France, Canada focus attention on Congo rights record

Reuters News
Posted: Oct 13, 2012 11:56 AM
France, Canada focus attention on Congo rights record

By Jonny Hogg and Elizabeth Pineau

KINSHASA (Reuters) - France and Canada urged leaders from the French-speaking world to reinforce democracy and human rights during a summit in Democratic Republic of Congo on Saturday, in comments that focused attention squarely on the host.

Congo has been widely criticized for a flawed election last year that won President Joseph Kabila a second term, and for killings, rapes and other abuses committed by fighters in the rebel-plagued eastern province of North Kivu.

"Democracy is not a lesson. Democracy is a right, and for those in power it is a responsibility," French President Francois Hollande told reporters after a meeting with civil society group leaders in Kinshasa.

Hollande is the star invitee to this year's Francophonie summit - the first to be held in central Africa - but cast a pall over preparations last week by calling Congo's rights record "totally unacceptable".

Representatives from more than 70 French-speaking countries have arrived in Kinshasa for the 14th Francophonie summit which runs until Oct 14, with Congo's M23 rebellion and the Islamist takeover of northern Mali topping the agenda.

At the summit's opening ceremony Hollande greeted Kabila with the briefest of handshakes while warmly embracing Abdou Diouf, the former Senegalese president and current secretary general of the Francophonie.

Members of Hollande's entourage said Hollande had earlier met privately with Kabila for a "frank and direct" discussion about human rights that lasted 30 minutes.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose government had also indicated concern about Congo's rights record, gave a speech to delegates underscoring the value of democracy in a region notorious for troubled elections and 'sit-tight leaders'.

"All governments, without exception, must guarantee to their citizens good governance the rule of law and the respect of individual rights," Harper said. "For the first time the great francophone family is meeting here in central Africa, it's an opportunity to respect individual liberties, to reinforce democracy and to speak of peace," he said.

Canadian government officials have said Harper has "serious concerns" about Congo's rights record and that he would be meeting with civil society groups during his visit.

Africa's second-largest copper producer, Congo lies at the bottom of the U.N.'s development index, a measure of wealth, health and education, after decades of corruption and conflict.

A top official for Congo's UDPS opposition party said it was hoping to arrange a meeting between Hollande and Congo's veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, who claims he was cheated out of victory in last November's polls.

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Riot police blocked roads to Tshisekedi's residence on Saturday, although he capital was mostly quiet, a Reuters witness said.

Hollande's criticism of Congo's rights record last week was seen as a major boost for the opposition, but was also used by Congo's rebels to justify their uprising, which has forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.

Congo has accused neighboring Rwanda of backing the eastern rebellion in order to maintain control of a blackmarket trade in Congo's rich mineral deposits - a claim vehemently denied by Kigali.

A Congo government spokesman said Hollande's comments were 'unfair' and said the summit was a chance for Congo to bolster its legitimacy and close the book on a turbulent past, marked by a war that killed millions and decades of state-level graft that has left most of its people in poverty.

Human rights group Amnesty International said it called on the Francophonie to condemn human rights violations and engage Congolese authorities to stop the rebellion.

(Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Jason Webb)