On her Tuesday visit to Goma, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended a round table discussion with several humanitarian and human rights workers. The round table was chaired by Dr. Jo Lusi, the head of Heal Africa hospital, and the State Department has since posted a transcript of the meeting on its website. At the meeting, Congolese leaders - people who live there and do some of the most difficult work in the world to make life better for their fellow citizens - gave their ideas for ways the United States could help the region. Here are some of their wonderful suggestions:
- Create courts involving local and international officials to help end impunity. "So these mixed chambers, or joint chambers, would be credible, because the personnel would be made of foreigners and Congolese. They are independent, and they do not suffer from interference and corruption. And they bring those who should be judged closer to justice."
- Increase psycho-social assistance for rape victims, who need not only medical care, but also financial assistance (proposed by CARE International's representative)
- Fund education. "Most of kids or young persons recruited in army -- I mean in armed groups -- have not been at school. And those people will be in the army and police."
- Pressure neighboring governments. "The military operations are -- continue to be carried out. But these military operations are not a solution to the problem. That's why, when it comes to security, we would like that you -- the leaders of the countries of the Great Lakes -- Rwanda, Congo, and Uganda -- so that -- will take on their responsibility to protect their citizens."
- Create a new army, "united, with no roots."
- Push for press freedoms. "Many media outlets have been banned here, in the DRC. And even a radio station, Radio Mudanga, was banned. Therefore, we ask you to please plead in favor of freedom of expression."
- Address rising prices that result from the high number of expats in the region. "...many UN staff and international NGOs. Their presence has caused the cost of life to go very high all over the country, and specifically here, in Eastern Congo. We are having problem -- local people having problem -- to even find comfortable housing, affordable housing, because ex-pat have the cash and locals don't have the cash."
- Take real action. From Christine Schuler-DeSchryver: "We have received many, many visitors, each more important than the one before. We have received many, many celebrities, too. At the end, we have the impression that people only came to consume human poverty, human misery. And, in the end, all that we got was a pile of business cards."
- Protect Congolese lives. "So, coming back to the responsibility to protect, in 2004, when we -- the (inaudible) was attacked, we saw the UN take care of the expatriates, rather than the Congolese, for whom they had come to the Congo for, so we were really vexed by that." [This is almost certainly a reference to the May 2004 takeover of Bukavu.]
"...there is a problem of a lack of commitment, political commitment of regional leaders in the Great Lakes region that do not want to stop the situation that has been going on for the last 15 years. There is also an army in the Democratic Republic of Congo that is not well trained. And with all these resources, mineral resources, there is a real problem when the army is not trained and well paid.
"What we have also understood is that all the citizens, based on the international law, have the right to be protected. And the United Nations, through MONUC, are here. But the way the United Nations operate is a serious issue, because the local population are not protected as they should be.
"...and we suggest that the very first thing to do would be to tell regional leaders to be conscious and responsible of the populations. And it is important that we help the Democratic Republic of Congo. Because as long as there will be weakness and turmoil, soft belly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, there will always be a problem in this region."
As Dr. Mukwege's remarks make clear, the situation in the DRC is incredibly complex. That's why an overarching focus on one aspect of the crisis won't lead to peace. (And it's worth noting that not one of the individuals present at the roundtable mentioned needing camcorders.) The concerns of these community leaders focus on the key security and governance issues that must be solved in order to end the conflict.
I believe that the people of the Congo know better than anyone else what must be done to ensure a lasting peace that will make development and democracy possible. Here's hoping the State Department and all those involved in U.S. policy towards the Congo will take their comments to heart.