Topical debate — Democratic Republic of the Congo

Part of Points of Order – in the House of Commons at 1:30 pm on 6th November 2008.

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Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury 1:30 pm, 6th November 2008

No hon. Member would dissent from the assertion of Jeremy Corbyn, the Minister and others that Congo needs a political solution. Neither would anyone dissent from the assertion that it is difficult for us to describe the scale of the individual tragedy—of families, women and children, many of whom have been forced to move many times, each time losing more of their possessions and becoming more destitute, thereby making their lives much more difficult. We all hope that a political solution can be found.

I shall focus the House's attention on the issue that I raised during the urgent question earlier this week. During the 1990s and the early part of the new millennium, the international community became increasingly enthusiastic about promulgating the concept of the responsibility to protect. We had seen the horrors of the Rwandan genocide and we had seen Kosovo, where the United Nations had failed to act—Kosovo was dealt with by a coalition of the willing. As we entered the new millennium, there was a desire that we should never find ourselves in such a position again. That was described well by Tony Blair, the then Prime Minister, at the 2001 Labour party conference, when he said that if Rwanda happened again we would not walk away as the outside world had done many times before. He insisted that the international community had a "moral duty" to provide military and humanitarian assistance to Africa whenever it was needed.

In the same year, Kofi Annan, then Secretary-General of the UN, said in his Nobel lecture:

"The sovereignty of states must no longer be used as a shield for gross violations of human rights."

That led, in 2005, to the UN adopting a long resolution containing provisions on the "Responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity". It makes it clear that:

"The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter of the United Nations, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity."

In January, the current Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, made himself clear:

"I am fully committed to keeping the momentum that you the leaders have made at the 2005 World Summit and will spare no effort to operationalise the responsibility to protect."

In reality, however, the international community no longer appears able to deliver on the responsibility to protect.

I shall focus on four countries: Sierra Leone, Sudan, Congo and Zimbabwe. In Sierra Leone, the international community intervened very effectively. Led by UK troops, it took on the west side boys and restored peace to Freetown, and thus to Sierra Leone. That was followed by a very successful UN international war crimes tribunal, which for the first time established that enlisting child soldiers is a war crime and that a Head of State has no sovereign immunity from charges of war crimes. Charles Taylor is now in The Hague being tried for war crimes in Sierra Leone. That intervention was fantastically successful. However, that was partly because Sierra Leone is comparatively small and because the UK had the lift capacity and ability to enforce its military will.

By the time we got to Darfur, however, countries with a sizeable lift capacity—in particular, the United Kingdom and the United States—were engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there just were not the countries with the kind of military lift capacity needed to enter Darfur. So we had a kind of dance where, first, the African Union said that it would take a lead. It was clear to those of us on the International Development Committee who went to Darfur that the AU was doing the best it could with scant resources, but that it was totally incapable of doing anything other than monitor the situation. Then it was decided to have a hybrid institution of AU and UN troops, but that has not managed to do much more because, again, there are no players with the kind of lift capacity and military co-ordination able to enforce their will in Darfur.

That has come through in this debate. Mr. Joyce rationally said that if rebel forces really wanted to penetrate Goma, we would require a large number of troops on the ground to prevent it from happening. Anyone with any military experience realises that. However, we must also acknowledge that the Secretary-General is not able to call upon the necessary forces. To those of us who took part in the Westminster Hall debate on Afghanistan the other day, it was quite clear that much of NATO's commitment for the foreseeable future will be tied up in Afghanistan. Indeed, if anything, before enjoining the European Union to get more involved in other areas, we should enjoin EU and NATO colleagues to participate more in the UN peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan.

The UN and the international community need to give serious consideration to how the Secretary-General can access the sort of military capacity needed on such occasions to ensure that the words "responsibility to protect" are not empty or meaningless again. That will require countries outside the EU to make a much greater contribution. After all, a number of members, even in the Security Council, make no significant contribution to peacekeeping or peace-enforcing anywhere in the world. The responsibility to protect cannot be supported only by a coalition of the willing—it is far too important. If we say that there is a responsibility to protect, and if we give the impression that the international community will come to the rescue of those suffering terribly from humanitarian and war crimes, but we do not deliver, we will be betraying those people.

In Congo and elsewhere, we must ensure that the international community and the Secretary-General have the capacity to deliver on the responsibility to protect. We all hope and pray that a political solution will be found to Congo's immediate problems. However, with the major military world players, such as the UK and the US—with all their lift capacity—occupied in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the resources available to the Secretary-General are pretty thin. We have to face up to that, and to the reality that we will need competent and co-ordinated military feet on the ground to protect civilian populations. At the moment, we are not delivering even in Darfur, so we may well be misleading ourselves if we pretend that we can deliver in other areas.

I hope that Ministers will reflect, with colleagues in the UN Security Council and General Assembly, on how we can deliver on the promise that is the responsibility to protect.