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Democratic Republic of the Congo (Human Rights)

Volume 594: debated on Wednesday 25 March 2015

I am pleased that we are having this half-hour debate on the situation facing the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is an interest of mine as the vice-chair of the all-party group on human rights and as a member of the all-party group on the African great lakes region, to which I pay tribute for the work it has done over many years to increase many Members’ interest in the DRC. In particular, I pay tribute to our excellent worker, Carole Velasquez, who does a great deal to support the group and to ensure that we are effective in raising issues in the House.

I also have a constituency interest, because a considerable number of people from all parts of the DRC have made their home in my constituency. They make a great contribution to the local community and the local economy. They have family connections to the DRC, and they have real-life experience of not only its joys and cultural wonders but the horrors of war and conflict, which have so disfigured the country for so long.

Sadly, the horrors of the Congo are not new. From the time of slavery and occupation, when the Congo was the personal fiefdom of King Leopold of the Belgians, the abuse of human rights and the environment, and the exploitation of the place, have been second to none in the litany of one human’s abuse of another. The European’s sheer racism towards the Congo throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the slavery that went with it, are legendary. If anyone has any doubts about that, I urge them to read the wonderful work by American writer Adam Hochschild on the Congo.

However, we should also recognise the wonderful work done by many people. E.D. Morel exposed the slave trade in the Congo while working as a shipping clerk in Liverpool. The British consul in the area, Roger Casement, was later executed for his part in the Easter rising, but he nevertheless did a great deal to expose what was going on in the Congo.

When independence came in 1961, and Patrice Lumumba became the first Prime Minister, the break-up of the Congo was threatened and military coups took place. Patrice Lumumba was assassinated shortly after taking office, and there has been political instability ever since, with coups and military Governments. However, a great deal of wealth has also been made out of the Congo by international mining companies and timber companies and by some of the world’s biggest agribusinesses. The country has therefore enriched the rest of the world, providing uranium, gold, diamonds and many other minerals; indeed, every one of us who has a mobile phone will, at some point, probably have had one with coltan in it from the DRC. This is a place where the world has made wealth, but that wealth has not, unfortunately, been extended to the people of the DRC. It is important to put these things in a slightly historical context.

I want now to raise four related issues: the conflict in the east of the country; political violence and instability; governance; and what the international community, the UN and particularly the UK can do to improve the situation.

To give an example of how awful the situation is, let me quote Amnesty International’s 2014 annual report on the DRC:

“The security situation in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo…remained dire and an upsurge in violence by armed groups claimed the lives of thousands of civilians and forced more than a million people to leave their homes. Human rights abuses, including killings and mass rapes, were committed by both government security forces and armed groups. Violence against women and girls was prevalent throughout the country. Plans to amend the Constitution to allow President Kabila to stay in office beyond 2016 prompted protests. Human rights defenders, journalists and members of the political opposition were threatened, harassed and arbitrarily arrested by armed groups and by government security forces…More than 170,000 DRC nationals were expelled from the Republic of Congo”—

Congo-Brazzaville, as it was formerly called—

“to the DRC between 4 April and early September. Among them were refugees and asylum-seekers. Some of the expelled were allegedly arrested and detained incommunicado in Kinshasa.

Little assistance was provided by the DRC government, and as of September, more than 100 families were living on the streets of Kinshasa without tents, health care, food or any assistance.”

The situation and the way people are having to survive are terrible by any stretch of the imagination.

The violence is awful, and we have to look at what the international community is doing. MONUSCO—the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—is one of the UN’s biggest, most expensive missions, and its performance, activity and governance are extremely controversial. I have visited the DRC twice, I have spent time with MONUSCO officials and officers and I have heard what people think of MONUSCO. At its best, it can be very helpful and effective. When I was in Goma there was a plane crash, and the MONUSCO officials from India and Pakistan were extremely helpful, effective and good at assisting the victims. At other levels, however, the complaints about harassment and abuse by UN soldiers and about the lack of control over them are very damaging to the UN’s image and to ordinary people’s confidence in the UN.

As time has gone on, MONUSCO’s mandate has changed. The mission has become much more assertive militarily, and many people in the Congo find it a bit hard to distinguish between the UN and anybody else taking on rebel and guerrilla forces such as the March 23 movement. I hope the Minister will be able to give us some indication of the direction in which MONUSCO is moving. I do not underestimate the security difficulties and problems, but there must be an understanding that the UN’s role is not to fight wars on behalf of other people but to bring about peace, security and above all development, so that people can live reasonable and decent lives.

The Catholic Fund for Overseas Development is very active in the Congo and very knowledgeable about it. In a research paper, it recommends that the new MONUSCO mandate should include

“the need to prioritize civilian approaches to protection of civilians”


“improved communication between the civilian and military sections of the mission”;


“the need for improved contingency planning which focuses on the prevention of civilian harm in both the immediate and the longer term”;


“that the Secretary General’s…reporting on the mission includes key indicators against which the impact of protection efforts can be evaluated”;


“that any military operation is accompanied by concrete actions addressing security sector reform…and demobilization, disarmament and reintegration”;


“mechanisms for holding the DRC Government to account for human rights abuses committed by their personnel”,


“additional resources to this end”;

and stress

“that consolidation of state authority in eastern DRC must deliver effective protection”.

Those are all sensible, reasonable proposals, and the Minister is well aware of the situation.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for outlining the issues so clearly. It is said that 4 million people died in the civil war, of whom 20% were targeted for their Christian beliefs. The hon. Gentleman has outlined the situation as it affects everyone, but does he agree that the DRC Government and the UN should take every action necessary to protect the Christians in the country, and their religious freedom, and is he aware of what discussions our Government have had on their behalf?

Absolutely. Religious freedom is, to me, a basis of normal, decent civilian life, which I think is what my hon. Friend, if I may call him that, was saying. That must be correct. On one of my visits to the DRC I stayed in a Catholic mission, and was impressed with what the people there were doing, and with its ecumenical nature. They extended their hand to other faiths and groups. There is a huge variety of religious persuasions in the DRC, including evangelical Christians as well as the perhaps more traditional Catholic Church and very big Churches such as the Simon Kimbangu foundation. It is an interesting place, and the hon. Gentleman has made an important and valid point.

I had a useful meeting and discussion last week with a representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Markus Geisser. He helpfully sent some information about what it is doing. The ICRC first went to the Congo in 1960 and had a permanent mission from 1978 onwards. It has a great deal of experience and is well respected. Because it is the ICRC it manages effectively to reach all parts. Its budget is 63 million Swiss francs, of which 13 million Swiss francs are spent on protection, 41 million Swiss francs on assistance, 5 million Swiss francs on prevention and 2 million Swiss francs on co-operation with civil society. It has a considerable local staff and has issued an emergency appeal for 2015 to help fund its activities in the DRC. I hope that the British Government will respond positively.

I want to draw attention to the question of violence against the individual. I have talked about the number of people killed and forced into exile, and the horrors that go with that. There is a disproportionate impact on women and girls, and to quote again from the Amnesty International report:

“Rape and other forms of sexual violence against women and girls remained endemic, not only in areas of conflict, but also in parts of the country not affected by armed hostilities. Acts of sexual violence were committed by armed groups, by members of the security forces and by unarmed civilians. The perpetrators of rape and other sexual violence enjoyed virtually total impunity.

Mass rapes, in which dozens of women and girls were sexually assaulted with extreme brutality, were committed by armed groups and by members of the security forces during attacks on villages in remote areas, particularly in North Kivu and Katanga. Such attacks often also involved other forms of torture, killings and looting.”

What can the UK and the Department for International Development do? The DFID programme is welcome; it is £162 million for 2013-14, and I hope it will rise in the future. Our programme includes support for such things as the political framework at a national level; key reform processes; work on tangible peace dividends and benefits to communities, particularly in the east; and progress in addressing grievances, perceptions and community tensions. Much of that is valuable and it is important to pursue it. Without the development of civil society, little can be achieved.

I was once on a visit with a delegation in Goma; we had travelled for a long time from Rwanda. When we arrived we visited a women’s centre. It was humbling, to say the least, to be asked to address—in the dark, because we arrived after nightfall, but they wanted to see us anyway—a meeting of 300 to 400 women, every one of whom had been a victim of rape, or multiple rape, and violence. They were doing their best to rebuild their lives. They were trying to get to a place of security and were at least in the centre in Goma. I also visited refugee camps and spoke to a lot of women about what had happened to them there. The violence that had happened to them was indeed rape as a weapon of war.

The former Foreign Secretary, now the Leader of the House, took the issue up at an international summit, and I was pleased that he did and that far more publicity has been given to the fact that rape is used as a weapon of war. I support any funding that we can give to women’s organisations and centres in Goma and other parts of Congo—particularly if that is used to support women to go back to villages and develop economic life, recognising that women are crucial to the peace process. They are, essentially, the builders of communities, and they have a special place in Africa because of their huge contribution to agriculture.

Education is the key—and that includes the education of boys. In Kinshasa I visited what euphemistically passed for children’s homes but were really houses where boys slept at night; they went off in the day to do whatever they wanted, because they had nothing else to do. They had little education or support and hardly any role models. If we do not give the next generation of boys, and the one after that, education and opportunity, the horrors of the abuse of women, and the arrogance of male behaviour in the Congo, will simply continue and get worse. Investment in education is key.

As I said when I began, Britain has made a big contribution through DFID. We have sent support and election observers, and I hope that we will send observers to the forthcoming elections. However, I hope that we will take action in this country as well. Coltan does not come from nowhere. Okay, it is a conflict mineral and it is not supposed to be imported because of that. I have deep suspicions that it gets in through Rwanda and possibly Uganda. I have deep suspicions about the export of many minerals from conflict zones, particularly in the DRC. The Congo is theoretically signed up to the extractive industries transparency initiative. It should be held to account on that because mining companies based in Switzerland and London make a great deal of money out of the resources of the Congo, which should go to its people. Oxfam, the ICRC and many others have made enormous contributions to the effort to bring about some sort of peace and justice. CAFOD has made some valuable contributions as to the way MONUSCO should develop in future. It is up to us to take political action.

Finally, I ask the Minister to give what support he can in the case of the imprisonment of one Member of Parliament—not just because he is a Member of Parliament but because he represents something about democracy and freedom in the country. The MP is the hon. Vano Kiboko, who has now been in prison for nearly 100 days. His crime was apparently to raise criticisms of President Kabila, which many journalists and others have done. If we want a free and democratic Congo to develop, it is not up to us to occupy and invade; it is up to us to recognise the appalling loss of life, the horror of many individuals’ lives, and the contribution that the rest of the world could make if instead of taking the profits of the Congo it tried to ensure that they were invested in the people of the DRC.

This is my first time serving under your chairmanship as a Minister, Sir Roger, and it is a pleasure to do so, just as it was when I was a Back Bencher.

I thank the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) for securing the debate and setting out some of the challenges that the Democratic Republic of the Congo faces. He clearly has a deep-rooted understanding of that country through his constituents, his visits and his ongoing, passionate work on its geography and human rights. He rightly emphasised the historical conflicts and the country’s great riches and opportunities, which have not been fairly used, and have certainly not been used universally for the benefit of all citizens of the DRC. I commend him for his work on the all-party group on the African great lakes region, and the secretariat which, as he mentioned, does a great job in working with Members of Parliament in the Commons and the Lords to ensure that the issues it highlights are at the forefront of what we do.

By virtue of its size, population, geography and economic potential, the DRC is important not only as an individual country; it is important to the entire great lakes region and to Africa overall. If it succeeds, it will have a positive impact on the region. Conversely, if it fails, its tragic problems will infect the surrounding areas. Today’s debate covers a number of issues, which I will address, including the political violence in eastern DRC, governance and what the UK and the international community can do. I will also try to address the issue of educating young boys and men on the issue of rape, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and the issue of the Member of Parliament who has been imprisoned for an unacceptable time.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo— MONUSCO—which is the UN’s largest and most expensive mission, and one of its longest-standing missions. We hold UN soldiers to the same high standards as British soldiers—standards that are applied by international law. Unfortunately, soldiers sometimes do not meet those high standards, so the British Government should be firm in insisting that they are met. There are education, training and, ultimately, courts of law to enforce them.

It is particularly important that the DRC’s neighbours play a constructive role in the DRC. We continue to urge the region to work towards a full implementation of the peace, security and co-operation framework that was established in 2011. It has been useful in enabling us to see the DRC through the prism of the region, rather than simply through the bilateral relationships with countries such as Rwanda, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Central to security in eastern DRC—and, indeed, the whole region—is the disarmament of the FDLR, following the work with the M23. We are disappointed that the vast majority of the FDLR has chosen not to disarm voluntarily. The international community estimates that 1,200 members of the FDLR still exist in eastern DRC. Those members have chosen not to surrender, renounce violence or submit to disarmament or demobilisation, and at the moment they are not involved in the reintegration process. We must push the Congolese army and MONUSCO to encourage them in whatever way is needed.

The hon. Gentleman asked to what degree the UN forces should be proactive. Some of the threats of proactive activity against the M23 and the FDLR have been effective. It is right that MONUSCO carries out proactive, kinetic activity, rather than just sitting in camp and reacting to situations; that is in line with its mandate to neutralise armed groups, as set out in Security Council resolution 2147.

In January, the Government of the DRC announced that they had started military action against the FDLR. However, the British Government’s assessment is that comprehensive operations are yet to commence. We have reiterated to the Government of the DRC that international expectations remain high. The threat posed to civilians is high, and the threat to the security and stability of the region simply must be tackled. We have emphasised that the FARDC—the DRC army—and MONUSCO must ensure that efforts are made to minimise any impact on civilians; that should be at the forefront of military planning.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the political space and governance. Elections and the democratic transition of power are integral parts of our efforts to build a secure and prosperous DRC. President Kabila has an opportunity to leave a significant and positive legacy. Presidential and parliamentary elections need to be credible, inclusive and peaceful. Crucially, they must respect the will of all the Congolese people. The constitution and the African Union charter on democracy, elections and governance must form a key part of that legacy. The Prime Minister has been keen to put governance at the centre of everything we do through the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development, the UN, the golden thread, the high-level partnership, and the open working group on the sustainable development goals, which will lead to a successor to the millennium development goals.

On the issue of governance, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) rightly highlighted the issue of Christian groups. Our work on human rights includes the protection of everyone’s right to hold their beliefs. We strongly condemn any violence or attacks on Christian groups in the DRC. As and when evidence of those attacks is brought forward, I will be happy to raise that in the strongest possible terms, as the hon. Gentleman would want me to.

Our human rights objectives in the DRC focus on preventing sexual and gender-based violence and protecting children caught up in violence. The global summit to end sexual violence, held in London in June, showcased the steps made in the DRC to date. I welcome the comments about my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague) and his leadership on that issue. He has led on that issue not only in the UK but internationally. When I was at the UN General Assembly last year, people were disappointed that he was moving on from the post of Foreign Secretary, but glad that he retains responsibility for those issues. He has passed the baton, and, from a Foreign Office perspective, I continue to monitor those issues. I am sure they will remain central, whatever Government we have after the general election.

The hon. Member for Islington North spoke about rape. We often talk of rape as a weapon of war, but sadly in the DRC it is also a political weapon. Women who are politically active are often raped multiple times over a period of time and gang-raped as punishment for their involvement in politics. Clearly, that is unacceptable. He talked about the longer term. It is a challenge to look at the long term when so many things are happening in the short term. However, social change and changing social attitudes towards rape and sexual violence is the right way forward. We cannot just respond to crimes. The UK has therefore funded the campaign “Silent No More”—if the hon. Gentleman is not familiar with it, I can send him details of it—which is a very good project and a good example of what the UK is doing to address that issue. It focuses on working with community leaders to help change perceptions and challenge attitudes about sexual violence. It particularly focuses on men and boys. There are a number of other programmes, such as those run by War Child, to help child soldiers who may have been perpetrators of rape in the past to reintegrate into the community and adopt new norms.

There are still accusations that the army, police and security agencies are complicit in killings, rapes and the ill-treatment of detainees. That is clearly unacceptable, and it is one of the key reasons why the DRC is in the formal “country of concern” category, and why a whole chapter in the FCO’s human rights and democracy report, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman has seen, is focused on the DRC.

In conclusion, I would like to reiterate how seriously the Government take the region. More than 5 million people have been killed there over the past 20 years and, although the DRC has the potential for economic prosperity and opportunity, its GDP is little more than $1 a day. In my few remaining seconds, I want to return to the issue of political detainees, particularly those detained after the January problems. I am very concerned about the narrowing of the political space in the DRC, and about the fact that a number of Opposition MPs have been detained and harassed. I am happy to take up individual cases, if I can co-ordinate with the hon. Gentleman, in addition to what we are already doing. We must do all we can to protect the DRC’s political space, particularly in the run-up to the election, when the constitution must be protected. We must continue to do what we can to end poverty in that area and improve human rights. The DRC should be a strong and prosperous country.

Sitting suspended.