by the Right Hon. the Lord David Alton of Liverpool
November 19th marked the Centenary Anniversary of the Great Congo Demonstration when, one hundred years ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Christian leaders, along with many Peers and fifty Members of Parliament assembled at the Royal Albert Hall to protest against the abuses by Belgium in the Congo –then known as the Congo Free State.
The Belgians had been responsible for terrible depredations in the Congo. That story is brilliantly told by Adam Hochschild in his admirable and comprehensive book, “King Leopold’s Ghost.” In many respects the shocking abuses of that period paved the way for the violence that has continued to haunt the benighted people of that disfigured land. More than 3 million people have been killed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and to this day unspeakable violence continues in the East of the country.
To mark the centenary of the Royal Albert Hotel gathering - and to protest at the continuing suffering inflicted on the people of the Congo - another group recently assembled at the same location and on the same date. Much of the credit for keeping the spotlight on these events must go to a young Congolese living in Britain, Vava Tampa, who is director of “Save The Congo.”
Vava Tampa was determined to emulate Edmond Dene Morel - the young man who campaigned to raise British awareness about the horrors being perpetrated in the Congo at the turn of the twentieth century. In particular he wanted to replicate the great “Letter of Protest” organized by Morel published by The Times, the letter was signed by eleven Peers, nineteen bishops, 76 Members of Parliament, the Presidents of seven Chambers of Commerce, thirteen editors of major newspaper, and every Lord Mayor in the U.K. It was an extraordinary achievement.
E.D. Morel – like Tampa - was a young man, in his twenties. Morel was an employee of a Liverpool shipping line which had the monopoly on all transport of cargo to and from the Congo Free State. The company had the franchise for the loading and un-loading of all ships working the Congo trade.
At the Port of Liverpool Morel saw his company’s vessels docking, filled to the hatch with valuable cargoes of rubber and ivory. He also saw the same ships return with soldiers, firearms and ammunition. Clearly, the sale of arms into Africa is sadly not a new phenomenon. We should hang our heads in shame that 95% of all the small arms used in Africa’s continuing conflicts are manufactured outside the continent.
Morel concluded from the evidence of his own eyes that the armaments and militia being sent back to Africa were being used in the Congo to enslave the local people into producing the bounty which Belgium was selling into British and other European markets. This was subsequently investigation by Sir Roger Casement, the British Counselor in the Congo. In his 1904 Report Casement concluded that up to ten million Congolese had been killed because of the practice.
Morel decided to resign from his Company and, single handedly, he led what became one of the most significant international human rights movements of the twentieth century. The British Foreign Secretary of the time, Sir Edward Grey, a man not given to overstatement, when describing E.D. Morel’s accomplishments declared that: “no external question for at least thirty years has moved the country so strongly and so vehemently”
In modeling himself on Morel, Vava Tampa says that “the “hear nothing, see nothing and do nothing” approach adopted by the world communit is a betrayal of our promise to “NEVER AGAIN!” stand idly by while innocent human beings are slaughtered. It denies justice to the victims; and questions our commitment to humanity.”
Tampa is right.
It is instructive that during November we have also been commemorating the fallen in two world wars. The sheer scale of the slaughter of the World War one trenches still horrifies anyone who thinks about it. But Africa has been going through its own World War One – with an estimated seven million dead across Equatorial Africa – victims of continuing conflict. And nowhere has suffered more than the Congo, as I have seen first hand.
In rewriting Morel’s letter of one hundred years ago, Tampa says his purpose is to join our voices in Britain with those of the sixty million Congolese people demanding peace, security, justice, an end to illicit mining, respect for human rights, empowerment of women, good governance, investment in education for the 15 million unschooled children and the curbing of the speed at which HIV AIDS and Fistula are spreading. He says that the human cost of these conflicts and wars can be curbed if major aid donors to governments in the Great Lake region unite in their determination to make the restoration of peace and justice in the Congo a priority.
As things currently stand, regional leaders – helped by the biggest United Nations Peace Keeping force in the world (MONUC) - have been unable to end the violence. We have been impotent in bringing to justice the leaders of rampaging and marauding militias.
Last month in Parliament I asked about our failure to Joseph Kony to justice. He's the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, which has carried out atrocities in Uganda, Southern Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Congo. They LRA recently carried out an attack in Darfur. Kony has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. Yet he remains at large.
I asked the Government what assessment we had made of where they get their funds and weapons. The Minister who replied said: : “ We have no verifiable information on the funding and provision of arms to the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). Anecdotal reports suggest however that the LRA has sustained itself through subsistence farming, pillage, preying on humanitarian assistance, brutal intimidation and killing of civilians and contacts with other regional militia groups.”
The complacency that this reply reveals is chilling. And until we get real about men like Kony, and militias that have killed, maimed, looted, and raped – and recruited thousands of orphaned child soldiers – the situation will not improve.
In replicating the 1909 letter the signatories of the 2009 Letter of Protest have rightly drawn attention to these continuing horrors. The letter states with great clarity:
“Today, with a death toll greater than that of a 9/11 every single day for 356 days, genocide that struck Rwanda in 1994, ethnic cleansing that overwhelmed Bosnia in the mid-1990s, genocide taking place in Darfur, and the great tsunami that struck Asia in 2005, and the number of people who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined and then doubled, the world is looking away with hardly a peep.
“This conflict has pushed the Congo to the very edge of ruination; decimated social harmony; killed an estimated six million while sending millions more running in fear; brought material destruction and looting on a mass scale; orchestrated death squads; invented new horrors in rape on scale never seen before; and attacked Congo’s future generations with an HIV AIDS pandemic triggered by orchestrated campaigns of sexual atrocities against women - still spreading today at an alarming speed.”
“We know that there are, sadly, innumerable urgent humanitarian and human rights crises around the world, all of which require the world’s attention. Yet the Congolese conflict is the greatest since World War Two and addressing the unfolding human tragedy, the thriving culture of impunity and corruption is of paramount urgency. A peaceful Congo is critically important for the citizens of DRC and the whole Great Lakes region.”
Its’ a message the whole world needs to hear.