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20 Jun 2006 : Column 394WH—continued

11.26 am

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) on securing the debate and the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on his telling remarks.

As many people have said, Uganda is a beautiful country; indeed, Churchill described it as the pearl of Africa. I have travelled around Uganda on many occasions, and one can do so peacefully and safely, unlike in many other African countries. There is an air of prosperity about the place, although 20 years ago, after Idi Amin and Obote, it was in a shambles. The current President has done a remarkable job of reconstructing Uganda and bringing about prosperity.

However, the same cannot be said for northern Uganda. If we go back 20 years to the origins of the conflict, we can perhaps see why northern Uganda is neglected and is in its present state. The army of Idi Amin and Milton Obote—their power base—was from northern Uganda, and it is not unsurprising that Museveni was suspicious when he took over about what would happen in the north. Indeed, at the time, the Lord’s Resistance Army, which grew from the earlier Alice Lakwena group, had much more popular support among the Acholi people than it does today.

From 1996, when the LRA was at its zenith, people, including children, were being abducted, and a solution was needed to protect the vast majority of the population, but that does not excuse the current situation. I am not old enough to have seen what happened in concentration camps during the second world war, but several of us went to Uganda in October, and the camps that we saw can be described as concentration camps. People are
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kept against their will and not allowed to travel freely around the country, and 900 of them die every week because of the conditions. That cannot be tolerated in a country that is supposed to be an example to the rest of Africa.

My colleagues and I saw the night commuters. As the hon. Member for Stroud said, it is very moving, as dusk falls, to see barefoot children on their way to sleep on a concrete floor. The shelters provided and run by many charities are not luxurious; they are there simply to provide protection. Indeed, one of the organisers we spoke to was at pains to say that the facility he was providing was not intended to keep the children there, and that they should be with their families.

When we flew to Gulu, we saw what had happened. It had been prosperous and had grown and exported its own cotton, but we saw empty silos, which were no longer used—we saw a place that was stagnating. We talked to the Churches group, led by Churches of all religions that have worked together to try to bring about peace and reconciliation. We met the Acholi chief, who described the breakdown in traditional systems of working because people had been in the camp so long that they forgot the basics about farming and what they needed to do to make their own living.

We talked to the director of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and we saw the potential shortfall in the amount of food aid that was available. The area is one in which two crops can be planted a year and food grows of its own accord. It is ridiculous that people are unable to go outside the camp for fear of being abducted.

As the hon. Member for Stroud said, while we were there the International Criminal Court issued its indictments against Kony and Otti, and the number four in the Lord’s Resistance Army was captured and killed. The Acholi people have one abiding wish, which is to be allowed to go back home and to farm their own land. If we have a responsibility to deal with anything in that conflict, we have to ensure that those people are allowed to go back home.

The hon. Member for Stroud mentioned the meeting of Otti and Kony in Juba. It is ridiculous—an insult, in my view—when an ICC indictment is out that those people can be allowed to move around, if that is true, so freely. The international community has a responsibility to deal with the conflicts. We have two UN Security Council resolutions outstanding and the Secretary-General is due to report to the Council on the way forward.

On the whole, Uganda has had peaceful elections. Yes, certain parts of the country did not vote for the President, and the leader of the opposition was arrested, but compared with what happens in most other African countries it was peaceful. There is now an all-party system in the Ugandan Parliament. Indeed, one of our meetings was with an all-party group in that Parliament that wants to bring about a resolution of the conflict.

I put it to the Minister that President Museveni has secured his place in the history of his country and brought about a peaceful transition to an all-party system, but the one part of that country that is still not at peace and is an outstanding relic of past conflict is northern Uganda. The Acholi people want peace, and
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it is incumbent on the Ugandan Government to bring it about. The UK, through the Department for International Development, has played a major role in assisting the area. Hon. Members have mentioned the fact that we have tied some of the aid that has been given to Uganda to specific outcomes. We need to do more of that. If we are giving almost half a billion pounds a year to the Ugandan Government, we need to say clearly that we wish to see plans drawn up for the peaceful resettlement of the Acholi people.

It was moving to speak to a mother whose daughter had disappeared for almost 10 years and who came out of the bush with two children. Those children did not know how to go into the house and could not sleep there for the first two weeks—they had never been in a house. If that woman can reconcile herself and her family to some of the LRA combatants, considering some of the atrocities that have been committed against them, the Ugandan Government need to find within themselves a way to bring about a settlement. The international community has a responsibility and the UK Government, as a leading aid giver, can and should play a role. President Museveni has his place in history. Now he needs to demonstrate to the world that he is not above peace, but can move forward and bring peace to the final part of his country that is still at war.

11.35 am

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) on securing this important debate and on the excellent way in which he articulated the main issues. May I clarify the exchange between my hon. Friends the Members for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and for Rochford and Southend, East? It is not the policy of this side of the House to reintroduce tied aid, but we support the enforcement of the criteria that are necessary to ensure that British taxpayers’ money is used effectively and efficiently and for the purpose for which it is intended.

I shall not repeat what others have said, but I, too, visited northern Uganda, the town of Gulu and the displaced people’s camps last October with the hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and for Rochdale (Paul Rowen). I was deeply depressed and, indeed, horrified by what I saw. In the course of my shadow international development responsibilities I travel to some appalling camps in which people attempt to live, to thrive and to survive. However, I had never in all my travels seen the sort of deprivation that exists in the displaced people’s camps in northern Uganda.

There is limited education—the school for the camp that we visited was on the edge of the camp and it was not safe for the children to be educated there—and some 250,000 children in northern Uganda receive none at all, despite the progress that President Museveni has made elsewhere in the country to ensure that education is provided, particularly for primary school girls. There was also appalling and atrocious health care provision: HIV/AIDS was prevalent, with little if any access to anti-retroviral drugs, and so was malaria. Up to 40 per cent. of the population of many of the camps have malaria, with no access even to simple things such as malaria bed nets.

In the camp that we visited, Koch Goma, there were 17,500 people. During the last full year prior to our
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visit in 2004, more than 1,000 people had been abducted and 354 had been killed. It is completely false for the Government of Uganda to claim that the conflict is nearing an end. We met the President while we were there, and he assured us that that was so, and that the Acholi people and others would be able to return to their lands. Subsequent announcements have been made, but going by my experience, that is not the case; an enormous amount still needs to be done to resolve the conflict, and I shall come to that later.

The really depressing thing about the camps, which is almost unique, is that there was no sense of any economic activity taking place. Nobody could generate a living because, as the hon. Member for Rochdale rightly said, there was limited access and ability to move. There was no way in which anybody could take products to a market, and people could not generate any money to provide for their families. When all those factors are combined, there are some terrible statistics. The infant mortality rate in the camps is the highest in the world. Each month up to 3,500 people die from preventable disease and extreme violence. The crude mortality rates are three times higher than those that were recorded in Darfur in 2005. The international community and the Government of Uganda should be ashamed of those statistics.

The hon. Member for Rochdale was right to try to provide a balance. Given Uganda’s terrible history since independence, President Museveni has made some progress in the rest of the country: inflation fell from 155 per cent. in 1985 to 5 per cent. in 2004, and the percentage of people living in poverty in the whole of Uganda declined from 56 per cent. in 1992 to 37 per cent. in 2003. Significant progress has also been made in economic growth and in education. Significant progress had been made in combating HIV/AIDS. Sadly, that is being reversed as abstinence becomes more prevalent as a method of attempting to prevent its spread. In my view, backed by some stark statistics, that is not proving to be the right approach.

It also needs to be said that it is not just the Lord’s Resistance Army that the displaced people are afraid of. We learned when visiting the camps that they are almost as afraid of the Ugandan army, which is perpetrating some appalling atrocities with impunity, whether it be beatings, rape or, as is rumoured, killings. The Government of Uganda could and should be doing much more about that.

I am deeply concerned about the attacks on non-governmental organisation workers in the region, which are one of the reasons why many food convoys are no longer protected as they try to deliver humanitarian aid to the camps. The Minister will be aware that there has been a clampdown on NGO activity since the re-election of President Museveni. Indeed, in the report by Senator Richard Lugar, the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the United States Senate, Uganda is classified as severely restricting the operations of NGOs, not just in advocacy work but in delivering much-needed humanitarian aid to parts of northern Uganda. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on that.

Like the hon. Members for Stroud and for Rochdale, I was deeply moved by the night commuters. I am the father of three young children. I set my alarm—not that
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it needed setting with the party that was going on next door to the hotel we stayed in at Gulu—and rose at 5.36 in the morning to see the children leave Gulu to return to their homes, often as far as 17 km away. It was extraordinarily emotive to see children as young as two walking barefoot in that great sea of humanity, which leaves the rural areas purely in the hope of protection overnight. As the hon. Member for Rochdale said, no food is provided, as there would then be no requirement for them to go back to their homes.

The number of children involved is significant. Again, the figure varies depending on which briefing one reads, which NGO one listens to or which Government statistics one believes, but up to 40,000 children move from the rural areas into Gulu and other urban centres for protection, again without the necessary impact of and input from the Ugandan Government. One of the questions that I asked President Museveni when we met in Kampala was whether it was the first duty of any Government to protect their citizens. Based on the time that I spent there, that clearly was not happening. Needless to say, the President did not agree with my view.

As we have seen, a danger with the conflict in northern Uganda is that it is spilling over into Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There is an explicit threat to peace and security in the region unless the international community through the United Nations gets a grip on the problem. Any regional conflict or extension of the problems will undermine peace efforts and could destabilise the whole region, particularly in the context of the resources that are available in Congo, which are of great interest to many of the armed forces from the neighbouring countries.

The international community needs to do far more. I was as pleased as everybody else that in UN Security Council resolutions 1653 and 1663 for the first time northern Uganda was discussed by the Security Council. I urge the Minister and the Government to work closely not just with the United Nations, not just bilaterally with the Ugandan Government but with local and regional organisations such as the African Union to ensure the shift of focus that is required for the provision of security for the people of northern Uganda.

I would welcome the Minister’s views on whether the UK Government support the provision of a special envoy, whether they support the provision of a resident co-ordinator and whether they support the UN’s candidate. Does the Minister agree that Betty Bigombe could play a significant role, as she has attempted to do in the past, especially in 1994, 1995 and 2005, in view of the necessity to re-engage not with those who have International Criminal Court warrants against them—if I may, I shall return to that later, Mr. Weir—but with those who were abducted and forced to perpetrate appalling atrocities? Does he agree that they must be assimilated into the communities wherever possible?

One of the most extraordinary meetings we had when we were in northern Uganda was with the mothers of boys and girls who were abducted from the camps at a very young age and who then either ran away or were successfully recaptured from the LRA. Many of the girls had been repeatedly raped or had had children by the LRA commanders, but none the less they were brought back into their communities and families—although, as Members can imagine, that was
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not an easy process, but involved an extraordinary process of forgiveness and of rebuilding of bridges despite the atrocities that had taken place.

On humanitarian aid, the Secretary of State was right to reassess and reallocate some Department for International Development aid from direct budgetary support to the Ugandan Government to humanitarian aid in northern Uganda. There was a feeling from civil society leaders on the ground in northern Uganda that, rather than direct budgetary support all going to the Ugandan Government, some of the money should go to local government in northern Uganda to enable it to control where the money is spent. They certainly had the feeling that they were not getting their fair share of resources from the Ugandan Government—whether in the form of receipts from Ugandan economic activity or from the international donor community.

The Minister may not be able to address my next point, but I should be grateful if he would arrange for one of his colleagues in the Department for International Development to consider it. Given the way in which the Ugandan Government are moving, and the crackdown, the unfair build-up to the election and the issues in northern Uganda, does the Minister feel that further conditions and criteria are required for the aid that we give to the Ugandan Government?

I am sure that the Front Benchers want to speak and I have just two other key points before I wind up, the first of which concerns the International Criminal Court. I welcomed the announcement on 2 June that Interpol had issued warrants in relation to five Ugandan war suspects. The ICC made that announcement while we were in Uganda and it caused a lot of consternation, particularly among the NGO communities, because they felt that the LRA would take things out on the community—especially in displaced people’s camps. Does the Minister believe that the ICC is an effective instrument in obtaining justice and do the UK Government support the ICC warrants? The Minister will be aware, as will all Members, that the ICC does not have the mechanisms and resources to make the arrests itself, so what support is he giving to the countries around Uganda and in Uganda itself to ensure that the indicted leaders of the LRA are arrested? It was absolutely clear from the leaders and from the normal people in the displaced people’s camps with whom we spoke that they will not return to the homelands and farms until Kony is, at the very least, behind bars and arrested. Even when we asked them whether they would return when Kony is arrested or no longer in Uganda, they said that they would do so only when the Ugandan army is not around.

The other problem in Uganda is the enormous flow of small arms and weapons around the country. There are estimates of up to 950,000 small arms, and that is a major factor in the violent insecurity, particularly in the north. The Ugandan Government have progressed in implementing both the UN programme to eradicate small arms and light weapons and the Nairobi protocol, but will the Minister comment on the support that the UK Government are giving to the international community as well as to the Ugandan Government to ensure that the minimum amount of small arms is in circulation there, especially in relation to transfer controls? If there is to be a permanent resolution to the 20-year-old conflict in northern Uganda it is essential that there be
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disarmament, demobilisation, reintegration and rehabilitation programmes to enable people who have been in conflict for so long to attempt to live in harmony.

The northern Ugandan conflict was until recently a forgotten one. There are appalling conditions in the camps there, and unimaginable atrocities have been perpetrated by the LRA. The international community needs to co-ordinate its attention in order to achieve a satisfactory solution to the terrible problems. In my view, the following must happen to ensure that that is the case. Those who have been indicted by the International Criminal Court need to be apprehended. An agreement needs to be facilitated by the international community for communal regional action plans between Congo, Sudan and Uganda. There needs to be protection for civilians and punishment for Ugandan soldiers, who do not behave in the way we expect of people in the armed forces. There needs to be a comprehensive dialogue between the United Nations, hopefully involving Betty Bigombe, who has experience in that matter.

A significant disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programme is needed, and donors should co-ordinate the development of such a major initiative. There needs to be a significant focus on delivering humanitarian aid—and I do not mean only food; we must also improve education, health and economic activity for the nearly 2 million people who live in more than 200 camps. We must also ensure that the United Nations Security Council does not take its eye off the ball and allow the Government of Uganda, if it so chose, to try to deflect the international community from focusing on the resolution of the conflict in northern Uganda.

I agree with the hon. Member for Rochdale that President Museveni has made significant progress in the southern part of Uganda, and he should be congratulated on that. If he is to leave a positive legacy for the whole of Uganda before he retires, he should focus on finding a satisfactory and permanent solution to the terrible conflict that still rages in northern Uganda.

11.51 am

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) on securing this debate. I have had the good fortune to be able to participate in a number of foreign affairs debates in the Chamber. As often happens in such debates, I am preceded by hon. Members who have a great deal of expertise and authority on the subject; that has certainly been the case today. All three of the preceding speakers, who were on the recent all-party trip to Uganda, brought back with them an informative and well-rounded set of views and opinions, and I am sure that the Minister will wish to respond to them at length.

It was good to have the opportunity to read the all-party parliamentary group paper on the great lakes region and genocide prevention, which I am sure the Minister and officials at the Foreign Office have consumed with the seriousness that it warrants. The report draws attention to the bare statistics of the situation in northern Uganda—the fact that close to 2 million people have been displaced and that several thousands have been killed—and to the sense of lawlessness and squalor about which hon. Members
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have spoken so eloquently. As a result, our debate serves an immediate purpose; it draws the attention of the House, of officials in the Foreign Office and, most important, of Ministers to that part of the world and the situation faced by the people there.

I am keen for the Minister to address a number of points. The first concerns the military dimension. I was interested to read a report by the International Crisis Group. On the effectiveness of the Ugandan army, it states:

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