Today, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be in Kinshasa, the capitol of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for meeting of the International Organization of La Francophonie.
Harper’s visit to the DRC has been marked with controversy, given the DRC’s troubling human rights situation, and Canada’s recent silence on this point.
Harper, for his part, has committed to meeting with civil society and opposition leaders to “send a signal” to Congolese President Joseph Kabila that Canada is paying close attention to the situation of human rights and democracy in the region. The Prime Minister’s argues that through engaging and not isolating the DRC, he is seeking to promote the Francophonie values of freedom, human rights, brotherhood, and equality.
Although we applaud the Prime Minister’s efforts to deal with the DRC and we are delighted to see the DRC receiving some much attention, we believe these claims needs some critical analysis and contextualizing.
Trade – Mining Investments
Jamie Kneen of Mining Watch Canada points out that Canada’s Corporate Social Responsibility policy is named “Building the Canadian Advantage.” While interstate cooperation is often (if not always) driven by national interest, the name of this project suggests little hope for mutual benefit. As we have blogged about before, CSR is more about promoting a positive brand for the Canadian extractive sector, than about actually engaging in more ethical and sustainable practices.
As ACAC has written in our 2009 report, Canada is, after South Africa, the largest mining investor in the Congo. Although the armed conflict in the East of the country is a political and social conflict, mining resources have been used to fund armed groups and as documented in the same ACAC report, the UN has alleged that Canadian mining companies have been implicated in turning a blind eye to human rights abuses on more than one occasion.
Canada’s new Minister for International Co-Operation, who is also the head of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), Mr. Julian Fantino, will be joining the Prime Minister’s delegation to the summit.
Despite Canada’s commitment to promoting development in the DRC mentioned on the eve of Harper’s visit, that Canada extracts a sizable amount of the Congo’s natural resource wealth, and that the DRC is among the poorest and least-developed countries in the world, the DRC actually did not make it onto CIDA’s (Canadian International Development Agency) list of 20 ‘focus’ countries, which receive 80% of Canada’s bilateral aid.
However, to his credit, the Prime Minister did today emphasize CIDA’s support for The Fight Against Impunity and Support to Survivors of Sexual Violence Project. Whether this is a new project or a continuation of CIDA’s contribution to UN funds is unclear.
When asked to provide military assistance in 2010 through mhelicopters for the UN Stabilizing Force in the DRC (MONUSCO), the Harper government declined the request as the Canadian military was, according to the Canadian government, completely committed to the conflict in Afghanistan.
Comparison’s to Sri Lanka and Language Politics
Prime Minister Harper already announced his plans to boycott the Commonwealth Summit 2013 in Sri Lanka, because of human rights issues. Many identify that as a contradiction in Harper’s policies, since he is meeting with Kabila despite similar concerns in the Congo. It might not be that much of a contradiction in the end: after all DRC has mining resources and Sri Lanka does not.
Another point to consider is the recent victory of Quebec nationalists/le Parti Quebecois in the Quebec provincial elections. In terms of language politics, Prime Minister Harper must counter the presence of Quebec’s Pauline Marois (who gets her own seat at the summit as a representative of Quebec) and show that Canada is still very much committed to it’s Francophone heritage, and promoting it internationally. Again, Canada’s involvement in the summit have here more to do with internal Canadian political conflicts than the building of a mutually positive relationship between the Canada and the DRC.
Democracy and the current human rights situation
This year’s election in the DRC have been controversial, to put it politely. Many critics say that Harper’s meeting with President Kabila signals that Canada considers the government legitimate now. However, Harper is also planning to meet with opposition leaders.
Other approaches and a failed opportunity
Pauline Marois, the Premier of Quebec who will also be attending the Summit, has refused to meet face-to-face with President Kabila in protest of his policies towards human rights in the DRC. Although the merits of isolation versus engagement is a separate debate, it is clear that certain leaders are taking a much less lenient and more vocal stance towards Kabila than Harper is.
French President Francois Hollande, for example, will be using this summit as a launching pad for a new relationship between France and Africa, and has been extremely vocal about not only the lack of democracy in the country after the troubled 2011 elections, but also he has openly condemned Rwanda for supporting a new Congolese rebel group that formed last spring, M23.
When Western political leaders go to African countries and speak about the importance of human rights and democratic principles, one has to keep the national interests of that country in mind. As we see it, Canada could benefit from this meeting in two ways. First, Harper tried to reaffirm Francophone relations. Second, Canada wants to secure its place as an investor in the mining sector of the DRC – a country where Chinese investment rapidly changes the market. The remaining question is how exactly is the DRC benefitting? It is interesting to note that in the DRC, where Canada has mining investments, Canada chooses to “engage in dialogue”, whereas in Sri Lanka, where the economic stakes are less, we then isolate.