09/20/2013 10:31 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2013

Sustained Attention to Eastern Congo

On a Sunday morning in late April, I was considering seriously a request I received from my friend John Kerry to join him at the State Department, and put some of the 18 years I spent on African issues as a U.S. Senator back to work on behalf of the United States. The international news at the time was dominated by the serious situation which continues today in Syria.

As I listened to Republican Saxby Chambliss, a former colleague of mine on the Senate Intelligence Committee, describe his concerns about Syria to CBS correspondent Bob Schieffer, I heard him say something which helped me decide to accept the State Department post. Senator Chambliss said, "The world is watching. We've got 70,000 dead people in that part of the world as a result of Bashar al-Assad." Sadly, in a part of Africa known as the Great Lakes region, many, many more than 70,000 people have been killed and, yet, there are people around the globe who are largely unaware of this decades old conflict.

When I began my work in July as the U.S. Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), I knew that one of my priorities would be to help Americans become more informed of and engaged on an area of the world too often forgotten. From the mid-1990s until today, the DRC has been home to the deadliest conflict since World War II, with over 5.4 million people dead and tens of thousands more victimized by sexual violence used as a weapon of war. The fighting and instability continues today, with more than 2.7 million people displaced from their homes, and thousands more raped or killed in the past year alone.

I recently returned from my first trip to the continent in my new capacity, and am now, more than ever, focused on how the United States, with sustained attention, can more actively support and complement regional and international efforts already underway to stabilize the region and help these countries achieve a real and lasting peace.

In February 2013, 11 African countries, including the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda, signed the Peace, Security, and Cooperation Framework Agreement, which presents the best hope for ending both the current conflict and the chronic instability in the Great Lakes region. There are many reasons why the United States should take this opportunity to step up its own engagement in the region. Many of us can agree that stopping the many war-related deaths and the disturbing human rights violations in this region is grounds for stepping up U.S. involvement. Peace in the region would also help unleash the vast human and economic potential in the Great Lakes, opening up enormous opportunities for future economic partnerships. The DRC should be one of the most economically prosperous countries in the world. The implementation of the February Framework Agreement is our best chance at helping the DRC become such a country. Greater involvement is also in the national security interests of the United States, as nations at war are often a place where those who wish to harm us, including international criminal and terrorist networks, find safe haven.

It was my great pleasure to travel recently to the region with the UN Special Envoy to the Great Lakes, former Irish President Mary Robinson, as well as with the UN Secretary General's Special Representative to the DRC, the European Union Senior Coordinator, and the African Union Special Representative. President Robinson, the other envoys and I have become friends, and we are allies in this effort, sharing the same hopes and expectations for progress in the region and for the success of the Framework Agreement. We stand united in our conviction that armed violence will no longer be tolerated in the Great Lakes region, and we vow to remain engaged as the region moves forward in its campaign for peace.

Violence in the region will not be thwarted by military means alone but rather must be countered by a sustained political process driven by the region. The signing of the February Framework began this process. My goal is to help support this peace process, including the implementation of the region's commitments to not support armed groups and to respect each other's territorial integrity. Governments must also address popular demands for democratic and governance reforms if they are to achieve a sustainable peace. Through this Framework peace process, the countries of the region have an opportunity to examine and resolve the root causes of chronic instability and underdevelopment, including such complex issues as citizenship, land reform, and border security. The search for solutions to these difficult challenges must be led by Africans, on the basis of the agreed-upon Framework, but with the sustained support and attention of the international community. As President Obama said on July 1 during his trip to Tanzania, the Framework Agreement "can't just be a piece of paper; there has to be follow-through."

The issues are numerous and complex, but, we are determined that the people of the Great Lakes region should have a better future for themselves. Helping them achieve a sustainable peace is our goal, and my mandate.