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African Conference Discusses Peacebuilding

Rwandan President Paul Kagame speaks to leaders and dignitaries in Kigali, Rwanda, Nov 9, 2011
Rwandan President Paul Kagame speaks to leaders and dignitaries in Kigali, Rwanda, Nov 9, 2011
Heather Murdock

Leaders and diplomats from nine African countries, Haiti and several international organizations gathered in Rwanda this week to devise ways to build lasting peace in countries ravaged by war for decades.  

Seventeen years ago last spring, Rwanda was the most violent place on earth.  Today, Kigali parks are neatly manicured and people travel safely at any time of night.  This week in Kigali, leaders from Sierra Leone, Liberia, Burundi, Central African Republic, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Haiti, South Sudan and Timor Leste traveled to Rwanda to learn how it’s done.

Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza said that before peace can be sustainable, a country needs to maintain stability on the streets.  Hundreds of thousands people were killed in the Burundian conflict that ended more than six years ago.  Burundi remains one of the poorest countries on earth, and conflict remains a threat.

"A multitude of Burundians were killed," said Nkurunziza. "Others were forced into exile.  Property was looted, stolen.  Infrastructure was destroyed and the government was also not spared."

But security, he said, is only the first step.  At the end of the two-day Kigali conference, leaders read a statement to present to the United Nations.  Its purpose was to communicate to the international community what Africa thinks it needs to maintain peace in its many post-conflict countries.

The communiqué recommends the U.N. support programs that make sure aid gets into the hands of the people in the villages, rather than remain in the hands of non-government organizations or unaccountable governments.

It also calls for improved educational systems, and the utilization of community-based justice systems, like the Gacaca courts in Rwanda that have tried about a million suspects since the 1994 genocide, in which about 800,000 people were killed.

Leaders also agreed that legal rights for women are a key aspect to building a healthy, peaceful society and spurring economic growth.  United Nations Assistant Secretary General for Peace Building Judy Cheng-Hopkins says post-conflict societies should use temporary affirmative action laws to kick start this growth by incorporating women into public life.

"Women's role in peace building is not about women’s rights," said Cheng-Hopkins. "It’s not about women’s rights.  It’s about good peace building.  It’s about good, durable sustainable peace building and missing out the gender element is peace building is usually a formula for failure."

These leaders also say international aid is necessary for recovery but post-conflict countries in Africa run the risk of becoming an “aid orphan” or an “aid tsunami.”  

Aid orphans like Burundi have to scrap for any help at all, while aid tsunamis, like Haiti, can become overrun with uncoordinated non-government organizations that create a culture of dependence.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame says African countries should be wary of international aid that is not managed at least in part by people on the ground.

"Nationals are best placed to coordinate financial and technical support because they know what opportunities to seize and constraints to overcome," said Kagame. "When countries and their development partners work together along these lines the outcome is more positive and sustainable."

President Kagame has been a leader since Rwanda since the end of the genocide.  Supporters hail the stability he has brought to the country, while critics say his government has become intolerant of opposition or dissent.  Despite that criticism, the president continues to enjoy broad international support.  

At the conference this week, Burundian President Nkurunziza said his country and neighboring Rwanda are united in working to prevent further conflict from engulfing their societies.

"The suffering of Rwandese and Burundians, as we are brothers and sisters sharing almost the same history must serve as a lesson to humanity so that we can rise as one and say “never again. May God bless you and thank you," he said.

Mr. Nkurunziza also congratulated Rwanda in its successful establishment of peace and order, and said the country has shown the world how to recover from genocide and civil war.

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