Congo and the Making of Canadian Foreign Policy

Thank you, Julian Fantino.

The International Co-operation Minister caused a ruckus last week when he said that the Canadian International Development Agency should actively promote the country’s interests abroad rather than primarily focus on poverty reduction. Fantino defended “aid” that was given to groups partnering with Canadian companies building mines around the world. He said CIDA has “a duty and a responsibility to ensure that Canadian interests are promoted.”

While some commentators suggested the former Toronto police chief stuck his foot in his mouth, we should thank Fantino for his comments because they raise some important questions that Canadians seldom talk about.

How is Canadian foreign policy made? Which countries are we friendly towards and why? Which do we work against and why? What should be the primary purpose of Canadian foreign policy and aid?

As the author of five books on Canadian foreign policy I know the answers to these questions can be controversial and complex. A short essay is certainly inadequate to properly address the subject. But a short story about Canada’s relationship with one of the poorest countries in the world might help answer these questions.

According to the CIA, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has the planet’s lowest (228th in the world) per capita Gross Domestic Product. Coincidently (perhaps), this same country, Africa’s largest by land mass, may possess more mineral wealth ($24 trillion by one calculation) than any other.

So, what sort of relationship does Canada, home to the most mining companies in the world, have with the Congo?

Since April 2012, Rwanda has reasserted its military control over a large chunk of the Congo. Rwandan troops and the M23 militia group it sponsors recently captured Goma, a city of a million people in the mineral rich east part of the country.

While Rwanda’s proxies have now withdrawn to the outskirts of Goma, top officials in the city and province have been removed in place of individuals more sympathetic to Kigali (the capital of Rwanda). In one of a number of insightful reports the Globe and Mail’s Geoffrey York notes “a [new] layer of administrators, informers, police and other operatives [have been put in place] who will bolster M23’s economic power in the city — including their grip on the trade in ‘blood minerals’.”

Rwanda’s actions in the Congo have already led to significant suffering. About 650,000 people have been displaced from their homes over the past seven months and there have been many reports of looting, rapes and assassinations. In the days after Goma was captured the Red Cross said it picked up 62 bodies from the city’s streets.

An ally of Washington and London, Paul Kagame’s Rwanda government has repeatedly invaded the Congo over the past 16 years. In the worst instance, a 1998 Rwandan (and Ugandan) invasion sparked a multi country war that lasted five years and caused millions of deaths. Peer-reviewed studies by the International Rescue Committee found that up to 5.4 million people were killed as a result of the conflict. An October 2010 UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights report on the Congo from 1993 to 2003 charged Rwandan troops with engaging in mass killings “that might be classified as crimes of genocide.”

Ottawa has been decidedly ambivalent towards the recent Rwandan-sponsored war. Over the past six months Foreign Affairs has published four press releases on the matter but only one sentence mentions Rwanda despite the UN reporting that Rwandan troops are once again involved and that the country’s defence minister commands the entire operation. That sentence reads: “We are extremely concerned by continuing allegations of Rwandan support of M23 and urge the immediate cessation of any form of assistance.”

There is more in the four press releases that criticizes the relatively powerless Congolese government than Rwanda. In fact, one is little more than an attack against the government in Kinshasa. In a statement about “the increasing instability in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo” Foreign Affairs urges “the Congo to ensure the protection of human rights is central in their daily deliberations.” With no mention of Rwanda or the M23 it goes on to state: “The rapidly rising number of displaced persons and refugees is a troubling trend and needs to be addressed immediately.”

Over the past year the Conservative government has produced more statements and comments critical of Congolese president Joseph Kabila than of the M23. “Canada Concerned by Post-election Situation in Democratic Republic of Congo” and “Minister of State Valcourt Encourages Reforms in Democratic Republic of Congo”, noted two of the statements. During an October trip to the Francophonie summit in Kinshasa, Prime Minister Harper and his staff repeatedly complained about the Kabila government’s human rights record. After meeting representatives of the political opposition Harper described the “complete unacceptability of failures in the electoral process and the abuse of human rights that are taking place in this country.”

While there are major question marks surrounding the legitimacy of the December 2011 Congolese poll in which Kabila was re-elected, it was certainly as free and fair as the most recent Rwandan election. But when Kagame “won” re-election in August 2010 the Conservatives’ release noted that “Canada commends the people of Rwanda on participating in their country’s presidential election …” The harshest criticism in the statement was that Canada was “concerned” by violence, “intimidation of political opposition” and “restrictions on the media.”

While Rwanda is in Ottawa’s good books the Conservatives are generally hostile towards the Kabila government. Kabila angered Western countries when he signed a $6 billion resource-infrastructure deal with China in 2008. The Conservatives are also concerned about the government’s move to regain control over the country’s natural resources, including the $3 billion in Canadian mining investment in the Congo.

During the recent Francophonie summit in Kinshasa Harper called on Kabila to improve the country’s business climate, “especially in the natural resources sector.” At the G8 in June 2010 the Conservatives inserted an entire declaration to the final communiqué criticizing Kinshasa’s treatment of foreign investors because the Congo revoked a mining concession held by Vancouver-based First Quantum.

Months earlier Ottawa began to obstruct international efforts to reschedule the country’s foreign debt, which was mostly accrued during more than three decades of Joseph Mobuto’s dictatorship and the subsequent war. Canadian officials “have a problem with what’s happened with a Canadian company,” Congolese Information Minister Lambert Mende said, referring to the government’s move to revoke a mining concession that First Quantum acquired under dubious circumstances during the 1998-2003 war. “The Canadian government wants to use the Paris Club [of debtor nations] in order to resolve a particular problem,” explained Mende. “This is unacceptable.”

But the Conservatives did not stop with trying to obstruct the Congo’s debt forgiveness. They also took the issue to other international forums. The Financial Post reported: “Harper will raise the case of Vancouver-based First Quantum Minerals Ltd. with representatives from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other governments that do business in the DRC.”

Just the Conservatives looking after “Canadian interests” one could argue.

And this pro-corporate meddling in the Congo is nothing new. It’s certainly not the first time Canada has worked against the Congo’s population, which remains impoverished despite almost a century and a half of foreigners “developing” the country’s resources.

In the early 1890s Halifax native William Stairs led a 1,950-man mission to conquer the resource-rich Katanga region of the Congo on behalf of Belgium’s King Leopold II. The Royal Military College in Kingston maintains a plaque devoted to Stairs’ work even though he was notoriously racist and barbarous. Some 10 million Congolese were killed under Leopold’s rule.

Canada also played an important role in the UN mission to the Congo that facilitated the murder of independence leader Patrice Lumumba in 1961. Apparently a Canadian officer handed Lumumba over to the CIA and Belgium operatives who would later dispose of the prime minister.

We ask again: How is Canadian foreign policy made? Which countries are we friendly towards and why? Which do we work against and why? What should be the primary purpose of Canadian foreign policy and aid?

Yves Engler is co-author of the recently released New Commune-ist Manifesto — Workers of the World It Really is Time to Unite, a rewriting of the original designed to spark debate about a new direction for the Left and union movement. For more information go to www.newcommuneist.com. Read other articles by Yves, or visit Yves's website.