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7 Dec 2004 : Column 109WH—continued

Democratic Republic of Congo

4 pm

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to tell my hon. Friend the Minister about a remarkable visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo that I made with my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) on behalf of the all-party group on the great lakes region and genocide prevention. I shall focus on just one aspect of that visit and, with your agreement, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow would like to speak on some of the broader political issues.

Our visit was remarkable because we were probably the first Members to venture 1,000 miles up the Congo river to such remote villages. It was not the usual parliamentary visit. Our journey to a pygmy village involved travelling 10 hours in an open dug-out canoe, a cycle ride through the jungle and a final stage on foot. Our accommodation was similarly adventurous and unorthodox, and freshly caught Congo river catfish was our main source of nourishment. There were times when I wondered whether we would return, such as when on our return voyage a tropical deluge forced us to take shelter in a side channel while we furiously bailed water from our canoe. Nevertheless, I would not have missed that visit for anything.

I am grateful to Mark Pallis of the all-party group for his organisational work, the Rainforest Foundation and Greenpeace for sponsoring that part of the visit and also for the hospitality and support that we received from Her Majesty's Ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Kinshasa, Mr. Andy Sparkes. It was a pioneering journey with a serious purpose: to investigate logging in the equatorial rain forest of the DRC. We all know that chopping down rain forests poses an environmental problem for the world—and the DRC contains the world's second largest rain forest—but the questions I always asked were, "What about the poor and needy people who live in remote rain forest areas? Don't they need to make a living?"

At $90 a year, the average per capita income in the DRC is the lowest in the world, and the income in the forested areas is even lower than that. The reason for examining these matters now is that international agencies, including the World Bank and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, are planning to support expanded logging of the DRC's rainforests with a sixtyfold increase on present levels, in an attempt to assist the transitional Government with rebuilding the country's economy, which has been ravaged by years of internal armed conflict, brutality and genocide. This involves a new forest code modelled on what the World Bank developed in Cameroon. All the evidence that I have seen shows that it has not worked in Cameroon, and I do not think that it will work in the DRC.

We visited villages where logging had taken place to find out for ourselves. Wherever we went we heard the same story from the people who lived there. The people who live in the forests have derived no benefits at all from the logging. The schools and medical centres promised under agreements with the logging companies have not materialised. Whatever taxes the companies have paid to central Government for the concessions,
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nothing has trickled down to the remote villages. The roads were built to gain access to the most valuable groves of the most valuable trees, not for the benefit of the local people.

I walked along the first 5 km of one new road that is being cut 24 km through the forest to reach selected trees. The logging company manager told me he had chosen the route to avoid a nearby village, so that he did not have the hassle of taking his vehicles past the local people. The roads are only the usual dirt tracks.

I saw housing being built by the logging company in an encampment outside a village. It was the same standard as that in which the locals already lived and seemed to await imported labour. Logging does not seem to provide that many jobs for local people. Most often, itinerant experienced labour seems to be recruited. The communities told us loud and clear that their experience of logging was bad and that they did not want it.

Our party also visited a pygmy village where logging was due to take place soon. The inhabitants had not even been informed that what they regard as their forest had been selected, let alone been consulted. They are deemed to have no rights, but we know that chopping down the trees destroys their local environment and the resources on which they depend for their very subsistence.

The World Bank proposal is supposed to address these problems through the forest code. A number of existing logging contracts are supposed to be cancelled and 6 million hectares of logging concessions revoked. The World Bank has urged that the taxes paid for new concessions should be increased substantially, and that 40 per cent. of the revenues should be passed to local communities. I cannot see that working; it has not worked in the Cameroon, and there is even less chance of it working in the DRC—in fact, I believe that there is no chance of that at all. When one is up a forest track several miles from a remote village that is itself 1,000 miles up the river, one realises that in such a place there is no way of enforcing any of this code.

On top of that, there is no system of what we would call governance in most of the DRC, and there never has been. There has only ever been a crude, and often brutal, regime of extraction and exploitation. That was the case under King Leopold, the Belgian colonists, Mobutu and during the subsequent years of internal war. There is no culture of governance in the DRC, only one of plunder and corruption. Despite express policies and commitments, there has been no consultation with civil society or the forest communities about the new forest code; we found that few people even knew of its existence. The contracts do not seem to have been cancelled, nor the concessions revoked.

Against that background, logging is the worst sort of activity for the World Bank to support. It is purely extractive; trees are chopped down and shipped away, and no value-added industries are involved. Unlike oil and gas extraction, logging does not involve any real investment, and is short-term. The World Bank's approach seems to be based on the assumption that the expansion of logging will bring economic benefits to the DRC's poor people. However, as we found, it will not. Worse, in destroying the forest, logging will destroy the wealth that it generates for the people who inhabit it—
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wild game, fruits, oils, natural medicines and, especially, caterpillars. About $100 a year in revenue can come from the caterpillar yields of a tree.

What should institutions such as the World Bank do for the DRC? The country's economy needs a kick-start and lots of support; it is not enough just to say no to logging. The answer lies in a staggering fact: we travelled on the giant Congo river in two large dug-out canoes fastened together and powered by two outboard engines. In 10 hours of travel over two days, we saw no other motorised craft—not one. We saw only individuals perched at the rear of their small dug-out canoes, who are like gondoliers, slowly propelling their craft along the river banks.

The DRC is a huge country. The Congo and its tributaries make up a huge waterway network, which is almost unused other than for the most local or primitive transportation. It could be like a giant motorway system if there were suitable commercial boats. How can a country possibly move forward without a transport system? People throughout the world are resourceful and imaginative, but if they do not have the means to trade any produce except in the most local markets they cannot progress and climb out of poverty. Whatever transport the DRC had was destroyed by war.

In my view, the best thing that the World Bank or other international institutions could do for the DRC would be to help to provide some suitable vessels so that the people of the Congo could travel and trade on one of the great rivers of the world, which gives their country its name. To witness a river of that scale with no motorised vessels at all was almost eerie, and a testament to how poor and devastated the country is.

My plea to my hon. Friend the Minister is that he should study the all-party report and, in conjunction with the Department for International Development, which is doing some fabulously brilliant work in the DRC, urge the World Bank and the DRC Government to think again about the new logging initiative; that this country should offer its considerable expertise to help to reconstruct some transport infrastructure in the DRC; and that he should collaborate with the Department of Trade and Industry and UK Trade and Investment to fund a permanent UK representative in Kinshasa to try to encourage direct investment from this country in the DRC. There are major opportunities for British businesses there, and the DRC desperately needs private sector capital and investment.

We ended our visit back in Kinshasa, where we met Olivier Kamitatu, the Speaker of the DRC Parliament, an impressive individual by any standards. He is trying to get a conference on investment off the ground in order to arrange and support a sound investment regime and ensure that the people of his country have the best chance of benefiting from its considerable resources. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to support such an initiative, to take a lead on the matter and to listen to what my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow has to say about the visit.

4.10 pm

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) and congratulate him on securing the debate,
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and on giving such an eloquent account of what sometimes appeared to be a journey into the heart of darkness. It was a truly astonishing visit. I, too, would like to put on the record my thanks to the policy co-ordinator of the all-party group, Mark Pallis, and to the group's associate researchers, who have been invaluable.

I would like to ask the Minister about three issues in particular: the recent political events in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the prospects for elections and the accountability of the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—MONUC. As the Minister will be aware, Rwanda has just this week threatened to send troops into the DRC. The Rwandan Hutu militia has been based in the DRC for the past 10 years. It was the genocidaire responsible for the genocide in Rwanda and for grave human rights abuses against Congolese civilians in the area. Although it is clear that the militia has, in the past, constituted a threat to Rwanda, the level of that threat at present is unclear and remains disputed.

There are two opposing views, the Rwandan and the Congolese. I have many Congolese and many Rwandan friends, so let me try to state both positions. From the Rwandan perspective, the Government argue that the Hutu militia has had a decade to rearm and reorganise—often helped by the international community, as it certainly was immediately after the 1994 genocide—and that it continues to pose a real and significant threat to Rwandan national security.

The Rwandan Government maintain that they have consistently called on the international community to disarm and demobilise those forces, and indeed the Rwandan Government are correct in their claim: the international community has failed them. Villages on the Rwandan side of the border have been attacked, and those responsible for the 1994 genocide are intent on completing their unfinished business. If the Congolese Government cannot sort out the forces, the Rwandans feel that they will have to do it themselves. The all-party group's considered opinion was that, in 1998, the threats that the Rwandans received certainly legitimised their initial involvement in the DRC. However, we published a report showing that we felt that there had been a movement towards mineral exploitation and away from national security interests.

What plans do our Government have to try to resolve the issue of the ex-Forces Armées Rwandaises and Interahamwe rebels? Have our Government given support to the option of a neutral third force, such as the African Union, forcibly disarming the ex-FAR? When I was in the DRC, there was discussion of two integrated brigades being trained to combat the ex-FAR. What is the current position on that option?

From the Congolese perspective, it is argued that Rwanda's motives are political and economic and not security-based. From the Congo's point of view, the Interahamwe provides Rwanda with the excuse to keep the border unstable and maintain a flow of minerals and resources to buoy the Rwandan economy and pay for a large part of its army. Congo claims that Rwanda undermines the search for peace in the region because economically it is in Rwanda's interest to maintain a presence in the DRC.
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Rwanda's threats to invade Congo, although on one level understandable, are none the less extremely worrying. If realised, those threats would violate international law, breach the UK-Rwandan memorandum of understanding and threaten the stability of the whole region. Rwandan military action might also push the Congolese into an alliance with the Forces Democratique pour la Liberation du Rwanda, which would lead to an upsurge in fighting. What steps have the British Government taken to communicate their concerns to Rwanda? Will the Government ensure that the Security Council response adequately reflects the gravity and severity of the situation? Will the Minister state whether Rwanda's threat to enter the DRC breaches the memorandum of understanding between the UK and Rwanda? If it does, will that entail a review of our bilateral aid agreement, or what other consequences might there be, if any?

The deadline for elections is near. Today, we launch our new all-party group report entitled "To Elections and Beyond". I hope that the Minister will find time to read it—I have a copy right here to pass to him. In the report we set out the priorities to help hold elections on time: the demobilisation and integration of the army, the DRC to be in control of its territory, and an early decision on the electoral system.

I have four questions—[Interruption.] Come now, Minister, there are only four. First, has the $100 million promised to the Congo in the national disaster response plan trust fund been disbursed? The funds were to pay for the centres d'orientation, which are vital to the demobilisation process. I know that donors were waiting for the DRC to put certain mechanisms in place, but I understand that that has now happened. Secondly, what was the result of Vice-President Ruberwa's visit? The all-party group also met the vice-president. As a result of his visit, will the British Government provide additional support to the DRC army or police?

Thirdly, the all-party group has been in touch with the constitutional commission of the senate in the DRC, which has had the monumental task of drafting a new constitution. I have been impressed with the cross-party spirit and commitment of the commission, and I congratulate it on its work so far. Can the UK assist with the technical aspects of drafting that important document, even though it is already in its final stages?

Fourthly, I hope that the Minister saw the all-party group report on arms flows in the eastern DRC. Again, I have a copy for him—he may have trouble sleeping at night, and I am sure that he will welcome this additional material to peruse. A copy was made available to the UN expert group of the Security Council on arms in September. I am delighted that MONUC is now being trained in arms monitoring as we recommended in the report. Our research found that to make embargoes work, consistent political support is one of the most important factors. I congratulate the Government on the assistance that we have given the UN expert group so far, but I hope that it will continue. What steps are we taking to ensure that other states in the Security Council are similarly supportive?

I finish by touching on the accountability of MONUC. It is doing a fantastic job in difficult circumstances, but there have been instances of sexual abuse and exploitation, and allegations of corruption. We need to ask who guards the guardians. I raised the
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matter when I met Bill Swing last month. I know that the immunity of the UN has been a long-standing principle. I understand the legal quagmire that can arise when trying to apply a single set of legal standards to troops, but action is urgently needed. Will the Minister let me know what will be done?

I welcome the interaction between the all-party group and parliamentarians from both Rwanda and the DRC. I trust that together we will be able to ensure that the great lakes region has a more stable future.

4.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Chris Mullin) : I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) and for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) for their constructive and thoughtful contributions. I visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but I was more cosseted than they and did not get that deeply into the rain forest. It was good to hear about their experiences. In my experience, there is nothing like getting out of the central area of the capital city in order to see the stark realities of life on the ground, and I always try to do that when I travel.

The conflict in the great lakes region is often called Africa's forgotten war. I am glad that we have a chance to show that that is not the case, and I am grateful for this opportunity to highlight the work of the United Kingdom and the rest of the international community in trying to bring about lasting peace.

If my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney will forgive me, I will deal with logging later, and I will now address some of the wider issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow. The political situation in the eastern DRC and on the border with Rwanda is extremely complex. My hon. Friend set out the competing sets of arguments. If there were a simple solution, it would have been carried out some time ago. However, there is not a simple situation. We are deeply concerned about recent tension between Rwanda and the DRC. In response to recent threats of a Rwandan incursion, the international community has spoken with one voice, making it clear that any incursion by one sovereign state into another would not be tolerated.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development spoke to President Kagame and emphasised that although the UK understands Rwandan concerns over the continued presence of the ex-FAR and Interahamwe, a unilateral military solution is not the answer and would just make a bad situation worse. However, we must recognise that the Rwandans have a legitimate grievance that has to be addressed. It is intolerable that 10,000 former killers are based just across the border from Rwanda, making raids and carrying out massacres in the territories of Rwanda and Burundi. If that was happening here, we would think that we had a legitimate interest in getting it sorted out. That is also true for the Rwandans.

We are pressing the United Nations and the DRC Government, reminding them of the need to make early progress on disarming and repatriating foreign armed troops in the DRC. We have made it clear to both sides that they must desist from rhetoric that serves only to inflame what is already a very sensitive situation.
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The memorandum of understanding with Rwanda comes up for review shortly, and we will bear in mind the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow. However, I say again that the Rwandans too have a legitimate interest in resolving this problem.

We believe that the Congolese Government could do much more to resolve the issue of the ex-FAR and Interahamwe. In particular, they need to make progress on integrating their army and making it accountable, effective and professional. They will then be better placed to deal with this situation. The United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo should continue to support the Congolese in that task. At the same time, Rwanda must continue to reassure would-be returnees that the door is still open for them to come back in safety and without fear of persecution, and to be rehabilitated.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney described the situation in the interior with regard to logging. I share many of his concerns. Timber is one of the DRC's many natural resources; it is one of that country's tragedies that it is potentially one of the wealthiest countries in the world. In the visit of the all-party group it was clear that that resource must not simply be looted; it should be managed with great care to ensure that it is sustainable and that the proceeds are used for the benefit of all the Congolese people, not least those who dwell in the rain forest. My hon. Friend is right to be sceptical about the implementation of the undoubtedly good intentions of those who are seeking to regulate the forestry industry.

We have supported the World Bank's programmes to increase transparency and to curb illegal logging. We have also reminded the transitional Government of the need to meet the provisions of the World Bank's forest code by ensuring the rights of local communities and ensuring that commercial logging contributes to national development. Through the Department for International Development the UK is looking at ways in which it can best support the transitional Government to develop a well-regulated forestry sector. I shall draw my hon. Friend's speech to the attention of those in the World Bank and elsewhere who are thinking about these matters and working on them. He made some important points.

We have began to see indications that some UK businesses are interested in investing in the DRC, but despite the country's massive mineral and other wealth there are still many hurdles that need to be overcome before investment is viable for many companies; not least of those is the endemic corruption. I am sorry to say that the DRC is ranked 133rd out of 146 in
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Transparency International's recent corruption perceptions index. The UK has provided funds for the DRC's commission on ethics and anti-corruption. We welcome the recent decision of the transitional Government to suspend six Ministers and 12 Government officials for corruption. Further strong action by the Congolese authorities to tackle corruption will be necessary if this problem is to be dealt with satisfactorily.

My hon. Friend raised the question of infrastructure. He rightly said that roads of any standard outside Kinshasa are rare; that makes meaningful economic development difficult. He is right to draw attention to the great potential resource that the Congo river forms. I share his view that it could play an important part in reviving the Congolese economy, but that would require a benign and secure environment which does not yet exist. Our focus for the time being is on creating those conditions.

In the meantime the UK has committed itself to helping with some smaller projects. I am pleased to say that DFID is contributing over the next two years about £30 million to the recently developed programme for transition and recovery. It is also providing about £4 million to the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Office for Project Services to rehabilitate the road-river link between Kisangani and Ubundu in the north-east. Through Belgian technical co-operation £4 million is being provided for the rehabilitation of roads and £2 million for the rehabilitation of community infrastructure such as schools, water supplies, health centres and markets in the Kasai area.

I am conscious that I do not have time to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow about MONUC. I will write to her about that. She is right to raise the issue of sexual exploitation by soldiers and civilian personnel associated with MONUC. We are committed to helping the Congo move towards free and fair elections within the time scale laid down. We recognise that restoring peace and stability to the DRC is a precondition for restoring stability across the entire region.

The DRC is a rich country. There is no good reason why its people should live in fear and penury. The creation of a transitional Government was only the first step. The next is to achieve security and the rule of law. The third step is to organise free and fair elections with a view to providing a Government who are respected locally and internationally. Only then will it be possible to develop the huge resources of the Congo for the benefit of all its people.

Question put and agreed to.

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