President Bush Praises, Offers Help to Embattled Congo Leader

President Bush congratulated Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila today on progress the war-torn country has made since its first democratic elections in 40 years, but human rights groups and the United Nations warn that the African nation still faces a potential humanitarian catastrophe.

Last year, the DRC had its first democratic elections in decades after more than 10 years of war left at least four million Congolese dead and millions of others traumatized by rape, kidnapping, and brutality. The elections were considered relatively peaceful and fair according to U.N. and NGO monitors, but in the months since, near war has broken out between government security forces and major rebel groups in the eastern regions of the country. Some 800,000 civilians have been displaced since January because of the conflict, according to the U.N. Mission in the Congo (MUNOC).

President Bush acknowledged the problems in the DRC's eastern region and pledged that the United States would help. "We talked about the eastern part of his country," said President Bush. "And he shared with me his strategy to make sure that the government's reach extends throughout the entire country and that there is stability throughout the country."

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said that the United States has opened up a diplomatic office in the region with one foreign officer, but said more may follow. "The Congolese have a desire for the U.S. to have a presence in the eastern province," said Johndroe.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have criticized some of Kabila's tactics used to extend the "government's reach." An Amnesty International report released on Wednesday, "DRC: Torture and Killings by State Security Agents Still Endemic," accuses the government's special forces under Kabila of committing systematic torture and violence against political opponents, before, during and after the elections. The report states that many of those arrested are still in detention without access to due process and that no state security officers have been held accountable for these crimes.

Andrew Philip is the DRC researcher who authored the report. He says even though these allegations are specifically about problems in the political system, which is based in Western Congo, it is still relevant to the crisis in the east.

"They are interrelated around the issue of the reform of the army and the security forces," said Philip. "State security forces aren't being held accountable."

Human Rights Watch also released a report this week accusing both the Congolese government and the international community of being slow to recognize the growing crisis in the DRC, allowing civilians in the region to be subject to rape, murder and robbery by government forces and rebel groups.

Saliki Kemal, the spokesperson for MUNOC says security must be the country's No. 1 priority. "There can be no development, restoration of the state, respect for human rights and justice if there is no security," says Kemal. "I can speak for MONUC only but, as a U.N. peacekeeping mission our first responsibility is to insure that there is a peace to maintain in the first place and protection of civilians is at the core of our mandate. In a country where ALL is to be done, where ALL is a priority, one has to start somewhere."

Philip says that while there have been some positive developments for the country, such as a new constitution and the establisment of more stable security, there has been "no progress on respect of human rights, in terms of either the conduct of the state security forces or in terms of the fact that we still have a risk of a renewal of ethnic atrocities."

Several of the rebel groups have deep ties to ethnic Tutsis and Hutus in both Rwanda and Uganda, a spillover from the 1994 genocide. "The relations between the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda are still incredibly fragile," says Philip. "You're not going to have security in the region until issues of human rights abused are dealt with."

He thinks the Bush administration should press Kabila's government to begin "weeding out" those who continue to commit abuses.

"How are you going to demonstrate to the Congo people that you intend to draw a line under past abuses and demonstrate the government and country is now ready to move to a country that has respect for human rights and justice if you don't start to investigate those crimes," he says.

Johndroe said that while he didn't think Bush and Kabila discussed the issue of human rights this morning, the United States is involved in training security and staff officers for the country, having trained about 300 so far, and respect for human rights is a part of the training.

"When the United States is involved in training forces overseas that's part of training involves human rights training to make sure the army and the armed forces respect the human rights of the people they are there to protect."