The UN envoy for the Great Lakes region, Xia Huang, on Wednesday voiced optimism, citing events in the past year with positive implications for the region.
The positive developments include efforts to stabilize the governing coalition following the peaceful political transition in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), progress achieved to normalize relations between Uganda and Rwanda, the formation of a unity government in South Sudan, and the diplomatic settlement of a border dispute between the DRC and Zambia, he told the Security Council in a virtual briefing.
Progress has also been made in the fight against armed groups operating in eastern DRC, said Xia.
At the initiative of the DRC government, there have been efforts to increase coordination and exchange of information between the armed forces of the DRC, Burundi, Uganda and Rwanda, in order to optimize military operations against armed groups, he said.
There has also been progress in the area of regional integration. On Dec. 3, 2019, Burundi, the DRC and Tanzania signed an agreement to build a railway connecting the three countries to boost trade in the region. The next Great Lakes Investment and Trade Conference will also be an opportunity to promote trade and to stimulate the enormous economic potential of the region, he said.
Despite the progress, challenges remain, he cautioned.
The greatest challenge is undoubtedly the activities by armed groups, including in the illicit exploitation of natural resources, which diminishes trust among countries of the region. The resulting insecurity caused by armed groups, especially in eastern DRC where civilians continue to pay the highest price, also fuels the humanitarian crisis in the region, said Xia.
“I urge all armed groups to immediately cease their acts of violence against civilians, refrain from blocking humanitarian access, and to engage resolutely in the existing disarmament, demobilization, repatriation, reintegration and resettlement programs.”
He appealed to the governments of the region to heed UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ call on March 23 for a global cease-fire.
The challenges facing the Great Lakes region are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the protracted Ebola epidemic, said Xia.
The number of COVID-19 cases in the Great Lakes region is growing, albeit at a moderate rate compared to other regions in the world. To date, more than 4,766 cases and nearly 131 deaths have been reported in the region, he said.
On the economic front, the negative repercussions of the public health crisis are already significant. There has been an almost complete cessation of activities in critical sectors, such as air transport, tourism, agriculture, petroleum and other extractive industries. In the long term, the restrictive measures, combined with the re-allocation of resources to address the health crisis, are likely to weaken the already fragile economies, with possible implications for peace, security and development of the region, he warned.
He asked for steadfast and resolute support from the international community for the countries of the region, some of which are emerging from decades of conflicts, to deal with and recover in a sustainable manner from the pandemic and its consequences.