Central African Republic and the Great Lakes Region — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:42 pm on 18th November 2013.

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Photo of Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead Labour 7:42 pm, 18th November 2013

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.