Albright Presses President of Congo On Human Rights, Democratic Reforms
By Lynne Duke and Thomas W. Lippman
Albright's visit seemed designed to put the best possible face on relations between the United States and Congo, trying to influence the new government by working with it rather than alienating it.
She has emphasized several times during her week-long Africa tour that Congo -- the continent's third-largest nation and one of its most resource rich -- is key to peace and stability in Central Africa. But Kabila has sent mixed signals about his intentions since seizing power in May after an eight-month military campaign toppled long-time dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
In particular, his government's attempts to display sovereignty and independence to the United Nations and foreign governments have been criticized as intransigent, and Kabila's domestic moves have been called repressive.
His government has banned political activity and jailed leading opponents. Rivalries in the military resulted in a day of recent street fighting. And he reneged for months, until this week, on an agreement to allow a U.N. probe of massacres allegedly committed by his forces during the anti-Mobutu campaign.
These early and troubling signals run counter to the democratization and reform that Albright has been promoting and which she continued to encourage today. "There is a long way to go to reach these goals," she said of Congo, "but I am encouraged by a number of positive steps."
She said Kabila has made "a strong start" on the economic reform she said is needed to salvage this destitute nation of 45 million. She also cited as encouraging signs the naming of a constitutional commission that will draft new laws leading to an election, and the government's newfound willingness to allow the U.N. investigation to go forward.
Albright announced that the Clinton administration will seek congressional approval for a $35 million to $40 million aid package for health care, democratization programs and infrastructure development. The aid includes the rebuilding of the Black River bridge, blown up by Mobutu's army during the war. The bridge was the main link between Kinshasa, the capital, and southeastern breadbasket regions.
The aid announcement follows Kabila's criticism earlier in the week of the $10 million the United States has pledged to a World Bank trust fund for emergency Congolese redevelopment. Kabila derided that amount as too little.
During her tour, Albright has said the United States wants a new relationship with Congo and its neighbors in which "I will talk less and listen more" -- a phrase she has used repeatedly to signal Washington's willingness to tolerate some failures on the human-rights front from new African leaders who show long-term good intentions.
She put Kabila in that category. She said their private meeting today was charactered by "shared interests, mutual respect and a joint willingness to solve problems."
Congo's problems run so deep and its institutions are so fragile after decades of misrule that the country cannot be expected to change overnight, she said. Washington and other governments that once supported Mobutu have a responsibility to help undo the mess that the now-deceased veteran dictator created, she said.
Much of their meeting centered on building civil society here, and she said she encouraged Kabila to allow open political dialogue. "I would hope that this would include an early end to restrictions on political party activity," she said.
Those restrictions, however, show no sign of easing. And when a foreign journalist took Kabila to task for jailing his opponents, Kabila appeared annoyed. He accused a leading opposition figure, one of several dissenters in jail, of pushing for violent anti-government opposition.
"If they incite people to violence, they will go to jail," Kabila said, adding, "Long live democracy!"
State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said, "The impression left by President Kabila's statements does not accord with the strong views expressed on the subject of legitimate political expression to him during their meeting. . . . Secretary Albright intends to pursue the subject with the government of the Congo vigorously. Nonetheless, she believes it is important to engage the government and to work to establish a civil society, respect for rights and the rule of law."
Tough international pressure also helped clear the way for the U.N. human rights probe. Investigators finally have traveled to a northern town to begin their work after Kabila gave the go-ahead, but they were met this week by demonstrators who obstructed their movements. Today, however, the investigating team searched for mass graves and interviewed massacre witnesses.
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