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Democratic Republic of the Congo

Volume 482: debated on Thursday 6 November 2008

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of the political and humanitarian situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

This is a very timely debate. The stark images from recent days of the suffering in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are a reminder of the human consequences of conflict in Africa. The numbers, too, are sobering. In a country with a population close to 60 million, around 1.5 million people have been internally displaced by conflict, many of them uprooted repeatedly. The last week alone has seen an estimated 55,000 people forced to leave their homes as troops under the command of the rebel leader Laurent Nkunda have advanced on the key regional city of Goma. They contribute to a total of 250,000 displaced people in North Kivu province since the resumption of fighting there in late August. Many of them are beyond the reach of agencies that can help them, caught in territory held by rebels where access is impossible.

All of this is taking place against a background of militias killing and torturing the civilian population, pillaging their belongings, and recruiting and deploying children as soldiers. The international community faces a substantial challenge in addressing the factors that have contributed to the unrest in the DRC and its appalling consequences.

Does the Minister agree that the problems of the DRC and the ongoing conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis are not simply limited to that country? Is it not about time that the international community examined the wider conflict in that sub-region—in Burundi and Rwanda—and tried to initiate a genuine peace conference to try to bring about peace between the Hutus and the Tutsis?

I agree with my hon. Friend that there is a wider issue. Certainly, the role of the African Union is key to addressing that concern. There are also specific issues relating to the DRC, however, and I shall talk about those in a moment.

It is clear that the events played out in recent weeks stem from regional political tensions. The terrible events of the 1994 Rwandan genocide resonate in the ethnic strife seen today in eastern DRC. The ethnic Hutu FDLR traces its origins to the Genocidaire Interahamwe militia, and poses a real threat to the security of the Tutsi population. The abuses that it continues to commit mark the group as a destabilising factor, and I endorse the condemnation that it received in United Nations Security Council resolution 1804.

However, no party involved in the violence is free from responsibility for the region’s very real suffering. Nkunda portrays himself as the defender of Tutsis, yet his militia, the CNDP, has committed atrocities of its own. The warlord Bosco Ntaganda, an International Criminal Court indictee, is among its most senior leaders, and it has been responsible for many of the excesses reported in the region. It is the march of the CNDP towards Goma, in defiance of the authority of a legitimately elected Government, that has triggered the latest displacements in North Kivu.

The Nairobi agreement, concluded between the Governments of the DRC and Rwanda with the support of the international community in November 2007, offers a framework for addressing the threat of the FDLR. Though implementation has been slow, the agreement contains the right elements to begin to defuse the ethnic tensions between communities in eastern DRC.

Is the Minister prepared to search for any information on the links between the mining industry, the sales of minerals and the funding of various militia groups as a consequence of the theft of the wealth from the Congo?

I understand the point that my hon. Friend is making. That is one of the reasons why we have pushed strongly internationally for an extractive industries directive to tackle those causes. I think that there is an economic driver, but there are other factors as well. I shall talk about them in a moment.

The Government of the DRC must make sustained and comprehensive efforts to persuade the FDLR to disarm and leave, backed by military force where necessary. The needs to deliver on its commitment to bring war criminals to justice, too. For its part, Rwanda must create the conditions for demobilised FDLR members unconnected with the genocide to return to its territory.

I am slightly alarmed that the Minister has mentioned military force. Will he itemise which elements of the British armed forces have already been warned off for a possible deployment to the DRC? Will he also confirm that that would not involve any of the scarce elements of our strategic airlift capacity, which are fully involved in Afghanistan? Will he also tell us what he is doing with our European allies to ensure that any possible European deployment to the DRC will not cut into their commitments in Afghanistan?

With respect, the hon. Gentleman is getting way ahead of himself. I have been keen in the statement that I made earlier this week and again this afternoon to make it clear that although no contingency is ever ruled out, we strongly believe that MONUC—the United Nations organisation mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the largest peacekeeping force anywhere in the world—needs to be deployed effectively. That is our overriding priority at the moment.

Some International Development Committee members recently visited Goma, and I would like to put a point to the Minister. It seems to me that every time we hit a crisis, we respond in a box. It is now a human conflict crisis, but it has also been a development crisis and, in the past, a political crisis. Can we join those together? I am delighted to see the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), in his place on the Front Bench. When we talk about action from the international community, however, can we integrate efforts to tackle conflict, the politics and development at the same time, because if we do not, we will simply return to these situations time and again?

My right hon. Friend, who has huge experience in this area, is absolutely right that we must have a concerted and co-ordinated effort; ultimately, however, the circumstances call for a political solution. I know that several Members wish to speak in the debate, so I shall now make some progress.

I certainly applaud the decision of the UN Secretary-General to appoint the former President Obasanjo of Nigeria as his special envoy to eastern DRC. His task will be to find effective ways of mediating between the two Governments, encouraging them to make progress and fulfilling their commitments. The diplomatic initiatives being launched elsewhere are also welcome. The engagement of President Kikwete of Tanzania, the current chair of the African Union, is a hopeful sign of the readiness of regional leaders to help end the conflict in their neighbourhood and cement stability in its place.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that President Kagame will definitely attend the Heads of State meeting in Nairobi this weekend? I understand that he has been somewhat equivocal in some of his public statements, although he claims that he is going.

My understanding is that he will attend that critically important meeting tomorrow. My noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown is leaving this evening in order to attend it. The need for it is even more urgent, because in the past 24 hours the fragile ceasefire announced last week seems to have been broken with clashes around Kiwanja, just north of Rutshuru, 80 km north of Goma, between the CNDP and the PARECO Mai-Mai elements. MONUC engaged during the day and succeeded in pushing them further north outside Kiwanja. The fighting stopped at around 4 pm local time and both sides have retreated a little way from Kiwanja—the CNDP to the south and PARECO to the north. Things have been quiet so far this morning, but those events underline the urgency of the situation.

Given that Britain is a substantial donor to the nine countries that border the Democratic Republic of the Congo, does the Minister agree that we, too, should play a significant role in arriving at some settlement, rather than leave it to others?

I believe that we have a role to play, which is why the Foreign Secretary attended the meeting, along with the French Foreign Minister, and why my noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown is leaving for the Heads of State meeting this evening. We are playing a constructive role and it is important for us to do so.

It is only through constructive co-operation that the DRC and Rwanda will deal effectively with the threat to regional security that the FDLR represents. With the international community’s support, they must resume their efforts and end the recriminations they have exchanged as the situation in the region has deteriorated. We have heard reports of cross-border interference as the violence has intensified in recent weeks. The two Governments need to agree and consistently apply a robust and reliable method of investigating the allegations, and they must deal effectively with cases where illegal activity is proven. Together with increased border security, that will isolate the destabilising forces in the region and promote collaboration towards the lasting political solution that the region needs. The international community will do whatever it can in support.

The DRC faces a further internal challenge to resolve the questions underlying the tensions between its indigenous communities on its eastern borders. The UK was closely involved in the peace and security conference held at Goma in January this year. After a long and constructive series of debates, that initiative saw a ceasefire and, crucially, agreement was reached between the Congolese Government and more than 20 indigenous Congolese groups on a range of important questions. It brought representatives of rival organisations under one roof to consider the issues affecting the east of the country and it set the Amani process in motion.

The UK has been among the most closely involved of all international players in the effort to implement the accords signed at Goma, which I know has been widely welcomed. There is also no doubt that resolving such urgent questions as access to land, the return of refugees from outside the DRC and greater respect for human rights will encourage better inter-communal relations.

Nkunda’s declaration in October that he was withdrawing from the Amani process was very damaging. The international community should reject Nkunda’s call for bilateral talks with the DRC Government, as the issues behind regional instability run wider than his concerns. The Amani process still offers the best opportunity for all communities, including the Tutsis whom Nkunda claims to represent, to settle issues jointly. The way is open for Nkunda to rejoin the Amani process; I strongly believe that he should take that opportunity.

The DRC Government bear the responsibility for their citizens’ security. Their armed forces need to be better equipped and trained to confront the illegal militias that prey on the civilian population.

With the best will in the world—not always present in the Congo—there is no way that the Congolese armed forces will be in a position to enforce the rule of law in the east. What is needed in the short term at least, and probably in the medium term, is to reinforce MONUC, which Alan Doss has requested since early October. Failing that, mounting the sort of operation suggested by the French, involving an EU force, could be suggested. What is our position on both those matters?

As I said earlier this week—I think in direct response to questioning by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin)—we believe that MONUC forces on the ground are best placed to deal with the situation. It is the biggest single peacekeeping operation anywhere in the world. We certainly support its efforts and commend it for its work. I have to say that it is unlikely that a rapid deployment of forces from the EU or elsewhere could significantly increase the capability that already exists in the region. Discussions with our EU partners have revealed a broad consensus in line with that assessment. MONUC is our most productive way forward. We need to ensure that troops are deployed appropriately. There are issues about the caveats of a number of the national forces that are part of MONUC; we are certainly seeking to address them and have them removed—

And numbers, but I believe that we need to put all our efforts behind ensuring that MONUC succeeds.

Further to the Minister’s reply to the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), Alan Doss, the head of MONUC, asked for 2,700 extra troops for nine months in October—before the recent crisis erupted—so it is a question of the size and capacity of MONUC forces. What are the Government doing to ensure that Alan Doss, a British commander leading MONUC, gets the forces that are needed, whether from the African Union, the European Union or other countries?

We are certainly keeping the situation under review, listening to advice on the ground and seeking to do everything that we possibly can to ensure that the numbers are appropriate and are deployed in the most effective way. Given that it is the biggest peacekeeping force anywhere in the world, I think that the numbers are in place, but they need to be in the right places. That is what we need to push to address.

There have been calls from some quarters for the EU to provide troops to help guarantee supply and support, and I have addressed that issue in answer to questions. The International Criminal Court opened its investigation into events in the country in June 2004. With the exception of Nkunda’s partner, Bosco Ntaganda, all the Congolese individuals subject to arrest warrants issued by the ICC are in the court’s custody. The DRC has co-operated in the process to bring them to justice and we expect it to continue to fulfil its obligations to the court. The broader task ahead is to develop a culture of accountability and tackle the impunity that has had such a detrimental effect on life in the country. That extends to economic issues, which echoes the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle). The UK is working to promote transparency in the mineral sector, and to create conditions in which the DRC’s natural wealth can be better managed and used for the benefit of the population.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shall come to that shortly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The whole House is indebted to the hon. Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce), not just for sharing his knowledge with us today but for the work that he does on the all-party parliamentary group. I share many of his concerns, and I hope that the Minister will take particular note of his comments. He, like the Minister, is right to say that ultimately, we need a political solution. It is a shared position on both sides of the House that, frankly, we do not believe that the British armed forces have the capacity—at least in the immediate future—to contribute in large number to any extra troops that go to eastern Congo.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that MONUC needs some reinforcement. In our view, it was impossible for it to do the job asked of it prior to the current crisis—let alone in the light of the current crisis around Goma—without reinforcements. I think that he and I agree that the Government need to go a little further on this. It is not credible to argue that the objectives of defending Goma, maintaining the immediate ceasefire—such as it is—and disarming the Hutu militia in the medium term can be met without MONUC’s being reinforced. I do not accept that we can deal with this just by redeploying the existing MONUC forces.

The Minister keeps saying that this is the largest UN deployment across the world, but Congo is the size of western Europe. He may say that most of the problem is in the Kivu region, but as the hon. Member for Falkirk reminded us, MONUC is having to deploy in a whole range of different areas in Congo—in the Ituru and in north DRC. So MONUC is really stretched, and I do not accept the Government’s position that this can be dealt with simply by redeployment; there needs to be extra capacity. That is what Alan Doss believes and what the UN’s own peacekeeper office has argued for.

The possibility of an EU force has been discussed in this House and elsewhere, and like the hon. Member for Falkirk, I am concerned that it is the British Government who have been talking that possibility down. It has been suggested that President Sarkozy and others in the EU have been keen to see this force, but it is the Brits who have been talking it off the table. I hope that that is not so, and that the Minister who replies will answer that point. What have the British Government been doing about the EU proposal, and why are they not championing that idea to ensure that our European partners provide some troops in this crisis when they are needed?

Will the hon. Gentleman make it clear whether he is suggesting that an EU force replace the UN force, or that it be part of and supportive of a UN command in Congo?

I think that it would have to work with the UN force. Ideally, I would like MONUC to be reinforced and to have an EU force. An EU force of 1,500 troops has been mentioned; however, in 2003, under Operation Artemis, an EU force was very successful, having been deployed for only two months, in bringing to an end a vicious conflict. The quality and standard of EU forces is therefore significantly higher than that of the MONUC forces, and a short intervention could be very useful in backing up what MONUC has been trying to do.

However, it is a question not simply of the number of troops, but of their mandate, as the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) discussed. There is some concern that MONUC’s mandate is a little too restrictive, in the sense that it has to work with the Congolese army. One can understand the politics of why that is so, but as has been said, the Congolese army has proved ineffective and in some cases has actually undermined some of the work taking place. Its troops have been committing human rights abuses. The need for the mandate to be clarified, so that MONUC can operate independently of the Congolese army, is increasingly important.

The peace process is obviously critical, and I pay tribute to the Foreign Secretary for the work that he has done there. My concern regarding President Kabila is whether the international community is giving sufficient support to the necessary rebuilding of the Congolese army, and whether we are trying to persuade him to talk to General Nkunda. That might seem counter-intuitive to many in this House and elsewhere, but unless Nkunda is brought into the process, peace will not come as quickly as it needs to. The Minister talked in his opening remarks about involving Nkunda, but not in terms of direct talks with the Congolese Government, which are what Nkunda is seeking. Perhaps the Minister who responds to the debate can say whether we are trying to bring that about.

Finally, I want to revert to the points that I made during the urgent question asked earlier this week about the importance of the economic dimension. When I challenged the Minister about this last Tuesday, he talked about the importance of the extractive industry’s transparency initiative, which is of course very important. But the truth is that very few British or western companies have been brought to book for the way in which they are, directly or indirectly, fuelling this conflict. It is good that DAS Air and Afrimex were found to be in breach of OECD guidelines this summer, but what actually happened to them? Very little happened to them. Companies from the US, Canada, Germany and Austria are not being brought to book. It is time that the illegal mineral trade, which is fuelling this conflict, was clamped down on and that some of these electronic consumer goods firms, which benefit from the minerals sourced from this region, were held to account. They need to be asked to explain their sourcing policies and procedures. I am sure that our constituents would think it wrong if their buying electronic consumer goods—mobile phones, computers and so on—helped to fuel the death and destruction of people in eastern Congo. They would not expect to be doing that, and I want the Minister to tell us what this Government are doing to prevent such a situation from occurring.

I wish to put on record my thanks to the Leader of the House for choosing this subject for a topical debate—it is very important that we have this debate. Obviously, I have to keep within the 10-minute time limit, so I shall be as quick as I can.

The history of the Congo is one of the mad grab of its mineral-rich resources by generations of, mainly European, traders and mining companies, stretching right back to the 19th century, when it was King Leopold’s personal fiefdom, through to the period when it was the Belgian Congo. Independence subsequently came, and with it the assassination of the then Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. After that came a series of dictatorships, and the rape of the Congo continued, with the theft of resources and the destruction of so many people’s lives.

Many such people have made their homes in this country having sought exile from those conflicts. I echo the point made by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) about the need to have some regard, understanding and respect for the position that Congolese asylum seekers face in this country. We should not be sending back to the Congo people who will, unfortunately, face enormous danger when they return. I hope that the Minister will be able to say something about that.

A couple of days ago, a meeting of the Congolese diaspora was held upstairs in one of the Committee Rooms, and yesterday, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom held an interesting meeting in Committee Room 10 on the “Voices of African Women”. The women involved had suffered because of what is going on in the Congo at the present time. Like my hon. Friends the Members for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) and for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber), I was in Goma earlier this year and I was an election observer two years ago. During that election, there was a sense of hope and a feeling that the huge international investment that had been put into the electoral process would bring about some degree of political stability, the building of state institutions and some degree of long-term peace. Unfortunately, that has simply not happened in the case of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The combination of the poverty of people in a mineral-rich area, the rape of women as a weapon of war by the various militia groups and, I am sorry to say, by the Congolese army, and the fear with which many people live is desperate to see. Indeed, the refugee camp that the three of us visited in April was overrun and burnt down only last week. The people we met there, 90 per cent. of whom were women trying to eke out an existence, have now fled to goodness knows where. They lack any food, clean water and medical supplies, and everything else, and are in a desperate situation.

I want to draw two factors to the House’s attention, the first of which is the role played by minerals and the second of which is the politics of the region. The DRC is a very mineral-rich place: it has massive forestry reserves, and one hopes that the majority of those will be permanently protected; and it has almost every mineral that the world needs. At the moment, the world needs coltan, tin, copper, gold, diamonds and all kinds of minerals, and the DRC is rich in those. It is cursed with the riches of its minerals; the benefits of all those riches have not gone to the poorest people in that country—indeed, there should not be any poor people in the DRC. I do not blame people for buying mobile phones—everybody in this House has a mobile phone; the whole world is buying mobile phones. Coltan is an essential part of their manufacture, but we need to deal with some issues: the methods that are used to extract the coltan; the system that is used to export it; and the money made by mining companies, metal dealers and others, none of which reaches the poorest people in the region. I have received many witness statements of what is going on in the DRC at the present time.

The issues of mineral extraction and the extractive industries transparency agreement are very important—that agreement has simply not been followed by the Congolese Government. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that elements of the Congolese army are controlling individual mines, as are other militia forces. The funding of the arms purchases—the funding of what goes on—comes directly from the extraction of minerals. Thus, in addition to the political work being done to try to bring about a settlement, tough questions need to be asked of every one of the big mining companies that end up processing some of the minerals that are extracted from the DRC, because, wittingly or unwittingly, those companies are fuelling the killing of millions of people. I use my words advisedly, because 5 million people have died in the DRC in the past 10 years as a result of this conflict, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and the capital city, Kinshasa, is overrun by refugees from the war in the east of the country.

My second point concerns the relationship with Rwanda. That country went through the horrors of genocide, and nobody can ever understate or underestimate its effects and horrors. Those of us who have been to Rwanda, seen the museum of the genocide and talked to people who went through it can only throw our hands up in horror at the things that happened to the people there. That is not to say that the Rwandan Government should not behave in a responsible way within the region.

I am holding a copy of the 2004 memorandum of understanding on the development partnership between the Government of the UK and the Government of the Republic of Rwanda. Article 11, to which the Rwandan Government signed up, states that they will

“remain committed to playing a full part in international and regional initiatives to prevent and reduce intra and inter-country conflicts and establish peace in central Africa”.

The Rwandan Government are receiving a huge amount of British aid; probably 40 to 50 per cent. of all Rwandan public expenditure comes from British taxpayers in one form or another. Therefore, the Rwandan Government need to be very open about the relationship between Rwanda and Nkunda and his forces within the region, and about the porous border that exists between both countries, which results not only in arms going through, but in large amounts of illicitly mined minerals getting out of the DRC.

In addition, a joint communiqué was agreed between the DRC and the Republic of Rwanda, clause 10 of which states:

“The Government of the Republic of Rwanda commits to:

(a) Take all necessary measures to seal its border to prevent the entry into or exit from its territory of members of any armed group, renegade militia leaders, Nkunda’s group in particular, and prevent any form of support—military, material or human—being provided to any armed group in the DRC.”

It goes on to say that information should be shared with the DRC and United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Hon. Members have rightly raised the question of what happens to the MONUC forces at the present time. I have met many of the people, from different parts, who work within them. One such group came from Uruguay, but people from India and many other countries are working within those forces. We witnessed them working extremely well during a humanitarian crisis when a plane crashed at Goma airport. I am not in favour of sending another military force in under a separate command or separate relationship, because that is a recipe for chaos, rivalry and, probably, disaster. If MONUC requires more logistical support or more people on the ground to enforce peace, it should clearly get that support and the necessary aid that it requires. Rather than playing at being armchair generals, I ask the House to think of two things. People are now starving in the eastern DRC. Children are dying for lack of medicines. It is a humanitarian crisis; and we have a responsibility to provide all the aid, support and help that we can.

A military solution in DRC is not possible; the solution must be political. I am pleased that Lord Malloch-Brown is attending the conference taking place in Nairobi this weekend to try to promote a political dialogue between DRC and Rwanda and to encourage political developments in eastern Congo. So far, politics have failed and business has made a great deal of money while ordinary people have been dying. We must provide support, bring about a ceasefire and peace and, above all, promote a political settlement so that independence for Congo can become a reality, and people can live in a safe and secure environment and benefit from the natural riches of their own land.

No hon. Member would dissent from the assertion of the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), the Minister and others that Congo needs a political solution. Neither would anyone dissent from the assertion that it is difficult for us to describe the scale of the individual tragedy—of families, women and children, many of whom have been forced to move many times, each time losing more of their possessions and becoming more destitute, thereby making their lives much more difficult. We all hope that a political solution can be found.

I shall focus the House’s attention on the issue that I raised during the urgent question earlier this week. During the 1990s and the early part of the new millennium, the international community became increasingly enthusiastic about promulgating the concept of the responsibility to protect. We had seen the horrors of the Rwandan genocide and we had seen Kosovo, where the United Nations had failed to act—Kosovo was dealt with by a coalition of the willing. As we entered the new millennium, there was a desire that we should never find ourselves in such a position again. That was described well by Tony Blair, the then Prime Minister, at the 2001 Labour party conference, when he said that if Rwanda happened again we would not walk away as the outside world had done many times before. He insisted that the international community had a “moral duty” to provide military and humanitarian assistance to Africa whenever it was needed.

In the same year, Kofi Annan, then Secretary-General of the UN, said in his Nobel lecture:

“The sovereignty of states must no longer be used as a shield for gross violations of human rights.”

That led, in 2005, to the UN adopting a long resolution containing provisions on the “Responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”. It makes it clear that:

“The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter of the United Nations, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”

In January, the current Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, made himself clear:

“I am fully committed to keeping the momentum that you the leaders have made at the 2005 World Summit and will spare no effort to operationalise the responsibility to protect.”

In reality, however, the international community no longer appears able to deliver on the responsibility to protect.

I shall focus on four countries: Sierra Leone, Sudan, Congo and Zimbabwe. In Sierra Leone, the international community intervened very effectively. Led by UK troops, it took on the west side boys and restored peace to Freetown, and thus to Sierra Leone. That was followed by a very successful UN international war crimes tribunal, which for the first time established that enlisting child soldiers is a war crime and that a Head of State has no sovereign immunity from charges of war crimes. Charles Taylor is now in The Hague being tried for war crimes in Sierra Leone. That intervention was fantastically successful. However, that was partly because Sierra Leone is comparatively small and because the UK had the lift capacity and ability to enforce its military will.

By the time we got to Darfur, however, countries with a sizeable lift capacity—in particular, the United Kingdom and the United States—were engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there just were not the countries with the kind of military lift capacity needed to enter Darfur. So we had a kind of dance where, first, the African Union said that it would take a lead. It was clear to those of us on the International Development Committee who went to Darfur that the AU was doing the best it could with scant resources, but that it was totally incapable of doing anything other than monitor the situation. Then it was decided to have a hybrid institution of AU and UN troops, but that has not managed to do much more because, again, there are no players with the kind of lift capacity and military co-ordination able to enforce their will in Darfur.

That has come through in this debate. The hon. Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) rationally said that if rebel forces really wanted to penetrate Goma, we would require a large number of troops on the ground to prevent it from happening. Anyone with any military experience realises that. However, we must also acknowledge that the Secretary-General is not able to call upon the necessary forces. To those of us who took part in the Westminster Hall debate on Afghanistan the other day, it was quite clear that much of NATO’s commitment for the foreseeable future will be tied up in Afghanistan. Indeed, if anything, before enjoining the European Union to get more involved in other areas, we should enjoin EU and NATO colleagues to participate more in the UN peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan.

The UN and the international community need to give serious consideration to how the Secretary-General can access the sort of military capacity needed on such occasions to ensure that the words “responsibility to protect” are not empty or meaningless again. That will require countries outside the EU to make a much greater contribution. After all, a number of members, even in the Security Council, make no significant contribution to peacekeeping or peace-enforcing anywhere in the world. The responsibility to protect cannot be supported only by a coalition of the willing—it is far too important. If we say that there is a responsibility to protect, and if we give the impression that the international community will come to the rescue of those suffering terribly from humanitarian and war crimes, but we do not deliver, we will be betraying those people.

In Congo and elsewhere, we must ensure that the international community and the Secretary-General have the capacity to deliver on the responsibility to protect. We all hope and pray that a political solution will be found to Congo’s immediate problems. However, with the major military world players, such as the UK and the US—with all their lift capacity—occupied in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the resources available to the Secretary-General are pretty thin. We have to face up to that, and to the reality that we will need competent and co-ordinated military feet on the ground to protect civilian populations. At the moment, we are not delivering even in Darfur, so we may well be misleading ourselves if we pretend that we can deliver in other areas.

I hope that Ministers will reflect, with colleagues in the UN Security Council and General Assembly, on how we can deliver on the promise that is the responsibility to protect.

The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) made a very interesting and important speech. I think that hon. Members of all parties feel despair about our inability to protect the people of the Congo, and elsewhere. That is especially true of the many of us who have visited the area and seen at first hand the outcome of previous conflicts, which are now flaring up again.

As has been noted, I visited one of the camps near Goma earlier this year. We heard from many women about what had happened to them, and about the mass rape and violence that had taken place. I was particularly struck by the two teenage girls who told me that they were in despair at their inability to get an education because they could not leave the camp for fear of being raped or attacked. Now I am in despair myself, wondering what on earth has happened to those two girls and all the others in the camp. That brings home the fact that we seem to be incapable of making progress in the crisis and of protecting those people.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) said that yesterday he chaired a meeting of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. It involved women from a number of African countries, and I specifically asked the women who had come over from the Congo what points they would like to be made in today’s debate. I wanted to know what help could be given to try and help end the conflict in eastern Congo, and what could be done to stop the horrendous sexual and other violence against women.

On the second issue, I was told very clearly that securing peace was the necessary prerequisite for stopping the sexual violence, which began when the conflict began and which was very closely associated with it. It was said earlier that rape was being used as a weapon of war, and that was brought home to me very clearly, but the women also talked about impunity. They said that people were simply not being brought to justice, and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that the different Government Departments look seriously at the report prepared by the all-party group on the great lakes with the Swedish Foundation For Human Rights. It deals with the question of how to address impunity for sexual crimes in the DRC, and contains recommendations for the Congolese Government and the international community. Lord Mance from the other place, who is very well respected and knowledgeable about these matters, went to the area on our behalf, and I hope that the Government will take up the report’s recommendations.

In response to my question about how we can end the conflict, the Congolese women not surprisingly spoke about the importance of getting a proper inter-communal dialogue between Tutsis and Hutus. When pressed, they placed the blame on the Rwandan Government, and claimed that the UK Government had links with Rwanda. There is always the feeling that we have favoured Rwanda and that we should put pressure on that Government to meet their responsibilities.

However, I want to emphasise the points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Islington, North and for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce), as well as by certain Opposition Members, about the need for a political solution that requires action by both Rwanda and the Congolese Government. Both sides need to meet the commitments that they have made and play their part in bringing the conflict to an end.

Although the Congolese women who spoke yesterday about the position in Rwanda and the responsibility of the Rwandan Government did not make any comment about any particular group in the Congo, I was reminded of the strong anti-Tutsi rhetoric that we heard from some Congolese parliamentarians during our visit in April. The Congolese Government have a responsibility to make a statement against such rhetoric, as it clearly does not help matters.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North has spelt out the need for Rwanda to do all that it can to meet its obligations under the agreements. He also mentioned the allegations that have been made about the direct support that that Government have given to Nkunda. The evidence is not entirely clear, but we know that he has been able to recruit in Rwanda. The memorandum that was referred to previously shows how the aid that we give to Rwanda is dependent on that Government meeting their responsibility to seek to limit conflict. If nothing else, they have influence over Nkunda, as it appears that they managed to limit his advance on Goma.

The Rwandan Government also have a responsibility to use political means to get the FDLR forces to end their insurgency. Obviously, they cannot be expected to give political space to those who were directly involved in the genocide, but earlier this year we heard about a supposed list of 7,000 people who could not be received back into Rwanda. That needs to be looked at again, as it has been claimed that many of the people on the list were far too young to be involved. Some of the Congolese women at the meeting yesterday said that not all the Hutus were “genocidaires”, and that point needs to be made clear. I hope that the Government use their influence to ensure that all those points are raised in the discussions with Rwanda.

Of course, the Congolese Government also have a huge responsibility to stop using rhetoric against groups in the community. My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk has spoken about the incapacity of the Congolese army, but it has also been suggested that it is connected with various forces.

The Crisis States Research Centre of the London School of Economics has just issued a press release stating that the FDLR remains at the heart of the problem. The release also accuses the international community of failing to take the “bull by the horns”, and discusses how the Kabila Government have an on-off tactical alliance with FDLR elements. It is clear that the Congolese have a huge responsibility to play their part and meet their commitment to go ahead with the agreements and to avoid giving support to any particular faction.

These are horrendously difficult problems, and we have not made a lot of progress with them. When talking about these political issues, it is easy to say that they are about power and how certain forces want to protect what is theirs, but as has been noted it is also very much connected to money—where it comes from and who retains control of resources in the DRC.

As the hon. Member for Banbury said, it is our responsibility to seek to protect and do what we can. It is not for the international community to act as neo-colonisers, and the responsibility for resolving these problems is not ours alone, as the Governments and people in the area also have a huge responsibility in that respect. However, I hope that the Minister winding up the debate will be able to deal with some of the questions that have been raised about what part we can play. We need to help and pressure the Governments in the area to seek an end to the conflict, and also use our influence to get them to act to halt the appalling things that are going on at the moment. People can see them on their TV screens, but those of us who have visited the area have seen them for ourselves. I therefore ask the Minister to deal with some of the questions that have been raised about the political situation, and about the use of sexual violence against women.

It is clear to me that there will be no end to the violence in the eastern Congo until the root causes are addressed. I strongly welcome the high-profile diplomatic stand that the Foreign Secretary has taken, and the humanitarian response made by the Department for International Development, but we will have many more debates like today’s in this House unless the root causes of the problem are addressed. There are many root causes, but I want to talk about just two of them—first, the legacy of the Rwandan genocide and, secondly, the exploitation of mineral wealth by belligerents in the conflict and the markets that they find for the minerals with multinational companies.

It is useful to think of the Rwanda genocide as an unfinished war. It is not a separate conflict that is taking place across the border; the conflict is an echo of the genocide. The Hutus across the border include some of the leaders responsible for the genocide. As my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) said, not all Hutus were involved with the genocide, but they have been there a long time now, under the leadership of the FDLR, and they need to be disarmed, immobilised and reintegrated into society. The leaders need to face trial, but others should be resettled back in Rwanda. One understands Rwanda’s reluctance to have them back, but the conflict will not end if the list of 7,000 people not allowed to return to that country remains in existence; if it does, those people will stay across the border as part of insurgent and guerrilla gangs. There will be no long-term solution and peace for Hutus or Tutsis, and no long-term peace in the region.

Laurent Nkunda’s CNDP is, in a way, a response to the failure of the Congolese and Rwandan Governments, and indeed the UN, to disarm, demobilise and resettle the belligerents in the eastern Congo. The situation is a bit like that relating to vigilante bands. Anywhere in the world, if the state with responsibility does not provide security, people take the law into their own hands, and vigilante bands come into being. In a sense, that is what has happened. That is not an excuse or a justification for Laurent Nkunda’s actions, which are illegal. His CNDP also needs to be disarmed and demobilised, and its members resettled.

President Kagame clearly has influence with Laurent Nkunda, and he should use that influence in the most forceful way possible. Our aid agreement with Rwanda is based on a 10-year memorandum of understanding, which commits high volumes of British aid to Rwanda in return for a commitment that Rwanda will support regional peace and stability. We ought to look to President Kagame to honour that as part of our bilateral relationship.

I should like to add a word about what my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley said about violence against women. Rape is a horrendous crime, but it is not just rape that we are talking about. When I was with the International Development Committee in the eastern Congo a couple of years ago, we visited the Panzi hospital. The sort of genital violence that soldiers did to women just defies description, certainly in such a debate. That violence, inflicted on innocent civilians, will continue year after year unless the root causes of the conflict are addressed.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to send a European Union force if necessary. I particularly welcome the official Opposition’s support for that. When I intervened on the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), I made that point. It is extremely welcome that the Conservative party has signalled support for an EU force, if it is necessary. However, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) that it would be far preferable to provide the security that is needed through the force of the United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) told us, Alan Doss requested additional troops in October. I do not think that the UK is in a position to provide those troops, but we are in a position to fund the provision of those troops.

The UK should also look at what technical assistance we could provide. When I met MONUC commanders and soldiers during my visit to the eastern Congo, it was clear to me that it is a basic, boots-on-the-ground army; it does not have the sophisticated command and control and intelligence systems that a western army has. Help could be provided by the UK and other European countries in that regard. I should also like more UK support for civilian posts in MONUC. It has many vacant posts, and there is more that we could do to provide the civilian support that it needs.

Finally, as others have said, the Congo’s natural resources have been plundered by despots over decades. That is a principal cause of this resource-rich country’s poverty and instability. The trade in conflict diamonds has been curbed significantly by the Kimberley process, but less has been done on the exploitation of other minerals. When my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary responds to the debate, I ask him to tell us more about what the Government can do, by using the extractive industries transparency initiative, and by toughening up the OECD guidelines mechanism, to stop the purchase of minerals from the Congo continuing to fuel the conflict.

I think that all Members would agree that today’s debate is welcome and timely. Sadly, the circumstances that have led to this debate are not. The fighting in the past few weeks has once again brought the world’s attention to one of the most intractable conflicts in Africa, and highlighted the human cost. What happens in the Democratic Republic of the Congo matters not only because its 60 million people deserve peace and a better future, but because that vast country with nine neighbours is vital to the stability of the whole of central Africa. The DRC is one of the frontiers of development, where the battle to achieve the millennium development goals will be won or lost. At least 75 per cent. of the DRC’s population lives in extreme poverty by the $1-a-day standard. Fewer than half of the DRC’s children finish primary school. As many as 1.6 million people are displaced from their homes, more than 900,000 of them in north Kivu alone.

That is not what the people of the country want. The successful elections in 2006 were a clear demonstration of the people’s desire for peace, and of their expectations for change. That pressure is, in itself, important. The situation in the past few weeks and months in the Kivus are a betrayal of what the people of that country truly desire. We have played a leading role in the international political and humanitarian response. Even before the crisis, the UK provided £30 million to the humanitarian pooled fund for priority responses by non-governmental organisations and UN agencies, plus £7 million to the Red Cross and other NGOs.

We have moved quickly to increase our response. We have provided an additional £5 million, which the Secretary of State for International Development announced only last week. Some of these funds have already been used to support UNICEF, whose stocks are low. Two aid flights from the UK have arrived in Entebbe today, carrying plastic sheeting, 18,000 blankets, 24,000 buckets and 1 million water purification tablets. We are arranging for those essential items to be transported as quickly as possible to Goma. I would like to put it on record that we need to look at the situation at Goma airport, which is a long-standing concern. It is also important to say that today we approved £2 million for the World Food Programme to meet immediate food needs.

I do not have very much time to respond to the sensible points that have been made, but let me quickly say, on MONUC, that there is to be an urgent review by the UN, and there will be a report to the Security Council very soon on the request for additional forces. At this stage, no EU country has made any request for an EU force to be sent—there was a discussion about that on Monday—so perhaps there has been some misunderstanding in this debate.

I echo the points made by hon. Members about a political solution: in the end, there has to be such a solution. At the conference tomorrow, it is extremely important that there be appropriate, responsible and urgent engagement by both the Congolese and Rwandan Governments on fulfilling their responsibilities in that respect. My noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown will be there, and will play an active role in the discussions. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will welcome the proactive contribution that our Foreign Secretary has made. He went with the French Foreign Minister to the affected area as a matter of urgency, to see what we could do.

I share hon. Members’ concerns about the exploitation of mineral resources. We need to do more on that issue, and I shall certainly look at what more we can do.

On the question of violence against women, it is important to note that this year the American Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, led a debate about UN Security Council resolution 1820 on women, peace and security, in which she focused on the responsibility to protect—a point made by the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry).

The message from this House is that there is complete unity. We want the Governments in the region to fulfil their responsibilities and we want an immediate cessation of violence so that we can get the humanitarian aid to where it needs to go and begin a longer-term process of peace and stability in the area.

The humanitarian aid that the Minister has announced and consolidated today is highly welcome, but does he agree that it has to be backed up by a political process? If the political process does not move forward, will he and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office work very closely with the new American Administration, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) said, by passing the Act in 2006, President-elect Obama has already shown his commitment to progress towards a solution in the DRC?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, his hon. Friend the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) made a similar point. With the election of President Obama this week, there is a major opportunity not only for serious and proactive engagement on this issue, but in terms of our responsibilities to the developing world more generally. A new American Administration give us new opportunities in the US’s potential leadership role with regard to the developing world, so it is important that, at the earliest stage, we begin discussions with the incoming Administration. We obviously want to form relationships with the people who will play key leadership roles in President-elect Obama’s Government, and we intend to begin those discussions as quickly as possible.

Hon. Members will agree that, first, however, we must make it clear to all parties that there can be no excuses—no obstacles to humanitarian aid reaching the people who need it. We want an immediate cessation of violence, and we want Governments who have the capacity to influence that cessation to use every means available to do so. Having achieved that, we must get to work on a long-term political settlement. As my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) said, we could then come to this House to debate not the flaring-up of violence, but a long-term settlement that is in the interests of that country.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of the political and humanitarian situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo.