Towards Peace in the Great Lakes: a Framework of Hope
Over the past two decades, Africa’s Great Lakes region has been at the epicenter of tragic violence and suffering: from the Rwandan Genocide to the devastating Second Congolese War, which left millions dead and displaced in what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Despite progress overall in building peace over the years, the embers of conflict still burn hotly in the eastern DRC, long a regional battleground plagued by state weakness and competition for its abundant resources. Recurring cycles of conflict there between armed groups and the Congolese state continue to kill, displace populations and violate human rights, including the rampant use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.
Today, however, under a new UN-brokered agreement, the governments of the Great Lakes and the international community are saying “enough is enough” to the seemingly never-ending state of conflict in region.
The Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the region, signed in Addis Ababa in February, brings 11 nations of the region and beyond into a comprehensive pact to stop the cycles of conflict by resolving their root causes and fostering trust between the DRC and its neighbors.
Leading the UN’s push for its implementation is Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who was appointed by the Secretary-General in March of this year as his Special Envoy for the Great Lakes. The Department of Political Affairs is providing close support to the Special Envoy and her Nairobi-based office.
Robinson has been highly active since her appointment in raising awareness about the agreement and in seeking to galvanize governments and their leaders to translate its broad contours into tangible actions for peace.
Calling it a “framework of hope” for the peoples of the Great Lakes, she has pointed to a number of reasons for optimism that, this time, peace efforts will be more successful than in the past.
For one, the accord requires a comprehensive mix of actions by all who have responsibilities, nationally, regionally and internationally. This means, for example, that while the DRC is called upon to enact serious security sector reforms and to strengthen state authority in the East, its neighbors have also pledged non-interference in the DRC and a severing of any support to armed groups in the region.
Meanwhile, the international community agrees to step up its commitment, including its support for regional economic revitalization.
The agreement also includes mechanisms of oversight in both the DRC and the region “to ensure that benchmarks are set and are met”, according to Robinson. It has the support not only of the signatory countries but the four organizations that are its witnesses: the United Nations, the African Union, the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region and the Southern African Development Community.
The new peace framework has emerged at a time of exhaustion with the continuing cycles of crisis. The brief seizure by rebels late last year of the eastern city of Goma, a key base of UN peacekeepers, helped to spark this renewed push for peace.
In parallel to the Framework, the UN’s peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO, is being strengthened through the introduction of an offensive-minded “intervention brigade” with a mandate to confront armed groups. It is hoped that this force can help create a stronger deterrent and persuade armed groups to make peace with the state.
But while the brigade is an important new element in the equation, the United Nations is stressing that the overall strategy for peace in the eastern DRC rests in the political solutions and regional cooperation called for under the PSC Framework.
During a first visit to the region in her new capacity as Special Envoy, Robinson spoke with leaders of all of the core countries, regional mediators and civil society groups. She then joined UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon as he toured the region in May along with World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim. The World Bank announced some $1 billion in new development aid to strengthen regional economic integration, an important signal that peace can bring with it peace dividends.
A first meeting of the so-called “11+4” regional mechanism to oversee the accord was held in Addis Ababa on the sideline of the African Union’s 50th Anniversary Summit. The governments have since named representatives to a technical committee and have begun the work, with UN support, to define the benchmarks for the implementation of the framework ahead of a September meeting during the UN General Assembly in New York.
As a departure from previous Great Lakes peace efforts, Robinson says she will work both “top down” and “bottom-up”.
Thus, she is focusing not only on trust building between the key heads of state and their governments, but also the engagement of civil society, and especially women’s organizations as advocates. A meeting of women in Burundi in July was a first step in her plans to promote a region-wide women’s platform to encourage implementation of the Framework.
Robinson has also put on the table a set of guidelines to frame peace efforts, and has expressed encouragement for talks between the DRC government and the M23 rebel group held in Uganda. Amid concerns that blanket amnesties could be granted to rebel leaders, the guidelines specify that any agreements reached between the parties should contribute to breaking the cycle of violence and impunity for human rights abuses. The Special Envoy also calls for actions to accelerate the voluntary return of refuges. She has announced her intention to work with governments, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the International Committee of the Red Cross to organize a conference soon on this thorny issue.
The problems are longstanding. Solutions will not arise overnight. As this issue went to print, an escalation in fighting in late-July between the DRC government and M23 was prompting renewed concern. Lasting peace will require an all-out concerted series of actions that are both serious and sustained, at the national, regional and international level. As Robinson has said: “It will require doing things differently, doing them better, and not stopping until the job is finished.”