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7 Mar 2007 : Column 450WH—continued

Judy Mallaber: The matter needs to be taken up, and there is also an issue about not winding MONUC down too quickly. If there were views that we should move our resources elsewhere, it would be a real tragedy if the MONUC role were diminished before stability had been brought back to the country. There have been criticisms of MONUC’s behaviour, but we saw it giving political support. Uruguayans from MONUC turned up on MONUC transport with the printers that were needed for the compilation centre in Bas-Congo. The printers had failed to turn up from
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Kinshasa, but suddenly soldiers turned up bearing two. Without them, the election could not have proceeded.

MONUC has a valuable role, but further co-ordination of security reform is required, and it is also necessary to deal with all the children who were co-opted as child soldiers. They still have not been integrated back into society.

The second issue has already been referred to by the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). Good governance is critical. Prime Minister Gizenga has made several extremely positive statements about commitments to deal with security, to tackle corruption—he said that it would be a no-go area in the future—and to develop a positive programme for the country, but that will not work unless there is good governance.

Several concerns have been highlighted by organisations and by people who have visited us from the DRC or who are part of the Congolese diaspora in this country. When someone says that the election was not fair—that it was stolen from them—I think of what I heard the Secretary of State say: we all think that when we lose elections. I believe that the national election produced a fair result, although there are some doubts about the way in which provincial governorships seem to have gone so substantially to the ruling party.

There are also issues about proper opposition, which is essential. It seems that the Opposition are being kept out of posts in Parliament that one might expect them to be able to have. The danger is that if the Opposition are not allowed a proper role, they will be tempted to say, “This does not work. We will go back to our old ways. We will go back to conflict and get out the arms and soldiers again.” That is a serious issue, and we and other countries must play a major role in keeping the pressure on.

I would also like to know more about what we are doing about governance and education. I know that education work is going on in relation to the Parliament, and there may be a role for some members of the all-party group to go out there and do some work on that.

Rwanda now has the highest proportion of women in Parliament of any country in the world. That has also happened in some other post-conflict situations, but it has not happened in the DRC. That is a great shame, because if women are engaged, they are more likely to deal with the whole range of issues that need tackling.

John Bercow: The hon. Lady has been generous in giving way. She mentioned education. There is the sensitive but challenging matter of rampant allegations of child witchcraft—an issue that other hon. Members and I encountered when we were in the DRC. Does she agree that we must keep that within our sights and do what we can to try to demythologise the subject? However sincere the believers in child witchcraft are, sometimes the effect of their belief is to trample on the human rights and stability of the children in their care.

Judy Mallaber: I agree. We heard from children and talked to pastors about tragic cases of children who had been accused of witchcraft. The subject has been dealt with by other hon. Members in the past.

I shall be brief, because I know that other people wish to speak, but I just want to make a few more
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points. Without the development of civil society organisations and their role in education, how will the people know that they have the right to call to account those whom they have elected? That is crucial, and I am concerned about any suggestion that resources to civil society might be diminished in a DFID restructuring. It is a subject of some concern, and it has been engaging some of the organisations in the DRC that have been asked to get involved. It would be a real tragedy if we were to cut back on that in any way.

Similarly—this may be a point that the Secretary of State would wish to hear—it would be a huge mistake if DFID staffing were to be cut because of financial pressures. In a fragile post-conflict situation, the best people are needed to deal with the issues, to give support, to assist in the process and to give the right advice to our Government and to other Governments.

My final question is whether we will ensure that there will be a post-CIAT mechanism for donor countries. CIAT is the committee in support of transition in the DRC. President Kabila may not like it—he would like to have the aid without the pressure—but even though we do not wish to interfere in how the country is run or carry on in an imperialist way, if we are putting in money, resources and assistance, we have a responsibility to ensure proper governance, and that requires some mechanism for donor countries to be able to work with the country, the institutions and civil society.

There are huge problems and difficulties but also huge potential. If we let this opportunity go by, the country will move back into a conflict that could engulf the whole of that part of Africa. It would not be good for our security, for Africa or for the people who we enjoyed meeting so much when we were in the DRC and who we seek to help in the future.

Mr. Martyn Jones (in the Chair): Before I call further Members, may I just say that winding-up speeches will start at 10.30? If Members could keep their contributions short, it would help greatly.

9.58 am

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Thank you for calling me, Mr. Jones. I shall ensure that I finish on time so that my colleagues may also speak.

I start by congratulating my Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) on securing the debate. I know that she has tried very hard to get it for some weeks, so well done her. This proves that persistence has its reward. I echo everything that she said about all the people who supported the delegations of monitors and observers for the presidential election in the Congo, of whom I was one. I was sponsored by Christian Aid, and I give a big thank you to that organisation and all the other non-governmental organisations for the help and support that they gave during our visit. I also thank Stephen Carter of our all-party group.

I believe that I am the only Member who will contribute today who has a substantial Congolese community in his constituency. This is a long-standing community that goes back to the 1960s, following the death of Patrice Lumumba—some of his family came to live in the area. A great deal of support is given to the community on asylum and immigration matters, and social and pastoral support is provided by the local Catholic church, St. Mellitus. I pay tribute to those
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who are involved, and to Father David Ardagh-Walter for the support that he gives to the community.

I could say a great deal, but I want to be brief and ensure that we get points across for the Secretary of State to respond to. One needs to understand the sense of tragedy in the history of the Congo, going back to the times of colonial intervention, slave traders, Belgian rule under King Leopold and then under the Belgian Administration themselves, and finally the process of independence in 1960. It is salutary to recall that this week we celebrate 50 years of Ghana’s independence. Congo became independent slightly later, and although no African country has had an easy ride since gaining independence, the tragedy of the people of the Congo must stand in a league of its own. The number of deaths caused by civil conflict in the Congo has been astronomical, even by the standards of African wars of the last few years, during which several million people have died.

We should also recognise that during that period a great deal of mineral wealth was extracted from the Congo, from which a great deal of money was made by people all around the world. There is something deeply sad about the appalling lack of facilities for the people of the Congo, and enormous challenges lie ahead for the new Government. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State and the Government for the support that they have given the Congo, particularly with the electoral process and the building of institutions.

I shall concentrate first on the importance of supporting a democratic process and an accountable form of government in the Congo. The last genuine election was probably that of 1960. Since then, during the period of dictatorship, a series of rather strange referendums and other such things were held, followed by last year’s elections. However, an election results only in the election of individuals—either to state governorships, Parliament or the presidency. It is not the beginning and end of the political process. That process must be ongoing. That is why any support that can be given to civic education and civic rights for the entire population and to the development of the education system as a whole is so important.

I hope that the Secretary of State can help us in that respect by indicating the priority that the Government give to education as a whole, but particularly to the development of civic institutions and accountable forms of government. That, it seems to me, is the key to the future.

Enormous pressure must be applied to ensure total transparency in mineral dealings. Localised civil wars have been going on in the east of the Congo, which the trite reporting of some of the western media puts down as merely “tribal” conflict. In reality, they are wars by proxy, funded by mineral interests that make a great deal of money out of them. The tragedy that that has caused is simply appalling.

My second point has to be the development of education and public services. We have rightly signed up to the development goals, which we all support. We want all children to receive primary school education and a reduction in illiteracy in Africa as a whole, but particularly in the Congo.

Any dispassionate observer of the situation in the Congo would conclude that the rate of illiteracy is probably rising, not falling. The population is increasing
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fast and public education barely exists in most parts of the country. Teachers are not paid, so they have to charge their pupils or the families—if they can afford to pay. Church schools, insofar as they operate, do their best, but there are not many of them.

There is a large number of private schools, and parents spend as much as they can on securing an education for their children, but the quality of those schools varies enormously and what education those children receive is often limited. The priority must be the development of free primary education for all children in the Congo. That has to be the start. Otherwise, the waste of natural and human resources will remain massive.

Thirdly, the health care situation in the Congo is unquestionably bad. My Friend the Member for Amber Valley mentioned her visit to a hospital, but it is unusual for anyone in the Congo to get anywhere near a hospital. The death rate from wholly preventable conditions, such as malaria, and occasionally from cholera and other water-borne diseases is basically a product of poor standards of public health and poor sanitation. Clearing out the ditches around Kinshasa would save an awful lot of lives. It would be of enormous benefit and not be particularly costly. Such small-scale things are often very important.

Fourthly, I have tabled an early-day motion concerning the post-election situation of Marie-Thérèse Nlandu. It is important that the House recognise the importance of supporting an open, legal and democratic structure in the Congo. By any stretch of the imagination, her arrest and detention are extremely unfortunate. We should be supportive of her right to her day in court if charges are to be laid against her, but no one should condone arbitrary arrest and detention, which is effectively what has happened in her case. I hope that the Government feel able to support the points that my colleagues and I make in that motion.

My last point concerns the role of women in society in the Congo and the crucial part that they play in the development process. Last week, I had an interesting meeting with a delegation of Congolese women who came to the House of Commons. We spent an hour and a half discussing the situation in the Congo and they gave me a substantial memorandum. The advice and support that they gave were first rate and the memorandum is excellent; I shall pass a copy to the Secretary of State.

I know that the Secretary of State is very busy and under a lot of pressure, but I would be grateful if he was prepared to meet a delegation from that broad-based women’s coalition in the United Kingdom, many of whom have recently come from the Congo or have travelled there recently. They give enormous support to women’s organisations in the Congo. It would be extremely helpful if he met them, and he would probably benefit a great deal from such a meeting.

I shall refer briefly to a number of points included in the memorandum. First, it states:

The situation facing many women in the Congo is extremely serious. Rates of illiteracy are even higher
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among girls than among boys, and the physical abuse, domestic violence, sexual attacks and general discrimination against women in the Congo are also very serious.

I hope that the Government are prepared to do a number of things. First, I ask that they support the creation of a women’s commission office based in Kinshasa, which could give some focus to women’s rights and activities, as well as their role in civil society. Secondly, we need to work for the collection of accurate statistics on how women are denied, in many ways, participation in economic activity. I also ask the Government to support that monitoring work and, when possible, to support projects that will help with women’s education.

I support the point made by my Friend the Member for Amber Valley that we need to encourage the Government of the DRC to do far more to recognise women’s role and rights in society. For instance, there were many women candidates in the elections for the National Assembly and for other posts in the Congo, but only a small number were elected. Far more women are involved in Parliaments in Europe and in most other African countries than in the Parliament in the Congo. A great deal more needs to be achieved.

The Congo represents all the horrors of European colonialism that we meted out on Africa. The death rates, the poverty and the misery are ever present. The election has provided a watershed and an opportunity, but it is not the end of the story. Those wonderful natural resources need to be harnessed for the benefit of the people of the Congo, and the human resources of the Congo need to be liberated so that the development of the country and a high standard of living, which are eminently possible, can be achieved.

It has been enormously interesting and a pleasure to be a member of the all-party great lakes group and to have visited the Congo to observe the elections. It is up to us to do all that we can to support what ought to be a simple act of human solidarity with people who are up against it.

10.9 am

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) for securing the debate. I am co-chair of the all-party group on street children and managed to secure a debate soon after applying for it, so I congratulate her on her magnificent effort in securing this one. I want to put on the record my thanks to War Child, which enabled myself and the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) to visit the Democratic Republic of the Congo towards the end of last year.

I will concentrate on a couple of issues and pick up on what my hon. Friend said about security problems. An issue closely linked to security problems is the lacklustre disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration process. The programme appears to be winding down and so far it has had mixed results. CONADER—the Congolese body for the DDR—is renowned for widespread corruption. Its director of information says:

There is some dispute about whether that figure is in fact 30,000, but whatever it is, a significant number of people are still awaiting demobilisation.

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There are concerns about the verification of disarmament and the quality of weapons that have been surrendered. There is an urgent need for improved vetting to prevent those guilty of serious abuses from joining the new army. Former fighters who opt for demobilisation often have difficulty supporting themselves even after reintegration programmes. One former fighter, Peter Ucan, told Amnesty:

Frankly, frustrated as those people may be, the solution is not to give them their weapons back.

The programme has failed to deal adequately with the thousands of children in the armed forces. An estimated 11,000 are still to be demobilised, including thousands of under-age girls who are used as camp wives, servants and kept as virtual slaves. Little follow-up support has been given to those who have been demobilised into communities, which often reject them, and more funding is needed to ensure durable integration. Without a long-term commitment, the most vulnerable children can easily gravitate back to armed groups or crime. Will the Secretary of State for International Development say what plans our Government have to support the continuation of the DDR programme and the reform of CONADER? In addition, what plans are there to improve the reintegration of children and girls back into society?

The report of the all-party parliamentary group on street children said:

That is vital, particularly for children. The report goes on to state:

Anti-corruption and impunity must be matters of concern for all of us. The DRC urgently needs a specific, visible and proactive agency involving Government, the judiciary, civil society, the international community and, particularly, the media. Above all, such an agency should involve and be led by the community and the public, as the all-party group on street children recognised.

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