Introduction

Perception defines our reality. Where access to information that may enhance our perception is limited, the reality we see becomes distorted and warped. Our view of the state of armed conflict in the world today is one of the most unfortunate victims of such distortion. In spite of supposedly unprecedented access to information, the information presented to us on conflicts occurring throughout the world is so skewed that the reality is almost unrecognisable. This is primarily due to the highly selective and increasingly assimilated agendas of the media, powerful governments, academics, NGOs and lobby groups. One or two of the 20 to 30 conflicts ongoing throughout the world are ‘chosen’ to be the subject of intense scrutiny and selective indignation – very rarely on the basis of scale or the level of humanitarian emergency. The others remain, to all intents and purposes, undetected – absent from international consciousness.

This is particularly true of the most conflict-torn region of the world – Africa, which has produced more than 90 percent of the conflict-related deaths since the end of the Cold War. Despite the scale of the human suffering, it seems that Western-centric consciousness (and outrage) ends at the Suez Canal. Nowhere is this more painfully clear than in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which, from the perspective of media, public, policy and academic agendas outside the region, almost does not exist. In reality, it is a humanitarian catastrophe of virtually unfathomable proportions, caused by a war that has raged across more than half of a country almost the size of Western Europe, and has seen the direct military involvement of eight foreign countries. Not only is it the deadliest war in the world today, it is the deadliest since World War II, having resulted in an estimated 3.3 million conflict-related deaths since fighting broke out in August 1998.[1]

After introducing the concept of stealth conflicts and presenting a background of the conflict in the DRC, this paper will demonstrate the dynamics behind the almost complete marginalization of the conflict through an examination of media, policy, public and academic agendas in the Western world. Based on this examination, it attempts to systematize the concept of stealth conflicts. It concludes with a somewhat pessimistic outlook as to the possibility of a change in this disturbing distortion of reality.

Stealth Conflicts

Recognition that certain conflicts are marginalized and excluded from the media, policy and public agendas is not new.[2] Such conflicts are sometimes referred to as ‘forgotten conflicts’ or ‘orphan conflicts’. It can be considered, however, that these terms are misnomers. For a conflict to be ‘forgotten’, it must once have been ‘remembered’, or some significant attention given to its resolution. For a conflict to be ‘orphaned’, it must once have had ‘parents’ that were concerned with the well-being of the country in question.

The conflict in Somalia, or even that in Angola (to some extent), could be considered forgotten or orphan conflicts, for they were once remembered, and efforts (albeit unsuccessful) were made towards bringing about a conclusion to the hostilities. The lack of genuine and determined interest soon became apparent, however, and troop contributors withdrew and the ongoing conflicts were forgotten. The conflict in the DRC, however, does not fit this profile. It did not disappear from the ‘radar’ of international consciousness. The fact is, it was never really on it.

Perhaps the term ‘stealth conflict’ is more appropriate in such a case. If we consider the term in the context of the military technology that allows bombers to remain undetected on radar as they bomb their targets, certain parallels become apparent. Like the stealth bomber, the conflict in the DRC has caused a huge amount of death and destruction, while somehow remaining undetected on all of the manifestations of the international community’s radar screens. Those waging the war have not necessarily been deliberately secretive:[3] the conflict simply hasn’t been noticed by the outside world. The term can also be considered appropriate in the sense that the majority of those who have died in the war have been killed by stealth. They were not killed by noisy gunshots or explosions, but by starvation and/or preventable and treatable diseases directly resulting from people fleeing their homes and farms, the destruction of infrastructure, and the breakdown of agriculture, public services and supply lines.

Whether or not a conflict is noticed depends on the awareness of, and interaction among, the manifestations of international consciousness (the media, policymakers, the public and academia). Attempting to systematize the concept of stealth conflicts requires a more detailed examination of international consciousness in this sense, which is provided below. Suffice it to note at this point that the DRC is by no means the only stealth conflict. The majority of conflicts in the world do not appear (or appear only fleetingly) on the radar screens of international consciousness.

The conflict in the Sudan (which has resulted in more than 2 million deaths since 1983), for example, remains a very low priority on the policy agenda, and is totally absent from the media agenda. The later stages of the conflict and historic peace in Angola went by virtually unnoticed and unsupported. Other major conflicts, such as those in Algeria and the Republic of the Congo, are also almost completely ignored. Prolonged conflict in Liberia was briefly noticed only when rebels had already entered Monrovia and the question of possible US involvement was raised. Similarly, Burundi’s conflict received fleeting attention when Nelson Mandela (with celebrity status in the West) took on the role of mediator. While the USA, UK and Australia were invading Iraq, a democracy in the Central African Republic fell unnoticed, overthrown by an armed rebellion. These are just a few examples of conflicts that are routinely marginalized and ignored.

Nor is the stealth with which the victims in these conflicts die unique to the DRC. Contrary to popular belief, bullets and bombs (‘smart’ or otherwise) are not the biggest killers in modern-day war. Starvation and disease are by far the biggest killers in almost any war. The proportion of such ‘silent’ killings, however, is particularly pronounced in stealth conflicts, largely because conflicts that are undetected do not attract the attention or indignation of aid donors or humanitarian NGOs and are therefore unchecked.

What makes the DRC unique, however, is the scale (absolutely unparalleled in recent history) of death and suffering, coupled with the fact that despite this suffering, it has somehow managed to remain undetected. Let us put aside, for a moment, the millions of those who have been injured, tortured, raped, orphaned, forced to flee their homes, starved or have otherwise suffered as a result of the conflict in the DRC, and focus only on the number of those who have actually lost their lives: 3.3 million. Three point three million is a number so high that it is extremely difficult to fathom, especially when it is used to represent the number of human lives lost as a result of a catastrophic war. It is worth noting that more than 60 of the world’s countries have populations less than 3.3 million. To further emphasise the relative scale of the conflict, the following graph compares the death toll of the conflict in the DRC to other more ‘popular’ conflicts.

With jet airplanes, television, fax machines, computers, e-mail, internet, satellite videophones and other technological innovations, our ability to gather, process and disseminate any amount of information literally from anywhere in the world is at a level unprecedented in human history. Newspapers carrying detailed information of the day’s events around the world arrive on our doorsteps the next morning. So-called ‘world’ news now spews out of television sets on multiple cable channels twenty-four hours a day. With a computer and a telephone, the internet allows us to access any amount of real-time information from anywhere in the world at any time. Considering this, and in light of the massive scale of the conflict and unparalleled level of death and suffering, it can be considered that the DRC is, without a doubt, the greatest stealth conflict in human history.

Africa’s World War in the DRC

The DRC’s current conflict is extremely complex, and describing the conflict in a singular sense may be somewhat misleading. It is in fact an intertwined convergence of several conflicts – on local, national and regional levels – which are focused primarily on the eastern half of the country. It has its origins in the legacy (in terms of citizenship rights and land ownership) of forced migrations of Rwandan-speaking people under Belgian colonialism, in internal divisions exacerbated by decades of misrule under the US-backed Mobutu, in decades of ethnic conflict and refugee flows culminating in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and in the spillover of five foreign civil wars deep into DRC territory.

Each of the players – the DRC government, the numerous rebel groups (and their often opposing factions), the local militias, and the eight foreign countries who have intervened militarily – has or has had different objectives and agendas. Interestingly, it has been primarily the interests of the surrounding African states, rather than those of the colonial masters or Cold War patrons, that have dictated the course of the conflict.[4] The hostile operations of rebel movements from bases in the DRC provided much of the rationale for intervention by Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi. The DRC’s relations with rebel movements from Angola and the Sudan also weighed heavily on their decision to intervene. Access to resources in the DRC has also been a key factor in foreign involvement on both sides, with deals between the DRC and Zimbabwe and Namibia in particular proving critical in securing their intervention.

The territory – which has an area roughly the size of Western Europe, covered in jungle – was cut virtually in half by the conflict. The terrain and lack of infrastructure do not generally allow long overland troop advances, and typical offensives saw troops transported by boat or plane, securing only major towns, ports, airfields and mines. Already delicate supply lines (most notably commercial traffic on the Congo River) needed to provide basic necessities to the general population have been largely cut off. Agriculture, health care and other public services have collapsed, particularly in the east.

In terms of a history of the conflict, the 1994 Rwandan genocide is perhaps an appropriate starting point. As the genocide passed its peak, Hutu perpetrators of the genocide, their families, and innocent civilians fearing reprisals, fled Rwanda as refugees into neighbouring Zaire as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) entered Rwanda from its bases in Uganda. In the refugee camps near the Rwandan-Zaire border, the Hutu militants regrouped, recruited and trained soldiers and, using the camps as bases, began to launch attacks against Rwanda. In response, Rwanda, together with Uganda, Burundi, Angola and Eritrea, entered the DRC in 1996 in support of a loose alliance of anti-Mobutu rebels. Rwandan forces broke up the refugee camps, and the Hutu militants fled deeper into Zaire. Finding little resistance in their pursuit, the anti-Mobutu alliance headed for Kinshasa, toppling the regime in 1997. Laurent Kabila was installed as president, and Zaire was renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Rifts soon developed in the friendship between the new government and the backers that had propelled it to power. Dissatisfied with Kabila’s failure to deal with the Hutu militias and other rebel groups based in the DRC, and confident that, having done it before, they could once again bring about regime change, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi troops crossed the border into the DRC in August 1998, allying with a new set of domestic groups opposed to the Kabila regime, and advanced rapidly across the country. Part two of Africa’s World War was underway.

Kabila moved quickly to attract support for his regime. Rwanda’s bold attempt to take Kinshasa from the west using airborne troops was foiled (much to its surprise) by Angolan intervention. Zimbabwe, Namibia, Chad and Sudan also rallied to Kabila’s call, and a stalemate ensued. The Lusaka Peace Accords were signed in 1999 by the countries involved and by the main Rwandan and Ugandan proxies – the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) and the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC). The UN Security Council established an observer mission, which was later transformed into a small peacekeeping mission (known by its French acronym MONUC). The full deployment of the force was repeatedly delayed, and its role remains relatively negligible against the backdrop of the conflict.

Several other African peace initiatives have brought about numerous agreements, including a plan for an interim government pending elections, but the impact on the situation on the ground has been limited, particularly in Ituri, and the Kivus. While most of the foreign forces deployed in the DRC have now been withdrawn (Uganda began its withdrawal in April 2003), the internal conflict continues between Rwandan and Ugandan proxies (closely controlled by their backers), DRC Government forces and its allies, Mai Mai militia groups, Hutu militias and other rebel movements from neighbouring countries. Allies (most notably Rwanda and Uganda) have become enemies, and enemies, allies. Factions have split again into factions, and despite some positive developments, widespread and sustainable peace remains elusive.[5]

Ironically, the conflict is economically self-sustaining, thanks to the DRC’s mineral wealth. The continuation of the conflict perpetuates conditions favourable to the exploitation of the resources of the DRC by parties to the conflict (as well as the individuals representing these parties) and opportunistic corporations and individuals. Many such entities have been implicated in the final report of the UN Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.[6] Apart from the parties to the conflict, those implicated include multinational corporations based in Belgium, the UK, the USA and South Africa. While resources exploited include diamonds, gold, silver, copper and timber, it is coltan – a mineral that is an essential component in mobile phones and other electronic devices – that has been the most influential resource in the conflict.[7]

International Consciousness and the DRC

International consciousness is used in this study to refer to the collective contents of the agendas of the media, policymakers, the public and academics.[8] The position of the conflict in the DRC in relation to each of these agendas will be dealt with individually below, but it is necessary first to examine briefly how these agendas interact – giving birth to stealth conflicts.

Agenda-setting research to date seems to support the hypothesis that the media agenda plays a key role in shaping the public agenda, and that the public agenda in turn affects the policy agenda (through public opinion and powerful lobby groups).[9] While the full extent of the so-called CNN-factor is not completely understood, it can be considered that policymakers and the media both exert considerable influence over each other. Clever policymakers use the media to broadcast their policies and raise the position of an agenda item.[10] Conversely, where there is indecision or indifference among policymakers, saturated media coverage can propel an item into a high position on the policy agenda.[11] Collectively, academics are able to project some influence on the policy agenda, but are also subject to considerable influence from the policy and media agendas, as will be demonstrated below.

Whatever the dynamics of the projection of influence, it can be considered that all of these agendas have become tightly intertwined, with each feeding off and mimicking the one that takes the lead in agenda setting (usually the policymakers and sometimes the media). Ironically, this is partly a reflection of the assimilation of the flow of information in society, rather than the diversification that might have been expected with the explosion of the internet and other advances in information technology. The dissemination of information technology has led to a greatly pronounced bandwagon effect in and between all sectors of agenda setting.

In terms of conflict, the media, policymakers, the public, and even academics have shown that collectively, they are only able to consciously process one or two conflicts at a time.[12] Thus, usually at a rate of about one a year, a conflict is ‘chosen’ to be the subject of intense scrutiny (primarily based on the interests of powerful policymakers), and it will appear as a blinding spot in the centre of policy, media, public and academic radar screens – obscuring all other points of possible interest. In 1999 it was Kosovo (and later East Timor), followed by a minor upsurge in violence in Israel-Palestine in 2000.[13] The 9-11 attacks and war on Afghanistan covered late 2001 and early 2002, and a non-conflict (and in fact non-crisis) situation in Iraq was taken up as the chosen conflict-to-be for late 2002 to early 2003.

In the absence of such a blinding spot, other conflicts (or developments in peace processes) will sometimes make appearances on international consciousness, such as Kashmir, Chechnya, Northern Ireland, and Sierra Leone. For the past 5 years, the conflict in the DRC, however, has been notably absent, not only from the list of chosen conflicts, but even from the list of peripheral conflicts that appeared on Western radar screens.

The Media Agenda

In this era of increasingly competitive commercial mass media, simplicity and sensationalism are the keys, and news is commonly packaged as a form of infotainment. Coverage of conflict is highly oversimplified and is typically forced into the framework of a Hollywood-style morality play – complete with villain, victim and hero.[14] As a product to be bought and sold, news must also be ‘fresh’ – live coverage is certainly preferable, and any story that takes more than a day or two to reach and report is deemed unworthy of reporting.[15] Competition has also seen budgets for newsgathering slashed, such that rather than stationing reporters in the field, news corporations rely heavily on news gathered from government officials in the reporters’ home countries. This has considerably raised the influence of Western governments in agenda setting.[16]

With all these factors in mind, the odds are certainly stacked against the DRC making an appearance on the media agenda. Firstly, it is far too complex to be bent to fit a simple morality play formula, or to be marketed as a product that can easily be understood in a thirty-second sound bite by the consumer. Secondly, its location does not allow its stories to reach the market as fresh news. With the terrain, lack of infrastructure and sheer distances involved, it may take days (and considerable cost, danger and/or discomfort) for a camera crew or reporter to find a story. Thirdly, the media industry is wary of perceived compassion fatigue in the West (dating back to its saturation coverage of war and famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s) with regards to the suffering of black Africans.[17] Finally, as the DRC is not on the radars of Western governments, it does not appear on those of a media industry that has a tendency to take its cues from the government.

For all of these reasons, gatekeepers in the media industry decided (and have continued to decide over the past five years) that covering the DRC conflict is simply not worth the cost or effort that would be required. The dominance of a handful of powerful Western media corporations and the bandwagon effect ensure that this blackout is practically universal. In a study that ranked the level of coverage of conflicts in television news and newspapers in the year 2000, the lack of coverage on the DRC and the nature of the ‘other side’ of the CNN factor were made abundantly clear.[18] The DRC was barely noticed by CNN and BBC world news, being the 14th and 15th most-covered conflict, respectively. In terms of coverage time, a viewer who watched one 30-minute program of world news every day on CNN and BBC would have seen just 16 minutes of coverage of the DRC conflict on CNN and 29 minutes on BBC over the entire year. The same viewer would have seen 8 hours and 34 minutes on CNN and 9 hours and 41 minutes on BBC of coverage of the small-scale clashes in Israel-Palestine.

Nor was the DRC on the radars of the newspapers. It was 8th and 11th most-covered conflict in the New York Times and Le Monde, respectively, and did not even register in Japan’s Yomiuri Shinbun. In all three newspapers, its coverage was but a fraction of that of other conflicts. Coverage of the DRC was one-twelfth of that of Israel-Palestine in the New York Times, and one-eighteenth in Le Monde.[19] The sad truth is that one can be a regular viewer of cable TV news, and read newspapers from cover to cover, and still have very little idea of what is happening in the world.

Even non-governmental media watchdog organisations critical of the media fail to notice the glaring omission of the DRC (or other major African conflicts) from the media. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), for example, largely concerns itself with exposing the rampant patriotism and self-censorship in the Western media. While this is a valid pursuit, in commenting primarily on the content of topics the media chooses to take up, it also ignores the topics that the media ignores. Among FAIR’s numerous articles and broadcasts since the war in the DRC broke out in 1998, only 1 article was devoted to the DRC (among a total of 11 on Africa). In contrast, more than 50 were devoted to Israel-Palestine, and more than 70 to Iraq.[20]

The Policy Agenda

Presidents, prime ministers, politicians and their spokespersons contribute significantly to the distortion of reality regarding the state of conflict, adjusting it to suit their policy goals. Those hoping to maintain the status quo, or avoid getting involved in a conflict, ignore (or downplay) injustice and human rights abuse. Those beating war drums single out (and often exaggerate) examples of injustice and human rights abuse. It was government policy under the Clinton Administration in the USA, for example, to avoid the use of the word ‘genocide’ in reference to what was clearly an ongoing genocide in Rwanda, to avoid involvement.[21] There were no such qualms in responding to a low-intensity conflict in Kosovo, and great liberties were taken with the use of the word in an attempt to justify NATO’s war.

The ugly reality is that injustice and human rights abuse exist in every country in the world, in varying degrees, and the level of outrage displayed by governments, to these situations, is very rarely proportionate to the degree of injustice. The deafening silence on the DRC makes it painfully obvious that the assertion that there are certain levels of killing, human rights abuse and human suffering that the West simply will not tolerate (an assertion used, for example, to justify the war on Yugoslavia), is little more than rhetoric designed to pursue narrow foreign policy objectives.

Disproportionate levels of humanitarian assistance provided by governments are one of the most telling signs of distorted Western policy radars. Lamenting “double standards” in an address to the UN Security Council, Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WPF), James Morris, commented that “commitments to humanitarian aid are political choices”, and posed the question, “How is it we routinely accept a level of suffering and hopelessness in Africa we would never accept in any part of the world?”[22] A comparison of the total amount of humanitarian aid offered in response to (as well as outside) consolidated appeals by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian affairs (OCHA) for complex emergencies is quite revealing:[23]

Total humanitarian assistance: Jan. 1999 – Jun. 2003 (millions of US dollars)

DRC Great Lakes S.E. Europe East Timor Afghanistan Iraq
349 574 1,493 180 1,741 1,044

Four and a half years of appeals for the DRC attracted only 349 million US dollars. This pales in comparison to the more than 1 billion dollars raised in just 3 months for Iraq, or the 1.7 billion for one and a half years in Afghanistan, or the 1.5 billion for four years in South-Eastern Europe. The 180 million raised for tiny East Timor in less than one year was more than the amount raised for the DRC in any year – it was fifteen times that raised for the DRC in 2000. Even if we add the contributions for the four and a half years of appeals for the Great Lakes region and Central Africa[24] – the most conflict-prone region in the world – the total (923 million) still does not compare with the assistance provided for much smaller and much shorter conflicts.

Likewise, in the realm of peacemaking, high-level mediation from outside the continent has been notably absent. While some low-key attempts at diplomacy with a view to achieving some limited objectives have been made, such as the UK’s mediation meetings with Rwanda and Uganda (referred to as “little more than photo opportunities over cups of tea”[25]), and the US pressuring Rwanda to withdraw from the DRC, there remains little will in the West to become even politically involved in a solution. Furthermore, given the economic involvement of numerous Western multinationals and arms sales, rather than being pure apathy, there remains the possibility that Western inaction may be an indication that benefits from the continuation of conflict outweigh those of its conclusion – a view that is supported by allegations of covert involvement in the hostilities,[26] and the blocking of peacekeeping reinforcements.[27]

The DRC has not been absent from UN Security Council discussions (although it did take seven months for the Council to adopt a resolution on the issue), and the Council has continued to call for an end to the conflict through press statements, presidential statements and resolutions. With next to no political will among its members, however, little else has been done.[28] A token peacekeeping force was authorised in 2000 but the deployment has been marked by lengthy delays,[29] and was still not fully deployed in mid-2003. The decision to deploy peacekeepers appeared to be made largely out of a need to be seen to be ‘doing something’, after accusations of double standards following interventions in Kosovo and East Timor. In any case, deploying peacekeepers (as opposed to peace enforcers) where there was no peace to keep, and doing so in such small numbers, was clearly an inappropriate (and highly dangerous) response: a Band-Aid solution.

Sadly, the United Nations Secretariat and its affiliated agencies are not immune to the pressures of lopsided international consciousness, and are forced to adapt to the realities that surround and govern them. The UN agencies that set up the consolidated appeals for humanitarian aid cannot control the amount that is donated or pledged, but the setting of the amount requested reveals trends similar to those of the donors. OCHA’s flash appeal for Iraq, for example, was the largest ever, with a request of more than 2.2 billion dollars for just 6 months. The total amount requested from five years of appeals for the DRC and the Great Lakes region and Central Africa combined was only 1.4 billion.

Publications and websites of UN agencies also reveal tendencies to follow the popular conflicts of the times. In May 2003, for example, the UN main homepage displayed special links to Iraq, the Middle East ‘Roadmap’, and terrorism, as did the UN News Centre. Other agencies, such as UNICEF, UNDP and OCHA also displayed special links to pages on Iraq on their main homepages.

The Public Agenda

The conflict in the DRC has attracted so little attention in the media and policy agendas that, collectively, the public – completely at the mercy of media and policy agenda setting – has virtually no idea that the conflict even exists.

For example, in a simple questionnaire survey, 37 Australian university students taking a course on war and peace, were asked to name what they thought were the three deadliest conflicts in the world, and the three deadliest African conflicts since the end of the Cold War, as well as the conflict they thought, in terms of humanitarian suffering, was most in need of a solution.[30] Of the 37, only one person could name the DRC as one of the top three deadliest conflicts in the world (and that was at third, behind Israel-Palestine and Afghanistan). The most common response was that the Israel-Palestine conflict was the deadliest (9), and an astonishing 21 (more than half) thought that, in terms of humanitarian suffering, that conflict was the most in need of a solution. Only one could name the DRC as the deadliest conflict in Africa (13 could not even name a single African conflict). While the sample size is small, it serves as an example of how distorted the public’s view on conflict is – particular as those surveyed could be expected to have an above-average interest in (and knowledge of) the subject.[31]

Foreign policy polling services also reveal significant imbalances in awareness of conflict in the world, with a lack of mention of the DRC, and Africa in general. Gallup polls on foreign policy, for example, focus on China, Cuba, Iraq, Kosovo, the Middle East and Russia. No references to the DRC were returned in searches for references to the DRC on the Gallup website, demonstrating a total absence of the subject, whereas similar searches resulted in 75 references to Israel and 59 to Kosovo.[32] It should also be noted that of the 26 offices Gallup has established around the world, none is based in Africa.

Powerful and well-organised lobby groups, primarily made up of diasporas and groups with ethnic and/or religious ties to countries or regions affected by conflict, are also able to influence the position of a conflict on the radar of international consciousness. Lobby groups connected to Israel and, to a lesser extent, Palestine, for example, are largely responsible for maintaining a constant and disproportionately high level of Western media, policy, public and academic interest in the relatively minor Israeli-Palestinian conflict. African diasporas (much less those of the DRC) are not sufficiently unified, organised, powerful or motivated to influence the position of African conflicts on the various manifestations of international consciousness.[33]

Humanitarian NGOs are another manifestation of the public agenda. Such organisations are dependent on donations from the general public and government funding – making them highly susceptible to the bandwagon effect. Capitalizing on public sentiment created by the media and policymakers, many NGOs, in an effort to increase donations to their organisation and expand their sphere of influence, set up special appeals (even advertising in newspapers and on television) for donations for the victims of popular conflicts. They also take advantage of heavy government funding for NGO projects in such conflict (or post-conflict) zones. Similarly, television stations set up hotlines for donations, and rock stars (or coalitions of rock stars) hold charity concerts or produce charity albums in response to the popular conflicts of the times. The conflict in the DRC has yet to be the recipient of such attention.

The public’s lopsided view of the world shows in the comparative levels of private contributions to OCHA’s humanitarian appeals. Four and a half years of appeals for the DRC and the Great Lakes and Central Africa combined raised but one-thirty-eighth of the amount raised for South-Eastern Europe, one-thirty-second of that for one and a half years for Afghanistan, and one-fifth of that for just 3 months for Iraq.

Private contributions to OCHA appeals: Jan. 1999 – Jun. 2003 (millions of US dollars)[34]

DRC Great Lakes S.E. Europe East Timor Afghanistan Iraq
1.4 0.5 77.2 2.7 65.4 10.3

The internet has been hailed as a revolutionary tool in empowering the public to be in control of the information they can access. In theory, it should allow the public to circumvent the biases of the media and policymakers, and access information that better reflects reality. Unlike the newspapers, radio and television, however, the internet requires active participation in searching for specific information.[35] Thus, without initial interest and some background knowledge, the information will not be accessed in the first place. In this sense, conventional media (based on passive audience participation) remain infinitely more powerful than the internet in agenda-setting.

The Academic Agenda

One of the most important functions of academics in the field of international politics, relations and policy, is to step back and grasp the ‘big picture’ – seeing the world in an objective light that policymakers are generally incapable of. From such a vantage point, academics are (in theory) able to educate and advise policymakers. They also bear the responsibility for the recording of human history. All too often, however, the academic community follows the cues of its governments, devoting its attention to areas in which powerful Western governments are interested or involved. Objective analysis is generally made within the boundaries of those areas.

NATO’s bombardment of Yugoslavia over Kosovo, for example, was matched with a bombardment of academic studies and analytical thinking. ‘Humanitarian intervention’ and ‘sovereignty’ were the resulting buzzwords that dominated the academic journals and books in the years that followed. The 9-11 attacks on the USA and the war on Afghanistan made ‘terrorism’ the blinding spot on the academic radar. The invasion and occupation of Iraq has since brought the issue of imposed democracy to the forefront of the academic agenda, along with the related question of the relevance of the UN Security Council. It is ironic that the illegal war on Iraq, rather than the marginalization of the DRC, has been the trigger in the academic community’s questioning of the effectiveness of the Council.

The failure of the Western academic community to adequately analyse the world’s largest conflict since World War II (or most other African conflicts, for that matter), can only be described as collective academic negligence, and brings into question the very relevance of the security studies field to the modern world. With very few exceptions,[36] Western periodicals that deal with international affairs have failed to devote even a single article to analysis of the DRC. Such journals tend to devote more articles to the issue of Israel-Palestine than to the entire African continent.[37] The Keesings Record of World Events is also an example of how the recording of history is being skewed. In 1999, for example, its issues contained a total of approximately 35 pages of writing on Yugoslavia (Kosovo), compared to 5 for the DRC. In 2002, 32 pages on Israel-Palestine overshadowed the 3 pages devoted to the DRC. In the four years from 1999 to 2002, it contained a total of 81 pages on Israel-Palestine, 66 on Yugoslavia, 30 on Afghanistan and only 15 on the DRC.[38]

A similar trend can be seen in books and other academic works. A search in May 2003 of a database of books and documents available (published since 1999) on the DRC in all Japanese universities revealed a total of 11 relevant works – in English and French. An identical search for those relating to Kosovo revealed more than 120 works in over five languages.[39] In its 1999 yearbook, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) offered individual chapters of analysis on the Middle East, Russia, the Caspian Sea and Europe in its ‘Security and Conflict’ section, but no chapters were devoted to Africa’s major security issue in the DRC (or anywhere else on the continent).[40] In-depth analysis was also notably absent from its yearbooks of 2000, 2001 and 2002, with the focus being on Europe.[41]

Several explanations can be suggested for this marginalization. Academics do not conduct research in a vacuum: they watch the news, read newspapers and listen to their government officials and spokespeople. Research sparked by such triggers makes academics victims of the bandwagon effect. Furthermore, analysis is often contingent on the documents, information, and prior research available, which leads to a vicious cycle. The less information there is available to begin with, the less research academics can conduct without expending considerable effort. Finally, the seduction of influence, prestige and sales can mean that the works that academic societies and book-writers produce are often focused around the ‘fashionable’ topics of the times.

A considerable amount of credit must go to organisations such as the International Crisis Group (ICG) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC), for being some of the very few organisations attempting to draw attention to the conflict, by providing analysis, a record of history, and a record of the number of deaths. In contrast, hundreds of zealous reporters and numerous other organisations provide daily updates and analysis of the conflict and the number of conflict casualties in Israel-Palestine, ensuring that casualty figures are presented down to the single digits. Despite the efforts of such organisations as the ICG and IRC in the DRC, the conflict is still in danger of being denied its place in history.

Systematizing the Concept of Stealth Conflicts

Using the above discussion, it is possible to further develop and somewhat systematize the concept of stealth conflicts, with a view to enhancing its applicability to the world at large. Stealth conflicts are those that are consistently absent from policy, media, public and academic agendas, and typically have a pronounced level of inadequately addressed human suffering. While forgotten, or orphaned, conflicts are those that have, in the past, been the recipients of sustained international consciousness and interest, stealth conflicts consistently fail to attract such attention throughout their course (although they may make occasional fleeting appearances in extreme or unique circumstances).

Examining the factors that bring conflicts onto the radar of international consciousness is useful in understanding stealth conflicts. As noted above, the agendas of the manifestations of international consciousness have become increasingly intertwined, with closely linked policy and media agendas largely dictating public and mainstream academic agendas. As such, the factors most warranting our attention are those that determine policy and media interest.

Strategic interest is the key determinant of policy interest. A conflict becomes a high priority for a government when it affects that country’s strategic interests. Such interests may be related to perceived direct military threats (including terrorism), access to (or control over) natural resources (as in the Middle East region), an influx of refugees (as in Haiti, the Balkans, East Timor), or other potentially damaging influxes, such as narcotics (as in Colombia). For these reasons, strategic interest is generally closely linked to geographical proximity. A conflict also becomes a high priority for a government when it affects the strategic interests of the government itself (in terms of re-election). In this way, powerful special-interest groups in the public domain affect the level of policy interest in a conflict (as in Israel-Palestine).

The media interest is sparked largely by government interest (or at least by the same factors that spark government interest), but there are some factors that affect media interest differently. Compared to policy interest, media interest is more influenced by ease of access to the conflict in question (in terms of obtaining visual images of the conflict or the humanitarian suffering). Hostile terrain and poor infrastructure in Colombia and the Sudan, for example, severely limit media interest, despite some policy interest by the USA. Violent targeting of journalists, such as that in Algeria, and government restriction of journalism, such as that in the Sudan, also serve as barriers. Sensationalism is also more pronounced than it is in the policy agenda. In Rwanda, sensationalism (large-scale massacres) combined with access (reporters coincidentally returning from the first post-apartheid elections in South Africa) propelled the conflict to chosen status, but sensationalism alone under similar circumstances in Burundi was an insufficient trigger. The plight of white people (farmers in Zimbabwe, Western hostages in the Philippines and Colombia) is also a key factor in prompting media interest.

Drawing a clear line marking the boundaries of stealth conflicts would be an academic (and not particularly useful) exercise. International consciousness of conflicts may range from virtually non-existent to obsessive, and also fluctuates depending on the conflict stage. Generally, however, it can be said that there is a yawning gap between chosen conflicts and stealth conflicts, and that there are few conflicts between the two extremes: as in those that attract a relatively consistent amount of low-level attention. It is perhaps the media’s commercially-driven appetite for sensationalism that has contributed the most to this yawning gap. The media’s habit of seizing upon a single conflict and providing saturation coverage of only that conflict not only makes it difficult for the policymakers, public or academia to ignore, but also makes it difficult for them to notice the existence of other conflicts.

In any case, it is, ironically, African conflicts that are the furthest from the radar screens of international consciousness, despite the fact that Africa is host to the vast majority of world conflicts. Most African conflicts are geographically and economically removed from Western strategic interests, are not easily accessible, are highly complex, do not involve white people, and are not followed by powerful diasporas in the West. These are the key factors that leave almost all African conflicts in the unfortunate status of stealth conflicts.

Recent Developments and Conclusions

In May 2003, the DRC made a brief appearance on the periphery of Western radar screens. Seven hundred Uruguayan peacekeepers that had arrived in the town of Bunia (to fill the vacuum left by the Ugandan withdrawal) found themselves severely outnumbered, under siege, and struggling to protect themselves (together with thousands of civilians), as militias battled for control of the town. The situation appeared ominously similar in nature to past tragedies in Rwanda, Bosnia and Sierra Leone. Two peacekeepers were killed and the UN Secretary-General frantically lobbied members of the international community, calling on them to intervene.

The international community responded. France agreed to lead a small Interim Emergency Multinational Force including troops from South Africa, Britain, Sweden and Pakistan, and the UN Security Council authorised the force on 30 May.[42] It was the first time in almost 7 years that the Council had authorised a peace enforcement mission for Africa (and even that had been aborted).[43]

Although a positive development, the appearance of the DRC on Western radar screens was prompted more by the sight of peacekeepers in danger, and by parallels drawn with the Rwandan genocide, than by the need to implement a comprehensive solution to the conflict.[44] The reluctance of the West to rise to the pleas of the UN Secretary-General was evident, and (after some delay) France agreed to lead the mission (providing roughly half of the 1,400 troops) only with support from others, only in the small town of Bunia and its airport, and only as a temporary, three-month stopgap measure until the blue-helmet peacekeepers could be reinforced.[45]

At worst, the French-led intervention can perhaps be described as a token force, deployed to project the appearance of ‘doing something’ – to be seen righting the wrongs of Rwanda. At best, it can be described as a good start. The Under-Secretary-General for UN Peacekeeping Operations, speaking of the UN peacekeeping force, noted that the “stand that has been taken in Bunia – a small place in a remote part of very large country – was sending a very strong signal way beyond Ituri [province]. It is of critical importance how the international community is now going to follow-up in the coming months.”[46]

The international community’s follow-up has been mixed. The French force withdrew and was replaced by an expanded blue-helmet peacekeeping force as scheduled. Arms sanctions were also applied (for the first time) to armed groups operating in Ituri and the Kivus. At the same time, Western interest and follow-up (in terms of diplomatic, military and humanitarian involvement) proved to be fleeting. The DRC’s distance from Western interests and culture, the size of the country (together with its inhospitable terrain and lack of infrastructure), and the magnitude, complexity and depth of its conflict still present formidable obstacles to meaningful international consciousness. While local African efforts to bring about a comprehensive solution appear to be bearing some fruit, the resources that African nations can bring to bear on conflict resolution are but a fraction of those of the West, and will probably be insufficient to bring about a just and lasting peace.

In terms of the policy agenda, one proposal tabled for meaningful Western intervention, was a ‘curtain of troops’ along the DRC’s Rwandan and Ugandan borders.[47] This could go a long way towards assuaging the security concerns of those countries and raising the overall stability of the region. The politically dangerous and expensive long-term deployment of troops, however, is not the only form of response available to the West. The careful targeting of arms (or other) sanctions and, equally importantly, the diligent enforcement of such sanctions, can also serve as a useful response. Increased and more involved diplomatic pressure – even if conducted discreetly – is also an option that should be pursued. At the very least, greater involvement in providing humanitarian assistance to the victims of the conflict, can potentially save a considerable number of lives, even though it is unlikely to contribute to conflict resolution.

How then do we go about putting the DRC on the radar of international consciousness? This is a question not easily answered, given the near-total absence of the factors shown above to draw attention to conflicts. The example of Somalia, however, does provide some room for hope. It is thought that the trigger for Somalia’s rise to prominence was the initiative of certain agencies within the US government – namely the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) – in an effort to draw the attention of other parts of the government to the conflict.[48] This, in turn, acted as a trigger for the media and the bandwagon effect took over. The DRC is not Somalia, and Somalia certainly had the fortune of being relatively accessible, but like the DRC, it was a highly complex conflict fought between black Africans where little Western strategic interest existed, and it shows that even an internal government agency has the potential to act as a trigger for drawing attention to a stealth conflict. Perhaps academics are also in a position to act as a trigger – particularly those within advisory range of the government, or a well-planned academic movement that manages to rope in media interest.

The dynamics of international consciousness make stealth conflicts inevitable, but given its massive scale, and the considerable implications for regional security, the DRC should not be one of them. Without some bold rearranging of priorities by the media, policymakers, the public and academics to break the cycle of silence and realign themselves with reality, the conflict in the DRC will remain absent from international consciousness outside the region, and left out of the very pages of history – the greatest stealth conflict of all time.


[1] The International Rescue Committee (IRC) produced this estimation of the death toll, after a series of investigations to determine the number of people who had died above and beyond that which would have been expected under stable circumstances. While 3.3 million is regarded as the most accurate estimate, the IRC acknowledges that its estimate could vary between 3.0 and 4.7 million. See the International Rescue Committee, Mortality in the Democratic Republic of Congo: Results from a Nationwide Survey, Conducted September – November 2002, reported April 2003.

[2] See, for example, ‘Forgotten Humanitarian Crises’, Conference Paper, Conference on the Role of the Media, Decision-Makers and Humanitarian Agencies, Copenhagen, 23 October 2002.

[3] Although both Rwanda and Uganda denied their troops were present in the DRC for several months after the conflict began.

[4] For further discussion on African involvement, see John F. Clark ed., The African Stakes of the Congo War, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

[5] For more detailed background on the conflict, see Jakkie Cilliers and Mark Malan, Peacekeeping in the DRC, MONUC and the Road to Peace, ISS Monograph No. 66 October 2001; Africa’s Seven Nation War, ICG Democratic Republic of Congo Report No. 4, 21 May 1999; and Storm Clouds over Sun City: The Urgent Need to Recast the Congolese Peace Process, ICG Africa Report No.44, Brussels/Nairobi, 14 May 2002.

[6] UN document S/2002/1146.

[7] See also The Kivus: The Forgotten Crucible of the Congo Conflict, ICG Africa Report No. 56, Nairobi/Brussels, 24 January, 2003, pp. 23-26.

[8] Studies on agenda-setting function tend to focus on the relationship between three main components: the media agenda, the public agenda and the policy agenda. For the purposes of this study, the academic agenda is added, recognising its role in influencing the policy agenda and in the recording of history.

[9] Everett M. Rogers, and James W. Dearing, ‘Agenda-setting Research: Where Has It Been, Where Is It Going?’, in Media Power in Politics, Graber ed., Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc, 1994.

[10] See Steven Livingston and Todd Eachus, ‘Humanitarian Crisis and US Foreign Policy: Somalia and the CNN Effect Reconsidered’, Political Communication, Vol. 12, 1995, pp. 413-429.

[11] See Piers Robinson, ‘The Policy-Media Interaction Model: Measuring Media Power During Humanitarian Crisis’, Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 37, No. 5, 2000, pp. 613-633.

[12] Ironically, BBC world news continued to use its slogan “Demand a broader view” in early 2003 as it broadcast week upon week of around-the-clock coverage of war in Iraq and nothing else. Apparently, the broader view we are asked to demand refers only to the view within the particular news item that is the subject of narrow focus, and even that aspect of the coverage is highly questionable.

[13] Largely due to constant media interest/presence interlinked with the far-reaching influence of powerful lobby groups, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and related peace process is a rare instance of a conflict that manages to maintain a relatively permanent place on international radars even when it is not a blinding spot.

[14] See John C. Hammock and Joel R. Charny, ‘Emergency Response as Morality Play: The Media, the Relief Agencies, and the Need for Capacity Building’, in From Massacres to Genocide: the Media, Public Policy, and Humanitarian Crisis, Rotberg and Weiss eds., Massachusetts: the World Peace Foundation, 1996, pp. 115-116.

[15] CNN’s slogan “Be the first to know” is quite revealing – the speed of reporting is clearly considered more valuable than accuracy, quality, breadth or depth.

[16] See Jonathan Mermin, Debating War and Peace: Media Coverage of U.S. Intervention in the Post-Vietnam Era, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

[17] See Susan D. Moeller, Compassion Fatigue, New York: Routledge, 1999.

[18] Virgil Hawkins, ‘The Other Side of the CNN Factor: Media and Conflict’, Journalism Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2002, pp. 225-240.

[19] Measured by taking the area (in square centimetres) of newspaper articles related to each particular conflict. As an overall trend in any of the mass media, only sensational stories (like the volcanic eruption near Goma in January 2002 and passengers being sucked from a cargo plane with a faulty door in mid-flight in May 2003) are likely to be covered.

[20] See www.fair.org.

[21] See William Ferroggiaro ed., The US and the Genocide in Rwanda 1994, A National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book, August 20, 2001, www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB53.

[22] ‘40 million Africans on brink of starvation, Security Council told’, UN News Service, 7 April 2003.

[23] See the OCHA Financial Tracking System, www.reliefweb.int/fts.

[24] While a small portion of this appeal goes to the DRC, it is designed for the entire region, covering Burundi, DRC, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda.

[25] See Francois Grignon, ‘There will be no excuses for not knowing’, Observer, 25 May 2003.

[26] See John Kakande, ‘US Army Operated Secretly in Congo’, New Vision, 17 June 2001. See also John Kamau, ‘Is the Congo facing a second betrayal?’, The Nation, 6 June 2003.

[27] See Grignon, op.cit.

[28] For a discussion on the marginalization of African conflicts in the Security Council, see Virgil Hawkins, ‘Measuring UN Security Council action and inaction in the 1990s: Lessons for Africa?’, African Security Review, Vol. 12, No. 2, 2003.

[29] See Mark Malan and Henri Boshoff, ‘A 90-day plan to bring peace to the DRC? An analysis of the Pretoria Agreement of 30 July 2002’, ISS Paper, No. 61, September 2002.

[30] Surveys conducted by Yasmin Hawkins, May 2003.

[31] For further analysis on the public’s understanding of conflict, see Greg Philo, ‘Television news and audience understanding of war, conflict and disaster’, Journalism Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2002, pp. 173-186.

[32] Search conducted on 31 October 2003. See www.gallup.com. Searches using the keyword of Africa revealed 15 ‘hits’.

[33] Liberia is one notable exception, where a loose grassroots coalition known as Liberia Watch successfully lobbied the USA for a 200 million dollar aid package for Liberia. The status of Liberia as a former unofficial US ‘colony’ was undoubtedly a key factor in the decision.

[34] The total amount of contributions marked by OCHA as from private or NGO sources, or from the National Committees of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). See the OCHA Financial Tracking System, www.reliefweb.int/fts.

[35] News sites on the internet most commonly accessed are those offered by conventional television news and newspapers, and so the resulting bias is basically the same. According to a study by the internet search engine, Google, the three most-accessed online news resources in 2001 were CNN, BBC and the New York Times. See www.google.com/press/zeitgeist2001.

[36] See David Shearer, ‘The Conflict in Central Africa: Africa’s Great War’, Survival, Summer 1999, Vol. 41, No. 2: pp.89-106; and Koen Vlassenroot and Hans Romkema, ‘The Emergence of a New Order? Resources and War in Eastern Congo’, Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, www.jha.ac/articles/a111, October 2002.

[37] Foreign Affairs, for example, devoted 6 articles to the African continent (none related to the DRC) and 14 to Israel-Palestine in the five years from mid-1998 to mid-2003.

[38] Figures compiled by Reiko Okumura.

[39] See www.webcat.nii.ac.jp

[40] See Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI Yearbook 1999: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security. London: Oxford University Press, 1999.

[41] The DRC did appear, however, in an appendix to the 2000 yearbook.

[42] UN Security Council Resolution 1484 (2003).

[43] According to a UN diplomat (interview with author, New York, December 2000), the USA backed out of the intervention proposed for Eastern Zaire in 1996 primarily due to a lack of media interest. See also Simon Massey, ‘Operation Assurance: The Greatest Intervention That Never Happened’, The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, http://www.jha.ac/articles/a036.htm, February 1998.

[44] The flashpoint in Bunia is being seen in isolation from the broader conflict across the DRC by the media (for the sake of simplicity) and the policymakers (to avoid a broader involvement).

[45] See Colum Lynch, ‘UN’s focus diminishes efforts on Africa’s troubles’, Washington Post, 25 May 2003.

[46] ‘UN official calls for international backing of political process’, United Nations News Service, 4 June 2003.

[47] This notion was raised by France during a Council mission to the DRC and later appeared in UN Security Council Resolution 1417 (2002).

[48] See Steven Livingston and Todd Eachus, ‘Humanitarian Crisis and US Foreign Policy: Somalia and the CNN Effect Reconsidered’, Political Communication, Vol. 12, 1995, pp. 413-429; and Jonathan Mermin, ‘Television News and American Intervention in Somalia: The Myth of a Media-Driven Foreign Policy’, Political Science Quarterly, Vo. 112, No. 3, 1997, pp. 385-404.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>