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7 May 2008 : Column 274WH—continued

As soon as we arrived, my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk and myself went to a women’s centre, where we spent some time talking to women who were victims of violence in the war. Rape is a weapon of war in the Congo and those women had been brutally treated.
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They had been raped and injured severely, and many were disabled as a result. They were frightened to go out of the centre and were in a parlous and desperate situation. They treated us extremely well, but unless there is a legal process whereby legal judgment will take place against people who have committed rape and sexual violence, it will continue and probably get worse. Although I pay the greatest tribute to ActionAid and the other groups that are doing a great deal to support such women’s organisations and centres, a great deal more needs to be done. We raised the matter with representatives of the armed groups when we met them.

We also went to Mugunga II, a very large refugee camp which mainly contained women and children while we were there. There were large numbers of people living in tiny bender tents with a UN tarpaulin covering a few sticks, and food was brought in by the UN every day. They were doing their best to provide some degree of education for the children there. Within the camp, there was also some degree of medical support and some degree of activities to encourage people to keep their lives and families together.

There is a difficult decision that must be made by anybody who is operating refugee camps. Goma is probably one of the most fertile places in the world: it has very high rainfall, a very warm climate and fantastically fertile volcanic soil. It is possible to grow anything there very quickly. I am told that tomatoes come up in six weeks and any of us who have tried gardening in Britain will find that amazing. However, none of the people in the refugee camp are allowed to grow any food there, because those running the camp do not want to encourage people to stay in the camp for ever more. So there seemed to be something slightly bizarre and absurd about a UN truck arriving with rice and maize from the United States to feed people in the most fertile place in the world. The lack of security, the instability and the fear of returning to the villages are the factors that have led us to this crazy and completely illogical situation. So we must look seriously at the whole peace process and what is happening in the east of the country.

While we were there in the east, we met all the non-governmental organisations, and representatives of the European Union, United States Agency for International Development, the United Nations and, of course, DFID and the Foreign Office. We also met representatives of a lot of Congolese NGOs and they were very impressive people.

We also had a very long meeting with two of the armed groups that are currently on ceasefire following the Nairobi and Goma accords: the Mai Mai group, who are dealing with north and south Kivu, and the Congress for the Defence of the People, or CNDP. We had a meeting with both the groups, then they divided and we spent some hours talking to them separately.

At one level, everything that they were saying was logical, political and well-put, demands were made and so on. We then raised various questions with the armed groups: their use of violence; their treatment of women; their use of child soldiers; their arms; their equipment; their money and where it comes from; and how serious they were about a long-term peace process.

We are not the interlocutors who will bring about peace; we were there as a visiting parliamentary delegation. However, we obviously did our best to urge that a peace process should go forward. Having said that, if we do
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not seize this opportunity that is there now, following Nairobi and Goma and the ceasefire that is more or less holding at the present time, goodness knows what will happen in a year or two, further down the road.

In the east of the Congo, there are riches, potentially a lot of money and also an awful lot of weaponry, including guns. At the same time, only half the children—maybe even less—manage to go to school and the health service really does not exist for most people there. The prize for the people in the east of the Congo of a lasting ceasefire and a meaningful peace process is a very great one indeed, but it requires the co-operation of all the neighbouring countries, disarmament and, I believe, a continuation of an arms embargo on the country.

As I have said, the issues of justice, recognition and treatment of women are very important. As this is a debate about development, it is also important to recognise what help, support and assistance we can give.

I pay tribute to the DFID aid package—we spent a long time talking to DFID representatives in the country—and to the other support that has been given by Britain. I am also looking forward to reading Lord Mance’s report. Lord Mance has been to the Congo on an extended mission to look particularly at the treatment of women and the justice process that is going on there. Apparently, he is due to produce a report in July and that is very welcome; all the people that we met in the Congo were certainly very welcoming of his visit.

We then went to Kinshasa and had meetings with representatives of the National Assembly, the Senate and various Government Departments, as well as with representatives of many NGOs. All of us in our group had been to the Congo previously as election observers and we had watched the election process. Personally, I have no great criticisms of the voting process itself that I observed during the election, but I have concerns that an election campaign that was dominated by the very great wealth of two of the candidates and a lack of any kind of robust political debate will not necessarily bring about a very strong democratic result.

The reality is that the Congo is potentially a very rich place indeed, but it lacks the necessary political infrastructures to control the mining companies, the logging companies or anyone else. It is a question of building the capacity for the democratic involvement of the people; that process was a very important part of what we were looking at in the Congo and hopefully we will be looking at it in the future. However, unless we move some way down the road of the peace process, we will not get very far in building up that democratic involvement.

Before I conclude, I will look at some of the issues that are facing the country as a whole. First, although I have already said quite a lot about the peace process, it is essential that everyone recognises that, if they want to see the wealth of the Congo being used for the benefit of the people of the Congo, alongside peace and development in the entire region, supporting the ceasefire is important but so is supporting the development of democratic institutions.

Therefore, where people have been demobilised from any particular armed group, the provision of some degree of financial support for demobilised fighters to return to their village and have something to do there is
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very important, as has been done in Burundi and Rwanda. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk will talk to some extent about security sector reform. Clearly, however, a very large Congolese army that is mainly unpaid but universally equipped with some type of gun should not be disbanded willy-nilly; instead, the members of that army should be given some incentive to resume normal civilian life. The experience of Iraq, where the whole army was disbanded without much thought for the future, has been pretty disastrous and I would not want to see the same thing repeated in the Congo. However, it is important to look at this issue of security sector reform.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): Let me try, if I may, to give some reassurance to my hon. Friend by posing some questions to him. On his visit, did he and the other members of the delegation have the opportunity to discuss the £50 million that we have put into a multi-donor fund that is assisting with demobilisation and, crucially, reintegration of troops into society? Indeed, was he also aware that we have recently committed a further £1 million to assist in the demobilisation of the remaining 30,000 troops? In particular, was he aware that we hope that that £1 million will be specifically used to tackle the problem of the numbers of child soldiers who still remain in the Congo?

Jeremy Corbyn: Yes, we were aware of that aid and we had that discussion about its use; I thank the Minister for that intervention. That support is very welcome indeed and obviously I hope that it is successful in its aims.

The peace process is central to everything in the Congo, but what is also central is to look to the future. As I have said, more than 5 million people have died in the recent past in this conflict and huge numbers of internally displaced people are either living in refugee camps around Goma or they have made their way to Kinshasa. Kinshasa is a difficult city, to put it at its very mildest. It is a very difficult place to administer: it has very large numbers of people who are homeless, including large numbers of young children; there are many children who are victims of war; and there are a lot of children, particularly boys, roaming around the city without very much to do and without any real means of support.

It is very hard to determine exactly the number of children in school, but it is probably rather less than half of the total child population. The schools themselves vary greatly between quite well run private schools, some quite well run church schools and some private schools that are not particularly well run—one wonders what standard of education those schools are providing for the children in them. There are also a large number of children who do not go to school at all.

There is no way that the millennium goal of conquering illiteracy by 2015 will be met in the Congo; with a growing population, the rate of illiteracy is probably rising rather than falling at the present time. So, a great deal must be done in that sector. To quote from a Save the Children document that the charity sent me, almost half of the internally displaced people are children and Save the Children believes that

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Therefore, we are talking about more or less 12 million young people who are not receiving any education at all in the country. Save the Children urges us to do all that we can to ensure that there is support for education in the Congo.

That leads to the question of what demands we make for the Congo’s future. I spoke about the peace process and education. Unless there is some stability in the Congo, education is unlikely to develop.

The health service is rudimentary. Those who happen to be near a town that has a large hospital and who are able to get to it get a degree of service, but many others get no health care or health services whatsoever.

What can we do from the outside? It is not a question of our telling the Congo how to run its affairs but of our recognising that there are humanitarian questions and that there is a humanitarian disaster. However, there is also enormous wealth in the country, which—should be harnessed for the good of all its people.

I spoke about the abuses of women, but there are many other human rights abuses, and the legal justice system is inadequate. We would like the UN Human Rights Council to have a new mandate for a permanent mission and observer in the DRC. The UN should have a presence in the country to recommend, assist and improve its human rights record.

The mineral wealth of the Congo has always been its bedevilment. In many ways, the country has been damaged by its riches. The Government of the Congo signed the extractive industries transparency initiative, which is an extremely important document. We had long meetings about it. Unless that agreement is carried out to the fullest extent, the corruption that goes with the mining industry and extractive industries will continue. DFID and other agencies have given a great deal of support to that agreement.

We raised several questions about the forest reserves and natural resources. The forests are massive. Congo has the biggest rain forest in the world, and there are huge implications for the whole planet if it is felled willy-nilly or if there is destruction of the forest ecosystem. The forest is also the livelihood of some 40 million people who survive in an entirely sustainable way within it.

A debate is taking place on the resumption or otherwise of industrial logging in the Congo. I have a copy of a letter sent to the Minister of Environment, Nature Conservation, Water and Forests. It was signed by a large number of people and calls for a continued moratorium on industrial-style logging, sustainable use of the forests and protection of the lives of the people who live in them.

The British Government have contributed a considerable sum of money through the Congo basin forest partnership to assist in tackling deforestation and promoting the sustainable use of the forests. I am sure that when the Minister replies he will say something about it. What has been done in that respect was wholly welcome.

We were confronted many times about the amount of money that western countries contribute. We spoke to people in the Assembly and so on about money given
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through DFID and other European sources. They said, “Hang on. The Chinese are here, and they are offering us billions.”

While it is understandable in an economic sense why the Chinese Government should want to make large loans that are to be repaid through mineral extraction in the future, there is a question about the kind of pressure or otherwise that the Chinese will put on administration, human rights and so on. Clearly, the infrastructure will improve. Major roads are being built, railways are being planned and so on. The Minister may want to say something about the relationship with the Chinese, which needs to be positive and constructive. In that way, things could get better, but the question is whether the country’s natural resources will be protected during a period in which mining and forestry activity will probably increase.

The UN’s programme in the Congo is the largest of any in the world. The UN was there before the election; it helped to bring about the ceasefire and the election; and it clearly is a major force in the country. Allegations have been made at various times about the behaviour of UN forces. I do not propose to go into them at present, but it is essential, for the good of the UN and the principle of having an international force to assist with peacekeeping, that if allegations are made, they are not covered up but vigorously investigated, examined and dealt with as appropriate. If there is no trust in UN forces, there will be no trust in anybody else either. I hope that the mandate of the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—MONUC—continues, but I also hope that there will be some transparency.

The UK has provided $60 million for the humanitarian pooled fund. It was presented while we were there. That is very welcome indeed, but we need to ensure, first, that our programme of support for the Congo continues; secondly, that the UN continues its work and that there are human rights monitors; and, thirdly, that we support capacity building and development of infrastructure in the country. That is crucial.

The DRC is one of the richest countries in the world, yet it has some of the poorest people in the world. They are victims of the most violent wars imaginable to anyone. It is up to us to do our best to support a peace and development process so that people can live decent, reasonable lives rather than live through the hell of one of the worst wars the world has seen since the end of the second world war.

2.57 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I had no intention of speaking when I entered the Chamber, although I thought that I might make a couple of helpful interventions. It is important to put on the record, first, my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and my other hon. Friends who went to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Also, I wish to thank Stephen Carter, who is brilliant at organising trips to that part of the world.

It is so important that we, as British parliamentarians, keep in contact with that desperately difficult part of the world. We owe its wonderful people an interest and a commitment to try to do what we can to bring peace and stability to that bedevilled area. I do not intend to
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say much, and I apologise that I have to leave shortly after 3.30 pm, but it is important to put a few things on the record about the DRC and to highlight some of the issues raised by my hon. Friend’s brilliant speech.

I went to the DRC nearly five years ago and was shocked by the conflict and its aftermath. As someone who spends a lot of time trying to deal with the problems of Darfur, I think that it is difficult for us in the west to comprehend the scale and complexity of what has been happening in the DRC.

I begin, understandably, with the conflict. Although this is not directly part of his responsibilities, it would be good to hear an update from the Minister on what is happening in the eastern part of the country. How are the various peace talks—the Nairobi and Goma accords—working in practice? Are the National Congress for People’s Defence—CNDP—rebels associated with General Nkunda beginning to lay down their arms and find alternative occupations, rather than fighting?

On the role of the Interahamwe, I know that President Kagami of Rwanda is in this country at present. Clearly, the Rwandan genocide is also very much on our minds. When I went to Rwanda last year, the party expressed the clear view that we need to ensure that all is being done to deal with the Interahamwe and any overreaction from the Rwandan army, which has always been alleged and needs to be understood. One understands the reaction of trying to stop the Interahamwe coming back, but if that involves invading another sovereign nation, there will clearly be repercussions.

Another issue is the DRC army’s role and the degree to which it can cause problems. We understand the difficulty in trying to pacify areas, but the issue is how they do it and how they perform. Human rights are always uppermost in our minds.

Last but not least, allegations have again arisen recently about UN peacekeepers—Pakistani and Indian troops—involving themselves in trading and worse. That is unacceptable, but understandable inasmuch as if per diem troops are not paid or properly supported, they tend to take the law into their own hands. I was shocked when we went to Rwanda last year to find that Rwandan troops in Darfur had not been paid for a year. I hope that the Minister can give us good news about the basic responsibility of all those who are affiliated to the UN to ensure that MONUC is properly supported and the troops are paid.

I want to re-emphasise the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North that the losers are inevitably the poor and the vulnerable, particularly children and women. It would be good to hear what the Department for International Development is doing in the east of the country to provide greater protection for women and children, and what impact we are beginning to have in moving from a purely conflict situation to a development situation. What programmes are there to reduce infant mortality and to reintegrate child soldiers? I saw something of that when I went to Kinshasa, but given the huge distances involved, running programmes in Kinshasa will not make much difference to those who live in the east, so it would be good to have an overview of what types of activity DFID is responsible for, either alone or with the wider international community.

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