US media fairly gave credit to the US and other NATO countries for using their influence over the past year to cut off support for a bloody insurgency in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Unfortunately, journalists generally failed to point out these same countries had fueled conflict in the region over the last two decades by giving their allies in the neighborhood free rein.
On November 5, 2013, the Rwandan-backed M23 militia laid down its arms. Among the most feared militias operating in the DRC, M23 was one in a long line of proxy armies supported by US allies Rwanda and Uganda over the region’s 17-year war (New York Times, 11/6/13).
For 20 months, M23 murdered civilians, used sexual violence and impressed children into combat, surrendering only after military defeats by the Congolese army and the UN’s Force Intervention Brigade, made up almost entirely of African soldiers.
Western pressure on Rwanda to cut ties to M23 has also been widely credited for the M23 stand-down (e.g., New York Times, 11/6/13; Christian Science Monitor, 11/7/13). Following a UN report (11/15/12) highlighting Rwandan support, direction and training of the militia, the US and other Western nations imposed sanctions and cut aid to Rwanda, which reportedly denied M23 crucial material support (New York Times, 11/6/13).
What corporate media overlooked—one of several aspects of the Congo story they routinely miss—is the long-term role the US and other Western nations have played in protecting and funding the sponsors of M23 and the violent proxy forces that have preceded it in the region.
As the Washington-based activist group Friends of the Congo explained in a news release (12/2/13), successful US and British efforts to press Rwanda to cut off support for M23 came “after 17 years of providing virtual carte-blanche to the Rwandan regime and its repeated interventions in the DRC.”
Also routinely missed is the keen financial interest in Congo’s fantastically rich resources, which have been the target of plunder since Joseph Conrad wrote of an earlier, even bloodier time in Congo’s history as “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience.” When Belgium’s King Leopold was raping the Congo, rubber and ivory were among the most coveted of Congo’s riches; today, Rwanda and others seek to plunder Congo for gold, diamonds, tungsten, coltan (an ore needed for electronic devices) and high-grade timber.
A 2001 UN Council of Experts report (4/12/01) condemned Rwanda, Uganda and Zimbabwe for plundering Congo’s mines and other resources and selling the loot to multinational buyers. Resources continue to be a central cause for intervention and conflict in Eastern Congo.
The New York Times story (11/6/13) on M23’s surrender noted Western pressure on Rwanda, but failed to mention the West’s enduring support of Rwanda and Uganda, the nations most responsible for the continuing violence in Eastern Congo. The Times omission left the impression that the US and other Western nations were heroes in the story—that once M23’s misbehavior and Rwandan President Kagame’s support for it were revealed, they did the right thing.
Likewise the Washington Post (11/6/13) failed to mention Western support for Rwanda while presenting the surrender as “a crucial test,” about “whether the government and the rebels” would be able to pull off “a political resolution.” The M23 stand-down, said the Post, “was welcomed by Western and African diplomats who have worked for months to achieve an accord between the government and the rebels.”
That may be true, but how can readers understand the complexity of achieving an accord if they don’t know that those Western diplomats’ governments were helping Rwanda fan the flames of war just a short time before?
In 2012, the US attempted to block the UN report tying Rwanda to M23 (Guardian, 6/21/12). This was just one in a series of incidents in which the US ran interference for Rwanda’s lawlessness. The US has provided million of dollars in military aid to Rwanda after its funding of violence and plunder was well-documented, for instance, in 2001’s UN Council of Experts report.
In replacing support and apologetics for Rwanda with pressure and sanctions, the US and others did the right thing. The change in approach should be a big story. But it’s difficult to report the US transformation as a major reversal if you have failed to report on the earlier period, when the US was uncritically supporting Rwanda and its violent adventures.