UNITED NATIONS -- The U.N. Security Council urged leaders in central Africa’s Great Lakes region Wednesday to seize the momentum of recent positive political developments to make progress toward ending conflicts and the illegal exploitation of gold and other natural resources in eastern Congo.
A presidential statement adopted by the U.N.’s most powerful body cited diplomatic efforts reinvigorated by the presidents of Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi that have resulted in improved bilateral cooperation. The council also commended efforts by the African Union and regional groups to support the political process and help solve conflicts in the region.
The Great Lakes region has been a hotbed of political instability and fighting since the 1994 genocide in Rwanda saw more than 500,000 people, most of them from the country’s Tutsi minority, slaughtered by a regime of extremists from its Hutu majority. After Tutsi rebels led by Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s current president, ended the genocide, extremist Hutus fled into neighboring eastern Congo.
Rwanda, together with neighbor Uganda, twice invaded Congo — in 1994 and 1998. The second invasion sparked a five-year, six-nation war in Congo that killed some 3 million people. Rwanda and Congo normalized relations in 2007, and 11 countries signed a U.N.-drafted peace agreement in 2013 to stabilize Congo and not to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries in the region.
Raychelle Omamo, Kenya’s Cabinet secretary for foreign affairs who chaired the council meeting, said that in the Great Lakes region there is now greater regional and bilateral cooperation, the thawing of tensions, “and a movement towards looking at holistic solutions to deal with the challenge of conflict, of poverty and underdevelopment."
“The linkages between natural resources and conflict remains a key challenge for many of the Great Lakes countries,” she said,
Huang Xia, the U.N. special envoy for the Great Lakes region, told the council that ministerial consultations and numerous state visits during the past six months “have provided a momentum to bilateral relations” in the region and a revitalization of cooperation in areas such as security, trade, infrastructure, transport, natural resources and energy.
“The bilateral and regional initiatives show that there is an emergence of a community of joint destiny, aware of the value added of dialogue and cooperation as the tools for being good neighbors,” he said.
But Huang said that despite these accomplishments, continued activity by armed groups remains the main threat to peace and security in the region.
He singled out renewed attacks in eastern Congo by the ADF rebel group, which originated in Uganda, and by the Red Tabara rebel group against the airport in Burundi’s capital in September.
Continuing violence has “very serious consequences” on the fragile humanitarian situation, economic stability and the illegal exploitation of natural resources “that fund their weapons and their recruitment,” he said.
João Samuel Caholo, executive secretary of the 12-nation International Conference on the Great Lakes region, said the region “has made progress with regards to peace, stability and development despite the challenges related to heinous criminal activities including illegal exploitation and trade of natural resources" and increased sexual violence by armed groups against women and children, especially in eastern Congo and Central African Republic.
U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Martha Pobee told the council the U.N. is encouraged by the improvement in bilateral relations between neighboring countries. But she said national and foreign armed group still operate in eastern Congo “and continue to perpetrate deadly attacks against civilians, further deteriorating the already dire humanitarian situation."
“Since the beginning of this year, at least 1,043 civilians have been killed, including 233 women and 52 children,” she said.
Pobee cited a host of underlying causes for conflicts in the region ranging from the presence of foreign armed group and the exploitation of natural resources to land and border disputes, intercommunal tensions, limited state presence in remote areas, persistent inequalities, youth unemployment and poverty.
U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the exploitation of minerals, wildlife and timber by armed groups, corrupt state officials and criminal networks “clearly fuel conflict” in eastern Congo and “help terrorist groups.”
She urged regional governments to manage their natural resources responsibly and demand that the private sector comply with international regulations, and she called for greater cooperation across borders to ensure gold and other minerals are sold legally.
“The Great Lakes region has wealth in natural resources and it has talented personnel to fund these efforts on its own, if state actors work together to ensure legal, productive trade that benefits all of the people of the region,” Thomas-Greenfield said.
“The difference would be extraordinary,” she said. “It is entirely possible to put an end to this smuggling and bring greater peace and prosperity in the region.”