Although Congo President Laurent Kabila finally allowed the UN to begin investigating reported massacres and other grave human rights violations, his seven months of stonewalling remain deeply troubling. Mr. Kabila is just one of a growing number of African leaders who show disdain for the UN and for international law.
Credible reports of ethnic killings in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the former Zaire) merit a UN investigation. Perhaps a quarter-million ethnic Hutus from Zaire or refugees from neighboring Rwanda are believed to have been murdered, and many of Kabila's political opponents were tortured or killed.
In April, the UN Commission on Human Rights authorized an investigation. Kabila refused to grant access, objecting to both the team and its mandate. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's efforts to resolve the resulting impasse proved ineffectual.
A US-brokered compromise in October ostensibly ended the standoff. Kabila agreed to US ambassador Bill Richardson's demand that the investigation cover alleged human rights violations occurring even after he assumed power, through the end of 1997. Kabila previously had insisted that the inquiry not extend beyond May 17, the date he ousted former President Mobutu Sese Seko.
Yet it's fair to ask whether Mr. Richardson's compromise went too far in courting Kabila. The decision to limit the investigation to four months was overly generous. Congo is a vast country, roughly one-third the size of the continental US, with minimal infrastructure. It takes days simply to arrive at a site and establish an operational base.
By setting an end date for the investigation without ensuring that the team would be allowed to deploy in the field, Richardson gave Kabila an additional incentive to stall. Almost six weeks passed after the "agreement" before Kabila permitted the UN to commence its work. Not surprisingly, Kabila allowed the team to deploy on Dec. 3, the day before a fund-raising conference to aid Congo. Mr. Annan has since been forced to recall the team because of security concerns and the government's failure to cooperate.
There is more at stake than the need to confront Kabila. At issue is a view shared by many African leaders that they need not adhere to UN demands and international norms. The brazen rhetoric of some African leaders is inappropriate and worrisome. Rwanda's indignation toward the UN is understandable, given the UN's inadequate response there, but Rwanda has, at times, used this "moral high ground" as a pretense for ignoring legitimate concerns over its disregard for human rights.
Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Gabon, and Tanzania have forcibly repatriated refugees this year, in violation of international law. Other African countries have expressed their reluctance to accept refugees in the first place. And it's increasingly common for aid workers from the UN and partner organizations to be subjected to physical violence and otherwise hampered in their work. Eritrea, Sudan, Tanzania, and Zaire have formally expelled UN personnel.
The value of Richardson's compromise will become partially evident after Feb. 28, when the world learns if the team's mission is extended. Supporting the creation and dissemination of an accurate historical record may well facilitate national reconciliation both in Congo and elsewhere in the region. Yet, the compromise must not be cynically manipulated to serve political expediency and bolster Kabila at any cost.
Other African leaders should not conclude from this that Kabila's stonewalling succeeded in thwarting the will of the UN and the international community.
* Eric G. Berman is executive director of UN Watch, where Katie E. Sams is a fellow.