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Belgium, DRC Collide Over Human Rights, Business Deals

  • Ricci Shryock

Belgium, the Democratic Republic of Congo's former colonial ruler, is encouraging Kinshasa to make economic reforms to attract foreign investors, especially in its mining industry. But the Belgians are also ruffling feathers in Kinshasa by raising concerns about DRC's human rights and dealings with China. Ricci Shryock has more from our West and Central Africa bureau in Dakar.

Belgian Cooperation Minister Charles Michel, who is in a delegation visiting Congo, says his government supports development in Congo and encourages the government to take measures necessary to attract foreign investment.

Michel says the DRC government is right to encourage private investment, especially in the mining sector.

But Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht angered Congo's President Joseph Kabila by raising concerns about DRC's human rights record, slow pace of economic reforms and a lack of transparency in recent infrastructure contracts with China. Mr. Kabila accused De Gucht of arrogance.

Timothy Armitage, an economist with London-based research group Global Insight, has closely followed the Belgian visit.

"It is not an unexpected visit, and the things that are being said are echoing the international community in general," he said.

Armitage says since the DRC's 2006 elections, the international community has shown renewed interest to mine the country's natural resources. He says foreign investors are also interested in helping Congo to upgrade its infrastructure.

"One of the governments is China, and the Belgian minister specifically said that these infrastructural deals that the DRC is doing with China are a step forward," said Armitage.

But there have also been concerns in Europe about the transparency of such dealings with Chinese investors.

Kinshasa has been reviewing its past mining contracts with outside investors, and according to Armitage, is finding a number of flaws.

"They came back with their reports, which said quite a few of the contracts needed to be renegotiated in light [of the fact] that they either paid too little for the contracts in the first place, or there was not enough revenue sharing within the current contract," said Armitage.

Many Congolese human rights activists say what needs to be included are provisions that can benefit all Congolese and not just those who benefit from mining. Armitage says infrastructure is one key aspect.

"Most of the infrastructure has been ignored or is underdeveloped or is non-existent, so doing these types of deals provides both financing for infrastructure development as well as the development of their natural resources, as long as they can negotiate the correct deals that allow the government to bolster its budget," he said.

The DRC has about a third of the world's coltan, which is a mineral used in consumer electronics, as well as vast amounts of copper, cobalt and other minerals.

According to news reports, China Railway Group, a construction company, has recently signed a $2.9 billion contract to invest in Congo's copper and cobalt industry.

Belgian officials were quick to point out that, what worries Brussels is not dealing with Chinese investors, but the lack of transparency which is customary in international business deals.

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