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Democratic Republic of the Congo

Volume 482: debated on Tuesday 11 November 2008

5. What his most recent assessment is of the prospects for a resolution to the conflict in eastern Congo. (234532)

We strongly support the regional initiative of Presidents Kikwete of Tanzania and Kibaki of Kenya. It has allowed countries in the region to discuss co-operation to end the humanitarian crisis and injected new momentum into achieving full implementation of the Nairobi communiqué and the Goma accords, which we will now take forward with President Obasanjo, the UN special envy, and ex-Tanzanian President Mkapa. My noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown will be in the region next week to take that forward.

The whole House will remember what happened in 1994, when up to 800,000 people were killed in neighbouring Rwanda, after which 2 million people fled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that peacekeeping forces on the ground can take the necessary action to stop the same disaster happening again?

The United Kingdom was proud to support the biggest UN operation ever, the 17,000-strong United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—or MONUC—force, which is in the DRC. As the hon. Gentleman knows, however, we need political action, from both the DRC Government and President Kagame in Rwanda. That was the purpose of my trip to the region 10 days ago and it is the purpose of the African Union intervention, which is so significant.

What scope is there for the AU and the EU to work together and use their joint influence on the Congolese and Rwandan Governments? In particular, is there any scope for co-operation in responding to the request by the head of MONUC to boost UN troops, so that there are sufficient forces in the right places to deal with the insurgents and rebels, who are causing so much havoc and terror in the area?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about AU-EU collaboration. That was the purpose of my visit to Dar es Salaam, and the work of Commissioner Michel is taking the issue forward. The EU has an important role in monitoring the implementation of the Nairobi and Goma accords, as well as on the humanitarian side. It is right that the fighting force is a UN force. I do not think that we want a rival EU force. What we need is for all countries, including European countries, to think how they can contribute to the MONUC force. We are waiting for a Security Council discussion later today. The first priority is the proper and effective deployment of MONUC forces, but if it is reported that more troops are needed, different countries will have to decide how they build that up. The decision of the African Union to involve itself and say that African troops will be the first port of call for extra forces is important in that respect.

What pressure is being brought to bear on the DRC Government to disarm the Hutus, who are responsible for the massacre of the 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda?

Eleven hundred FDLR—Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda—troops have been disarmed and repatriated to Rwanda. That is an important step forward, but everybody who meets President Kabila emphasises that it is only that—a first step. When we talk of his fulfilling his responsibilities under the Nairobi agreement, it is precisely the disarmament and repatriation of the FDLR that is at the heart of his responsibility.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his efforts in the Congo. He will be aware that there have been more than 4 million excess deaths there in the past 10 years because of the chronic instability and fighting, and more than 250,000 people have now been driven from their homes. What can he do to put an end to the sexual violence, in particular, and the recruitment of child soldiers? As in all wars, it is the women and children who suffer the most.

My hon. Friend rightly draws attention to one of the more shocking aspects of this conflict. The conflict in the Congo has cost more lives than any other since the second world war; I think that the total is now 5 million. The best thing we can do is to have a proper ceasefire, because that is the only basis on which the rights she is talking about can be properly adhered to.

With time being of the essence, surely it must be right for the European Union to support the United Nations and the African Union with military assistance. Is Oxfam not right to say that European

“inaction has very human consequences… How many more must suffer before Europe will take effective action?”?

I do not accept that Europe is taking no action, and I do not just mean on the humanitarian side, where Europe is the largest donor to the DRC. European countries do have troops in the DRC, and we have a small number of officers helping to command the MONUC brigades there. What is important is that the UN takes a grip on this, and that the UN is the right place in which to take this forward. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would also agree that, rather than repeat the mistakes of the 1990s, when neighbours of the DRC got involved in the war instead of preventing it, it is right that a range of African countries should be the first port of call for extra troops.

The problem with having African solutions to African problems—desirable though that is—is that, in the short term, it is going to lead to the deaths of many thousands of people. As we have seen in Darfur, the African Union lacks the capacity to intervene effectively. If intervention is to come, it will have to come from elsewhere—either through reinforcing MONUC, as my right hon. Friend has said, or through some form of EU intervention along the lines of the French Operation Artemis five years ago.

I think that we are looking at a rather longer-term problem than Operation Artemis. That was a time-limited, three-month operation, as my hon. Friend will know, as a distinguished former Minister for Africa. In our view, MONUC is the right place in which to situate the command structures. We do not want competing command structures, and we need to ensure that, if commanders on the ground report that they need more troops, those troops can be found.

Why is the Foreign Secretary so against an EU force, given that France, Belgium and the Netherlands have said that they are prepared to send forces, and that an EU deployment would be possible under the lead nation concept? Given the urgency of the situation, and the improbability of any immediate reinforcements coming from within the African Union, is not the Foreign Secretary indulging in dangerous wishful thinking by putting the burden of responsibility entirely on African troops?

I am not seeking to put any gloss on the situation: no one who has been there could fail to realise the gravity of it. There is nothing to prevent European nations from contributing to the UN MONUC force; that is the right place to do it. However, I do not think that the Foreign Ministers of some of the countries that the hon. Gentleman cites as being keen to send forces are in quite the position he believes them to be in, but let us leave that to one side. It must be right that, rather than having two fighting forces from outside, we have one, under a single UN command structure, that can deliver. That is what we are trying to do.

When my right hon. Friend visited Rwanda, was he able to impress upon President Kagame his view that a political solution was absolutely vital and that, just as we expect President Kabila of the DRC to play his part, President Kagame must now insist that Rwanda should be on the side of peace, not of war?

Yes, it is evident that Rwanda has important responsibilities in this respect, and Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister, and I certainly impressed that on President Kagame, who made it clear that he and his country would fulfil their responsibilities. That is the significance of the regional process that has now been started.

The Foreign Secretary has emphasised what must happen in the medium to long term, but many hon. Members on both sides of the House have highlighted the catastrophic nature of what is happening in the short term. Many of us believe that, although there are 17,000 UN troops there, they do not have a proper, effective command structure; nor are they a deterrent to General Nkunda, who has now said that, in the event of the troops bringing pressure to bear on him, he would take military action against them. In the short term, what kind of effective military deterrent can we put in place to prevent Nkunda and the others from carrying out what is effectively genocide?

First, it is most important to reinforce the ceasefire and, secondly, to ensure that MONUC troops are properly deployed in the areas threatened by General Nkunda. There are 5,500 troops in the north Kivu province and 76 IDP—internally displaced persons—camps there, which makes the scale of the problem evident. Thirdly, all those with links to General Nkunda need to make it absolutely clear that they will not tolerate further activities of the sort that went on last week and in previous weeks.