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22 Mar 2007 : Column 354WH—continued

I welcome the focus that DFID has given to social exclusion in its conflict policy paper. The paper rightly states that exclusion, whether in a political or economic form, is often a source of conflict. I also welcome the emphasis that the policy paper places on making all development assistance conflict sensitive. However, I am concerned that, despite both of those being
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pervading themes in the paper, there was very little detail about how the Government plan to ensure that direct budget support does not reinforce exclusion and lead to conflict.

At the moment, direct budget support is DFID’s preferred method of providing aid, and it now represents more than 20 per cent. of DFID’s overall aid expenditure. The question is therefore of major concern. Indeed, there have been too many instances of DFID not paying sufficient attention to conflict issues. For example, in both Uganda and Ethiopia, direct budget support was given despite clear points of tension. Uganda had continuing problems in the north, and Ethiopia had unresolved issues over Eritrea. Since then, recent political developments have led the UK to withhold payments, which had a detrimental effect for the neediest people in those countries. As I have said, the problem is exacerbated by the method through which aid was channelled.

I particularly welcome the Committee’s recommendation that analysis resulting from conflict assessments should be made available to the entire Government. That would help further to develop coherence among Departments. That is particularly important, as the International Development Committee found when researching the report that one of the major flaws with the Government’s approach to tackling conflict in the developing world is the lack of departmental co-ordination.

The global and the African conflict prevention pools, which are run jointly by DFID, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence, are the most prominent examples of inter-departmental co-operation. However, although they represent an encouraging step towards a more joined-up approach, they are still fairly small. Tackling conflict is a multi-faceted issue, and it thus requires involvement from all sectors. I therefore welcome the Committee’s call for greater departmental coherence and its recommendation that the Department of Trade and Industry be included, as appropriate, in conflict prevention matters. The Committee Chairman spelled out the importance of that point, and I am pleased to hear that he expects to hold discussions with the DTI. Indeed, the subject was raised by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green in the context of the debate on BAE and Tanzania. I thought that the DTI’s response to that debate was not as sensitive as DFID’s response to us.

I turn to a point raised by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green. When, as was the case in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the extraction and selling of natural resources form an important part of the war economy, the wars often last longer and are much harder to resolve. The DFID White Paper said that the Government would

In March 2005, the Commission for Africa went further and pledged the Government to agree a common definition for “conflict resources”, for global endorsement through the United Nations. It also recommended that a permanent expert panel be created in the UN to monitor the links between natural
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resource extraction and violent conflict, and the implementation of sanctions.

DFID’s most recent paper, “Preventing Violent Conflict”, to which I referred earlier, although expressing concern over the link between trade in natural resources and conflict, fails adequately to address how it would tackle the connection. There is no mention of pressing for a common definition for “conflict resources”, and there is no mention of the extractive industries transparency initiative. I ask the Secretary of State to say what the Government are doing to apply pressure within the UN for a common definition and what progress is being made.

The process of certifying the origin of valuable natural resources liable to be looted by rebels is already in place in the form of the Kimberley process. That process, which is concerned with the trade of diamonds, has created a two-tier market of diamonds sourced both legitimately and illegitimately. The idea is to squeeze the finances of rebel movements while conflict continues by permitting trade in certified diamonds only. Britain is leading the Kimberley process, and the Government’s commitment to the issue is admirable.

Although the Kimberley process has many flaws, it has had some considerable success. Conflict diamonds now amount to only 1 per cent. of diamond revenue. Given that the diamond industry is worth around $80 billion, that 1 per cent. is significant, but it still represents an improvement. A common definition of “conflict resources” would mean that we would not need a Kimberley process for each resource. It would also mean that if there were convincing evidence that revenues gained from the extraction of a particular resource in a particular country were being diverted to finance conflict, the international community would be able to react and stop the trade in that resource much faster.

Finally, I turn to the arms trade treaty, which was referred to earlier in the debate. It clearly has an enormous effect on conflict. It is estimated that there are about 650 million small arms and light weapons in the world today, and 8 million more are produced every year. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) was absolutely right to say that Kalashnikovs and small arms are the weapons of mass destruction. Without firm and rigorous control, those weapons will continue to fuel violent conflict, domestic violence and human rights abuses.

The Opposition have always supported the principle of the proposed international arms trade treaty since the campaign began in 2003, and we were delighted when, in October last year, the UN voted in favour of a resolution to start work on an arms trade treaty. The new resolution commits the United Nations to set up a group of governmental experts to set up a comprehensive and legally binding instrument to establish

At the moment, loopholes in international law cause millions of unnecessary deaths each year, so that movement within the UN is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

So far Britain has shown strong leadership, and the British arms industry already operates to some of the
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highest standards in the world. However, work on that treaty has hardly started. We do not have the United States or China on board, which are of particular importance, nor do we have an effective text. I therefore press the Secretary of State to ensure that there is no loss of political momentum on that important issue in the UN. The Government must also ensure that the resultant treaty is effective and that there are adequate and fair mechanisms to enforce it, including provisions against the illegal transfer of arms, which contributes to the sustaining of any form of warfare.

Tackling conflict in the way set out by the Committee, which has been augmented by today’s debate, would lead to huge benefits being available to some of the poorest and most disadvantaged people in the world. The debate has helped to flag up a number of ways in which we could make further progress in the coming months and years. I look forward to hearing how the Secretary of State intends taking that agenda forward in his last few months as Secretary of State for International Development.

4.19 pm

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): I am not sure about that last point. However, I congratulate the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) and the Committee that he chairs both on securing the debate and on the quality of the report. I acknowledge the quality of the speeches given by him and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) and the hon. Members for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett), for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster), for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) and for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell). The subject matter of the debate is difficult and in many respects troublesome, but it is hugely important for the cause of international development, about which we care passionately.

As I reflect on my three and a half years in this job, and as I think about the countries on which I have spent most time, it is apparent that they are actually the same countries in which conflict has been or is endemic, or in which it is threatened. The right hon. Member for Gordon was absolutely right about the large number of people who are poor precisely because they live in such states. Unless we can do something about conflict, and its causes and consequences for poor people, we shall not make the progress that we want to make in the fight against global poverty.

In doing this job I have learned the reason why DFID has to give its attention to conflict. It is because we cannot say, “When it is quiet and peaceful, give us a call and we will come and do our development ‘thing.’” We have to get stuck in regardless of what are sometimes very difficult circumstances, and in due course I shall make some comments about the countries that have been mentioned by right hon. and hon. Members where such circumstances exist. If we do not take on that foundation work, we shall not get to the stage at which we can undertake the development that we all want.

Hon. Members have spoken not only about the current risks but about the new challenges. It is appropriate that we are having the debate on world water day, which reminds us that 1 billion of our fellow
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human beings do not have water in their communities. Half of the population of the developing world has no access to sanitation, and as the world population increases from just over 6 billion now to more than 9 billion within the next 50 years or so, water will become even more scarce. What are we going to do, as a world, when we start fighting about water, never mind the other resources that are the subject of conflict? Will water become such a conflict resource? It might well do so—the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green nods her head, and I agree. If people start to fight about it then by definition it will have become a conflict resource.

We need to increase the attention that we pay to the issue of conflict, and we need to increase the resources that we put into such countries. That is why the Government committed in the White Paper published last summer to increase our spending in fragile states from 17 per cent. of our overall bilateral spending in 2000 to 30 per cent. in 2005. That is also why we launched a new policy paper on conflict last week. The right hon. Member for Gordon has said some kind words about that paper, and I say to him and to the Select Committee that the Committee’s report influenced its content. We reflected on what we had been doing, and we listened carefully to the Committee’s views.

Hon. Members will be aware that the White Paper says that the Government are going to do three things. First, we shall invest more in preventing violent conflict. Secondly, we shall make our response to armed conflict more effective. And thirdly, we shall make our development work more sensitive to the causes of conflict.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West has said, prevention is better than cure, and research shows that £1 spent on conflict prevention generates average savings of £4 for the international community. If we want the money that we raise to have maximum impact, we should try to stop conflict before it begins, because that is the sensible course.

First, we need to understand and act upon the causes of tension—a point that was made by the right hon. Member for Gordon. Exclusion, injustice and grievances cause conflict and prevent people playing a full role in society. We also need to understand when greed is the cause, and consider how to deal with that.

The second principle is to make our response to conflict more effective. According to the report on human security, the international community is actually getting a bit better in dealing with conflict. There have been more negotiated settlements in the past 15 years than in comparable if not longer periods in the past. We should take hope from that.

Thirdly, we should make our development work more sensitive to the causes of conflict. That is why, as the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield has mentioned, we are building conflict assessments into Government evaluations. We have just completed a regional conflict assessment on the horn of Africa, because one cannot look only at individual countries—one needs to look at the relationships between them. We shall do the same for other parts of Africa as well.

A number of specific countries and subjects were mentioned, and I want to try to cover as many of them
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as possible. I start with Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army, as the right hon. Member for Gordon did. The truth is that the LRA is a pretty horrendous organisation, as we know—it kidnaps children. In my speech at the launch of the conflict paper last week, I told the story of Francis Otwot, who was forced to march for weeks in the bush and who was beaten, brainwashed and made to be a child soldier. He described his life by saying:

Francis was 10 years old.

The LRA is the type of organisation that can do that. It is an organisation that can kidnap girls and women and make them into sex slaves of the commanders and fighters—and indeed it has. It terrorised the local community in some cases by cutting off people’s lips and ears. I shall never forget as long as I live the front page of the paper in Gulu which I saw the first time I went to northern Uganda. There, on the front page, was a full colour picture of a woman who had had her lips cut off by the LRA.

I mention that not to add to the pain and suffering of the people who have experienced it. I have some sympathy with the difficulty faced by the Ugandan Government in dealing with an organisation that did not really have a political agenda and that was therefore extremely difficult to do business with. We said all along that we did not believe there to be a purely military solution, and I think that that is true, because the Acholi community feels itself to have certain grievances. However, there is no doubt that increased military pressure in recent years has pushed the LRA largely out of northern Uganda, via southern Sudan, into the Garamba national forest. Thereafter, political pressure has brought them out of that forest into the peace negotiations that have been taking place.

The talks have ebbed and flowed. In Juba, it looked at one point as though the LRA was not going to return to the negotiation table. My understanding of the latest situation is that it has agreed to return, and I pay tribute to the former President of Mozambique, ex-President Chissano, for his role. The LRA is a very difficult group of people to deal with, as the right hon. Member for Gordon is aware.

Let me say one thing on budget support. We had concerns about governance more generally in Uganda and about the level nature of the playing field in the run-up to the first multi-party elections, so I took away some direct budget support from the Ugandan Government and put it into increased humanitarian effort in the north. We did not punish the people. Similarly, as the right hon. Member for Gordon knows, we completely withdrew direct budget support in Ethiopia because of what happened after the elections there, and we found another way to give financial support to the poorest people. As the right hon. Gentleman has said, people should not be punished twice over for problems of governance in their country.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a country that has been raped, pillaged, impoverished and brutalised, first by colonial privateering, secondly by neighbouring country privateering and, thirdly, by
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Congolese privateering. That is a history of the country over the past 150 years in a nutshell, and it is why the political transition and the elections mattered so much. It is also why it is so vexing that fighting has today broken out in Kinshasa—I was briefed on that on the phone before coming into the debate, and it seems to be quite serious in the centre of Kinshasa. The people of the Congo have above all put huge effort into resolving the conflict by registering in large numbers and by voting. The international community has given a lot of support—Britain was the largest funder of the elections.

As the right hon. Member for Gordon has said, leaders have to lead. The responsibility on President Kabila, on former Vice-President Bemba, who lost the elections, on Prime Minister Gizenga and on everybody else is to use politics to resolve the problems of the Congo, because, if they return to fighting, all the gains of the past three years will disappear and the country will return to impoverishment. There will be little that we can do to help beyond continuing to provide humanitarian sticking plasters. People do not want sticking plasters any more—they have had enough and want the chance of a better life.

I assure hon. Members that we will continue to fund the Panzi hospital and the building of its new wing for treating fistula, and we will encourage others to do so.

The issue of conflict resources and UK companies in particular was raised by the hon. Members for Edinburgh, West and for Hornsey and Wood Green. Of the four British companies named by the UN panel on illegal exploitation of natural resources in 2002-03, the UK national contact point has looked into the matter and made statements in respect of De Beers, Avient and Oryx. The national contact point is continuing to review the information supplied in respect of DAS Air, which was pretty complex, and will make a statement as soon as possible. I understand that the UK contact point is one of a small number of contact points in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development system that seek to look into and investigate the information provided.

One of the things that we have done to try to strengthen the system is establish the new national contact point, which is now run jointly by the DTI, the FCO and DFID. We accept the point that bits of Government need to join up. A steering board is being established to oversee its work. That will include members who are independent of Government, which is another recommendation that has been made to us.

The truth is that we all have a sense of frustration about this issue. As I reflect on my dealings in this area, and having read the reports, I can say that the expert panel may come up with what some people say is evidence and what others say are assertions, but the fact is that to be able to take action—to prosecute—for breach of an embargo, for example, we have to have clear evidence that a company has been responsible. The Congo is a very good example of just how difficult that is. In that country, communication is hard, people can move around and it is hard to see what is going on. With the best will in the world, if the expert panel, which may be in the country looking around and seeking evidence, finds it difficult to obtain categorical evidence that people have been up to no good, it is quite difficult for national contact points in OECD
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countries, which are not in the Congo or other countries seeking to do that, to undertake the work.

On Afrimex, my understanding is that in the initial list of companies investigated by the UN—the one that produced the four UK names—it was exonerated. However, recently—some three weeks ago, I think— further evidence was lodged with regard to Afrimex, and the national contact point has written to the parties to follow that up.

On the broader question that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green raised, we are discussing how best to pursue the issue of trying to come up with a definition within the international system. Quite how long that will take, I do not know. Is the lack of a definition really the fundamental problem? The hon. Lady shakes her head. I must say that I have some sympathy with that view. It would be good to try to secure agreement, but broadly speaking we know what we are trying to deal with. That is why the extractive industries transparency initiative is all about a means of trying to shine a light on what is going on, so that people can see better. A number of right hon. and hon. Members have referred to the Kimberley process, which has worked pretty well. That shows what we can do when we put our minds to it. We also want to improve the current sanctions process and to establish an expert panel in the UN, because if there could be a permanent panel, as opposed to a series of ad hoc panels, that might build up expertise.

Malcolm Bruce: I would like to read out the record of an exchange that took place when we took evidence from Afrimex. It shows why we think that more should be done. The exchange goes:

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