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WASHINGTON, Jul 5 2010 (IPS) - Within the next few days, the World Bank Board and International Monetary Fund Board of Directors will decide whether to forgive a significant portion of the “odious” debt of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) accumulated to a large degree during the autocratic and kleptocratic regime of President Mobutu. Bilateral donors owed significant sums will probably follow suit.

Human rights advocates, like us, are normally for debt forgiveness. Often, governments provide support to regimes for political reasons, such as the US support of Mobutu during the Cold War despite his atrocious human rights record. This debt can crush progressive policies of new governments and facilitate a neo-colonial type relation between debtor and creditor. However, forgiveness should not be given if the government is undeserving.

Since the DRC is not presently servicing its debt (neither paying interest nor principle), debt forgiveness would not mean more money for schools, health care and for the justice system. It would also send the wrong signal at this moment and should be delayed until the human rights situation in that country improves.

Less than a month ago Floribert Chebeya, the DRC’s leading human rights defender, was murdered, implicating high-level officials close to President Joseph Kabila. For twenty years Floribert courageously endured imprisonment, torture, and constant death threats as he investigated, reported on, and sought to hold Kabila and his henchmen responsible for rape, murder and untold cruelty.

We knew Floribert both as a colleague in the struggle for human rights, and, as a friend. The politicized response to his murder was to have the intelligence service handle the “investigation” as opposed to the prosecutors. It was announced that a police major and colonel had been arrested and a police general, who has been the right hand man of the President, was suspended. This political reaction to the crime has appeased the international community, but it should not suffice.

The intelligence service has no jurisdiction over this case and these “arrests” are arbitrary and the detentions related to them illegal (as are so many in DRC). At present, only the police major appears to have been transferred to the custody of the prosecutor. He is now detained in prison and has been visited by UN human rights officers to whom he claimed his innocence. The colonel supposedly is still detained at the intelligence service to which UN human rights officers have no access despite the fact that hte UN Security Council Resolutions legally mandating it. As for the police general? Clearly not charged.

The political response to a crime is not comforting. Statements made by the DRC government about high-profile cases have proven to be false in the past. Take, for example, the international effort to push the government to take seriously President Kabila’s own zero-tolerance policy for rape by government officials. A list of five officers of the government army directly implicated in rape was drawn-up over two years ago. Now, after much effort, three of the five have been detained, but charges are slow in coming. The other two reportedly are in hiding. We were specifically told that the major on this list was in South Africa. Now UN human rights officers have found him in active duty in the Mbandakar Province. He has been receiving his pay and is in a command position.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, the Belgian King Albert II, and other dignitaries were relieved to learn that the funeral for Floribert wasn’t held on the 30th of June to interfere with their participation DRC’s 50th independence celebration. Floribert would not be impressed, as one possible reason for his murder was that he was advocating that international dignitaries boycott the 50th anniversary in order to bring attention to the DRC’s extremely problematic human rights situation. This record includes, but by no means is limited to, ongoing killings, rapes and torture (which could have taken Floribert’s life) by state authorities. Most of these crimes go unpunished. Those authorities who are responsible for these policies enjoy even greater impunity.

If the boards of the World Bank and the IMF, which are made up of member states with the US having the largest vote, believe the DRC has satisfied all the conditions for reaching the completion point under the Enhanced Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative, this conclusion paves the way for a formal cancellation of the DRC’s debt. We would lament it as a missed opportunity to leverage the DRC government to end the widespread human rights violations being committed by its state agents.

For the US, as the most important board member, there is even a little known law that prevents the US from supporting debt relief when there are systematic human rights violations. In honor of Floribet and his efforts, the boards should vote to delay debt relief until Floribert’s death is independently and properly investigated, with those responsible brought to justice and the human rights situation in the DRC has improved.

For the US, as the most important board member, there is even a little known-law that prevents the US from supporting debt relief when there are systematic human rights violations. In honour of Floribert and his efforts, the boards should vote to delay debt relief until Floribert’s death is independently and properly investigated, those responsible are brought to justice, and the human rights situation in DRC has improved. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Researching, recording, and exposing grave human rights abuses committed by Zaire’s notorious dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, Guillaume Ngefa risked his life on a daily basis. As founder and president of his country’s premier human rights organization, African Association for the Defense of Human Rights, he also monitored the bloody seizure of power by President Laurent Kabila. Ngefa is now living in exile in the Ivory Coast. Kerry Kennedy is President of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.

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