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.
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.
Nicknamed the "name and shame" panels because of their intent to identifythe perpetrators of wrongful acts, even when they are high-ranking members of government or society, these groups seem to have had some impact. Both Uganda and Rwanda - tacitly implicated in exploitation of the DRC by the recent report - have denied the allegations, but have set up their own panels to look into the findings.
"We are like lawyers. We are not shy," says Mauritius Ambassador Anun Priyay Neewoor, waiting for a broken elevator in his Zambian hotel. "We ask these leaders straight out about the reported pillaging and exploitation and tell them if they don't stop, it could lead to sanctions. They deny of course, but they know we are onto them."
Success, however, when it comes to resolving the conflict in the DRC, is measured in the tiniest of incremental steps. And so it was during the 11-day Security Council trip. Many hands were shaken, many positions were laid out, deadlines were adjusted, frameworks were discussed, future plans set and promises made. Concrete forward movement, however, was hard to find.
Mission leader French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte, for example, declared the Congo River - closed these past three years of war to all commercial traffic - officially open. However, whether the rebels will actually allow a barge to pass through is another matter. In like manner, rebel leader Jean Pierre Bemba, who until now has failed to comply with the call to withdraw troops 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) from the cease fire lines - finally agreed to disengage on the first of June. Whether the disengagement will take place, however, remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, future dates were sketched out, giving peace a possible framework. On June 15, the mandate for the small UN observer force in Congo (MONUC) is expected to be extended. A month later a preparatory meeting for the Congolese dialogue is set to open, and work, said Levitte, is to start "immediately" on drafting arrangements for what is called the DDRR phase (disarmament, demobilization, reintegration and repatriation), as well as for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the DRC. "Acts must follow words, but we are confident," says Levitte.
The council was asked time and again during the course of the trip to do more - send in more UN observers, give more money, take stronger stands and make bolder moves. But the ambassadors consistently reminded the various sides that they were not there to do the heavy lifting, rather simply to assist. "An outsider can never compensate for what the parties themselves can do,"says US ambassador Cameron Hume.
Off the record, a few of the ambassadors admit that, despite the good will, and despite the possibility to threaten with sanctions, the fact that the council was neither willing nor able at this point to take a more active role on the ground limited its effectiveness.
"We should always try to push for peace, but meeting someone for an hour does not change their world view," says one ambassador.
Another says that since the council would not force the sides to move forward, the outlook is bleak: "I do not feel that the regional leaders have the strength of will it takes right now."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor