My Lords, I shall begin with the good news. The M23 rebels have been defeated militarily, so their only option is now the negotiating table. Towns in North Kivu, in the eastern DRC, are celebrating, and the UN has shown its capability, along with national Governments, to deal with an intractable conflict. The BBC reported that M23 officials in Uganda said that their fighters had retreated because government and UN forces had launched a joint assault. However, the UN has yet more work to do, as one of the newest threats to regional security now lies in the little-known country of the Central African Republic. A landlocked country, it lies at 180th out of 186 on the UN developmental index, bumbling along near the bottom but never getting the attention of being in the relegation zone. It borders Sudan, South Sudan, DRC, Chad, the Congolese Republic and Cameroon, is about the size of France and is rich in oil, timber and diamonds. After independence in 1960, there have been many coups and the notorious brief existence of a Central African Empire under Emperor Bokassa.
Why, then, would the world pay much attention to the latest coup, which happened on
“on all sides to make every effort to show restraint and to respect human rights”,
was not heeded. However, not only are there flagrant human rights abuses, but the world needs to pay attention, as this time CAR has gone from coup to failed state. In August 2013, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said that there had been a,
“total breakdown of law and order”.
Unicef goodwill ambassador Mia Farrow visited the weekend before last and one of her tweets stated:
“I see no evidence of any functioning government”.
Not only have I found the reports of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty and CAFOD invaluable, but I have also, through a UK charity, been receiving reports directly from CAR, from people on the ground, and it is their stories and pleas for help that led to this evening’s debate.
There is basically no security for the civilian population. The new President Djotodia is a militant Islamist and has no effective control outside of the capital Bangui and not totally within it. He used three groups of rebels, now known as the Seleka coalition, to gain power, and now those rebels are left to control sections of the country. Many of them, perhaps 80% or 90%, are foreigners, recruited from Chad or Sudan. The rebels have taken control of key customs towns and diamond mines. They have become the local police force, and most schools and hospitals are not functioning. I was told:
“At the end of August when there was a deterioration of the security situation in the Rabe and Boeing districts of Bangui the inhabitants went and occupied the runway at the International Airport, believing this to be the only safe place to go”.
This very weekend, Modeste Martineau Bria, the director of judicial services, was killed in the capital, Bangui, by Seleka rebels. The UN and all NGOs agree that these rebels loot, rape and pillage with impunity. Whole villages, such as the village of Bohong, 25 kilometres from Bouar, have been burned down. According to CAFOD, there are 40,000 internally displaced persons in Bossangoa, and 65,000 people have fled the country. Sometimes the rebels will spare lives in return for money, but often they rape, and resistance means execution—literally being hacked to death with a machete—said Thibault Ephrem to the Guardian newspaper in July.
The rule of law has vanished. In the same report, in the town of Kaga-Bandoro, the town’s catholic priest recounts that many families are still in the forest or the bush and that people are dying without any assistance. He estimated that 60,000 of the region’s population of 130,000 were hiding in the jungle, living ferally in a malaria-prone region, with no clean water and where 11% of the population aged between 11 and 45 is HIV positive. If there can be a worse report, my stomach churned on seeing a photo sent to me, of an elderly lady with the caption:
“A lady forced by Seleka to eat human flesh”.
In August, the AU took over the small group of peacekeepers from ECCAS member states, namely Gabon, Cameroon, Chad, Congo and the DRC. Including civilian police and human rights monitors, this new force, MISCA, should be about 3,500-strong, but there are currently only 1,000 troops, and only Burundi has promised a further 500. Some estimates put the numbers of the Seleka rebels as high as 23,000, so how will the MISCA force be sufficient?
Will my noble friend please outline whether Her Majesty’s Government will support the transfer of MISCA to a UN-led operation, such as the one that has been so successful in the DRC? Can he also outline how the United Kingdom will vote in a Security Council decision at the end of the month?
The particular results of this coup also necessitate the involvement of the UN, not only the AU. This failed state for the first time has broken down along sectarian lines. The most recent reports by the BBC and the Guardian accept this, but early accounts contained warning signs. On
After the coup in March 2013, a letter dated April 2012 began to circulate, whose authenticity President Djotodia has not denied. The letter, from him to the OIC, allegedly outlined his vision to form an Islamist republic from CAR, Darfur and part of Chad. Of course, much if not most of the Muslim population of CAR does not support the Seleka rebels or the president, but they are powerless to stop this dynamic.
Anti-Seleka rebels, called “anti-balaka”, meaning “anti-machete”, have now formed. The name says it all. Vicious reprisal attacks are now being reported against the Muslim and Fulani populations. Father Anastasio Roggero, a missionary who has worked in the CAR since 1975, said in an interview with Fides:
“We are in the heart of Africa, and the danger here that a centre of terrorism is set up is real, in my humble opinion”.
He did not need to be humble. As the UN director of humanitarian operations in CAR, Mr Jing, said:
“We are seeing the seeds of a profoundly dangerous development between communities … It’s a tinderbox that can ignite into something very, very big and very, very bad”
A genocidal interfaith civil war is a risk, and needs to be averted. The religious leadership in CAR is trying to bring about reconciliation, and travels the country trying to talk to the anti-balaka rebels, and the four major Christian leaders signed the Bangui declaration, which includes a request for the UN, not the AU, to be involved in peacekeeping. However, will Her Majesty’s Government please outline their view on the alternative request in that declaration of the MISCA force being at least 10,000 strong?
Such conflict and insecurity of course means that there is a humanitarian crisis at the moment that affects the entire country. Subsistence agriculture is the primary livelihood for the majority of CAR’s population, and many were previously self-supporting, if not exporting food. However, due to fighting and looting of agricultural equipment and cattle, 1.1 million people face food insecurity, 1.4 million people are without access to clean drinking water and up to half a million people require urgent, immediate food assistance.
In July, the UK pledged £5 million, but the UN emergency appeal for the Central African Republic remains one of the most underfunded appeals. To date it has received only 42.5% of the £121.5 million that is required. So far, the UK’s prompt contribution amounts to just under 6% of the funds received. The UK is a leading humanitarian donor, so will my noble friend outline whether the amount of UK aid is going to be increased and whether aid is managing to get beyond the capital, Bangui? One further urgent priority is to secure the mineral wealth that is the future of this country. Will my noble friend outline what discussions Her Majesty’s Government are having with the French Government on the general situation in CAR and particularly in securing these mineral sites?
I find it so sad to hear my good friend Pastor Nims Obunge, who spent his teenage years in Bangui, remembering,
“the beauty of a peaceful city ... and the beauty of the people was reflected in their well crafted art and rhythmic music and dance ... I recall Bangui with the beaming smiles of local people”.
It will take a long process of reconciliation to get back there, but if the world acts now, it is possible. If it does not, CAR may become well known, like Rwanda, for all the wrong reasons. As UN Resolution 2121 makes clear, such genocide will be with guns, not just machetes.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, whose Question enables me too to focus on the human catastrophe and humanitarian emergency that continues to enfold in a country little known outside France—the Central African Republic. It is a country that has been unstable for most of the time since its independence from France in 1960 and its history is characterised by a callous disregard for human life. I am talking about what is clearly a failed state where there is violence, anarchy and little evidence of international attention, a country where for 10 years there has been civil war, relentless poverty and a succession of coups, which means that the population now show signs of deep trauma, and aid workers are being targeted.
The CAR has for far too long been a forgotten country suffering from a forgotten crisis. Now, at last, there are some signs of unprecedented attention, given in particular by my noble friend Lady Amos and, indeed, by the European Union Humanitarian Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, who has both visited the CAR and has been at the vanguard of efforts to increase international awareness of the suffering of that country. People are starving. They are resorting to the eating roots and leaves of manioc plants. They rarely have access to clean water. There is no functioning health service. Malaria is a major killer, especially of children, accounting for 70% of paediatric deaths. HIV prevalence is the highest in central Africa and life expectancy is 48 years. Women have suffered rape, abduction, torture, mutilation and other crimes, all inflicted with impunity.
Last March the self-styled Seleka rebels seized power. There has been a state of lawlessness ever since with large-scale attacks on civilians. Looting and murder is widespread. The Seleka has failed to investigate or prosecute any of the abuses committed by its own members. The UN has now made a response. Adama Dieng, UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide, and John Ging of OCHA have recently briefed the United Nations Security Council after a harrowing visit to the CAR. Mr Dieng reported that Muslims and Christians were inciting violence against each other and expressed concern about this new dimension to the conflict. He did indeed speak of the possibility of genocide, in what he described as a “tinderbox” and a country where,
“the scale of suffering is among the worst in the world”,
and where a daunting host of problems impede delivery of humanitarian assistance.
The Security Council was briefed last December on the effects of the Seleka rebel offensive and there have been regular briefings since then, yet no effective action has been taken. Can the Minister explain why there has been such a failure to act? The CAR is not yet Somalia, but the signs of endemic instability are there and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is predicting a full-blown conflict unless urgent action is taken to establish the rule of law and give humanitarian access to people who have such desperate need. Could the Minister give an estimate of when exactly the proposed AU 3,600-strong peacekeeping force is likely to be deployed? Since the promise made last July, less than half the troops in that country have been deployed. Is it not clearly the case that this number is hopelessly inadequate in a country that is more than twice the size of France?
The CAR has huge mineral resources, as the noble Baroness said, including diamonds, gold, uranium and copper, and oil deposits have just been discovered along the border with Chad. This fact in itself is surely a compelling argument for taking more interest in the CAR. Naturally, Seleka leaders are now already benefiting from tapping into the lucrative extractive industry and are controlling the diamond mines. Another deeply worrying factor is that arms are flooding into the country. The flow of AK47s has now been followed by rocket-propelled grenades and heavy weaponry. The UK is the fourth largest European exporter to the CAR and is a key supplier of arms to the unstable region of central Africa, including Sudan and Chad. Now the Seleka rebellion has been boosted by heavily armed fighters and warlords from Chad. Would the Minister clarify the current UK position on sending arms to the CAR? What, for instance, is the justification for the export licences? Finally, what we should be doing this evening is agreeing that the people of CAR deserve to be offered the hope of a better future.
My Lords, I too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Berridge on securing this timely debate, in which I will confine my remarks to the escalating humanitarian crisis in the Central African Republic. While in Addis Ababa last week, I had a message from a journalist who lives and works in the Central African Republic. He said:
“It's very nasty down there. It smells of mass murder. Since Rwanda and our experience a bit earlier in Burundi, I have not been in such an eerie place”.
The CAR has been in a state of chaos since the rebel alliance known as Seleka seized power in March this year, as my noble friend mentioned. It ousted President Francois Bozize from power, replacing him with its commander, Michel Djotodia. Last month, Djotodia formally disbanded the rebels and integrated many fighters into the national army. The rebels linked to Seleka, however, have continued to launch attacks on scores of villages, prompting the emergence of local civilian protection groups.
Tarak Bach Baouab, humanitarian affairs adviser for Médecins sans Frontières, reports from the CAR that the situation is dangerously unstable. He states that the main problem is that the fighting has specifically targeted civilians. Rural populations had become used to being displaced in the bush during the bush war of 2004 to 2007. However, the latest cycle of violence is different, increasingly taking on a religious undertone. It includes the execution, for example, by armed men of eight people who became separated from a larger group as they fled by truck; and the targeted killing of villagers, which caused many others of the same religion to flee. In Bossangoa, at least 35,000 displaced people are living on a Catholic missionary compound, far exceeding its capacity, while 1,200 people are in a hospital, effectively turning it into a makeshift camp. One thousand people are seeking shelter next to an airstrip—as I think colleagues have mentioned—while 400 others have gathered in a school. They are mostly Christians, afraid of retribution and targeted killings by rival Muslim groups. Similarly, Muslim communities now also fear revenge attacks by Christian militias. People are abandoning their villages, which often end up being burned by either party to the conflict, terrified by the tit-for-tat killings.
Since October, violence and deadly clashes have been reported in Bouca and Garga in the north-west of the country and in Mbaiki in the south-west. Civilians, medical staff and humanitarian aid workers have all been subjected to physical aggression. Médecins Sans Frontières has witnessed the execution of a healthcare worker, as well as multiple attacks on humanitarian staff. The United Nations has warned that the CAR is spiralling down into genocide, and that the international community must intervene to stop armed groups from inciting violence between Christians and Muslims. UN director John Ging is quoted as saying:
“More than half the population is in need of assistance and the scale of suffering is amongst the worst in the world and getting worse”.
Diplomats are saying that the Security Council should eventually consider plans to deploy a peacekeeping force of at least 8,000 to 10,000 troops.
While in Addis Ababa with the Inter-Parliamentary Union last week, I discussed the CAR crisis with the chair of the African Union, Madame Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and her deputy, Erastus Mwencha. Madame Zuma confirmed that an AU mission was being assembled, but stressed that it had to have the right mandate to be effective. Perhaps we should remember here that AU forces tend to do peacemaking not UN-type peacekeeping. Madame Zuma’s deputy was able to confirm that the UNSC had approved the deployment of some 3,000 to 4,000 AU forces, but stressed that this would be a long-term mission to take on and marginalise the rebel groups. He said that the AU troops would take on the governance and state-building roles, while being sure to maintain the role of the AU leadership.
Diplomats locally see the AU as the African response on African security issues, under the primacy of the UN. At a meeting last Wednesday of the AU Peace and Security Council, the UK confirmed a £5 million pledge in humanitarian aid, while the USA offered $25 million. The AU issued a formal Peace and Security Council communiqué of Wednesday’s meeting, calling on,
“all AU members States to contribute to the mobilization of the resources required for the successful deployment of”,
AU Forces. The council also requested that Madame Zuma initiated the necessary steps, while appealing to all member states and international partners to provide the necessary support to address the catastrophic situation facing the CAR. This is very positive language from the AU, but the question is whether it will result in the increasingly vital action.
There are serious questions that I hope the Minister will be able to answer. For example, as noble Lords have mentioned, will the French continue to take the lead in the CAR, as they did in Mali? Will the UK continue to play a subordinate role, limited to urging the AU to engage more and to supporting the French, while not becoming directly involved? Most importantly, will this be enough? The nature of the conflict is religious, Muslim against Christian. The cause is breakdown of government and governance, creating a vacuum of power. The solution is restoration of sound governance, underpinned by re-establishing security through deploying AU and UN forces of possibly 10,000 troops. To avoid a repeat of the horrors of the savagery and genocide of Rwanda and Burundi, the international community must act quickly and effectively.
I warmly congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, on securing this debate, which addresses a deeply disturbing situation that has been largely off the radar screen in the international community.
I do not usually speak about countries that I have not visited, but I am moved to speak on the Central African Republic because people whom I know and respect and who know the region very well are so deeply worried. Also, I do have experience in nearby countries; the CAR sits at the heart of an arc of insecurity across sub-Saharan African, taking in Chad, Uganda, Sudan, South Sudan and the DRC. I have visited Sudan, South Sudan and Uganda many times, and I know their beauty and their potential as well as the current crises and horrors which are largely hidden.
As we have heard, the CAR is in the grip of conflict. The wave of violence that has swept from north to south since March has affected the entire population. Since the coup in March and the Seleka offensive, the CAR has descended from a long-term crisis of poverty into a complex humanitarian emergency, resulting from decades of abuse, pillage and corruption by previous leaders and regimes who ruined the country for personal gains. It is said that the diamonds that Emperor Bokassa gave French leaders and politicians could have fed and clothed the entire population of the CAR. The Djotodia Government came into power promising to reverse the collapse of the state, but the task is beyond them and the situation is getting worse. Consequently the population, which had expected drastic changes from the new rulers, started returning to pre-state socioeconomic frameworks and loyalties when their hopes failed to materialise. These local dynamics bred intense fratricidal fighting over shrinking resources, infrastructure, food and water.
Newly empowered forces are vying for power in the changing tapestry throughout the country through the use of arbitrary force. Almost the entire population of 4.6 million has been affected by violence and insecurity; 1.6 million people, one-third of the population, are in dire need of assistance as the humanitarian support system keeps collapsing despite great efforts by NGOs. The conflict has also taken on a sectarian aspect. Very little has been reported in the West, and what little we have seen portrays this as Christians versus Muslims, but that is not entirely the case as yet. The fighting that escalated along the sectarian fault line that runs across Africa from Uganda to Senegal and Gambia is the traditional struggle over water and land rights between the predominantly Muslim nomads and the predominantly Christian homesteaders. However, similar economic and religious conflict in Nigeria over recent decades has been exacerbated by Boko Haram into a self-avowed ruthless jihad against the local Christian population.
In the north of the CAR, a similar threat comes from Sudanese jihadist gangs seeking loot, young female slaves and rare animals; these are the same Sudanese militias who contributed to the massacres and enslavement of hundreds of thousands of women and children in South Sudan in the war that raged there until the peace agreement in 2005. Left unchecked, these Sudanese jihadists can transform the CAR conflict into another vicious jihad. As the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bangui said, this violence was,
“something new. We haven’t experienced this before. Before we lived in symbiosis”.
Reports of violence and destitution are heartbreaking. There is an urgent imperative to reverse the country’s slide into chaos and to alleviate suffering. However, the international community can provide only a short-term remedy. The challenge lies in addressing the root causes of the myriad grass-roots conflicts, and in assisting the Government to implement a long-term national recovery programme to put the CAR on the right track to stability and growth. Ultimately, there should be no need for long-term large-scale foreign aid. The CAR is an extremely rich country. Land is fertile, water is plentiful, and there are immense quantities of oil, diamonds, rare minerals and ores which can provide wealth for funding the most ambitious reforms. Despite these resources, the CAR is suffering a horrendous humanitarian crisis. The urgent challenge is therefore to develop the resources in a way that will benefit the population. People will stop fighting over scarce resources once food, services, work and prospects for betterment of life are more easily available.
President Djotodia has promised to relinquish power in 2016, and has dissolved the Seleka rebel group that brought him to power; he has also promised to work with the international community on resource development and comprehensive social and economic reforms. His Government have expressed a commitment to human rights reforms, democratisation and credible, free and fair elections. He has also repeatedly committed his Government to implementation of such programmes in partnership with foreign corporations and the international community, and has accepted the need for close scrutiny to ensure accountability, but he has not had the opportunity to prove those offers and commitments. Will Her Majesty’s Government consider helping President Djotodia to put in place such development programmes and supervise their implementation? Will they also encourage, as appropriate, private businesses to formulate, audit and supervise comprehensive programmes where revenues could be devoted to the long-term development of the country to reverse the slide into humanitarian chaos?
Ultimately, the UK will also benefit from the ability to do business in the CAR, with the profit from ethical resource extraction by British companies. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond in ways which will bring hope to a people who are suffering such chaos, and who may be plunged into even greater suffering if the problems are not addressed appropriately and urgently.
My Lords, I warmly congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, for securing this debate and for introducing it with such clarity of purpose. Those of us of a certain age will remember graphically the tragedy of the Congo, going all the way back to independence itself. This was followed by the Katanga breakaway movement and the instability there, and the subsequent tragedies made the entire Great Lakes region a terrible, open wound on our common humanity. As we know, that conflict, which began all those years ago, continues in a number of countries.
It is now some four months since the Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department for International Development, Lynne Featherstone, described the situation in the Central African Republic as, “the world’s forgotten crisis”. It is shameful that this crisis remains hidden from sight, and that the UN humanitarian appeal still seems hopelessly underfunded. Our inability to address this complex emergency and to provide adequate protection for civilians has seen this crisis spread far beyond the republic’s borders to destabilise a region already facing significant challenges. Other noble Lords have already made similar points in this debate. As the Catholic Archbishop of Burundi has recently noted:
“There is a terrifying, real threat of sectarian conflict”.
The noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, has already hinted at this.
“arbitrary arrests and detention, sexual violence against women and children, torture, rape, targeted killings, recruitment of child soldiers and attacks”,
are becoming ever more common. The reports from the republic confirm all that has been said by the International Federation for Human Rights, which describes the human rights violations as “international crimes”. Nor can there be any dispute that Seleka is the main perpetrator of such atrocities—that point has been made by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock of Holyhead, in the debate already.
It would be helpful to hear from the Minister what progress is being made by the international community to place sanctions on Seleka leaders and warlords, including the freezing of their financial assets. What steps are the Government taking to respond to the allegations of sexual violence and rape? Not long ago, I was fortunate enough to secure a debate on the prevention of sexual violence in conflict. The Foreign Secretary’s Prevention of Sexual Violence Initiative and its team of experts ought to provide an excellent instrument to assist future prosecutions by the International Criminal Court. This is immediately germane to the conflict to which we are all referring in this debate. Measures such as these would surely go some way towards curtailing the level of violence which we are witnessing today.
It is not surprising that the violence and insecurity that now plagues this country has hampered the delivery of humanitarian aid. As a result, local faith groups and a few national and international NGOs are the primary responders. The Catholic development agency, CAFOD, reported last month that the church is one of the few organisations at present responding to the crisis, by sheltering displaced people, delivering humanitarian aid and addressing religious tensions. Its efforts, however, have been hindered due to lack of funds and problems gaining access because of the violence. Could the Minister assure us that the UK will recognise and strengthen civil society and faith-based groups’ capacity for action, and ensure that they may play a strategic role in the process of reconciliation and reconstruction?
I thank the Minister—a near neighbour of mine in West Yorkshire—for all that she has been saying recently across the Atlantic about religious freedom and strategies for coherence across communities. Most importantly, perhaps, this will assist in the avoidance of sectarian conflict and of the use of religion for political purposes.
Finally, I merely note that it is a tragedy that a country with such abundant natural resources, already referred to by other noble Lords, should be one of the poorest in the world, and subject to such political unrest and economic instability. It is to be hoped that the UN peacekeeping effort will take steps to secure the country’s mining sites, so preventing the republic’s current crisis from spiralling into a wider resource conflict, fuelled by all those greedy for power and greedy for more money.
My Lords, I too welcome this short debate and congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, on securing it. I must declare an interest as chairman, at least until this summer, of the international medical aid charity, Merlin, which has been active in the Central African Republic since 2007 and in Goma and the eastern Congo since some years before that. It is now working closely throughout the world with Save the Children. I visited Goma and the eastern Congo a few years ago and the sense of insecurity there was palpable. Nowhere else in the world have I had to climb over sleeping soldiers with machine guns to get to the check-in desk in an airport.
Thankfully, there has been an improvement since then. The M23 armed group has been defeated—militarily at least—by government forces. However, given the history of the region, it would be naive to think that sustained peace will now break out, and that human rights violations and suffering will now end. So I hope that the Government will continue to put pressure on the Government of the DRC and on surrounding countries, notably Rwanda, to persist with the peace process and to prevent human rights abuses. The Government have influence—bilaterally and multilaterally—through the European Union, through the United Nations and through the African Union, which is an imperfect but increasingly effective and important organisation, and through human rights organisations. I hope that the Minister will confirm that the Government will continue to use their influence to put pressure on those organisations.
We speak less often in this House about the Central African Republic. As the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, has said, it is a desperate country. It suffers from chronic instability, with coups, followed by widespread violence, anarchy and displacement. It is in the bottom 10 on the Global Peace Index. One noble Lord said that life expectancy is 48; I have heard that it is nearly 50. There is a one in 10 chance of dying in infancy or childbirth. There must be few more despairing places in the world in which to be born.
Does the Central African Republic matter to us? It does not matter hugely, either politically or economically, though instability anywhere in the world is dangerous to us all. However, poverty and deprivation and hunger and the fear of disaster matter to the British people, wherever they occur. We saw that some years ago in Ethiopia, and we are seeing it now with the response to the typhoon in the Philippines. So it is right that DfID should have a programme in the Central African Republic, and it is right that it should be to fund NGOs, such as Merlin and others, who can make a real difference to the lives of people who have very little hope and very little help. It is right, too, that aid should be offered with the flexibility that recognises that a hospital one day can be an empty shell the next, with the doctors, the patients and the nurses dispersed or working in the most primitive conditions but still needing the outside help that NGOs can provide. I commend DfID for the help that it is giving the Central African Republic at the moment.
Before I end, perhaps I may make some slightly broader points, and one or two which, I know, go slightly beyond the subject of tonight’s debate. First, we are debating some of the poorest and most conflict-prone countries in Africa. However, that is less and less typical of the continent as a whole. There are many examples of political stability and economic progress in Africa: South Africa, Nigeria—almost, anyway—Zambia, Ghana and others. We need to recognise that Africa is changing to respond to humanitarian disasters and conflicts when they occur but also to encourage economic growth in other countries.
Secondly, I want to stress the role that Britain has to play, as I have said, in the Great Lakes, in the Central African Republic and in other zones of conflict, zones of humanitarian disaster and zones of human rights abuse. This is, in the jargon, soft power at work. However, what matters here is our engagement and involvement where we can make a difference. Many noble Lords have spoken tonight about making a difference in the Great Lakes and about making a difference in the Central African Republic, and we can. Going a little more widely, as I said this afternoon in this House, in my view it was right for the Prime Minister to go to Sri Lanka and to highlight the human rights abuses there.
In my view, it would have been right, too, to send a representative to President Rouhani’s inauguration in Iran. It would be right now to reopen an embassy in Tehran rather than duck the difficult issues that the world faces or stay away from them. It would be better by far to engage with and confront the world’s problems, however difficult, and to use our still considerable influence, working bilaterally and through the international organisations to which we belong, to help to solve them in the Great Lakes region, in the Central African Republic or elsewhere.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, for securing this debate. The haunting pictures that she painted and, in particular, her understanding of the region brought to life this tragedy that is occurring.
As a politician, I reel from the tragedy and the anguish of the Rwanda genocide. The massacre occurred in 1994 just before I was elected to the European Parliament. More than 800,000 people died, while we, the international community, stood around and did very little. The whole area is a complex morass of local rivalries, competition for power and mineral resources, and tribal conflicts, but the biggest tragedy of all is that the fall-out of that genocide is still occurring for millions of people in the Great Lakes area.
The situation that we have in the region today is a hangover from that tragedy of 20 years ago, when villager murdered villager and neighbour killed neighbour. Forgiveness is hard when the scale of the slaughter is so vast.
There are hints, however, that the African Union, and in particular its leaders, are starting to understand that they have a responsibility to engage more practically and forcefully in this regional conflict and to bring pressure to bear on the groups and countries that are perpetrating and encouraging continued violence and bloodshed.
I have just finished reading Mary Robinson’s autobiography, Everybody Matters. She is now the UN special representative for the Great Lakes region and has established what she calls a “framework of hope”. Hope is something that we must be able to offer the civilians who have undergone years of instability, violence and displacement.
Much of the tragedy of the region has been unfolding in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. From 1998 to 2003 millions died, and that dying continues today. This is the deadliest war in modern African history. It has directly involved nine African nations, as well as about 40 armed groups, and it has left 5 million people dead with over 2 million others having had to flee from their homes.
How is it that a tragedy on this scale is almost unknown today to the bulk of the general public in the UK at a time when we have mass and incessant global communication? There are tragedies occurring in many parts of the world—Syria, the Philippines and Afghanistan—but why is it that we never seem to hear about the African tragedies?
People are living in atrocious conditions, and there are countless examples of human rights violations, including the use of child soldiers. There are severe mental health problems in the region, with people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following the events that they have witnessed or been a victim of.
Rape is being used as a weapon of war, and this is absolutely unacceptable. I should therefore like to repeat the question asked by the right reverend Prelate:
what action are the Government taking to integrate the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative in the DRC and throughout the Great Lakes region?
So what is the framework of hope that Mary Robinson has been talking about? In February this year, a UN-brokered accord aimed at stabilising the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the region was signed. The peace, security and co-operation framework was signed by 10 countries and it includes commitments at the national, regional and international levels to bring peace and stability to the eastern DRC and the region. This framework has been proactively pushed and supported by the UN, the UK and the US, and it has been a platform on which hope can be built. Included in this framework is a commitment by the countries in the region to stop supporting the many armed militias which operate in the region.
A UN-backed intervention brigade has meant a more proactive approach to engaging in the region, and it is this proactive approach which has undoubtedly influenced the outcome and the defeat of the M23. It is the African leaders—members of the African Union—who have been taking the initiative, but some very strong messages from the US and the UK have meant that countries which previously supported these militias have curbed their involvement. This has meant the defeat of this particular group.
We need an assurance that the natural mineral wealth of these nations will not be the cause of further conflict and destabilisation. We need an assurance from these countries that any extractive industries involved in the area will sign up and undertake commitments in relation to transparency and accountability. We need an understanding that local people will have the benefit from this wealth. It is the fact that the African countries themselves are the ones that own this framework that has made the difference.
There are still, however, tragedies unfolding in the wider region; the Central African Republic can be described as a failed state. There are more than 1 million people in the country who are at risk of hunger and the situation is likely to become worse in future months due to a poor harvest. There has been a dramatic escalation of violence since March which must be halted before it spins completely out of control and we see another potential Rwandan genocide on our plates, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey. We cannot stand by again and watch while our fellow human beings suffer in such a horrific way.
I would like to finish by asking the Minister the following questions. What recent discussions have the Government had with the UN special envoy for the Great Lakes region on the situation in the Central African Republic and the Great Lakes region more generally? A regional approach is the one that needs to be taken. Is this an approach that is being undertaken—not just by the African Union, but also by the UK Government and their EU partners?
I thank my noble friend Lady Berridge for introducing this timely debate. Both the Central African Republic and the Great Lakes region, in particular the DRC, are facing serious challenges. My noble friend laid out these challenges in harrowing detail. Both suffer from instability and violence impacting on civilian populations and have growing humanitarian needs.
In the Central African Republic, rising violence and vicious attacks against civilians have followed the brutal and unconstitutional seizure of power by the Seleka rebel coalition in March. Its forces have destroyed numerous villages, stoked faith-based violence and terrorised civilians with impunity. Although the Seleka has now—in theory—been disbanded, the violence continues.
The humanitarian situation there is deeply disturbing. The UN estimates that every one of the Central African Republic’s 4.6 million people has been affected in some way by this conflict. More than 600,000 people have been forced from their homes; 2 million are in desperate need of food assistance. The security situation means that humanitarian agencies cannot reach many of those in most need.
The Central African Republic has a new national transitional council, composed of former Seleka, civil society and former opposition politicians. Improving security must, however, be its first priority. It must ensure that civilians are protected, that perpetrators of human rights abuses are brought to justice and that the rule of law is restored. It must also ensure that a dialogue is resumed to reduce tension and increase understanding between religious groups and that humanitarian agencies are able to reach those in greatest need. The national transitional council has committed to the political process begun in Libreville, including a return to constitutional government in 2015. The international community will need to work with it to achieve this aim.
We welcome efforts by the Economic Community of Central African States and the African Union to find a political resolution to the situation in the Central African Republic and their initiative of a regional security mission. This will help to stabilise the country, protect civilians and assist the humanitarian relief effort while the political transition takes place. Last month the European Union Foreign Affairs Council agreed in principle to support such a mission, and we now look to the African Union before making a final commitment of resources.
Furthermore, the UN Secretary-General is due to report today on how the international community can support these efforts. This report should build on the momentum gained by last month’s Security Council resolution, which called for action on the political, human rights and humanitarian situation, and an assessment of the effectiveness of its peacebuilding office, BINUCA.
While we work with partners such as France to press for political progress, the UK will continue to offer practical support in line with its two immediate priorities: first, to ensure that help reaches vulnerable civilians, and secondly, to see security re-established. To ease immediate humanitarian suffering, we have provided £5 million this year to humanitarian partners such as the International Committee of the Red Cross to provide essential medical and food assistance. We continue to monitor the situation closely and stand ready to provide further humanitarian assistance. We will consider with partners how the regional security mission can be supported further.
The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, asked about the French taking a leading role and the UK’s role. We are of course in contact with France, the USA and other international partners and will engage closely with them over the upcoming UN resolution. The UK has spoken on this at all three of the international contact group meetings and has provided the humanitarian aid to which I have referred.
Before I specifically answer some of the other questions raised by noble Lords, I would like to turn my attention to the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There are currently around 2.7 million internally displaced people in the DRC. Human rights violations against civilians, including sexual violence, are commonplace. Malnutrition and outbreaks of disease are endemic. However, we could be facing a more hopeful situation. There has been a recent breakthrough in the end of the M23 rebellion and hopes for conclusion of the Kampala talks give us a better chance of building lasting stability in the DRC than has been seen in many years. Ugandan President Museveni and other regional leaders should be commended for brokering this agreement, which will be an important step towards stabilising the region.
We therefore urge the region’s leaders to return their focus to implementing the UN-brokered peace, security and co-operation framework for the Great Lakes. This framework, which was signed in February 2013, must now be implemented. That work must now start in earnest. We urge the regions’ leaders to establish this quickly so that the impetus and fragile gains are not lost. Of course, there is no quick fix to resolving the conflict in eastern DRC. The DRC and its neighbours need to work together with the support of the international community to achieve peace and stability.
The UK has long been a partner of the DRC. We want to see a stable country which fulfils its full potential. The Department for International Development provides funding to those in greatest need, committing £790 million between 2011 and 2016. The DfID programmes are designed to respond quickly to displacement, epidemics and spikes in malnutrition, working with UNICEF and other partners. UK Ministers have been in regular contact with their counterparts in the region; for example, the Foreign Secretary recently spoke to the Rwandan President and Minister Simmonds spoke to the Foreign Minister of the DRC and Ugandan President Museveni. The UK is rightly credited with helping to bring about the reduction in external support to M23, leading to its decision to lay down arms.
My noble friend Lady Berridge and the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, raised the underlying religious tensions in this conflict. We are of course aware of reports of radical religious groups in the country and that some components of the Seleka coalition have pursued an agenda which has been divisive in terms of religious cohesion. However, we have no direct evidence of the presence of specific terrorist groups in the country at this stage. The Central African Republic traditionally has seen Christians and Muslims coexist peacefully but we are concerned about recent reports of religious tension. As the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, has said, the issue is much more complex than a single interreligious conflict. The point was also raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield, who I thank for his kind comments in relation to my recent comments on the persecution of Christians.
My noble friend Lady Berridge also spoke about the commitment of funds to a security mission. The UN and the EU are unable to make any firm commitments to a regional peace mission until the African Union presents a coherent strategy and details its costs. The UN Secretary-General’s report today is vital in determining these next steps. The UK supports a solution led by the African Union and the Economic Community of Central African States. The UN Secretary-General’s report into options for international support for MISCA—which, as I have said, is due today—will be important in determining what further support the international community can provide.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, asked why effective action had not been taken so far. Improving the security situation and enabling humanitarian aid to access those in need was for us the important basis for a solution. The EU has set aside funds to support the African-led security mission and a UN resolution is expected in the coming days. We think that that will mandate the mission.
My noble friend Lady Berridge also asked about humanitarian support. I referred to the £5 million which has already been committed but the UK is also urging other donors to step forward and support humanitarian action in the Central African Republic. While access has been restricted due to the ongoing insecurity in the country, agencies have been able to operate there and some aid is getting through.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, also asked about the 3,600-person peacekeeping force and when that would be deployed. On
The right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, asked about preventing sexual violence in conflict. We firmly believe that preventing sexual violence and tackling impunity for these crimes is central to breaking the cycle of violence both in the DRC and more widely. The House will be aware of the Foreign Secretary’s launch of the preventing sexual violence initiative in 2012, which aims to address crimes of sexual violence by increasing the number of perpetrators brought to justice and to help states increase their capacity to do this. At this stage the Central African Republic is not a priority country for the PSVI but the international effort to restore security in the country will help to start to address this terrible problem. However, extensive work is being done within the DRC and we are working with the office of
Zainab Bangura, the special representative on sexual violence in conflict, to support the DRC Government to co-ordinate the work of the international community.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, asked about support for the President in relation to development programmes and their monitoring. Our immediate priorities are to provide security and a political transition to a constitutional government. However, I will ask DfID to respond on the question of what the longer-term development programme will look like. I will certainly write to the noble Baroness. I will also ensure that DfID takes into account and on board the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Jay, regarding what developmental support could be offered specifically in relation to health.
The noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, also asked about the work of the UN special envoy, Mary Robinson. We have had extensive contact with Mary Robinson, strongly support her work and are working closely with her office in implementing her remit.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo both face enormous challenges. The situation in the Central African Republic is severe. The national transitional council must work with the region and the international community to provide security, protect civilians, provide humanitarian assistance and ensure a return to constitutional government. In the DRC there are many problems to overcome but the M23 rebellion has ended and a framework for peace is in place. It will need the sustained commitment of the region and the sustained support of the international community, including the UK. With these elements in place I believe that real progress can be made both there and in the Central African Republic.