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Kenneth HackettMay 22, 2006

Large-scale humanitarian crises of various kinds periodically rivet the attention of the world. Among the challenges of the humanitarian agencies that respond to them, however, is the struggle to address needs arising from others as wellpeople in need who receive less attention. The Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs has coined a term for these forgotten humanitarian crises:the silent tsunamis.

Northern Uganda

Northern Uganda offers a case in point. Relatively few Americans are aware of the two-decades-old conflict between government forces and a rebel movement known as the Lord’s Resistance Army. The L.R.A. is notable for its extreme brutality, which includes rape and the kidnapping of children into its ranks.

The roots of the conflict can be traced to unequal social and economic development in different regions of the country, as well as the grievances of marginalized minority groups. After Yoweri Museveni took power through a coup in 1986, fear spread widely in the north among Uganda’s dominant ethnic group, the Acholis, of reprisals for atrocities committed when the northerners dominated the army. Many northerners joined rebel movements, which eventually led to the emergence of Joseph Kony, a brutal yet charismatic leader who claimed to have supernatural powers. He formed the L.R.A.

The brutal tactics used by his troops are all too evident. They abduct children from their homes, forcing them to become combatants, or in the case of girls, slaves given to soldiers as wives. They are tortured or killed if they try to escape. Even more insidiously, the L.R.A. makes children torture and kill family members or friends in front of other children to instill fear and loyalty. These abductions have led fearful parents to send their children from rural villages and internally displaced people’s camps into towns and cities to sleep in safe sanctuaries at night. As many as 25,000 children, referred to as night commuters, make the trek each day.

What Can Be Done?

The international community must provide more support to the peace process to entice the L.R.A. out of the bush and to keep the government of Uganda at the peace table. The international community must also rally around the mediation efforts of former Ugandan government minister Betty Bigombe. Unfortunately, many observers believe the peace process could be hindered by the recent indictments of top L.R.A. commanders by the International Criminal Court. Also, because the conflicts in Sudan and Uganda are interlinked, one cannot be fully resolved without the other also being resolved.

There must be more support for efforts to reintegrate child combatants into their communities. This can be done by implementing conflict relief and reconciliation programs. Catholic Relief Services is helping with efforts by the local Caritas office in northern Uganda to staff a reception center for former combatants, and helping communities to focus on reconciliation and forgiveness as they receive the abducted children and some rebels who have surrendered under a government amnesty program.

Work with the Ugandan government and the international community to provide sufficient resources should be intensified to meet the relief and development needs of northern Uganda in order to foster economic development and increase security for its residents. Long-term peace incentives should be developed that will attract both the L.R.A. and the government of Uganda, and these should be linked to the development of a stable southern Sudan.

While the government of Uganda actively pursues a peaceful solution to the conflict, it must also provide effective protection from attack for the people in the North.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

One of the world’s bloodiest conflicts since World War II is being waged in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where a six-year war involving eight nations and a number of rebel groups has left as many as four million deadmostly from the disease and starvation that result from displacement of civilians from their homes and fields and from the lack of health services. The unrest has been called Africa’s first world war, and has disrupted the lives of more than 50 million people.

The war can be traced back to events after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, during which Hutu extremists massacred more than 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu. After many of the perpetrators of the genocide took refuge in Congo, the nations of Rwanda and Uganda backed a rebellion in 1996-97 that led to the removal of Mobutu Sese Seko, who had been Congo’s leader since 1965. Laurent Kabila took over, but when Kabila had a falling out with Rwanda and began a purge of Tutsi from his government, Rwanda again intervened in August 1998 and provided support to Congolese Tutsi rebels. Kabila sought assistance from Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia, leading to all-out war.

Despite a peace treaty in 2000 that resulted in the deployment of United Nations peacekeeping troops to Congo, the violence continued and Kabila was assassinated in 2001. His son, Joseph Kabila, succeeded him, peace negotiations continued, and the Pretoria Agreement, signed in December 2002, led to the withdrawal, for the most part, of foreign troops and the establishment the next year of a transitional government.

Violent conflict persists today, however, and has escalated recently as a result of the failure to disarm Rwandan Hutu militiamen and the continued existence of armed groupssometimes supported by outside countriesthat control geographic areas and access to rich mineral resources.

While substantial progress has been madeParliament, for example, has adopted a new constitution, which was approved in a national referendum in Decemberthe pace of the transition has been slow. Elections that were originally planned for June 2005 have now been scheduled for the end of July 2006.

Possible Steps

Some of the key steps that the U.S. government and the international community should take are these:

Press the leaders in Congo to make an unequivocal commitment to the transition and the new electoral calendar. The parliament must pass essential electoral laws. For its part, the international community must ensure that adequate resources are committed and disbursed to support the elections, that government and civil society/civic education efforts continue to educate the population and that an effective system for monitoring the elections is put in place.

Support the Congolese government with immediate efforts to establish a national unified army. Violence continues in areas in the east, and security cannot be established without a national army and police force with a presence throughout the country. In addition, the Rwandan insurgent groupthe Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (F.D.L.R.)must be completely disarmed and demobilized.


Colombia is enduring a four-decades-long armed conflict involving two major guerilla groups, a paramilitary force and the Colombian army. An estimated 6,000 noncombatants die each year in violence that has its roots in the extreme economic and social inequality in the South American nation. That violence is exacerbated by extensive illegal narcotics production and trafficking, a clandestine industry that produces 80 percent of the cocaine distributed in the United States.

The unrest has displaced more than three million people from their homes and villages, a total that is the second highest of any nation in the world, exceeded only by Sudan. Another casualty of this war has been human rights. Although Colombia’s guerillas have been implicated in serious human rights violations, including numerous killings and kidnappings, the paramilitary are responsible for numerous peasant massacres and widespread forced displacementoften in well-documented collaboration with the Colombian military. Colombia is one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a religious leader, a promoter of peace or a defender of human rights. Those who work with the poor and defend human rights have been particular targets.

All this is happening while U.S. aid is pouring into the country. Unfortunately, most of this aid goes to the military for what at first was directed at eliminating narcotics trafficking but is increasingly directed toward counterinsurgency efforts. In 2000, under the framework of Plan Colombia, the United States dramatically increased its foreign aid to Colombia and eventually the Andean region. Eighty percent of the funds for Colombia have been dedicated to military aid for counter-narcotics efforts, with the rest for alternative development, judicial reform and aid to internally displaced people. Plan Colombia has allocated nearly $4 billion, with a continued disproportionate emphasis on military aid, and an increasing percentage directed toward counterinsurgency efforts.

Resolving the Crisis

Aid to Colombia should be shifted toward greater humanitarian and social aid in order to address the root causes of the conflict. The conflict in Colombia and the involvement of peasant farmers in coca production is deeply rooted in the social and economic exclusion of many of its citizens. Many of the areas that are most plagued by conflict have little or no social infrastructure or viable economic options. Strategies that rely primarily on military aid or fumigation of crops and provide only limited social investment in local communities will not create lasting change. Additionally, given the problem of widespread impunity in Colombia, all U.S. aid to Colombia should be premised on rigorous human rights criteria.

Support multilateral efforts for a negotiated, political path towards peace. After 40 years of an ever-escalating armed conflict that has claimed the lives of tens of thousands, Colombian and U.S. Catholic Church representatives have been clear that a negotiated peace process is essential to the resolution of the current conflict. Every effort should be made to achieve a peace process that both incorporates mechanisms to address the fundamental social justice concerns that have sustained the conflict.

Stop aerial fumigation in favor of a more effective and less harmful strategy toward drug eradication. An increasing proportion of the Colombian countryside, including some of the most biodiverse areas in the world, have been fumigated as coca production shifts from one area to another, while drug accessibility in the United States remains constant. Food crops have been destroyed along with the coca plants, and reports of water contamination and health problems are widespread. Thousands of people have been further displaced from the fumigated areas.

Some Successes

There are, nonetheless, reasons to be optimistic about some of the world’s seemingly intractable problems. In Africa, where almost half the population lives in extreme poverty, there have been success stories. Ghana, for example, has emerged from years of civil and political unrest to become one of West Africa’s most stable and well-governed countries. Not only does Ghana have one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, but many development indicators show vast improvement. For example, between 1991 and 2001 the percentage of the population considered malnourished fell dramatically from 35 percent to 12 percent, and life expectancy over the last 30 years has increased from 50 years to 57.9 years.

In Mali, despite various adverse and recurring shocks, including drought and locust invasions, G.D.P. growth has averaged over 5 percent per year since 1994. This performance is due in part to increased political and social stability in the early 1990’s. Mali is in the forefront of African countries moving to a truly democratic and pluralistic political system.

There have also been advances in peacebuilding, with some hope in sight of resolving, or at least easing, several longstanding conflicts. In southern Sudan, despite the death of the rebel leader John Garang, a fragile peace is holding between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.

In tsunami-devastated Banda Aceh, Indonesia, progress is continuing in the wake of a peace accord signed in August between the government and the separatist Free Aceh Movement. Indonesian military forces are withdrawing from the region as rebels disarm.

Whether we are celebrating these signs of hope, or lamenting the tragedy of the world’s silent tsunamis, we are inexorably drawn in solidarity to the plight of our brothers and sisters, the members of our one human family. We are called to engage the world. We are called to change lives.

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