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House of Commons

Wednesday 6 November 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Democratic Republic of the Congo

1. Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston): If she will make a statement on the peace process and humanitarian efforts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. [77692]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a highly indebted poor country. Levels of poverty are terrible, and the humanitarian situation in the east is particularly serious. The Congo needs peace and a legitimate Government, which could lead to debt relief and development.

The United Kingdom has strongly supported the Lusaka peace accords, and applauds the recent engagement of South Africa in helping to drive forward the peace process. Angola, Uganda, Rwanda and Zimbabwe have withdrawn their troops from the Congo. Progress is now being held up by delays in the forming of a transitional Government incorporating all factions. There is a danger that fighting in the east will escalate as negative forces based in Congo seek to invade and destabilise Rwanda and Burundi. The United Kingdom is intensely engaged in trying to drive the peace process forward. We have provided #5 million of humanitarian aid so far this year, and will do more.

Mr. Clarke: Is my right hon. Friend aware that those of us who participated in the recent Inter-Parliamentary Union visit to Rwanda returned feeling gravely concerned about the escalation of genocide in an already troubled region? Does she agree that if the Kinshasa Government fail to speed the process, at a time when urgency is absolutely necessary, the situation will deteriorate further and quite needlessly?

Clare Short: I agree. The region has been terribly troubled. The history of Burundi and Rwanda, in which there have been outbreaks of genocide or killing since independence—if it can be called that—is really terrible, and the international community has neglected the region.

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As I said in my answer, there is worry about a vacuum following the withdrawal of Rwanda. It is feared that that will lead to genocidal forces seeking to invade Rwanda and Burundi, and an escalation in the killing. My hon. Friend is right: we need the Kinshasa Government to agree with the United Nations, form a transitional Government and secure order throughout the country with a strengthened UN presence. The hold-up is in Kinshasa, which must be pressed to do more.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): I thank the Secretary of State for all that she is doing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Does she agree that this is a classic example of a country, rich in natural resources, that could create prosperity for its own citizens but, because of bad governance and conflict, has done the opposite? I know that she will do this anyway, but may I encourage her to maintain her close interest in the country? Will she also assure us that she will make good governance a high priority for her Department? In establishing good governance in so many emerging nations, are we not taking the most important step towards giving them prosperity?

Clare Short: That is true, especially in the case of Africa. Some of the countries with the richest natural resources are the most blighted. Those resources have been misused in the colonial era and since by people who wanted the diamonds and the minerals and did not care about the conditions of the people. The Congo has been misgoverned for those reasons since King Leopold of the Belgians.

I also agree that good governance is essential, but the hon. Gentleman will remember our Front-Bench exchanges. If we are to build up powerful and effective Government institutions, we need not to fund projects outside Government but to get inside Government systems. What we need are courts that work, finance ministries, and revenue authorities that are transparent, and we have shifted our focus in that direction. Once we have peace in the Congo, it will be an enormous job to build up Government institutions that are now completely lacking.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the first recommendation of the all-party group's report, which will be published tomorrow? It asks other countries in the region, and those beyond it, to recognise the serious security concerns of Rwanda and the people of the DRC.

Will my right hon. Friend consider helping the Government of the DRC—the Kinshasa Government—to set up a civilian police force to give some protection to people in the eastern part of the Congo, where 2.5 million people have died since 1998 as a direct and indirect result of the conflict?

Clare Short: I look forward to reading the all-party group's report, and I agree with my hon. Friend. The Congo is as big as western Europe and full of rich natural resources, but it has no Government institutions and no order. All sorts of militias are being armed by different factions, and there is terrible suffering for the people, especially in the east.

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I have had talks with President Kabila of the Congo to suggest that the UK and France might work with him and the new transitional Government to help establish a proper army. I think that the Kinshasa Government have used some of the militias because they did not have an army that functioned. Then we need to get on with establishing a police force.

I agree with my hon. Friend's diagnosis, but establishing a transitional Government and strengthening the UN are the first two steps we must take. We must then create a proper national army.


2. Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): If she will make a statement on the progress with restructuring Afghanistan. [77693]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): Much has been achieved in Afghanistan over the last 10 months. There is peace and security in Kabul, a legitimate transitional Government and a new national currency. Nearly 2 million refugees have returned home, and 3 million children are in school. The situation, however, remains very fragile. Afghanistan is a desperately poor country. The south is facing its fifth year of drought, and more than 4 million people are still dependent on food aid. The situation outside Kabul remains insecure. Warlords control large militias, and large parts of the economy depend on narcotics.

Further progress requires the establishment of security outside Kabul, and an increase in the Government's capacity to deliver services across the country. The UK will remain engaged to support continuing progress and development.

Mr. Swire: Given the failure to combat the continuing oppression and intimidation against poor farmers by regional warlords operating outside the control of the Afghan interim Government and the resulting eighteenfold increase in opium production since the removal of the Taliban, can the Secretary of State reassure the House that combating opium production in Afghanistan remains a priority of this Government? If it does, when can we expect to see the rhetoric matched by resources?

Clare Short: I must say that I find it very unappetising that the hon. Gentleman is trying to play games with the fate of a country such as Afghanistan that is trying to—[Interruption.] No. I really disrespect the hon. Gentleman's tone and his question. The situation in Afghanistan is very serious for its people and the future stability of the region. Security in Kabul is very important. We are about to move to agreement on the formation of a national army. That will mean the warlords having to dismantle their militias in favour of DDR—disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration. There was a massive cut in drugs production because of an eradication programme led by the United Kingdom in the first year after the fall of the Taliban, so the hon. Gentleman is also factually wrong—[Interruption.] I do not know why he is becoming hysterical. I have just come back from Afghanistan and I think that I know rather more about it than he does. As we saw in Colombia, a country

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cannot be prevented from producing drugs if there is no order, no justice or national security. Establishing that is the next stage and that is what we will be doing.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): May I tell my hon. Friends that I was in Iran last week with a group of parliamentarians and met some of the 2.2 million Afghan refugees, some of whom have been in that country for more than a decade? The very strong message that they gave us was that they need more reassurance that if they return to Afghanistan they will be able to enjoy a secure environment. May I urge my right hon. Friend to press her colleagues in the international community to deliver the funding and the help that is needed to establish that security as soon as possible and to maintain that support over a long period so that refugees can return and rebuild their lives?

Clare Short: As I said earlier, 2 million refugees have returned from Pakistan, but there are more than 2 million in Iran and fewer have returned from Iran. I completely agree that, having secured the capital, which is a great achievement—Kabul is bustling with business; there are even traffic jams and little girls going to school—the same security is now needed outside Kabul. I think that we are on the brink of agreement, led by President Karzai, with the US, the UK and Japan involved, with the warlords on a process of forming a national army and disarming the militias. That will be a big process, but it is crucial to security and includes the establishment of regional security teams in the big cities outside Kabul. We will soon move forward to extending security outside Kabul and that is key to economic development. We are about to move to the second phase, which is urgently needed.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire): Does the right hon. Lady agree that one way in which the drugs trade in Pakistan was reduced was by the building of roads to remote areas so that otherwise marginal crops became more valuable and could displace the drugs trade? What progress is being made towards building roads to the remote areas of Afghanistan?

Clare Short: I do not think that building roads will by itself reduce the drugs trade; indeed, it could assist it. What is needed is security and—I agree with the implication of the right hon. Gentleman's question—alternative legitimate livelihoods so that people can grow a crop, get it to market and have a legitimate life that draws them away from what is often the only crop they can grow—poppies funded by warlords. Afghanistan needs security and then more roads. There are commitments to more main roads across Afghanistan. I agree with his diagnosis and I am happy to say that we are about to move to that stage.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): A kilo of opium costs $30 in Afghanistan, $600 in Tehran and $4,000 on the streets of Britain. The Iranian authorities have deployed 42,000 soldiers and police to fight traffickers. Thousands have been killed by an army of people who often have superior equipment, such as ground-to-air missiles and night-sighted rifles. When will the British

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Government give some front-line support to the fight against traffickers as well as encouraging alternative agricultural production in Afghanistan?

Clare Short: Given my hon. Friend's knowledge of prices, I am surprised that he does not know that we have been heavily engaged in supporting the building of intelligence units. Groups in Afghanistan have the capacity to destroy laboratories and stocks, but that will not work without creating a secure country. Afghanistan became a narcotics-growing paradise because it is a completely failed state without any justice. It is run by corruption—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I urge hon. Members to give the Secretary of State the opportunity to reply to the House. Such noise is bad manners.

Clare Short: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

My hon. Friend is right to say that there must be interdiction, but justice, security and the chance of a decent alternative life are also necessary, and we are working on all those things.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): On Monday, the Secretary of State for Defence said that it was too early to say what provisions would be made for security in Afghanistan after the expiry of United Nations authorisation for international peacekeeping on 20 December. However, the Secretary of State for International Development has just said that we will remain so engaged. Does that commitment bind her right hon. Friend, and when will she make a statement to the House?

Clare Short: I am afraid that the hon. Lady is muddling two things. The international security assistance force, which is securing Kabul, is currently led by the Turks. International negotiations are taking place about who will lead the next phase of the force. The second issue that is being discussed is bringing security to the cities outside Kabul. It is not suggested that that will be done by ISAF, but agreement is imminent. The United States will take the lead in most places, and the United Kingdom will engage. However, that issue is not connected with the future of ISAF.

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