Violence in Congo on agenda for Stephen Harper at Francophonie summit
OTTAWA—Amid security concerns over violence wracking Congo — this year’s site for the biennial gathering of francophone leaders — Prime Minister Stephen Harper heads to Africa on a mission of contrasts.
Harper stops for two days in Dakar, Senegal, where he will highlight aid, development and democratic advances in a country where a contested election result last spring was soon accepted and led to a peaceful handover of power.
Then Harper heads to Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a contested election last year saw the incumbent, President Joseph Kabila, cling to power, and opposition leader Étienne Tshisekedi declare himself the winner.
Protests by Congolese opposition supporters continue, while violent clashes between government and Rwandan-backed rebel militias rage in the country’s northeast region, as they have for years.
Kabila will host this summit, but his inability to secure his country is in Harper’s sights.
“We have serious concerns about the worsening security situation in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and the increase in human rights violations, notably violence against women and an inability to provide adequate protection for civilians in the region,” said Harper’s spokesman Andrew MacDougall.
Canada “did have concerns” about election irregularities but “we do recognize the legitimacy” of Kabila’s government, he said. Nevertheless, Harper will meet opposition and “civil society actors” in person — a signal to Kabila — and will join other leaders urging more democracy, more respect for human rights, and a halt to the scourge of rape that has left millions of civilians scarred.
There is no small irony here.
Two years ago, Harper’s Conservative government declined requests for additional military helicopters and a force leader to boost Canada’s role in the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Congo, despite a direct plea to visiting governor-general Michaëlle Jean. The Conservatives said Canadian forces were fully tapped in Afghanistan.
The UN mission in Congo was re-named a “stabilization mission” shortly afterward, and despite Kabila’s broad musings of turfing the UN out, it remains — a slightly smaller, yet still overwhelmed force. Canada’s current contribution is about a dozen military officers and six civilian police officers.
Accompanied by International Cooperation Minister Julian Fantino and Bernard Valcourt, minister with responsibility for the Francophonie summit, as well as the premiers of Quebec and New Brunswick, Harper intends to “encourage dialogue between the DRC and other members of Francophonie with regard to human rights including the rights of women and children,” said MacDougall.
Canadian government officials hope Harper’s trip to Senegal and Congo — his third brief visit to Africa — will also highlight Canada’s efforts to boost “corporate social responsibility” measures, or ways to track the origin of “blood minerals” exported from the continent to stop the flow of cash that fuels armed conflicts there.
Kabila put the issue on the agenda of the summit, and it’s expected the final communiqué may lend high-level support to transparency initiatives underway.
However, critics like MiningWatch Canada are skeptical anything useful will come of it unless actual standards and ways to legally enforce violations are set out.
Jamie Kneen, spokesman for the group’s Africa section, said even though Canadian companies claim they voluntarily abide by Canadian standards abroad, “the fact is they don’t.”
Kneen notes dismissively that “their corporate social responsibility strategy is called Building the Canadian Advantage,” which he says does nothing to alleviate the poverty of local miners and communities and is all about “promoting Canadian business interests.”
Kneen said Harper’s decision to “duck any responsibility for helping out the UN mission” hurts Ottawa’s attempt to now make demands of the Congolese government: “It doesn’t give us any credibility.”
A senior Canadian government official acknowledged Tuesday at a briefing for reporters that so-called “blood minerals” are “still one of the main drivers of conflicts” in Africa’s Great Lakes Region that encompasses the northeast Congo. While there has been “significant progress,” she said, “there are obvious impediments associated with primarily the security situation . . . . It’s a long-term issue.”
However, the Canadian official added progress may come because given the big role natural resources and the mining sector play in the economic future “of lot of members of the Francophonie, it’s topical issue particularly for a lot of emerging economies in Africa to get this thing right.”