Great Lakes Region: Open and Closed VTC Meetings
Tomorrow (22 April), Council members will hold an open VTC, followed by a closed VTC, on the Great Lakes region. The UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Great Lakes region, Huang Xia, will brief. The meeting will be held an hour earlier than usual, at 0900 hours EST, in order to allow the Special Envoy to brief from Nairobi in compliance with the curfew in place there due to COVID-19.
The focus of the meeting will be the Secretary-General’s latest six-month report on the implementation of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the region. The six-month report was released on 3 April and covers the period from 1 September 2019 to 15 March 2020. The Great Lakes region as described in the report consists of the 13 signatories to the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework of 2013: Angola, Burundi, the Central African Republic, the Congo, the DRC, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, South Sudan, the Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zambia.
Xia will likely focus on the recent key developments in the region, including the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the continued efforts of the region’s leaders to de-escalate tensions, improve bilateral relations, enhance security cooperation, and deepen regional economic integration.
Xia may describe steps taken to implement the Peace, Security, and Cooperation Framework. These include an international conference on peace and investment in the DRC held on the margins of the high-level week of the 74th session of the UN General Assembly in New York in September 2019 and the convening of two confidence-building meetings among the intelligence and security services chiefs of Burundi, DRC, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda in Dar es Salaam in November 2019 and in Nairobi in February. Xia may note, however, that the Regional Oversight Mechanism, which provides guidance on how to implement the Framework, has been unable to convene. It was first delayed due to technical reasons and then due to COVID-19. The Secretary-General urges the meeting to take place as soon as possible in his report.
The security situation in eastern DRC during the reporting period may also be addressed during the meeting. The instability there has caused concern throughout the region due to the porous nature of the DRC’s border. The Forces armées de la République démocratique du Congo (FARDC), the national army of the DRC, increased its operations in the east. While it reported a number of victories against non-state armed groups, its actions resulted in retaliatory attacks on civilians, particularly by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). As a result of these attacks, the report says that about 250,000 civilians have been displaced since the beginning of 2020. FARDC operations against another armed group, the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR), led to the surrender of a large number of their combatants from a splinter group; according to the report, 1,877 surrendered and 367 combatants were then repatriated to Rwanda.
Displacement in the Great Lakes region is one of the ongoing humanitarian challenges that may be raised in the meeting. The DRC hosts more than five million displaced persons, including over 940,000 newly displaced in 2019. This remains the largest internally displaced population on the continent. The region also hosts large refugee populations. As of the end of February, over 917,000 refugees from the DRC are located in other African countries, with Uganda having the largest such population. Additionally, the Great Lakes region hosted around 330,000 Burundian refugees at the end of 2019; the refugees are located mostly in Tanzania, and also in Rwanda, the DRC, and Uganda.
Some positive political developments in the region may be noted in the meeting, in spite of ongoing restrictions on political space, limited access to justice, and violations of basic rights and freedoms. After the involvement of several regional heads of states, Rwanda and Uganda signed a memorandum of understanding on 21 August 2019 in order to ease tensions between their two countries and to continue to work on the issue of releasing each other’s detained nationals. The Secretary-General said in his report that he was “encouraged” by DRC President Félix Tshisekedi’s efforts to improve diplomatic relations and cooperation with his neighbours.
One pressing issue that will most likely be discussed is the upcoming presidential election in Burundi scheduled for 20 May. President Pierre Nkurunziza—whose election to a controversial third term in 2015 precipitated mass demonstrations and an increase in violence and repression against his opponents—has said that he does not plan to run. The Secretary-General’s report notes that preparations for the elections were underway with seven candidates “validated to present themselves” for the presidential election and 5.1 million people registered to vote. The East African Community (EAC), which was expected to lead a mediation process involving the Burundian government and opposition as well as civil society organisations that has not materialised in a meaningful way over the past four years, announced on 8 February that it would send an election observation mission to the country for the upcoming elections. At the time of writing, the EAC has not provided further details about this mission. The meeting tomorrow could provide an opportunity for members to inquire about the status of Burundi’s electoral preparations, including the EAC observation mission, given concerns that the election be conducted in a credible and transparent manner.
The report briefly mentions the impact of COVID-19 on the region. Given the reporting period, it was still difficult to foresee the pandemic’s true impact on the region. By mid-March, cases had been reported in the DRC, Kenya, and Rwanda. Currently, cases have been reported in all countries making up the region, from four reported cases in South Sudan to 332 confirmed in the DRC. Many are concerned about the impact COVID-19 could have on the region, given its generally weak health infrastructure. It seems likely that the potential impact of COVID-19 on security and stability in the region will be discussed by member states tomorrow.
In general, the Council is united on the need for the UN to support regional efforts to cooperate. However, there are disagreements on just how involved the Council and the UN as a whole should be. A number of members have in the past urged the Special Envoy to be more explicit about his plans for the region, while others think that less guidance from the Council is to be preferred. And whereas UN actions in DRC have broad support, for example, Council divisions over Burundi persist. Some members maintain that, given the political tensions and human rights violations in the country, Burundi should remain on the Council’s agenda, while others, notably Russia and China, argue that the country should come off the agenda, as it does not represent a threat to international peace and security. In the Council’s last formal meeting on Burundi on 30 October 2019, South Africa appealed to the Council “to support the Government of Burundi and the East African Community mediation process as it lays the foundation for an environment that is conducive to the holding of democratic elections”.