Burundi and the Great Lakes

Oral Answers to Questions — Foreign and Commonwealth Office – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 31st March 2009.

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Photo of Mary Creagh Mary Creagh Labour, Wakefield 2:30 pm, 31st March 2009

What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in Burundi and the great lakes region.

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

Burundi has made some progress while recovering from the legacy of a long civil war. However, elections next year will be a real test for its fragile democracy. The recent co-operation between the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and Rwanda offers the best prospects for peace in the great lakes region, which we warmly welcome.

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Photo of Mary Creagh Mary Creagh Labour, Wakefield

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. On a recent visit to Burundi, my hon. Friend Mr. Chaytor and I heard concerns from civil society and opposition parties about the elections that are due next year. We met journalists and trade unionists who had been imprisoned for criticising the President—two of whom, happily, have now been released. Will my hon. Friend ensure that we do everything in our power as the UK Government to support those elections and, critically, what happens in the post-election period, which has traditionally been the time when violent acts take place, so that the country can continue down the path of peace that its people have chosen?

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

First, I thank my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend Mr. Chaytor for the excellent work that they did when they went to Burundi in promoting good democratic practice by working with parliamentarians there. We were very glad to support that.

I can assure my hon. Friend that along with the Department for International Development we are working very closely with international partners to assess the potential risks in the lead-up to the elections and how we can best take action to head off those risks in advance of the elections and beyond. I would be delighted to meet both my hon. Friends in order to discuss how we might bring that forward.

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Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

I, too, was impressed by the Minister's original answer to the question. Does she accept, however, that it is not appropriate to force western European democracy on to cultures that are very different from those in Europe? We need to look at the systems of democracy that we seek to help countries to develop in accordance with their needs and cultures. If we do so, we can perhaps find an acceptable arrangement that will not lead to the bloodshed that has been so typical in that part of the world.

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

May I first wish the hon. Gentleman a very happy birthday? [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear!"] That clearly commands support in all parts of the House.

This is not about imposing models of democracy, but about assisting with the development of good governance. I share the hon. Gentleman's view that good governance in Africa needs stability, growth and development. That is the purpose of the work that we do in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and in DFID. I can assure him that we will work closely not only with Governments but with non-governmental organisations, civil society and the media to give them a voice in ensuring that their countries can be stable, absent from the bloodshed that he mentions, and can move forward.

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Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

In the next two years, there are crucial elections in three countries of the great lakes region—Burundi, Rwanda and the DRC. The evidence strongly suggests that in countries that have come out of long periods of conflict, it is always the second democratic election that can mark the turning point. Will my hon. Friend do everything possible to support the integrity and transparency of the electoral process in those three countries over the next two years?

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I share that view, but I should also say that we welcome the good signs of progress that we have seen in the region, particularly the serious and constructive work that the key leaders have done together, which has meant the restoration of diplomatic links and co-operation on matters such as reintegration. That proves that the solution is never just military, but also political. We will continue to support that process.

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