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Rights Violations Pressed in Canada

September 3, 1999

MONCTON, New Brunswick (AP) _ Human rights groups are pressing a summit of French-speaking leaders to talk about rights violations at the meeting and create international monitoring systems in nations where abuses occur.

Amnesty International and Oxfam led a coalition of human rights groups that staged a parallel summit Thursday here ahead of the eighth Francophone summit, which gets under way today.

The Francophone summit draws heads of state from the 52 members of La Francophonie, a loose organization of French-influenced countries, for three days of talks on culture, politics and trade.

The summit begins today with a formal opening ceremony, attended by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, French President Jacques Chirac and leaders from Belgium to Vietnam.

Most of the members of the organization are former French colonies in Africa, and 32 of them have been listed by Amnesty International as human rights violators.

Human rights, however, is not on the official summit agenda.

``I think the issue of letting dictators and despots come to Canada, I think it has embarrassed Ottawa,″ said Bertrand Begin, a spokesman for the parallel summit and a member of the Canadian Labor Congress.

``They couldn’t do a lot about it this time, but I think they must try to find some meaningful way, within the constitution of the Francophonie, to do something about it in the future,″ he said.

The parallel summit put forward a list of demands asking that such issues as poverty, torture, political executions, sexual mutilation of women and the use of children as workers and warriors be meaningfully discussed.

Reporters Without Borders, a French group, chastised the summit members for failing to respond to serious press rights violations in 15 of the 52 countries and called for all jailed journalists to be freed and an end to arbitrary arrests.

Beyond that, France has proposed that the Francophone organization, which has sent observers to monitor elections in Africa, also take on a monitoring role, to make sure its former colonies are respecting international norms of human rights.

The observer group would be composed of academics, journalists and experts from other non-governmental organizations.

In a speech on Wednesday, the secretary general of La Francophonie, former U.N. chief Boutros Boutros-Ghali, said the will for such a monitoring role is there.

``We are ready. But beyond that, it’s a question of money,″ he said.

The organization is, however, planning to organize a series of international conferences over the coming year on human rights in collaboration with the Commonwealth of English-speaking countries.

Don Boudria, Canada’s acting minister for the Francophonie, urged the rights activists to give the young organization time to tackle the sensitive issue of human rights, noting that it was only at the last summit two years ago that Francophone leaders decided to broaden the organization’s role beyond culture and language to make it more political.

``As a political organization, it has only met once before this. It needs time to adapt and grow,″ he said.