Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Guy Opperman.)
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a great honour to raise the subject of the political situation in Burundi under your chairmanship, particularly on international human rights day.
Last week we spent 10 and a half hours discussing Syria, the subject of United Nations resolution 2249, but I shall refer to United Nations resolution 2248, which relates to Burundi. Perhaps we in this House ought to pay more attention to resolutions of the Security Council, of which the United Kingdom is a permanent member, because they often highlight crises around the world.
Everyone I have met who has been to Burundi has returned with a love for the country and its people. I had the privilege of going there for the first time in 2011 with the International Development Committee and have returned several times since. I declare an interest in that I help to lead the Conservative party’s social action project Umubano in Burundi with my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), whom I am glad to see in her place. We worked in Burundi in 2013 and 2014. We had planned to go this year, but unfortunately the political situation there made that impossible.
All those who care deeply about Burundi have been greatly concerned by the violence of the past few months, which started before the presidential and parliamentary elections. We all long for it to come to an end and for stability to prevail. We also wish to see a return to the greater freedom of expression for which Burundi has rightly been commended in recent years, following the turbulent first 40 years after independence.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I asked his permission earlier to intervene. I understand that the UN says that since April this year 240 people have been killed. Just yesterday five people were taken away, beaten, shot and disappeared. Their only crime, if it is a crime, was that they spoke out against the president. It is clear to me that the vigilantes think they can do what they like. Does the hon. Gentleman think it is time the vigilantes were restricted and the Government took control?
I totally agree. There are still killings almost every day in Burundi. I will come to that later.
I was talking about the first 40 years after independence, which saw several ethnically based mass killings, in particular during 1972, when between 150,000 and 300,000 people were murdered, mainly by Government or Government-inspired forces, including the elimination of almost the entire Hutu elite. I shall spend a little time going through history because it is so relevant to what is happening today. Whereas April 1994 is remembered as the beginning of Rwanda’s terrible genocide, it is often forgotten that the shooting down of the presidential plane that killed the Rwandan President Habyarimana and marked the start of the genocide also brought about the death of Burundi’s President, Cyprien Ntaryamira. He was the second Burundian leader to meet a violent end within six months, as the democratically elected Melchior Ndadaye had been murdered the previous September.
Violence escalated in 1995 and 1996 and there followed several years of civil conflict. A series of peace talks took place, sponsored by the regional peace initiative in Burundi, mediated by former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere and held in Arusha, but not much progress was made. Some of the main political parties, including CNDD-FDD—the current governing party—were not involved at this point. In August 2000 a peace agreement, known as the Arusha accord, was signed by the Government, the National Assembly and a range of Hutu and Tutsi groups. This provided for the establishment of a transitional Government for three years, the creation for the first time of a genuinely mixed army, and a return to political power sharing. Neither the CNDD-FDD, nor the FNL—an armed wing of another political party—was involved in the agreement and military activity increased in 2001.
The CNDD-FDD eventually agreed to a ceasefire in December 2002, which came properly into effect in October 2003, when final agreement was reached on the terms of power sharing. The soldiers of the CNDD-FDD, led by Pierre Nkurunziza, the current President, were to be integrated into the national armed forces and given 40% of army officer posts. Negotiations in South Africa to agree a new constitution met with success in November 2004. It provided for a 60:40 power-sharing agreement and both Hutu and Tutsi Vice-Presidents. A minimum of 30% of the Government had to be women.
In 2005 elections were held under the new constitution, resulting in a decisive win for the CNDD-FDD, led by Nkurunziza. He was elected President indirectly, as the new constitution provided, by the National Assembly and Senate. The indirect election is the source of the controversy surrounding the 2015 elections.
This still left the FNL. Rwasa, its leader, announced in March 2006 that he would enter unconditional negotiations to end hostilities and a ceasefire agreement was signed in September 2006. However, talks on points of disagreement broke down and a formal end to the conflict did not come about until 2009. We can see how long the people of Burundi have suffered under various forms of civil conflict.
The presidential election in 2010 saw Nkurunziza returned with 91.6% of the votes cast. International observers believed that the election met international standards, but they expressed concern at the worsening political climate. Between the 2010 election and 2015, low-intensity violence—if there can ever be such a thing—continued. Rwasa had fled in June 2010 and was reported to have moved to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he was recruiting fighters. There were killings by rebels and by Government forces. In December 2011 UN Security Council resolution 2027 called on the Government to halt extrajudicial killings.
Amid all this there was real progress. The integration of the Burundian army was generally a great success. It began to take part in many peacekeeping operations, where its skills and discipline were respected. Most notably, it has played a huge role in AMISOM—the African Union Mission to Somalia—alongside the Ugandan and Sierra Leonean armies, and latterly the Kenyan army, in bringing stability to Mogadishu and other parts of Somalia. That cost the lives of more than 450 Burundian soldiers, and great credit and honour must be paid to them. Burundian press and civil society were generally free and active for some of that time. A national human rights commission was established, although the Government delayed setting up the truth and reconciliation commission and the special tribunal to prosecute crimes against humanity committed during the civil war.
With elections due in 2015, the question of President Nkurunziza’s eligibility for another term came sharply into focus. His supporters claimed that, due to an ambiguity in the constitution, his election in 2005 was by Parliament and not by the people, and therefore his election in 2010 marked the beginning of his first term, not his second. Opponents said that the Arusha agreement, on which the constitution was based, stipulated a maximum of two presidential terms, which he has completed this year.
The National Assembly narrowly defeated a proposal to revise the constitution in 2014. However, President Nkurunziza was officially announced as a candidate in April 2015 and the constitutional court validated that on 4 May. The vice-president of the court fled to Rwanda, maintaining that the decision had been made under duress and intimidation. Mass protests followed the decision and were met with very strong force by the police, which was condemned by regional and international figures. Election aid was suspended by the EU and Belgium.
On 13 May there was an attempted coup while President Nkurunziza was in Tanzania to discuss the crisis. It was led by the former head of Burundi’s army and, more recently, its intelligence service, who had been sacked earlier in the year. He specifically cited the President’s candidacy at the forthcoming election, which he blamed for instability. The coup attempt was unsuccessful.
The parliamentary elections were eventually held on 29 June and the presidential election on 21 July. Both were largely boycotted by the opposition parties and both resulted in the CNDD-FDD receiving just under 75% of the vote. According to the United Nations electoral mission, this time the elections were not free or fair. The electoral commission declared a victory for President Nkurunziza.
Since the election, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has pointed out, violence has continued, with killings of unarmed civilians as well as armed opposition and Government security forces. This has sometimes been accompanied by rhetoric from political leaders that can only inflame the situation. In one speech on 29 October, a senior politician is reported to have said in respect of action against armed opposition members—this is translated from the Kirundi—
“you tell those who want to execute mission: on this issue, you have to pulverize, you have to exterminate—these people are only good for dying. I give you this order, go!”
The United Nations is rightly alarmed. In its resolution 2248, to which I have referred and which was adopted on 12 November, the Security Council expressed its
“deep concern about the ongoing escalation of insecurity and the continued rise in violence in Burundi, as well as the persisting political impasse in the country, marked by the lack of dialogue among Burundian stakeholders.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) is making a powerful speech and I know that the concern he is expressing today has endured for several years. Does he agree that addressing the issue is vital, because the political instability in what is already a very poor country is impacting on the poorest the most and in a devastating way?
If Members will bear with me, I would just like to refer to a report that I received this week relating to the children in an orphanage with which Project Umubano members who volunteer in Burundi have a relationship. It says that the children are so desperate for food and medicine that they are
“malnourished and often ill…can’t obtain medicines.. and there is a real risk that one or more may die.”
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, who has done a huge amount of work with Project Umubano. I have received the same report.
The Security Council resolution also strongly condemned
“the increased cases of human rights violations and abuses, including those involving extra-judicial killings, acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman and/or degrading treatment, arbitrary arrests”.
The Security Council resolution refers to the escalation of violence in Burundi. Is my hon. Friend as concerned as I am about reports this week—they have not made it into the press, but they are none the less coming out of Burundi—that armed murder gangs are again making their way across the border from the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the behest of those who would ensure that violence serves political ends in Burundi? Does he, like me, look forward to hearing what the Minister is doing about that?
I am most grateful to my hon. and learned Friend, who has a very close interest in these matters. I am, indeed, very concerned. The people of Burundi have suffered too much over the past 50 years.
The Security Council resolution also condemns abuses,
“including those involving extra-judicial killings, acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman and/or degrading treatment, arbitrary arrests, illegal detentions, harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders and journalists, and all violations and abuses of human rights committed in Burundi both by security forces and by militias and other illegal armed groups”.
In particular, it strongly condemns
“all public statements, coming from in or outside of the country, that appear aimed at inciting violence or hatred towards different groups in Burundian society”.
That last point is very significant, given the history of Burundi and the wider region.
I have gone into considerable detail on the history of Burundi as an independent nation, as it is vital to understand the current crisis in its context. This is not something that has happened over the past year or two. I am most grateful to the Minister and, indeed, to his officials for their close attention to this crisis. I know that he and they take it very seriously, and I will now ask a number of questions.
First, can the Minister reassure me that the Government understand how important it is to solve the crisis in Burundi? The mediation efforts led by the East African Community and the African Union through President Museveni should be given the fullest possible support. The Burundian Government, and the opposition, need to co-operate fully with that process. The UN Secretary-General suggested looking at a peacekeeping force, and I urge for that process to be continued. As I have said, the people of Burundi have suffered enough. They are not interested in power struggles between elites who think it their right to rule; they want stability and the ability to live their lives free from fear. I urge President Nkurunziza, whom I have met on two occasions, to engage fully with such mediation. I understand that the Minister is considering a visit to the country. I welcome that: it is a very long time since a British Minister was there.
Secondly, will the Minister consider establishing in due course a full diplomatic mission in Burundi, which I know would be welcomed by many Burundians? They have appreciated UK support over the years. When the International Development Committee was in Liberia last year, we saw the great benefit that a small, cost-effective and influential mission, newly established by the FCO, can bring.
Thirdly, will the Minister encourage our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), who has responsibility for Africa, to consider restoring bilateral aid to Burundi when a political settlement has been reached? It has the second lowest income per head on earth, and it is both fragile and conflict-affected, so it comes into every conceivable category that DFID treats as a priority. I appreciate that DFID works indirectly in Burundi through TradeMark East Africa and multilaterals, but that is not enough. We are often told, rightly, the respect in which DFID’s work is held and how much its involvement is appreciated. Nowhere would that be more the case than in Burundi. When we look at the map of east and central Africa, we can see that among the countries with which DFID works bilaterally are Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan. Only Burundi is missing; yet I would argue that Burundi needs assistance the most.
Fourthly, will the Minister ensure that the innocent refugees from this conflict and their host countries are properly supported through the UN institutions? It was estimated in August that 180,000 people had fled since April—75,000 to Rwanda, 89,000 to Tanzania, and the remainder to Uganda and the DRC. We should express our thanks to those host countries for taking them in. At a time when all eyes are on the Syrian refugee crisis, the world cannot forget such crises elsewhere.
Finally, will the Minister recognise that instability in Burundi, and indeed other countries, has had devastating effects on the people of the region, particularly in the DRC? Up to 6 million people are estimated to have died as a result of the conflicts, some of which had their source in this region, in the DRC during the past 20 years. With elections in the DRC due next year, it is all the more important for Burundi to be at peace.
Burundi is a beautiful county with some of the most hospitable people it has ever been my pleasure to meet. They simply want to live in peace, throw off the shackles of poverty and give their children the chance that all of us would wish to give to ours. What we need now is determination—from the East African Community, the African Union, the international community and, indeed, the United Kingdom—to ensure that the Government and opposition groups break the cycle of violence and breaches of human rights that has scarred Burundian politics and life for far too long.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on securing this debate, and I commend him for his outstanding and tireless work on both the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the International Development Committee.
I am grateful to other hon. Members, including my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips), who asked some specific questions, and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham), who has certainly proved the point that one does not have to speak in the House of Commons to have an enormous influence. Her private lobbying, as well as the private and public lobbying of hon. Members in the Chamber, has been instrumental in my reaching the position I hold on Burundi and the actions I will take over the next month.
I first visited Burundi in 2006, and I have since followed the situation there closely. I was there with Christian Aid, along with another hon. Member. I can tell the House that, later this month, I intend to be in Burundi to discuss the situation there, but also in Uganda and Rwanda to discuss both domestic matters and the regional situation.
Before I respond to the specific points that have been raised, I will set out the Government’s position more generally. It is clear that there is a deepening political, humanitarian and security crisis in Burundi. The Burundian Government have refused to engage in substantive political dialogue. That, along with the inflammatory remarks made by senior members of the Burundian Government, has led to an increased risk of civil strife and a deepening refugee crisis, which is unacceptable. More than 200 people have been killed since April, including five people who have reportedly been killed in the past 48 hours or so, either in protests against President Nkurunziza’s third term or in targeted political assassinations. The killings continue daily, so we need a genuine and inclusive dialogue, based on respect for the Arusha accords. Such a dialogue would enable Burundian stakeholders to find a consensual solution to the crisis facing their country, preserve peace and consolidate democracy and the rule of law.
Clearly, the ongoing violence and insecurity are having an impact on the Burundian economy and the humanitarian situation. The Government have little income and livelihoods are being threatened. About 220,000 people have fled the country and are living in neighbouring Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Burundi has been blocking the flight of some refugees. The number of internally displaced people is therefore high in Burundi, although we do not have precise numbers. There is a risk of contagion. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford is right to highlight the effect of the situation in Burundi on neighbouring countries, particularly the DRC.
The UK has played a leading role in building a single, consistent response from the international community. In January, we set up a group of international partners with interests in Burundi, which have since worked together to develop a common strategy. Collectively, we lobbied President Nkurunziza to engage with the international community and, crucially, accept the principles of the Arusha agreement. In June, I appointed a special envoy to the great lakes, Danae Dholakia. She is actively involved in delivering our messages in Burundi. I appreciate my hon. Friend’s communications with the Foreign Office, in which he has provided an insight into what is happening on the ground.
I am sure that those comments will be appreciated. They are certainly appreciated by me.
My hon. Friend spoke about the African Union and the EU, and the engagement between the two is incredibly important. We have supported the East African Community in trying to deliver a regional solution. I hope to meet President Museveni and to co-operate with his efforts to effect a regional solution to the crisis in Burundi. We will do everything we can to support him in those endeavours.
We encourage the whole region and the African Union to play a strong role in urging Burundi to take part in an inclusive dialogue outside Burundi. That would do much to pave the way for a substantive solution to the crisis. Peacekeeping will be part of that. I will also be discussing the possibility of a stand-by rapid reaction force with the region.
It was under the UK’s presidency of the UN Security Council that resolution 2248 was agreed. That resolution demonstrates the unity of the international community in its approach to the crisis. We continue to work with the African Union to mobilise financial and political resources to support the mediation process. We will continue to work with our colleagues around the world on contingency options in case things go wrong. We plan to make things go right, but we are also planning contingencies in case they do not.
The Department for International Development is providing nearly £15 million to support the international relief effort for refugees fleeing to countries like Tanzania. That will be channelled through the United Nations refugee agency and the World Food Programme. The Department for International Development is providing close to a further £4 million for the refugee response in Rwanda through the United Nations and non-governmental organisations. That has been used to fund refugee transport, medical care, shelters and food rations.
Perhaps this is a good point to respond to my hon. Friend’s plea for us to do more. I am sure that the Foreign Office would not want me to over-promise, but I think that now is the time to review this situation across the Foreign Office and across the Department for International Development. I am happy to pledge to have a meeting with the Minister in DFID to see whether our response is appropriate, proportionate and co-ordinated. We have made efforts to ensure that it is all of those things, but I am sure we could do more. I do not think that anyone who sat in my office before the Rwandan genocide would have regretted spending more time on that issue rather than less.
The UK strongly supports a sanctions regime for Burundi. Four individuals have been listed so far, and the European Union and the African Union are giving consideration to further sanctions against individuals. I personally have made a number of calls to the Burundian Foreign Minister, Alain Aimé Nyamitwe, following the inflammatory comments made by the President and the president of the Senate, some of which my hon. Friend read out. They were truly distressing and hauntingly similar to words that were uttered in Rwanda before the genocide.
Our work in the region, in the European Union and with the United Nations has undoubtedly had an impact. The Burundian Government have already shown increased restraint in their deployment of the police and security forces, and they have finally accepted the notion of inclusive dialogue through article 96 consultations with the European Union, for which the UK pushed very hard. Under those consultations, the European Union will press Burundi on a range of issues related to the current crisis, including press freedom, human rights defenders and the proper functioning of the judiciary.
Looking ahead, I will visit Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi this month. I will be looking at a broad range of issues, but the main reason for my going is the situation in Burundi and its regional implications. I will meet members of each Government and members of the Burundian opposition, humanitarian organisations and UN agencies. I will listen to regional views on the situation and discuss how the UK and the international community could further support steps towards political dialogue. I will emphasise that the eyes of the world are on Burundi. I will call for urgent action to prevent the country from descending into civil war. And I will give a strong message that the security and safety of the people of Burundi are ultimately the responsibility of the Burundian Government.
To conclude, the UK is doing everything possible to ensure peace and prosperity for the Burundian people, but to achieve that, Burundi must step up and engage with the international community. To that end, we will continue to work with international partners, the United Nations, the European Union, the African Union and the East African Community. I again thank my hon. Friend for giving us the opportunity to debate these important issues in the House, and for his lobbying, which is in large part what is leading me to go to those countries later this month to advocate Her Majesty’s Government’s, and his, cause.
Question put and agreed to.