For the last six years, the death and violence spawned by the 1994 genocide in Rwanda has spread across neighboring Congo, where it triggered a regional war on a scale never before seen in Africa. Now, with the signing in Pretoria of an agreement between the presidents of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the combatants are taking a giant step toward ending the violence and changing the fate of Africa's most troubled region. But their success will depend not only on their political will but also on the readiness of the United Nations to play a larger role than it has so far been willing to assume.

Some have criticized the South African-brokered accord for unrealistic deadlines and a lack of detail. But the critics miss the point. The security issue that lies at the core of the Congolese conflict is the continued use of Congolese territory to launch attacks into Rwanda by remnants of the Rwandan forces that perpetrated the 1994 genocide, which claimed up to 1 million lives. The breakthrough achieved in Pretoria is that both sides have agreed on a process and a mechanism to bring this issue to closure.

Under their agreement, Presidents Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Laurent Kabila of the DRC have accepted South Africa and the United Nations as the arbiters for the resolution of outstanding security issues. South Africa and the UN will be responsible for verifying information regarding the numbers and location of militia members, and Rwanda and the DRC have pledged to accept their conclusions.

In addition, the Congolese government for the first time explicitly pledges to end all support of these armed groups and to work to secure their disarmament. For its part, Rwanda has reaffirmed its commitment to withdraw its forces from DRC territory once the disarmament measures are in place. Moreover, the Rwandans have agreed that their withdrawal should start simultaneously with the implementation of the disarmament and demobilization.

But the United Nations will be faced with serious challenges in the weeks ahead. The new agreement may well encourage a number of Rwandan insurgents - the majority of whom even the Rwandan government acknowledges had no direct involvement in the genocide - to disarm voluntarily and accept repatriation or resettlement. But some may not. Will the Security Council be prepared to extend to the UN observer mission the responsibility for forcibly disarming those who refuse to lay down their arms voluntarily? And what countries will be prepared to contribute to such a UN mission? Alternatively, if the UN does not wish to assume this broader responsibility, will it permit a new regional force to be constituted, a coalition of the willing? If so, would such a force be granted a mandate from the UN Security Council so it would operate with international legitimacy? And will the international community provide the financial and technical support required for such an effort?

The Pretoria agreement is designed not to resolve these issues but to provide an orderly and transparent process for their resolution that will involve Rwanda, the DRC, South Africa, and the United Nations. In effect, the responsibility for dealing with the security issues flowing from the 1994 genocide will no longer be Rwanda's alone but will be broadly shared, with the parties working collaboratively with the international community.

The success of the Pretoria agreement will depend on two factors. The first is the development between Rwanda and the DRC of a shared sense of responsibility for the resolution of what in fact is a security problem they hold in common. When all is said and done, the presence of foreign militias in the DRC threatens to destabilize not only Rwanda and the other states that border the DRC but the DRC itself.

Second, getting to a sustainable peace in the DRC will require the intense diplomatic engagement of the international community and a more robust response from the United Nations. The international community badly failed Rwanda both at the time of the 1994 genocide and afterwards, when it permitted UN-administered refugee camps to be transformed into bases for the continuation of attacks into Rwanda. The UN must not be permitted to fail a third time.

This story ran on page A23 of the Boston Globe on 8/29/2002. © Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.