What Canada Can Do to Avert More Violence in the Congo

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is at a critical point in its violent history. Democracy is fragile. Rule of law is largely absent. Rape, gang rape and re-rape are commonplace. Rebels and other perpetrators of violence know that they can act with impunity – and do so. Congolese soldiers who are supposed to protect innocent civilians behave like the rebels – raping, looting, and illegally mining minerals for personal gain.

Canada has the opportunity to prevent an explosion of the conflict – and of the horror – in the Congo by taking the simple, pragmatic step of sending an Election Observer mission to monitor the troubled country’s upcoming elections. This is what the European Union decided to do this week. Why is Canada not stepping up?

Week after week, uncertainty about the DR Congo’s November 28 presidential elections grows. Election officials have been caught repeatedly registering children and “ghosts” as voters. Necessary new election legislation has yet to be passed. Postponing the elections seems increasingly possible. Expectations of Election Day vote rigging and vote buying is widespread.

There are deepening fears that the elections will be followed by an explosion of open conflict between forces loyal to the sitting President and forces loyal to the opposition (as we have recently witnessed in Côte d’Ivoire)

The independent voice of International Election Observation teams will go a long way towards averting an explosion of post-election violence. The very presence of international observers will encourage the government to conduct the elections within international norms. If the November elections are free and fair, then it is critically important that they are declared to be so by independent international bodies. If, on the other hand, international election observers determine that the outcome of the elections is not legitimate, then the internationally community is well-positioned to guide and support the DR Congo in taking steps back to democracy.

Of course, peace, democracy and the rule of law require more than free and fair elections. But if the November elections are not considered to be fair, there is a very real risk that the ongoing violence will not only engulf the country, but also threaten the fragile peace in neighbouring Rwanda, Uganda, and South Sudan as well. In Goma last year, a seasoned aid worker told me bluntly, “When this region blows, it all blows.” The risk is real.

As a middle power, Canada’s most effective foreign policy tools have been and continue to be diplomacy and moral suasion. We must move quickly now to establish an Election Observer Mission in time for the November elections. Canada sent monitors to observe the DR Congo’s first democratic elections in 2006. It is even more important that we do so now.

In 1994 Roméo Dellaire tirelessly rang the clarion bell in a futile warning of the coming genocide that took almost one million Rwandan lives. The cost of our inaction then is still being tallied as that war in Rwanda spilled over into the DR Congo. More than 5 million people died as result of the 1998-2003 Congolese War, while the world’s attention was diverted. About 2.5 million Congolese are now internally displaced or refugees in neighbouring countries because of the violence. Surely we can’t continue to blind ourselves to the horrors threatening millions of defenceless people.

Election observers are an inexpensive way to prevent an escalation of the conflict. There is simply no excuse for Canadians to stand by and watch as more Congolese suffer and die. We know what we must do. We’ve done it before. Let’s take action now.

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