[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1998, Book I)]
[April 2, 1998]
[Pages 490-494]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]

[[Page 490]]

Remarks in a Roundtable Discussion With Human Rights Activists in Dakar
April 2, 1998

    The President. First let me say how delighted that I am to have such 
a distinguished group to discuss human rights and democracy in Africa. I 
thank our panelists for being here, and also let me thank all of those 
who are here in the audience who have worked on this cause across the 
continent in your various countries and, in at least one instance, in 
your particular village.
    I think it is clear that there has been some significant progress in 
Africa in the decade of the nineties. The number of governments that 
were elected by their people have gone from 5 to 24. But we have to be 
clear: There is still a huge human rights challenge, a huge democracy 
challenge in Africa.
    We believe that human rights are universal. That's what the 
international Declaration of Human Rights says. That's why the United 
States has worked hard to support democracy and human rights in Africa. 
Since 1989, we have worked in 46 different African nations. We have 
invested more than $400 million of our taxpayers' money to support 
elections, to reform judiciaries, to strengthen the participation of 
citizens in decisionmaking that affects our own lives. That support will 
    I have seen many heartening signs on this trip in South Africa, in 
the determination of the people I spoke with in Rwanda and in many other 
places, to continue to press the cause of human rights. Mostly though, I 
am here to listen and learn from you.
    And I want to say a special word of appreciation to the First 
Lady for the work she's done on these 
issues, especially beginning at the Beijing women's conference and the 
work that began here in Senegal last year on the issue of female genital 
mutilation, which I know she had a meeting about this morning.
    Would you like to say anything before we begin?

[Hillary Clinton welcomed the guests 
and recognized a group of villagers from Malicounda Bambara, praising 
their efforts to eliminate the ancient custom of female circumcision in 

    The President. Now, let's begin. There are many issues here that I 
hope we can have discussed today, and if they may be covered in the 
initial comments by our speakers, we want to talk about democracy and 
human rights. We want to talk about the threat of ethnic conflict to 
forming a unified democratic environment. We want to talk about how--the 
challenge of investigating past abuses and working for justice while 
promoting national unity and reconciliation, issues of freedom of the 
press, women's rights. There are a number of things that I hope we can 
deal with today.
    But again, I want all of you to feel free to say mostly what it is 
you want to say about where you are, what you're doing, and what you 
believe the United States can do to support your endeavors.
    Who would like to go first? Someone volunteer? Archbishop?

[Archbishop Raphael S. Ndingi Mwana'a Nzeki, of Nairobi, Kenya, chairman, Kenya National 
Justice and Peace Commission, explained that although Kenya made 
advancements in democracy and human rights, corruption among law 
enforcement and political leaders led to increased violent crime. He 
stated that the people of Kenya needed U.S. support to continue their 
struggle for reform.]

    The President. Thank you very much.

[Samuel Kofi Woods, executive director, 
Justice and Peace Commission, National Catholic Secretariat, described 
the human rights situation in Liberia and urged the United States to 
support the establishment of institutions in Liberia to safeguard the 
rights of its citizens and advance the cause of democracy. Reginald 
Matchaba Hove, chairman, Zimbabwe 
Human Rights Association, discussed the process of reconciliation 
following human rights abuses, and stated that confession, 
acknowledgement of guilt, and forgiveness were necessary cathartic steps 
for both the abused and the abusers. He encouraged the U.S. Government 
to support local initiatives to ensure reconciliation and commended the 
President's visit, particularly to Goree Island, as an important 

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    The President. Thank you, Doctor, very much. I don't want to 
interrupt the flow of the statements, but I would like to pose a 
question that we can return to perhaps after you all make your 
statements, if it's not convenient to address it as you go along. The 
Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa to which you 
referred obviously has made a great impression on people all across the 
world, and it has a great appeal. Yet, thinking about practically how 
you would do it in another country raises the question of whether it is 
possible if the leader of the country is not someone like Mr. 
Mandela. That is, he suffered so grievously 
himself, he is in a position to come forward and say, ``This is the 
procedure I advocate, and if it's okay with me, who are you to say it's 
not enough?''
    So, on the one hand, since he was the 
oppressed, he can make sure--to go back to something that Sam and the 
Archbishop said--he can make sure that the power of government is put at 
the service of the people who have been abused, something that others 
may not be able to do. And on the other hand, he can say to those who 
lost their loved ones or who were horribly scarred or maimed, ``I can 
forgive. You should, too.'' So there is a unique position there.
    If you sought to do something like that in other countries and we 
wanted to support it, as a practical matter, could it be done in a way 
that would either make the people who had been abused feel that they 
were at peace or, on the other hand, reach the consciousness of those 
who may be duly elected now but still may have done things for which 
they should atone? That, I think, is the problem we have all tried to 
come to terms with.
    Anyway, who would like to go next? Anyone?

[Baudoin Hamuli of the Democratic Republic of 
Congo (formerly Zaire), executive secretary, National Council of 
Development, Non-Governmental Organizations, described the positive 
changes that had occurred since President Laurent Kabila replaced former 
President Mobutu Sese Seko, but expressed concern that, without a 
constitutionally based government, the opportunity still existed for 
abuse of power. He urged the United States to pressure President Kabila 
for more democratization and to support peace efforts in the Great Lakes 
area, poverty alleviation programs, and economic reconstruction.]

    The President. Let me just say very briefly about this, this is very 
helpful. Any hope we have, I think, of having a regional system for 
developing the Great Lakes region, and indeed to some extent a larger in 
Africa, rests on the successful emergence of the Congo as a functioning 
democratic society. And we have here leaders--Mr. Royce, the Chairman of the Africa Subcommittee in the Congress, 
and our Assistant Secretary of State for 
Africa, and Reverend Jackson, my Special Envoy 
for Africa--we're all trying to figure out how we can best work with and 
influence Mr. Kabila, because, as you 
point out, I think one of their biggest handicaps is so many of them in 
the government were out of the Congo for so long. And then when they 
came in and started the struggle to replace Mobutu, I think it happened 
even more easily and more quickly than they thought it would.
    But now they're confronted with what has typically been a dilemma, 
sometimes more imagined than real, for people in positions of 
governance. They say, ``Well, you know, these countries, they fluctuate 
between anarchy and abusive dictatorship, so I don't want anarchy, so 
maybe I'll be a less abusive dictator.'' You've heard this story 
throughout your whole lives.
    So what we have to do is somehow find a way for other countries from 
the outside and people like you from the inside to show these people who 
have come into the government, oftentimes from many years away from the 
Congo, if you will, a middle way, a way to--and the only way they can 
succeed--of empowering people at the grassroots level and working out a 
less centralized approach.
    And we will work very hard on it, because I believe that if the 
transition of the Congo away from Mobutu to a genuine democratic, 
functioning government could succeed, as vast and as wealthy as the 
country is--and with the horrible history of the last few years--it 
would be a stunning example to the rest of the continent, indeed, to 
places in other continents of the world. So it's a very important issue. 
And I thank you very much for it.

[Director of Studies Amsatou Sow Sidibe 
of the Peace and Human Rights Institute at the Cheikh Anta Diop 
University of Dakar described Senegal's strong democratic tradition as 
well as its ongoing problems in protecting the human rights of women and 
children, and requested U.S. support for education and implementation of 

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U.N. convention on women's rights. Ivorian Association for the Defense 
of the Rights of Women President Constance Yai 
reiterated that African governments and populations are hostile to women 
and stressed that the absence of women in decisionmaking bodies was a 
major concern which contributed to the continent's problems. Nigerian 
Civil Liberties Organization President Ayo Obe, said 
that Nigerians in the past took their freedom for granted, but that due 
to the corruption and inefficiency of its military dictatorship, current 
human rights abuses added to the country's economic collapse. Ms. Obe 
expressed cautious optimism concerning the upcoming general election but 
noted that Nigeria's five political parties were all created by and 
beholden to the government, leading to a lack of independent ideology. 
She concluded by voicing the belief that the strides in human rights by 
neighboring African nations would lead Nigeria to follow.]

    The President. Let me say just very briefly, before I ask 
John to speak, that in all candor the question 
of Nigeria has been the most difficult for us to deal with, because it 
is the most populous country in Africa, because it has this incredible 
irony of having the vast oil resources and all the poverty and 
dislocation at home, and because every avenue we have tried to try to 
deal with the government of General Abacha has 
been frustrating to us.
    And we even had--I think it's fair to say we've had some fairly 
heated debates among ourselves about, well, should we just continue 
having nothing to do with this man? Should we 
try to at least deal with him in the way we're working with President 
Kabila? What should we do? Because it 
is an incredible tragedy; you have this huge, diverse, rich country, in 
effect, being driven into the ground by political oppression and 
    And we have said that if there were a release of the political 
prisoners, if there were a genuine political process that was real, not 
just a military government in a suit and tie, that we would try to work 
with it. But by your comments, you know how difficult it is to exercise 
any constructive influence. And yet it's a great tragedy.
    I mean, when I was in Ghana, and we were discussing energy 
problems--just to take the energy issue--I learned that the oil 
production in Nigeria is continuing to burn off the natural gas instead 
of to save it and to sell it to Nigerians or to others, when everyone 
who knows anything about energy knows that the natural gas is not only 
just as valuable as oil but less damaging to the environment and could 
help to provide huge amounts of money to Nigeria to alleviate the 
suffering of the people and lift the condition of the people. I just 
give that as one example.
    We will continue to do what we can. We will continue to look for 
other avenues, and we will continue to encourage the other African 
governments to do the same. And the point you made about expecting it 
from South Africa but needing it from the others I think is a very 
important one.

[John Makela, executive director of a media 
training institution in Mozambique, discussed the importance of 
strengthening the emerging media industry in African nations as a 
crucial arm of the democratization process. He stated that his native 
Zambia had a decent media presence but many other nations did not, 
either because of repressive governments, poor business and management 
skills, or both. Mr. Makela stressed the need for more widespread public 
discussion of issues and increased radio and Internet access, and 
concluded that the United States could help Africa by supporting media 
training institutions.]

    The President. Thank you very much. Let me just, if I could, pick up 
on a couple of suggestions you made. First of all, the comment you made 
about radio struck me as particularly important. As we traveled around 
the country and got into some of the rural areas, I thought about that 
myself. But for all of you who are interested in this, I think that it 
is important that people like you get out ahead of this and come up with 
ideas about how you could use it in a beneficial way to advance 
democracy and human rights. Because one of the things I worry about is 
that in this ongoing struggle, that some of the people that are most 
hostile to what you believe in could one day hit upon the instrument of 
the radio to drive wedges between people.
    That's been one of our biggest problems in Bosnia, where we're 
seeking to make peace, is that instruments of the media, the radio and 
the television, came totally into the hands of basically the people who 
had a stake in keeping

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the various ethnic groups at war with one another. And so they 
relentlessly use the radio to abuse the privilege of the airwaves, which 
in every country should belong to the public at large. It should be used 
for larger public purposes.
    So I think that this is a cause, John, which 
you might make a common cause with other human rights groups around the 
continent, because I think it's very important. In the places which have 
no communications, including some of the villages that I have visited, 
it will come, and it's very important when it comes, how it comes. I 
cannot overestimate that to you, the importance of making sure that when 
this happens to the general population, that it is an instrument of 
education and enlightenment and bringing people together and empowering 
them, not just one more blunt weapon to beat them down and keep them 
    Now, let me just say one other thing. When I listen to you all talk 
and putting this into the context of the larger trip, it is obvious that 
many, many great things are happening in Africa; that, if you look at 
them, you think there's an African renaissance. If you look at some of 
the problems you mentioned and you realize some things we haven't talked 
about in great detail, the education, environmental, and economic 
problems, there's still a lot of crisis.
    I had a meeting with young leaders in South Africa to discuss this, 
and I said that just observing all these places--and I went to two 
villages, I went to three different townships and neighborhoods in South 
Africa when I was there, apart from the cities and the official work. 
And it seems to me that there is a crying need for--you have a lot of 
leaders and potential leaders, not only people like you who have good 
educations and backgrounds but the people who stood up and were 
applauded here--they're leaders, too. And we would like to focus more on 
building the structures necessary for leadership to work.
    There are the national structures you talked about, the press, the 
education system, all of that. But there's also the need to figure out 
how you can best channel the resources that might come from outside at 
the grassroots level. We went to Dal Diam, the village here, yesterday, 
and we saw people essentially reclaiming the desert because someone gave 
them enough money to build a well. So one little village, they reclaimed 
5 hectares of the desert. That's the way you reverse the growth of the 
desert, people do it, because they have to find a way to sustain their 
life as they do that.
    So before we have to break up here, I would just like to say to all 
of you, I do not want this trip of ours to be an isolated event. I want 
it to be the beginning of a much more comprehensive and constructive 
role for the United States. So as you think about the structural 
issues--not just what can the President of the United States say to the 
leader of some other country--I want you to feel free, on your own 
behalf and for others with whom you come in contact, to contact us with 
very specific suggestions about what we can do to help people in your 
countries change their own lives, what kind of structural changes, 
supports, can be built in to build organized efforts such as the one we 
have celebrated today with the women and men who are here from the 
village that Hillary visited. I think it's very important.
    We're about out of time, but I wonder if any of you have any other--
any of you would like a second round of comments based on what you've 
heard before we adjourn. Is there anything else you would like to say to 
me or to each other?

[Ms. Sidibe asked why the United States 
had not ratified the convention on children's rights and a 1977 treaty 
on antipersonnel landmines.]

    The President. Well, let me, first of all, answer an earlier 
question you made. You made a lot of points about education in your 
earlier remarks, and we have announced a new initiative there. And I 
hope that--let me follow up on that just to say I hope you will think of 
other specific things we can do in that regard.
    On the children's convention, the Senate of the United States has 
not ratified that because of a concern about one particular provision in 
it and how it relates to the sovereignty of our States in the United 
States. But we fully support its objectives and always have.
    On the landmine issue, I don't know about the '77 convention. I can 
tell you that we, the United States, spend more than half of the money 
the whole world spends to take landmines out of the ground. We have 
already destroyed 1\1/2\ million of our own landmines, and we are in the 
process of destroying our whole supply--with the single exception of 
those that are in a very carefully marked plot of land in

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Korea, at the border of North and South Korea. We leave them there--
first of all, they're not near any residential area; they're not near 
any children; and the area where they are is heavily marked with 
warning; and no civilian has ever been hurt there--because the North 
Korean Army has vastly larger forces on the border of South Korea than 
the South Koreans and the Americans have facing them. And it's only 
about 18 miles from the border of North Korea to Seoul, the largest city 
in South Korea. And the landmines are thought to be the only presently 
available deterrent should an invasion occur, and no invasion has 
    We are there pursuant to the United Nations resolution of the 
conflict between North and South Korea. I think there is some 
encouragement that that may be resolved, that the final peace may be 
made. And when that happens, then the last remaining landmine issue will 
be resolved.
    In the meanwhile, we will continue to do everything we can to end 
the problem of landmines for people everywhere. We will continue to 
spend the money that we're spending, to use the people that we're 
using--we, actually not very long ago, lost a crew of our Air Force--you 
may remember--in a tragic accident off the coast of Africa when they 
just deposited some American forces to take landmines up in southwest 
Africa. It was an airline accident, but they were there to deal with the 
landmine issue.
    It is a very, very important thing to me, personally, and to our 
country. And we are trying to increase the number of people trained to 
take the mines up, and also increase the amount of equipment available. 
And interestingly enough, for the first time ever, our Defense 
Department has just recently purchased a machine made in South Africa 
that aids in the extraction of landmines from the ground. So we are 
working very, very hard on that.

[A participant commended the President for listening to Africans instead 
of telling them what to do, and encouraged him to support reconciliation 
through local and regional African mechanisms.]

    The President. Well, one of the things that we have learned the hard 
way, just from trying to solve social problems in our own country, is 
that there is a sense in which the people are always ahead of the 
leaders. And therefore, partnership is all that works. And certainly 
it's true for us coming here from a totally different experience.
    I believe the United States, as I said when I got here, tended to 
view Africa too much through the very limited lens of the cold war for 
too long. And I believe that the world over has seen too much of Africa 
only in terms of the problems, when something bad happens. So I think--
what I'm trying to do is to get the scales right, to see the problems 
and the promise and to develop a partnership that makes sense, that will 
outlive my Presidency, that will fundamentally change forever the way 
the United States and Africa relate to one another.
    It's heartbreaking to me that there are some situations for which I 
don't have a ready answer, the most painful and the biggest one being 
the one that we discussed with Nigeria. But I'm positive that if we have 
a consistent, ongoing effort and if we continue to listen and work 
together, that increasingly the promise will prevail over the problems.
    Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 11:00 a.m. at the Hotel Le Meridien 
President. In his remarks, he referred to President Nelson Mandela of 
South Africa; and Gen. Sani Abacha, Chairman, Nigerian Federal Executive