East Africa: COVID-19 Pandemic Threatens Efforts to Implement Peace, Security Cooperation Framework for Great Lakes Region, Special Envoy Tells Security Council

A map showing DR Congo border with Zambia.
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Members Stress Critical Need to Maintain Unhindered Humanitarian, Other Support for Those Countries Menaced by Virus

The onset of COVID-19 is hampering efforts to implement the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Great Lakes region and already taking a significant economic toll on countries still working to emerge from years of conflict, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy told the Security Council in a 22 April videoconference meeting*, as he called for greater international support to consolidate gains.

Presenting the latest report on implementation of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Region (document S/2020/272), Huang Xia said the number of COVID-19 cases is growing, albeit at a moderate rate compared to other world regions.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 4,766 cases and 131 deaths have been reported.  The capacity of States to contain the pandemic differs, but their approaches to limiting its spread are similar — movement restrictions, quarantines, social distancing, curfews, suspension of international flights and the closing of borders for all movement except for cargo, he explained.

While these measures appear to have curbed the pandemic’s progression, he said, its negative repercussions have led to a near-total halt to air transport, tourism, agriculture, petroleum and other extractive industry activities.  Coupled with the reallocation of resources to address the health crisis, these measures are likely to weaken already‑fragile economies, he added.  “Countries of the region, some of which are emerging from decades of conflict, will need the steadfast and resolute support.”

Welcoming the Group of 20 decision to institute a debt moratorium until the end of 2020, he said COVID-19 has forced countries to redirect their priorities, resulting in the postponement of two major events:  the Great Lakes Investment and Trade Conference, which was to be held in Kigali, Rwanda, from 18 to 20 March; and the tenth Summit of the Regional Oversight Mechanism, which was to be held in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, from 27 to 29 March.  He said he is nonetheless, working with signatory countries and guarantor institutions — the African Union, International Conference on the Great Lakes Region and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) — to advance implementation of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework.

More broadly, he expressed optimism for the region’s prospects following the peaceful political transition in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  He also cited progress in normalizing relations between Rwanda and Uganda — thanks to the good-offices efforts of Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo — the formation of a unity Government in South Sudan and settlement of the border dispute between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia.

Gains have also been made in combating armed groups in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, he noted, pointing to greater coordination and exchange of information among the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda.  He added that his facilitation of consultations among the heads of intelligence in those countries, as well as the United Republic of Tanzania, helped to identify non-military measures to complement military operations.  These recommendations will be submitted for approval at the next summit of the Regional Oversight Mechanism, he said.

He went on to cite achievements in the area of regional integration, noting that, on 3 December 2019, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo and the United Republic of Tanzania agreed to build a railway to boost trade.  The next Great Lakes Investment and Trade Conference, which the office of the Special Envoy is organizing with the Intergovernmental Conference of the Great Lakes Region and the Government of Rwanda, will promote such initiatives.

Going forward, he said, the activities of armed groups remain the biggest challenge, especially their illicit exploitation of natural resources, notably in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.  He urged all such groups to end the violence against civilians, allow humanitarian access and engage in disarmament, demobilization, repatriation, reintegration and resettlement programmes.  “Their crimes will not go unpunished,” he emphasized, welcoming recent regional and international legal proceedings against group leaders.  Electoral processes have also been a source of unrest, he said, expressing hope that those in Burundi and the Central African Republic will help to consolidate democratic gains.

He said that, in the meantime, he will work to mobilize international support for the fight against COVID-19, a virus which could have overall implications for peace and security in the Great Lakes region.  He added that he will also initiate new engagements, where necessary, to improve relations among countries, work to advance regional security cooperation and engage with stakeholders on the illicit exploitation of and trade in natural resources.

In the ensuing discussion, Council members applauded advances in the region, particularly improved diplomatic relations between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and its neighbours.  Many proposed ideas for maintaining the positive momentum during the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic.

Tunisia’s representative, speaking also on behalf of Niger, South Africa and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, cautioned that there is a high risk that COVID‑19 will undermine positive trends in the Great Lakes region.  “Our immediate task is to consolidate further these achievements to mitigate the potential risk of the pandemic,” he emphasized.  Applauding the peaceful transfer of power in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, despite security challenges in the east of that country, he also commended the new spirit of cooperation among leaders in the Great Lakes region.  He also noted the positive political developments in South Sudan and called upon armed groups not to obstruct upcoming elections in the Central African Republic.  With the region on a path to sustainable stability, the international community must continue to extend its support, including development funding, so as to preserve gains and push regional cooperation forward.  He warned, however, that, unless the COVID-19 pandemic is well-contained, it could provoke considerable economic disruption, social tensions and human suffering.  It is, therefore, critical to provide unhindered humanitarian support to those countries that are vulnerable to the possible destabilizing impact of the virus, he stressed.

Indonesia’s representative said that, as the Ebola crisis winds down and the region faces COVID-19, all actors must seize the momentum of progress.  Commending the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s improved diplomatic relations with its neighbours, he said the root causes of conflict must be addressed.  In addition, the Security Council must support the work of regional organizations and United Nations missions, he emphasized, noting that Indonesian peacekeepers in the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) are successfully engaging with local communities.  Turning to the coronavirus pandemic, he said stakeholders must prioritize relief for the humanitarian situation.  With 5 million Congolese displaced and 350,000 Burundians having been made refugees, the international community must partner to overcome these and other challenges, he emphasized, adding that Indonesia will continue to cooperate with countries in the region and to support the Special Envoy’s work.

The United Kingdom’s representative welcomed the renewed momentum in the implementation of the Framework, underscoring the need for continued regional cooperation and efforts to address security challenges across the Great Lakes, given recent reports of cross-border incursions.  While commending the Special Envoy’s efforts to advance economic integration, he said such initiatives will only succeed by addressing such drivers as the illicit cross-border trade in natural resources.  Encouraging the Special Envoy to work with MONUSCO to develop a joint strategy on the conflict in the east of that country, he similarly requested information on the status of the United Nations peace and security strategy for the Great Lakes region, which has been under development for “quite some time”.  He went on to express concern over the electoral environment in Burundi, underlining that the Government must grant equal access to the media for all political parties and implement special measures in response to COVID-19 to ensure that the elections are fair.

The representative of the United States reiterated the need for transparency and timely sharing of public health data with neighbours and with the international community, adding that her country will continue to assist Great Lake States in addressing COVID-19.  Encouraging the Special Envoy’s office to innovate, including by using videoconferencing technology to support Great Lakes Governments, she said they will need such support as they balance their focus on both the COVID-19 response and their political, security and economic needs.  The pandemic might slow the current positive momentum for peace and economic integration, but gains must not be reversed, she emphasized.  Stressing the importance of follow-through on the quadripartite outcomes between Rwanda and Uganda, she applauded the mediation efforts of Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and encouraged Kigali and Kampala to continue to engage in constructive dialogue to resolve their differences.  As for Burundi, she expressed concern about the pandemic’s potential impact on the ability of citizens to participate fully in the electoral process while encouraging the Government to ensure safe elections on 20 May.  She added, however, that she remains gravely concerned about reports of repression of free expression and freedom of assembly and association, urging the Government to hold inclusive, peaceful, transparent and credible elections that reflect the will of the people.

France’s representative expressed concern over violence in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while emphasizing all actors in Burundi must refrain from actions that could jeopardize the holding of peaceful, inclusive and credible elections.  The Great Lakes region can count on support from France, he said, noting that his country has mobilized €1.2 billion to sustain African efforts to fight COVID-19.  “The sanitary threat needs to be addressed now to strengthen barrier measures in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus,” he emphasized, noting its strong advocacy for a collective effort to rescale the public debt of African countries.  Regional cooperation is “absolutely necessary” to address the causes of conflicts in the region, he stressed.

Belgium’s representative emphasized the risk of losing positive momentum in the region, noting that increased tensions around the presidential coalition in the Democratic Republic of the Congo could jeopardize needed reforms.  In Burundi, the modalities and outcome of the upcoming elections will be crucial for the region’s stability, he emphasized.  Reiterating his country’s strong support for the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework, he urged proactive efforts in support of a regional strategy to examine the full spectrum of the Framework agreement and focus not only on economic development, but, first and foremost, the causes of conflict — violations of human rights and illegal exploitation of natural resource.  Noting that the report contains an “impressive overview” of activities to implement the roadmap, he expressed hope that the Special Envoy’s will be able to sustain his efforts despite restrictions imposed by COVID-19.

The Russian Federation’s representative, calling the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework the cornerstone of regional stability, urged signatories to honour their commitments — including to respect sovereignty, territorial integrity and non—interference in State affairs — and to strengthen confidence-building measures.  Full implementation of the Framework, notably its military provisions, could have a decisive impact on the situation in the Great Lakes.  Indeed, the momentum generated by new leadership in Kinshasa is being maintained.  “Our common task is to support it in every possible way”, he said, commending regional leaders for settling their differences through negotiation and using existing mechanisms to sort out cross-border security incidents.  Instability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s eastern provinces is the most important factor in regional stability.  He expressed concern over military and armed group activities there, along with intercommunal clashes.  He welcomed gains made by the Forces armées de la République démocratique du Congo (FARDC) and MONUSCO in fighting armed groups, as well as resumed repatriation to the Democratic Republic of the Congo of former 23 March Movement (M23) combatants.

China’s representative said he was encouraged by gains made in implementing the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework, alongside efforts by regional leaders, notably steps by the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to improve relations with neighbouring countries.  Efforts should be enhanced to promote regional peace and stability, taking military and other measures to eliminate the threat posed by armed groups.  He called on all regional parties to respond to the Secretary-General’s ceasefire appeal, and drew attention to efforts by the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region to advance the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration process.  In addition, more should be done to address the causes of conflict — poverty and underdevelopment among them.  He welcomed the Special Envoy’s efforts to reach out to the World Bank Group, African Development Bank and the international community to attract investments, echoing the support expressed by the Framework guarantors in early April for coordinated efforts and joint decisions by regional countries to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Estonia’s representative said COVID-19 could act as a risk multiplier in the region and actions must be taken to ensure that humanitarian actors are coordinated and able to scale-up response efforts.  As the region is already combating malaria, measles and other diseases, Governments should prioritize the pandemic response and avoid hampering aid delivery.  He expressed concern over restrictions to basic political freedoms and human rights in several areas, calling on all stakeholders to ensure that the upcoming elections remain peaceful, free and credible.  He condemned violence by armed groups, notably ADF in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, stressing that perpetrators must be held to account.

The representative of Germany commended enhanced regional cooperation, notably on judicial matters, stressing that big challenges on the security front persist, including in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Economic development also remains challenging and there is new concern over the potential impact of COVID-19.  Close cooperation among regional countries is needed, supported by the International Conference, African Union and the international community.  He expressed full support for the United Nations and WHO in fighting the coronavirus, underscoring the need to strengthen health infrastructure to mitigate the pandemic’s impact in the region.  Efforts also must be made to promote correct and accessible information about the virus.  Massive investments in health infrastructure are needed.  As the advent of COVID-19 endangers the most vulnerable, he reiterated the call to cease hostilities.  Efforts to fight the pandemic must not be a pretext to permit human rights violations or impunity.  He expressed concern over the possible impact of COVID-19 on the holding of elections in Burundi, encouraging support for the country.  He expressed support for the Special Envoy’s work to devise a new Peace, Security and Cooperation strategy.

Viet Nam’s representative expressed grave concern about the new displacement of nearly 1 million people in 2019 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which now hosts the largest internally displaced person population in Africa.  He stressed the immense importance of addressing the causes of regional instability by supporting diplomatic and political efforts and enhancing reconciliation processes.

The representative of the Dominican Republic, Council President for April, spoke in his national capacity, welcoming steps by regional leaders to ease tensions and address differences.  He expressed regret that, despite such efforts, security conditions in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo have deteriorated, tensions between Burundi and Rwanda persist, and that armed groups in the Central African Republic continue to violate the Political Agreement.  Positive momentum is also at risk from the growing spread of COVID-19.  He called for an urgent, coordinated, regional and global response to the virus, and for international support for Africa and the Great Lakes region.

The representative of the Democratic Republic of the Congo said the political situation across the Great Lakes is dominated by a new dynamic catalysed by diplomatic efforts among the Presidents of his own country, as well as those of Uganda, Rwanda and Angola, which have significantly helped to ease tensions.  The leaders took national, bilateral and multilateral measures to address their differences and restore confidence, he said, adding that this easing enabled the Government, with assistance from its partners, to enact reforms.  Describing the situation in his country as generally calm, he said national and foreign armed groups, as well as intercommunal conflict, occur mainly in the east.  Efforts by FARDC and MONUSCO to neutralize armed groups will continue until those groups are eradicated, he emphasized.

On 30 October 2019, he recalled, FARDC launched military operations in North Kivu and South Kivu, damaging several bases of the Forces démocratiques alliées (ADF).  It also carried out military operations against FDLR in Rutshuru Territory and North Kivu.  Thanks to these efforts, 95 per cent of the bases for the Conseil national pour le renouveau et la démocratie (CNRD) were destroyed in South Kivu, one of several gains.  Stressing that illegal exploitation of natural resources has consequences for national peace and security, he explained that to combat the network of such “mafias”, the Government enacted a new mining law on 9 March 2018.  It also announced a partnership with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to improve security in mining sites and reduce illicit trafficking of minerals.  The Government has called for international support in its fight against illicit trafficking, he said, emphasizing that it is also focused on ensuring respect for rights, notably seen in its supervision of public demonstrations.

He stressed that the humanitarian front is dominated by the coronavirus and resurgence of Ebola, a disease which was in the process of being declared ended, while at least three new cases have appeared in North Kivu.  To contain COVID-19 the Government enacted immediate quarantines, public education, border closures and partial containment measures.  He went on to underline his country’s commitment to implementing the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework, and shouldering its share of responsibility so that peace can return to the region.  Citing paragraph 31 of the report, he called upon countries and guarantors to implement their commitments, reiterating that well-being and development in the Great Lakes region can only materialize when there is peace among its peoples.

* Based on information received from the Secuity Council

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