The Great Lakes

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:36 am on 11th December 2001.

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development 10:36 am, 11th December 2001

I take that correction in the spirit in which it is offered. I did not mean to imply that the problems are all in the past. They continue. But I was reflecting on the genocide in Rwanda, which was on a scale that is difficult to comprehend.

I agree entirely with Mr. Duncan that words must be turned into action. He spoke about the need to feed those in the world who go to bed hungry every night, and I am sure that he would be the first to acknowledge that on one measure, the size of the international aid budget, there has been an improvement. We inherited an annual budget of £2.2 billion when we were elected in 1997, and that figure will rise to £3.6 billion by 2003-04, which is the end of the current spending round.

A 45 per cent. increase in real terms is practical action, and although I am reluctant to bring a party political point into the discussion because the hon. Gentleman almost forswore such points in his contribution and in an intervention, I point out that it is in marked contrast to what happened previously, and the Government should be judged on their actions. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be generous enough to acknowledge the progress that we have been able to make. He mentioned Zimbabwe—which I know, Mr. Amess, is not the subject of today's debate. I am sure that all hon. Members agree that Zimbabwe has enough problems of its own making without adding those of the Great Lakes region.

As we have heard, the conflict and instability in the region is probably Africa's most serious problem, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow rightly referred to the failure of politics and of politicians. The wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and, indeed, in Burundi—about which my hon. Friend Mr. Dawson, who is no longer here—spoke with his characteristic knowledge, have thrown both those countries into reverse. Millions of people have died, and most of those who survived have seen their livelihoods ruined and their country's chances of development destroyed.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow rightly pointed out, the DRC is potentially a very rich country, which is partly the reason for the exploitation of mineral resources to which she referred. As she said, 60 million people live in a country as large as western Europe. As we know, a much larger area has been dragged into the conflict, resulting in the destabilisation of countries in the region.

The first thing that we all agree on is the need for peace. It is very easy to say that, but in trying to understand how we can make progress, we all recognise that peace is a precondition. As we have acknowledged in other debates, conflict makes it difficult to make progress in achieving all the other developmental objectives that we share. Only with peace can the international community begin to help with the sustained long-term support that is required to deal with poverty in the region.

The prospects for peace are good but uncertain. In the DRC, the Lusaka peace process provides the right framework. In Burundi, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre pointed out, the Arusha peace agreement is beginning to bear fruit with the establishment of the transitional Government, and I pay tribute to Nelson Mandela for his role in that process. However, we must keep up the effort, and here the involvement of the international community is crucial. The UK Government have responded by giving great priority to supporting progress towards a solution to the Great Lakes conflicts.

That is a joint endeavour. The debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham was responded to by one of my colleagues in the Foreign Office, which reflects the joint working between the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence. One of the practical expressions of that co-operation is the resources now being made available through the Africa conflict pool, which is, I say to the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton, another practical measure to join up parts of Government and set up a single funding source to address different parts of the problem.

There is a sustained political and diplomatic effort. I would not want the opportunity of this debate to pass without paying tribute to the sterling efforts of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. As all Members will acknowledge, she has made this matter a personal priority. As a relatively new Minister in the Department, I can say that she continues to devote a considerable amount of time and personal effort to enabling the peace process to advance. Members will know that she visited the area in August to urge progress in the Lusaka peace process. She has hosted and been personally involved in discussions between the participants. She plans to go to the DRC again in the new year with some of her EU ministerial colleagues. Of course, as hon. Members have mentioned, the Prime Minister has spoken of his concern about the need to find a solution to the conflict. We have also increased the resources available to tackle problems in the area, and I shall return to that.

We are trying to do three things. The first is to raise the profile of the region's problems. I was greatly struck by the comments of my hon. Friend Ann McKechin about the earlier lack of international interest and of demonstrations and protests. That is a terrible indictment of us.

We live in an increasingly small and fragile world, in which we are more interdependent. We understand more now than at any time in our history that what happens in one country ultimately impacts on us all. The Prime Minister's speech and many other things that have taken place in the world in the past couple of months reveal that the world community is, in a stumbling and uncertain way, feeling its way towards an understanding that should such events, particularly the genocide in Rwanda, happen in future, we cannot stand on one side, and I regard that as a positive step. That does not mean that we have solved the problem or that we have a perfect mechanism for deciding when to intervene in every case. Hon. Members have mentioned realpolitik, and in some cases that will create difficulties, but at least we are having a discussion about whether we should intervene.

I have on a previous occasion made an analogy with domestic violence. Thirty years ago, the police would have been called to a household where a man was beating up his wife or partner, and they would have said that they could not intervene because the situation was domestic and internal to the family. Now, attitudes have been utterly revolutionised, and the police have a completely different approach. We can liken that to the way in which the international community regards what would in the past have been seen as civil wars within the borders of a particular country in which they could not intervene. That is progress. We have not completed the process, and it will be messy, but at least we are moving in the right direction. Raising the profile of the problem so that the world pays more attention to what is happening in the DRC is a worthy objective in itself. The work of the all-party group and this debate contribute to that process, and I congratulate all those involved.

The second priority is to work closely with our international partners, particularly, Belgium, France and the United States, because collaboration is key to ensuring that the Lusaka agreement is fully implemented. Thirdly, we must keep up pressure on the parties to keep to the Lusaka agreement to which they signed up. Again, that is simple to say, but if people have signed an agreement that requires them to do various things, we need constantly to remind them that they have accepted those obligations and must fulfil them. That means that there must be progress on the elements of the agreement, and I turn briefly to each of those.

The first is the disengagement of forces. The Lusaka accord called for the immediate withdrawal of all the foreign forces based in the DRC. There has been some progress, but not as much as we would like. It is necessary to remind all the countries involved that they should comply with the provisions of the agreement.

Hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow, have referred to the size of the MONUC force. As my hon. Friend will be aware, there is agreement in principle to increase the size of MONUC when all the foreign forces have been withdrawn. It is important to recognise that MONUC is there to oversee the peace process as it develops but not to enforce it; only the parties to the agreement can enforce the peace process on themselves. Only this week, the Secretary of State discussed this subject with a representation of the UN peacekeeping organisation. We would like MONUC to move faster into the east of the country to continue the good work that it has been doing in extremely challenging circumstances.

The second is DDRRR. I was grateful for the reminder of definitions in the useful report, which has a good index and guide to acronyms whose meaning we can easily forget because there are far too many of them, both generally and in the field of international development. The United Kingdom recognises the importance of moving forward on DDRRR. We are supportive of the establishment of all-encompassing DDRRR programmes led by the United Nations and the World Bank. We recognise the need in the interim for quick-start programmes so that, when opportunities arise, we can ensure that capacity exists to respond to combatants who, in the end, must want to disarm.

Again, it comes back to the participants in the fight; they have got to want DDRRR to happen. We can encourage and support them but, in the end, we cannot make people do things against their will: they must come from within. We have resources immediately available to commit to DDRRR in the DRC. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made a public commitment to support DDRRR in the region. Officials from the Department attended a World Bank meeting in Kampala last week to discuss setting up a regional fund for that purpose. The UN operation is effective and we are ready to help with bilateral assistance to enable forces to make further progress in the east of the country.

The inter-Congolese dialogue is clearly an essential element in securing a lasting peace in the DRC. After a promising meeting in Gaborone, there was a disappointing meeting in Addis Ababa, followed by the breakthrough to which the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton referred. We are hopeful that progress will be made when the dialogue resumes in South Africa early next year. The hon. Member for Richmond Park asked about support for the dialogue. The UK is now one of the three largest contributors. We have contributed £500,000 to date and will actively consider further requests.

The issue of humanitarian support was raised in our debate. The humanitarian consequences are desperate and our humanitarian budget is spent where there is the greatest need. As the hon. Member for Richmond Park and others have said, some of the worst development and humanitarian indicators in the world are to be found in the DRC. The humanitarian situation remains dire, although there have been few ceasefire violations. Access for non-governmental organisations working in the DRC has improved, but a recent UN report estimates that 2 million people have been displaced in the DRC by the conflict, and 16 million do not have secure access to supplies of food. Additionally, 2.5 million people have lost their lives in the country since the conflict began in 1996, which is an extraordinarily high number; there has been great human suffering.

Last year, the UK gave £3.3 million in humanitarian assistance to the DRC. Words should be matched by action, and this year that figure will be doubled. In addition, the UK contributes about a fifth of the European Union's humanitarian budget which, in 2001, will be 35 million euros. In effect, therefore, the total UK contribution is about £7 million plus 7 million euros. It is worth pointing out that EU support is increasing sharply. Last year, the contribution was only 7 million euros, but it will be 35 million euros this year—evidence of words being backed by practical action.

The UK provides humanitarian assistance through well established NGOs and assistance to the facilitator of the national dialogue. Our assistance focuses on health and nutrition; work with refugees; child soldiers and other vulnerable groups; food security; prison monitoring; and human rights work. To ensure that our support is fairly distributed throughout the DRC, which is not under the control of one authority, £4 million of this year's emergency humanitarian support is going to the Red Cross. In the circumstances, it is important that we are not seen to favour one participant in the dispute and conflict in the country. We are also developing a range of peace-building initiatives, such as projects to bring together different ethnic communities, and are providing information about the peace process to the Congolese population. For example, we are providing support for a radio infrastructure in the DRC so that people can hear about what is happening. It is important that the people at whom all the activity is directed should learn more about the progress of the peace process.

In Burundi, we are supporting the Arusha process—in particular by helping to support the South African-led protection force for returning politicians. We have provided £100,000 for the latest round of talks, bringing our total to just over £0.3 million. We have also provided £50,000 for a project promoting political dialogue between the parties in Burundi. We are also supporting a major new programme in Burundi to tackle HIV/AIDS. Again, words are supported by practical action.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow spoke with generosity and understanding about the problems that Rwanda is facing, given its history. It is one of the most traumatised societies, if not the most traumatised society, in Africa. We are the leading bilateral donor in Rwanda and are committed to offering it support because we think that it needs that to make progress on poverty reduction, meeting international development targets, security, reconciliation, economic growth and inclusive government. We have provided substantial support, although I know that some people say that, in the context of the region, it appears a bit unbalanced. However, given their history, the Rwandan Government—and I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is passionate about this—need all that practical help to try to make progress on establishing a safe and secure country for their people. Progress continues to be good in Rwanda which, in some ways, is becoming a developmental model for the region. The need for humanitarian assistance has decreased partly as a result of our support, but principally because the efforts of the Rwandan Government and their people are helping the country to get back on its feet.

We have had an excellent debate. These issues need to be aired, and the fact that an hour and a half of Westminster Hall time has been given to them is a modest contribution both to raising the profile of the DRC's problems and keeping the flame of interest burning. Resolving the humanitarian crisis and the conflict in the Great Lakes is a priority for the UK Government. I hope that the steps that we are taking are evidence of that. While the conflict continues, we will provide urgent humanitarian support to the best of our ability, but only when peace comes in the region will we get the chance to assist with the development needed for a secure, stable, prosperous DRC. I have spoken about the country's enormous potential and mineral wealth, and there is no doubt that a strong and thriving DRC could emerge from the war if its potential can be tapped. It is therefore important to take the opportunity to ensure that the peace process in Burundi holds and to make further progress on securing peace for the long-term, lasting benefit of the DRC.