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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the security and political situation in the African Great Lakes region.
This is the first opportunity that the House has had since the general election to discuss the great lakes region. I shall curtail my remarks somewhat to allow sufficient time for Back Benchers who wish to speak, as we have already lost 12 minutes or more of the debate.
The first three countries I am going to mention are countries where things have gone better in recent times. I start with Rwanda, which has a booming economy and has moved on from the genocide of 1994 in the most admirable ways. In November 2015, the White House put out a statement saying:
“President Kagame, who in many ways has strengthened and developed Rwanda, now has an historic opportunity to enshrine his legacy by honouring his commitments to respect the term limits set when he entered office...any move to prolong his hold on power would be to the detriment of Kagame’s legacy”.
Secondly, in relation to the UN rapporteur’s report on freedom of association and freedom of expression, has the UK been making representations—for example, in the Minister’s meeting with the Rwandans in December 2015 —to ensure that those in other political parties are not being labelled as enemies of the state and that the plurality of democracy becomes a key part, alongside a booming economy, of building this country as one of the great powerhouses of Africa?
The third issue is the function of non-governmental organisations, which is another big worry in Rwanda, not least in relation to appointments to the leadership of NGOs through the Rwanda Governance Board, whose role should be regulatory—it should not interfere and control. What is our Government’s position on that, and what representations are being made on those three issues?
I will move on from Rwanda. It would have been good to say more, but I am sure that others will do so. I suspect that less will be said about the Central African Republic, which is not mentioned or visited much by anyone. It has been too unsafe to visit, but the Pope has now demonstrated that it is moving on. The turnout at the last election in 2016 was an impressive 79%, and with democracy comes the possibility of stability, peace and development, but that is tempered by this week’s report by Amnesty International. What is the Government’s response to that report?
What assistance are the Government giving to help that country to move out of its dark years, or are we standing on the sidelines? The remnants of the Lord’s Resistance Army are causing turmoil at every opportunity in the east of the country. What assistance are we giving to CAR to help it become a more normalised and stable country that can grow democratically and economically with a significant level of peace?
I wish to turn to the Congo, by which I mean not the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which I will come to and which I am sure will be the main issue of concern —it is a major country where we have a lot of relationships—but Congo-Brazzaville, which is also hardly mentioned. What are we doing there to ensure that its political stability is acknowledged and strengthened?
As an important aside, given the work of the World Wildlife Fund and Tusk with Prince William and others, it is a significant country in terms of the preservation of forest elephants and lowland gorillas. It seems to me that there is huge potential for boosting tourism; whether one welcomes or regrets that, it is a significant part of maintaining those critically endangered species. The issue is also relevant to CAR, whose national park borders Congo-Brazzaville. What practical assistance are we giving to help that develop? This country has a great interest in that area, not least through Prince William’s exertions. We will host a major conference in 2018. We have great expertise and there are opportunities do something hugely significant in a country that is rarely mentioned in this House.
The all-party parliamentary group on the African great lakes region intends to make a proposal relating to the delegation to the Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly—Members may be interested in participating—and both CAR and Congo-Brazzaville may well be part of that. The Foreign Office in Kinshasa would certainly be keen on delegations visiting areas with which we need to build relationships and whose gains we can consolidate. Things have improved significantly in those countries in recent times, which is welcome. We should temper criticism and provide support for improving their democracy. We should continue to press them on that, while acknowledging their progress.
In Burundi, which I visited two years ago, there is a less happy state of affairs. The Department for International Development has pulled out and we do not have an embassy there. I pressed Ministers in the last Government on that issue. It was a mistake for us to withdraw from Burundi—and that has proven to be the case—because it is becoming increasingly anglicised in its approach to the world, as part of the east African community. It has followed many others by going its own way. Some Presidents seem to think that they ought to be there for life. In this case, there has been significant turmoil and a lot of violence, not least from the acolytes of President Nkurunziza and his entourage. There are huge dangers in the country, but what are we doing to assist and intervene? Do we support the use of chapter 7 of the UN charter to deploy a police force, in accordance with UN resolution 2303 of July 2016? What will it take for the UN Security Council to make that decision, and are we working to that end? What other leverage are we using on the President to ensure that the country moves on?
Burundi is hardly spoken about, but its genocide compares with the worst in Africa in recent and historic times. An extraordinary level of genocide was hidden away in the ’70s and ’80s. From 1972 onwards, the country experienced the biggest single proportionate dislocation of people anywhere in the world. The displaced population moved across the border to Tanzania in dramatically large numbers, and they have been reassimilated extraordinarily successfully. Yet we stand aside from all that, and from the needs of the country. Its democracy is under threat and violence has broken out repeatedly. The country carries the legacy of the hidden genocide, which has been highlighted by the discovery in the last 24 hours of 1,000 bodies in a mass grave in the Rusaka district. What are we doing, and why are we not properly engaging?
What about the NGO situation? The Iteka league was banned on
The final country I shall mention is the seventh-poorest on the planet and the biggest—the DRC. It is a country of extraordinary size, with a population of 60 million, high levels of displacement and wars on its eastern side for a long time. Again, the opportunities are great, but what are we doing? An agreement was reached on
What are we doing to ensure that our efforts are not concentrated entirely on the conflict areas of the east, but that they reach the whole mass of the country? The largest amount of—I am not sure that illegal is the right term—ad hoc land mining anywhere in the world has taken place across the western borders, and a huge chunk of the country has the most extraordinary health and safety conditions, deaths and lack of regulations. Our expertise could play a significant role.
I understand the plaintive cry of, “What are we doing?” This country can do a lot only through working with others, but we are doing a significant amount in our own right at Foreign Office level, through DFID, and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, even at party level. In my role as vice-chairman of international affairs in the Conservative party, we work, along with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, on democracy building in several of those states. The Conservative party has a project, and I suspect that the Scottish National party and the Labour party have projects too, in the great lakes region. There is one pivotal country to which the hon. Gentleman has not referred—Uganda. The security implications of what is happening in Uganda will be gravely important for the whole region in the years to come.
The right hon. Gentleman makes his point eloquently.
I have some practicalities for the Minister. The electoral commission in the DRC has no money and no capacity. Our expertise in elections is huge, so could we provide expertise and support? Are we considering how our aid programme can assist in trying to ameliorate some of the conflicts—for example, that in Katanga with the Bantu and the competition for land? How do we see the MONUSCO force developing? Many perceive it as highly ineffective in recent times. What is our approach to ensuring that that force is effective and that our expertise is brought to bear as part of it?
Alongside our aid programme, we have huge interests, such as mining companies, which are heavily involved in the DRC. The minerals are without question the reason for so much continuous war in the east and the south-east. People are battling for minerals, or groups are funded by minerals. What are we doing to ensure that we, with companies in this country, are not responsible? Indeed, when we consider the bribery and the payments to military groups, how do we know whether we are responsible?
Do the Government not see the importance of the proposals on beneficial ownership in places such as the British Virgin Islands? That directly connects to the conflict in the DRC through mineral companies that are based in offshore locations such as the British Virgin Islands. The New York Times recently revealed a series of suspicious bank transfers totalling around $100 million to Mr Kabila’s adopted brother. That is only one example. It is clear from the way in which the Serious Fraud Office has had to be involved that that is only skimming the surface. We could do a significant amount if we simply clarified and confirmed beneficial ownership of the moneys and the mining interests and held people to account. Some people believe that the various military forces battling illegally in the DRC are using mining money through bribery and direct extraction. We therefore have a huge responsibility to the region as well as to the DRC. What are we doing about that?
I pay tribute to Carole Velasquez and Noreen Kassam—two volunteers who have assisted the all-party group; in Carole’s case, for many years—for their support, and to CAFOD, which has been hugely influential in supporting and assisting the Catholic Church in getting the breakthrough in the DRC. There are many other great players in the aid world in this country, and they should be congratulated on their work. I could say much more but I will not; I hand over to others.
Marvellous. May I say to hon. Members that if they speak for up to seven minutes, everyone will have equal time? I know that Front Benchers do not like their time being squeezed, but they may get squeezed again.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I pay tribute to John Mann for an extremely good and well-informed speech, and to my hon. Friend Pauline Latham who has also sponsored this debate.
The UK is increasingly engaged in the great lakes region and rightly so. It is vital that we continue to be so for the long term, and that we do not dip in and out but maintain our presence in a positive way in the many different respects I will come on to. I am more positive about the great lakes than I have been for some time. We have on many occasions in the past year raised huge concerns about the future of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, yet I hope the agreement reached on new year’s eve will be remembered in the same way as we remember the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland: as a time when differences were put aside in the interests of their people. As the hon. Member for Bassetlaw said, the agreement talks about elections this year, no third term for President Kabila, and no referendum or constitutional changes.
I pay great tribute to the Catholic Church, which has done so much; to the retiring US envoy Thomas Perriello, who has done a tremendous job; to our own Foreign and Commonwealth Office; to the EU; and to our own great lakes envoy, Danae Dholakia. I also want to pay tribute to the work done by DFID—colleagues and I saw its work on a visit in July—particularly on health in remote regions and access to water. They are some of the best projects I have ever seen. They are done at low cost by people who have been really committed to the DRC for decades. These are not consultants who come and go, but really committed people who put their life’s work into helping the poorest.
Burundi is another matter, but we must be as positive as possible. The years 2015 and 2016 have been a tragedy for that country. It is vital that 2017 is better. Every effort must be put into turning the country around, principally by those who have responsibility for it. One lesson we have to remember is to ensure that any agreements made are watertight. The Burundi problem arose from the lack of clarity over how many terms the current President would serve or in what way he would be re-elected. As a result, hundreds if not thousands of people have been killed. Any agreement must look forward to problems that may arise when they are signed.
The former President of Tanzania, Benjamin Mkapa, is negotiating and has done a fine job. We must continue to support him in every way possible. It is disappointing that some organisations have withdrawn their support from the process. We can understand the reasons why, but I believe it is the only game in town and they need to be engaged with it. As President Mkapa said, they need to deal with the situation as it is: to work with President Nkurunziza; to try to persuade the Government of Burundi to turn away from an extremely dangerous path; to see extrajudicial killings stopped; to see paramilitaries and roaming gangs return to lawful activity; to restore law and order and human rights; and above all to not let the blight of ethnic hatred, to which the hon. Member for Bassetlaw referred, come back. Burundi has suffered as grievously from genocide as Rwanda, but it was a rolling genocide over decades and not a genocide in 100 days in 1994.
I will not say much about Rwanda, because other Members possibly will do so. It has been a success story, but with problems along the way. There is an election this year. This is a time for the country to come together. It is also a time to look to the future. If as seems likely President Kagame, who in many ways has been an outstanding if flawed leader, stands again, he needs to look beyond the next term as to who his successor will be. He has the interests of his country at heart. He will want it to prosper in the future. He knows that he will not be around forever—none of us are.
Tanzania is probably the country in this region that is closest to my heart, having lived there for so many years. It has generally managed the transition to free and fair elections extremely well, except, sadly, in the case of Zanzibar. There was progress in Zanzibar from 2010 to 2015, but the elections in that year were flawed and pulled in a way about which our Government made their view quite clear. The elections were re-held in 2016 without the presence of the main Opposition party. It is vital that the island of Zanzibar comes together with the Union Government and resolves this problem. The people of Zanzibar deserve nothing less. They are a peaceful and wonderful people.
At the same time, Tanzania has respected the two-term limit for presidents impeccably, for which we should give that country great credit. The CCM, the major ruling party, has achieved a great deal, but it needs to go further. The Government need to bring in an independent electoral commission in Tanzania. In my opinion, that is the biggest flaw in Tanzanian democracy at the moment. At the same time, the Opposition need to use Parliament and the parliamentary process to deal with the understandable questions it has for the Government, rather than just taking to the streets every time. I pay tribute to the Opposition for keeping calm and not going ahead with the major demonstrations proposed in September, which I believe would have resulted in unnecessary violence and possibly deaths.
On Uganda, the examples of former Presidents Benjamin Mkapa and Ali Hassan Mwinyi in Tanzania, as well John Kufuor in Ghana, show the benefit of presidents who recognise the importance of term limits. Those who stay on forever rarely go gracefully. That is surely a lesson for Uganda. The peace and stability since 1985 has been a huge relief for the people of Uganda, but proper open and democratic transition is also a sign of wisdom and maturity.
Finally, I wish to refer to development in all these countries. In our debate on the sustainable development goals last November in Westminster Hall, I referred to the five levers of development that I believe are crucial, including to all the countries of the great lakes region: jobs and livelihoods, health and health research, education, gender equality and infrastructure. DFID and the UK are involved in pretty much all these countries, including in Burundi—not directly but through multilateral means—and it is vital that this continues. As I said at the beginning, we must remain committed for the long term to ensuring the future prosperity of this wonderful and very important part of the world.
I thank my hon. Friend John Mann for securing this important debate.
I want to focus on eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, because it is an area that has been overlooked by this place, the west and the whole world. Obviously, stability and security in the great lakes region of Africa is too often overlooked by the international community. That applies particularly to the eastern DRC but throughout the region. Violence, rape and displacement have become normalised, while several of the region’s countries have become bywords for conflict and human rights abuses. Over 1,000 Congolese women are raped every day. It seems uniquely shocking when we talk about it, but then there seems to be a transformation in our minds, and we think, “Well, it is tragically commonplace”, and we just seem to accept it. That is a really sad reflection.
The result is a relative lack of awareness of and action against the political instability that has beset these countries for decades. Worse still, there is a tendency to regard the violence as perpetual and inevitable, in contrast to conflicts in other parts of the world, which seem more immediately redeemable and on which we seem to be more focused. The ongoing refugee crisis in Europe and the Mediterranean is testament to this trend, as is Syria. The Calais “Jungle”, for example, received a huge amount of coverage and activism, compared to the refugees of eastern DRC and Burundi, and yet the Calais refugees, as tragic as their plight was, numbered just 7,000, compared with the millions of internally displaced persons in Burundi, eastern DRC and DRC more widely who have been displaced for decades—not months or a year but decades. Worse still, millions of refugees torn from their families, homes and communities have been forced to live in east African refugee camps for about 20 years. It is a shame that so little attention is paid to this issue.
Having visited Rwanda twice in the past few years and spoken to Congolese refugees who have been accommodated there, I have some tentative reflections on the issue. Rwanda seems to be a developed country and a relatively stable and increasingly prosperous democracy, whereas the DRC continues to be plagued by anarchic and systemic violence. According to recent UN statistics, there are currently 2.7 million internally displaced people, as well as 430,000 refugees displaced from the eastern DRC, spread in camps across Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania—nearly half a million people whom we seem to ignore when we talk about human rights and helping people.
On my first visit to one of the camps at Byumba, I witnessed at first hand the conditions in which families, often spanning three generations—can Members believe that?—have had to live. Located at the very top of a lowly mountain range, isolated from the attention of the world, the Gihembe refugee camp houses some 15,000 people. It has been there since the 1990s. It is overcrowded, lacking in resources and cramped. The shacks and primitive accommodation are crowded together on the steep slopes, and inside the camp there is an inadequate supply of water, electricity and food. Children aged under 18 represent a staggering 51.2% of the camp’s population, and because they have grown up in these camps, they know nothing else. This is the world in which they live, which our world does not seem to understand or even care about. Poor education and insufficient public amenities abound.
The situation in the DRC makes it almost impossible for refugees to return home. More than 100 armed militia groups camped out in its impenetrable jungles continue to kill and terrorise families daily, and rape continues to be used as a weapon of war. I hope that the issue will be raised in the Chamber again and again in the future, because we should not turn our back on it. When the conflict worsens, more than 400,000 women can be raped in a year.
The eastern DRC is plagued by murderous militia groups, from the Ugandan Allied Democratic Forces to the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, which exploit the country’s mineral wealth and use its proceeds to terrorise communities into subordination. The state is at best ineffectual, and at worst complicit. Congolese politicians enable the groups to control and compete for vast swathes of the DRC in order to maintain their cut and their hold on power. They are allowed to descend into mindless violence in pursuit of an industry worth $27 trillion in untapped mineral resources in the DRC, fighting for control over coltan production and the DRC’s vast gold, tin and tungsten reserves. Fighting frequently breaks out to determine which groups control the lucrative mines in the eastern areas of the country, and the situation shows little sign of improving.
With little or no hope of return, Congolese refugees are trapped in the camps, as they have been for a long time. Unlike those in Calais, they are not provided with comprehensive rights in their new country. Tanzania and Uganda have restricted the legal right of refugees to work, while Burundi and Malawi have restricted access to citizenship. Zambia has even restricted access to education.
We in this place need to ask why this situation continues with no end in sight. The Minister will undoubtedly point to the efforts of the Catholic Church, the African Union and MONUSCO to broker a lasting peace, but we need to ask why the actions of MONUSCO, the largest UN peacekeeping force to be sent to the eastern DRC, have failed to stabilise the area—and now that force is being withdrawn. No inquiry seems to be taking place into the failure and the ongoing violence. Stabilisation would enable the refugees to return home and conduct their lives without the constant fear of violence and unending poverty.
An attitudes survey carried out by the South African Sonke Gender Justice Network in 2012 showed a shocking prevalence of the acceptance of rape among Congolese men. One in three men in the eastern DRC admitted to committing sexual assault, while 61% of interviewees stated that women sometimes deserved to be beaten. The DRC has been branded the “rape capital of the world”, and I hope that we will address that in future debates.
I congratulate John Mann on securing this debate and making a wide-ranging and comprehensive speech on the region.
There can be few areas of the world where the real legacy of colonialism remains so apparent as the great lakes region of Africa. Few areas have such outstanding resources—natural resources and resilient people—but few areas also have a greater burden to bear due to the horrific history of western greed and appropriation among other reasons.
I have a particular interest in, and many friends from, the DRC and I wish to focus on it today. This is a country that has never had a peaceful transition to democratic power, and that is tragic. The fact that the Church has brokered a deal at least puts the democratic transition back on the table in the coming year and that is to be welcomed, although only cautiously as it remains to be seen whether President Kabila will sign up to the transition; his record, as we know, is not a good one.
This is how Amnesty International summed up the last year in the DRC:
“Government repression of protests…intensified. Violations of the rights to freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly increased. Human rights defenders, youth activists and politicians were threatened, harassed, arbitrarily arrested and in some cases convicted for peacefully exercising their rights…numerous armed groups perpetrating serious abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law…high civilian death toll and mass displacements.”
It is understandable, therefore, that people are cautious, but, as I said, a deal has been struck and right now the DRC is in a better place than before. I hope that this limited progress will be a call to action for other countries in the region, and those elsewhere with strong links to the DRC, to support the formation of a transitional Government as per the deal and ensure that Kabila does indeed step down and democratic elections do indeed take place later this year.
However, the key structural problems across the region remain and will continue to drive instability unless they are tackled. Many of these stem from the colonial period, as I mentioned at the start of my speech. Good governance of natural resources is a massive issue and is essential, but others have spoken, and will speak, about that.
Unequal distribution of land continues to impact on many of the countries in the region. Those who have been displaced because of internal conflict often return to find their land has been redistributed in their absence. While that is traumatic enough for an individual, it becomes far more destabilising if entire communities or ethnic groups are displaced and return to find their land has been seized or sold off in its entirety in their absence. Instability in one country can quickly spread across state boundaries, and there remain those who are more than willing to exploit this.
There are also very real political and financial difficulties placed on states hosting refugees from neighbouring countries. Some 100,000 displaced Burundians currently reside in Tanzania. We would do well to remember that it is the poorest countries who host the majority of the world’s refugees—and I think we will probably find they complain less because they do not see what they do as charity; they see it as their duty to humanity.
As the Scottish National party’s civil liberties spokesperson in Westminster, it would be remiss of me not to mention some of the very real dangers facing journalists, civil organisations and opposition leaders in the region. That is something that we in this Parliament can affect; by looking to build links with our parliamentary colleagues in the great lakes region, we can work to strengthen democracy and the rule of law.
I know that a great many colleagues are involved with projects and associations that work across Parliaments to help other countries develop their democratic institutions. In my role as vice-chair of the all-party group on Africa, I recently chaired a meeting here in Westminster looking at how the UK can support the participation of women and the rule of law in the DRC. It was attended by some very impressive and some very courageous women from the DRC—campaigners, activists, refugees, academics, and Eve Bazaiba, a Member of the DRC Parliament since 2006. If we need one reason above all others to do everything in our power to support the people of the DRC, it is these women and all the women and children currently living there, so many of whom have been, or will become, victims of sexual violence. Amnesty International described the rate of sexual violence in the past year as “rampant”. It is out of control. As we have heard, 1,000 women are raped a day—that is 48 per hour, which means that since this debate started not that long ago about 34 women have been raped in the DRC.
When I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament, I attended a meeting with campaigners against sexual violence in the DRC. What I heard from them haunted me for a long time. I rarely allow myself to think about it, far less speak about it, because it was so overwhelming. I cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like for those women to experience it. Today I am choosing not to share those stories that haunted me, but I remain in awe of those women because, while they courageously told their personal stories, I cannot bear to repeat their words. The sexual violence that they experienced in the DRC was savage, and if it is something that I find unspeakable, it must be extreme. We cannot turn our backs on the people in that region, and in the DRC in particular. We cannot merely tick boxes; we must tell the people of the DRC that we in this House really do care. That means that the very least we will do is play our part in ensuring that the people of the DRC are able to participate in free and democratic elections later this year.
It is a pleasure to follow Anne McLaughlin, and I particularly support what she said at the end of her speech about the horrors of sexual violence in the DRC and the importance of the elections there. I reiterate the point that she and my hon. Friend Graham Jones made that it is often the poorest countries in the world that host the largest numbers of displaced people, including refugees. I congratulate my hon. Friend John Mann on securing this debate, and I echo all that he said in his opening remarks.
I congratulate the other Members who have taken part in the debate, particularly the members of the Select Committee who are here. They include my friend Jeremy Lefroy, who is an expert on Tanzania and Burundi. He has been a real champion for Burundi. I also congratulate Pauline Latham, who is unable to take part in the debate but is a great champion of these issues and an expert on the situation in Uganda. My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn made a powerful speech. He talked about displacement and refugees in Africa, and the Select Committee will be addressing that important matter in an inquiry shortly.
I want to focus today on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The scale of the humanitarian challenge there is enormous, with at least 1.6 million people internally displaced. It is estimated that about 5% of the poorest people in the world live in the DRC, and projections suggest that, unless things change, that figure will more than double over the next 15 years, which is the period for the global goals. That is the challenge that we face. Water Aid tells us that fewer than 30% of the people in the DRC have access to basic sanitation.
As others have said, the humanitarian crisis has been shaped by conflict and political instability. I echo what has been said about the encouraging signs with regard to the political position, and I congratulate the Catholic Church and others on the role that they have played in mediating talks over the Christmas period. Let us hope that we will now see movement towards elections in the DRC this year. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw said, the United Kingdom can and must play a proactive role, not least in supporting electoral registration and the other elements for which the electoral commission in the DRC has responsibility.
The International Development Committee is currently conducting an inquiry on fragility and development in the DRC. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford said, we visited the country last July and saw some of the work that the Department for International Development was doing. I spoke in the debate on Tuesday about the support that the Commonwealth Development Corporation is giving to a very positive hydroelectric power programme in the Virunga region. We also saw some excellent peace-building work being done in the Goma region to bring together members of the community and the police to try to break down the barriers that have inevitably built up between them over the past 20 years. We visited a camp for internally displaced people in South Kivu and heard how cash transfer—an issue that has been in the news recently—is giving back control of their lives to people who have been powerless to do anything but flee from conflict. We also went to the Red Cross hospital in Goma, where a war surgery team run by the Red Cross treats a slow but steady stream of people who have suffered some of the most appalling gunshot and machete wounds. Those are positive examples of UK aid making a real difference to some of the poorest people in the world.
As everyone who addressed the subject of the DRC in this short debate has said, the recent history of that country has been violent and unstable, but there are now some reasons for cautious hope. Let us as a country play a positive and proactive role in supporting a peaceful solution that enables elections to happen, that enables those elections to be free and fair and that puts the focus on human rights, while seeking to bring peace to a country that has been savaged by war.
The humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo will not disappear overnight, so it is important that, through DFID, non-governmental organisations and others, we continue the hard work to alleviate the worst aspects of poverty in that country. We who serve on the International Development Committee, on a cross-party basis, have seen at first hand the many good things that are being done to alleviate poverty in the DRC, and we look forward to releasing our report as a result of that inquiry shortly.
I welcome the fact that this debate is taking place in the Chamber, and I congratulate John Mann on securing it. He said that this is the first debate in the Chamber on the great lakes since the general election, which might be true, but last January there was a debate on east and central Africa, secured by the former Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, that touched on a number of similar countries—there was a similar debate about the exact definition of the region. Sadly, very little has changed since then in the overall stability of the region, although we have heard about some glimmers of hope today.
Perhaps the most tragic and depressing aspect of the situation is that the people most affected by conflict, instability, poverty and food insecurity are usually the people who have done the least to cause those situations and who, almost by definition, are not in a position to do very much about them, at least without appropriate support and encouragement. At the heart of the debate should be basic questions about human dignity and our role in making sure that it is respected.
I will briefly address the various countries that have been mentioned, some of the broader regional issues and the role for the UK Government and international actors. The DRC has probably been the main focus of the debate. I have not yet had the privilege of visiting that country, but, like my hon. Friends, I have met many people visiting from the DRC, not least at the event organised by my hon. Friend Anne McLaughlin and during my time with the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund. I have never failed to be moved by those people’s optimism and determination to work for a better future, despite the immense challenges—not least the terrible sexual violence that a number of hon. Members spoke about.
I often make the point that the DRC should be one of the richest countries in the world. We all carry around a little bit of the DRC in our pocket—in the coltan in our mobile phones—yet it is one of the poorest countries. I wonder whether, in a way, we are all slightly complicit, because we enjoy cheap access to technology and perhaps do not speak out enough about the instability that suits the extraction companies and the Governments of the countries in which they are based.
I join the tributes paid to the Catholic Church and the civil society organisations that brokered the new year’s eve deal. The deal will hopefully see fresh elections and President Kabila standing down, although, as we recently saw in Gambia, it is not beyond Presidents to go back on their word.
Burundi has also been mentioned, and the hon. Member for Bassetlaw made important points about the role of the UN Security Council. Of course, tensions continue with Rwanda, and the displacement has an effect across the whole region. There is displacement into Tanzania and down into Malawi, a country with which I am familiar—the Dzaleka camp has more than 25,000 refugees from Burundi and elsewhere in the region. Yes, there is some stability in Rwanda, but at what price? Kagame will be standing again in 2017, which is why support for civil society and governance is important. The points about the Central African Republic, which Pope Francis visited in 2015, and Congo-Brazzaville are also important.
Africa would have so much to gain from tourism if only there were a little more stability and infrastructure. Very few of the challenges we have heard about are caused by natural causes or force majeure. The behaviour of people and Governments in the region and across the world are responsible. That is particularly true of climate change, which is often more of a driving force than might be immediately obvious. We in the west have done the most to cause climate change through decades of pollution and industrialisation, and people in the great lakes region are among those feeling the effects first and hardest. Indeed, the great lakes themselves are affected by climate change and the increasing demand for water, which threaten biodiversity.
Climate change also has a major impact on food security and the ability of small-scale and subsistence farmers to produce enough food for themselves. Food security, in turn, affects health, educational attainment, gender equality and, ultimately, people’s ability to take part in society and the economy. That compounds the challenge of a weak civil society and the continuation of “big man” politics throughout the region, which we have heard about.
Investment in civil society and good governance programmes is vital, even if it can be slow-burn—long-term investment is perhaps not as attractive to DFID and other donors as it once was—and, without it, the cycle will continue. Weak governance of course makes it easier for multinational companies to run riot—whether food producers grabbing land or forcing the use of GM crops, or extractive companies dodging taxes and ignoring labour standards. Members who want to reduce our foreign aid budget—we have not heard from them today, but they exist—should be the first in the queue to demand that corporations pay their taxes in developing countries, so that domestic resources are available to invest in food and education. They should be demanding that this Government hold those companies to account, especially when they are based in the City of London or in offshore tax havens.
The African Union has a role to play in all this, and it would be interesting to hear from the Minister about any diplomatic, structural and financial support the UK is prepared to give, so that it can play a full role in promoting peace and stability and in the development of democracy and good governance across the continent. The point about 0.7% is also important, and it would be good to hear the Minister reaffirm the Government’s commitment to that in this and future spending periods. I hope he recognises that that commitment is even more important in the context of Brexit, as a signal that the UK intends to play a continued, positive leadership role in the world and wants to continue to engage.
What leadership are the Government showing in tackling the complex supply chain, tax and corporate governance issues that are also wreaking so much of the havoc we have heard about today? What progress is being made to improve the reporting of the beneficial ownership of companies operating from tax havens in UK overseas territories? Again, the impact of Brexit arises here: will the UK demand that the highest standards of country-by-country reporting and supply chain management continue once it is decoupled from existing EU regulations? How will the UK continue to promote efforts to tackle climate change? Will the Foreign and Commonwealth Office be using its trumpeted relationship with the incoming US Administration to ensure that they maintain their commitment to the Paris agreement? Are the UK Government prepared to provide adequate funding to help countries in the great lakes region and across Africa adapt to the impact of climate change, which is already taking place?
If there is a similar debate in a year’s time, when I hope this Minister will at least get a break from the Dispatch Box—he has been here all afternoon—I wonder what progress will have been made. Will there have been elections in the DRC? Will the elections in Rwanda take place peacefully? Will there have been any kind of resolution or progress in Burundi? This is about the human dignity of the people who live in those countries, and our dignity is in some way diminished if we do not play our part and step up to the plate to promote a resolution. All the issues and challenges we have heard about today have been created by people, so it stands to reason that people and political will can overcome them.
First, let me thank my hon. Friend John Mann for securing this important debate and the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. I acknowledge the excellent contributions made by Members on both sides of the House. My hon. Friend highlighted some of the less mentioned countries of Africa, including the Central African Republic and Congo-Brazzaville, and the work done by Prince William. He then moved on to discuss the more commonly talked about countries in this debate, such as Burundi and the DRC.
I wish to thank Jeremy Lefroy, who highlighted his positivity. I was pleased to hear him say that he felt more positive about the region than he has for a long time. That is encouraging, given his expertise, having lived in Tanzania—I was pleased to hear him share his expertise on that country. I wish to thank my hon. Friend Graham Jones, who has moved place again, keeping us on our toes. He highlighted shocking violence, including the widespread acceptance of rape, and human rights abuses in the eastern DRC. He also highlighted the plight of Congolese refugees.
I wish to thank Anne McLaughlin for sharing her expertise on the DRC. It was my privilege to attend the all-party group meeting that she organised with women from the DRC. This was when I was still fairly new to this role and it was a great education for me, so I thank her for organising that meeting and inviting me along.
I thank my hon. Friend Stephen Twigg—like many of us, he has been in the Chamber all afternoon—for highlighting the humanitarian challenge in the DRC and the work done by the Department for International Development and non-governmental organisations. Patrick Grady highlighted climate change and its effect on the great lakes region—an important aspect that we must not forget about.
As we all know, the African great lakes region is one of great significance, not only to stability in the African continent, but to the UK, because of the humanitarian and developmental aid that we contribute and our future trade and investment. We have heard that the region witnessed abuses of constitutional powers in 2015 and 2016, with the extension of presidential terms and numerous failures to hold fair and free elections, along with state crackdowns on political opposition and discourse.
Like most speakers, I shall focus on the DRC and Burundi. Both countries are at an acute political crossroads. Trouble in the region is no more so apparent than in Burundi, where President Pierre Nkurunziza successfully engineered for himself an illegal third term in office midway through 2015. He has also indicated that he will stand for re-election in 2020. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on that situation.
Since President Nkurunziza’s decision to run again, political unrest has led to more than 1,000 dead and 8,000 people detained on political grounds, including the leader of the main Opposition party, Gervais Niyongabo, and many high-ranking army officials. Amnesty International has reported that torture by the Burundian national intelligence service has become systematic. It has shown that secret detention facilities have multiplied and served as torture centres, used for extracting information on all those who are believed to oppose the ruling party.
Sadly, Burundi took another major step backwards by officially withdrawing from the International Criminal Court in October last year. The decision was unprecedented and could lead to other countries in the region following suite. What have the UK Government done, and what can they do, to persuade Burundi to reconsider. On new years’ eve, the country awoke to the news that its Environment Minister had been assassinated, adding to further civil unrest. Will the Minister update the House on events following that tragedy?
In 2012, the Government set out their global review of DFID funding, which committed to phasing out the bilateral programme of funding to Burundi, with no plan or commitment from the Government to restart that programme. Is the Minister aware of any additional funding or assistance that could be used to help the people of Burundi?
As we have heard, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is in similar turmoil. During President Kabila’s two terms as leader, military forces have executed a widespread crackdown on political dissidents, including through a media blackout in which he has shut down media outlets close to the Opposition, at least six of which remain blocked. At least 40 Opposition leaders and supporters and pro-democracy youth activists remain in detention throughout Congo. Many have formed rebel groups and factions that have dispersed to borders, and insurgency killings have plagued civilians, mainly in the east of the country. What additional support are we giving the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the DRC to help to implement Security Council resolution 2277?
President Kabila’s failure to hold elections has led to further violence and abuse in the country. Over the Christmas and new year period, DRC security forces killed 40 protestors who were peacefully demonstrating against the refusal of a peaceful and legal transition of power. In the last days of 2016, the Catholic Church managed to broker a deal between the ruling party and the Opposition. That agreement was signed between the political parties on new year’s eve, and it stated that President Kabila will step down at the end of 2017. It is clear that all parts of the House welcome that move, and it is hoped that President Kabila himself signs and upholds the agreement to which he has yet to commit.
Sadly, yesterday, we did see the first signs of backtracking on this agreement, as a group of senior MPs, alongside confidantes of President Kabila, outspokenly challenged the deal, calling for it to be scrapped. The signs are beginning to look ominous. Will the Minister outline to the House what will happen if President Kabila fails to sign the agreement or, worse, fails to comply and to leave political office? What changes would materialise between our two countries? Would the Government consider imposing sanctions on the DRC given that the Congo is one of our largest aid recipients, with the Department for International Development projected to grant £168 million in aid in the forthcoming year? If the President does not stand down in the agreed timeframe, will the UK Government consider imposing sanctions on his family business, which has benefited from his policy reforms, particularly in mining, energy and the banking industry, all of which have gained heavily from foreign investment into the DRC, including from the UK, the US and the EU.
The African great lakes region is seeing an upsurge in political repression, violence and militia recruitment, and heightened cross-border conflicts are on the rise. Much of that is derived from historical warfare, but the suppression of fair and democratic systems and the upholding of human rights are a grave cause for concern.
The world’s eyes are currently focused on the devastation of the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, which, of course, we have just debated in this Chamber, but we must not turn a blind eye to this region, which has seen its own horrors of civil war in the 20th and 21st centuries, most notably in Rwanda. I am sure that all of us here in this House will not forget the horrors of the genocide, which claimed the lives of around 800,000 people only 23 years ago.
Rwanda is now seen as an international success, and it has blossomed as an architectural model for rehabilitation and reconciliation. None the less, the political situation in all these regions is fragile, and my hon. Friend Jeremy Lefroy have highlighted current issues with Rwanda, particularly in relation to democracy. The great lakes region will be stable only if all the countries in the region are stable—their politics are integrally linked.
As we have seen only recently in the Gambia, the power of the ballot box is beginning to break the rule of the strongman in Africa, although, as Patrick Grady pointed out, progress is slow. Like the hon. Member for Stafford, I am hopeful that a new era is upon us in the region. We must show our strength and ensure that, where we can, measures can be implemented to support countries across the African continent and in the great lakes region.
It is a pleasure to respond to this debate. Although many of the same characters are here from the previous debate, I suspect that the tone will be slightly different. It is a pleasure to respond to a subject on which there is a lot of cross-party agreement. Many of today’s questions relate to our international aid commitments, but I will do my best to answer them. I congratulate John Mann on securing this debate. He asked a series of pertinent questions, and I will endeavour to write to him and to other Members if I do not get the opportunity to answer them or to pay tribute to the work that is being done.
Many important points have been made. Let me begin by saying that the great lakes has long been a troubled region, and that remains the case today. It faces many challenges: challenges to democracy when those in power seek to hold on to it; challenges to livelihoods; challenges to human rights from armed groups and repressive Governments; and challenges to survival from violence and hunger.
It is also a region of great potential. The rapid development in Rwanda, which I have visited a number of times, is testimony to that. It also shows what can be achieved when regional Governments and the international community work together.
The UK is a major partner for the region, which is why it was part of my first visit to the continent, following my appointment in July as Minister for Africa. The UK is the second largest donor of humanitarian and development aid. We continue to play a key role in promoting sustainable peace and stability. The people of the great lakes region are resilient, and our aim is to work with Governments and the people of the great lakes countries to achieve a more peaceful, better governed, more democratic and more prosperous region.
Before going into the details of the main countries, I shall respond to some of the points that have been made. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw, who introduced the debate, talked about conflict minerals. I can assure him that we take the matter seriously. The Serious Fraud Office is looking into some investigations that are linked to British companies. Again, I can write to him with further details.
I think the hon. Gentleman was the only Member to refer to the illegal wildlife trade. We place importance on that matter and the Foreign Secretary takes it very seriously indeed. He is working with the Environment Secretary, who attended the illegal wildlife conference in Vietnam in November. We offered to host the next event, which will take place in London, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, in 2018. The Foreign Secretary’s father is very engaged in the matter as well.
Mention was also made of the power that the monarchy can bring to bear. Prince William is a huge driver in raising the profile of this matter and in increasing the understanding of the work that we have done. On a visit to Uganda, I was able to see some of the Department for International Development programmes that are in place, which are providing better intelligence to enable us to understand criminal gangs. Those gangs have no regard for borders. They are moving the ivory and so forth across those borders—looking for markets, getting through customs illegally—and on, predominantly, to the far east, which is the biggest market. That is why the hosting of the event in Vietnam was important in respect of people in the region acknowledging that more needs to be done in that neck of the woods.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the Republic of the Congo. I had the experience of crossing the mighty Congo river, in a very small boat, from Kinshasa to Brazzaville. I also had the opportunity to meet the President there, who is absolutely committed to the areas of work that we want to do.
Furthermore, there is more engagement and involvement in honouring the constitution in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: with 80 million people, what happens there can have a spillover effect into Angola and elsewhere, so it is very important that we ensure that there is stability in that part of Africa.
My hon. Friend Jeremy Lefroy, whom I have long known, is an advocate and supporter of and expert on Africa. He made a powerful speech. He knows that my interest in Africa is personal, and we have a connection by way of the fact that my sister was headteacher of the international school at the base of Kilimanjaro, in Moshi. Through that, we recognised our mutual interest in Africa.
The fact that my hon. Friend says he is positive about the region, given the amount of knowledge he has, fills me with a sense of promise that we are going in the right direction. I join him in paying tribute to Tom Perriello, although I have no idea what the American envoy to the great lakes region will do next, as changes are taking place.
I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the work done by the Catholic Church to broker the deal, which is so important. I will come to that in a moment. I also pay tribute to the Tanzanians and Ugandans for the work that they have done in looking after so many refugees who have been caught up in the region.
Graham Jones—who, I am pleased to say, has remained stationary since he was last referred to—mentioned the refugee crisis. We should not forget that while we discuss refugee issues relating to Libya, the Mediterranean, the shores of Turkey and Greece, and countries right across Europe, the source of many of those problems is the instability in the heart of Africa. Get the source right and those people will not feel the need to make that terrible journey across Africa to seek a life in Europe.
Anne McLaughlin made a powerful contribution, as she does on such matters. She reminded us, perhaps less delicately than I would have put it, about our historical colonial links to the country. We cannot deny our history. We have to recognise the role that we have played in the vast continent, but we can use that to our advantage by saying that there is a desire for us to continue our engagement, now working with the countries in the region in a positive way to meet some of the challenges faced today.
Stephen Twigg mentioned the challenges of the DRC and the number of people that are displaced there. I pay tribute to the work that he and his Committee, which others have mentioned, are doing to focus on the issue. He spoke about the humanitarian crisis there that is shaping the wider conflict. He also touched on something that is so important and that was not yet apparent to me when I visited the DRC. There is vast criminality, particularly in the east of the country, but extremism has yet to set foot there. However, that is exactly where it could go to next, in the same way in which we have seen Boko Haram take advantage of the absence of government in Nigeria and al-Shabaab take advantage of the absence of governance in the southern neck of Somalia. That is why it is so important that we get it right in the east of the DRC.
Patrick Grady made an important point that the many millions of people affected by conflict are those who have not caused it at all. They are in a limited position to influence what is going on, yet they are the ones harmed by the conflict. However, the conflicts and problems are man-made, so they should be solvable. He was the only Member to touch on the issue of climate change. We should not forget that climate change is affecting the ability to grow crops. If it becomes too hot to be able to do so, people will have to move, so migration will be a consequence. He asked me to reiterate our 0.7% international aid commitment. I absolutely stand by it. I would hate to see a Government of any hue challenging our 0.7% commitment, which allows us to stand up with some authority at the United Nations and to call on other countries to do things, act and follow us. I hope that all parties will continue in that vein. The more we make noises about it, the less anybody at the Treasury can sneak anything through on the quiet. We are all in agreement on that.
Liz McInnes, the Labour spokesperson, mentioned the challenge and failure to honour constitutions across Africa. I am afraid this is something that we all need to work on. As the mother of all Parliament and a country that supports the idea of democracy, the programmes that we support with that 0.7% must not simply be about infrastructure, or working with NGOs and groups that need support, although that is important. It is also about improving governance, decision making and democratic processes so that when the terms of people such as President Kabila end, they stand down. There is nothing to stop President Kabila in the DRC from standing again in five years’ time, if he wishes to. Such people should not be able to continue on or to tweak and play around with the constitution. We do not want to see that.
The hon. Lady talked about the role of the ICC. I am afraid that there is an issue with a number of African countries choosing to step away from it to protect those who may be up for charge. We are working with our colleagues in the ICC to prevent that from happening further.
I will talk about the countries in a little more detail in the time I have remaining. In the DRC, President Kabila’s mandate ended on
The unexpected good news came on
The two key points in the deal were, first, that assurances were given by the Government that Kabila will step down and elections will be held by the end of this year and, secondly, that the current Prime Minister must be replaced by someone from the opposition majority.
As hon. Members have mentioned, armed groups in the eastern DRC are causing problems in terms of the security situation. We need to work with the United Nations to make sure that the commitment to stability in the east continues.
I raised the point of what more we could do from the international development perspective. Half the problem is actually getting access to remote areas. The roads are extremely poor. A journey from one community to another, which we would normally expect to take 20 minutes, takes seven or eight hours, which is a perfect situation for criminals and insurgents to operate in and perfect for the instability we are seeing. I suggested to the deputy head of the United Nations Development Programme that more effort—this is something the hon. Gentleman may wish to take up—should perhaps be placed within the DFID budget on improving the infrastructure as well, to allow the security forces to get deeper into these areas to provide the security we need. [Interruption.]
It looks like I have one minute left. I have made comments on the other countries, but I will write to hon. Members to clarify where we stand and to underline our commitment. However, let me go back to the beginning and say thank you to the hon. Member for Bassetlaw and, indeed, to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate to take place.
The Government share the grave concerns aired by hon. Members about the continuing violence, the human rights violations and the repression of civil and political rights across the various parts of the great lakes region. I wish to assure hon. Members of the UK’s unwavering commitment to the people of the region. They want and deserve peace, democracy and hope for the future, and we will continue to work hard with regional Governments and the wider international community to make those aspirations a reality.
I thank the Minister for his response and his kind offer to write to hon. Members present to pick up the myriad detailed issues that were raised—clearly, no one could possibly answer them all within any rational time limit. His offer is appreciated, and it would be very helpful.
Mr Deputy Speaker, inspired by your firm but fair moving-on of the last debate to allow us to have this debate, let me say that this has been a most excellent debate. That is hardly a surprise, given the experience of those on the Back Benches and Front Benches who have participated. Nevertheless, the debate has been of superb quality. We have managed to cover—in important detail and knowledgeably—seven different countries in a short time. That perhaps shows the scale of the issues and the opportunities.
I hope the Minister will take away in particular from the debate the fact that we have huge leverage. We have different kinds of leverage: someone who is forced out of office in disgrace and who has a fortune in Swiss banks has been paid by somebody, and some of those people will certainly be British. Therefore, the more we have transparency, the more we can add to that leverage. However, there are many other kinds of leverage—not least from excellent Departments. The Minister has excellent civil servants in the region, as does DFID, and we stand with a competitive advantage if we use our leverage wisely. I trust that the Minister will take from the debate the importance that the House gives to using that leverage. I share with Jeremy Lefroy and my hon. Friend who represents Middleton—[Interruption.] Lancashire somewhere—the other side of the border—
Motion lapsed (