Washington, DC — I walked into the State Department just over a year ago to take on my new role of U.S. Special Envoy for the African Great Lakes Region and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Part of my eagerness in accepting the job came from the recognition that we were entering a period of unprecedented international commitment to and partnership with Africa, including the Great Lakes Region.
Having worked on Africa for over 18 years in the U.S. Senate, on too many occasions I watched the international community swoop into parts of Africa in times of dire crisis, only to swoop back out after the first sign of progress or failure. Today, I believe we are witnessing a paradigm shift in how the international community, and the United States in particular, engages with Africa.
The increased commitment of the United States and the international community is already bearing fruit in the Great Lakes. When I was appointed, Secretary Kerry's marching orders were to do everything I could to help the region end the armed rebellion by the M23 rebel group. The tide had begun to turn against the M23 in early to mid-2013, after the international community and the region increased the military and diplomatic pressure on all parties. A key element of that push was the establishment of the UN's intervention brigade within the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC and the negotiation of the Peace, Security, and Cooperation Framework, signed by 13 African countries.
These steps helped pave the way for a resolution to the rebellion. In addition to military pressure, the end to the rebellion was achieved via the Kampala Dialogue, facilitated by Uganda, with the active participation of a team of international envoys that included the outgoing UN Special Envoy for the Great Lakes, Mary Robinson, and me. In December, the Nairobi Declarations were finally signed by the DRC and the M23, representing the political resolution to a long-running rebellion.
At that point, we could have declared victory and gone home. Instead, we increased our efforts to help the region fully implement the Nairobi Declarations and the Framework, with the vital goal of achieving sustainable peace and prosperity in the region.
One of the Framework's core objectives is to eradicate all armed groups. The international community and the region, including the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, currently under the effective chairmanship of Angola, are now demonstrating unprecedented commitment to once and for all neutralize the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a rebel group whose members include individuals responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
The FDLR has been active in eastern DRC for years, destroying communities, committing heinous abuses, including sexual violence and the illegal recruitment and use of child soldiers, and causing mass-displacement – without any accountability.
Again, we are seeing progress, although with much work still to be done. Earlier this year, the FDLR committed to voluntarily demobilize, in part to avoid military action by the DRC military and the UN. Regional governments have since announced a six-month timeline for the FDLR to fully demobilize. This process must be credible and irreversible, and the timeline cannot be an excuse for six more months of predatory behavior or false promises to demobilize by the FDLR.
It's up to all of us in the international community to remain engaged and to help the region ensure that the Nairobi Declarations are implemented and the M23 is permanently demobilized, and that the FDLR is finally and fully neutralized and its leadership held accountable.
Mary Robinson made an enormous commitment to progress in the Great Lakes. While the world will welcome and greatly benefit from her leadership in her new role as UN Special Envoy on Climate Change, she will be missed in Africa.
To continue building on her work, the UN Secretary General recently announced the appointment of Said Djinnit, former Special Representative of the Secretary General for West Africa, to succeed Robinson. Ambassador Djinnit's appointment is a reassuring and welcomed sign of the UN's sustained commitment to the Great Lakes.
When President Obama welcomes African heads of state to Washington on August 6, it will represent more than a one-off meeting. It will affirm deepened and sustained U.S.-Africa economic, democratic and security cooperation. It is this type of expanded commitment and cooperation which has allowed us to support marked progress in addressing the conflict in the Great Lakes region.
Russell D. Feingold became U.S. Special Envoy for the African Great Lakes Region and the Democratic Republic of the Congo on July 18, 2013. Throughout his 18 years in the United States Senate (1993 to 2011), he served on and led the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa.