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Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): This country will welcome the Government’s response, but there are many refugees from the Congo here. I have Congolese constituents, and I am sure that many other Members have as well. Can the Minister assure us that he is in touch with the Home Office to
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ensure that we are not sending people back who are at risk for the reasons that he has set out so clearly? Will he and the Home Office hold a joint briefing of Congolese people who are properly resident in the United Kingdom, so that they can be reassured that their interests and their families’ needs are being looked after properly?

Bill Rammell: We certainly do not make a practice of sending people back if they will be at risk as a result, but I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point about communication, and I will talk to my colleagues in the Home Office.

Given the scale of the suffering and the brutality of the DRC’s militias, which I outlined earlier, there is a clear humanitarian case for the UK and its allies to do all that we can to end the violence, and to work in the interests of stability and good governance in eastern DRC. However, there are also hard-headed pragmatic reasons for the UK to be involved. I believe that the potential of the African Great Lakes region is enormous, but for too long the story in eastern DRC has been one of suffering, instability and poverty, and the conflict there has exacted a heavier toll than any other since the second world war. Greater stability could improve the prospects of the entire region. We, as a country, have committed £300 million in development aid to the DRC for the period ending in April 2011, which places us among its foremost donors, and the additional funding for humanitarian aid announced last week by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is beginning to make itself felt through additional relief flights.

We will continue to monitor events in the DRC and the wider region, and to seek opportunities to stimulate development and prevent the slide back towards the tragic circumstances that we have witnessed. That is and will remain an absolute priority for us, as was demonstrated by the Foreign Secretary’s visit at the weekend.

12.52 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): I welcome the opportunity to debate this topic, following our short exchange earlier in the week under the urgent question procedure. Much more has happened in the past 72 hours, and in relation to the humanitarian effort, we have probably not yet seen the worst, so the debate provides a good opportunity for an update.

As the Minister said, the humanitarian crisis is on a vast scale. I think many Members fear that the efforts being made by the United Nations and, indeed, the relief organisations are mixed, to say the least. We fully support the Government’s decision to send an aid shipment to the DRC, but I hope that when the Under-Secretary of State replies to the debate he will respond to some of the questions that I shall pose on that and other issues.

I understand that food aid has been slow to arrive in the region as charities have struggled to organise effective distribution. Is the Minister confident that those difficulties have been overcome? What is his estimate of the number of people who now have access to aid, and of the number of people who have not so far been reached?

Bad as the situation is, it would be far worse without the presence of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the DRC. The presence of military contingents of MONUC in major cities and rural areas in eastern
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Congo is the single most important factor preventing the total collapse of state authority. MONUC’s present mandate is to protect civilians, maintain stability, assist the disarmament and demobilisation of armed groups, and promote security sector reform. That mandate is up for renewal at the end of the year. Although the Security Council will almost certainly agree to continue to support it into 2009, there have been some rumblings, particularly in the United States Congress, suggesting that MONUC should be closed because of its cost.

Does the Minister agree that MONUC’s continued presence in the DRC will remain essential for some time, and can he assure us that its mandate will swiftly be extended? Can he confirm reports today that the UN forces have said they will use military force to defend Goma if the militia attempt to attack the city? Can he assure us that urgent discussions are taking place on what changes are needed to the mandate, composition and strength of MONUC, so that it can discharge its mandate and protect innocent civilians?

The Congolese armed forces have not been able to hold off the rebel forces or maintain security. It is even reported that, in some cases, the rebels are better armed, largely because many of the region’s natural resources have been looted and sold on. Does that not suggest that MONUC needs to do more to train a reformed Congolese army and police force? Has any consideration been given to what technical assistance or advice Britain could offer in that regard?

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I am following my hon. Friend’s remarks with great interest. The MONUC force is made up of 17,000 soldiers, mainly from India and Guatemala. Is it not time for some of the western European nations that are not pulling their weight in Iraq and Afghanistan to respond to an urgent call to reinforce it?

Mr. Simpson: I think my hon. Friend will recognise that two issues are involved. One is the composition of the United Nations forces. I am not certain that there is a requirement for sending in more United Nations troops. The other, separate issue is the possibility that, at some stage, the EU may send one of its brigades.

My hon. Friend has raised an interesting point. The UN mission is not a large, coherent force in military terms. It has been sent not as a division, but to undertake pretty limited duties. There are, however, major concerns about the effectiveness of its leadership, military cohesion and, indeed, firepower. Sadly, there have been instances of UN forces’ withdrawing in the face of initial militia activity.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): I was interested by what the hon. Gentleman said about the EU’s contingency plans for the deployment of a brigade, if that proved necessary. I ask this question simply to elicit information. There has been scepticism in the Conservative party about whether the EU ought to have the military role that it has. Why does the hon. Gentleman think that, on this occasion, an EU force would be the most appropriate bolster for MONUC if we—the western alliance—decided to send in forces?

Mr. Simpson: I shall come to that shortly.

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There have been reports of MONUC soldiers’ being implicated in the trafficking of persons and sexual abuse. Can the Minister assure us that any such allegations have been fully investigated and necessary action taken?

Let me now deal with the EU and British role. It is my understanding that if efforts by MONUC to stabilise the eastern Congo and protect the civilian population should fail in the short term, the EU may act to try to accomplish that. There continues to be some confusion about what role Britain would have in any such effort.

The legal and military position is that a British battalion is on standby to form part of one of the EU brigades. Both in response to the urgent question and today, the Minister gave us the impression that we were talking about a hypothetical situation, but can he confirm that First Battalion The Rifles is already undergoing training and preparation for action in the event of deployment of that EU brigade? Those are of course contingency measures, but I have reliable reports that preparation is taking place. Can the Minister also confirm that the battalion’s role as the UK commitment to the EU brigade will cease at the end of December, and that if that happens there will be no British battalion on standby to participate in either EU brigade in the event of deployment? Those are important factual questions that need to be clarified.

Is the Minister aware that the United States has more than a passing interest in the crisis? He may know that an Act was introduced in the Senate by one Senator Barack Obama. It was passed by Congress and signed off by President Bush in December 2006. It refers to the DRC, relief, security and democracy and clearly spells out the kind of actions the United States of America expected from the DRC and what actions it would take if the DRC failed to perform them. I do not know whether the Foreign Office has begun to participate in any discussions with President-elect Barack Obama’s advisers on this subject, but that Act is already on the US statute book and it shows that the President-elect takes a considerable interest in the matter.

The international community’s response has at times lagged behind events. As the Minister has pointed out, the DRC’s size and location make it vital to the stability of the whole of central Africa. We welcome the forthcoming visit of the UN Secretary-General and hope that the meeting this weekend will produce the sort of political solution we all want.

The rebels have accused Congo’s allies, Angola and Zimbabwe, of mobilising to back Government forces, while the Government, backed by reports from UN peacekeepers, say that Rwanda is helping the insurgents. Can the Minister clarify these reports? Does he agree that the possibility of a wider conflict is adding urgency to the UN Secretary-General’s attempts to bring Congo’s President Kabila and Rwanda’s President Kagame together for talks? What help have the Government given to ensuring that the talks are productive? We assume that Lord Malloch-Brown’s attendance at the talks is more than just a diplomatic nicety.

As has been mentioned, Britain gives a significant amount of aid to the region. Does the Minister agree that Britain must make it clear that we expect the Governments that receive British support to behave in a responsible manner, and not in any way to fuel the
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crisis? Does he agree that there is an urgent need for a comprehensive strategy to tackle the fundamental problem of insecurity in the eastern provinces, and that such a strategy should address the establishment of an effective Congolese army and police force, without which there are no serious incentives for the militias to co-operate with the central Government?

The feeling in all parts of the House is that we have been here before in the past several years, yet nothing has actually been done about the situation. Most Members feel that the various protagonists involved in the crisis must now be forced to fulfil the undertakings they have given.

Does the Minister agree that there is a need to establish close co-ordination with other interested states and institutions? Besides the UN, they include the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Southern African Development Community, many African states, and, perhaps increasingly, China.

The crisis is occurring on a scale that beggars belief. While we are debating it here, literally tens of thousands of people have fled their homes. As Members have said, they have not fled to established refugee camps where they can be protected and fed. There is real urgency to this situation, and I trust that Ministers will continue regularly to update the House, so that Members may debate it.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I remind Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 10-minute time limit on Back-Bench speeches.

1.3 pm

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): I hope not to speak for as long as 10 minutes. I have listened carefully to the speeches of my hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), and I want to talk about the situation in Goma, to follow on from the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle), and to make a couple of points about what might happen. The Opposition spokesman has, of course, also put a number of questions to the Minister; I am sure that my hon. Friend will respond to them, and we all want to hear his answers. The general direction of travel in terms of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is fairly bipartisan, although the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) talked about commitments of troops in other places, about which there are valid points to be made.

I listened to what my hon. Friend the Minister had to say about the situation in Goma, and I am three quarters in agreement, but not entirely. The problem is difficult, because the situation is moving. The Foreign Secretary is elsewhere, and he has already been out there. The Government have shown as much commitment as they possibly can—the DRC is high on their agenda. It probably should have been higher up the world agenda before, but it is up there now because of the terrible things that are happening—that is a perverse upside of recent events. I also understand that Lord Malloch-Brown is off there tonight. The situation is fluid, therefore. I acknowledge that it is not my hon. Friend the Minister’s immediate area of responsibility, and some greater in-depth knowledge might be expected from the Ministers for whom it is an immediate area of responsibility, particularly
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Lord Malloch-Brown. That is no one’s fault; it is merely a consequence of Lord Malloch-Brown being in the Lords.

The Congo is very large and there are 17,000 United Nations troops there. The Kivus, however, are not particularly large, so a force of 17,000 troops might be more significant than it sounds. People mention the size of the Congo, but we are talking about a relatively small area of the country. None of us wants to be an armchair general or an armchair diplomat. My remarks are just common-sense comments that come from looking at what is happening on the ground. The Lord’s Resistance Army and many other organisations, including some that do not have names, as well as groups of bandits, are operating across the Congo. There are problems in Ituri and other issues, so Alan Doss, the UN special representative in the Congo, faces constraints on what he can do with those 17,000 troops. We must take care to ensure that he does not displace troops from areas that might then become problematic. The history of the Congo tells us that when one problem is solved, another one crops up because there are underlying issues, which I hope to have a couple of minutes to discuss.

I am not yet convinced that there is not a requirement for additional troops. As the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), has said, there has been a request for an additional 2,750 UN troops. The Rifles have been mentioned, but my instinct is that UK troops are fairly hard-pressed. I do not know the details of any information at the higher political level, but I would not rule out the possibility of, let us say, the Belgians sending some troops there, and I understand that they are perfectly confident of being able to deploy there. I have had two messages from the Foreign Office: at ministerial level, I am hearing that all possibilities are kept open, but at an official level it is not quite as clear that we have not ruled this out. I would not like to hear that the UK was against the idea of Belgian troops, for example, being deployed. There may be a higher level political reason for that; I cannot imagine what it might be, but perhaps I could be persuaded. At present, however, it seems to me that there is a strong case for increasing the number of troops there, not simply to deal with the Goma situation, but for what comes after that in the next three, six and nine months. We simply do not know what will come next.

I hope that we are now seeing a reapplication of the Nairobi principles, but we must bear in mind that they say that the FARDC—the DRC army—will secure the border between Congo and Rwanda. That is a small border, but the FARDC has disintegrated; it is no longer integrated. It was in theory an integrated force that included Nkunda’s CNDP—National Congress for People’s Defence—but the FARDC is currently coming apart. Essentially, there is no capacity. The DRC cannot simply say, “We sign up to the Nairobi principles,” and then do that, because it does not have the capacity.

Several Members of various parties have frequently visited the eastern Congo in the past few years. It is striking that the general narrative is that capacity will be developed in the FARDC, which will enable the Congo to look after its own security. There is a democratically elected Government. Many of us went there to see the elections taking place. The fact that we
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are now going backwards is to a large degree a political matter, but to some degree it is down to lack of FARDC capacity.

This crisis will not be solved by the FARDC but, in the short term, by the international community. Once the crisis has passed, we must take advantage of the current window, so that we ensure that we follow through on the high profile that the Congo currently has. My interest is in the FARDC having the capacity to look after itself. At the moment, I am nervous about seeing troops in white vehicles and soft blue hats, although it may well be that they have hard hats now. For the benefit of colleagues who do not think about such things all the time, UN vehicles are white so that they can be seen, and generally speaking people do not want to be seen if they are in a war-like situation; they want to be in a different colour, such as green.

People might say that General Nkunda’s troops are a raggedy bunch, but it is fairly well known that African troops are extremely resilient in the face of being shot at, because it happens a lot. Looking at Goma at the moment, it is perfectly realistic to imagine troops on the ground organising themselves properly in a defensive sense, but it is also perfectly possible to imagine Nkunda’s troops infiltrating, walking around those defences and establishing a significant presence in Goma. The worst case scenario—Nkunda’s taking Goma—would be disastrous for the UN and the DRC. It is particularly significant that the international community invested $250 million in the elections; it would be pretty reluctant to do so again. It looks like we are back where we started, and if the public believe that that is the case, it will be very difficult for us ever to commit ourselves to such a diplomatic and political effort in future.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West mentioned the historical sweep, which I will deal with as briefly as possible. Demographics tell us that more than 5 million people have died in the region in the past 10 years as a consequence of constant war and conflict. This is a crisis on an enormous scale, and dealing with the current upsurge will make no difference in the long term; we must address the underlying details and issues that we know exist—politically and militarily—and start dealing with the situation for the long term. Otherwise, there will be another crisis in three or four months, and a bunch will come along together like London buses. As sure as eggs is eggs, that will happen.

Having listened to what has been said, I am not yet convinced that Alan Doss will be able to secure Goma and deal with the situation on the ground with the resources that he has, while the politics is dealt with elsewhere. I still think it really important to keep an open mind on that. On the politics, clearly, we need to convince the Rwandans and President Kagame—an extremely good man who has been a profoundly powerful force for good in the region, although he has natural reservations about what is going on the eastern Congo—to deal with the FDLR and Interahamwe issue more stringently. We also need to convince the Congolese Government to take up their responsibilities for the FARDC and to build it up with the assistance of the international community.

I hope that my final point does not sound too negative. My hon. Friend the Minister referred to an International Criminal Court sanction on one individual in the CNDP.
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Ultimately, in the medium term we have to consider applying that lever to General Nkunda himself, if he does not play ball.

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