Eastern Congo's new peace process: What you need to know

In late February, 11 African nations signed a new 'vision document' for peace in the eastern Congo. Regional expert Meredith Hutchison breaks down what it could mean for the region's future.

This piece comes from an Africa Monitor guest blogger. The views expressed are the author's own.

On Feb. 24th, 11 countries from Africa's Great Lakes region signed a peace framework aimed at bringing greater security to one of the most tumultuous places on the planet, the eastern Congo. Not an official peace deal or treaty, it is rather a 2-1/2 page “vision document” – light on specifics, but with a few elements that could prove potent in setting the future political and military agenda for the Congo and its neighbors.

Here’s what you need to know:

Who signed this document?  

The signatories are the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, South Africa, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia. While many of these nations have been intertwined in larger multi-state wars in past decades, and all are affected by regional disruption, the current conflict the document addresses is staged primarily in eastern Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. Since 1998, an estimated 5.4 million people have lost their lives to war and war-related causes in the Great Lakes Region.

What are the goals of the new peace framework?

The 11 countries signatory to the document commit not to interfere with internal affairs of neighbors, not to assist armed groups, to respect sovereignty and borders, to work towards regional cooperation, and not to harbor war criminals or those accused of crimes against humanity.

In the current context, the armed group making trouble for Congo's neighbors is the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda). The FDLR has at times thrived in Congo and often attacked Rwanda across the border. Composed primarily of Rwandan Hutus, the group vehemently opposes their nation's Tutsi-led government. They have received support from the Congo in the past and been involved in the region's conflict since 2000.

In addition to dealing with armed groups like the FDLR, the Congo pledges in the peace framework to support security sector and governmental reform, reconciliation and democratization, economic development, and preventing armed groups from destabilizing neighboring countries.

Finally, within the framework, the international community (specifically the United Nations and the African Union) says it will support the peace process, work towards economic revitalization, strengthen the UN Peacekeeping Force (MONUSCO) in support of the government and security, and appoint a UN special envoy to support peace in the region. Additionally, several oversight bodies will meet to review progress.

How innovative are these plans?

None of the goals outlined in the framework are at all new. They have all been expounded in various other agreements. For example, in 2004 the United Nations and the African Union established the International Conference for the Great Lakes Region aimed at promoting peace and stability. At the conclusion of the Conference's first meeting, the core countries of the Great Lakes signed the Dar es Salaam Declaration in which they pledged their determination to promote greater security in the region, reaffirmed their commitment to human rights, and promised interstate cooperation in areas such as security, democracy, and good governance.

This Declaration was followed in 2006 by the Pact on Security, Stability and Development in the Great Lakes Region. Signed by member states, it reaffirmed the region's commitment to stability and peace, with added protocols that renounced the use of force as policy or instrument of settling disagreements or achieving national objectives, and forbid members from sending or supporting armed opposition forces onto the territory of other states.  

In both the agreements in 2004 and 2006, follow-up and oversight mechanisms were developed to ensure signatories adhered to their commitments. Both agreements gave rise to positive rhetoric.

“Open war has come to an end, and dialogue has become the method of resolving conflicts,” said President Kabila of the Congo in 2006.

Then, in 2007 and 2008, Kinshasa met with the Rwandans to define details for the disarmament and demobilization of the FDLR operating in eastern Congo. But disarmament never succeeded ­– due to a combination of lack of political will and lack of resources – and the FDLR still operates in eastern DRC.

Ok, so what is Rwanda’s role in the current Congo conflict?

As the Congo’s government has allied with FDLR, Rwanda has been accused of supporting the armed group M23, a force led by well-trained Rwandan and Congolese Tutsis active since April 2012. In November 2012, they seized the city of Goma, the capital of the North Kivu province. About two weeks later, M23 retreated and peace talks between the Congolese government and M23 have begun - although with no outcome thus far. (In the past few days, M23 has splintered; these two groups have been battling in North Kivu).

Is this document likely to make much of a dent on the ground?

Maybe. One of its most potent recommendations is the reinforcement of the UN’s peacekeeping force, MONUSCO, and the creation of an intervention brigade to join with the UN peacekeeping force. When M23 invaded Goma, MONUSCO was unable to intervene in large part because of their weak mandate ­– their role was limited to supporting the national army. When the army retreated, they were unable to act. This framework lays the foundations for enlarging MONUSCO's work, including peacekeeping within their scope.

Overall, the framework outlines some lofty and broad, but necessary goals for the region. It reiterates the need to focus on peace building in eastern Congo, and insists that regional governments stop interfering in the affairs of their neighbors. We'll begin to see the potential efficacy of this document in weeks to come with the creation of the UN special envoy to the region, and the commencement of oversight by regional and international actors. However, the real test, the possibility of this agreement having an actual influence on current conflict, begins in March when the Congolese government meets with M23 to continue negotiations.

Stay tuned.

Meredith Hutchison is a freelance photographer and writer working at the intersection of human rights, governance, and media in Central and North Africa.  

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