Democratic Republic of the Congo

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 17th December 2003.

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Photo of Ann McKechin Ann McKechin Labour, Glasgow Maryhill 9:30 am, 17th December 2003

I am grateful for the opportunity to initiate a debate on an area of the world that rarely receives much media or political attention in the west, but that in recent years has been the scene of one of the most bloody and terrifying conflicts in world history, with huge loss of life and horrendous human suffering. The complexity of the conflict and the numerous players within it have led to its being called Africa's version of the first world war, but there has been little perception in the west of the sheer scale of the human misery that the conflict has caused. I am talking about an estimated 3.5 million deaths, some 3.4 million displaced persons and the almost complete destruction of an already weak state infrastructure and economy. The effects have been particularly severe on women and children. Sexual violence is endemic, and armed groups continue to recruit children as soldiers, porters and cooks.

The history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo since independence in 1960 has been marked by continual civil war and corruption. The regime of the late President Mobutu between 1965 and his overthrow in 1997 saw institutionalised corruption to such a level that it has been called the world's first kleptocracy. Despite the country's enormous mineral wealth, the infrastructure crumbled and the state lost any form of authority over most of the country. Only the steadfast support of the west during the cold war kept Mobutu in power but, following the end of the cold war, the United States lost interest, leaving the regime increasingly vulnerable.

In 1996, a rebellion broke out in the Kivus in the eastern DRC, led by Laurent Kabila and backed by the Rwandan and Ugandan armies. All those parties wanted to overthrow the Mobutu regime and neutralise the threat of the various foreign militias operating in the eastern DRC, which threatened conflict in the wider great lakes region. Although the rebellion was successful, problems of regional security continued. Relationships between the Kabila regime and its former allies of Rwanda and Uganda quickly deteriorated as the latter accused the Kabila Government of failing to deal with the militias and even of arming them.

In August 1998, a new conflict broke out, with the Rwandan and Ugandan Governments providing support to the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie. Loosely attached to the RCD was the Mouvement pour la Libération du Congo based in the province of Equateur. In response, the Kabila Government, claiming that their sovereignty was threatened, called on the support of fellow south African Governments. That led to troops being sent from the Governments of Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia and Chad, with Burundi joining to support Rwanda and Uganda.

After an attempt at a peace agreement in Lusaka in 1999, the front lines became relatively static, with the RCD and Rwanda controlling the east, the MLC and Uganda the north, and the Government and their allies the south and west. However, fierce fighting continued, with clashes breaking out between former allies Rwanda and Uganda, as well as fighting among the various militia groups.

In January 2001, Laurent Kabila was assassinated, bringing his son Joseph to power. That change in leadership led to much greater progress on a peace process and eventually to the inter-Congolese dialogue in March and April 2002. From then on, we have witnessed the first steps, we hope, to a genuine movement for peace in the great lakes region, with the official withdrawal of Ugandan and Rwandan troops from the DRC in the past 12 months.

This summer saw the inauguration of a two-year transitional national Government, who include members of the existing DRC Government and of the RCD-Goma and the MLC. The challenges faced by the transitional Government are immense, and the next year will be crucial in establishing a permanent peace in the area.

In that context, the full-scale involvement of the international community, and particularly the UK Government, is vital if the efforts for peace are to succeed. The transitional Government strongly believe that the UK can play a key role in the months to follow and in October they extended an invitation to the all-party group on the great lakes region and genocide prevention, of which I am vice-chair, to visit Kinshasa and meet Ministers and parliamentarians. Unfortunately, I was unable to join the delegation, but I am pleased to see that several of the delegates are present today; no doubt they can add their own comments on that important visit. Later today, the all-party group will publish its report on the visit. I hope to touch on a number of important issues that it considered to be priorities for future UK policy.

In the words of a recent report from Amnesty International, all sides need

"to bridge the reality gap between their aspirations for reconciliation, justice and security and the devastating cycle of violence and human rights abuses, which continue to affect the east and threaten to bring these aspirations to nought".

The UK needs to intensify its political support for, and encouragement of, the transition. That is why I welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's visit to the DRC just last week, and his commitment to providing substantial additional support over the next three years. I am sure that he would agree that it is more important than ever that we remain focused on the DRC until the proposed elections in 2005.

It is essential that the eventual elections at the end of the two-year transition be free, fair and well managed if they are to provide the necessary launch for a permanent Government. That is why I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure that we offer financial and material support for the preparation of the elections through the UN and the other international agencies, and that we offer support, training and expertise to the new Congolese parliamentarians. Also, I hope that he will consider sponsoring a visit by Congolese parliamentarians to the UK as part of that. Having met one of the new senators a few days ago, I know that they would really appreciate the opportunity to engage with the international community.

I also welcome the Department for International Development's proposed engagement in supporting the transitional Government in their economic governance and, in particular, in enabling the DRC to clear its deficit with the African Development Bank. Can my right hon. Friend advise me on how soon our Government expect the transitional Government to benefit from relief under the heavily indebted poor countries initiative? Has the country reached the decision point in that process? As he will know, most of the debt was accrued, and most of the money squandered, under the Mobutu regime. The HIPC relief could eventually wipe out more than 80 per cent. of the debt, giving an added boost to basic health and education provision, which is crucial for the development of the country.

Even after debt relief, the DRC, by current forecasts, will need almost 40 per cent. of its revenue to service the remaining debt. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, given the very sad history of the country, there is a compelling argument for providing additional debt relief to allow it to work towards the millennium development goals? Also, can DFID support the customs agency, a vital element in tax collection for the nation, either directly or via a third-party agency?

The fragility of the peace cannot be ignored. The strengthening of the MONUC mission, with UN Security Council resolution 1493 covering all actions under chapter VII, is very welcome. After the massacre of civilians in Bunia in May, the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, acted decisively in setting up an interim emergency multinational force and extending the MONUC mandate in July. Thankfully, for once the international community acted quickly in response to the appalling atrocities in that region.

The UN troops, led by the French, are to be congratulated on their efforts, which almost certainly prevented further massacres and human rights abuses. Among their biggest assets was their ability to speak French. That allowed them to communicate easily with the population and, just as importantly, to gather vital intelligence. I hope that the international community will learn the lessons from that exercise, particularly about the need for UN troops to be able to communicate directly with local populations whenever possible, and to be sufficiently powerful to effectively stop or slow the rate of violence in areas of conflict.

However, continued low-level conflict jeopardises the political process, with killings continuing in the Ituri district and the Kivu provinces. Amnesty International reported that, during its visit in October, 65 people were killed in a village near Bunia. The overwhelming majority of them were women and children. All the survivors that the organisation met bore horrendous injuries. Amnesty International also reported that the number of MONUC troops in the Kivus is so small as to make implementation of their mandate almost meaningless. It is worth noting that in Liberia, which is one twentieth the size of the DRC, and which has a population almost seventeen times smaller, the UN mission has 6,000 more troops than MONUC has in the DRC. If the monitoring of rebel groups, as well as the policing of the arms embargo and the support of the enormous disarmament process are to be effective, it is essential that MONUC has the capacity that the task demands.