A UN Special Envoy for the Great Lakes: Can the UN absorb the regional process?

Following the fall of Goma to the M23 and the lack of progress in the Kampala talks, the United Nations has inched closer to naming a special envoy in order to jumpstart a larger, more serious peace process. While this could constitute a major shift in international engagement with the Congolese conflict, there are many questions and doubts remaining.

According to a UN official,  it is very likely that the Secretary General will name a special envoy in the coming weeks. In addition, Ban Ki-Moon is trying to use his offices to broker a new peace process, one that would involve all concerned countries in the region and that would tackle some of the root causes, including Congolese army and governance reform and outside intervention in the Kivus.

The ball got rolling in New York after Ban sent Susana Malcorra, the head of the UN’s Executive Office, to the Congo in November to meet with President Kabila and to visit the Kivus. Following the fall of Goma––and the criticism of UN failure to stem the M23 advance on the city––members of the Security Council were receptive to the idea of a new approach.

While details are still being discussed in New York, this approach seems to involve creating a framework for talks that would include Rwanda, Congo-Brazzaville, Congo-Kinshasa, Uganda, Burundi, and Angola, with the UN special envoy as the facilitator/mediator. The issues on the table could include political reforms in the Congo––such as decentralization, land conflicts, and security sector reform––as well as stabilizing the Kivus.

At the same time, the UN is considering absorbing the proposed Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) force that is supposed to be deployed under a Tanzanian command. This force could then form a special intervention brigade within MONUSCO, with a more robust mandate and rules of engagement to address the criticism of military weakness levied against the mission.

But many questions remain. Within this regional process, how could the Congolese government credibly commit to the very political reforms it has resisted? Kabila is still very reluctant to allow the UN to meddle in Congolese internal affairs and has been unable to carry out the necessary reforms. How would regional talks change this? (See my previous post on how I think the UN needs to be re-politicized to address some of the challenges). Distrust is deep in the region and impediments to change in Kinshasa, Goma and Kigali are formidable. Creating a process without an outside body to implement the agreement could just result in more talk.

How would such a process ensure that Rwanda and Uganda refrain from backing armed groups in the Congo, especially since they both deny such meddling? True, having boots on the ground from Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Malawi (other still to come…) is in itself a deterrent, a way of making sure these countries are invested politically as well as militarily. But it is difficult to imagine this SADC force waging risky counterinsurgency operations against the M23 or FDLR, and the more the Congolese army and government appear inept, the more other countries might turn a blind eye to foreign support to the M23.

The Kivus are the graveyard of peace processes––there have been many in recent years, ranging from the mixage arrangement of 2007 to the Goma peace conference of 2008 and the Ihusi Agreement of 2009. The temptation for the Security Council is to concoct another short-term fix, a mixture of beefing up the military approach and regional talks. But neither is likely to address the deep-rooted challenges the region is facing, perhaps foremost among which are Kinshasa’s reluctance/inability to reform its institutions and Kigali’s interference in the eastern DRC. Tackling those issues will require a much greater political engagement from the UN Security Council than we have seen in the past.