I congratulate my hon. Friend Hugh Bayley on raising these important matters. In the past few months, our attention has naturally been focused on the middle east, but there have been many other crises in the world. Many of the crises in Africa have been largely ignored and hidden from view, and I hope that at the G8 summit in Evian the world community will correct that omission and focus its time and resources on the urgent needs of some of the poorest people on our planet.
The NEPAD agreement devotes its first chapter to peace and security, which must, of course, remain a top priority if its other aims of encouraging investment and development are to be achieved. Unfortunately, conflict is still the chief obstacle to progress in Africa, and I should like to focus my remarks on the continuing crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Sadly the humanitarian situation in the eastern DRC, and particularly in the Ituri province, has not improved despite the recent peace negotiations. The conflict in the DRC has cost an estimated 3 million lives since 1998, and just this month a massacre, which is estimated to have killed more than 1,000 civilians, occurred in the Ituri province.
The international response to that region of the world, which has been virtually stateless for many years, has been practically negligible. There are less than 5,000 UN observer troops to cover the entire territory within the DRC, which itself is roughly the size of western Europe, and there are only eight military observers in Bunia, Ituri, to cover a population of 4.5 million. That is completely inadequate to meet the needs of the area. More than 500,000 people have been displaced from Ituri, and there have been more than 50,000 violent deaths in the past three years.
To give just one comparison—I will not compare the DRC with the middle east or eastern Europe—Sierra Leone has suffered 50,000 violent deaths, which is about the same as Ituri. In Sierra Leone, however, there are 17,000 members of the British armed forces, which shows the scale of the response—or the lack of it—in the DRC.
Support and resources from the international community are long overdue. Our scandalous inaction in the face of that appalling tragedy should result not in more of the same but in a determined attempt to engage with our colleagues in Africa through NEPAD in order properly to address the increasingly dangerous political and security vacuum and to resolve the humanitarian crisis.
The G8 members, and especially its European members, have a vital role to play. The conflict in Ituri runs not only on tribal lines—principally, the Hema and Lendu groups—or as a national dispute for control of the DRC itself, but increasingly as a dispute between two neighbouring countries, Uganda and Rwanda. Both Rwanda and Uganda rely on significant amounts of aid from the UK and the other G8 members, and we have a unique position in NEPAD from which to influence a peaceful resolution to the dispute.
In 1998, as the Minister will be aware, Uganda occupied the Ituri province and its army is still present, with recent reports of a significant increase in troop size. Of the nine armed groups operating within Ituri, all have at some stage benefited from Ugandan support. Actual power in the area has rested with a spectrum of different political factions that change according to the infighting and shifts in Ugandan patronage. The Rwandan influence is more recent and there are reports of a growing relationship between the groups and the Hema political party as well as incidents of Rwandans providing ammunition and military training. There have also been sightings of Rwandan soldiers in the area.
There is a growing extremism in the level of violence with regular reports of torture, rape, mutilation and even cannibalism, and there is every reason to believe that the killing is increasingly based on ethnic genocide. The external support from Uganda and Rwanda allows the militia groups to be more sophisticated in their attacks, using heavier arms and land mines.
Urgent and decisive action is needed to prevent both an uncontrollable human rights disaster in Ituri and a potential re-ignition of the great lakes conflict with neighbouring states. There have been numerous reports in recent weeks of troops massing on the Rwandan border with the DRC and Ugandan forces preparing for conflict in Ituri itself. If fighting were to break out, it would effectively wreck the current Congolese peace process, which has been hopeful in many other respects, and set the chances for sustainable peace back by years in a huge swathe of the African continent.
Today I strongly urge the Minister to ensure that the UK Government raise those issues at the G8 summit and persuade our European and other international partners to assist in significantly strengthening and increasing the size of the MONUC observer force. As the Minister will be aware, the UK is the biggest bilateral aid donor to both Rwanda and Uganda and I ask the Government to continue to use their influence—I know that the Department for International Development has already done so—to put pressure on the Governments in the great lakes region to withdraw from military conflict in the DRC.
I ask the Minister to persuade the G8 members through NEPAD to offer appropriate political and financial support to the Ituri Pacification Commission, which was set up as part of the peace settlement, and press for a high profile facilitator who can gain the respect of all parties. Time is not on our side; nor is it on the side of the people of Ituri or the DRC, and I hope that the Evian summit will produce a substantial result to prevent future tragedy in the region.