Monday, January 19, 2009

Local Conflicts Need Greater international Attention

Columbia University professor Severine Autesserre said in a presentation at the Wilson Center on Thursday that the international community had failed to give sufficient attention to local sources of the conflicts in the DR Congo. By focusing on the national and regional levels of the war, international mediators have excluded the critical dynamic of local conflicts and their potential for reigniting larger conflicts.

These local conflicts are essential to understanding the region, as most of the violence since 2003 has taken place at the local level, disconnected from the national and regional sources of the violence. These conflicts revolve around land and power, and often the result of power struggles between contenders for traditional chieftainships or local administrative posts. They also concern access to local mining sites.

Autesserre contrasted the situation in Congo with the situation in Kenya after the flawed electoral process there last year, where the outbreak of violence prompted numerous actors to fund local mediation efforts between opposing ethnic groups in neighborhoods troubled by violence. She suggested there might be several reasons international mediators have ignored the local roots of the DRC's conflicts: 1) they see the Congo as a post-conflict situation; 2) they may believe that a certain level of violence is normal for the region; 3) they tend to have a professional myopia to low-level conflicts, in favor of "larger" issues; 4) they put all of their effort into holding elections, which they credited with being able to resolve more problems than they are in fact capable of solving.

Although I agree with Autesserre that local-level conflicts are a vitally important element of the region's dynamics and must be addressed, I remain skeptical of her thesis that resolving these conflicts is the key to bringing peace to the region. Conflict is not the same as war. Conflict is inherent in the human condition, and we do not have to resolve all the conflicts in eastern Congo to achieve peace. Rather, we need to create--or nurture, or simply impose--an environment in which these conflicts are managed, even if imperfectly, through peaceful means. That can only come about if there is one dominant actor in place with a legitimate monopoly on the use of force--a state, in other words, in full control of its territory. That is why I believe, following Anthony Gambino, that the priority in the short term is to strengthen MONUC so that it can function as the de facto state in eastern DRC, while at the same time working on the long-term project of reforming the government and rebuilding a competent, law-abiding military.

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