The desperate plight of civilians caught between warring militias in the Democratic Republic of Congo was underscored last week by three Congolese church leaders who visited Baltimore to deliver an urgent appeal for help. The two bishops, accompanied by a nun, spoke at the Catholic Relief Services headquarters in downtown Baltimore, where they related the havoc wrought by militia groups and bandits who have raped and massacred thousands of innocent civilians and driven a quarter-million refuges from their homes since fighting flared up again in August. Over the last decade, more than 5 million people have been killed in Congo's civil war. No other conflict since World War II has been as deadly.
The Congolese church leaders want the United Nations to end the fighting, though they're under no illusion that the 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers stationed there are up to the task. This year, peacekeepers in Congo were implicated in atrocities rivaling those of the warring factions. In eastern Congo, where the fighting has been most intense, the poorly trained U.N. troops refused to fight either the Tutsi rebels backed by neighboring Rwanda or the Hutu militias responsible for the Rwandan genocide who fled into Congo after their defeat in 1994.
The Rwanda-backed rebels tout themselves as protectors of Congo's minority Tutsi population from Hutu extremists. But they also profit handsomely from control of the region's vast mineral wealth, which includes copper, cobalt, diamonds and coltan, an essential ingredient of cell phones and flat-screen TVs.
The Catholic bishops called for a stronger military and diplomatic presence to force the warring parties to negotiate an immediate cease-fire so that humanitarian aid can reach the 2 million refugees threatened by starvation and disease.
The next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, has been an ardent supporter of strong action against genocide, and while the mayhem in Congo hasn't yet devolved into that horror, she should take on this crisis as her first mission. The Bush administration had little success brokering a lasting peace in Congo. Ambassador Rice will need all the strength of her convictions to bring about a better outcome in that war-torn land.