The president of France declined to do it, as did the leaders of Switzerland, Belgium and Vietnam. And as host of this weekend's summit of French-speaking countries, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien too shied away from criticizing his guests to their faces.
In the end, the task of confronting some of the world's most notorious human rights violators fell to Anne-Marie Kabongo, a 25-year-old law student from Congo.
Some nations represented--Rwanda, Burundi and Cambodia--had engaged in terror campaigns against civilians in their own and neighboring countries. Others, such as Togo and Chad and Congo, had long practiced the art of jailing political opponents and torturing critics. In many, free elections remain a foreign concept.
Looking them straight in the eye, Kabongo told offenders among the 52 heads of state that their murderous military campaigns and strong-arm tactics had robbed their children of their youth, robbed their countries of hope and, in many instances, sentenced their people to lives no better than those of animals.
Her voice trembled as she departed from her prepared text to the handwritten notes scribbled on the margin. What kind of world was it, she asked, when children could not go to school without worrying about stepping on a land mine and losing a limb or an eye. And then she slowly and deliberately listed the names of all nine countries present that had failed to sign the international treaty banning the use of such mines.
"I wanted people who claimed to love humanity to look what they were doing, to come back to reason," she said Saturday. "My message was that all this violence and repression had to stop." As she spoke, some of the leaders, including her own president, Laurent Kabila, squirmed in their well-cushioned seats. When she finished, the applause was loud and prolonged.
"We must not let this appeal go unheard," declared Chretien. "The youth have put their faith in us."
Yet while many delegations were hailing Kabongo as a hero of this Francophone summit, her pleas in the end went largely ignored. The final communique issued by participants today gave rhetorical lip service to peace, democracy and human rights but was embarrassingly short on any concrete actions to force members to sign international accords against land mines, genocide and the conscription of children into military conflicts. Even a proposal to send election observers to member countries fell by the wayside.
The Francophone organization was founded 30 years to protect and promote French language and culture. But in the days leading up to the summit, the leaders of France and Canada--the two largest French-speaking countries--had talked of giving more of a political cast to the assembly by taking stronger stands on human rights. They talked of expelling members engaged in gross violations of human rights, as its English-speaking counterpart, the British-led Commonwealth, had done in the past. But at the closing news conference today, Chretien was forced to concede that such a stance was "not in the cards."
French President Jacques Chirac, the paterfamilias of the organization, acknowledged that it would remain only a "quiet force" for human rights. The need for retaining unity, he said, had taken precedence over the desire for taking dramatic actions.
Amnesty International, which lists 31 of the 46 member countries of the organization as flagrant human rights violators, declared the final results to be "extremely disappointing."
"To put it bluntly, we see no progress at all," said Anne Sainte-Marie, a spokeswomen for the human rights group in Canada.
As for Anne-Marie Kabongo, she urged the West to keep up the pressure on African countries to embrace peace and democracy and human rights without expelling them from international bodies. "The worst thing would be to isolate us," she said. "It is better for our leaders to come here and see how others live and how other societies deal with conflict and disagreement."
She now returns home to Kinshasa, mindful that her outspokenness could land her in trouble. "I don't care what they do to me," she said, wiping tears from her eyes. "The truth had to be told."