Topical debate — Democratic Republic of the Congo

Part of Points of Order – in the House of Commons at 1:20 pm on 6th November 2008.

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Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 1:20 pm, 6th November 2008

I wish to put on record my thanks to the Leader of the House for choosing this subject for a topical debate—it is very important that we have this debate. Obviously, I have to keep within the 10-minute time limit, so I shall be as quick as I can.

The history of the Congo is one of the mad grab of its mineral-rich resources by generations of, mainly European, traders and mining companies, stretching right back to the 19th century, when it was King Leopold's personal fiefdom, through to the period when it was the Belgian Congo. Independence subsequently came, and with it the assassination of the then Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. After that came a series of dictatorships, and the rape of the Congo continued, with the theft of resources and the destruction of so many people's lives.

Many such people have made their homes in this country having sought exile from those conflicts. I echo the point made by Simon Hughes about the need to have some regard, understanding and respect for the position that Congolese asylum seekers face in this country. We should not be sending back to the Congo people who will, unfortunately, face enormous danger when they return. I hope that the Minister will be able to say something about that.

A couple of days ago, a meeting of the Congolese diaspora was held upstairs in one of the Committee Rooms, and yesterday, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom held an interesting meeting in Committee Room 10 on the "Voices of African Women". The women involved had suffered because of what is going on in the Congo at the present time. Like my hon. Friends the Members for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) and for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber), I was in Goma earlier this year and I was an election observer two years ago. During that election, there was a sense of hope and a feeling that the huge international investment that had been put into the electoral process would bring about some degree of political stability, the building of state institutions and some degree of long-term peace. Unfortunately, that has simply not happened in the case of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The combination of the poverty of people in a mineral-rich area, the rape of women as a weapon of war by the various militia groups and, I am sorry to say, by the Congolese army, and the fear with which many people live is desperate to see. Indeed, the refugee camp that the three of us visited in April was overrun and burnt down only last week. The people we met there, 90 per cent. of whom were women trying to eke out an existence, have now fled to goodness knows where. They lack any food, clean water and medical supplies, and everything else, and are in a desperate situation.

I want to draw two factors to the House's attention, the first of which is the role played by minerals and the second of which is the politics of the region. The DRC is a very mineral-rich place: it has massive forestry reserves, and one hopes that the majority of those will be permanently protected; and it has almost every mineral that the world needs. At the moment, the world needs coltan, tin, copper, gold, diamonds and all kinds of minerals, and the DRC is rich in those. It is cursed with the riches of its minerals; the benefits of all those riches have not gone to the poorest people in that country—indeed, there should not be any poor people in the DRC. I do not blame people for buying mobile phones—everybody in this House has a mobile phone; the whole world is buying mobile phones. Coltan is an essential part of their manufacture, but we need to deal with some issues: the methods that are used to extract the coltan; the system that is used to export it; and the money made by mining companies, metal dealers and others, none of which reaches the poorest people in the region. I have received many witness statements of what is going on in the DRC at the present time.

The issues of mineral extraction and the extractive industries transparency agreement are very important—that agreement has simply not been followed by the Congolese Government. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that elements of the Congolese army are controlling individual mines, as are other militia forces. The funding of the arms purchases—the funding of what goes on—comes directly from the extraction of minerals. Thus, in addition to the political work being done to try to bring about a settlement, tough questions need to be asked of every one of the big mining companies that end up processing some of the minerals that are extracted from the DRC, because, wittingly or unwittingly, those companies are fuelling the killing of millions of people. I use my words advisedly, because 5 million people have died in the DRC in the past 10 years as a result of this conflict, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and the capital city, Kinshasa, is overrun by refugees from the war in the east of the country.

My second point concerns the relationship with Rwanda. That country went through the horrors of genocide, and nobody can ever understate or underestimate its effects and horrors. Those of us who have been to Rwanda, seen the museum of the genocide and talked to people who went through it can only throw our hands up in horror at the things that happened to the people there. That is not to say that the Rwandan Government should not behave in a responsible way within the region.

I am holding a copy of the 2004 memorandum of understanding on the development partnership between the Government of the UK and the Government of the Republic of Rwanda. Article 11, to which the Rwandan Government signed up, states that they will

"remain committed to playing a full part in international and regional initiatives to prevent and reduce intra and inter-country conflicts and establish peace in central Africa".

The Rwandan Government are receiving a huge amount of British aid; probably 40 to 50 per cent. of all Rwandan public expenditure comes from British taxpayers in one form or another. Therefore, the Rwandan Government need to be very open about the relationship between Rwanda and Nkunda and his forces within the region, and about the porous border that exists between both countries, which results not only in arms going through, but in large amounts of illicitly mined minerals getting out of the DRC.

In addition, a joint communiqué was agreed between the DRC and the Republic of Rwanda, clause 10 of which states:

"The Government of the Republic of Rwanda commits to:

(a) Take all necessary measures to seal its border to prevent the entry into or exit from its territory of members of any armed group, renegade militia leaders, Nkunda's group in particular, and prevent any form of support—military, material or human—being provided to any armed group in the DRC."

It goes on to say that information should be shared with the DRC and United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Hon. Members have rightly raised the question of what happens to the MONUC forces at the present time. I have met many of the people, from different parts, who work within them. One such group came from Uruguay, but people from India and many other countries are working within those forces. We witnessed them working extremely well during a humanitarian crisis when a plane crashed at Goma airport. I am not in favour of sending another military force in under a separate command or separate relationship, because that is a recipe for chaos, rivalry and, probably, disaster. If MONUC requires more logistical support or more people on the ground to enforce peace, it should clearly get that support and the necessary aid that it requires. Rather than playing at being armchair generals, I ask the House to think of two things. People are now starving in the eastern DRC. Children are dying for lack of medicines. It is a humanitarian crisis; and we have a responsibility to provide all the aid, support and help that we can.

A military solution in DRC is not possible; the solution must be political. I am pleased that Lord Malloch-Brown is attending the conference taking place in Nairobi this weekend to try to promote a political dialogue between DRC and Rwanda and to encourage political developments in eastern Congo. So far, politics have failed and business has made a great deal of money while ordinary people have been dying. We must provide support, bring about a ceasefire and peace and, above all, promote a political settlement so that independence for Congo can become a reality, and people can live in a safe and secure environment and benefit from the natural riches of their own land.