I welcome the opportunity to debate this topic, following our short exchange earlier in the week under the urgent question procedure. Much more has happened in the past 72 hours, and in relation to the humanitarian effort, we have probably not yet seen the worst, so the debate provides a good opportunity for an update.
As the Minister said, the humanitarian crisis is on a vast scale. I think many Members fear that the efforts being made by the United Nations and, indeed, the relief organisations are mixed, to say the least. We fully support the Government's decision to send an aid shipment to the DRC, but I hope that when the Under-Secretary of State replies to the debate he will respond to some of the questions that I shall pose on that and other issues.
I understand that food aid has been slow to arrive in the region as charities have struggled to organise effective distribution. Is the Minister confident that those difficulties have been overcome? What is his estimate of the number of people who now have access to aid, and of the number of people who have not so far been reached?
Bad as the situation is, it would be far worse without the presence of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the DRC. The presence of military contingents of MONUC in major cities and rural areas in eastern Congo is the single most important factor preventing the total collapse of state authority. MONUC's present mandate is to protect civilians, maintain stability, assist the disarmament and demobilisation of armed groups, and promote security sector reform. That mandate is up for renewal at the end of the year. Although the Security Council will almost certainly agree to continue to support it into 2009, there have been some rumblings, particularly in the United States Congress, suggesting that MONUC should be closed because of its cost.
Does the Minister agree that MONUC's continued presence in the DRC will remain essential for some time, and can he assure us that its mandate will swiftly be extended? Can he confirm reports today that the UN forces have said they will use military force to defend Goma if the militia attempt to attack the city? Can he assure us that urgent discussions are taking place on what changes are needed to the mandate, composition and strength of MONUC, so that it can discharge its mandate and protect innocent civilians?
The Congolese armed forces have not been able to hold off the rebel forces or maintain security. It is even reported that, in some cases, the rebels are better armed, largely because many of the region's natural resources have been looted and sold on. Does that not suggest that MONUC needs to do more to train a reformed Congolese army and police force? Has any consideration been given to what technical assistance or advice Britain could offer in that regard?
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