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House of Lords

Tuesday, 17th June 1997.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwell.

Lord Jopling

The Right Honourable Thomas Michael Jopling, having been created Baron Jopling, of Ainderby Quernhow in the County of North Yorkshire, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Denham and the Lord Pym.

Lord Dixon

The Right Honourable Donald Dixon, having been created Baron Dixon, of Jarrow in the County of Tyne and Wear, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Dean of Beswick and the Lord Dormand of Easington.

Several Lords--Took the Oath.

Former Zaire: Relations with New Regime

2.56 p.m.

The Earl of Sandwich asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will take any new diplomatic initiatives in the Great Lakes region following the change of government in the Congo.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, we continue to support the efforts of the United Nations Special Representative Sahnoun. He has the full authority of the UN and of the OAU behind him. We also support the EU envoy Ajello and former President Nyerere in efforts to resolve conflict in the Great Lakes region. We and our partners in the EU and at the UN have made clear that any future constructive relationship with the new regime in the now Democratic Republic of the Congo is conditional upon its commitment to democracy and respect for human rights and the rule of law.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that very international and confident reply. But the situation in Zaire--now the Congo--remains grave. Is there not a real opportunity for Britain, France and the United States to strengthen democratic processes in the Great Lakes region? Is not the situation very serious for refugees and for our non-governmental organisations in Kivu and along the Rwanda-Burundi border? Can we give more support to those organisations so that they are less exposed?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, as I said, our support for the new regime in the Democratic Republic of the Congo will

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be conditional on its support for human rights. The situation there is very difficult. The British and other EU governments have supported the efforts of the UNHCR and other organisations in the eastern area of what was Zaire. We are pleased that the UNHCR has managed to return the majority of Rwandan refugees from the eastern part of the country. However, we are very deeply concerned by reports of human rights violations, including the killing of returning refugees, in the area. The Government, bilaterally and through the European Union and the UN, have been putting strong pressure on President Kabila to respond to the allegations and put an end to the killing. We welcome the president's recent undertaking and his decision to make a statement on the importance of the protection of humanitarian workers whom we support in the area. We shall be pressing President Kabila to meet those undertakings in full.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, is the Minister not worried that to some of us on this side of the House his replies sound rather platitudinous in view of the very positive mission statement given by the Secretary of State a short while ago? If we are going to intervene for human rights, to many of us the Answer seems rather unsatisfactory.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I hope I conveyed that the Government are deeply concerned by reports of continuing human rights violations in the eastern Congo, including reports of the killing of refugees. We have made efforts to put strong pressure on President Kabila. We and the previous government have a good record on human rights in Rwanda and Burundi. We welcome the undertakings that have been made, but they have yet to be delivered. We shall continue to use all efforts to ensure that they are delivered.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, can the Minister say anything about the efforts by Special Envoy Sahnoun in Brazzaville on Saturday, which were reported to have led to the convening of a meeting by President Omar Bongo in Libreville to sort out the fighting between the two leaders? Did that meeting take place yesterday and what implications does the fighting in Brazzaville have for the continued stability of Kinshasa?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the situation in Brazzaville is a different but parallel problem. There have been reports of such meetings. I have no detailed information on their outcome. We support efforts by all parties to bring about greater stability within the region, but I cannot give the noble Lord the detailed information he requests.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, what support is the Secretary of State for International Development planning to give to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to help to establish a stable system of government across the whole country?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, as the House will be aware, the situation within what is now the Congo is one of the most dire in the whole of that continent. Once it is clear

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that the new government are prepared to meet their responsibility, there will be many opportunities to support the regeneration and redevelopment of the infrastructure of the country. However, the main concern in the immediate term must be the human rights situation and the need to establish a stable government within the Congo. That will be Her Majesty's Government's prime responsibility in the short term. As the noble Baroness is well aware, we have supported many humanitarian and infrastructure developments in the area, mainly through the EU and the UN, but we shall continue to act to try to support a revival of the economy once it is clear that peace has been restored and that the Congo has a government with whom we can deal.

Viscount Waverley: My Lords, does the Minister agree that peace through regional economic development provides the solution in large part? Does he agree that SADCC enlargement with Burundi, the Congo and Rwanda would achieve that end, and, if so, will the noble Lord use his best endeavours to influence that?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, regional co-operation will clearly be a major feature of improving the situation in central Africa. Along with our partners in the EU, we shall be talking to governments to that end. However, at the moment there are greater immediate priorities that have to be addressed.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, do the Government agree that the priority now is to ensure that the United Nations is given better access to the refugees in eastern Congo and that President Kabila should be encouraged to co-operate with the international inquiry into their treatment? How do the Government intend to assist with that process and to ensure that it takes place?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, we have welcomed the president's recent undertaking to allow early access for a UN human rights investigative mission and his intention of making a statement on the importance of the protection of humanitarian workers. We shall continue to use all efforts to ensure that that is delivered in practice.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the only government with whom we can deal on a stable and long-term basis in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a democratic government and that such a government can be put in place only if the civil service in that country is regenerated? Is not rebuilding the civil service in that country therefore a first priority?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, as I said, all civil society has collapsed in large parts of the Congo. It is very important that both the administrative and the economic infrastructures are redeveloped. We shall be using our good offices, along with our partners in the EU and in the other organisations which are involved, to ensure that a stable and, we hope, democratic government within the Congo will co-operate in order to bring that about.

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Forestry Commission: Land Sales

3.5 p.m.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What are their plans to stop any further disposals of Forestry Commission assets.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (Lord Sewel): My Lords, our election manifesto stated that we favoured a moratorium on the large-scale sale of Forestry Commission land, and we are currently considering how to implement that commitment. Sales of commission land have been on hold since the election was called.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful Answer. Is he aware that the previous Government were committed to selling off 100,000 hectares of Forestry Commission land and a further 26,000 hectares before 1999? Is my noble friend further aware that, as the Forestry Commission's estate is available for recreation and amenity, the statement of a moratorium will be much welcomed by the 50 million day visitors who take advantage of the recreational facilities that are afforded by the Forestry Commission?

Lord Sewel: My Lords, I am indeed aware of the previous Government's policy on disposals and merely point out that there has been a change of policy.

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