The apparently never ending cycles of violence in and around the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo have been followed (always ‘followed’ unfortunately) by cycles of international interest that have failed to deliver change and build a permanent peace. Can the latest international effort really be different? Can we dare to hope for peace?
I am in Burundi, in the capital Bujumbura, supporting UN Special Envoy Mary Robinson at a Conference mobilizing women from across the region to support the regional peace process.
Just five weeks ago I returned from a 7 day visit to Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo with mixed feelings. Many I met were really committed to change and genuine efforts to bring peace.
But many others seemed more interested in allocating blame. However, as we know from our own UK experience in Northern Ireland, peace can only be realized if all those with an interest play their part, if the key players are prepared to talk and find an accommodation, and if the future becomes more important than the past.
Mary Robinson has a hard job ahead of her. But she is trusted more than most, and after the atrocities committed in 2012, the first half of 2013 has seen some signs of hope.
For twenty years – and more – mistrust, envy, greed and power struggles have taken a terrible toll in this part of the world. Partly caused by the exploitation of the colonial past and the abuse of the minerals industries since, partly by instincts of fear and revenge sparked by the events before, during and after the Rwandan genocide, and partly caused by sometimes appalling governance and poverty, millions have died here in what has been called Africa’s world war. And the women – and children – have paid the highest price. They have been terrorised, raped and abused as weapons of war.
The world’s largest UN Peacekeeping Mission may have helped contain the scale of violence, but little has changed for the local people of Eastern Congo whose lives remain a daily struggle against violent armed groups, poverty and despair.
Following the resurgence of violence and a direct challenge to the Congolese and UN authorities last year, a new UN and Regional approach might just have a better chance of success. The UN Security Council has backed a force that can for the first time intervene to protect, not just defend and observe. The 11 countries of the Region have jointly signed a Framework for Peace and Security, backed by the UN, the World Bank, the AU and major donors like the UK. All, especially the government of the DRC, have committed to co-operation, dialogue and reform.
Mary Robinson has been given the job of pushing everyone to keep those promises, and drive forward change. She has rightly identified the role that women can play as national and community leaders for peace, and here in Bujumbura this week, women from across the Region will create action plans to take forward her Framework of Hope. We need to move from despair and defeatism to hope and action. These women might just hold the key, so it should be an interesting and uplifting week.