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7 May 2008

The Democratic Republic of Congo

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

I want to pick up a couple of the points made by thehon. Gentleman, and I hope that the Minister will deal with them in hisresponse. First, the hon. Gentleman mentioned that the Chinese are providing £8billion of support to the DRC Government to build a railway, clinics anduniversities, and that the money will be repaid over 30 years in the form ofminerals. How will that pouring in of untied aid or support for the countryaffect our approach to what should be happening in the DRC? Clearly, suchstraightforward commercial deals to improve the infrastructure will result inaid being more effectively delivered where it is needed; on the other hand, such money cannot be introduced withoutdistorting what happens there, including aid-driven involvement.

Secondly, although I appreciate that the Governmenthave announced that they will donate £50 million of British money to help toconserve the forest in the Congo, there have been reports-most recently in TheGuardianon 23 May last year-of agroup of rogues and vagabonds who may benefit from that funding. A range ofcorrupt individuals who have been involved in forestry in the Congo andelsewhere own sections of the forest. I give the Government credit for havingensured that DFID money has been effectively spent and has not worked its wayinto the wrong pockets and the wrong bank accounts, but The Guardian article about the individuals who may be involved inthe forestry business in the Congo sent a shiver down my spine.

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

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

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

We cannot, however, simply talk about the need toincrease aid in the DRC. As the United Nations millennium development goalsmonitor recently noted, the principal obstacle to the achievement of the MDGsin the Congo remains the continued instability in that land. Informationcollected by the International Rescue Committee shows that a staggering 5.4million people have died as a result of the conflict between 1998 and 2007, and1 million people have died since the signing of the peace agreement. It is notfor nothing that the DRC has been called Africa's first world war.

The DRC differs from many other places in thatrelatively few of these deaths are directly due to armed violence. The vastmajority of people die from easily preventable and treatable conditions such asmalaria, diarrhoea, pneumonia and malnutrition. Children make up less than 20per cent. of the population but account for almost half-47 per cent.-of thedeaths. It is one of the tragedies of the DRC that so many people have diedquietly and unnecessarily, almost unnoticed by the international community. Itis estimated that 1,000 people continue to die everyday as a result of conflict and conflict-related issues. Many of those whosurvive are left with physical and psychological scars as a result of a brutalcampaign of rape and sexual abuse. As in other conflict zones, the displacementof civilians has been a major problem, with 400,000 people displaced in therecent escalation of violence in north Kivu. The insecurity in the region makesit difficult for aid agencies to help displaced populations. 

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

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

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

Hon. Members may have read an interview in TheEconomist with Denis Mukwege, adoctor treating women in the DRC. He reported that 90 per cent. of the women insome villages have been raped. He said:

"We are no longer talking about 100 women, or 1,000women...We are talking about 100,000 women." 

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

There is also a grave need to ensure that the crisisdoes not spill over the border. So far, a degree of restraint has been shown in Kinshasa andKigali, even if it is not always possible to control the more radical factionson the ground. However, the Congo's natural wealth has in the past fuelledcorruption-it will continue to do so, if that is not checked-as well as statecollapse and conflict. Better regulation of the sector is not only adevelopment issue, but a strategic one. Hon. Members will know that althoughthe DRC has signed the extractive industries transparency initiative, it hasyet to implement it fully. What is the UK doing to ensure full implementationof the EITI? I am thinking in particular of the inclusion of figuresdisaggregated by mine or project, rather than just by company or sector.

The persisting humanitarian crisis has been called

"the most complex, deadly and prolonged everdocumented".

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

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

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This website was established while I was a Member of Parliament. The site content is being kept online as a source of information, but all forms / email have been disabled.