptocracy of François and Jean-Claude Duvalier from 1957 to 1986 – guilt and reparations are not factors in the current US role in Haiti.

In the DRC, the US and Belgium carried out a plot to assassinate Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically- elected prime minister. To the trauma endured by the country and its citizens for the earlier ravages of the ‘red rubber’ regime of King Leopold II, with approximately 10 million people dead, has now been added the tragedy of the killing fields of eastern Congo, with approximately seven million dead since 1998 and thousands of women who have become victims of rape and sexual mutilation at the hands of armed groups.

The war responsible for this carnage is a direct consequence of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, from which two million refugees moved into eastern Congo together with the Hutu extremists who had carried out the genocide. Rwanda has taken advantage of the presence of these extremists to intervene militarily for purposes of looting natural resources, either directly, as it did in 1996 and 1998, or indirectly, through Congolese proxies, including a Tutsi militia whose current leader, Jean Bosco Ntaganda, is wanted by the International Criminal Court.

The US has done very little to pressure Rwanda. In her August 2009 visit to the DRC, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was praised for overruling the advice of her entourage to go to the war zone and demonstrate her solidarity with the women victims of sexual assaults and mutilation. However, many Congolese were shocked by a statement she made in Kinshasa that we should forget the past and look to the future. The question for her and the US establishment is: Are they ready to forget 11 September 2001 and look to the future?

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