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A field trip in the name of peace

Twelve ambassadors take cause of Congo peace on the road, a sign of new UN Security Council focus.

By Danna Harman Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 29, 2001



LUSAKA, ZAMBIA

The main cinema in downtown Lusaka has been transformed into a church, with the billboard atop the entrance announcing the daily prayer themes. Monday is billed as "prayers for financial help" day.Tuesday, the congregation gathers for prayers of healing and on Wednesday the focus is on family. The largest crowd shows up, says church volunteer Mary Bwalya, on Thursday. That is when they pray for peace.

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Whether last week's tour of the region by 12 of the 15 United Nations Security Council ambassadors is an answer to Ms. Bwalya's prayers remains to be seen. But the 11-day, eight-country tour is significant in two respects: It set out to give the complex peace process in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) a needed push, and marks a new level of personal involvement by the members of the UN body.

The Security Council, once considered a slave to and paralyzed by cold-war conflict, has been trying to reinvent itself this past decade. More debates are held, more equal attention is paid to the different regions in the world, and more follow-up mechanisms are being put in place.

Armed with malaria medicines, maps, translators, wrinkle-resistant suits, and heaps of enthusiasm, the ambassadors left behind their office work in New York and boarded a swank charter airplane for an African field trip. They met with 10 presidents, dozens of foreign and defense ministers, and countless rebels this past week.

"The war is over here," says Irish ambassador David Cooney, 30,000 feet above the DRC-Rwandan border. "We are in the conflict-resolution stage. And what we can do is help the sides sharpen their definitions and reach a shared understanding of the terms of the Lusaka accords," he says, referring to the 1999 cease-fire agreement reached in the Zambian capital between the six countries and three rebel groups fighting in the DRC.

While some of the first steps have been taken to fulfill these accords,much of the hard work - including the withdrawal of foreign armies and the beginning of political dialogue among the Congolese - is still ahead.

"The UN is not an organization that goes in and breaks up wars," says British Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock, as he waits for his entry visa in a Tanzanian airport VIP room. "We are here as a symbol of hope to those who want peace here, as well as a warning to those who are not complying with the peace agreements signed. We look the players in the eye and let them know that we will not hesitate to use the means at our hands, including sanctions, to raise the cost of continuing warfare."

"We have taken a decision to have more direct political impact," continues Greenstock, detailing how, besides supporting the new travel missions, the Security Council has also begun setting up special panels to study problems related to conflicts - such as the recent panel that investigated the exploitation of resources in the mineral-rich DRC by almost all sides involved - and bring their conclusions to international attention.