Hillary Clinton, Rape and Mobile Phones

If you don't know the link between Hillary Clinton, rape and mobile phones, things will become clearer next week when the US Secretary of State pays an official visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Secretary Clinton's trip will focus on "gender-based violence" in the war-torn eastern Congo. This term doesn't convey the appalling reality of what is the cynical and cruel use of rape as an instrument of war. A Caritas psychologist who works in Goma told us recently that the rape victims who seek treatment range from aged three months old to 70 years. The number of victims across the region is immense - tens, if not hundreds of thousands. Not only are women and children targeted but increasingly, men are raped too.

Rape, which leaves people outcasts from their own villages and inflicts shocking physical and psychological damage on them, is aimed at humiliating and controlling local communities in the eastern Congo. Rape is a "weapon of war" and, with murders and large-scale human rights' abuses allows the conflict to continue and the profitable resources in North and South Kivu to be mined illegally. These are minerals such as gold, diamonds, copper, tin and coltan, which is used in mobile phones and electrical goods across the world.

I, for one, wholeheartedly welcome Secretary Clinton's high-profile visit to the Congo. This trip, so early in the Administration, combined with President Barack Obama's visit to Africa last month, shows a real commitment to the continent.

However, I urge Secretary Clinton to use her visit to do everything within her power to get the leaders of the Congo, Uganda and Rwanda (the countries of origin of the rebel groups involved in the war) to sit down together and hammer out a lasting peace. This would require a serious commitment to disarming all militia and bringing their leaders to justice. Laurent Nkunda has been arrested, now let it be done with Joseph Kony (head of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army - LRA) and others.

The protection of the people of the Congo needs to be a priority for the Congolese Government and the international community. Armed groups have destabilized a huge geographical area. They have forced millions of people to flee their homes. The situation has worsened over the past few months. Tens of thousands of people left their homes in just two weeks of July alone.

The deteriorating humanitarian situation and the attack on Goma late last year show that MONUC, the UN peacekeeping force is unable to protect civilians, which is its priority under its current mandate - the strongest that the UN can give. We call on the USA, the largest funder of MONUC, to use its permanent membership of the UN Security Council to push for a protection force" with teeth" that can guarantee people's safety in the troubled region.

Around 800,000 people are thought to have been uprooted since January 2009 by the joint military operations by the Congolese army and MONUC against the Rwandan Hutu Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR) in North and South Kivu, and there have been many violent and sadistic repercussions. We call on the United States and the international Community to work with the Congolese Government to create the right conditions for the voluntary disarmament and repatriation of Rwandan ex-combatants and refugees. This should include the full implementation of the non-military aspects of the Nairobi Communiqué.

The Congolese army itself has also been implicated in the rapes and abuses. The Government recently promised that soldiers would be punished for not respecting human rights. But the people of the Congo need to be confident that their police and army, who are there to protect them, will not become their abusers. They need to see tangible progress in bringing the perpetrators to justice and in creating a Congolese army that is well trained and properly paid. We call on the United States and the international community to reinforce these processes.

The war has left many people in the Congo reliant on help from aid agencies for things such as food, shelter and water. The unpredictable climate of violence often prevents agencies from working freely. Deliveries of aid are sometimes disrupted by fighting, meaning people are left in difficulty. All parties must observe their commitment under international law to ensure that people receive the humanitarian relief they need.

Caritas Internationalis mourns the death of Ricky Sukaka, a Caritas colleague in North Kivu who was recently shot on his way home from work. The eastern Congo is a dangerous place for aid workers and it is essential that all armed groups respect the neutrality and independence of humanitarian agencies, and ensure the safety of staff.

Wars in the Congo have claimed millions of lives over the past 13 years. Younger generations of Congolese have never known peace or prosperity. For any kind of peace to exist in the Congo the illegal exploitation of resources must be stopped. International governments and businesses, most significantly of the USA and the UK, must disclose full details of all minerals exported from the eastern Congo and ensure that they are not buying, selling or processing minerals which benefit any of the warring parties.

Furthermore, what Caritas would like to see is the mining of the human resources and skills that the Congolese have within themselves. On a practical level this means large-scale investment in healthcare, education, infrastructure, and economic growth for the entire country.

Hillary Clinton will bring a fresh pair of eyes to the problems of war and abuses in the region. We hope that what she sees she will take back to Washington to start laying the political and diplomatic groundwork that would make a lasting difference to the development and economic prosperity of the eastern Congo and the Great Lakes.