The tall man with the grave demeanor entered the Pickering Room of the Fletcher Free Library and began to talk about his country.
The group of us from St. Michael’s College — faculty and students — had come together to offer our assistance to him and other Burlington area Congolese refugees. Five minutes into his presentation, however, the speaker made it clear his hopes were not for himself and his transplanted compatriots, but for his beloved Congo.
He was recruiting us for a joint American-Congolese effort aimed at ending 15 years of strife in that troubled country. The searing statistics — more than 5 million dead, 1.3 million displaced, hundreds of thousands raped and tortured — have earned this conflict the title of “Africa’s World War.”
Like all wars, its effects on the environment have been devastating. Wave after wave of refugees who have moved through Congo’s rainforest have stripped vegetation and slaughtered wildlife in what already is one of the world’s most endangered ecosystems.
As the speaker outlined Congo’s problems, I felt a flicker of excitement, but little did I realize that the partnership that was beginning that day would be transformative.
In just a few months, Cleophace Mukeba (the speaker who had impressed me) and Pierre Mujomba, a Congolese playwright and visiting professor at St. Michael’s, along with students Leah Ziegler and Kate Bailey, and myself, the director of the St. Michael’s Edmundite Center for Peace and Justice, had formed a Congo advocacy group known as the Dear Hillary Campaign for the Congo.
Using social media (and aided by a grant from the Sisters of Mercy) we established 56 chapters throughout the United States and in four foreign countries. Each of them agreed to hold a screening of Lisa Jackson’s film, “The Greatest Silence, Rape in the Congo,” and to send birthday postcards to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton requesting that she make peace in the Congo a foreign policy priority.
The records we kept indicated that about 17,000 postcards were sent, enough for the Dear Hillary core team to be invited to the State Department, where we met not with Clinton but with Ambassador at Large for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer. At our meeting, the ambassador praised the campaign as an expression of “that which is best in civil society” and noted that our great strength is the alliance of Congolese and native-born U.S. citizens that it represents. Verveer’s words prompted my own reflections on the Dear Hillary Campaign as an alliance. Truly that is what we are: two different groups of people bound together by a common cause. Our differences are obvious; no amount of familiarity — and now friendship — with Cleophace and Pierre allows us U.S. natives to view their cultural background as anything but foreign.
Listening to their stories and watching films about the Congo, we tend to see their native country as another world. From the seemingly impenetrable rainforest of the Congo River Basin to the active volcanoes in the northeast, the landscape of Congo is lush and dramatic — startling in comparison to the pastoral scenery that surrounds us in Vermont. And life in Congolese rural areas, where most of the violence occurs, is a hand-to-mouth existence even in good times.
The beauty of our alliance is that it bridges the cultural divide by evoking the cry for justice, for who is not outraged by the rape of 14-year-old girls, the killing of innocent people, the destruction of wide swathes of virgin forest?
When Cleophace speaks to community groups about the Dear Hillary Campaign, the response always is immediate: “What can we do? How can we help?” His words enable them to transcend the exotic aspect of Congo advocacy and go straight to the heart of the matter.
I believe that when groups come together around a common cause, we awaken something essentially human in one other. The cry for justice is native to every human heart. It can be eclipsed when we band together in social enclaves intended to separate “people like us” from everyone else. But it breaks forth when we willingly cross boundaries.
This year, the Dear Hillary Campaign has been more active than ever. In April, we staged a rally in front of the State Department and were rewarded with a half hour conversation with Deputy Director of African Affairs Donald Yamamoto. On Clinton’s birthday (Oct. 26) there was another postcard bombardment of her office. How effective is our advocacy? At a conference on the Congo at Clark University in September, we were told that the Dear Hillary Campaign deserved some of the credit for the imminent appointment of a U.S. Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region of Africa, which, I am thrilled to report, has just been announced (although the State Department is referring to the appointee as a Special Representative rather than a Special Envoy.)
As excited as we are by this affirmation of the fruitfulness of our efforts, we know that the obstacles to peace and stability in Congo remain enormous. We have learned that when you work for a cause such as ours, you can’t rely on hope for immediate results to sustain your commitment. What keeps you going is the cry for justice itself — and the partnerships and friendships across boundaries that reveal it.
Gagne directs the Edmundite Center for Peace and Justice at St. Michael’s College, where she teaches in the Peace and Justice and First Year Seminar programs. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, she has taught in Vermont for many years, including 16 at Trinity College, which closed in 2001. She has three grown children, and in her spare time likes to run and hike anywhere in the state, but especially in Stowe. Contact Laurie Gagne at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meeting with Melanne Verveer, Ambassador at Large for Global Women’s Issues December 15th 2010
2 pm Introduction by Laurie Gagne, Director of Edmundite Center for Peace and Justice Saint Michael’s College
Melanne Verveer (MV) welcomes everyone.
Conflict has gone on way too long. Introduces her two colleagues who work with her: Rick Swart – desk office of DRC with his primary focus on bilateral relations between DRC government and US. Jamille Bigio focuses on Africa and women’s peace and security globally. J explains part of her focus is to question how we can promote women’s peace and their participation.
MV notes, “We are with you.” Clinton’s visit to the DRC was not symbolic – she wants to do something. Clinton met with Kabila, NGOs and people like us here today. Clinton said her visit was seeing the best and the worst of humanity. MV: They have been working, but if it were easy it would have been done. Needs action on impunity – needs pleading to top commanders to be prosecuted. Three have just been arrested. There have been low-level successes, but not where it needs to be. They have been working with Uganda & Rwanda.
We need to deal with soldiers of DRC as well if they are part of the problem. They have five task forces to get to bottom of problems of DRC’s military: “cell phone banking system”.
Needs action on conflict minerals. There were meetings with legitimate mining companies but know there are others out of control.
Needs action on rape and brutality to women. Also dealing with the healing of women – the physical, fistula, etc; the emotional; the income problems.
Issue of MONUSCO – dealing with the UN – outraged that they are in region were atrocities are still happening. Trying to get mandate for continued MONUSCO presence in DRC. Tomorrow (DEC 16th, 2010) there is a UN Security Council meeting dealing with these issues.
2:17 pm MV: plans on going back to DRC at opening of City of Joy in February with “resources”.
Rick Swart (RS): adds that military training through Department of Defense funded by State Department. Training includes military justice. Recent completion of one such training in barracks in September 2010. Focusing on self-sustaining the barracks so soldiers don’t prey on civilians: includes agri production, etc.
J: they are asking, how we can use broad range of tools for these issues???
2:20 pm Questions open.
Rachel Stone, student from Saint Michael’s college, asks In September the UN reported that there had been systemic rapes in the DRC since late July, including 242 rapes in the village of Luvungi which is located just 20 miles away from a UN peace-keeping camp. We know that the US contributes 1/3 of MONUSCO’s $1 billion annual budget. What is our government doing to address the failure of UN peace-keepers to protect Congolese civilians?
MV: there are special sessions on this. In the renewal of MONUSCO, strong undercurrent of protection on civilians. Emphasizing trainings on these relations with civilians. Trying to ensure we won’t be hearing about civilians not being protected.
Rick Swart: since the late July and early August rapes, they have increased foot patrols. They are sending MONUSCO out to meet with local leaders. One success of this is the turn over of a Mai Mai leader. Steps are being taken.
Kambale Musavuli asks: What steps are being taking to deal with political issues between actual UN peacekeepers from different nations?
Laure Gagne asks in addition to Kambale’s question: why didn’t the peace keepers stop the rapes? Have we found this out?
MV: there have been full investigations; part of problem is they were 20 miles away; it is discussed at senior levels, but no answer they know of. Kambale’s question has to be addressed and noted they do address it.
2:27 pm Leah Ziegler, student of Saint Michael’s College, asks: The Dodd-Frank Act aims to address the issue of conflict-minerals and smuggling. Secretary of State Clinton has a role in implementing the stipulations of the Act. We would like to know what progress has she made on the following initiatives:
1. Sec Clinton and the Comptroller General are responsible for establishing standards for independent private sector audits to ensure that the supply chain is free of conflict mineral and smuggling. What are the standards that have been established? How will these standards be enforced?
MV: Sec of Clinton will adhere to the mandates, but this is fairly new. In process of trying to figure out what they will need to do.
RS adds: stipulations will be realized on target (early January).
LZ asks: 2. Sec Clinton is supposed to work with USAID to develop a strategy to address the linkages between human rights abuses, armed groups, mining conflicts, and commercial products. What is the strategy that has been developed?
MV: this will also be realized in January.
Jennifer Williams: Has someone in your office approached the major companies using 3T minerals?
MV: The companies’ response is that they cannot absolutely say where minerals come from. But now there is the mandate of law. A small success so far is that companies are aware they have to think about where minerals come from. Again, points to the Conflict Minerals strategies in January.
LG: the truth is, companies can lie. Why don’t we go down the supply chain and sanction them further down the supply chain?
MV: Congress went as far as they could get a consensus. That’s why people like you make a difference. It is true in the world today it is in corporations best interest to ascertain they do not use conflict minerals.
MV says she wants to try implementing this new legislation first (Dodd-Frank Act).
Kamable: there is a list of US companies involved with conflict minerals. Cabot Company is an example. There needs to be some sort of consequences on these companies in the US who are using conflict minerals.
MV: efforts are going on to provide alternatives for armaments in mining areas…
2:41 pm Kate Bailey, student from Saint Michael’s College asks, Over the last decade, the destabilization of Congo has been fueled in many ways by Rwanda and Uganda. Rwanda and Uganda have gained millions of dollars through illegal mining in the Congo, while the US gives them funding and training both through humanitarian and military aid. Title 1 Sec. 105 of Public Law 109-456 clearly states that Secretary of State Clinton is authorized to withhold assistance under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 to any foreign country acting to destabilize the DRC. Many of us from Vermont also recognize the “Leahy Law” which prohibits US military assistance to foreign military units that violate human rights. Cutting off development aid, or even the threat of it has proven effective when in 2003, (according to International Crisis Group), Uganda chose to leave the DRC under the threat of losing aid. How do you explain using US tax dollars to fund aid in Rwanda and Uganda, after they have been indicted for war crimes in DRC?
RS: US involved in diplomatic relations between Uganda, Rwanda, and DRC. Issues are complex and there is no simple solution to find out who is answering to who. Culmination of this in connection of some militia groups from Rwanda and the FARDC forces. We do need to continue aid to Rwanda and Uganda. Bilateral aid is important. They are aware of the issues – is this international law to take steps of changing dynamic of DRC, Uganda and Rwanda.
KB follows up: If cutting off aid to Rwanda/Uganda is not an option, how do you propose changing the behavior of Rwanda and Uganda without economic incentives?
RS: We are taking advantage of our diplomatic leverage.
MV: it took a while realizing an effort for the three countries to realize that those countries in the region are all part of the solution. She takes Leahy legislation very seriously. But have to do it in ways that don’t cause other conflicts. They know they need to get at regional problem.
Paul Gatanga: Why is the US not doing anything for problem of LRA? Why was US backing the fighting of the LRA and supported pushing LRA into DRC and not back into Uganda?
RS: According to law LRA in Northern Uganda Recovery Act and in the MONUSCO mandate, MONUSCO is to give resource if the government of the DRC needs this. They are trying to increase communication in remote areas to decrease timing of attack and the response.
MV: we haven’t been able to get DRC government involved and need them to be part of this.
Paul Gatanga: wants to include North of Congo in this LRA Recovery Act.
MV: Ambassador Rapp is the Ambassador at large for war crimes. Very high priority to partner with DRC government to implement mixed chamber justice system to overhaul system of impunity now. MV thinks impunity has to be addressed.
KB: Ambassador Carson said we need a public outcry. We are a public outcry – these issues on the Congo are very important to all of us here today.
Cleophace Mukeba ,gives list of Dear Hilary campaign’s proposals. Time has run out and he cannot read them aloud.
MV: points us to her assistant Jamille Bigio to direct further questions to.