By Joe Bavier
KINSHASA, May 19 (Reuters) - The international community must not turn its back on Congo over what many see as a worsening rights record since historic elections last year, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Saturday.
Backed by international funding and the world's largest U.N. peacekeeping force, the landmark polls were supposed to usher in a new era of democracy and stability in Democratic Republic of Congo after decades of government mismanagement and war.
However, in the six months since President Joseph Kabila was sworn in as Congo's first democratically-elected leader in more than 40 years, his government has been behind serious abuses that have many campaigners increasingly worried.
"This isn't the time to walk away from a country that needs huge assistance. We have to engage, but very directly and frankly," Louise Arbour told Reuters by telephone from Goma, the capital of North Kivu province in Congo's violence-plagued east.
"There's no reluctance on the part of the authorities to recognise the magnitude of the problems. There's no state of profound denial" she said at the end of a six-day visit to Congo. "I'm not so sure about their willingness to do anything about it."
In January, clashes between opposition demonstrators and security forces left more than 100 civilians dead in western Bas-Congo province, close to the Gulf of Guinea. Human rights campaigners called the killings a targeted government crackdown.
Clashes between the army and fighters loyal to Kabila's chief political rival Jean-Pierre Bemba shook Kinshasa in March, leaving hundreds dead. Opposition supporters were victims of arbitrary arrests and intimidation following the disturbances.
Now a process intended to bring renegade soldiers back into the ranks of the national army has sparked a crisis in North Kivu, a flashpoint both during and after the 1998-2003 war that killed some four million people, most from hunger and disease.
Arbour said the Rwandan-brokered deal, which saw thousands of fighters loyal to accused war criminal Laurent Nkunda integrated into so-called mixed brigades, was a serious error.
Human rights groups accuse the mixed brigades of rape, arbitrary killings and the systematic displacement of civilians.
"If the thought was 'it was better to bring them into the tent', this has been grossly mistaken. The idea now is what to do next," she said.
A report by U.N. human rights investigators blamed one brigade for the massacre of at least 15 local villagers in March. And more than 130,000 people have fled their homes, most out of fear of soldiers meant to protect them.
"There's no question it requires pretty serious security sector reform," she said. "If you had even a remotely functioning military justice system, you might have a deterrent. But, in reality, capacity is pretty well nil."
Following a meeting with Kabila in Kinshasa, Arbour told reporters she was reassured by the president's commitment to improve his country's human rights record. She told Reuters it was now up to him to live up to his promises.
"There are things happening here in North Kivu, particularly on the military side, that are going to test (Kabila's) willingness to do so in the coming weeks and months."
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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