After a year of armed clashes, mixed with stop-start discussions in Kampala, the government of the DRC and the M23 have finally signed their peace 'declarations'. This comes after the military defeat of M23 by the Congolese army at the start of November, assisted by the UN Force Intervention Brigade (FIB).
The 'declarations', which are separate but contain essentially the same points, were supposed to be signed earlier this month, but this was delayed because of disagreement about the title of the document. The Congolese government wanted to avoid negative public reactions to their signing anything akin to an 'agreement' with a rebel group they had just defeated. This is also likely the reason for the separate documents.
The 'declarations' contain the following eleven points that were negotiated over the course of the past twelve months:
1. Amnesty to members of M23 but only for acts of war and insurgency (not war crimes, genocide or crimes against humanity), conditional on each individual M23 member signing a declaration to refrain from such acts in the future
2. Transitional security arrangements (not further specified in the declaration itself) leading to disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration
3. Release of M23 prisoners held by the DRC Government and accused of acts of war and rebellion
4. Permission for M23 to transform itself into a political party, should it wish to do so
5. Demobilization and reintegration of the former M23 combatants
6. Return and reintegration of refugees and internally displaced persons
7. Establishment of a commission to identify confiscated, extorted, stolen, looted and destroyed properties, and to refer cases to competent legal authorities
8. National reconciliation and justice, including establishment of a National reconciliation commission, to include former M23 members
9. Social, security and economic reforms, in accordance with the February 24 2013 Peace, Security and Collaboration Framework
10. Implementation of the conclusions of the review of the implementation of the 23rd March 2009 Ihusi Agreement and the decentralization provisions contained in the Congolese Constitution
11. Implementation, monitoring and evaluation mechanism for the agreed positions
So what is the significance of these declarations?
They mark the end of M23 as a military movement and to armed confrontations between M23 and the DRC government forces, and so are a welcome and necessary step towards peace and stability in eastern DRC and the wider Great Lakes region.
In order for this to materialise, however, broader regional dialogue now needs to take place, as called for by the US White House. In addition, the Peace, Security and Collaboration Framework needs to be fully implemented. There is also a need for more clarity about the steps to be taken by M23 and the DRC government to implement the declarations in good will, and to establish a credible and independent oversight mechanism, to avoid repeating the past when peace agreements were signed and then largely ignored.
It is in this connection important to note that some key points in the 'declarations' (on national reconciliation and justice, return and reintegration of refugees and displaced persons) are essentially a copy/paste from the 2009 Ihusi agreement which was never fully implemented. In this sense, the declarations signed on 12 December only confirm commitments that were already signed and violated before.
The declarations underline the urgent need for the DRC government to put in place a long overdue Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Programme. This not only applies to former M23 combatants, but to combatants of the 30 or so other Congolese armed groups that continue to commit horrendous crimes and human rights violations across the east of DRC (see BBC map here).
Beyond the political processes underway, and the established 'declarations' and frameworks, a significant determining factor for future stability in the region will be if and how the Congolese government and army start to tackle other 'negative forces' in the region. This includes those forces that pose the greatest concern for neighbouring countries, namely the Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR) and the ADF-Nalu.
The disappearance of M23 from the military scene in eastern DRC could be an opportunity to start to address the underlying causes of continued violent conflict there, including local conflict drivers which include poor political governance, resource competition and manipulation of ethnic identities. But this can only be achieved if the DRC government has the courage to do so, and is supported by the international community and countries in the region.