International Protection
25 June 2019

The Myth of International Protection in Congo

How do young people go through destroying memories of intense conflicts? Building on an ethnographic study, Claudia Seymour, Senior Researcher at the Centre for Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding at the Institute, has written a book on the heart-wrenching stories of young people in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As a former human rights investigator at the UN, Dr Seymour shows how international aid can indeed lead to greater harm than good. Interview on The Myth of International Protection: War and Survival in Congo, published by the University of California Press.

What motivated you to write this book?

This book is based on a decade of my work in and on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) from 2006 to 2016, initially with the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, then the UN Group of Experts on the DRC, and then with various protection-based NGOs before I began my doctoral ethnographic research with young people. Extended periods of fieldwork and repeated visits to the DRC provided me the opportunity to conduct truly grounded research. Approximately 2,000 people directly informed this research. They came from villages and cities and included young people, their parents, local leaders, religious actors, military commanders, demobilised soldiers, government authorities, and my professional colleagues. These individuals were the vital force that drove my research; their narratives form the cornerstone of this book. My initial aim was to share with global audiences – to “make explicit” – the experiences of young Congolese people so that others might also learn from and be inspired by their strength, courage and capacities to survive. However, the DRC also showed me how good-willed international interventions are not adequately responding to the needs of the people they claim to protect.

What are the central contributions of your book?

My work has been particularly inspired by the ethnographic work of Philippe Bourgois and the sociological work of Pierre Bourdieu. I was able to apply Bourgois’s insights from Cold War-era El Salvador and inner-city America to my examination of violence in the DRC, to show how violence does not simply disappear, is not merely survived, but is transformed and incorporated into our ways of perceiving, being in, and re-creating the world. I also theoretically engaged with Bourdieu’s law of conservation of violence, which examines how violence is reproduced through social, political, economic, cultural and historic structures and thus allows one to trace trajectories of violence. Like electricity, violence follows the path of least resistance, transmitted not only in the relationships between people and their immediate social structures, from one person to the next, from one generation to the next, but also through the global economic systems in which we are all embedded. Through the case of the DRC, we see how existing global social, political and economic structures contribute to the conservation of inequality and violence. However, taking Bourdieu’s metaphor further, if electricity can be transformed, the book urges us to reflect and to transform the structures perpetuating such terrible human suffering toward ends that are peaceful, dignified and humane.

Based on the ethnographic evidence presented in your book, what would you recommend policymakers to do regarding the issue of protection?

This book is intended as an offering to honest debate and critical reflection among the researchers, students, practitioners and policymakers who are devoting their lives to redressing the global injustices of our times. It does not offer solutions to end violence in the DRC. As it shows, the DRC has been the “beneficiary” of many decades of exogenously imposed “solutions”. Yet the inefficacy of international protection responses is at least in part due to the implementation of simple and technical responses that insufficiently account for, or even understand, the historical depths of violence, its pervasiveness throughout Congolese society, and its intimate linkage and interdependence with the global economic and political system.

Current approaches to addressing violence in the DRC are not working or at least are not producing the necessary positive results commensurate to the energy and resources expended. In some cases, they are leading to negative distortionary effects. I hope this book will give policymakers the space to pause and to reflect, to more critically question benevolent assumptions and self-evident truths and to probe the jarring dissonance that exists in the spaces between proclaimed universal rights and the lived experiences of so many hundreds of millions of people today.

How do you see the future of protection?

Unless there is renewed reflexive attention on the concept of “do no harm”, international protection will simply continue to contribute to the obscuration of the global structures that perpetuate violence in the DRC – and beyond. The focus on aid projects and emergency responses hides indeed the systemic inequality and injustice that perpetuate violence. This is a terrible shame, and one that is of global concern. The profound injustices lived in the DRC are part of a “global political economy of suffering” – and completely interdependent with global patterns of consumption. Seventy years after the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, inconceivable wealth coexists with abject poverty, while closing borders reveal how the universal guarantees for dignity and inalienable rights are accessible only to a fortunate minority. Rising economic precariousness threatens so many people living at the margins – even in the global North – as they struggle to hold on, their fears seized by populist politics and essentialist discourses. Many see threats to their own existence embodied in the migrants escaping the worst of human brutality and injustice in search of even the possibility of human dignity. More than ever we need to be thinking about the consequences of our actions, and non-actions. 

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Full citation of Dr Seymour’s book:
Seymour, Claudia. The Myth of International Protection: War and Survival in Congo. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2019.

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Interview by Bugra Güngör, PhD candidate in International Relations and Political Science; editing by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner image: extract from the cover picture of Claudia Seymour’s book. Miriam NABARRO.