Previous Section Index Home Page

7 May 2008 : Column 280WH—continued

Mr. Thomas: Is my hon. Friend aware that perhaps one of the most ambitious aims in the DRC is to begin to introduce free health care. Hon. Members will be
7 May 2008 : Column 281WH
aware of how difficult that ambition is, so I do not want to suggest that it will be an easy challenge, but we have begun to put in place the programmes to build the capacity for such support. Is my hon. Friend aware of that, and does he support it as part of the right approach to begin to end some of the terrible experiences that the DRC’s people have suffered?

Mr. Drew: I thank the Minister for that. I was aware of that aspiration, but it would be good to hear from him how it is beginning to pan out on the ground. Oak trees start from small acorns, and the reality is that when there is no health service, one must start by providing something in the way of a health service. It would be good if the Minister, not necessarily in formal debate but perhaps in writing to hon. Members who are interested or the all-party group, would indicate how the programme will open out, so that we can advertise it. It is good that the British Government are taking a lead.

An issue that always exercises me is violence against women. The DRC is not unique, but it is at the end of the spectrum whereby women have been deliberately targeted for all sorts of reasons, which has resulted in horrible consequences that one need not look far to see. Again, it would be interesting to know to what degree we would highlight that with an incipient health service. There are, understandably, always cultural and sometimes religious reasons for it being difficult to become involved with that, and particularly—I have tried to push for the joint African Union-UN force to go into Darfur—the degree to which we ensure that peacekeepers reflect the gender balance of an area and the way in which troops are at least trained to deal with violence against women. When I was in Congo, the force seemed to be very male-orientated, and we must ensure that there are sufficient women not only to talk to women who have been violated and worse, but, more particularly, to police such situations and to follow up inquiries.

As an officer of the all-party group on women, peace and security, which is known as the all-party group on UN resolution 1325, one of the proud things that this country has done—the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) knows about this—is to try to ensure that we provide some element of education for all our troops on gender issues, so that we do not stumble into that and think it terrible, but go in with our eyes open and recognise that one outcome of any conflict, sadly, is that women will have been used as part of the conflict, which has never been more clearly demonstrated than in the Congo.

Mr. Thomas: My hon. Friend is making a number of good points. I will take away his point about gender balance when monitoring missions, and I am sure that others will reflect on it, too. Is he aware that dedicated conduct and discipline teams are embedded in the UN mission in the DRC and, more generally, in other UN missions to help to ensure that the type of misconduct and human rights abuse that both he and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) have described do not happen again? Is he also aware that all peacekeeping personnel must undergo training on UN standards of conduct relating to sexual exploitation and abuse? I am not downplaying past allegations, but I
7 May 2008 : Column 282WH
hope that my hon. Friend will take some reassurance from the UN’s upgrade in procedures on its peacekeeping standards.

Mr. Drew: I thank my hon. Friend for that. One comes to such debates to be educated, as well as to speak and, hopefully, to make sense. That is important, because it shows that the rhetoric of resolution 1325 is beginning to make a difference in organisations including the UN. It is good to hear, and I hope that because of the quality of our armed forces we play a key part in ensuring that we are available to do that training. That is something, if nothing else, that I can take away from the debate with pride.

My hon. Friend has more or less answered the points that I was going to raise. Nevertheless, it is worth while looking at some of the things that are beginning to be got right, and I hope that some of the bad news stories from the DRC can be balanced by things that are beginning to go right. We cannot fool ourselves: this is part of a long process, and many of the parties to it do not always have peace at the back of their mind. Conflict has always paid some people well, which, sadly, is why it continues to exist. Nevertheless, the UK, Europe and the wider world have an obligation and a duty to remain involved in the DRC. That is why the all-party group on the great lakes region and genocide prevention is so fascinating and important. Its work has allowed us to have such debates, and it can find ways of getting parliamentarians to that part of the world.

As I have said, I have learned from the debate. I hope that the Government will take the issues on board and that we will be able to do even more in the future.

3.10 pm

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): When we in Europe look back at the atrocities of world war one and world war two and at the scale of death and destruction in places not so far from here, we often console ourselves by saying that such things could never happen again so close to home. In too many parts of Africa, however, the slaughter of the innocents still takes place on such a scale. Death and extreme suffering—whether caused by the gun or by easily preventable disease—are part of everyday life for far too many people in a part of the world that is more easily reached by plane than eastern Europe was 50 years ago. That is why it is good that we are having a debate about that part of the world that is not often in the news or on the television. I therefore congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing time to explore the issue further.

I want to pick up a couple of the points made by the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that the Minister will deal with them in his response. First, the hon. Gentleman mentioned that the Chinese are providing £8 billion of support to the DRC Government to build a railway, clinics and universities, and that the money will be repaid over 30 years in the form of minerals. How will that pouring in of untied aid or support for the country affect our approach to what should be happening in the DRC? Clearly, such straightforward commercial deals to improve the infrastructure will result in aid being more effectively delivered where it is needed; on the
7 May 2008 : Column 283WH
other hand, such money cannot be introduced without distorting what happens there, including aid-driven involvement.

Secondly, although I appreciate that the Government have announced that they will donate £50 million of British money to help to conserve the forest in the Congo, there have been reports—most recently in The Guardianon 23 May last year—of a group of rogues and vagabonds who may benefit from that funding. A range of corrupt individuals who have been involved in forestry in the Congo and elsewhere own sections of the forest. I give the Government credit for having ensured that DFID money has been effectively spent and has not worked its way into the wrong pockets and the wrong bank accounts, but The Guardian article about the individuals who may be involved in the forestry business in the Congo sent a shiver down my spine.

Mr. Thomas: Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman—again through an intervention. I, too, saw that article, and I felt the same shiver go down my spine. Corruption is a serious problem in a number of sectors in the DRC, including forestry. We will put in £50 million down the line, and we are looking to spend £8 million on these issues. As part of that, we are looking at ways of making the spending of money generated by forestry more transparent and at ways of building up the effective governance of the forest sector. I hope that that is some reassurance to the hon. Gentleman.

John Barrett: It certainly is, and it is good to know that the Minister and I have the same concerns about such articles. However, action must be taken to ensure that the money of taxpayers in my constituency and other constituencies is being spent effectively. The Minister’s comments are certainly reassuring.

We have heard that the DRC has been brought to its knees by a civil war that has cost the lives of literally millions of people. Ceasefires have been signed, and false dawns have come and gone, but the country remains in the grip of a humanitarian crisis more than five years after the signing of the formal peace agreement to end the war. As a result, the DRC is now one of the poorest countries in the world and looks likely to miss many of the millennium development goals.

We cannot, however, simply talk about the need to increase aid in the DRC. As the United Nations millennium development goals monitor recently noted, the principal obstacle to the achievement of the MDGs in the Congo remains the continued instability in that land. Information collected by the International Rescue Committee shows that a staggering 5.4 million people have died as a result of the conflict between 1998 and 2007, and 1 million people have died since the signing of the peace agreement. It is not for nothing that the DRC has been called Africa’s first world war.

The DRC differs from many other places in that relatively few of these deaths are directly due to armed violence. The vast majority of people die from easily preventable and treatable conditions such as malaria, diarrhoea, pneumonia and malnutrition. Children make up less than 20 per cent. of the population but account for almost half—47 per cent.—of the deaths. It is one of the tragedies of the DRC that so many people have died quietly and unnecessarily, almost unnoticed by the international community. It is estimated that 1,000 people
7 May 2008 : Column 284WH
continue to die every day as a result of conflict and conflict-related issues. Many of those who survive are left with physical and psychological scars as a result of a brutal campaign of rape and sexual abuse. As in other conflict zones, the displacement of civilians has been a major problem, with 400,000 people displaced in the recent escalation of violence in north Kivu. The insecurity in the region makes it difficult for aid agencies to help displaced populations.

Modest progress was made last year on the political, security and humanitarian fronts, which has given some people in the DRC hope that the country will be able to break free from the circle of conflict and crisis. The elections in 2007 resulted in a relatively peaceful transfer of power, while an extended peacekeeping presence was able to prevent a number of major clashes among the disparate militia groups and armed forces. Significant increases in humanitarian funding have given relief agencies the muscle to make progress. In that respect, DFID deserves praise for its announcement in March that it was increasing funding for the DRC over the next three years. Despite that, conflict has again flared up in north Kivu in recent months, and lasting peace looks as distant as ever.

The Minister will be aware of the call by 63 non-governmental organisations last month for the full implementation of the Goma peace agreement, and I would welcome his views on their call for a high-level independent special adviser on human rights for eastern Congo to focus attention on protecting civilians at risk. I would also appreciate an update on what role we are playing, along with international actors, to help ensure that the agreement that has been reached does not unravel. Getting the parties to sign the agreement was an important first step, but there must now be political follow-through on the ground.

As other hon. Members have said, the war in the DRC contains a more sinister war against women. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) mentioned the problem of rape being used as a weapon of war, and there are tens of thousands of victims every year. Some victims are as old as 80, while others are as young as three. Women are raped in front of their villages and families by militia fighters who spill across the border from Rwanda and Burundi. Some women are killed outright by their attackers, while others are taken into the bush for service as sexual slaves. The atrocities are beyond imagination, and I will not go into great detail today, suffice it to say that rape with broken bottles, bayonets and lengths of wood is commonplace.

Hon. Members may have read an interview in The Economist with Denis Mukwege, a doctor treating women in the DRC. He reported that 90 per cent. of the women in some villages have been raped. He said:

These are not random acts by misguided or crazed individuals, but a deliberate attempt to dehumanise and destroy entire communities. What is the Department doing to improve security for women and girls? Mass rape thrives in the current climate of impunity, so ending conflict and instability, strengthening accountable state institutions and securing long-lasting peace deals that involve all militant groups must be a top priority.

There is also a grave need to ensure that the crisis does not spill over the border. So far, a degree of
7 May 2008 : Column 285WH
restraint has been shown in Kinshasa and Kigali, even if it is not always possible to control the more radical factions on the ground. However, the Congo’s natural wealth has in the past fuelled corruption—it will continue to do so, if that is not checked—as well as state collapse and conflict. Better regulation of the sector is not only a development issue, but a strategic one. Hon. Members will know that although the DRC has signed the extractive industries transparency initiative, it has yet to implement it fully. What is the UK doing to ensure full implementation of the EITI? I am thinking in particular of the inclusion of figures disaggregated by mine or project, rather than just by company or sector.

The persisting humanitarian crisis has been called

In such a complex political environment, recovering from years of conflict will take many years, but a political solution, involving all parties, remains the only credible solution. I am sure that all hon. Members want to commend the Congolese and international aid workers on the ground across the DRC for their work in one of the most volatile political environments on the planet. In particular, I commend the International Rescue Committee for its extraordinary research work on mortality rates, and the International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch for their efforts to keep the DRC on the political radar.

It is right that we should have this debate today. The continued fighting in the DRC and the resulting humanitarian disaster have not received the international attention that they warrant in this place or the media. Perhaps that is because the conflict has outlasted presidents and UN Secretaries-General; perhaps it is because it does not seem to threaten the world balance of power; or perhaps it is because it is not as easy to distinguish between the criminals and some victims as it is in some comparable conflicts. However, none of those is a good enough excuse for indifference or inaction by the international community. We have probably devoted more parliamentary time to the appalling situation in Darfur, and it is right to debate what is happening there. It is difficult to argue that the situation in the Congo is any less serious, or the outlook any less bleak. It would have been a fine thing to come here today and discuss logistical difficulties in aid delivery and how to increase the effectiveness of our aid. However, finding a political solution to the recurring conflicts is a precondition for development and must continue to be the top priority for all involved.

3.22 pm

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett), and to speak under your chairmanship, Mr. Bayley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this timely debate. He gave an excellent opening speech, providing a broad perspective on the current situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That highlights the importance of first-hand experience; he gave a very clear view.

I was intrigued by the hon. Gentleman’s opening comment about whether the debate he applied for would
7 May 2008 : Column 286WH
be replied to by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or the Department for International Development, because it was a coterminous responsibility. I might go even further, and argue that, although the Ministry of Defence has no direct responsibility, if we were to consider what, for example, the British Government are doing in Afghanistan, we should take a more comprehensive approach; the third string to our bow would be the role of the United Nations in the Congo, which the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members touched on. I intend to explore that issue.

I was very encouraged to discover that Nick Kay is our ambassador in the DRC. He was the chap who was responsible in Helmand, for the last two years before going there. He will have first-hand experience of how that comprehensive approach can come together to maximum effect. The hon. Member for Islington, North also gave an excellent summary of what needs to happen in the justice system, to ensure that justice is given, and of the greater efforts needed on demobilisation.

Jeremy Corbyn: I did not say, but perhaps should have, that one problem is that, until now—and probably still—the police, soldiers, magistrates and judges are largely not paid. If public servants are not paid their only source of income is either robbery or corruption. Unless the justice system is properly funded, it is unlikely that proper justice will ever be available.

Mr. Lancaster: That is a very fair point, which the Minister will probably pick up. It clearly needs to be addressed.

The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) also made an excellent contribution, albeit rather unexpected by him. He has shown a considerable interest in the subject for some time and is widely regarded as something of an expert on the region. His comments about violence against women were incredibly well made, and that is something to which I shall return. His comments about the need for gender balance in the UN forces were also well made. I have had some experience of that world, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and although it is easy to aspire to that goal the practicalities of an attempt at gender balance are quite different, not least because all too often there are national caveats from contributing nations, which will not allow women to be part of UN teams. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the need to mentor police and armed forces. I guess that I would look to the Minister to find out whether he felt we should be considering with reference to the DRC the sort of role carried out by British military advisory teams in Sierra Leone. Perhaps, if it was not something that came directly from the British Government, that model could be used to help things move forward.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West also made a very thoughtful contribution and I shall return to some of his points, but for my own part I intend to raise three things, broadly along the lines of the comprehensive approach that I have mentioned. Those are DFID’s programme; where we are with the DRC Government—especially the poverty reduction strategy paper and the country assistance paper; and the role of the UN in the DRC. I hope to make some positive suggestions about how that role might be enhanced.

DFID has been very active in the DRC and the increase in aid to the country from £5.56 million in
7 May 2008 : Column 287WH
2001-02 to about £75 million in 2007-08, along with future pledges of up to £130 million a year, is welcome. However, given that there is still considerable conflict in the country, I want first to ask the Minister whether he can offer some reassurance about how the money is being spent. Given, too, the concerns about corruption that other hon. Members have raised, how can we ensure that that will not be a factor affecting DFID spending?

The hon. Member for Islington, North outlined the broad problem in the DRC quite well. Part of the impact of the conflict is that it is not directly visible, but is none the less devastating. Large-scale displacements, violence and human rights abuses, as well as impoverishment, have caused tremendous psychological suffering and a deterioration of the social fabric, breaking up families and other solidarity networks. As a result, many traditional safety nets no longer function effectively. The deterioration of education and health services during the war years has dealt a powerful and lasting blow to the well-being of the population and their capacity to recover.

Overall, the DRC is likely to miss most of the millennium development goals by 2015. Detailed statistical information is lacking, but available indicators suggest that the conflict has caused development in reverse in the social sectors. Life expectancy is 43 years. The DRC’s human development index has declined by more the 10 per cent. in the past 10 years. Detailed study of the MDGs reveals that target 1, to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, stands at just 71 per cent. For target 2, to achieve universal primary education, there is no current status. In 1990, the figure was 54.5 per cent., but we do not know where things stand today. Target 3 is to promote gender equality—a factor raised by the hon. Member for Islington, North; once again there is no current status. We do not know where things stand as far as achieving that goal.

Jeremy Corbyn: The question of gender equality is linked to the large number of dispossessed young men who hang around, particularly in Kinshasa, but in other cities too, who grow up with no family structure or boundaries, just trying to survive. Unless education, including some degree of social education, is available to them, the violence now happening against women will be replicated again and again. Investment in education in all its forms is a top priority.

Mr. Lancaster: The hon. Gentleman has got it exactly right, and I will return to the topic of education in a moment. We must ensure that such violence is not simply replicated.

Target 4 is to reduce child mortality. It has already been said that half of the 5.3 million deaths in the country are of children under five. The child mortality rate is currently 205 per 1,000, which is exactly the same level as in 1990. Target 5 is to improve maternal health. There are currently 990 deaths per 100,000 live births, so we are simply failing to achieve that target.

Next Section Index Home Page