09/05/2013 10:23 am ET Updated Nov 05, 2013

Staggering Human Suffering in Another Regional Conflict We Can't Ignore

This week the eyes of the international community have been focused on the devastating conflict in Syria. But in the Democratic Republic of Congo, another conflict that deserves the world's attention is nearing the boiling point.

Eastern Congo is home today to one of the world's longest running conflicts, a conflict that involves many neighboring countries and is destabilizing the entire region.

Last month, for the first time ever, the Congolese army fought alongside a United Nations brigade, joining together to take on the rebel group known as M-23. For now, the rebels have retreated, the fighting has subsided and the international community is urging cooler heads to prevail. We all hope it will succeed, but if tension continues to rise, the framework agreement reached in February will further unravel and prospects for peace in the region may soon be out of reach.

This is an outcome the international community must seek to avoid. Military escalation would further destabilize a region that in the last two decades alone has witnessed genocide, a brutal four-year war, massive population displacement and widespread rape.

On a recent visit, I saw the staggering human suffering in eastern Congo, where fighting and violence have been the mainstay of daily life for decades. I met a doctor who spoke of the clear link between conflict and an increase in the number of rapes. This is especially true in the Congo's North Kivu province, where the UN Refugee Agency has reported an alarming rise in acts of violence against women and girls, particularly rape.

I spoke to villagers working to rebuild their lives and communities after years of violence, instability and neglect. For these Congolese men and women, building a well to provide drinking water or providing electricity to a local hospital have become lifesaving and life-sustaining activities.

In a camp for displaced persons, I met women who escaped violent attacks by armed groups, fleeing with only the clothing on their backs. Most had walked long distances under excruciatingly difficult conditions to find relative security. Now, these and other Congolese women live with surviving family members in fragile huts, many of which are not likely to survive the impending rainy season. They have been traumatized by violence. They have little food. They have been stripped of their dignity.

With well over 20 rebel groups operating in eastern DRC, concerns about physical security pervade all aspects of life. Two and a half million Congolese -- sixty-five percent of whom live near the border with Rwanda -- have been displaced by the violence and are unable to return home. They and millions of others struggle daily to meet their basic needs, and in many places live in fear of rape, extortion assault and other forms of violence.

Additionally, when violence is uncontrolled, humanitarian organizations like the International Rescue Committee are unable to access the very people who need lifesaving services the most.

Hopefully, the current tensions will be mitigated and the region's focus will return to implementing the February Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework, a document signed by neighboring countries to help stabilize DRC. When implementation does begin, a few essential areas must be prioritized to break the cycle of violence and end the humanitarian crisis.

First, the Congolese Government must ultimately be responsible for the security of its own citizens. It must be able to secure its border and ensure that rebels do not operate outside its authority. The government must prioritize, and donors promote and support, a concerted, coordinated approach to reforming the security sector. Congolese police and military are unable to effectively ensure the safety of the local population, and in some cases continue to perpetrate violence against the people they are supposed to protect.

Second, as long as UN forces remain in the country, their ability to protect civilians must be strengthened. More civilian personnel need to be deployed to meet the needs of vulnerable communities and monitor human rights violations.

Third, the international community must continue to provide lifesaving assistance to the people of Congo until stability is restored. More assistance should be provided for internally placed people in camps and communities where they are being hosted. Assistance should be provided to victims of gender-based violence and other forms of sexual violence. Additionally, assistance should be available to communities in war-torn areas that are rebuilding their lives and infrastructure.

Finally, in addition providing services to the victims of violence, the government must also hold accountable the perpetrators of violence. Congo's repeated history of violence, including rapes and other atrocities committed against civilian populations, with little to no prosecution and conviction, has encouraged a system of retribution and resorting to violence.

Ultimately, the people of the DRC must find their own solutions to violent conflict that will lead to lasting peace, stability, and development. But they cannot hope to do so in the absence of agreement by neighboring countries and the robust, continued support of the international community. We hope they will receive it once and for all.