- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 19, 2003

PARIS, Feb. 19 (UPI) — Leaders from more than three dozen African countries began arriving in Paris Wednesday for a three-day summit aimed at reinforcing Franco-African relations.

The meeting, which ends Friday, aims to address long-standing African problems ranging from indebtedness and conflict, to ways to improve education, healthcare and natural resource management. But achieving the summit's stated goal — "together for a new partnership" — does not promise to be easy for either Africa, or for France.

Countries such as Congo-Brazzaville and the Central African Republic are roiled by turmoil. Others, such as Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe, are shunned by the international community, for alleged human rights and other violations.

Indeed, the French government was criticized by European Union countries and human rights advocates, for inviting Zimbabwe's leader, Robert Mugabe, to the Paris summit.

According to French media reports, Paris ultimately struck a bargain with the EU, receiving the green light to invite Mugabe, in exchange for agreeing to extend year-old European sanctions against Zimbabwe. But last week, the EU announced its own African summit, scheduled for April, would be postponed because of Mugabe's possible presence.

On Tuesday, French and Zimbabwean human rights groups released a report in Paris, detailing alleged attacks and other offenses against human rights defenders in Zimbabwe.

And Mugabe's arrival in Paris Wednesday coincided with demonstrations against the African leader, accused of human rights abuses and electoral fraud, during his re-election campaign last year.

"Human rights violations on the African continent have been worsening and gotten more complex," said Antoine Bernard, president of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights. "Not only because there are still massive violations of civil and political rights, war crimes, crimes against humanity, but also violations of economic and social rights."

"It makes this summit in Paris an important moment for human rights questions to be raised," he added, in an interview. "And we wonder whether this summit will raise the proper questions."

For their part, French officials argue that inviting Mugabe, and other questionable African leaders, will provide the occasion to address human rights violations.

"We have nothing to prove, and we don't want to be aggressive," French President Jacques Chirac said about the Mugabe invitation, during a British-French summit earlier this month.

Noticeably absent at the summit will be Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo, who announced he would send his new prime minister instead. Gbagbo has backtracked on a January peace agreement struck with Ivorian rebels in Paris. Thousands of his supporters have denounced France for promoting the deal, and Gbagbo's own wife, Simone, has criticized the French government.

"France is in a situation forcing it to improvise" regarding the Ivory Coast, said Daniel Bourmaud, a professor of African politics, at the Sorbonne in Paris. "Today, there's no real French doctrine on Africa."

But Tuesday, the Elysee Palace announced Chirac wanted to restore Africa to the "heart" of French priorities. Paris is also expected to ask the international community to do more for Africa, during a June Group of Eight summit in Evian, France.


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