10/13/2012 08:25 EDT | Updated 12/13/2012 05:12 EST

Harper Raises Human Rights Concerns At Francophone Summit

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canada is "particularly concerned" about violence against women being committed in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) at a summit of Francophone countries being held in Africa.

"We are here, not to excuse the things that are happening, but to spotlight them," Harper said in a speech Saturday at the start of the two-day confence in Kinshasa

Harper said his government was examining many human rights issues in the DRC, but mentioned violence against women in particular.

"Canada will be supporting additional initiatives to combat the barbarous acts of sexual violence against women that are occuring in the [eastern] part of the DRC."

A rebel movement, made up of former soldiers and calling itself M23, is terrorizing the eastern part of the DRC. It is accused recruiting by force and mass rape. M23 is being led by renegade Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Governance issues

The rest of Harper's speech focused on democratic concerns.

"All governments, without exception, must ensure their citizens good governance, the rule of law and respect of human rights," Harper said in a speech at the start of the two-day summit in Kinshasa.

He did not single out any particular country and is not expected to address the issue publicly.

Harper will have to tiptoe through a diplomatic minefield in order to not offend the host country, the CBC's Terry Milewski said from Kinhasa on Saturday.

"[His concerns] are likely not going to be discussed in very stark terms, certainly not in public."

On Friday, reporters asked Harper on what he might say or do about Congo's human rights record. They also asked Harper why he agreed to attend this summit, especially after threatening to boycott the next meeting of Commonwealth nations in Sri Lanka unless that country cleans up its human rights act.

He responded by saying Canada has already raised the issue of rights violations in the leadup to the summit.

"The Honorable Bernard Valcourt, our minister for the Francophonie, has already visited the DRC in the leadup to the summit, to express Canada's grave concerns on human rights violations in that country and other problems of democracy in governments," he said.

In the eastern parts of the Central African country, there are reports that armed groups are murdering and raping people with impunity.

"The average Congolese person never reaches the age of 50 and two-thirds of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day. Still, this is where the leaders will meet for the next two days to talk about peace," the CBC's Alison Crawford reported from Kinshasa.

On Tuesday, French President Francois Hollande said "the situation (in Congo) is absolutely unacceptable in terms of human rights, democracy and the respect of the opposition," provoking Kinshasa's outrage.

The spokesperson for the Congolese government, Lambert Mende, said that it is for the Congolese people to accept or reject the situation in their own country and not for France to give lessons.

"When this man who has never set foot in our country say this kind of thing, that hurts us," said Yves, 35-year-old economics teacher in Kinshasa.

Harper held talks Saturday with Hollande. CBC's Terry Milewski said Hollande, is "almost but not quite snubbing this francophone summit," with plans to leave early, before nightfall Saturday.

Harper, Marois hold 1st face-to-face talks

Harper also held talks with Quebec Premier Pauline Marois in their first face-to-face meeting, just before the official opening of the two-day summit. Later, Marois said the 30-minute meeting was "excellent."

''Very positive, very cordial, I'd say even almost warm,'' was how she described it.

Harper did not speak to reporters after the meeting and left the hotel by a back door.

Marois said she made it clear to Harper that her sovereignist government is ready to defend its interests and will seek the devolution of some powers and financial compensation — that those are issues for another day.

On this occasion, Marois said she told Harper she wants Quebec's cultural interests protected in the Canada-Europe free trade deal, and that the two levels of government must work together on helping diversify the economies of Quebec communities that have depended on the mining of asbestos.

Marois said she got the impression Harper was ready to listen and suggested agreements are still possible between the two governments despite their widely divergent political views.

The prime minister paid homage to Marois as Quebec's first female premier in a speech to summit leaders, saying she "recently wrote a page in history" with her election victory last month.

He also said Canadians are "very proud of our diversity, both linguistic and cultural."