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Mr. Bercow: To ask the Secretary of State for International Development what assessment he has made of the extent of the use of child soldiers in (a) the Democratic Republic of Congo, (b) Burundi, (c) Rwanda and (d) Uganda. 
Hilary Benn: The UK condemns unequivocally the use of child soldiers. The fourth report of the UN Secretary-General on the use of children in armed conflict has recently been issued and will inform debate on this issue in the UN Security Council later this month.
The UK discusses the issue with a range of UN bodies, particularly the Special Representative on Children in Armed Conflict, and works with the UN system to eradicate the use of child soldiers, including our support for a UNICEF programme of capacity building to strengthen its response in emergency situations. A key element of this programme is improving its advocacy on the situation of children affected by armed conflict at all levels.
For DRC the UK is providing £750,000 to help establish child protection networks, and Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) mechanisms in each province and at national level. Our support will help UNICEF in launching preparations and commencing activities for the demobilisation and reintegration of children associated with armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
UNICEF reported in September 2003 that it was thought there were then about 1,000 child soldiers serving in Burundi's regular army, 1,500 in the pro-government youth militia and 500 in the rebel movements, though the exact number would only be available when the demobilisation programme was implemented.
Burundi ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, though the optional protocol banning the use of children under 18 in armed conflict was not signed at that timethe text of this has recently been submitted to the National Assembly for approval.
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demobilisation and repatriation to Rwanda.With respect to Uganda, one of the terrible features of the conflict there is that abducted children themselves become the combatants. We have raised our concerns about the safety of those abducted with President Museveni and senior Ministers. The UK has provided financial support to UNICEF and Save the Children to rehabilitate children who have escaped from the Lords Resistance Army. Also we have discussed with the Ugandan government reports of under-age soldiers being recruited by the government defence units in the North. The Government of Uganda has assured us that they are co-operating with UNICEF to identify and demobilise the recruits. Our High Commission in Kampala is monitoring the situation.
Hilary Benn: Of the 27 countries that have qualified for debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative, nine have so far reached completion point and have received an irrevocable reduction in their stock of debt. A further 10 are expected to reach completion point by the end of 2004. Three of these (Nicaragua, Ethiopia and Niger) should reach completion point imminently.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to predict exactly when countries will reach completion point, because, instead of a fixed completion point date, the enhanced HIPC Initiative system is based on a 'floating' completion point. But even where countries miss their predicted completion point date, there is no delay to the delivery of debt relief, as countries cease to make payments on their debt from decision point.
Mr. John Bercow: To ask the Secretary of State for International Development what recent discussions he has had with the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs about the effectiveness of humanitarian intervention in Ituri. 
Hilary Benn: We have regular discussions with the UN's agencies including OCHA, and consider the humanitarian response to the crisis in Ituri to have been effective to date. The humanitarian situation there has improved as a result of services such as food aid, emergency medical assistance, provision of potable water and increased sanitation facilities delivered by the relief agencies, and the UN has been able to negotiate increased access in the area for relief work.
Mr. Bercow: To ask the Secretary of State for International Development if he will make a statement on the most recent discussions he has had with the governments of (a) Rwanda and (b) Uganda concerning their involvement in the future of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 
Hilary Benn: The UK is seeking to help resolve conflict and establish conditions for genuine development in the whole of the Great Lakes region. We have maintained a close dialogue with the governments
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of Rwanda and Uganda, and indeed with the former Government and now the Transitional National Government (TNG) in Kinshasa, on the need for good neighbourly relations as the basis for national and regional stability. We continue to do so. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) will undoubtedly be discussed during the forthcoming visit to the UK of Presidents Kagame and Museveni.
Both Rwanda and Uganda have taken positive steps recently to normalise their relations with the TNG in DRC, including mutual ministerial visits and the signing in New York on 25 September 2003 of a Good Neighbourly Pact, which included commitments that all support for armed groups should end and that there should be no illegal exploitation of natural resources of the DRC.
Mr. Bercow: To ask the Secretary of State for International Development how many monitors and overseers the United Kingdom will send to witness and report on whether the forthcoming elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are (a) free and (b) fair. 
Hilary Benn: The Transitional National Government (TNG) of the DRC has not set a specific date for elections, likely to be either in 2005 or 2006; nor has it invited partners to send election monitors. Should it do so, it is likely we will participate in wider EU or UN efforts.
Helping the TNG and other stakeholders prepare for free and fair elections is an important part of our engagement in DRC. We are providing £400,000 for the Electoral Institute of South Africa (EISA), an NGO, to help enhance the capacity of stakeholders to participate in the process of designing the DRC's institutional, constitutional and legal frameworks, including for a democratic electoral system.
Mr. Bercow: To ask the Secretary of State for International Development what action he will (a) take unilaterally and (b) propose at multilateral level in response to the publication of the UN Commission report on the misuse of the natural resources of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 
Hilary Benn: I refer the hon. Member for Buckingham to the Statement made by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Chris Mullin) on 17 December 2003, Official Report, Column 1424WS.
Mr. Bercow: To ask the Secretary of State for International Development what discussions he has had with (a) his counterparts in EU member states and (b) representatives of the United Nations about 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. 
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Hilary Benn: None. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office are the lead Department responsible for discussions on the UN Panel of Experts Report with counterparts in EU Member States and representatives of the United Nations.
The issue of exploitation of the natural resources of the DRC is enormously important. We are already working with the new government in the Congo and with international and regional partners to help develop its institutions and to put in place effective management of the country's natural resources, including by playing a leading role in making the Anti-Corruption Commission effective and encouraging the Transitional National Government to engage in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.
The huge potential of the Congo's natural resources should be exploited legally and in a regulated way, for the benefit of all Congolese. We want to see trade in natural resources become a cohesive factor in regional stability and not a cause of conflict.
Hilary Benn: Ethiopia qualified for debt relief under the Enhanced HIPC Initiative in November 2001 when it reached decision pointthe first stage of the HIPC process. This means Ethiopia no longer has to service around $1.9 billion of debt. These debts will be formally written off when Ethiopia reaches its completion point as expected in the first half of 2004.
Ethiopia owes the UK £15.4 million but is already receiving full debt relief on this under the UK Government's bilateral policy. This provides 100 per cent. relief on debt service payments starting from decision point and formally writes off the entire debt after completion point.
Mr. Bercow: To ask the Secretary of State for International Development if he will make a statement on the joint departmental scoping mission scheduled for April 2004 to consider reform of Ethiopia's security sector. 
Hilary Benn: The joint departmental scoping mission for Security Sector Reform (SSR) comprising representatives of MOD, FCO and DFID visited Ethiopia in April 2003 in response to requests from the Government of Ethiopia. The mission recommended a phased engagement by HMG that would help make all parts of the security sector more accountable to the people of Ethiopia. Initial activities to strengthen bodies responsible for oversight and planning are about to begin.
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the increase in global acute malnutrition that has occurred in some of the drought affected areas of Ethiopia. 
Hilary Benn: Since the start of 2002 we have committed over £50 million of humanitarian aid to Ethiopia making us one of the largest donors of emergency assistance. This has been channelled through UN agencies, the Ethiopian Government and non-government organisations (NGOs).
A mix of interventions successfully helped to address global acute malnutrition (GAM) and severe acute malnutrition (SAM) in the drought-affected parts of the country. For example, we targeted localities suffering high levels of malnutrition with supplementary and therapeutic feeding through NGOs and UNICEF. This helped bring GAM levels in the most affected areas down to about 7 per cent. to 8 per cent. from over 20 per cent. at the peak of the crisis.
Some pockets of malnutrition remain in 2004 largely as a consequence of poor targeting and delivery capacity. We are providing support to UNICEF for building capacity of the emergency system and will continue to play our part as and when further needs arise.
Hilary Benn: There is still a high level of ethnic violence in Ethiopia. Ethnicity is the basis of most of the major political parties, including the ruling party. Many ethnic groups are politically and economically excluded.
New legislation passed in 2003 will allow Federal Government to intervene in cases of human rights violations at Regional level and below. This indicates a growing willingness by Federal Government to accept ultimate responsibility for human rights violations at Regional or local level.
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