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DRC: IRIN interview with Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel

KINSHASA, 8 October 2003 (IRIN) - A Belgian government delegation began a tour of the Great Lakes region of Africa on Sunday in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

After Kinshasa, the delegation was scheduled to visit the cities of Lubumbashi and Kisangani, in the southeast and northeast of the country, respectively. It would then travel to Kampala, capital of neighbouring Uganda, and then to Kigali, capital of neighbouring Rwanda, where it would complete its tour.

IRIN spoke with Belgian Foreign Affairs Minister Louis Michel while in Kinshasa. He talked about the importance of consolidating peace and stability in the Congo, as well as the need to rehabilitate the justice system, government administration and infrastructure. He also called for the restoration of bilateral relations between countries of the Great Lakes region.

QUESTION: You have arrived in the DRC three months after the installation of the national transitional government on 30 June. How do you evaluate the peace process now?

ANSWER: Although it is hard not to be optimistic about what has already been accomplished, the process remains fragile and incomplete. It is clear that the justice system must be rehabilitated. The administration must be reorganised. Education must return to normal. Health services must be consolidated and infrastructures rebuilt. The work that remains is, therefore, immense. It is important that the international community lend its support to the transitional government so that it may work effectively and lead the country through this period of transition.

Q: How do you plan to help the transitional government? What will be your primary efforts to help consolidate peace?

A: We have several projects. [Financial] aid from Belgium will double in the near future.

Priority areas for assistance will include, first of all, the justice system. This country needs to rebuild its judiciary, complete with courts and magistrates who are paid sufficiently and on time.

An impartial and independent justice system is needed in order to bring businesses back. The DRC is a rich country. By assuring judicial stability, the economy will recover, benefiting the Congolese people.

Government administration must also be rehabilitated so as to benefit the people. The renovation of infrastructures must also be given special attention, particularly with regard to communications. Public transport is also an important issue.

At the same time that the state apparatus is being rebuilt, a massive effort must be made to assist the population in meeting their daily needs. This is what I would call "daily domestic humanitarian aid".

I should mention that with the installation of the transitional government, it would be easier than before for me to mobilise support. It is now easier for me to call upon my country to aid our Congolese friends.

Q: Good relations with neighbouring countries are necessary for economic development. Until some years ago, the Economic Community of the Great Lakes Countries (CEPGL) served as a guarantor of peace in the region. Will you work towards the revival of this body during your visits to Rwanda and Uganda?

A: First of all, it is not up to me to improve relations between the DRC and its neighbours. This must be done by them.

Second, thought should be given to reactivating the CEPGL. However, that raises a question: are bilateral relations between the DRC and other countries in the region sufficiently strong to restart the CEPGL immediately? It is not for me to answer this question.

However, I do think that we should encourage authorities in the region to enter into dialogue and to hold more frequent bilateral meetings - that, for example, ministers of various sectors meet their counterparts in the other countries. I would imagine that transport policy could be a subject discussed at a regional level. Likewise, the energy sector is a matter of common interest to all countries of the Great Lakes region.

As for the judiciary, teaching, health - these are all domains for which inter-ministerial meetings could be held among the different countries.

Therefore, there are plenty of areas in which these states can come together. They should focus on areas which bring them together rather than which tear them apart.

I agree that the CEPGL should be restarted, but on the condition that bilateral relations are first restored. This will involve the opening of embassies, the exchange and interaction of people to improve relations among the countries.

I believe that we should not underestimate the importance of cooperation among these different countries. Such cooperation would encourage a massive amount of aid from the international community. What is the international community waiting for? It is waiting for tangible proof that peace has taken root. Plenty of money is out there - but a true willingness for peace must be demonstrated.

Q: Concretely speaking, what will Belgium's humanitarian aid to the DRC entail?

A: The focus of this visit is not humanitarian. It is on politics and cooperation. I plan on remaining actively engaged in the peace process and the work of the transitional government. I also plan on mobilising the international community.

I would like to remind you that four and a half years ago, Congo was not on the international agenda. When I began to put it on the international agenda, people looked at me as if I were a Martian, telling me it was too complicated.

I did this because I felt that in my capacity as a Belgian authority, I was responsible for this region. I realise of course that there is a special relationship, whether it is wanted or not, between the Congolese and the Belgians. There is a genuine fraternal dimension between these people with a shared history: a beautiful history, but also sometimes painful. Belgium must assume its responsibilities with regard to the Congo.

Q: The DRC is currently working with an annual budget of about US $800 million, roughly the same as that of a large European city. What must the DRC do in order to attract large-scale aid from the international community?

A: The international community has promised large-scale support to the Congo if the transitional government assures stability. If the members of the government can do this, the Congo will benefit from a colossal amount of support.

Q: Will the aid of the international community be limited to the transitional period, up until elections?

A: Until elections, of course, and beyond as well. Elections are an important step, but during this transitional period it is imperative that all institutions be consolidated. This period must serve to consolidate peace and stability.

If, after elections are held, those who are elected work to strengthen democracy and promote human rights, the Congo will benefit from a substantial amount of aid from the international community. I am thoroughly convinced that the international community will deliver on this promise.

Q: What message will you bring to Kisangani and Lubumbashi?

A: I will go to these cities to say that Kinshasa is not the only place in Congo and that we are ready to engage ourselves fully to support the transitional government in the peace process.

Q: What will your message to Rwanda be?

A: I will go to Rwanda to congratulate them on having had the capacity to organise elections after a very difficult period. Today, Rwanda has an elected and pluralist parliament.

This is important for Rwanda and for the region. The holding of these elections is important for relations between Rwanda and the Congo. Elections are always a delicate and fragile event. I think that the Rwandans have spoken, and their choices must be respected.

There might have been criticism, but I do not wish to add my voice to these critiques. I believe that it is important that a country coming out of a period of instability can organise presidential and legislative elections. I think that the holding of elections will help the Congo to do likewise.

Q: If similar elections were held in the Congo, would Belgium applaud?

A: Did you hear me clapping? Some qualifications are necessary. I am expressing my satisfaction because it is always a great joy when a country has an elected and pluralist parliament. This means that they are on the path to genuine democracy.

As for the Congo, I truly hope that elections will be held when they are supposed to, and that the country will endow itself with a pluralist parliament with a majority that works together and an opposition that is vigilant and assures that issues will be debated. That is democracy.


Theme(s): (IRIN) Governance



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