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12.36 pm

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) for applying for the debate, which is desperately needed. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Herculean efforts that have been made to raise awareness of the issues facing children not just in Burundi, but in the entire great lakes region. Burundi's past and future are inextricably linked to the continuing crisis in that region.

Children in Burundi are at the sharp end of the conflict. Forty per cent. of children under three suffer from malnutrition. There is a crisis of huge proportions, which my hon. Friend and I witnessed when we visited the country as guests of the United Nations Children's Fund.

I shall give one example of what I saw there, to illustrate how women and children in Burundi are being affected by the crisis. We visited a prison, where I spoke to some women prisoners. One of them was a young woman called Elaine. She was 28 years old and had two children--a three-year-old daughter and a seven-year-old son. When her area was attacked following rebel activity, Elaine was eight months pregnant. She fled with her husband to an internally displaced persons camp. There she was arrested for taking part in the activities of a religious order--perhaps a sect or even a cult. After I had been in Burundi a while and seen the deprivation there, I thought that even I might end up in a religious sect or cult, if there were no other way out of the prevailing misery.

Elaine was subsequently put in gaol, because the Government in Burundi were not happy that the religious sect would not take orders from them about where it should be resettled. When I spoke to Elaine, I asked her which was worse--the IDP camp or prison. She looked at me and said, "They are both the same; it makes no difference." She was correct. For someone in her situation, it makes no difference. There is no future for her or her child unless we work at an international level to put pressure on the regional Governments so that sanctions are lifted, some measure of peace can be brought to the region and people can be resettled in homes

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of their own, rather than having to drag their children from pillar to post, or from an IDP camp to gaol. Only the younger child was put in gaol. When Elaine's husband visited her with the elder child, now aged seven, she asked whether he could stay with her in gaol, because she felt that he would have a greater chance there of securing one meal a day.

What I discovered after a week in Burundi was that imprisonment has many forms. Gaol is just one of them. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has set herself perhaps the most difficult task faced by any politician in government: to eradicate poverty. Targets are set, but only when we visit countries such as Burundi do such targets spring to life and really mean something. People can find ladders to take them out of poverty, if they are given the opportunities that they are currently denied.

I was struck by another stark truth. We tend to imagine that we are embarked on an onward march in historical terms. Only recently--between 1990 and 1997--poverty in Burundi's rural areas has increased from 35 per cent. to 58 per cent., and in urban areas it has increased from 32 per cent. to 66 per cent. That is not progress.

How can we make progress? It will require political will. I understand that the Department is considered to be at the forefront of the battle to generate the political will that has been sadly lacking in the international community thus far. The lack of political will was most strongly demonstrated during the genocide in Rwanda: no one was willing to lift a finger to stop it. We saw the effects in Burundi, for the whole region is interrelated. Many of the people who were displaced from their homes in Rwanda following the genocide were people whom we met in Burundi--and vice versa: I found the same when I visited Rwanda.

We need a regional solution to the crisis. The Department must be able to use the political will that it is already generating. During the recent visit of the Select Committee on International Development to the United Nations headquarters in New York, many people told us that the fact that someone of ministerial rank was pushing the necessary policies--not just in Britain, but throughout the world--had, for the first time, made a real difference. We need more of that. I think that we have cross-party support in the House, but we need to secure the same support in the country. People must understand that poverty is a real prospect for children in Burundi. During our visit, we saw children who were not allowed into feeding centres because they did not weigh less than 70 per cent. of what was required in terms of their body:height ratio. Children had to be on the verge of death to get what they needed.

That brings me to the difficult issue of humanitarian aid versus development aid. We should consider what it means for children, and how we can promote sustainable development. When we examine the regional problems caused by sanctions, it is instructive to note what they mean on the ground.

We visited a feeding centre where vaccinations were given. Burundi used to have one of the best vaccination rates for children in Africa; now, although the vaccinations themselves can continue, because of the sanctions it is not possible to have refrigerators in which to keep the vaccines. We need to consider the practical ramifications of sanctions, and the way in which they are damaging children in Burundi. Many young

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adults who were children when the crisis began have fought in the continuing conflict. They desperately need this country, and other countries with power, to take account of children's problems.

I thank the Department for giving a lead and galvanising the international community. The good will that Britain has built up is, as I have said, desperately needed. I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for all her efforts, but more practical efforts are needed to help those like Elaine and her two children, who currently remain in Bujumbura gaol with not a hope in hell of escaping poverty--even if they escape the gaol itself.

12.46 pm

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) for raising this important issue, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) for what she said.

It is appropriate that we should discuss such an issue within a few days of our commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights. We should pause to think about how far we must go before we have honoured the commitment that we made when we signed that universal declaration--to secure, through our efforts, all human rights for all. That includes rights to education and a decent livelihood. In fact, we have a long way to go. I hope that the next 50 years will see a real commitment to the delivery of all human rights for all, and that we will do rather better than we have in the past.

It is clear from what both my hon. Friends said that they were deeply moved by the plight of the children whom they met when they visited Burundi. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre was particularly moved by his meeting with Jean Jacques Rousseau. My hon. Friends graphically described the suffering and bravery of the children; it is terrible that so many lives are being destroyed and traumatised by the conflict. But--as my hon. Friends know, and as the House knows--many more children are in the same position. The delegation could have visited 50 countries that were either engaged in or emerging from armed conflicts, and seen children suffering in the same way.

The sad truth is that an important change has taken place in the world which has not been fully appreciated by those who discuss defence matters. In the post-cold war world--apart from the tragedy of the Balkans--war is overwhelmingly a feature of the poorest countries, and is breaking out within countries rather than between them. The bulk of the victims are women and children, and massive refugee movements are resulting. There are more refugees in the world than ever before. The vulnerable people whom my hon. Friends met in Burundi--particularly women and children--are, in the post-cold war world, the principal victims of war.

The figures are terrible. It is estimated that 2 million children have been killed in armed conflicts since 1987, and that three times that number have been seriously injured or permanently disabled. As many as 200,000 children currently serve as child soldiers in wars around the world. More than half the world's 50 million

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refugees and internally displaced people are children. Millions of children have lost their parents, their education and their childhood to war; millions have been psychologically damaged and socially scarred.

We believe--and international conventions entrench the principle--that children should have no role in warfare, and should not be its victims. These basic norms must be accepted by all countries, and we must all do better to secure the commitments to which we are signed up in theory in the international system, but are not so good at delivering.

To that end, in June--during our presidency of the European Union--we hosted a symposium on children affected by armed conflict, to generate high-level support for the rights, protection and welfare of such children and to identify concrete steps that Governments could take to help Mr. Olara Otunna, the United Nations Secretary-General's special representative for children in armed conflict, to translate Graca Machel's report for the UN on this issue into an agenda for action so that we get better at protecting children from the effects of warfare and restore to them the normal life of children.

My Department has been working on that since the symposium, and UNICEF--the United Nations Children's Fund, which hosted the visit of my hon. Friends to Burundi--obviously has a key role to play. Both my hon. Friends saw its work during their visit. We have helped to fund work there and elsewhere in the great lakes region, but we also want to support the organisation strategically, to strengthen its capacity at central, regional and field level to speak out on behalf of children in conflict and to implement better-targeted programmes for protecting children and mitigating their involvement in conflict.

These issues have been at the heart of discussions that my officials have had recently with UNICEF about how we can work together to strengthen that work in the organisation worldwide. I met Carol Bellamy last week in London, and she said how much she values that work.

As my hon. Friends have said, the plight of Burundi's children is particularly shocking. UNICEF estimates that about 400,000 live in acute distress; they are often homeless and without access to basic health services or education. More than 20,000 children have no one to care for them, and, in respect of Africa's traditions of the extended family, that is a signal of how many people have lost their lives.

The situation of children in Burundi is deeply influenced by the on-going civil war. Above all, Burundi's children need peace. Without peace and greater security, they will not be able to rebuild their lives, go to school and have something of a normal childhood. That is essential, if they are not to live out their lives raising another generation that is bound up in the ethnic hatred, genocide and warfare that have scarred that region of the world since independence, if it can be called that.

We hope that some progress is in sight, and we have been working for that. As my hon. Friends know, former President Nyerere of Tanzania and the regional leaders have been working hard to promote political dialogue in Burundi. The Arusha peace talks, which are scheduled to end in mid-1999, are committed to addressing peace, democracy and governance issues.

Conflict prevention and resolution was a theme of the EU Development Council, which I attended on Monday. On Sunday evening, Mwalimu Nyerere joined the EU

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Development Ministers for dinner. He told us that work is continuing in preparation for Arusha IV, which will take place in January. More so than in the past, he is positive about progress at Arusha. We talked about economic sanctions--one of the issues that both my hon. Friends raised--which, as they know, the regional leaders imposed on Burundi in July 1996. As they also know, we are trying, across the world, to strengthen regional capacity to bring peace, because it is obviously impossible for any set of countries to do that worldwide.

There is no doubt that the sanctions have produced genuine hardship for the poor, including children. Despite efforts to exempt humanitarian aid items, Burundi's health and education systems have been badly disrupted. Mwalimu Nyerere firmly believes that sanctions have encouraged President Buyoya to approach the Arusha talks seriously and he told us--this is the good news--that he is ready to recommend to regional leaders the suspension of sanctions.

At last, we can look forward to the suspension of sanctions. They might be restored if things deteriorate, but if things improve, they will be gone. That is the proposal.


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