Using Australia’s Security Council Seat to focus on the broken heart of Africa

In 2012, 2 million people became displaced across the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) due to violence and fighting between different armed groups in the East of the country; this was the highest figure the country had seen since 2009.Australia is now well into its third month on the United Nations Security Council. Nothing is more fundamental to the wellbeing of societies than security, and the Security Council carries the greatest responsibility for human wellbeing of all international bodies. It is the Security Council that holds the legitimate authority to act when populations are threatened with genocide, mass killings and widespread violations of human rights. Australia’s two-year term on the Security Council is an opportunity for it to make a real contribution to significant security issues affecting populations all over the world. Australia now holds a position of huge moral responsibility, so what does Australia hope to achieve during its time on the Security Council?

The Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, argues that ‘middle powers’ have been able to achieve great advances for human wellbeing when they have focused on specific issues. In the limited time that it has on the Security Council, Australia should choose specific security issues on which to focus and champion. But, how does Australia choose from among the many global security woes?

Australia should focus on an agenda issue that will exhibit its commitment to tackle tangible security issues and a moral imperative to improve the security of the most vulnerable populations. Since World War II, the deadliest conflict in the world has been in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in which an estimated five million people have lost their lives. The death toll of the Congo wars, which significantly dwarfs any other conflict of modern times, has been aptly dubbed the ‘World’s Worst War’. While the wars, which took place from 1996–2003 are deemed ‘officially’ over, the country is far from post-conflict. The eastern regions of the DRC remain in a state of perpetual insecurity and conflict. The largest and most expensive United Nations peacekeeping mission in the world is currently located in the Eastern DRC. No security situation is more deserving of serious attention and focus than the long-suffering populations of the Eastern DRC.

Australia’s relations and engagement with the African continent have taken off in recent years. The levels of diplomatic, business, investment, aid and educational ties have heightened rapidly. In the United Nations General Assembly, African countries represent a hefty number of seats, and it was, reportedly, African votes that got Australia its seat on the Security Council.

The DRC represents the greatest tragedy of modern day Africa: it was the site of ‘Africa’s World War,’ it drew in numerous African countries and it destabilised the region. The extent of violence, rape and pillaging, which still occurs in the Eastern DRC, is a stain on the whole continent. There can be no truly ‘aspiring Africa’ if the heart of the continent, and one of its most resource-rich countries, remains an epicenter of insecurity, in which local and neighbouring countries’ rebel groups find a lawless and ungoverned base to operate from. Australia has the opportunity to establish a degree of global moral authority, if it is willing to focus on this security issue.

There are several factors which make the Eastern DRC a credible focus for Australia. The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission (MONUSCO) has been stationed in the Eastern DRC for 13 years. While it numbers 19,000 soldiers and costs $1.4 billion annually, making it the largest and most expensive operation of its kind in the world, it is considered to be a failure. MONUSCO has proved incapable of protecting civilians and unable to stop the proliferation of armed groups and has crumbled in the face of armed rebellions.

The rise of the M23 rebellion last year, and their seizure of Goma, has been the catalyst for a substantial change in the approach MONUSCO has been taking. A ‘new intervention brigade’ of around 2000 soldiers is to be established to undertake ‘offensive operations’ against rebel groups in the East and to monitor the Rwanda and Uganda border area. How effective a force of this nature will be and the impact it will have on civilian protection remains to be seen.

Rwanda is on the Security Council with Australia and this provides an opportunity for engagement on the security situation in the Eastern DRC. The Rwandan genocide, in which up to a million people were killed, represents the greatest failure of the United Nations to protect civilians. We cannot understand the situation in the DRC without understanding the political and ethnic dynamics of its neighbours, especially Rwanda. The DRC conflict is regional in nature. Following the Rwandan genocide, the political and ethnic conflicts of Rwanda spilled over into the Eastern DRC, beginning the Congo wars. Last year the UN Panel of Experts accused Rwanda of funding the M23 rebellion in eastern Congo. For several years, many commentators have claimed that Rwanda has been fomenting instability and insecurity in the Eastern DRC by funding and supporting armed groups there. Rwanda has denied these accusations.

Importantly, Australia has not been sullied by any involvement in or association with the conflicts of the Great Lakes region, as other western powers have. Australia enters the situation with clean hands, and thus can be an impartial and moral actor, ensuring the best outcome for the security of the Congolese people.

Australia’s time on the Security Council would be well served if it were to address a tangible security problem. Australia’s mandate for the next two years is simple: to provide security to people who have none. It’s time to get focused on the worst affected region of the world.

Sabrina Joy Smith is a PhD candidate with the Centre for the Study of the Great Lakes region of Africa at the Institute for Development Studies and Management, Belgium. She is currently based in New South Wales. Image courtesy of Flickr user Oxfam International.