17 Dec 2003 : Column 251WH

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 17 December 2003

[Mr. Edward O'hara in the Chair]

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Kemp.]

9.30 am

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, Maryhill) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to initiate a debate on an area of the world that rarely receives much media or political attention in the west, but that in recent years has been the scene of one of the most bloody and terrifying conflicts in world history, with huge loss of life and horrendous human suffering. The complexity of the conflict and the numerous players within it have led to its being called Africa's version of the first world war, but there has been little perception in the west of the sheer scale of the human misery that the conflict has caused. I am talking about an estimated 3.5 million deaths, some 3.4 million displaced persons and the almost complete destruction of an already weak state infrastructure and economy. The effects have been particularly severe on women and children. Sexual violence is endemic, and armed groups continue to recruit children as soldiers, porters and cooks.

The history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo since independence in 1960 has been marked by continual civil war and corruption. The regime of the late President Mobutu between 1965 and his overthrow in 1997 saw institutionalised corruption to such a level that it has been called the world's first kleptocracy. Despite the country's enormous mineral wealth, the infrastructure crumbled and the state lost any form of authority over most of the country. Only the steadfast support of the west during the cold war kept Mobutu in power but, following the end of the cold war, the United States lost interest, leaving the regime increasingly vulnerable.

In 1996, a rebellion broke out in the Kivus in the eastern DRC, led by Laurent Kabila and backed by the Rwandan and Ugandan armies. All those parties wanted to overthrow the Mobutu regime and neutralise the threat of the various foreign militias operating in the eastern DRC, which threatened conflict in the wider great lakes region. Although the rebellion was successful, problems of regional security continued. Relationships between the Kabila regime and its former allies of Rwanda and Uganda quickly deteriorated as the latter accused the Kabila Government of failing to deal with the militias and even of arming them.

In August 1998, a new conflict broke out, with the Rwandan and Ugandan Governments providing support to the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie. Loosely attached to the RCD was the Mouvement pour la Libération du Congo based in the province of Equateur. In response, the Kabila Government, claiming that their sovereignty was threatened, called on the support of fellow south African Governments. That led to troops being sent

17 Dec 2003 : Column 252WH

from the Governments of Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia and Chad, with Burundi joining to support Rwanda and Uganda.

After an attempt at a peace agreement in Lusaka in 1999, the front lines became relatively static, with the RCD and Rwanda controlling the east, the MLC and Uganda the north, and the Government and their allies the south and west. However, fierce fighting continued, with clashes breaking out between former allies Rwanda and Uganda, as well as fighting among the various militia groups.

In January 2001, Laurent Kabila was assassinated, bringing his son Joseph to power. That change in leadership led to much greater progress on a peace process and eventually to the inter-Congolese dialogue in March and April 2002. From then on, we have witnessed the first steps, we hope, to a genuine movement for peace in the great lakes region, with the official withdrawal of Ugandan and Rwandan troops from the DRC in the past 12 months.

This summer saw the inauguration of a two-year transitional national Government, who include members of the existing DRC Government and of the RCD-Goma and the MLC. The challenges faced by the transitional Government are immense, and the next year will be crucial in establishing a permanent peace in the area.

In that context, the full-scale involvement of the international community, and particularly the UK Government, is vital if the efforts for peace are to succeed. The transitional Government strongly believe that the UK can play a key role in the months to follow and in October they extended an invitation to the all-party group on the great lakes region and genocide prevention, of which I am vice-chair, to visit Kinshasa and meet Ministers and parliamentarians. Unfortunately, I was unable to join the delegation, but I am pleased to see that several of the delegates are present today; no doubt they can add their own comments on that important visit. Later today, the all-party group will publish its report on the visit. I hope to touch on a number of important issues that it considered to be priorities for future UK policy.

In the words of a recent report from Amnesty International, all sides need

The UK needs to intensify its political support for, and encouragement of, the transition. That is why I welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's visit to the DRC just last week, and his commitment to providing substantial additional support over the next three years. I am sure that he would agree that it is more important than ever that we remain focused on the DRC until the proposed elections in 2005.

It is essential that the eventual elections at the end of the two-year transition be free, fair and well managed if they are to provide the necessary launch for a permanent Government. That is why I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure that we offer financial and material support for the preparation of the elections through the UN and the other international agencies, and that we offer support, training and expertise to the new Congolese

17 Dec 2003 : Column 253WH

parliamentarians. Also, I hope that he will consider sponsoring a visit by Congolese parliamentarians to the UK as part of that. Having met one of the new senators a few days ago, I know that they would really appreciate the opportunity to engage with the international community.

I also welcome the Department for International Development's proposed engagement in supporting the transitional Government in their economic governance and, in particular, in enabling the DRC to clear its deficit with the African Development Bank. Can my right hon. Friend advise me on how soon our Government expect the transitional Government to benefit from relief under the heavily indebted poor countries initiative? Has the country reached the decision point in that process? As he will know, most of the debt was accrued, and most of the money squandered, under the Mobutu regime. The HIPC relief could eventually wipe out more than 80 per cent. of the debt, giving an added boost to basic health and education provision, which is crucial for the development of the country.

Even after debt relief, the DRC, by current forecasts, will need almost 40 per cent. of its revenue to service the remaining debt. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, given the very sad history of the country, there is a compelling argument for providing additional debt relief to allow it to work towards the millennium development goals? Also, can DFID support the customs agency, a vital element in tax collection for the nation, either directly or via a third-party agency?

The fragility of the peace cannot be ignored. The strengthening of the MONUC mission, with UN Security Council resolution 1493 covering all actions under chapter VII, is very welcome. After the massacre of civilians in Bunia in May, the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, acted decisively in setting up an interim emergency multinational force and extending the MONUC mandate in July. Thankfully, for once the international community acted quickly in response to the appalling atrocities in that region.

The UN troops, led by the French, are to be congratulated on their efforts, which almost certainly prevented further massacres and human rights abuses. Among their biggest assets was their ability to speak French. That allowed them to communicate easily with the population and, just as importantly, to gather vital intelligence. I hope that the international community will learn the lessons from that exercise, particularly about the need for UN troops to be able to communicate directly with local populations whenever possible, and to be sufficiently powerful to effectively stop or slow the rate of violence in areas of conflict.

However, continued low-level conflict jeopardises the political process, with killings continuing in the Ituri district and the Kivu provinces. Amnesty International reported that, during its visit in October, 65 people were killed in a village near Bunia. The overwhelming majority of them were women and children. All the survivors that the organisation met bore horrendous injuries. Amnesty International also reported that the number of MONUC troops in the Kivus is so small as to make implementation of their mandate almost meaningless. It is worth noting that in Liberia, which is

17 Dec 2003 : Column 254WH

one twentieth the size of the DRC, and which has a population almost seventeen times smaller, the UN mission has 6,000 more troops than MONUC has in the DRC. If the monitoring of rebel groups, as well as the policing of the arms embargo and the support of the enormous disarmament process are to be effective, it is essential that MONUC has the capacity that the task demands.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend is making an excellent case. I declare an interest, as I was part of the delegation that included my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) and my hon. Friends the Members for City of York (Hugh Bayley) and for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King).

I totally concur with what my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin) says about a lack of power. We were surprised at the limited number of British Army personnel that we saw in the DRC. I know that quality is important, and the people whom we met are of the highest standard, but their numbers are small. I hope that she agrees that if we are serious about keeping the peace in the DRC we should, through my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, talk to the Ministry of Defence about its obligations.

Ann McKechin : I entirely agree. Given the expertise of the UK defence forces, which has been drawn from conflict situations across the world over many years, they have a special contribution to make. I would welcome the Secretary of State's assurance that the Government remain willing to finance any necessary extension of funding to MONUC to allow it adequately to fulfil its mandate, and to consider with the MOD whether the UK armed forces can contribute to that very important task.

I also welcome DFID's support for the disarmament and demobilisation scheme and its commitment to spend £16.5 million on the programme over the next five years. My right hon. Friend will be aware that there are currently estimated to be about 200,000 armed men at large in the DRC. Some are from non-Congolese forces and will require repatriation to their country of origin. The disarming and resettling of 2,500 troops to date is a positive sign, but it is estimated that there are still up to 20,000 fighters from Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi in the jungles of the eastern DRC. The challenge of bringing them into the process is enormous.

If, initially, the remaining Congolese militias were to be enrolled in the armed forces of the transitional Government, the cost of paying, feeding and housing them would be huge and it would overwhelm the Government. Downsizing to the 40,000-strong army considered proportionate for such a country would then have to follow as a matter of urgency. As I am sure that my right hon. Friend would agree, in such circumstances it is particularly vital that the remaining troops who are offered a long-term military career are given a proper disarmament incentive, returned to their own province, fed and given a realistic opportunity of paid employment.

The all-party group has recommended a work-for-food programme, and I ask my right hon. Friend what discussions, if any, have taken place within the

17 Dec 2003 : Column 255WH

international community about how to provide the necessary financial and logistical support for such a process. Would the UK Government be prepared to sponsor an independent work-for-food programme to spur others in the international community to contribute? If there is no offer of paid work for those men, we will inevitably see a return to banditry, rebel activity or lawlessness. It should be remembered that unpaid soldiers carried out widespread looting in the last years of Mobutu's regime. We must not repeat past failures that have caused so much misery.

Many child soldiers have also been recruited into the militias, mostly by force. A UN report in February estimated that in some cases up to 35 per cent. of front-line soldiers are children. I should be interested to hear whether DFID is able to offer any specialised assistance to rehabilitate those young people, many of whom have witnessed dreadful horrors during the years of conflict.

Earlier, I mentioned the involvement of Rwanda and Uganda and, to a lesser extent, Burundi in supporting rival militias in the eastern DRC. Substantial evidence exists to prove that foreign forces, together with groups in the DRC, have engaged in the systematic plunder of the country's natural resources and that the plunder was organised at the highest levels of state and military command.

Despite the formal withdrawal of troops from the DRC, there are numerous reports that Rwanda and Uganda continue to support, train and arm various militia and rebel groups still active in the DRC. Rwanda is also reported to be extremely close to the governors of North and South Kivu, both of whom are accused of building up substantial private armies.

In its last report published on 30 October, the UN panel of experts established that revenues from diamonds and gold, in addition to money raised at customs border posts, have enabled military and political actors to fund their military activities, including the purchase of arms. Amnesty International found that the warring factions committed serious human rights abuses, including unlawful killings, forced population displacement and torture, in order to control and profit from the DRC's natural resources. Congolese citizens, including children, have been forced to work in the mines as slave labour. International commercial traders, transporters and retailers, knowingly or unknowingly, have fed that cycle of abuse for their own profit and benefited from the lack of transparency in international business dealings in precious metals. The flow of arms, the exploitation and the continuation of conflict are inextricably linked. Breaking that vicious cycle will be the key to ending both the conflict and the illegal exploitation.

Given the existing partnership agreements and the level of aid flows to those countries from DFID, the UK Government are in a unique position of influence with regard to the involvement of both Rwanda and Uganda. As the Secretary of State will be aware, both countries have undertaken in their memorandum agreements to respect human rights and the sovereignty of the DRC. I urge the Government to use all their influence to stop those states from re-engaging in the DRC, either directly or indirectly through proxies, and to insist that they abide by the terms of UN Security Council resolution 1493, which imposed a military embargo on the areas.

17 Dec 2003 : Column 256WH

Will the Minister assure the House that the UK Government will enforce aid conditionality linked to human rights obligations?

The report of the UN panel of experts identified at least eight British companies that may have breached Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development guidelines for multinational enterprises, and a number of dossiers have been forwarded to the Department of Trade and Industry to be followed up. I welcome the recent comments from the DTI as reported in The Independent on Sunday on 30 November. The report stated that the DTI has been in contact with those companies and is pressing them for information. It is vital that we set a strong example at home, and I urge the Government to issue at the earliest opportunity a comprehensive official reaction to the conclusions of the report and to ensure that appropriate action is taken to prevent future abuses.

Finally, I again emphasise the scale of the humanitarian crisis. It is essential that the Congolese population, who have suffered so much, see some quick gains if there is to be any hope of stability in the next couple of years. In last month's report on the DRC to the UN Security Council, Kofi Annan stated:

For too long the international community has failed to provide the resources, and the political will and attention, to achieve tangible peace in this troubled area. For now, we have an opportunity to redress that deficit and I strongly urge our Government to continue and add to their efforts to secure progress for the Congolese people, who deserve our support, and who also deserve peace and justice.

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn) : On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin) requested that the Government make a response to the UN panel report. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), has today tabled a written statement to the House, which I understand has been available in the Library since 9.30 am. I have some copies with me. Would it be in order to circulate them to Members in the Chamber, if that would assist our debate?

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): There are means within the Chamber of distributing the documents without interrupting the debate.

9.49 am

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston) (Lab): Although I shall be brief, I trust that I will be allowed a little injury time for that important intervention.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin) on obtaining the debate, on her excellent introductory speech and on allowing some of us time to make a contribution. She has done marvellous work in this field. I know that she would want to join me in thanking and congratulating

17 Dec 2003 : Column 257WH

our hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King), who is unfortunately unable to be with us today, on the work that she has done on the all-party group and on leading the important delegation in which my hon. Friends the Members for City of York (Hugh Bayley) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew) took part. I am sure that they would agree that we were greatly assisted by the one-person secretariat, in the shape of Mr. Ben Shepherd. We all wish him well in his new responsibilities.

This is an important subject, and it is being raised at a significant time. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill that the regional problems that she described require regional solutions. Although it is right to analyse the problems and challenges in individual countries, it seems pointless simply to address what is happening in Uganda, Burundi or Rwanda, although I shall refer briefly to Uganda and Rwanda.

That point is underlined by the strong feeling that there is both a great challenge and tremendous potential in the region, which, if there is an international strategy, can offer hope for peace for the rest of the world. Britain is in a strong position to act because of DFID's excellent contribution. As a result of the resources that we are making available to individual countries in the region, as well as for other reasons, we are entitled to look afresh at the region's problems and challenges as the year ends, and at the opportunities for reaching a satisfactory conclusion.

I want to refer briefly to two countries that are pivotal in achieving that solution. We are looking forward to hearing from the Secretary of State about these matters, given his recent visit to the region. I was greatly troubled by comments reported in Ugandan and Kenyan newspapers on 14 November that were attributed to the United Nations official responsible for humanitarian aspects. I am sure that the comments were well informed and that the language was carefully chosen. We read that the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Jan Egeland, said after visiting northern Uganda that the humanitarian situation was worse in the region than anywhere else in the world, including Iraq or Palestine. That is a profound view, and if it has an influence in the region, it is well worth considering now. We are entitled to ask what the UN's response is to the advice that it is undoubtedly receiving.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill said, we are at an historic moment of opportunity for the great lakes region. There is a transitional national Government in the region, and security appears to be slowly returning in the east. The largest Burundian rebel group has signed a peace deal and joined the Government. Rwanda held elections this summer, for the first time since the genocide. It has come an enormously long way since the terrible genocide in 1994—a point to which I shall return. Given that that situation has been reached, we should be proud of the support given by the United Kingdom.

Three issues relevant to Rwanda deserve to be mentioned. Manifestly, the international community failed Rwanda in 1994, allowing 800,000 people to be killed in three months. As a permanent member of the Security Council, the United Kingdom must bear a

17 Dec 2003 : Column 258WH

burden of responsibility for that failure. Not only did the Government of the day fail Rwanda, but Parliament failed in its duty to hold the Government to account. It was not until six weeks after the genocide started that a debate about it was held in the House, by which time 500,000 people had already died. My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington) called an Adjournment debate and, as he said at the time, it is unthinkable that an atrocity could kill half a million people, but not be debated in Parliament. It is to be hoped that Parliament will take the opportunity of the 10th anniversary of the genocide in April 2004 to recognise those failings. At the very least, there should be a debate in the House on the prevention of genocide and the events of 1994.

Secondly, Holocaust memorial day in January 2004 is to be partly dedicated to Rwanda, and that is to be welcomed. Efforts are also being made to commemorate the genocide on the 10th anniversary itself. The Aegis Trust, a British charity, is raising funds to increase awareness and educate people about the genocide. It is also raising funds to preserve five of the most important genocide sites in Rwanda, some of which my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill and others visited. They include the church at Ntarama, which lacks adequate funding and which the Inter-Parliamentary Union delegates visited in October 2002. Two sites are sponsored by donors, including the Governments of Sweden, Holland and Germany, and they will be ready by April 2004, in time for the 10th anniversary. The other three sites, including the church at Ntarama, are without a sponsor. It must be acknowledged that the Department for International Development provided £40,000 from the development awareness fund for educational materials, and that is to be welcomed.

However, it is a shame that a British charity, despite being supported by other European Governments, should receive such a low level of support from the United Kingdom. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is considering giving £50,000, which is a positive step, but just £250,000 would preserve for ever the memory of the 5,000 people who died at Ntarama as well as allow the building of a facility to teach the children of Rwanda about their past. I hope that the Secretary of State will give some thought to that important matter.

Thirdly, Mr. Deputy Speaker—

Mr. John McWilliam (in the Chair): Order. We have not been appointed yet.

Mr. Clarke : I am very grateful to you, Mr. McWilliam. I keep saying that we learn something new in the House each day, and your advice is my learning experience for this morning.

Since 1997, the United Kingdom has been a loyal friend to Rwanda, and if we did not know that before we went to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we know it now. Given the problems involved, we should be commended for that. However, being a loyal friend does not mean being uncritical. It is the reverse. Rwanda deserves the sympathy, attention and assistance of the world, but the international community should not turn a blind eye to concerns about that country's conduct.

17 Dec 2003 : Column 259WH

Those worries are twofold. I refer first to this year's elections. Holding elections only nine years after the trauma of genocide is to be commended, and those elections were technically well organised. However, the monitors reported serious irregularities, which cannot be ignored. The EU monitoring team reported that the best placed opposition candidate was eliminated from the electoral contest before the start of campaigning and is currently in prison. Other opposition representatives simply disappeared. That is clearly unacceptable. Suggestions of ballot-stuffing, alterations of electoral rolls and intimidation on polling day are also extremely serious. The incumbent, Paul Kagame, won with 95 per cent. of the vote. That might be a convincing result, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) would agree that not even his tremendous charisma would produce such an astounding result, which gives rise to questions about its credibility.

All those issues fit with allegations of increasing authoritarianism, control and the closing down of political space in Rwanda. One respected analyst spoke of

That is very worrying in the light of the progress that can be made. Rwanda has unique social pressures, and fears about open political life are understandable. Such a backdrop is simply unacceptable, given that Rwanda is capable of moving much further and faster towards genuine and acceptable democracy. The UK is the largest donor and is entitled to make its views known, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill would agree.

My hon. Friend mentioned Rwanda's involvement in the DRC. The recent détente between Kigali and Kinshasa is very welcome, but reports continue to be received of the Rwandan army's presence in the east of the DRC. There are also continuing allegations of support for various armed groups in the Congo. We must get the matter sorted out. The situation was unacceptable when we visited the DRC. There must be much more transparency, and we are closely watching the role of the United Nations. If the transitional Government in the Congo failed or fell due to Rwandan engagement, the attendant chaos would be disastrous for Rwanda as well as the Congo. It is incumbent on the UK, as a genuine friend of Rwanda, to use all its influence to see that that does not happen.

I am grateful for the consideration that my colleagues have given me. I am deeply worried that many of the traumas, conflicts and aspects of warfare, which my hon. Friend so eloquently outlined in her opening speech, revolve around the great mineral wealth that is not being widely shared among the very people whom we have in mind when we seek to reduce poverty. Sadly, the situation will continue until we have a strategy that ensures that that wealth, be it oil, diamonds or copper, is used to benefit the many and not the few. There is, however, no reason why the situation should continue in a rational, well-informed world.

10.3 am

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I will keep my remarks brief, as I am sure that all of us who have been involved with the all-party group on the great lakes

17 Dec 2003 : Column 260WH

region and genocide prevention would like to leave as much time as possible for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to talk about his recent visit to the DRC. I am sure that it was as illuminating as our visit to the country a couple of months ago. I declare an interest as one of three hon. Members present who visited the DRC at the invitation of its transitional Government.

When one looks back on such visits, one realises how much one has to learn by visiting other parts of the world. I make no apology for following on from where my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) left off and talking about the security issue. As he said, there was consensus when we met parliamentarians from the DRC, who overall were a very impressive group of people trying to effect a democracy where there has never been any opportunity to have one before.

At that meeting we were given a message in no uncertain terms: the parliamentarians perceive the British Government as being far too close to the Government of Rwanda and failing to appreciate how much the people in the DRC feel that they are still under the cosh because of Rwandan infiltration. My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) conducted herself very well in that difficult meeting. It is a pity that she is not present to hear that in person, but perhaps she will read it in Hansard. As parliamentarians, we are all used to difficult meetings, normally in our constituencies, but many of us have never experienced the intensity of feeling that was made abundantly clear at that meeting. However, we must move on from the security situation.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): In that meeting, were any questions asked about the relationship with Uganda or its alleged support for different movements in the Congo?

Mr. Drew : It could equally be said that there was Ugandan influence. It was interesting that the group of people who came along to lobby us were very clear about their attitude towards Rwandans, but one did not have to tear away much of the veneer to understand that the Ugandans were also involved but were influencing the situation in a slightly more subtle way. The simple fact is that we want all foreign troops, apart from peacekeeping troops, out of the DRC. I hope that the Secretary of State will deal with that point.

One thing that I took away from the meeting with the parliamentarians was how strongly they all felt about the territorial integrity of the DRC. One goes to Africa and expects to be shocked to some extent by the artificial constructs of the nations that have been created and to find that tribal or other loyalties are much more important than the nation state. In the DRC, however, we have to throw away the rule book, because its people are passionate about their country. They may have many differences, and not many months before, some of them were at one another's throats—that was inevitable, as they come from warring factions—but they taught me that their nation mattered to them and that they wanted an independent nation that was not subject to influence from other countries, much as they welcomed the presence of the peacekeeping troops.

17 Dec 2003 : Column 261WH

As I said in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin), the parliamentarians asked for more troops, to the extent that they wanted the border with Rwanda to be completely controlled by the British Army. We had to tell them that it was not likely that we could bring that to bear, given Britain's other obligations in Iraq and so on, but that we would certainly pass on the need for more support.

As part of the visit, we went to Kisangani in the eastern part of the country. There we met several people from the chamber of commerce. If one wants to meet business people who thrive in adversity, they are the ones; somehow, they keep the spark of enterprise going in the most impossible of situations. Again, the security issue came up, but another message was that the DRC is bedevilled by the lack of investment in basic infrastructure. The simple fact is that the only way to get to Kisangani—unless one goes in by aircraft, which is not, of course, within the means of many Congolese—is to use the river, but the river has been unsafe. The business people were pleading for the roads to be rebuilt. They are keen to re-open their businesses but it is almost impossible for them to get out their wares, and that severely constrains how they can operate.

The Secretary of State may want to talk about his experiences and about how we start to rebuild enterprise. We discussed other issues to do with rebuilding the tax system and giving the DRC macro-economic assistance—measures that will enable its Government to re-engineer the economy. However, only so much help can be given through Government; individual enterprises must also be encouraged. That can be done only if ways in which we can support their infrastructure needs are examined.

My next point is a result of a visit we made on our last day in the DRC. We met some of the country's children. The sight of non-governmental organisations and the Church intervening in the most desperate situations is always heartening. We were able to make that visit because of an invitation from the War Child UK charity, which is doing very good work in the capital city, Kinshasa, and elsewhere in the country. We need to recognise that long-term peace will become embedded in that country only if we are able to find ways to support civil society. We went to see children who were orphaned either directly by the war or as a result of AIDS or the other things that afflict Africa, and in particular that part of the continent.

Frighteningly, we also came across the concept of child witches. Children had been expelled from their families because their families were undergoing bad luck. That got associated with one or a number of members of the family, and they were put out on the street. That is the sort of situation that War Child UK faces. It is supporting measures to get those children under a roof and to give them some form of education. We must appreciate that civil society in such countries can be rebuilt—or built, in some cases—only with a lot of support in the form of both money and people. That has to be the way forward.

Nobody would disagree that security is the most important issue at present, but the economy has to be given an opportunity, too. The DRC is probably the

17 Dec 2003 : Column 262WH

richest country in the world—we can forget the United States. If the wealth in the DRC could be made to offer some form of national opportunity, many of its problems would be overcome. but for all the reasons that we know about, those resources are being pillaged and are not going where they should.

The third area that we must concentrate on is how we can help the civil society. Children and women must be helped in particular, and people must be brought back from the fighting and into civil society. Their future must be properly invested in.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. John McWilliam (in the Chair): Order. I have no power to impose time limits but, bearing it in mind that the object of the exercise is to allow the Minister to answer the debate, I would like Members to be brief.

10.13 am

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Like other hon. Members, I must declare an interest. In October, I went to the DRC with the all-party great lakes region and genocide prevention group. Although the programme was put together by our embassy—I am grateful for its support—the flights and accommodation were paid for by the DRC Government.

From the slave trade onwards, the Congo has been dealt a bad hand by history. The Belgian colonisation was particularly harsh. The first Prime Minister after independence was murdered shortly after he came to office. The country went through the Mobutu kleptocracy, and it has now emerged from five years of civil war. The establishment of the interim Administration is a fragile but precious moment in the country's history. They are the DRC's only hope of emerging from years of conflict and exploitation of its people by a succession of harsh and ruthless leaders.

We met President Joseph Kabila, who is intensely aware of the importance of maintaining the quadripartite alliance between the various groups that were until recently engaged in civil war. He knows that, were he to succeed in the elections in June 2005 and become elected as president of the country, he would need to find senior positions in a power-sharing Government for leaders of the other factions: Jean-Pierre Bemba, Zahidi Ngoma, Azarias Ruberwa and Abdoulaye Yerodia. Without the maintenance of that alliance between factions from different parts of the country, there is no hope for peace or for retaining the integrity of the Congo.

I would like our Government to provide technical assistance to the presidency—not just the president—so that all factions see that they are getting benefit and support from Britain. Technical assistance is required in three areas in particular: security reform, economic development and governance. Those of us who went to the Congo attended the state opening of the National Assembly and the Senate. This is a country with no tradition of parliamentary democracy at all; people arrived to represent the various factions in a grand Parliament building, built by the Chinese for the dictator Mobutu, without really knowing that the job of a Member of Parliament is to represent their constituency.

17 Dec 2003 : Column 263WH

We in this House could give help through the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and our Government could give help by bringing some Members of the DRC Parliament to London to work with us and see what a Parliament does. It is particularly important, before divisions emerge, to get MPs from the different factions working together in study groups and committees.

The single most important issue is the disarmament of the rebel groups. It would be extremely valuable, in terms of confidence-building, if Members of the Senate and the National Assembly from the different factions were brought together in a team and flown by MONUC, because that is the only way to get around the country, out to the east and north-east to see what is happening with disarmament and resettlement. They could then report back to Parliament, and people from one part of the country would see that others, formerly their enemies, are disarming under the MONUC umbrella. They could then return to their own part of the country with people from the faction to which they were formerly opposed, who would see that disarmament is happening there as well. That is a practical job for the new Parliament.

While I was in the DRC, I was surprised by the enormous communication difficulties. One third of the budget of the UN peacekeeping mission, MONUC, goes on air transport, which is the only way to get about the country. No roads or railways are left. The river is open, but it is not a highway from one end of the country to the other because parts of it are impassable. Rebuilding roads and the crucial rail links connecting the navigable parts of the river must be a development priority.

The most immediate priority must be disarmament. I spent time talking to a British official called Peter Swarbrick who works for MONUC on that issue. He has experience of disarmament in post-civil war situations in Africa. When he worked in Sierra Leone, he was able to offer cash as an incentive to ex-combatants to hand in their weapons. Indeed, he had a tariff and would pay more for a better weapon. For example, he would pay the same for a good rifle as for two grenades or 50 rounds of ammunition, and that encouraged people to bring in more weapons. If someone came with a clapped-out rifle he would send them away and say, "Come back tomorrow with something worth while."

Now, Mr. Swarbrick can offer people nothing more than a receipt, which most people do not find attractive because it does not help them to eat. Cash as a direct incentive would be helpful. US Aid has provided MONUC with $650,000, which is not a great deal of money given that there are 20,000 irregular fighters who need to be disarmed and returned to neighbouring countries such as Rwanda and Uganda. A relatively small sum, such as £1 million, provided by DFID as an incentive to hand in weapons would be money well spent.

I know that the Government provide the multi-country demobilisation and reintegration programme with $25 million of support. That is a larger-scale project dealing with the wider costs of demobilisation, and every cent is needed because those costs are high. When a small group of irregular forces from Rwanda come and give up their weapons, it is MONUC's policy, quite

17 Dec 2003 : Column 264WH

rightly, to get those fighters out of the Congo as soon as possible—within 24 or 48 hours—before they change their mind. As there are no roads, the only way to do that is to charter an aeroplane, which costs $15,000 to $20,000 a time. The $25 million is therefore vital, and I hope that, if the disarmament process goes well and the money is used up, the Government will consider supplementing it.

Good progress has been made. When we were there in October, 2,600 combatants from neighbouring countries had been disarmed and returned to their countries. That figure is now 3,600. MONUC hoped to reach 4,000 by June 2004. That target will clearly be met, and I hope that it will be revised upwards to about 6,000. Peter Swarbrick thinks that once the figure goes above 5,000, people will begin to realise that MONUC means business and its credibility will improve.

I shall briefly say a word about AIDS. I was extremely impressed by the way that MONUC integrates attempts to combat AIDS into its work. Every soldier and civilian who works for it receives an AIDS policy identification card. Every military contingent that contributes to MONUC's forces is trained, before arrival, about the consequences and nature of AIDS in the DRC. Each unit is required to be properly supplied with equipment and must prepare to deliver at least one project working with the community to deal with the epidemic among the Congolese people. I recently read in the newspapers that Médecins sans Frontières is carrying out a small-scale pilot scheme to treat HIV infection with anti-retroviral drugs. If that can be done in rural, remote parts of the DRC, it can probably be done anywhere in Africa. However, treatment opportunities must not divert attention from work on prevention, without which the appalling epidemic will get much worse.

Finally, I shall make a comment about politics. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) and my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said, there is great resentment in Kinshasa about the role played by irregular and regular forces from Rwanda and Uganda in destabilising their country. I am sure that in Rwanda and Uganda there is also resentment towards elements from the DRC that are destabilising their countries. It would be impossible to draw up an effective economic development strategy for the DRC unless it was compatible with the strategies for neighbouring countries, and vice versa. I therefore ask DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to work with all the Governments in the region to draw up a joint strategy for the region to which they all subscribe.

Rwanda, for example, wants to boost tourism, and I wish it well, but it will not get tourists to visit unless it stops supporting irregular forces in the region. Rwanda would have something to gain from a joint strategy, as would all the countries in the region. A joint strategy would need to address first the issue of security, secondly, that of resource exploitation, and thirdly, the economic development of the region, because in parts of the eastern Congo the trade routes are not to the Atlantic but to the Indian ocean through neighbouring countries. Finally, such a joint strategy would have to address the question of human rights.

17 Dec 2003 : Column 265WH

10.26 am

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): First, I apologise to hon. Members for missing the greater part of the contribution to the debate made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin). I will make a few brief points.

The history of the Congo is possibly one of the most tragic of all the tragedies in African history, going back to the Belgian royal family's personal ownership of the country, the appalling exploitation and enslavement of people from that country in the 19th century and early 20th century, and the brutality of the numerous civil wars and insurgent conflicts that have taken place since the beginning of the 20th century. Independence was finally achieved in 1960, and the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in 1961 was one of the great tragedies of African history—he could have contributed so much to African development.

My constituency has a link to that history. After the death of Patrice Lumumba, some of his family fled to the UK and settled in Finsbury Park, in my constituency. There has been a significant Congolese community in the constituency ever since then. The community is still growing, and I meet its members regularly. I hold a monthly advice bureau in a local church, with French translation available, to do my best to assist them.

I have had a number of lengthy discussions with members of the local Congolese community, who are very well informed and knowledgeable about the history of their country. Many of those people are very well qualified. Some were teachers, lawyers, doctors or public servants and some worked in private industry, but all were forced out of the Congo by a succession of dictatorships. The behaviour of those dictatorships has moulded the history of the country, and it moulds the attitudes of a large number of people. The excesses, the brutality, the executions and the corruption of those regimes is now known, and a number of western Governments and companies were complicit in that corruption. There are no clean hands in respect of relationships with the Congo.

There are some specific points that I want to put to the Chamber, to which I hope the Secretary of State can respond. First, I thank him for a copy of the written statement tabled today by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). The statement is interesting and important because it deals with a number of issues that have been raised with me by members of the Congolese community.

I shall deal with those issues quickly. The first is the presence of European peacekeeping forces under the aegis of the United Nations. There is concern that there are not sufficient numbers of them. There is also concern about the longevity of the operation, and whether there is a serious commitment to bringing about peace and disarmament.

I have been asked by members of the community in my constituency to raise the question of the disarmament of child soldiers when the militia groups have been run out of Goma and other cities. I understand the need to run the militia groups out of the cities, but I think that child soldiers should be disarmed

17 Dec 2003 : Column 266WH

and, if possible, taken into some kind of protective custody where they can rebuild their lives and get through the horrors of their experiences. I have met former child soldiers from Uganda; they live their lives with a series of flashbacks of being given guns at the age of eight or nine and told to go out and kill people. We have a specific responsibility to try to do something to rebuild the lives of those children.

I should like also to raise the question of the leakage of arms into the Congo from Rwanda, Uganda and Zimbabwe; it has been going on for a very long time. I welcome the Minister's statement and the intentions behind it. However, I wonder what will be done to police the operation effectively on the ground. It seems that the Rwandan and Ugandan Governments are sending out a series of mixed messages. They convey to the European Community and to western Governments the message that they are not in favour of intervention, that they want peace within the region and that they want to co-operate, but I suspect that the reality on the ground is very different. A blind eye is being turned to all kinds of insurgent groups, which are going into the eastern Congo and causing mayhem.

In the statement, the Minister specifically asks the UN to provide more detailed information about the link between the sale of natural resources from the Congo and the supply and development of arms in that country. I hope that that information can come to light. If specific, sustainable allegations can be made against any western companies, they should be vigorously pursued in the courts here and in the international and European courts. I suspect that that will not happen because the blue-chip companies that buy raw materials emanating from the Congo are not the exploiters. The exploitation is done by somebody else: the mining of gold, diamond and other minerals, and the logging that takes place, is done illegally by fairly shadowy groups that eventually sell the materials on to somebody far more respectable.

I have picked up a feeling from my local Congolese community that this is a war as much about minerals and exploitation as about anything else. That is the tragedy of the history of the Congo. At the end of a recent, lengthy meeting at the local church, one person laconically said to me, "This is the first war for mobile phones," and there is some truth in that. The minerals that the west craves, because they are so precious, are obviously extremely valuable to people in the Congo.

Although I welcome this debate and the statement, I get the feeling that we will have to go a lot further on the question. We must prevent the flow of arms into militia groups, prevent the continued destabilisation of the country and ensure that the minerals that we enjoy in this country have come here legitimately. We should ensure that the benefits from the sale of those minerals legitimately flow to the people of the Congo rather than to the shadowy world of middlemen, arms brokers and mineral dealers. That world is making a huge amount of money out of the horror, misery and devastation of a lot of very poor people in a country that has suffered so grievously over the last 200 years, largely at the hands of European exploiters.

10.34 am

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): I, too, shall try to be as brief as possible to allow the Secretary of State to respond. It has been an interesting debate and all the

17 Dec 2003 : Column 267WH

contributions were of a high quality. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin) on her success. This is the third debate recently on the great lakes region. We have had two very thoughtful debates on Rwanda, and the contributions so far have been excellent.

I share the concern of the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). Having read the ministerial statement, I think that the issues are clear: corruption is endemic and there are problems with the funding of arms. I hope that the Minister will explain what part DFID will play in taking western countries to court to proceed with a criminal investigation. I hope that we will not see a whitewash, with business as usual for many of the western countries that have contributed to the nightmare of the past. It is important to remember the scale of the task ahead.

I shall not dwell too much on history, because a number of hon. Members have already gone over that. The DRC has 52 million people spread over a land-mass the size of western Europe. Peace and democracy are being pursued against a backdrop of dictatorship and violence. Between 3 million and 4 million people have died in the past five years, owing not only to war, but to AIDS, disease and famine. A report by the United Nations humanitarian assessment mission issued last Thursday serves to remind us of the problems and challenges faced by the DRC. The Government and the international community should know that in the eastern region there is malaria, malnutrition, water-borne disease and, more worryingly, that in the southern regions there are ongoing, disturbing reports of the pillaging of crops, and rape and violence against women and young girls.

Although much has been done in the past, it is important to recognise that various efforts are making a significant contribution to the way forward. I warmly welcome the World Bank's announcement last Tuesday of a $100 million programme to tackle HIV/AIDS in the DRC. According to recent surveys carried out this year among organisations fighting AIDS, the epidemic could threaten more than half of the DRC's 50 million people in the next 10 years.

Like so many of its neighbours, the DRC is gripped by this crisis, but it differs from its neighbours in the prevalence of AIDS in young people, among whom the incidence is almost 20 per cent. higher than in any of the neighbouring countries. Infection begins very early—from just 10 years old. There is a requirement for better health care, but the stigma that surrounds AIDS must also be dealt with. The calls for abstinence and preaching against the use of condoms are not working, and a new approach will have to be devised. I hope to hear from the Secretary of State about what more we can do through DFID.

I welcome the commitments that the Government, and DFID in particular, have given to the DRC and the surrounding region. I also welcome the press conference given by the Secretary of State, which was mentioned earlier, and announcements of further support. The adherence to basic human rights and the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programme, about which we have heard much in the past hour, are all important causes that must be supported. We must move towards full democracy; the pressure must be kept up.

17 Dec 2003 : Column 268WH

As with any country, there is also a role for civil society and, within that, a vibrant free press. There is some room for optimism here. The 2003 annual report of the national media watchdog, Journaliste en Danger, found an improving situation. Incidents of journalists being detained for more than 48 hours have fallen sharply, and this year has been particularly significant because, for the first time in six years, no journalist was imprisoned for their work. There is, however, further room for improvement. It will be interesting to see the response to any success by the new campaign to decriminalise press offences in the country.

There is clear consensus about the fact that the integration of various groups, whose battles have marred the DRC for so long, must be a priority. The DRC must be a country for all its people, not just any one group. People must be involved and consulted as part of that process. The commencement, just over a week ago, of the integration of former rebels into a new, unified force is a good example of that process in action; it must be replicated throughout the DRC and, more importantly, it must be sustained. There were clear symbols of reconciliation and good will in the ceremonies that were held: soldiers handed over the scarves that showed their subscription to various groups, specifically the Movement for the Liberation of the DRC and the Congolese Rally for Democracy. Many of those new soldiers will work with forces in Ituri, which is one of the most troubled regions. Other hon. Members have mentioned the problem of child soldiers, and I hope to hear the Secretary of State say what can be done to deal with that.

The importance of the DRC in Africa and the world, as has already been mentioned, lies not only in its geographical importance and mineral wealth but in the fact that it has borders with nine countries. Rather than being its strength, its mineral wealth—its diamonds and gold—has too often been its weakness and has helped to fuel wars. Despite the official end of the occupancy of the eastern DRC by Rwandan and Ugandan forces, there are ongoing reports that troops remain for the exploitation of diamonds and other minerals.

Those concerns were shown to be justified by a leaked UN report, which accused both Rwanda and Uganda, as well as parts of the new transitional Government, of continuing to arm rebels to retain control over diamond and gold fields. That is highly damaging information that provides sobering evidence for all those interested in the DRC and its future. Perhaps worst of all are the reports that Etienne Tshisekedi is preparing a rebellion with the military and training support of Rwanda. There is evidence of arms shipments to the Congolese national army from Rwandan officers, in direct contravention of the UN arms embargo. Similar allegations have already been made about Uganda.

As with any new Government and new structures, much will be based on a foundation of trust. If the report that I mentioned is correct, certain elements in Rwanda continue to face problems from the past. We must look to, and be optimistic about, the future. We are all aware of the special relationship that seemed to exist between the previous Secretary of State for International Development and Africa, and we hope that that special relationship can continue.

17 Dec 2003 : Column 269WH

Behind the politics, international relations and even the arms trade—if that continues—are the people of the DRC, who deserve a bright, more peaceful, and less impoverished future. For too long, they have suffered at the hands of war and disease. The investment being made in the DRC is a start, but we know that it depends on the success of democracy and the preservation of peace. The UK Government's role in helping the DRC with those two tasks is clear: they must put all their energies into that role.

10.42 am

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): In opening the debate, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin) spoke with knowledge, authority and compassion. She was followed by the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) and the hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew), for City of York (Hugh Bayley), for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett), all of whom made wise and thoughtful speeches. I am keen, as is everyone else, to hear what the Secretary of State has to say, so I shall try to create a precedent of brevity.

There is a moment of hope, what with a transitional Government in the DRC, a peace deal in Burundi and elections last summer in Rwanda, but the fragility of that arrangement has already been commented upon. Of course, I would welcome an overview from the Secretary of State on what the Government are doing, both alone and in concert with others, to sustain that fragile peace.

In all, there have been four reports from the UN Security Council about the exploitation of natural resources. There is the all-party parliamentary group report on the subject, and a plethora of non-governmental organisation group reports, too. Until now, there has not been an official Government response. I welcome the fact that today there is a written ministerial statement on the subject, and I hope that the Secretary of State will not take it amiss when I say that there will almost certainly need to be a further airing of the issues in the main Chamber and an opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny.

In the terrible crisis that we are debating, Burundi has often been ignored, yet 300,000 people have been killed there in the 10-year civil war. The fact of the power-sharing deal between the Tutsi Government and Hutu rebel forces is welcome, but the Secretary of State will recognise that there is now a requirement for the demobilisation of former fighters and for the repatriation of some 800,000 Burundian refugees in Tanzania. There is, of course, an African Union presence, but that presence is both under-resourced and inexperienced. Many observers with knowledge of the subject believe that there is a need for a UN mandate and a UN force. I shall welcome the Secretary of State's comments on that point.

The all-party group on the great lakes region and genocide prevention has welcomed the report of the UN panel of experts on illegal exploitation of natural resources and other forms of wealth in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Will the Secretary of State give a commitment today that the Government will make a

17 Dec 2003 : Column 270WH

statement on the subject and ensure—this is critical—that any report is acted on both by the European Union and the UN?

I urge the Secretary of State to commission evaluations of the implications for DFID country programmes of Ugandan and Rwandan involvement in the DRC. He will be well aware of the memorandum of understanding between the Rwandan and British Governments. Although aid is vital, and it would be chronically irresponsible to suggest its removal, it is both reasonable and sensible for the Government to use aid as a lever to ensure proper behaviour, including the nurture of democracy and respect for human rights.

Many of us believe that the UN should seek an expansion of its personnel and resources in the DRC. Faster demobilisation and resettlement in line with the example of the quick start programme is required and, of course, there is a need for a UN arms embargo on the entire region. I would welcome the Secretary of State's remarks on that front, too.

During the Secretary of State's recent visit, he referred to the $38 million that the UK Government are providing to fight poverty and counter disease. That is very welcome, and I certainly do not cavil at it for one moment but, for the purposes of clarification, I would appreciate it if he would make it clear whether that is the $38 million that has already been referred to on previous occasions or a new tranche of funding.

The Secretary of State will be aware—the hon. Members for Glasgow, Maryhill and for City of York referred to the matter—of UN Security Council resolution 1484, which was passed on 30 May, which demanded cessation of all support to armed groups and militias, in particular the provision of weapons and any other military material. What assessment has he made thus far of the effectiveness of the enforcement of that decree? Child soldiers have been referred to, and I also want an update from the Secretary of State on what progress has been made on that point.

Democracy building, the pursuit of good governance and respect for political pluralism are clearly of the essence; they are prerequisites of sustainable progress. I wonder whether, in addition to the idea of a delegation of Congolese parliamentarians coming to the UK, the Secretary of State would in all seriousness consider a group of ex-parliamentarians from this country—who perhaps have a little time on their hands—going to the DRC and making their expertise available. I know that he will take it in the proper spirit when I say that I can think of nobody better to lead that delegation than someone whose career in the House spanned half a century: his father. Natural self-effacement may prevent the right hon. Gentleman from responding to that point, but I hope that it will not, because I make a serious suggestion and I would appreciate his reply.

There is economic work to be done. I make two suggestions that have also been made by others. First, DFID should collaborate with the Department of Trade and Industry to fund a permanent representative at the UK embassy in Kinshasa to encourage direct British investment in the DRC. There are huge commercial opportunities if only they can be properly exploited. Secondly, the UK should offer its expertise in construction, surveying, engineering and road building

17 Dec 2003 : Column 271WH

to help reconstruct the DRC's transport infrastructure. We all want to hear what the Secretary of State has to say—I certainly do—and I look forward to his reply.

10.49 am

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn) : I join hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin) on securing this important debate. I echo what the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) said about the speeches that we have heard. They reflect the outstanding job done by the all-party group on the great lakes region and genocide prevention. I also join Members in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) for her chairing of that group.

The debate has shown clearly that the challenges facing the Democratic Republic of the Congo are, frankly, enormous. It has a population of about 55 million, is located in the very heart of Africa and has a miserable history of conflict, war, dictatorship, corruption and exploitation, often illegal, of its great national resources. It also has enormous levels of poverty.

One of the DRC's problems is that there are few reliable statistics. However, the best estimates are that 80 per cent. of its population live on less than $1 a day. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill set out with great clarity the history, which I do not intend to go back over. I will simply say that the level of suffering experienced by the DRC's people is hard for us to imagine. If, prior to the TV cameras entering Bunia, most people in this country had been asked to name the place where between 3 million and 3.5 million lost their lives over the last five years, I doubt that many could have identified the site of what has been described as "Africa's hidden first world war."

That history means that it is all the more important that the international community now offers support to the transitional national Government, whose inauguration in July brought together the different factions and was a significant event. They are working towards implementation of the global accord and particularly towards presidential and parliamentary elections in two to three years.

I learned very forcefully during my visit last week that the depth of the DRC's crisis over the past decade means that the scale of the challenges facing the TNG is too difficult for us to appreciate. My hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) was right to talk about the fragility of the situation and the "preciousness" of the TNG. That point was also made by the hon. Member for Buckingham. For the DRC to establish itself as a state and to be capable of bringing its people security, a concentrated long-term effort is required.

President Kabila said to me, and it was echoed in the debate, that it is not a question of restoring people's faith in the Government. He said that the task is to persuade people that there is such a thing as a Government, who can provide for them. It is not about rebuilding the country; it is about constructing a state for the very first time in the history of a place that is the size of western Europe and where many of the things that we take for granted as representing the signs and institutions of a functioning state do not exist.

17 Dec 2003 : Column 272WH

Establishing those institutions, encouraging economic activity, weaving together a social fabric where one does not exist and ending the culture of impunity, which has been such a feature of the DRC's history, will take time. We must recognise that in dealing with that challenge the TNG must take on powerful and established interests that dislike change and will resist it.

On parliamentary links, the hon. Member for Buckingham made a serious point, as others did, about the importance of giving the benefit of our expertise and enabling parliamentarians in the DRC to learn how they might go about the job. Later this week I will meet the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and I will put to it his extremely important suggestion.

Historically, the UK has not had a great presence in the DRC, but we are stepping up our involvement. We are looking to establish a long-term development partnership similar to those that we have developed with other countries in the region, such as Uganda and Rwanda, with whom we have had a close historical relationship. We recently finalised the DFID country engagement plan, which sets out our proposals. In a sense, we anticipated the all-party group's very good report, which will be formally launched later today. It asked the Government to step up their involvement in the DRC, and we have done so, as I said when I was there last week.

The size of our current programme is $38 million, or £23 million. That is on top of the approximately £70 million contribution that we make through multilateral institutions such as the EU, the IMF, the World Bank and others. We have already announced that, but we are looking to increase our involvement. When I was in the DRC, I described our involvement as support for success, because the international community, the TNG and the people of the DRC must march forward together, step in step, to address the country's problems.

Our work will involve two main tasks: ensuring a successful transition and helping the TNG to establish basic systems of governance. That means supporting the transition institutions, which we are doing, demobilising and reintegrating ex-combatants, which is fundamental to the country's future—I shall come in a moment to the subject of child soldiers—and reforming the army and the police.

We are offering specific support for peace-building. In the east, where there is no question but that things are extremely difficult, the UK contributed £3 million to the interim emergency multinational force. We also pushed for the inclusion in the UN resolution of text on blocking arms supplies, although I am the first to say that enforcement is difficult in a country where many state institutions do not exist. We are contributing about £2.5 million to support community-based peace-building programmes, including those managed by Christian Aid and CAFOD—the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development—in the eastern DRC.

On child soldiers, we are funding a UNICEF child disarmament demobilisation and reintegration programme to the tune of £2 million. We are doing that now, before the funding for the multi-country demobilisation and reintegration programme, which we will also support, kicks in.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill mentioned debt. The DRC has an interim poverty reduction strategy paper; that has reached decision

17 Dec 2003 : Column 273WH

point, and we hope that it will reach completion point in 2005. The UK has agreed to write off the debts that it is owed, and we have also released the $4.8 million that we pledged towards an international financing package to enable the DRC to clear its arrears to the African Development Bank.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) alluded to HIV/AIDS. The infection rate is about 6 per cent., but, again, statistics are hard to come by. I visited a project run by Fondation Femme Plus in Kinshasa, which cares for women with HIV. The stigma that they experience is a real problem in the country, but the foundation does outstanding work. The visit was a very moving occasion. We are also funding a condom distribution programme.

A number of references were made to the UN panel report and to the written statement tabled today by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), which sets out the Government response. I understand that hon. Members, having reflected on it, will wish to pursue some of the points in it. I simply say that the situation in the DRC has been a major problem, as everyone has identified. However, as the statement forcefully illustrates, one needs evidence to pursue those responsible and to deal with the culture of impunity—one needs a complainant and specific instances. Frankly, part of the difficulty with the UN panel report has been the lack of specific evidence.

Mr. Bercow : Is the right hon. Gentleman not able, in conversation with people in the UN, to elicit any commitment to provide such evidence?

Hilary Benn : We have repeatedly made that point to those who worked on the report. Everyone understands the problem, but there must be sufficient evidence to pursue specific individuals and companies. The problem so far has been the lack of evidence.

There has been a huge international effort to end the conflict, and it is important that members of the international community come together to consider the great lakes in a wider context. The great lakes conference, which is planned for next year, will provide a chance to do so.

I reassure my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) and other hon. Members that, in our relations with Uganda and Rwanda, we make it very clear that, having withdrawn their forces, they should stay out because the DRC needs its integrity and stability. I also recognise my right hon. Friend's point about the serious situation in northern Uganda.

I met several people in the DRC. Expectations are very high but few people would have thought five years ago that we would have reached the point that we have today. That is why we should stick with the TNG. It matters that we should be involved, as there is now a window of opportunity to build a different future for the country. I welcome today's debate for all those reasons.

Next Section

IndexHome Page