Clinton's spotlight on Africa Presidential tour: He emphasizes human rights and repudiates U.S. neglect of continent.

March 27, 1998

PRESIDENT Clinton's epochal tour of Africa is a welcome reminder of the importance of that continent, its hopes and problems.

The trip is primarily symbolic. Even the bits of aid promised are more token than substance. But symbolism is one of a president's more effective tools.

The most important gesture so far has been Mr. Clinton's promise in Rwanda of a more aggressive U.S. stance in behalf of human rights where American policy can make a difference. He was at his most eloquent in condemning his own refusal to intervene in the genocide of 1994.

He pushed for a standing intervention force in Africa manned largely by African troops and a standing international court to try human rights offenders. Yet Mr. Clinton's hint of a more interventionist policy came only a day after European allies thwarted such a stance in Kosovo. It would meet resistance in Congress, too.

In his meeting with six presidents in Uganda, Mr. Clinton obtained a joint statement on democracy and human rights, without defining them. It imposed no blueprint, only a direction.

Two of the signers were Daniel arap Moi, who suppresses dissent in Kenya, and Laurent Kabila, who is chief of Zaire by virtue of a motley and largely foreign army that committed atrocities that he shields from investigation. Mr. Clinton's presence, and his rapport with African multitudes, constitute welcome pressure on them.

Mr. Clinton was responding to the large number of Americans of African ancestry, many of them his supporters, and to the reality of new leadership in Africa. His host in Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, is one of the most impressive of the new generation.

No longer is Africa valued only as an asset to be withheld from the other side in the Cold War. Now it is seen for its people, heritage and resources.

Mr. Clinton and Pope John Paul II were in separate countries of sub-Sahara Africa simultaneously. But they were drawn by the same magnet.

Pub Date: 3/27/98

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