12/20/2011 04:05 EST | Updated 02/18/2012 05:12 EST

Canada continues support for Francophonie summit in troubled Congo

OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government is still backing plans to hold the 2012 summit of Francophonie nations in the troubled Democratic Republic of Congo, despite widespread electoral fraud in its recent presidential election and a crackdown on political dissidents.

This fall, Harper said he would boycott the 2013 meeting of Commonwealth leaders in Sri Lanka if the government there did not pursue an investigation of human rights abuses inflicted on civilians at the end of that country's civil war.

But the Conservative government is taking a different approach with the Democratic Republic of Congo, suggesting the summit next October will be a chance to engage with the country. The Liberal Party of Canada also says it's too early to decide to pull out of the summit.

Bernard Valcourt, the minister of state for the Francophonie, returned earlier this month from meetings in Paris with his international counterparts including Congolese minister Raymond Tshibanda.

"The Minister briefed me on the next Francophonie Summit in Kinshasa and told me that preparations for the summit were going well," Valcourt said in an email to The Canadian Press.

"During this meeting I made sure to mention that the next Francophonie summit in Kinshasa will be an ideal opportunity to strengthen dialogue with Congolese authorities about their efforts to ensure political stability and security in their country."

The Prime Minister's Office says it's still monitoring the situation and will determine Harper's attendance at a later date. The last francophonie summit, scheduled for Madagascar in October 2010, was moved to Montreux, Switzerland because of civil conflict. The organization, largely funded by France, Canada and Belgium, has been criticized in the past for not taking a stronger stand against human rights abusers within its diverse membership.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is facing a tense situation where two men have declared themselves to be president — incumbent Joseph Kabila and opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi.

That country's Supreme Court has declared Kabila the winner, but the Carter Center has said the results of the vote lacked credibility, detailing widespread problems with tabulation, 3,000 missing polling stations representing approximately 850,000 votes, and a general lack of transparency.

Tshisekedi has called on the army to abandon Kabila, and for citizens to capture Kabila, renewing fears of another round of violence in a nation that has already lost an estimated six million to war.

Amnesty International, meanwhile, reported that political opponents of the Kabila government have been summarily arrested. There have also been reports of crackdowns on Internet communication and media outlets believed to be sympathetic to the opposition.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele, a visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, criticized Western countries for not taking a harder stand against the electoral problems and the Kabila government.

"They continue to hedge their positions, hesitant to speak in the strongest of terms in favour of a transparent, credible, and fair process. They further worsen the crisis by consistently blaming street violence on the opposition even as they ignore the massive human rights abuses by state security agents," Dizolele wrote in Foreign Policy magazine's online blog last week.

Hugo Sada, of the International Organization of the Francophonie's (OIF) human rights delegation, agreed that "disorder" plagued the voting process. The OIF had a team in the DRC evaluating the overall electoral results.

But he said the organization is still waiting for reports back from legislative elections in the country scheduled for February.

"I think the debate over the summit won't happen before the electoral process has finished and we can evaluate the consequences," Sada said in an interview from Paris.

The Liberal critic for the francophonie, Stephane Dion, agreed that it's too early for Harper to declare he's giving the summit a pass but said everyone should keep their eyes open.

"We don't want a summit to legitimize the president if it's clear over the months that the election has been stolen and the security on the ground does not exist, and you have a violation of human rights in Congo, so that's why we don't call for the cancellation of the summit now," said Dion.

"But certainly the situation should be monitored very closely."

Congolese Canadians have taken to the streets over the past two weeks to protest the results of the election, with three arrested in Ottawa on Dec. 6 after some demonstrators attempted to cross a police line. Another protest in the capital last week ground downtown traffic to a half for several hours in the pre-holiday midday rush.

Henriette Mamie Yakibonge, one of the protest organizers, said she would like to Harper reject what she calls rigged election results and the Kabila government. But Yakibonge said it would be premature to cancel the scheduled Francophonie summit.

"If between now and May the rule of law is re-established, security is re-established and the Congolese people have succeeded in putting in place financial stability, then he could see going because that would be a good visit for the country, for encouraging the people and reinforcing the links between Canada and the Congolese," she said.