NAIROBI, 11 Dec 2006 (IRIN) - When preparations for the international conference on peace, security, democracy and development in the Great Lakes region began in 2003, United Nations and African Union (AU) officials were at pains to explain that this was a process, not just a meeting, that would take years to achieve. Four years later, the last of two state summits in this process is scheduled for 14-15 December in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital.
Since 2003, much has been achieved, democratically speaking, in some of the Great Lakes states that the UN-AU joint secretariat calls "core countries". Indeed, the Nairobi summit hinged a great deal on the democratic progress in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Burundi held elections in August 2005 while the DRC has just completed its own, with the inauguration of President Joseph Kabila on 6 December.
Africa's Great Lakes region generally encompasses Burundi, DRC and Rwanda, sometimes extending to their neighbours. However, to accommodate diverse regional interests, 18 countries have been incorporated into this Great Lakes process. The 11 core countries are Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic (CAR), DRC, Republic of Congo (ROC), Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia; and the seven "co-opted" countries are Botswana, Egypt, Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
Top of the agenda in Nairobi is the signing by leaders of the core countries of a pact on stability, security and development. This agreement, comprising several legally binding protocols as well as programmes of action, would shape how countries in the region relate in terms of peace and security; democracy and governance; economic development and regional integration; and humanitarian and social issues.
"The heads of states' commitment here through the signing of the pact on security, stability and development could well start the motor for this region to enjoy the much-needed peace, economic boom and infrastructure development on a regional scale," said George Ola-Davies, the public information officer in the Office of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for the Great Lakes Region.
"We have had bilateral projects but now the difference here is that all the projects are regionally based," he added.
The Nairobi-based UN-AU secretariat says the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (IC/GLR) is a response to decades of armed conflict and humanitarian disasters in the region, especially the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the civil wars in the DRC, which resulted in millions of deaths and social as well as economic devastation of these countries.
The UN Security Council passed two resolutions in February and June 2000, calling for this conference, whose main objective would be to urge the African countries themselves to lead in finding lasting regional solutions to their problems.
In November 2004, the region's leaders held their first summit in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and endorsed four main themes: peace and security; democracy and good governance; economic development and regional integration; and humanitarian and social issues. These themes cut across issues such as gender, the environment, human rights, HIV/AIDS and human settlement.
The AU-UN secretariat says this agreement became the embodiment of the Dar es Salaam declaration, which expresses the vision of the leaders to "transform the Great Lakes Region into a space of sustainable peace and security for states and peoples, political and social stability, shared growth, and development and cooperation".
The secretariat says to advance the process, a regional inter-ministerial committee, comprised mainly of foreign affairs ministers, was created and told to draft, within each of the four priority areas, achievable programmes of action and legal protocols. Women, youth, representatives from civil society and the private sector took part in the meetings, which lasted two years.
It is these programmes of action and protocols, the follow-up mechanism and the special fund for reconstruction and development, together with the Dar es Salaam Declaration, that form the pact of security, stability and development in the Great Lakes Region that the heads of state are due to endorse during the Nairobi summit.
The question is: What tangible results will the region achieve at the end of this process? The AU-UN secretariat cites a commitment to peace and prosperity that would result from the implementation of the legally binding protocols on issues such as the establishment of a regional security framework for the prevention, management and settlement of conflicts; strengthening regional cooperation in areas of defence and security; promoting common policies to put an end to the proliferation of illicit small arms and light weapons; as well as the protection of vulnerable groups such as women, children, the elderly, the disabled and the sick.
The UN-AU secretariat says the priority projects developed so far range from joint security management of common borders through a regional initiative to curb illegal exploitation of natural resources to fighting the systematic rape and sexual violence against women and children, as well as a legal framework for the recovery of land and property by returning refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).
In all these initiatives, projects involve more than two countries. The core countries have established a regional follow-up mechanism to ensure the implementation of the programmes of action. To finance the activities, these countries have set up a special fund for reconstruction and development under the African Development Bank. The governments will provide the seed money for this fund with international contributions.
Emergence of regional bodies
The revival and establishment of regional social and economic organisations, such as the East African Community (EAC), have further strengthened the region's quest for peace.
The EAC expanded its membership of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda in late November to include Burundi and Rwanda, strengthening the economic and social ties among community member countries that could propel them into forming a political federation, which is the community's objective.
For its part, the DRC, as a member of the Southern African Development Community, could achieve peace and political stability because these are prerequisites for economic activities between it and other SADC countries. This could also drive the DRC to fast track the reconstruction of its war-shattered infrastructure.
In terms of humanitarian activities, stability in the Great Lakes would drastically reduce the numbers of refugees and IDPs since they would be able to return home. Implementation of programmes to disarm, demobilise and reintegrate into civilian life former combatants would also result in a drastic decline in armed conflict and banditry in the region.
The head of the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Regional Office for East and Central Africa, Besida Tonwe, says the summit represents a unique opportunity for the region's heads of states to commit themselves and their countries to the vision and practical programmes and legal protocols included in the Nairobi Pact, not least the protocols on the property rights of returning populations, prevention and suppression of gender-based violence, and the care and protection of IDPs.
"We are turning the page in the Great Lakes region and we as humanitarians welcome the shift towards democratisation, reconciliation, and peace," she said. "Having said this, the humanitarian needs in the region remain truly enormous, with millions of people denied access to basic medical services or adequate food, and exposed to sexual violence paired with rampant impunity. The consequences of years of conflict are still being felt while the dividends of peace have not yet materialised."
Tonwe says the consolidated humanitarian appeal for the Great Lakes, to be launched on 13 December, is the humanitarian community's collaborative expression of the failings that remain to be corrected in terms of fulfilling people's basic human rights.
"In this Appeal, there are projects designed to directly support the IC/GLR Summit's expected outcome on issues such as protection, gender-based violence and return of IDPs and refugees," she says. "The strategy laid out in the appeal intends to support and complement the important gains already realised by the nations of the region and to work in solidarity with governments and civil society to consolidate the peace."