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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 11 December 2001

[Sir Michael Lord in the Chair]

The Great Lakes

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. McNulty.]

9.30 am

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): The issues relating to the region around the Great Lakes are incredibly important. A humanitarian catastrophe continues to unfold there, as it has for at least the past 10 years. In that region, it is difficult to draw the line between the end of one conflict and the beginning of another.

To put the debate into perspective, I shall explain some recent background. It is impossible to understand the conflict without considering the region as a whole. The present conflict in the Great Lakes began in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and dates back to 1998, since when 2.5 million people have died in it. That figure is staggering, but the fact that we rarely hear anything said about it is even more staggering. I am thus especially grateful to those hon. Members who have given their time and made the effort to be here this morning.

The war in the Congo is Africa's most complex war. It has been described as Africa's first world war and has dragged six foreign armies into the country. One of the biggest problems is the wealth of the Congo, which some people argue not only sustains but actively perpetuates the war. The recent history of the region shows the interplay between Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC. It is clear that the current conflict in the Congo stems from the wave of violence unleashed by the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

We need to consider how British policy has changed and could perhaps change further in the future. In 1994, when the genocide in Rwanda occurred, the British ambassador to the United Nations cautioned against using the word "genocide". He rightly pointed out that if we used that word, we might be liable under our international treaty obligations to do something. As we all know, we did nothing. The international community did nothing until it was far too late.

I am still haunted by the genocide site in Rwanda that I visited with two of my colleagues from the Select Committee on International Development who are here this morning. What haunted me most was not the 5,000 or 10,000 corpses that we saw and stepped over in the school into which people had been herded and murdered over a 36-hour period, but the fact that many of the children's bodies had only one foot. Several of us could not understand why those small children had only one foot. When we asked, we were told that when the adults were escaping, the militia cut off one of each child's feet to stop them escaping. They killed the parents and then came back to finish off the children.

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The vision of that classroom full of children with only one foot writhing around on the floor has never left me. That was one of the reasons why I set up the all-party group on the Great Lakes. I am extremely grateful that more than 100 Members of Parliament have joined it.

The second thing that has always haunted me was that in those classrooms the only sign of the international community was some plastic sheeting placed over the open windows on which was printed the UN logo. When I said to someone that that looked very strange—as though all that the UN did was to put up curtains after the genocide—they said, "Yes, that is basically what happened." Is not that an allegory for our modern times? The UN is doing the window dressing.

All of us who take an interest in the region—and even all those who take no interest in it—realise, post-11 September, that window dressing in areas of disaster, conflict and genocide will eventually return to haunt us. I am not saying that the conflict and the humanitarian disaster in the Great Lakes region—however tragic and all-consuming they are—will burst into our consciousness as the attacks in New York and Washington have done. That will not happen right now, but if we do not do something about the Great Lakes in particular and Africa in general, there is no doubt that, at some point, we shall pay the price for indifference that leaves millions of people to starve or be killed. Some of them are killed in the most brutal of ways, as I described. The deaths of others are equally brutal, but not so televisual: starving to death does not trigger many peacekeeping forces. It has not done so in the past.

We hope that that might change in the future, given what is happening in Afghanistan. I very much hope that as we consider the situation in the Great Lakes region, we might see there the germs of what has happened in other parts of world, so instead of waiting for a disaster—although some might argue that one has already happened—we might try to pre-empt it.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): Is not what my hon. Friend is saying exactly the message that the Prime Minister was giving in a tremendous speech to the Labour party conference in October? He pledged not to allow a Rwanda to occur again and to heal the scars of Africa. That shows a new way forward for the Government.

Ms King: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I see consternation on the faces of some Opposition Members, but I hope that we can agree with the Prime Minister's words, wherever we are on the political spectrum. I cannot imagine that anyone could say that we would not take action if a Rwanda were to happen again and 1 million people were butchered. I know for a fact that at least three of the four Opposition Members present agree with those sentiments. Indeed, they have agreed with them.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): I had not planned on intervening in the debate, because I think that everyone will agree with the hon. Lady's sentiments. Opposition Members may, however, disagree with the political slant of some of the comments. As hon. Members may recall, the Prime Minister made a rather all-encompassing conference speech that included justifying early euro

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entry on the basis of the 11 September attacks. Perhaps that is why there were looks of disagreement on Opposition Members' faces.

Ms King: I am sure that I would be ruled out of order were I to outline the merits of early euro membership or link such membership to Britain's national security. Although I am certain that there is such a case, I shall leave it for another time.

I was trying to explain some of the background to the crisis in the Great Lakes region. Part of the background is elaborated in a truly startling and inspirational book, which I recommend that everyone read, entitled "King Leopold's Ghost". Although it traces the history of the Congo and the Great Lakes region back a couple of hundred years, it deals particularly with the 19th century. It is instructive to examine events in the Great Lakes region from 1870 until independence in the early 1960s.

I am not one of those black people who gets up and gives a speech on colonialism every five minutes regardless of the subject, and I think that my colleagues who know me will defend me on that point. However, I think that all the Select Committee members were truly startled by the extent to which the colonial era in that part of Africa has conditioned almost all subsequent events there. I shall give an example.

When the genocide began in Rwanda, everyone said, "These bloody Africans are hacking each other to death. It is a tribal conflict. It is what Africans do." I was astonished to discover that the Belgians had introduced a law that was essentially like apartheid in South Africa and made it illegal for Rwandans not to declare that they were either Hutu or Tutsi, thereby creating an ethnic construct. What do the terms Hutu and Tutsi mean? "Tutsi" simply means that one has cattle, and "Hutu" that one is an agricultural labourer working the land. Originally, the terms were not ethnic or tribal distinctions.

In that society, working with cattle was more highly valued than working the land. Those who had cattle had assets. Consequently, the Tutsis, who comprised only 15 per cent. of the population, became the more powerful group, and the Hutus, who comprised the majority and worked the land, became the less powerful. It is essentially a class structure, but the colonial power of the time found it useful to play one group off against the other, and so made it illegal for those Africans not to belong to one group or the other.

I asked some Rwandans whether they were Hutu or Tutsi. Although we may talk about political correctness in this country, in a country where a genocide has occurred, it is a deeply impolitic question. However, one Rwandan tried to explain to me that it was not really possible to answer the question. He said that his family were neither Hutu nor Tutsi as they neither had cattle nor worked the land. He said that their society was not that simplistic and that everyone could not be divided into a group that owned cattle or worked the land. However, he also said, "The Belgians just gave us a

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stamp on our identity card and we became an ethnic group." The distinction was, literally and figuratively, a political construct. What does that mean for us today?

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): I thank the hon. Lady for giving way in her fascinating speech. Will she not, however, give credit to Paul Kagame, the Rwandan leader? On taking control, he ensured that both groups were included in his Government. He also ensured that there was no reference to the two different groups in official literature. Whatever his faults, he has made great strides in that direction.

Ms King: I thank my hon. Friend—I call her that deliberately—for that intervention and could not agree more with those sentiments. President Kagame has lately come in for no little criticism. Although I certainly have some differences in respect of how the Rwandan Government are pursuing their legitimate desire to protect Rwanda's security, I believe that Paul Kagame is one of the leading inspirations in African politics. Although my greatest fear in making such a statement is that my words will come back to haunt me, if there was ever a man with integrity whom I trust not to make those words haunt me, it is President Kagame. The Select Committee and I—I have met him on several occasions—have been impressed by his dignity, resilience and thoughtfulness.

How has the Hutu-Tutsi divide affected the continuing conflict? The current conflict, dating from 1998, was unleashed by the wave of violence that followed the genocide. People in that region of Africa, which extends from eastern Congo to Rwanda and Burundi, have been on a dreadful, hellish merry-go-round whereby waves of internally displaced people are pushed from one country to the next. Such displacement occurred even before independence in the 1960s, when the first massacres occurred and Tutsis were displaced from, for example, Rwanda. Subsequently, some of them went to the Congo and Uganda, after which they returned to their own country and themselves displaced the genocidal regime. The Banyamulenge are a group of Rwandans who have been living in the Congo for hundreds of years.

Select Committee Members who visited the Congo this summer made one fascinating discovery. In 1994, Rwandans fleeing genocide arrived in the eastern DRC and helped to push the local economy past the point of no return. The economy was desperately stretched: all the remaining cattle, for example, were sold off and people were left with no means of survival. Tutsis went from one impoverished country to another to flee genocide, with catastrophic results.

Subsequently, relations between the Rwandan and Congolese Governments have deteriorated. As many hon. Members will be aware, President Kagame was initially an ally of the elder President Kabila, who turned out to be far less reliable than had been hoped and did not measure up to expectations in the west. He grievously disappointed his Rwandan and Ugandan allies, because the activities of those who committed the genocide continued in eastern DRC. The Rwandan Government continued to face attack from those who had committed the genocide and were committed to finishing it.

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The all-party group's rather controversial view is that the Rwandan Government were justified in sending troops to the DRC when Interahamwe activity and that of the genocidiaires in eastern Congo was blatantly threatening Rwandan security; it continues, on occasion, to threaten it.

Then President Kabila died, and he was followed by his son, Joseph. Although many people have said that it is far too early to tell how the younger President Kabila will turn out, in my view he represents a far better hope than we had previously. I have met him twice and have been immensely impressed with his grasp of many issues, and not just those pertaining to his own region. However, the fact remains that the views of the Rwandan and Congolese Governments are light years apart.

I fully understand Rwanda's grievance—1 million Rwandans have been murdered, most of them Tutsi. Those who were responsible sought refuge in the DRC, whose Government are incapable of stopping, or unwilling to stop, their activity. The Rwandan Government therefore said that they would do it instead. I think that our Government would have done the same. Any Government who had the capacity would have done what the Rwandan Government did.

I also understand the DRC Government's point of view. They believe that they are being occupied by an invading force—the Rwandans and Ugandans—that has been in the DRC for more than three years. The DRC Government believe that if Rwanda wanted to neutralise the threat that exists, it could. That is debatable, but it is their view. They strongly believe that the Rwandans are using the threat as a pretext for mineral exploitation, and we have to consider the grave pillage of resources in the Congo.

Mr. Robathan: I spent more time abroad with the hon. Lady during the summer than I did with my wife. I found the trip to the Congo both fascinating and depressing.

The hon. Lady refers to the DRC Government, who are legally recognised. The Kabila Government have no more legitimacy than Onusumba in Goma or Bemba in the north-east. Does she agree that the three sides are not only equally illegitimate, but equally responsible for the pillage of the country and for its problems?

Ms King: It is true that in the Great Lakes region as a whole, particularly in the areas to which the hon. Gentleman referred, there is not the democratic accountability that we wish to see. In my view, there has been a failure of politics and politicians. I remember the president of the RCD, Mr. Onusumba, saying that the politicians had failed. We might think that we make a pig's ear of things in this country, but we rarely have to shoulder the burden that exists there. Until the three regions have some democratic accountability, the situation will not be resolved. That is why so much hope is pinned on the inter-Congolese dialogue, which is charged with bringing some democratic accountability, however tenuous, to the region.

The DRC Government believe that Rwanda and Uganda must withdraw before peace can be achieved. That is the nub of the problem with the Lusaka peace process. It is a bit like decommissioning in Northern

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Ireland. The Rwandans say that they will not leave until their security is assured and they know that the people who started the genocide will not be able to finish it. They say that the Congolese Government are aiding, abetting and even continuing to arm the Interahamwe militia. The Congolese Government say, "You have invaded our country and until you leave, there will be no peace. In the meantime, you are raping and pillaging our country."

The questions of how to deal with the Interahamwe and the UN's role in that are of great importance. The all-party group that visited the Congo felt that it would be useful if the British Government could push for an expansion of personnel and resources available to MONUC, the United Nations Organisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A reply—I hesitate to use the term "the standard reply"—would be that MONUC's mandate is to keep the warring factions apart, which it is able to do at present. However, the Lusaka agreement says that MONUC's role is to deal with the Interahamwe. It is MONUC's responsibility to track down and disarm the groups that threaten to continue destabilising the region and to pour oil on troubled waters. The contradiction between MONUC's mandate and the aspirations for it in the Lusaka agreement remains unresolved.

Let me put this in the context of an area with which we are more familiar—Kosovo. Had we decided to put the same ratio of troops to land density in the DRC as we did in Kosovo, it would have required 10 million UN peacekeepers. That would be absurd, but it is the truth. No one is asking for 10 million UN peacekeepers, not least because the harsh facts of realpolitik are that Kosovo will always receive more attention, time and resources than the Congo. That may or may not be fair, but it is a fact. We are not asking for 10 million UN peacekeepers, but for a more realistic UN force than the current proposed deployment of 5,000. Ten million is not a realistic or helpful figure, but nor is 5,000 for a country the size of western Europe.

The all-party group also believes that a credible study should be carried out into the threat posed by the armed groups, especially the Interahamwe, that operate in the DRC. We would like the UN to put an embargo on arms exports in the region and the troops to be demobilised and resettled more quickly. It is important to highlight how much the British Government have done so far on the issue of demobilisation and resettlement, which is known as DDRRR in the Great Lakes lingo. I will not hazard a guess at filling in those initials, but the process involves demobilising soldiers who will otherwise have an interest in perpetuating armed conflict if for no other reason than that they have no other way to eat and earn a living.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): Does the hon. Lady agree that anyone interested in following this issue in detail could apply to the all-party group at the House of Commons for a copy of the useful booklet that covers the visit, which includes a glossary of the abbreviations, a map and all sorts of other useful information? A fair number of people who follow the debate will be interested in that report, and I hope that they will feel able to apply for a copy.

Ms King: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his exceptionally helpful remarks. As someone who is

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allergic to acronyms, I certainly recommend appendix 5, on acronyms and names, of the all-party group's report. He guides me to the back of my own report, where I find the phrase, "disarmament, demobilisation, resettlement and reintegration", although an R remains missing—I think that it might stand for reinsertion, or something like that.

The continued activity of armed groups in the region can be linked to mineral exploitation, and it is inevitably in those groups' interests for the conflict to continue. The report sets out the alleged links between the various military groups and the region's mineral resources. As someone who has the greatest sympathy and respect for the Rwandan Government and, in particular, for individuals in that Government whom I regard as my friends, I have been disturbed by many of the reports that I have heard and many of the things that I have seen with my own eyes in the Congo.

Those activities were alleged to have happened at the behest of the Rwandan military. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people who can just pretend that I did not see or hear something happen. I did, and so did other Members of Parliament. We all have slightly different views on the matter. Some of us are more sympathetic towards the Congolese; others are more sympathetic towards the Rwandans, but we are all sympathetic towards what we perceive to be the truth. The truth of the matter is that the Congo is being raped and pillaged and that local people are not benefiting from the resources that are being taken out of their area. That is fuelling the war that is displacing those people, causing so much misery in that area.

My plea is that the British Government should be sensitive to the feelings of the people in eastern DRC, as we have been rightly sensitive to the appalling distress in Rwanda—words genuinely escape me, because it is impossible to express what happened there. We are sensitive to those events, and we have to be sensitive to the fact that virtually all the ordinary Congolese people to whom we spoke and even the ordinary representatives of the RCD—the eastern DRC group that is linked to Rwanda—told us that Rwandan soldiers were involved in removing resources from that area and also in many very unpleasant things that are being done to the civilian population there. We heard that again and again, and I cannot pretend that it was not so, but many people are displeased with me for saying that.

As I have said before, I have immense respect for President Paul Kagame, and I genuinely believe that he would not sanction all that is being done in the name of the Rwandan army, but he would say that those things are not happening. I have had many conversations with the Rwandan ambassador to this country, for whom I also have great respect, and she has pleaded with me to consider the Rwandan point of view. For example, has any hon. Member heard of coltan?

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): Yes.

Ms King: Even if hon. Members had not heard of coltan, everyone reading the report of this debate will have pressed it close to their ear because it is needed to

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make mobile phones, as well as Gameboys and Playstations. That is an astonishing glimpse of globalisation in our times. Most people would tell me that nothing links the inner reaches of the Congo to Whitechapel, for example, in my constituency, yet all those teenagers in Tower Hamlets playing on their Gameboys are linked to that region, where people are forced to mine coltan in an incredibly exploitative manner.

The local economy has been severely destabilised because coltan is a volatile commodity. A tonne of it fetched $70 last year but it fetches only 50 cents this year. Hon. Members can imagine all that that implies. I hope that other hon. Members want to speak in this debate.

Mr. Duncan: Perhaps I can take that hint and discourage the hon. Lady. In no way do I wish to be rude, but she has taken up almost half the entire time allotted to the debate, and other hon. Members want to speak. So far, I detect no disagreement across this Chamber, but we would like a chance to make a small contribution.

Ms King: I thank the hon. Gentleman sincerely. It was whispered in my ear that I might be the only Member who wished to speak and therefore that I would have to talk at length. I should like to conclude by relaying the remarks of a 16-year-old.

Peter Bottomley: It is worth mentioning the efforts of ex-President Masire of Botswana in the inter-Congolese dialogue, so that the Minister can have time to think about them. The report shows that £43,000 has been provided and the Members of Parliament on the trip recommended doubling that figure. I am not certain whether anything less than a significant increase might be useful if those talks are to help to produce a working understanding between the groups.

Ms King: I thank the hon. Gentleman. The Government have already more than doubled the money for the facilitator, and I am sure that the Minister will outline exactly what they have done.

On the visit, I met a 16-year-old called Baraka and his story outlines the complexity of the problems involved. He told me:

That is his request to us as politicians. I hope that we may be able to do something.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. David Amess (in the Chair): Order. I hope that the wind-ups will begin at 10.30. I would like to call all those hon. Members who wish to speak but it may be difficult now.

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10.12 am

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) on securing the debate and on being the driving force in the House of Commons in bringing to public attention issues that are vital to those in central Africa. The so-called civilised western world has not been good at helping people in the DRC—formerly Zaire—to have disagreements over politics or to argue about the economy without the threat of death. The hon. Lady deserves credit for that, together with the aid agencies who facilitated the trip in August and the colleagues who accompanied her.

My contribution will be brief, both because I have to attend a Select Committee meeting and because of your remarks, Mr. Amess. However, no one minds the length at which the hon. Lady has spoken, because this important issue is not often a subject of debate. I was part of an all-party group visit to El Salvador, a far smaller country, some years ago and I know that progress is possible if people and their neighbours have the chance to work out their disagreements together instead of going into exile or taking up guns.

The hon. Lady rightly talked about the commercial interests that are helping to fund the different groups, and that will not stop instantly. In other parts of Africa, similar conflicts are continuing long past their sell-by date. There are some fashionable issues that get attention—rightly—but the unfashionable ones matter just as much. People from the DRC, Rwanda and Burundi who come to this country probably get much support and invigoration from people in Government and in Parliament being willing to listen to them, talk with them and maintain a continuing interest. People sometimes wonder whether all-party groups have a purpose, but they need only read the hon. Lady's report and they will understand why hon. Members choose to give some of their time to the interests of people overseas as well as those of their constituents.

10.14 am

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): I wish to address the case of the smallest country in the Great Lakes region, Burundi. It is not the size of western Europe, but more the size of Wales, with 6.5 million people. My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) will recall the trip that we made to Burundi with Unicef in 1998 and some of the remarkable people we met; people who work in the most difficult circumstances, in a civil war, in a country teetering on the brink of the sort of genocide that has been seen in Rwanda. In particular, she will recall our friend Luis Zuniga, the head of Unicef in Burundi, who was tragically murdered in the most appalling circumstances while visiting an internally displaced persons camp. He was doing his job and trying to protect children.

Burundi is beautiful though impoverished. It is a densely populated and extremely dangerous country which has been involved in civil war for some eight years. Now the war is over, and it is a remarkable tribute to Nelson Mandela that, after all that he has endured and achieved in his life, he has been able to help broker the peace deal that is beginning to operate in Burundi. The situation is fragile. The transitional Government

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has been in place since 1 November with President Buyoya serving with Vice-President Ndatzetse, but due to hand over to a Hutu president in 18 months.

There is much more work to do to ensure that the peace agreement holds. We need to see the integration of armed forces from rebel groups into the Burundian army and continued efforts must be made to end the fighting that has continued in some areas. We need a comprehensive military and political agreement with the FDD and the other excluded armed movements that are still operating. We must support the efforts of UN special representative Berhanu Dinka and the implementation and monitoring committee to uphold the peace deal. We need to help that poor country, which is founded on subsistence agriculture—it has none of the mineral wealth of the DRC—and the export of coffee; whose vital infrastructure has been set back and undermined by war; and which has 1 million refugees outside its border and many hundreds of thousands of displaced people within. This country should respond to Nelson Mandela's call to double the $440 million of aid promised once the transitional power-sharing Government were installed. We should seize the moment to take the vital step of changing from humanitarian assistance to development aid.

Burundi is a small country in the middle of Africa, and a former Belgian colony. We might question its significance to our country, but we should recognise the integrated problems of all the Great Lakes countries and recall the statement to the Labour party conference that we need to do far more to heal the scars of Africa. This is a crucial moment for Burundi and perhaps for the Great Lakes area. I am sorry that I cannot stay past 10.30, because I have to attend a Standing Committee. I have offered my apologies to the Chair and I look forward to reading the report of the speech by my hon. Friend the Minister, which I hope will be positive.

10.19 am

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, Maryhill): As has been mentioned by my hon. Friends, the scale of death and human misery that has befallen the Great Lakes area is staggering and horrifying. Regretfully, we see no anti-war protest marches filled with indignant demonstrators outside Westminster, nor do we read angry letters in the press. Instead we have heard the deafening sound of silence and indifference to the ongoing misery from the international community in the past few years. My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) mentioned the complex and baffling history and politics of the region, but they should not deter us from seeking peace and justice in the area and giving it the global priority that it undoubtedly deserves.

Last month, I was fortunate to be on the visit of the all-party group to Brussels and to the Belgian and European Union Parliaments. Clearly, the EU has a lead role to play in the international community, but there are differences of opinion between the Dutch and the United Kingdom, who tend to be seen as supporting the Rwandan Government, and the Belgian and French Governments who tend to be seen as supporting the DRC. If a growing inertia develops because the EU cannot develop a unified approach, a danger might creep in and affect the efforts to secure peace in the region.

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As has been said, it is valid to argue that both sides have infringed the Lusaka agreement. The ceasefire has been violated in the east of the DRC, but it is the exploitation of the area's mineral wealth that gives me particular cause for concern. The size of the international peacekeeping forces is tiny in relation to the physical geography of the area and, while there is continuing conflict, the prospects of improving the lives of the ordinary people will be severely hindered. I strongly urge the Government to support an expansion of the international peacekeeping forces to ensure that the disarmament of armed groups can be accelerated and stability restored.

It is a sad irony that the Congo has more than 8 per cent. of the world's diamond reserves as well as plentiful supplies of other precious metals while the population suffers from widespread destitution. It is conservatively estimated that at least 18.5 million people in the area have no access to even basic health care and, in the eastern areas of the DRC, the infant mortality has reached the ghastly and horrifying figure of 41 per cent.

There is evidence of mineral exploitation by the Ugandan, Zimbabwean and Rwandan forces, with large sums of money flowing through those countries. Last year, Uganda made nearly as much money from gold exports as from coffee, despite it having hardly any reserves at home. Similarly Rwanda produced 83 tonnes of coltan but exported 603 tonnes. Although those figures strictly relate to sales rather than to production, the implication is clear. Such plunder must be actively discouraged to end the suffering that has escalated in areas of the DRC. Only when there is no market for these illegally obtained resources will there be a real incentive to end the civil war.

The United Nations has set up a certification scheme for diamonds and I understand that 32 countries have endorsed it. However, it requires strengthening and, in particular, legal sanctions are needed. I urge the United Kingdom Government and the EU to develop urgently concrete measures to counter the exploitation of the mineral reserves.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) pointed out, the Prime Minister commented earlier this year that the international community has failed the people of the Great Lakes for a long time. Now there is an opportunity to find peace and to restore basic human dignity. Just as in Afghanistan, we need to commit ourselves to staying the course and providing these long-suffering people with a permanent undertaking to help them to rebuild their lives and their country.

10.23 am

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) on securing this debate. She gave a fascinating and informative speech, although it was a trifle long.

I joined the hon. Lady in a Select Committee visit to the Great Lakes region but I was unfortunately unable to go on the one last August because of family problems. She told us graphically that more than 2 million people have already died in the region as a result of the conflict and we heard of the genocide that took place there. We

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know that more than 30 per cent. of the children suffer from malnutrition and that there are 10,000 child soldiers.

I am a mother and a grandmother and one of the things that always slightly depresses me is people's perception that Africa is used to such problems and the view that there are always many deaths there because Africans are always killing each other. However, do people not realise that every mother, grandmother and father in Africa cares just as deeply about their family and their children as we do? That must be said, and John Donne put it succinctly many hundreds of years ago when he wrote that

I shall refer to the bell tolling at the end of my speech, but it is important that we understand that each of the African children who die in their hundreds and thousands on a weekly basis is someone's little child who is loved. It is important that we keep telling the world that.

Some progress has been made. I understand that agreement was reached only last weekend to establish inter-Congolese talks, but I ask the Minister to deal with the question of funding. Someone once said sarcastically to me that those involved in the negotiations want extra funding so that they can stay in five-star hotels. However, what western diplomat, Minister or Secretary of State would not stay in a five-star hotel when they go to an international conference? Let us not use that argument as an excuse for not providing proper funding. The area needs huge funding and help with representation, and the same applies to the Sudan, which the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) and I know very well. More effort and more money needs to be put into the talks that are trying to resolve such crises.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned development aid. Can we get away from the notion that, if there is conflict in an area, development aid must never be provided? We have to get away from that view, because generations are growing up in Africa without receiving any basic education. That applies not just to 30 or 40 per cent. of the population, but to the entire population of the Sudan and much of the Great Lakes region. Although the countries may be in conflict, there are pockets of peace—often long-standing peace—where some form of education could be provided. It is vital to the future of the area that it should be available.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin) referred to the problem of natural resources. Progress has been made on diamonds, and we have all heard about blood diamonds—we have had a debate in this Chamber on the subject—but it is strange that one of Uganda's biggest exports should be uncut diamonds when none are mined there. Clearly, at some stage, the international community must tackle the problem of the other countries in the Great Lakes region plundering the resources of the Congo. There must be agreement and that might result from the west imposing trade sanctions on illegally obtained goods.

One of the root causes of the conflict in the Congo is the exploitation of natural resources. Coltan has been mentioned, so I shall try to lighten the tone of the debate a little. An African told me last week that it was funny

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that coltan is needed for mobile phones and that it can be obtained in the Great Lakes region, because Africans invented the mobile phone—it is called a drum.

Although this point has not been mentioned, we should commend the Secretary of State for International Development on her efforts to bring Rwanda and Uganda together. It is now inconceivable that that band of brothers—particularly Presidents Museveni and Kagame—should contemplate making war on each other. They have been through so much and they share many of the ideals that Africa needs, so it is inconceivable that their poor countries should make war on each other.

I know that time is short, so I shall conclude my remarks. The Prime Minister's moving conference speech has been mentioned and, if the war against terrorism has taught us anything, it has taught us that we have to address poverty and conflict wherever they are in the world. It is no coincidence that the al-Qaeda terrorist network found succour in Afghanistan and Somalia, two of the poorest countries in the world. If any good is to come out of 11 September, the western nations, especially the United States of America, have to realise that poverty in Africa and Asia is connected with events on that day. We are partly responsible for those. The poor and the dispossessed have been given a means of fighting back. We must heed the warning. I return to John Donne:

10.30 am

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) on raising the debate. Every word she said was of value. It is right that we are discussing this issue. I apologise if I was a bit rough on her earlier, but it was only because we are all eager to contribute to the debate and believe, as she does, that the subject is important. I agree with the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) that too many people say that conflict happens all the time in Africa and that we can do nothing about it. We have to combine to reject that dismissive approach, because only then will something be done.

We need to take a tough and practical approach to the continent's politics, because only through its politics will we address the humanitarian problems that cause so much agony to us all. In that, I am realist. I am coldly practical in appreciating what needs to be done. I always try to cut through the emotion, which is why I winced slightly at the intraparty congratulations on the Prime Minister's speech in May. He said:

it is always personal—

My analysis of what is happening leads me to a simple view: soundbites feed headlines; soundbites do not feed babies. We have to confront a serious practical political problem and turn words into action. If the Minister can do that, through the Foreign Office and the power that Britain and our partners have, I assure the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow that the applause will be well deserved and I, for one, will join in, no matter who it is who brings about improvement in Africa.

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The hon. Lady was right to concentrate on the Democratic Republic of Congo and put it at the centre of the problem. It most clearly is. A single global statistic shows the plight of that country. The Congo can be lumped together with North Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq as the four countries with the highest percentage of undernourished people among their populations. That alone is enough to advertise the challenge that we all face in overcoming the largest problem, which is also the most ignored. Bearing in mind our history, it should be the issue of most concern.

I will do a quick canter through four major headline issues. I am sure that the Minister will join me in welcoming yesterday's report that the Government and the rebels in the Congo have achieved a major breakthrough in their meeting in Abuja. Representatives of President Joseph Kabila and the two main rebel movements have committed themselves to attend the talks in South Africa in January, and that is a sign of significant progress. We should send the message from this Chamber that we hope that President Kabila will attend. It is clear from events in Afghanistan that the principals need to be present. Representatives will never make as much progress as we need to be make at that meeting.

Zimbabwe is also a concern. Although the debate is not primarily about that country, it is part of the region. The interaction of politics and political influence is crucial to the chemistry of both. The United Nations published a report last month which accused Zimbabwe of prolonging the war in the DRC so that ruling party bosses could plunder the country's reserves of gold, diamonds, timber and coltan. It said that that was President Mugabe's policy. Mugabe rejected the report out of hand. His Foreign Minister said that it was a pack of lies invented by the British, but we had nothing to do with the report, so I do not know where he got that idea.

Will the Minister comment on Zimbabwe and its influence on the Congo? It is clear that almost everything President Mugabe is doing within his country, and to influence countries outside it, is increasingly malign. He is a pariah in and around Zimbabwe. Reports suggest that instability is being bred in Zimbabwe because of instability in the Great Lakes region. It was reported on 19 October, I think, that the DRC was assisting Zimbabwe in circumventing the international arms embargo by buying huge quantities of guns and bullets on its behalf. It will be interesting to hear whether there has there been a breach of the arms embargo.

On the Kimberley process, to what extent does the Minister think that the control of diamonds exports as a source of revenue has collapsed or is in danger of doing so? Perhaps he can comment on that process.

I want to leave as much time as possible for the Minister to respond. He is the expert on this subject and I know that he has been devoting much attention to it. Perhaps he can enlighten the House by giving us the latest information on diamonds, arms, Zimbabwe and the talks, which we hope will lead to a political resolution,

10.36 am

The Parliamentary Under–Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): I join all hon. Members in sincerely congratulating my hon. Friend the

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Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) both on securing the debate and on the manner in which she spoke. I know that those hon. Members who went on the trip take a real and close interest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the region. I also congratulate the all-party parliamentary group on producing, as the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) generously said, an excellent report. It is a model for Members of Parliament who make such visits because it is accessible and informative and has been followed up, not least by the recent meeting that my hon. Friend and others had with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development. In addition, today's debate gives us the chance to follow up the insights and information that were gleaned during the visit. Moreover, our deliberations build on the debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) in November last year.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow spoke with insight and passion. I learned several things from the debate. I did not know about the origin of the artificial distinction between Hutus and Tutsis. It is a terrible warning to us all about the perils more generally of labelling people. The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) also spoke with passion. It is important that the sense of outrage, bewilderment and the sheer incomprehensibility of what went on is clung to because it motivates all of us who have an interest in making progress. We need to hold on to that so that we continue to drive forward. At the same time, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) is right: practical measures are required to enable that progress to be secured. We have to keep the flame of outrage alive while applying ourselves to making practical progress.

Dr. Tonge: May I correct the Minister by saying that we are talking not about what went on but about what continues to go on?

Hilary Benn: I take that correction in the spirit in which it is offered. I did not mean to imply that the problems are all in the past. They continue. But I was reflecting on the genocide in Rwanda, which was on a scale that is difficult to comprehend.

I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) that words must be turned into action. He spoke about the need to feed those in the world who go to bed hungry every night, and I am sure that he would be the first to acknowledge that on one measure, the size of the international aid budget, there has been an improvement. We inherited an annual budget of £2.2 billion when we were elected in 1997, and that figure will rise to £3.6 billion by 2003-04, which is the end of the current spending round.

A 45 per cent. increase in real terms is practical action, and although I am reluctant to bring a party political point into the discussion because the hon. Gentleman almost forswore such points in his contribution and in an intervention, I point out that it is in marked contrast to what happened previously, and the Government should be judged on their actions. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be generous enough to acknowledge the progress that we have been able to

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make. He mentioned Zimbabwe—which I know, Mr. Amess, is not the subject of today's debate. I am sure that all hon. Members agree that Zimbabwe has enough problems of its own making without adding those of the Great Lakes region.

As we have heard, the conflict and instability in the region is probably Africa's most serious problem, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow rightly referred to the failure of politics and of politicians. The wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and, indeed, in Burundi—about which my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), who is no longer here—spoke with his characteristic knowledge, have thrown both those countries into reverse. Millions of people have died, and most of those who survived have seen their livelihoods ruined and their country's chances of development destroyed.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow rightly pointed out, the DRC is potentially a very rich country, which is partly the reason for the exploitation of mineral resources to which she referred. As she said, 60 million people live in a country as large as western Europe. As we know, a much larger area has been dragged into the conflict, resulting in the destabilisation of countries in the region.

The first thing that we all agree on is the need for peace. It is very easy to say that, but in trying to understand how we can make progress, we all recognise that peace is a precondition. As we have acknowledged in other debates, conflict makes it difficult to make progress in achieving all the other developmental objectives that we share. Only with peace can the international community begin to help with the sustained long-term support that is required to deal with poverty in the region.

The prospects for peace are good but uncertain. In the DRC, the Lusaka peace process provides the right framework. In Burundi, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre pointed out, the Arusha peace agreement is beginning to bear fruit with the establishment of the transitional Government, and I pay tribute to Nelson Mandela for his role in that process. However, we must keep up the effort, and here the involvement of the international community is crucial. The UK Government have responded by giving great priority to supporting progress towards a solution to the Great Lakes conflicts.

That is a joint endeavour. The debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham was responded to by one of my colleagues in the Foreign Office, which reflects the joint working between the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence. One of the practical expressions of that co-operation is the resources now being made available through the Africa conflict pool, which is, I say to the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton, another practical measure to join up parts of Government and set up a single funding source to address different parts of the problem.

There is a sustained political and diplomatic effort. I would not want the opportunity of this debate to pass without paying tribute to the sterling efforts of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. As all Members will acknowledge, she has made this matter a personal

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priority. As a relatively new Minister in the Department, I can say that she continues to devote a considerable amount of time and personal effort to enabling the peace process to advance. Members will know that she visited the area in August to urge progress in the Lusaka peace process. She has hosted and been personally involved in discussions between the participants. She plans to go to the DRC again in the new year with some of her EU ministerial colleagues. Of course, as hon. Members have mentioned, the Prime Minister has spoken of his concern about the need to find a solution to the conflict. We have also increased the resources available to tackle problems in the area, and I shall return to that.

We are trying to do three things. The first is to raise the profile of the region's problems. I was greatly struck by the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin) about the earlier lack of international interest and of demonstrations and protests. That is a terrible indictment of us.

We live in an increasingly small and fragile world, in which we are more interdependent. We understand more now than at any time in our history that what happens in one country ultimately impacts on us all. The Prime Minister's speech and many other things that have taken place in the world in the past couple of months reveal that the world community is, in a stumbling and uncertain way, feeling its way towards an understanding that should such events, particularly the genocide in Rwanda, happen in future, we cannot stand on one side, and I regard that as a positive step. That does not mean that we have solved the problem or that we have a perfect mechanism for deciding when to intervene in every case. Hon. Members have mentioned realpolitik, and in some cases that will create difficulties, but at least we are having a discussion about whether we should intervene.

I have on a previous occasion made an analogy with domestic violence. Thirty years ago, the police would have been called to a household where a man was beating up his wife or partner, and they would have said that they could not intervene because the situation was domestic and internal to the family. Now, attitudes have been utterly revolutionised, and the police have a completely different approach. We can liken that to the way in which the international community regards what would in the past have been seen as civil wars within the borders of a particular country in which they could not intervene. That is progress. We have not completed the process, and it will be messy, but at least we are moving in the right direction. Raising the profile of the problem so that the world pays more attention to what is happening in the DRC is a worthy objective in itself. The work of the all-party group and this debate contribute to that process, and I congratulate all those involved.

The second priority is to work closely with our international partners, particularly, Belgium, France and the United States, because collaboration is key to ensuring that the Lusaka agreement is fully implemented. Thirdly, we must keep up pressure on the parties to keep to the Lusaka agreement to which they signed up. Again, that is simple to say, but if people have signed an agreement that requires them to do various things, we need constantly to remind them that they have accepted those obligations and must fulfil them. That means that there must be progress on the elements of the agreement, and I turn briefly to each of those.

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The first is the disengagement of forces. The Lusaka accord called for the immediate withdrawal of all the foreign forces based in the DRC. There has been some progress, but not as much as we would like. It is necessary to remind all the countries involved that they should comply with the provisions of the agreement.

Hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow, have referred to the size of the MONUC force. As my hon. Friend will be aware, there is agreement in principle to increase the size of MONUC when all the foreign forces have been withdrawn. It is important to recognise that MONUC is there to oversee the peace process as it develops but not to enforce it; only the parties to the agreement can enforce the peace process on themselves. Only this week, the Secretary of State discussed this subject with a representation of the UN peacekeeping organisation. We would like MONUC to move faster into the east of the country to continue the good work that it has been doing in extremely challenging circumstances.

The second is DDRRR. I was grateful for the reminder of definitions in the useful report, which has a good index and guide to acronyms whose meaning we can easily forget because there are far too many of them, both generally and in the field of international development. The United Kingdom recognises the importance of moving forward on DDRRR. We are supportive of the establishment of all-encompassing DDRRR programmes led by the United Nations and the World Bank. We recognise the need in the interim for quick-start programmes so that, when opportunities arise, we can ensure that capacity exists to respond to combatants who, in the end, must want to disarm.

Again, it comes back to the participants in the fight; they have got to want DDRRR to happen. We can encourage and support them but, in the end, we cannot make people do things against their will: they must come from within. We have resources immediately available to commit to DDRRR in the DRC. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made a public commitment to support DDRRR in the region. Officials from the Department attended a World Bank meeting in Kampala last week to discuss setting up a regional fund for that purpose. The UN operation is effective and we are ready to help with bilateral assistance to enable forces to make further progress in the east of the country.

The inter-Congolese dialogue is clearly an essential element in securing a lasting peace in the DRC. After a promising meeting in Gaborone, there was a disappointing meeting in Addis Ababa, followed by the breakthrough to which the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton referred. We are hopeful that progress will be made when the dialogue resumes in South Africa early next year. The hon. Member for Richmond Park asked about support for the dialogue. The UK is now one of the three largest contributors. We have contributed £500,000 to date and will actively consider further requests.

The issue of humanitarian support was raised in our debate. The humanitarian consequences are desperate and our humanitarian budget is spent where there is the greatest need. As the hon. Member for Richmond Park and others have said, some of the worst development and humanitarian indicators in the world are to be found in the DRC. The humanitarian situation remains

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dire, although there have been few ceasefire violations. Access for non-governmental organisations working in the DRC has improved, but a recent UN report estimates that 2 million people have been displaced in the DRC by the conflict, and 16 million do not have secure access to supplies of food. Additionally, 2.5 million people have lost their lives in the country since the conflict began in 1996, which is an extraordinarily high number; there has been great human suffering.

Last year, the UK gave £3.3 million in humanitarian assistance to the DRC. Words should be matched by action, and this year that figure will be doubled. In addition, the UK contributes about a fifth of the European Union's humanitarian budget which, in 2001, will be 35 million euros. In effect, therefore, the total UK contribution is about £7 million plus 7 million euros. It is worth pointing out that EU support is increasing sharply. Last year, the contribution was only 7 million euros, but it will be 35 million euros this year—evidence of words being backed by practical action.

The UK provides humanitarian assistance through well established NGOs and assistance to the facilitator of the national dialogue. Our assistance focuses on health and nutrition; work with refugees; child soldiers and other vulnerable groups; food security; prison monitoring; and human rights work. To ensure that our support is fairly distributed throughout the DRC, which is not under the control of one authority, £4 million of this year's emergency humanitarian support is going to the Red Cross. In the circumstances, it is important that we are not seen to favour one participant in the dispute and conflict in the country. We are also developing a range of peace-building initiatives, such as projects to bring together different ethnic communities, and are providing information about the peace process to the Congolese population. For example, we are providing support for a radio infrastructure in the DRC so that people can hear about what is happening. It is important that the people at whom all the activity is directed should learn more about the progress of the peace process.

In Burundi, we are supporting the Arusha process—in particular by helping to support the South African-led protection force for returning politicians. We have provided £100,000 for the latest round of talks, bringing our total to just over £0.3 million. We have also

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provided £50,000 for a project promoting political dialogue between the parties in Burundi. We are also supporting a major new programme in Burundi to tackle HIV/AIDS. Again, words are supported by practical action.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow spoke with generosity and understanding about the problems that Rwanda is facing, given its history. It is one of the most traumatised societies, if not the most traumatised society, in Africa. We are the leading bilateral donor in Rwanda and are committed to offering it support because we think that it needs that to make progress on poverty reduction, meeting international development targets, security, reconciliation, economic growth and inclusive government. We have provided substantial support, although I know that some people say that, in the context of the region, it appears a bit unbalanced. However, given their history, the Rwandan Government—and I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is passionate about this—need all that practical help to try to make progress on establishing a safe and secure country for their people. Progress continues to be good in Rwanda which, in some ways, is becoming a developmental model for the region. The need for humanitarian assistance has decreased partly as a result of our support, but principally because the efforts of the Rwandan Government and their people are helping the country to get back on its feet.

We have had an excellent debate. These issues need to be aired, and the fact that an hour and a half of Westminster Hall time has been given to them is a modest contribution both to raising the profile of the DRC's problems and keeping the flame of interest burning. Resolving the humanitarian crisis and the conflict in the Great Lakes is a priority for the UK Government. I hope that the steps that we are taking are evidence of that. While the conflict continues, we will provide urgent humanitarian support to the best of our ability, but only when peace comes in the region will we get the chance to assist with the development needed for a secure, stable, prosperous DRC. I have spoken about the country's enormous potential and mineral wealth, and there is no doubt that a strong and thriving DRC could emerge from the war if its potential can be tapped. It is therefore important to take the opportunity to ensure that the peace process in Burundi holds and to make further progress on securing peace for the long-term, lasting benefit of the DRC.

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