This year brings a remarkable opportunity to a country that has been gripped by conflict for decades. With the M23 rebels vanquished, slavery can become a new focus for building lasting peace and prosperity for all in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
I was in Goma late last year at the end of the M23 rebellion. For the first time in my many trips there, I could feel the climate of tension melting away. The Congolese army, supported by the U.N. intervention brigade, marched on rebel strongholds and successfully retook town after town. The stealth victory has boosted Congolese patriotism.
Many Congolese have renewed faith in their army and they have been calling for sweeping action to crush all of the armed groups that have mushroomed in eastern Congo. But the cornerstones for lasting peace require more than battlefield success. Peace can only be sustained through development and accountability.
Congo remains one of the world’s worst slavery hotspots, with more than 460,000 people estimated to be in slavery according to the Walk Free Global Slavery Index. Much of this slavery has been linked to so-called “conflict-minerals,” which are valuable metals mined by slaves to support armed groups. Free the Slaves research last year documented this widespread slavery in two reports, Congo’s Mining Slaves and Wives in Slavery.
The end of major military action provides a chance to confront slavery in Congo’s post-conflict zones. With the shift of paradigm, Congolese officials at the national and provincial levels will be held accountable for the development and welfare of their citizens.
Addressing the root causes that make people vulnerable to slavery in the DRC — such as poverty, underdevelopment, youth unemployment and gender-based violence – are cornerstones for security and economic development.
It will take time to end slavery in the Congo, just as it has taken time to vanquish the country’s main rebel group. But as we begin 2014, I am optimistic. The Congolese government has an unprecedented opportunity to muster support for decisive action to combat slavery, reducing one of the region’s most widespread human rights violations.
Gabriel Deussom is the Free the Slaves Congo program manager. For more info on our programs in the Congo, see our Congo webpage.