The pact contains a protocol on protection and assistance for the displaced – the first legally binding regional instrument specifically dealing with internally displaced persons (IDPs).
It also includes protocols on the prevention and suppression of sexual violence against women and children, which obliges member states to punish the perpetrators of sexual violations in both conflict and non-conflict situations.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) welcomed the pact, saying it provided for a programme of action to tackle humanitarian issues that have bedevilled the region for decades.
"The pact will go a long way in bringing the region out of the vicious cycle of conflict, humanitarian disaster, increased vulnerability, poverty, and repeated conflict," said Besida Tonwe, head of OCHA's Regional Support Office for East and Central Africa.
"It is now of utmost importance that there is a follow-up on the national implementation of the legal protocols adopted on humanitarian and social issues which deal with sexual violence against women and children, property rights of returning persons and the protection of IDPs," Tonwe added.
Sexual violence has been widespread in civil wars in the region. In eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for example, thousands of women have been victims of rape during war.
Among projects to be implemented when the pact comes into force will be a regionally coordinated campaign to combat the spread Of HIV/AIDS and its effects, especially on women and children, according to the Regional Programmes of Action. The campaign will also target other sexually transmitted diseases, malaria and tuberculosis.
"The Great Lakes region faces problems of forced population displacement, sexual violence, HIV/AIDS and other social maladies," Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, the chairman of the second summit of the International Conference on the Great Lakes, said in a speech shortly after the pact was signed.
The pact also has a protocol to promote compliance with international human-rights laws, humanitarian law, conventions on the treatment of refugees and stateless persons. It makes it obligatory for signatories to protect, help and search for solutions for IDPs and refugees and communities that host them.
According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and the International Refugee Rights Initiative, there are an estimated 9.5 million IDPs and nearly two million refugees in the Great Lakes region.
Another protocol focuses on property rights of returning populations. "The development of a protocol on the property rights of returning populations … will go a long way in eradicating some of the social problems facing our people," Kibaki said.
"Today's signing crowns laborious negotiations that have given our people better prospects for the promotion of democracy, good governance and shared prosperity," the DRC president, Joseph Kabila, said at the closing ceremony. He later told reporters that the success of the pact would depend on the goodwill of the signatories. "We hope, believe and expect that all members will respect the pact," he said.
Six heads of state attended, including Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, Levi Mwanawasa of Zambia, Kabila and Kibaki, along with high-level representatives from the UN, African Union, and the European Union.
They agreed to set up a secretariat in Burundi headed by a Tanzanian diplomat to spearhead the implementation of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region process. Eleven countries are grouped together under this initiative, including Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, DRC, Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. Seven countries have been ‘co-opted’, namely Botswana, Egypt, Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
The UN Secretary-General in a message to the summit said: "The pact is not just a vision; it is a programme of action. Millions of people - women, youth, refugees, displaced persons and others - are watching you and watching us, and are awaiting concrete benefits. I call on the countries of the region to continue to show ownership of the process."
Full details of the summit are available at www.icglr.org
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