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24 Feb 2004 : Column 23WH—continued

Northern Uganda

11 am

Valerie Davey (Bristol, West) (Lab): I appreciate the opportunity to highlight the brutal conflict which, after 18 years, continues to traumatise the lives of more than 1 million men, women and, most significantly, children in northern Uganda. Sadly, the debate has become more relevant following the massacre by the Lord's Resistance Army of over 200 people in a refugee camp north of Lira at the weekend.

At first there was little media coverage, but Andrew Harding's report last night for BBC News, with the images of the charred bodies of people burned alive in their huts and the numb anguish on the faces of women who had lost as many as 12 members of their family, brought home the horror of what had happened. One casual remark from a parent at the scene was that he had lost two children. Even now, no one knows how many children were abducted in the raid. We all join Kofi Annan in condemning the massacre.

In these circumstances it is hard to know how to extend a hand of sympathy and support to those grieving, terrified families, yet that is what we all want to do. I trust that all of us, everyone who could and should have done more in the past 18 years to end the conflict, will be committed to taking urgent action now. This conflict—uniquely, to my knowledge—is targeted at children, 20,000 of whom have been abducted during the past five years. They have been abused and forced to be child soldiers or sex slaves. I ask that we use this debate to recognise the extent and nature of the tragedy, and to reflect on what can be done to bring it to an end.

Last November, after a visit to Uganda, a senior United Nations official, Jan Egeland, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said:

He went on to say:

The facts and figures that emerge underline that statement.

The Lord's Resistance Army, under the self-styled mystic Joseph Kony, while claiming to oppose the Ugandan Government or to protect the Acholi people, attacks the civilian population of northern Uganda. It is estimated that 85 per cent. of the LRA forces are 11 to 15 years old. These children are abducted during raids on schools and villages, and are often forced first to kill their own families and to mutilate or kill any children who resist.

Twenty thousand children have disappeared over the past five years, over half of them since June 2002—20,000. I repeat that figure, because I still find it virtually incomprehensible, but little has happened as a result. One child's torso was taken from the Thames. That sparked a criminal investigation across two continents. The trauma in northern Uganda is hard to comprehend. Violence and fear have led to the internal displacement of over 1 million people, with tens of thousands moving every night to find safety in the nearest town.

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Wider knowledge of the situation emerged in England last year, thanks to the Break the Silence campaign run by the Churches, especially the Anglican Church in dioceses such as Bristol, which has close links with Uganda. Last summer the Bishop of Kitgum, the Right Reverend Ben Ojwang from northern Uganda, stayed with constituents of mine and spoke on Radio Bristol. Having spoken about the atrocities, he went on to ask the British Government to mediate, or, in his words, be a midwife to deliver peace after all the pain and anguish. The Government have a strong link with Uganda, as we all know, and they have expertise in conflict resolution, which may well be needed in this situation. Help in these tragic circumstances has been given, notably by donor countries, and also by UNICEF, Save the Children Fund and Christian Aid. The present appeal is poignantly headed: "Over a million Ugandans are scared of the dark". Indeed they are.

The need is to stop the killing, mutilation, rape and abduction. The nature of the situation bears some resemblance to the inexplicable nature of the war going on in the middle east and Iraq. We fail in our comprehension of how to combat an enemy that resorts to suicide bombing. In the case of Uganda, how do we react to an enemy that brainwashes terrified children and uses them to fight their own people? In that situation, when the Ugandan militia or the military attack the rebels, they are just as likely to be killing their own children. Remember that 85 per cent. of the LRA forces are 11 to 15-year-olds who have been abducted.

This is all horrific and difficult to understand, but we do need to understand it. We need to understand the reasons behind the conflict in northern Uganda. What led to this situation? I do not pretend to be an expert or to have the facts and figures, but I did come across a report published earlier this month by the refugee law project at the faculty of law at Makerere university. It is headed: "Behind the Violence: Causes, Consequences and the Search for Solutions to the War in Northern Uganda."

Even reading the press release that announced the report contributes to a better understanding of the tensions that arose after Obote's departure—the tension between northern Uganda and the new Ugandan Government—and of the earlier attempts at rebellion. Into that vacuum of tension and mistrust came the incredible figure of Joseph Kony, with all the evil that his self-styled rule as mystic and spiritual leader has brought about. I recommend the report to anyone who is at all interested in the tragedy and reconciliation in the area.

Let us consider the people who could and should have helped. There is the United Nations. In 2003, the United Nations passed resolution 1460 to provide a framework to protect children affected by armed conflict. It noted that the conscription of children under 15 into armed forces, or using them to participate actively in hostilities, is classified as a war crime by the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court, which has recently been enforced. That resolution ended with a cryptic final decision that was very much in the style of a UN resolution. The final decision was

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Kofi Annan was seized of the matter, and last November he produced a further report on children and armed conflict. Only last month, 38 members of the United Nations debated that report and what could be done to prevent violence against children, including sexual abuse, maiming, kidnapping and their use as child soldiers. At that meeting, the UN special representative for children and armed conflict, Olara Otunnu, said:

Those are fine words. There is indeed a new watershed in northern Uganda following the massacre of the past weekend. We need to take further action.

It is easy to look back and to criticise those involved—to criticise Museveni, the Ugandan Government and the donor countries for not doing more. The criticisms have been strong. President Museveni has criticised donor countries for not allowing more of the aid to be used for his army. Critics of the donors have been concerned that some of their money has not reached the humanitarian ends for which it was given, but is being used by Museveni for armed troops in the Congo.

We know that our Government have given considerable aid—£2.5 million for humanitarian purposes in the past year, and now a further £3 million. As I described, we have a good record in debt release and in the important quantity of aid provided to Uganda. However, we have to question whether we have taken enough care and whether, in our intense anticipation of success for Uganda, we have not turned a blind eye to the troubles of northern Uganda. Indeed, in a northern part of this country we have our own experience, which so many of us have wanted to ignore. That experience should well equip us to help Uganda.

We must put the key emphasis on humanitarian aid and on stopping the violence. When he answered questions on the issue in the House, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) emphasised the need for dialogue, although he recognised the need for security. Such atrocity and warfare will not be overcome by further warfare.

Over the past week three headlines appeared in sequence, and they illustrate the trauma of what is happening. On 19 February the BBC's website headline read "Army 'hunts down' Ugandan rebels". It continued:

There followed an almost provocative statement, as I realised when I read it. One of the Ugandan army officials said:

As I read that statement at the weekend in preparation for the debate, a chill went down my spine.

On Monday, headlines in The Guardian and The Independent reported that Ugandan rebels had left 192 dead in the village massacre. On the same day, the BBC website published the headline "Uganda vows to avenge massacre". It continued:

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While that violence continues and is exacerbated, children are dying. Families were brutally killed in the massacre at the weekend and there seems to be no hope. The BBC reported a member of the camp who said, "I have no hope".

The International Criminal Court has now said that it will take action. Last December, President Museveni asked the Court to look at the actions of the LRA. Both Amnesty's response and that of Human Rights Watch was that we should investigate all sides in Uganda. There are reports of human rights abuses and the use by the Government army and the militia of youngsters under 15, who have been set up with arms in northern Uganda to try to deal with the LRA. The criminal court will take time and it will need to arrest Joseph Kony and his rebel leaders.

Is there hope? I still have hope because of the Ugandan people I have met, and because of the bishop from Kitgum and his visit to Bristol, the personal links that are being strengthened and the support that will be given. I have hope as a result of a recent delegation to this country led by the Right Reverend John Baptist Odama, the archbishop of Gulu archdiocese. He came with a delegation of six church and community leaders and human rights activists. I do not need to spend long on their report because I am sure that the Minister has a copy. They talked about the key human rights violations, the abductions and the displacements, the child night commuters, the attacks on humanitarian convoys and the human rights abuses carried out by the Ugandan Government.

The delegation went on to make five main recommendations: to end the conflict by prevailing on the warring parties; to place the situation of northern Uganda on the agenda of the UN Security Council; to ensure that the protection of children who have been abducted and forcibly recruited is addressed independently of any ongoing political process; to strengthen the international monitoring presence in the north and follow up human rights abuses; and to facilitate the support of the national and community process that will foster a sustainable peace.

I urge the Minister to ponder long and hard these incredibly dignified, patient people who come with a solution that does not involve further violence. I urge him to take action in the UN, with European Union members, and as a representative of a donor country. All of us have a part to play.

When I think of Uganda, I hear and see two things. I think not of the latest scenes of the massacre, but of an interview on the radio that first inspired me to take action. It was the emotion of the interviewer, and not the Ugandan teenager who had been rescued from the LRA, that was so poignant. He finally asked the boy, "How many have you killed?" The curt and quick reply came, "Forty-six". Finally, I see the face of Angelina Acheng Atyam, a member of the delegation, who is the chairperson of the Concerned Parents Association—a group of 5,000 parents working to secure the release of their sons and daughters. Angelina's daughter was abducted in 1996 and remains in captivity. I urge the Minister to do all he can, and look forward to his response. We need to bring an end to this children's war—this war on children.

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11.18 am

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Mike O'Brien) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) on securing this timely debate on northern Uganda. The Lord's Resistance Army has been waging a war against the Government and the people of Uganda for over 18 years. The conflict has caused untold suffering to the civilian population in northern Uganda.

We utterly deplore the brutal massacre of nearly 200 displaced persons in a camp north of Lira last weekend. United Nations agencies have now reached the area and are setting up medical and feeding centres. We have been in contact with the UN and are satisfied that they are doing all they can. Burns victims have been transported to Lira hospital, for the situation in the area remains very bad. Such an incident could be repeated any time. That is a chilling prospect. I welcome the opportunity provided by my hon. Friend to set out the action we are taking to promote a solution.

The actions of the rebel leader, Joseph Kony, and his LRA are deplorable. The Lord's Resistance rebellion emerged from the remnants of various anti-Museveni groups that existed among the Acholi people of northern Uganda during the late 1980s. The LRA does not have a coherent political programme in the usual sense. Its leader, Joseph Kony, claims a mystical or spiritual authority for his actions. The LRA is undoubtedly one of the most despicable groups in the world, because of the way in which it carries out its activities. Brutal punishments are used to maintain discipline among the LRA, and enforced participation in such acts is used as a means of binding Kony's adherents together.

The LRA's use of child soldiers is particularly deplorable, as my hon. Friend said. Recruitment is largely through abduction. The vast majority of LRA fighters are the innocent children of civilians, forced to fight against their will. It is estimated that some 20,000 children have been abducted for recruitment over the past 10 years. The degree of violence shown in the attack of 21 February and the practice of making children a main target of the war is so deeply repellent that it defies words.

Most recent reports from our high commission in Kampala indicate that there has been an increase in LRA child abductions in the past few weeks. We are aware of the impact that this is having on the local communities, which are in great fear, and the plight of the night commuters, the children living in rural areas who walk miles each night to sleep in churches or in town, on shop verandahs, in a desperate attempt to avoid abduction. The clear, depressing message is of a sharp deterioration in the security situation, with intensified attacks on soft civilian targets.

We remain extremely concerned about the impact of the conflict on the humanitarian situation in northern Uganda. Over the past two years the number of internally displaced persons has risen from 500,000 to 1.4 million. They are living in camps and enduring worsening conditions. Relief organisations are at full stretch and coping, but reaching populations in need of humanitarian aid in these large rural areas is dependent on the fragile security situation.

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The UK's response to the crisis is focused on supporting humanitarian relief efforts and promoting closer co-ordination among the donor communities; encouraging the Ugandan Government to consider all options to resolve the conflict, not just the military response; strengthening civil society groups in the north, which have a vital role to play in the long-term resolution of the conflict; and building on opportunities created by the Sudanese peace accords.

We have significantly increased our humanitarian support in response to the crisis. We have spent £8.4 million in the past 12 months. Officials in Kampala from the British high commission and Department for International Development regularly visit the north to assess the situation and see what more we can do to assist. We are also working closely with the international community to improve donor co-ordination. We need to ensure that the aid gets through to those who need it most.

The UK was instrumental in the founding of the donor technical group on the north in Kampala and currently holds the position of deputy chair of the group. This is the most important co-ordinating forum for donor responses to the conflict. It has contributed to the development of programmes in support of conflict resolution. Access to camps in a number of areas is risky. The LRA has attacked humanitarian vehicles and convoys. We regularly urge the Government of Uganda to redouble their efforts to protect the civilian population in the north and to ensure the safe delivery of much needed humanitarian relief supplies.

The LRA is a difficult phenomenon to deal with and there is no quick fix. President Museveni's Government have adopted several different approaches in the past, but they have concentrated their efforts on the military approach, which has so far not succeeded. In March 2002, the Ugandan Government launched Operation Iron Fist, billed as a measure to put an end to the insurgency in the north. Capitalising on the new relationship with the Sudan, the Uganda People's Defence Force sent a force into southern Sudan where they claimed to have destroyed the LRA's rear camps. However, the operation resulted in resurgent LRA activity inside Uganda, which continues with varying intensity.

We understand the Ugandan Government's need to deliver a security response, but we believe that they must also explore complementary methods of bringing the conflict to an end. The United Kingdom Government discussed the north with the President of Uganda during his visit to London at the end of January. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister urged President Museveni to seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict if possible, and we encouraged him to take steps to improve the prospects for dialogue.

Several possible measures could build confidence in the Ugandan Government's commitment to resolving the conflict: re-energising the presidential peace team, removing from the north those Government security personnel who violate human rights, and developing an open, credible and coherent media strategy on the insurgency to get messages across about how the Government hope to resolve the issue.

We are aware that some people are calling for international mediation, but we do not consider it to be a solution at present. Third-party mediation has been

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tried before and it has failed. Any sustainable solution must involve civil society actors such as Acholi religious and traditional leaders. Those groups have been at the forefront of contact with the LRA and the search for a peaceful solution, and as such they are well placed to act as mediators of dialogue.

Valerie Davey : May I emphasise that it is those very community leaders who are in London asking for third-party help with their work?

Mr. O'Brien : I hear what my hon. Friend says. We have every hope that we will be able to talk to those community leaders, as well as to representatives of the Ugandan Government, to ensure that we can work with people who might be able to find a way forward in the appalling situation.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) met northern Uganda civil society groups on 2 February and encouraged them to continue their efforts. At a local level, we continue to support peace-building initiatives and British officials based in Kampala are working with local groups involved in conflict resolution.

Since 2001 we have spent almost £1 million supporting conflict reduction and peace programmes, and a further £1.6 million is committed until March 2005. We support the development of the editorially independent FM radio, Mega FM, which has a developing listenership. Over the past year, the UK has given £1.3 million to UNICEF and Save the Children Fund for relief activities, to protect children at risk of abduction and to reintegrate child ex-combatants into society. That is enormously difficult to do, given the sorts of activities in which they have been involved, which were described so well by my hon. Friend. Some of them have been committing large-scale murder and torture. It is an incredibly difficult situation.

We are committed to helping to resolve the conflict in northern Uganda. We will continue to engage with the Ugandan Government and representatives of the Acholi population, and we will also continue to work closely with partners in Uganda and with the international community, particularly the United Nations, the United States, which has a role, and the European Union. My hon. Friend asked us to do that and I assure her that we will.

The LRA has largely been sustained through its depredations on the Acholi community, but Sudan also has a history of involvement that links with the larger regional picture and the Sudanese civil war. We hope that the successful completion of the Sudanese peace process will provide a window of opportunity also to secure peace in northern Uganda. There are prospects for hope, but in many ways it is a depressing situation. We will continue to do all we can to work with the Ugandan Government, and others, to try to resolve the situation.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.

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