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Democratic Republic of the Congo

Volume 551: debated on Tuesday 23 October 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I thank the Speaker for selecting this important debate on the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I also thank the Minister for coming to reply to the debate.

I will start by making three points that I want everyone here to remember. First, a staggering 4 million lives are estimated as lost due to conflict and conflict-induced poverty in the DRC. Secondly, although it is a country rich in resources, which if used properly could transform it, it is one of the poorest nations in the world, ranking 187th out of 187 in the UN human development index. Thirdly, the average life-expectancy for a man is only 47 and for a woman, 50. The infant mortality rate is around one in 10.

The DRC is the second largest country in Africa by area, and the 11th largest in the world. With its population of 66 million, it is the 19th most populous nation in the world and the fourth most populous in Africa.

The DRC is a vast country with immense economic resources, although it has been at the centre of what could be described as Africa’s world war, which has left it in the grip of an ongoing humanitarian crisis. The five-year conflict pitted Government forces, supported by Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe, against rebels backed by Uganda and Rwanda. Despite a peace deal and the formation of a transitional Government in 2003, people in the country still remain in terror of marauding militia and the army. It is estimated that the war claimed in excess of 3 million to 4 million lives, either as a direct result of fighting or because of disease and malnutrition.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She mentioned Rwanda. Does she not find it extraordinary that the UK Government reinstated aid to Rwanda when, on the basis of UN information, the Rwandan Government have been aiding rebels in eastern Congo?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. The situation is difficult, because Rwanda has itself suffered terrible conflict. I understand that the money that has been given to Rwanda was not to support the Government but for humanitarian reasons.

The war has had economic as well as political implications. Fighting was fuelled by the country’s vast mineral wealth, with all sides taking advantage of the anarchy to plunder natural resources. That vast mineral wealth has also led to illegal exploitation.

In September last year, the DRC held its first democratic elections. Observers hoped that for the first time the Congo’s history of poor governance and rebellious factions could be put to rest. However, for those living in many parts of the country there has been no such relief.

In April of this year, a rebel military group, the March 23 movement commonly reported as the M23, was formed. It is based in eastern areas of DRC and mainly operates in the province of north Kivu. The group is currently involved in a conflict in the DRC that has led to the displacement of large numbers of people. On Friday, the United Nations Security Council reiterated its condemnation of and demanded an end to all external support being provided to armed groups, particularly to the M23, which has been destabilising the DRC over recent months.

Several experts currently based on the ground—for instance, the director for central Africa of the International Crisis Group—recently confirmed to the all-party parliamentary group on the African great lakes region that many facts point to a likely resumption of attacks from rebels and army in the coming weeks or even days. That has been confirmed by the M23, which declared in a statement released last Saturday to announce the new name of its military wing, the Congolese Revolutionary Army—ARC—that it expected imminent attacks from the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, FARDC.

The M23 mutiny has also contributed to a less commented-upon consequence: the increase in activities of other armed groups in other parts of the Congo, especially the Ituri region of the Orientale province and the Masisi territory of the north Kivu province. Rebel groups took advantage of the security vacuums created by redeployments of the army to M23-affected areas. Casualties since April are hard to assess precisely, but the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights declared that preliminary findings from missions of the UN joint human rights office in the DRC, carried out in Masisi territory, suggested that civilian massacres perpetrated by the FDLR—the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda—and the group known as Raia Mutomboki may constitute crimes against humanity.

In particular, the DRC’s eastern provinces of north and south Kivu have witnessed increased fighting over recent months between Government troops and the M23. The ongoing violence has led to an alarming humanitarian situation, marked by rape, murder and pillaging. The fighting has displaced hundreds of thousands people, including many who have fled to neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda, as well as within the DRC. Peacekeepers from the UN organisation stabilisation mission in the DRC—MONUSCO—have been aiding the DRC Government’s troops in their efforts to deal with the M23. Last week, six UN peacekeepers and a local interpreter were wounded in an overnight ambush, while returning from a patrol with 12 other peacekeepers, near Buganza in north Kivu province, after finding the bodies of four civilians.

As well as expressing deep concern about the deteriorating security and humanitarian crisis in the eastern DRC, caused by the M23 and other armed groups, the UN Security Council also condemned the M23’s attacks on civilians, humanitarian actors and UN peacekeepers, and its abuses of human rights, including summary executions, sexual and gender-based violence and the use of child soldiers. An M23 combatant, who recently spoke to Human Rights Watch, was candid about the recruitment of child soldiers in Rwanda. He said:

“We recruit everywhere in Rwanda and street children are very susceptible to recruitment.”

Let me very clear about where I stand on the issue. As far as I am concerned, Rwandan military and civilian officials who recruit children under the age of 15 for the M23, or any other group, are responsible for war crimes. Sexual violence is a common tragedy facing women and children in the DRC and the charity Tearfund estimates that 48 women and children per hour are raped in the country, mostly by armed groups as well as civilians. If that happened in this country, there would be an outcry.

The correlation between rape and the spread of HIV has been demonstrated in several cases. Some reports estimate that 20% of raped women are HIV-positive. Diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea and nematode infections resulting from poor water, sanitation and hygiene are also commonplace in the area. The links between sanitation and sexual violence become apparent when, owing to the lack of access to private latrines, women face no choice but to find private places to defecate, often at night and a considerable distance away from their homes, further increasing their risk of sexual violence. The organisation War Child states that this is the

“most dangerous place in the world to be a woman”.

Those sentiments were echoed by Hillary Clinton, who added:

“It truly is one of mankind’s greatest atrocities. This country has witnessed humanity at its worst.”

Rape as a tool of war is, in my opinion, a war crime and must be condemned in the strongest manner possible by the whole international community.

There are now more than 2 million internally displaced persons—IDPs—in the DRC, the highest number within the past three years, with 1.5 million IDPs in the Kivu provinces alone. There are now more than 320,000 new IDPs from north Kivu since April, owing to the M23 mutiny alone—as mentioned in the latest UN Security Council presidential statement released on Friday, which I referred to earlier—and more than 400,000 new IDPs across the provinces since the mutiny.

Aid workers in the region claim that they have exhausted their resources and capacities and that numerous IDPs are unreachable either because they are in remote areas or for security reasons, and dealing with that would require humanitarian corridors to be set up. The global UN-led DRC humanitarian action plan is still only 47% funded. The UN refugee agency has launched an appeal for almost $40 million to cover the needs of 400,000 internally displaced people in north Kivu, south Kivu and Orientale provinces and of 75,000 refugees—25,000 in Rwanda and 50,000 in Uganda—who have appeared since the M23 rebellion started in April.

The UNHCR has warned that the situation remains volatile and that it expects further displacement this year. It fears that the number of new IDPs may reach as many as 760,000 in the coming months. The agency also said that it was particularly alarmed about the large number of human rights violations in north and south Kivu, where more than 15,000 protection incidents, including, murder, rape and forced recruitment, have been reported since April.

Given the magnitude of the new displacements, the World Food Programme has launched a new emergency operation from September 2012 to June 2013, which will assist approximately 1.2 million people in five provinces. Three weeks ago, it declared:

“We need additional funding to be able to continue to assist this very poor population. So far we have mobilised only 15% of the total cost of this emergency operation.”

UK aid to the DRC will increase from about £147 million in 2011 to £258 million a year by 2015, which amounts to £790 million between 2011 and 2015, with £176 million to be spent on wealth creation, £130 million on humanitarian aid and £109 million on governance and security.

In 2010-11, the DRC was the UK’s seventh largest recipient of bilateral aid and the third in terms of bilateral humanitarian assistance. In the past five years, western countries alone have invested more than $14 billion in the DRC. International aid is now equivalent to nearly half the DRC’s annual budget. As such, donors have considerable leverage over the DRC. Yet despite all that aid, nothing substantial ever seems to happen to stop the suffering of the people of the DRC.

The DRC will continue to receive billions in aid, including in humanitarian assistance, to help to relieve the suffering of the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the numerous ongoing conflicts, while the lack of efforts by the Congolese Government on good governance, on structural reforms in the security sector, the army and the justice and administration sectors and on decentralisation will thwart any positive developments in stabilisation.

Despite all the ongoing work and the amount of aid being given by the UK and the international community, the DRC will not meet any of its millennium development goals. However, if the UK Government continue with their current policy, which I sincerely hope they will, then by 2015 we will without doubt fulfil the targets for the DRC, set by the Department for International Development. Those targets include delivering more for poor people by promoting economic growth and wealth creation; helping to build peace, stability and democracy; and meeting various specific targets such as safer births, clean water for 6 million people, and protection from malaria for 15 million adults and children.

I simply want to refer to the destabilisation effect. Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the problems is that the lack of movement on the reformation of the armed services creates enormous pressures on Rwanda and Uganda to act over their borders into eastern Congo?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He has a huge experience of this subject.

Finally, at a time of such economic hardship at home, there are those who question the purpose and the amount of aid going overseas, but this is an investment. I passionately believe that providing aid to people in such desperate conditions is morally right. It is also in our national interest to have a safer and more secure world and less suffering in such destitute conditions. It is time to move the world with us in embracing the 21st century.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) on securing the debate. She has shown a strong interest in humanitarian issues in this part of Africa, both before and since entering the House. She has raised some interesting points and I welcome the opportunity to debate the topic, as I share her concerns about the situation in eastern DRC, as do a number of hon. Members, two of whom also spoke this morning. The region has also been the subject of a number of recent parliamentary questions. The topic itself is the responsibility of the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), who is unable to be here today.

The deteriorating humanitarian situation in the DRC is extremely worrying. There are 2.3 million internally displaced people, up from 1.7 million at the end of last year. The strengthening and proliferation of armed groups in 2012 as the national army has redeployed to tackle M23 has led to a sharp increase in the number of attacks on civilians, including alarming levels of sexual violence, forced recruitment and other human rights abuses.

Access for humanitarian agencies to affected areas is limited. The UN humanitarian action plan called for $791 million, but only $412 million has been raised to date. My hon. Friend asked about UK aid to the DRC. As she notes, the UK is one of the largest contributors of development aid to the DRC, and over the next four years the UK will deliver significant results to the poorest and most vulnerable people. We are committed to providing a minimum of £27 million of assistance each year until 2016. We call on others to follow suit and give this crisis the attention and support it deserves.

The DRC remains one of the most challenging environments in which to deliver aid. Questions over further UK aid support to the DRC are first and foremost for my colleagues at the Department for International Development, and I will ensure that the debate is brought to their attention. I am also aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will continue to review the programme to ensure that the money is reaching the right places in the DRC while also achieving value for money for the British taxpayer.

Looking beyond the humanitarian crisis, we want a stable and prosperous DRC. The international community needs to respond to the drivers of the conflict. We therefore welcome the presidential statement issued by the United Nations Security Council on Friday 19 October. The statement condemns M23 and all its attacks on the civilian population and emphasises the need for countries to respect the principles of non-interference, good neighbourliness and regional co-operation. We want a regional solution to what we believe is a regional problem. We welcome the leadership that the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region has shown thus far. The ICGLR has achieved a ceasefire, or, more accurately, a lull in the fighting. I say that because clashes have, alas, continued. Although they are not at earlier levels, they are enough to remain a concern. The fact remains that a rebel group with external support is in control of part of the DRC. That is clearly unacceptable.

We also welcome the ICGLR’s proposals for a neutral international force to tackle armed groups in eastern DRC, though details remain to be decided, and an extended joint verification mechanism to monitor the border between the DRC and Rwanda. We urge its rapid deployment.

No, I will continue, if I may. In a moment, I will answer the question that the hon. Gentleman put earlier.

However, the crisis requires a sustainable political solution—something that the ICGLR has not yet been able to address in depth. The UN is working on the problem and it held a high-level meeting in New York on 26 September, which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary attended, during the UN General Assembly. We were disappointed with the outcome, but it is crucial that we continue to work with the UN, with regional groups such as the ICGLR, the Southern African Development Community and the African Union, and with our international partners to ensure there is support for regional efforts to find common ground for a lasting political solution. We should not pretend that this will be a quick and painless process, but it is vital that we see progress soon, given the terrible impact of the crisis on the ordinary people of the DRC, which my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire described.

We want to explore what more the UN peacekeeping and stabilisation mission in the DRC—MONUSCO, or the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—can do to support efforts to find a solution, as well as fulfilling its vital and primary role of protecting civilians. In addition to working through the UN and supporting regional bodies such as the ICGLR, we will continue to maintain pressure on the Rwandan and DRC Governments about their roles.

For Rwanda, the message is that it must play a constructive role in resolving the problems in eastern DRC and stop all support for M23. That message has been given many times over the past six months. For example, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave it during a meeting with the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, in July, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary did the same during a telephone call with the Rwandan Minister for Foreign Affairs on 29 September. Our high commissioner in Kigali has reinforced the message on many occasions with a number of senior Rwandan figures.

I want to address the question put to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) on the continuation of aid to Rwanda. The decision to disburse £8 million of general budget support while reprogramming the remaining £8 million to targeted programmes on education and food security took account of the fact that withholding the money would impact on the very people we aim to help. By reprogramming some of the general budget support, we signalled our continuing concern about Rwanda’s actions in eastern DRC.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was not trying to make some kind of cheap political point about the issue. The point is that we are committed to helping the poorest people in the world and we believe that there are people in Rwanda who are still deserving of our support. The decision to continue that support was taken across Government.

No, I will not.

The message for the DRC Government is that they have a major role to play if the cycle of violence in the east of the country is to be broken for good. They need to show leadership and to address, in practical ways, the underlying causes of instability in the region. A sustainable peace can be found only if all external support for armed groups in the DRC stops and if the DRC Government show leadership in finding long-term solutions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire rightly focused on the issue of sexual violence in the DRC and the appalling stories—those which we hear of—emanating from that part of the world almost daily. We utterly condemn the use of sexual violence in conflict, wherever and whenever it takes place. In the DRC in particular, that horrific situation persists and will leave lasting scars.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary recently launched a new initiative on the prevention of sexual violence in conflict. We are setting up a UK team of experts who will be deployed to conflict areas in support of efforts to prevent and investigate sexual violence. The initiative will provide crucial funding support to the UN, and we will also work to help other countries to develop their capabilities to prevent and investigate those terrible crimes. I hope that the initiative will also enjoy the support of all parties in the House.

As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary also announced, the UK will use our presidency of the G8 to secure commitments from others to tackle sexual violence in conflict. With the UK showing international leadership in this area, that is an appropriate point at which to draw my remarks to a close.

Sitting suspended.