In mid-May, Zairian security forces stormed the campus of the University of Lubumbashi. According to several recent reports, these soldiers massacred at least 300 unarmed students. One member of the government's Garde Civile who was at the campus that night says that he counted 347 bodies as they were being evacuated from the university grounds by government agents. Some of the victims were reportedly buried in a mass grave near the local airport.

Several days later, Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Herman Cohen arrived in Zaire. Without even mentioning the violence at Lubumbashi, he told reporters that the United States would direct its future foreign aid toward "emerging democracies, such as Eastern Europe, Zaire and some other African countries."

Cohen's ill-timed and inappropriate support for the Mobutu government is sadly characteristic of U.S. policy toward Zaire for the past 25 years. Equating pronouncements of reform in Zaire with the sweeping changes in Eastern Europe was particularly troubling, coming as it did in the immediate aftermath of the Lubumbashi killings. Regrettably, Cohen's noisy diplomacy is only the most recent example of the administration's failure to exert needed pressure on President Mobutu. In 1984, barely a year after Zairian security forces brutally attacked several opposition politicians following their meeting with visiting U.S. congressmen, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams told a congressional committee that "human rights conditions in Zaire had improved over the last 20 years." Dismissing these and other acts of violence by Zaire's security forces, Abrams implored Congress to provide more aid to the government of Zaire.

Several months later, Mobutu was treated as an honored guest by President Reagan. Reagan gave Mobutu a "warm welcome" and praised him as "a faithful friend for some 20 years." Responding to criticism of the administration's negative handling of the human rights issue in Zaire, Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker asserted that "it was wrong to characterize Zaire as a brutal police state." Rather he suggested that "abuses that do occur tend to be committed at the lowest level by individuals acting on their own, without sufficient training or material support." In 1986, Reagan renewed his unqualified praise for Mobutu, calling him "a voice of good sense and goodwill."

This misguided U.S. approach to Zaire has continued during the Bush administration's first 18 months in office. Mobutu was the first African leader received by President Bush at the White House in June 1989. The administration has requested that Congress provide Zaire with $56 million in military and economic aid for FY 1991, citing Zaire's support of various Western policies.

What this policy ignores is a prolonged and systematic pattern of institutionalized abuses of human rights in Zaire. Since Mobutu came to power in 1965, Zaire's security forces have continued to routinely harass, arrest, detain and abuse perceived political opponents. Thousands of Zairians have been tortured, subjected to cruel treatment and prolonged incommunicado detention, actions that have led to a total breakdown in the rule of law.

Official bodies created to protect the rights of Zairian citizens -- specifically, the courts and a government human rights ministry called the Department of Citizens Rights and Liberties -- have failed to carry out their mission. The judiciary has been plagued by interference from Zaire's sole political party, the Movement Populaire de la Revolution, and from the executive branch. Despite annual pronouncements of reforms for more than a decade, Zaire's judiciary has not punished the security forces for arbitrary arrests and illegal detentions.

The DCRL, which was formed in 1986 to promote and protect human rights, lacks the credibility, authority and political will to redress abuses. It has not resolved a single human rights case since its creation. Instead, it has been used cynically by the government to defend the government's human rights record before international tribunals such as the United Nations.

In April, Mobutu announced his intention to abolish the one-party state and to sanction a three-party political system. But Mobutu clearly asserted that he would remain as chief of state and as the "ultimate recourse" for future governments of Zaire. He also emphasized that he would remain above all state organs even if a multiparty government were allowed. Since the announcement, Mobutu has failed to take any steps to reform the security forces, which are the main perpetrators of human rights abuses.

Soon, the U.S. Senate will decide whether the administration's request of $56 million in aid to Zaire should be granted. The Senate vote provides an excellent opportunity for the U.S. government to make it clear that in the post-Cold War era, allies like Zaire must demonstrate concrete progress in human rights before further U.S. aid is forthcoming.

The writer is head of the Africa Project of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.