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Central African Republic

Volume 588: debated on Wednesday 19 November 2014

Mr Bayley, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I refer hon. Members to my entries in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I am pleased to bring the current situation in the Central African Republic to the attention of Westminster Hall, and I do that particularly in my role as chair of the all-party group on prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity. I will set out later why I am making that express connection. I pay tribute to colleagues in both Houses for questions they have asked the Government about this important issue in recent months, particularly Lord McConnell and Baroness Berridge, who recently visited the Central African Republic and saw first hand some of the problems that it faces.

I am speaking about this matter because it is surely better for us to prevent mass atrocities from happening in the first place, rather than have to deal with a crisis when such atrocities occur. Aside from the humanitarian considerations that we face in seeking to prevent an escalation of violence, considerable security and economic benefits come from early action to prevent mass atrocities.

I am sure the Minister and other hon. Members will be aware that the Central African Republic has not had an easy recent history in its transition following independence from France in 1960. It has endured a number of coups and periods of shocking brutality and today, despite its considerable natural resources, it is considered one of the least developed countries in the world.

The recent period of instability began in 2012, when a rebel militia called the Seleka—meaning, roughly, “alliance” or “coalition”—began to advance across the country. This predominantly Muslim militia held deep grievances against the then Government, under President Francois Bozize, who it felt left the north-east neglected. In March 2014, the Seleka seized the capital city, Bangui, and ousted Bozize’s Government. It then began a campaign of looting and killing against the non-Muslim population.

The militia’s commander, Michel Djotodia, appointed himself as interim President but lost control over his forces, and over the months that followed the Seleka committed horrific human rights abuses against civilians, often targeting people in churches and even burning entire villages to the ground.

This issue is very close to my heart, because of the people and the persecution that has taken place. The hon. Gentleman knows that the Central African Republic is predominantly a Christian country, and this year it entered at No. 16 on the world watch list of countries where persecution is high. He rightly said that the Seleka group of terrorists who are dissatisfied with the regime have particularly targeted those of Christian faith. They have desecrated churches and have raped, murdered, kidnapped, tortured and killed 13 pastors. Does the hon. Gentleman feel, as I do—and as I suspect the Minister feels—that something has to be done to try to stop that persecution in a predominantly Christian country, specifically of those of a Christian faith?

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who I know from previous debates takes a particular interest in the important matter of protecting Christians and other religious majorities or minorities around the world. He is right, and I hope to address some of the specific issues he raised. We cannot be content to allow the present situation to continue. We in this country have a responsibility to act both bilaterally and in concert with other countries, including our European Union partners, an issue to which I will return.

I am probably the only Member of Parliament—I appreciate that Members of the House of Lords have been there—who has visited the CAR. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one big problem is that it is surrounded by three broken states—Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan—and becomes a black hole for all the failures of those surrounding states, with all the bad people from there going in and causing even greater problems? That is a major problem that we need to deal with.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I have not visited the CAR and I did not know until he told me just before the debate that he had done so. It is always helpful for the House to hear such first-hand accounts from Members. If the time allows us—it may do, with the extension—perhaps we could hear a little more from him about that experience after I have spoken. He is right: CAR has its own issues, which I am addressing, but it is surrounded by countries where there are challenges, including the ones he described. Also, Nigeria is not far away and issues such as Boko Haram and the insecurity and instability there may be relevant to the CAR’s security situation in future.

Returning to what has happened this year, Djotodia eventually declared the Seleka disbanded, but of course many of those who had been members of it continued with their destructive actions regardless of that decision. In response to the attacks and violations committed by Seleka, we saw the formation of another group, known as Anti-balaka, meaning “anti-machete”. This group is comprised predominantly of Christians, but there are also animists, and although it was initially formed as a counter to Seleka, increasingly it stopped distinguishing between the Seleka and the wider Muslim population. Sadly, estimates suggest that more than 5,000 people have died since December in that sectarian violence, affecting initially the Christian community but later, with the response from Anti-balaka, the Muslim community as well.

The current transitional Government are not fully established and they struggle to stop the violence. Just last week reports emerged that Seleka rebels had blocked key roads in Bangui and exchanged fire with peacekeepers.

It is welcome that a number of international missions are in the country, with the purpose of increasing stability, including from the European Union and France, and now the United Nations mission. In September, the UN mission took over from the early peacekeeping response of the African Union. We should pay tribute to the important and difficult work being undertaken by these forces. However, it is clear that they remain undermanned and are not always able to take the steps necessary to stop violence in the country. They often come under fire themselves, including in an attack on the current President’s home, showing that rebel forces are often confident that they can act with complete impunity.

Peacekeepers and the state—in so far as the state exists —are therefore unable to stop fully the violence, and that violence can of course lead to reprisals, which lead to further violence; and so a vicious circle is maintained. It is therefore essential that member states ensure that the UN mission comes to full strength a soon as possible.

Greater humanitarian intervention is also needed to help alleviate other pressures that the country faces. Crops have been looted or destroyed, creating food shortages, and more than 900,000 people have been displaced during the conflict. The International Rescue Committee has stated that women and girls in the CAR listed sexual violence as their No. 1 fear.

More work also needs to be done to promote religious tolerance and understanding. Bringing various communities together is vital if we are to see a peace that lasts. I take heart from just one example that I should like to share with the House: that set by Father Bernard Kinvi, a Catholic priest whom Human Rights Watch has recognised. Father Kinvi had been helping both Christians and Muslims who were hurt during the fighting. In one incident, the Anti-balaka rebels had been targeting Muslims in the area in which he lived. As he was helping the injured, they approached him and singled out for execution a 14-year-old boy who was clinging to his robes. The priest stood his ground and told the Anti-balaka rebels, “If you have to kill him, then you will have to kill me first.” He put his life on the line to uphold universal values of human dignity, and that example is a powerful message on the importance of religious tolerance and understanding. I am sure we would all want to put on record our praise for his courage and determination.

We have a window of opportunity to act to stop the CAR returning to a state of full civil war. The United Kingdom, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development have significant experience in helping countries to rebuild after conflict. We should consider doing more to bring that knowledge to bear in this situation. The CAR is due to hold elections in February, although they may be postponed until later in 2015. We should do our best to help ensure that they are free and fair and that moderate forces are able to compete effectively. We know from history in all parts of the world that elections, particularly in fragile countries, can create difficult periods where extremist politicians and parties can polarise and manipulate the population, feeding off fear and stirring hatred. Should further violence be triggered and escalate to the level we saw this time last year, the population could well lose faith that a Government can provide the change the country needs. With that in mind, will the Minister explore whether there is scope for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy or the British Government to carry out work in the CAR in the run-up to the elections to try to ensure that they are as free and fair as possible?

The UK can help to provide some practical solutions to end the conflicts in the CAR. This year is the 20th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, and there are a number of respects in which Rwanda can be used as a positive case study in attempting to replicate some of the successes we have seen with the rebuilding of the capacity to govern in Rwanda over the past two decades. Replicating that could not only help the civilian population, but strengthen the CAR’s regional relationships. Rwanda has been supported by the British Government. We have helped it in a number of ways, including through aid, but specifically relevant to today’s debate is that we have strengthened Rwanda’s capacity for good governance. If we encourage Rwanda and the Central African Republic to work together, we could help to strengthen the CAR Government through programmes where Rwanda helps to train the civil servants and Ministers of the CAR in modern governance practices.

More needs to be done to promote religious tolerance and understanding. Bringing various communities together is surely vital in building a peace that lasts. In April, I was in Kigali in Rwanda for the Kwibuka 20 commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the genocide. I had the chance to hear the mufti of Rwanda—he is a leader of the Muslim community in Rwanda—speak powerfully about how faith groups in Rwanda, both Christian and Muslim, viewed the signs of violence in the CAR with great concern. In April the faith groups were in the process of creating a forum to bring together Christian and Muslim leaders from the two countries to exchange experiences. Twenty years after the Rwanda genocide, they hoped that lessons could be learned for the Central African Republic.

That process of dialogue has developed considerably since. The faith leaders from the CAR visited Rwanda in August and were impressed by the success of the peace education and reconciliation programmes they observed. They wish to establish similar programmes in the CAR to promote social cohesion. To that end, they have forged a partnership with the Aegis Trust, which provides the secretariat to the all-party group that I chair. The Aegis Trust is a British-based non-governmental organisation whose reconciliation work in Rwanda is funded by a number of organisations, including DFID.

On the persecution of Christians and those of Muslim faith—I am aware of both factions being deliberately targeted—Seleka is mostly formed of Muslims from outside of the Central African Republic, so there is an outside influence. The hon. Gentleman has referred to this, but along with all the effort that can be made within the Central African Republic, direct action needs to be taken on neighbouring countries, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark). While it is good to see what is happening, effective action has to be taken outside of the Central African Republic to prevent the influence of terrorists—perhaps Boko Haram—who are directly targeting whatever good work has been done in the country.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The question of peace education and the promotion of mutual respect, tolerance and understanding between religious groups must go hand in hand with a strengthening of the security situation in the country, to face up not only to the internal threats that we have talked about, but to the external threats from forces that might be based in neighbouring countries, to which he and the hon. Member for Braintree have referred. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for making that important and powerful point.

The programme that is being developed could be a unique one in which those who have experienced mass atrocities and, in the case of Rwanda, those who experienced genocide 20 years ago, can talk about how best to overcome some of the dangerous forms of hatred that feed human rights violations, mass atrocities and, in the most extreme cases, genocide. I am sure the Minister will agree that the programme is a positive step forward for both countries that warrants appropriate support from outside, including from the United Kingdom, not least because the Aegis Trust is a UK-based NGO.

Before I finish I will share a quote from the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who said in February:

“Our commitment to protect civilians is only as meaningful as the political, military and financial muscle deployed to defend them...Our responsibility is clear: We must stand with the people of the Central African Republic.”

That is an incredibly powerful message on behalf of all the nations of the UN, but we in this Parliament can say that we want the British people, the British Parliament and the British Government to stand with the people of the Central African Republic.

Will the Minister outline some of the steps that the Government are taking through his Department and through DFID? In particular, what are the Government doing to protect civilians in the CAR? Will he outline any plans to increase the strength of peacekeeping forces and the support given to them? Secondly, what are the Government doing on aid for the humanitarian needs of the population of the Central African Republic? Thirdly, what is being done to improve the safety of women and girls facing violence in that country?

In the arena of promoting sustainable peace, what are the Government prepared to do to support peace education programmes to overcome hatred and to support the transitional Government in the CAR in establishing the rule of law and good governance? What are the Government doing to provide opportunities to improve the economy and infrastructure of the CAR? Will they consider increasing the British diplomatic presence in the CAR? The United States has recently reopened its embassy. Can we look into the potential for increasing the British diplomatic presence? That would show our commitment to the transitional Government and to the elections due in 2015. Will the Minister comment on the support that the UK Government will give to the European Union trust fund for the Central African Republic?

I am grateful for the opportunity to ask some important questions here today on behalf of the all-party parliamentary group for the prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity. To return to the theme that I outlined at the beginning of my speech, prevention is so much better than cure. If we can stem the tide of hatred in the CAR and prevent the country from returning to the civil war that it faced a year ago, that would be a positive example of our learning from places such as Rwanda, which witnessed some of the worst mass atrocities. I look forward to hearing the Minister speak about the Government’s approach.

I was not going to speak in the debate, but I have been inspired by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg). I think that I am one of the only Members of Parliament who has had an opportunity to visit the Central African Republic. I was inspired to visit CAR following a trip to Rwanda, thinking, “Here is a broken state that we can perhaps have a constructive role in.” For anyone who is interested, a good primer would be to read the excellent “Malaria Dreams: An African Adventure” by Stuart Stevens. It was written several years ago, but sometimes things never change. I highly recommend that people read it.

CAR is a broken state that is surrounded by three other broken states: Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan. It is a remarkable country, because it is rich in natural resources that have never really been taken advantage of. I visited with Merlin, a health care NGO that was recently taken over by Save the Children, and I want to make a couple of suggestions to the Minister.

I visited eight regions with hospitals that are effectively white elephants. There is nothing there. The problem is a lack of medicine. I costed fixing up the hospitals and providing medicine for five years, and it would cost something like £7 million to £10 million, which is not huge given the size of the Department for International Development’s budget. If anyone from DFID is listening to the debate, one way that we could help the country is through better health care.

The second way, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby mentioned, is by looking at Rwanda as an example of government and how Governments can change. If we can work with the CAR Government to help them try to have some form of proper governance and a proper transition, we can perhaps grab them out of the French orbit, as we did with Rwanda, and it can perhaps one day be the third African country with no link to Britain to join the Commonwealth.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) for securing this debate on the situation in the Central African Republic. The hon. Gentleman and I are old friends. We first discussed politics—we did not spar—in the ’80s when he was president of the National Union of Students and I was president of Loughborough students’ union. It was clear then that we were both probably destined to pursue a career, or at least an interest, in politics. Even then, however, it was perhaps clear that we would pursue paths of different political hues. It is a real pleasure to continue that friendship and an honour to respond to the debate. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s knowledge, passion and interest in this area.

I also apologise that my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), the Minister with responsibility for Africa, is unable to respond. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby may be aware, the Minister has been quite gravely ill and we wish him well. I will do my best to respond to the points made and to place the Government’s position in context. If am unable to cover the hon. Gentleman’s points, I will write to him in more detail.

The UK Government remain extremely concerned by the situation in the Central African Republic, where the security environment remains volatile. There have been some modest security gains in Bangui, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby outlined, but the situation has deteriorated outside the capital. October saw a spike of violence, including attacks against the personnel and property of humanitarian organisations. Violence against the civilian population sadly remains high.

The UN estimates that more than 2.5 million people—over half the total population—are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. There are some 410,000 internally displaced people and there are 425,000 CAR refugees in neighbouring countries. A third of the country is suffering from food insecurity as the production of food crops has dropped by between 50% and 75%. The situation is likely to deteriorate further as the food supply reduces due to missed planting seasons. The country’s state, justice and economic structures have all but collapsed and will need to be rebuilt from scratch, requiring significant international support. Our immediate focus is on working with the international community to improve security, protect civilians from violence and provide humanitarian support.

In line with the conclusions of the international contact group on CAR, which the Foreign Office attended on 11 November 2014, we welcome the deployment of the UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSCA, and the efforts of the EU force, EUFOR, the African Union, MISCA, and French troops. It is important that the international community continues to show support for such efforts. We welcome the three-month extension of the EUFOR mandate to maintain security in Bangui while MINUSCA reaches full operational capacity. We condemn in the strongest terms, as the hon. Gentleman did, the attack against a MINUSCA convoy on 9 October, which killed one peacekeeper and injured several others, and we are concerned by the recent resurgence of violence and continuing attacks against civilians in Bangui. The UK also condemns all instances of sexual violence that have occurred during the conflict. The African Union’s recent deployment of sexual violence experts to CAR, co-financed by the UK, will support sexual violence victims.

The UK has played a strong role as part of international efforts to address the situation. These efforts have included aid to refugees, logistical support to the French and EUFOR missions and agreeing substantial EU funding for MISCA. A British diplomat, Diane Corner, is also currently serving as the deputy special representative in the capital for the UN mission. The UK has committed £23 million in humanitarian support to the Central African Republic since the crisis began in 2013 and £7 million in support to refugees in Cameroon and Chad, funding the Red Cross, NGOs and UN agencies to provide access to protection, food, water, shelter, health and livelihood. We remain the third largest bilateral provider of humanitarian aid to the CAR.

The UK welcomes the signing of the Brazzaville agreement for the cessation of hostilities on 23 July as an important step towards a lasting peace in CAR. However, military efforts alone cannot bring about long-term stability in CAR. The UK recognises that it will be critical for the agreement to be applied and for an open and inclusive dialogue to be held, including the holding of free and fair elections, which will require sustained international support. The UK therefore welcomes the international engagement seen in the high-level meeting on CAR in the margins of the United Nations General Assembly on 26 September in New York and in the international contact group meeting held on 11 November in Bangui.

Turning to the hon. Gentleman’s question on humanitarian aid, the UK, via the Department for International Development, has committed £30 million in humanitarian support to the Central African Republic and its nationals who have sought refuge in neighbouring countries since the start of 2013, funding a range of NGOs and UN agencies to provide access to aid. That consists of £23 million in humanitarian funding in CAR and £7 million for refugees in Cameroon and Chad. DFID does not intend to engage in development programmes. This year, the UK has provided £18 million, including £3 million for the International Committee of the Red Cross to provide health services and water distribution for hundreds of thousands of people as well as protection services for the vulnerable, particularly women and children, which the hon. Gentleman was keen to point out. The aid also includes transportation for aid workers and relief supplies to remote parts of the country through a £1 million contribution to the UN humanitarian air service.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby made some specific points. On Father Bernard Kinvi, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DFID officials have just had an extremely useful meeting with him and were able to hear about his experiences at first hand—my thanks for that. On the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, all international support for democracy and elections needs to be co-ordinated carefully so as to avoid overlap and waste, and we expect that the UN will play the key co-ordinating role in the country, but we remain alert to the possibility of the foundation playing a role if we do not see any advances under the UN.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the involvement of Rwanda, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark). He and I, as well as others, have travelled to Rwanda a number of times and I am more familiar with that country than with the Central African Republic. It is a curious thing to learn that my hon. Friend is the only MP to make it in and out of the CAR safely. The House is wiser for his experiences, as the hon. Gentleman said. We have long encouraged and supported Rwandan involvement in supporting peace in Africa, but the hon. Gentleman is in no doubt that the Rwandans—or is it the right hon. Gentleman? [Interruption.] He says, “Soon.” The hon. Gentleman was aware that the Rwandans are participating in the UN force in the CAR. It is important that that takes place.

UN and Government officials are helping to develop thinking on dealing with the violence and conflict in the light of Rwanda’s own experience, with which the House is familiar, and of the UK experience in places such as Sierra Leone. We have increased our engagement considerably, including frequent visits from the Foreign Office and DFID officials and the secondment of a senior British diplomat to the UN mission in Bangui. We have put in place a new regional political officer in Yaoundé, who will have responsibility for the Central African Republic. At the moment the selected officer is undertaking the required language training.

I am conscious that the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) in his introduction referred specifically to the persecution of Christians, which I also mentioned in my two earlier interventions. I was hoping that the Minister might be able to come back to us and give us some indication of what we can do through the Foreign Office to ensure that the persecution of Christians can be curtailed or stopped, with some direct action taken. Under influences from some neighbouring countries, people are specifically targeting Christians for their beliefs.

I will have to ask the Minister for Africa to write to the hon. Gentleman on that important issue with more details—unless I am swiftly handed a piece of paper before the end of my speech. That is unlikely to happen, so I will certainly be back in touch.

There are no easy answers in the Central African Republic, and certainly no quick fixes. We need to encourage all parties to follow up on the Brazzaville agreement of July to establish an open and inclusive dialogue. Without peace, justice and reconciliation, there can be no future for the CAR. We need to be committed in the long term to assist in rebuilding the country, its Government, its institutions and its infrastructure, as well as maintaining humanitarian support for as long as the high levels of need persist. We will do so by working with international donors and through bilateral and multinational humanitarian assistance programmes.

It is tempting to recoil from and reject the horror, to back away and almost to give up and lose hope, but we cannot. We have a responsibility to remain engaged and to support the people of the CAR. This week I read the inspiring story of Father Kinvi, a Catholic priest in the north-west of the country who put himself at great risk when he sheltered at his mission thousands of Muslims threatened by sectarian violence. There is no doubt in my mind that his brave actions saved many lives. Human Rights Watch has rightly acknowledged his efforts and I express our gratitude for and recognition of the many people who have worked to prevent an even higher toll of death and destruction in the country. Father Kinvi and the people of the Central African Republic deserve our support. We have the capacity to assist them in the short term, by providing security and humanitarian aid, but we must also support the country in its long-term reconciliation and development.

We now come to the debate on support and rehabilitation for veterans. While Members move around and take their places, it might be helpful for me to say a brief word about the procedural situation. Earlier we had two Divisions in the House, so the timetable for the afternoon debates is running 26 minutes late. We will start the debate in a moment, when the next Minister has had the opportunity to take her seat, but it could run until 5.26 pm—it does not have to run that long, but it could run that long. The debate is on the Order Paper as a half-hour Adjournment debate, which would normally give the Member who obtained the debate, Jack Lopresti, time to speak and the Minister time to reply, but if I receive indications that other Members wish to speak and they can assure me that they will get the say-so from the Minister and Mr Lopresti, I am happy to accept additional speeches.