BRUSSELS, May 25 – Belgium’s foreign minister on Sunday refused to withdraw remarks that caused Democratic Republic of Congo to recall its ambassador to the country’s former colonial master.
Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht told RTBF television he was sticking to what he said a week ago, "that we have not only the right but the moral obligation to observe what is happening, and what is not right" in DR Congo.
"I am quite convinced that ultimately the government will go along with me," he added.
De Gucht’s remarks have caused friction within the fragile government of Prime Minister Yves Leterme along the country’s faultline of French-speaking and Flemish communities.
De Gucht said the differences of opinion "is a very serious error because it would mean that even foreign policy is becoming a subject of dispute between the communities, which would weaken our international action terribly."
Questioned on the VRT channel over charges of neo-colonialism, the foreign minister said, "if this means saying that the leaders of DR Congo must make more effort, then I am a convinced neo-colonialist."
Kinshasa on Saturday recalled its ambassador to Belgium and closed its consulate in Antwerp as a "a powerful protest" after "the Belgian foreign affairs minister … claimed that Brussels has a moral right over the DR Congo and its leaders."
De Gucht had said that since Belgium provided Kinshasa with some 200 million euros (315 million dollars) annually, it had a "moral obligation" to respond to events there.
"I feel that we have not only the right but the moral obligation to say what we think about what is happening in the Congo, and it’s not going at all in the right direction," he said De Gucht.
DR Congo replied that it was an independent, sovereign country, and no other nation had a moral right over it, adding that cooperation between the two countries would have to be re-examined.
Belgium’s Development Minister Charles Michel described the DR Congo decision as serious and asked Leterme to take action to ensure quickly what line the Belgian government should take on the matter.
Socialist Party chairman Elio Di Rupo was quoted by Belga agency as criticising what he called inappropriate statements by De Gucht, a Flemish Liberal.
"The colonialist age characterised by unilateralism, paternalism and arrogance is definitively a bygone age," he was quoted as saying.
"Everybody must take account of new realities and show mutual respect," he said.
But De Gucht said Sunday on VRT that "I get the impression that the francophones still think that the Congo is the 10th Belgian province which one can say nothing about."
Previous comments by De Gucht have caused tensions between Belgium and DR Congo, previously known as Zaire, which gained independence from Belgium in 1960.
Visiting Kinshasa in April, De Gucht denounced corruption and the "fabulous privileges of the few." He added that aid provided by Belgium was supposed to be destined for the population in the central African country.
DR Congo President Joseph Kabila denounced the minister’s "arrogance," and said his country would not be subject to "master-slave relations." Leterme expressed support for his foreign minister, saying his comments were shared by the government.
In the 19th century the then Belgian Congo was run as the personal property of King Leopold, and human rights abuses were rampant.
The two countries have had ruptured relations on previous occasions since 1960. Cooperation was cut off for a 10-year period before being reinstated in 2001.