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 entirely agree. Given the expertise of the UK defence forces, which has been drawn from conflict situations across the world over many years, they have a special contribution to make. I would welcome the Secretary of State's assurance that the Government remain willing to finance any necessary extension of funding to MONUC to allow it adequately to fulfil its mandate, and to consider with the MOD whether the UK armed forces can contribute to that very important task.

I also welcome DFID's support for the disarmament and demobilisation scheme and its commitment to spend £16.5 million on the programme over the next five years. My right hon. Friend will be aware that there are currently estimated to be about 200,000 armed men at large in the DRC. Some are from non-Congolese forces and will require repatriation to their country of origin. The disarming and resettling of 2,500 troops to date is a positive sign, but it is estimated that there are still up to 20,000 fighters from Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi in the jungles of the eastern DRC. The challenge of bringing them into the process is enormous.

If, initially, the remaining Congolese militias were to be enrolled in the armed forces of the transitional Government, the cost of paying, feeding and housing them would be huge and it would overwhelm the Government. Downsizing to the 40,000-strong army considered proportionate for such a country would then have to follow as a matter of urgency. As I am sure that my right hon. Friend would agree, in such circumstances it is particularly vital that the remaining troops who are offered a long-term military career are given a proper disarmament incentive, returned to their own province, fed and given a realistic opportunity of paid employment.

The all-party group has recommended a work-for-food programme, and I ask my right hon. Friend what discussions, if any, have taken place within the international community about how to provide the necessary financial and logistical support for such a process. Would the UK Government be prepared to sponsor an independent work-for-food programme to spur others in the international community to contribute? If there is no offer of paid work for those men, we will inevitably see a return to banditry, rebel activity or lawlessness. It should be remembered that unpaid soldiers carried out widespread looting in the last years of Mobutu's regime. We must not repeat past failures that have caused so much misery.

Many child soldiers have also been recruited into the militias, mostly by force. A UN report in February estimated that in some cases up to 35 per cent. of front-line soldiers are children. I should be interested to hear whether DFID is able to offer any specialised assistance to rehabilitate those young people, many of whom have witnessed dreadful horrors during the years of conflict.

Earlier, I mentioned the involvement of Rwanda and Uganda and, to a lesser extent, Burundi in supporting rival militias in the eastern DRC. Substantial evidence exists to prove that foreign forces, together with groups in the DRC, have engaged in the systematic plunder of the country's natural resources and that the plunder was organised at the highest levels of state and military command.

Despite the formal withdrawal of troops from the DRC, there are numerous reports that Rwanda and Uganda continue to support, train and arm various militia and rebel groups still active in the DRC. Rwanda is also reported to be extremely close to the governors of North and South Kivu, both of whom are accused of building up substantial private armies.

In its last report published on 30 October, the UN panel of experts established that revenues from diamonds and gold, in addition to money raised at customs border posts, have enabled military and political actors to fund their military activities, including the purchase of arms. Amnesty International found that the warring factions committed serious human rights abuses, including unlawful killings, forced population displacement and torture, in order to control and profit from the DRC's natural resources. Congolese citizens, including children, have been forced to work in the mines as slave labour. International commercial traders, transporters and retailers, knowingly or unknowingly, have fed that cycle of abuse for their own profit and benefited from the lack of transparency in international business dealings in precious metals. The flow of arms, the exploitation and the continuation of conflict are inextricably linked. Breaking that vicious cycle will be the key to ending both the conflict and the illegal exploitation.

Given the existing partnership agreements and the level of aid flows to those countries from DFID, the UK Government are in a unique position of influence with regard to the involvement of both Rwanda and Uganda. As the Secretary of State will be aware, both countries have undertaken in their memorandum agreements to respect human rights and the sovereignty of the DRC. I urge the Government to use all their influence to stop those states from re-engaging in the DRC, either directly or indirectly through proxies, and to insist that they abide by the terms of UN Security Council resolution 1493, which imposed a military embargo on the areas. Will the Minister assure the House that the UK Government will enforce aid conditionality linked to human rights obligations?

The report of the UN panel of experts identified at least eight British companies that may have breached Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development guidelines for multinational enterprises, and a number of dossiers have been forwarded to the Department of Trade and Industry to be followed up. I welcome the recent comments from the DTI as reported in The Independent on Sunday on 30 November. The report stated that the DTI has been in contact with those companies and is pressing them for information. It is vital that we set a strong example at home, and I urge the Government to issue at the earliest opportunity a comprehensive official reaction to the conclusions of the report and to ensure that appropriate action is taken to prevent future abuses.

Finally, I again emphasise the scale of the humanitarian crisis. It is essential that the Congolese population, who have suffered so much, see some quick gains if there is to be any hope of stability in the next couple of years. In last month's report on the DRC to the UN Security Council, Kofi Annan stated:

"Despite the strenuous efforts of the international community, the humanitarian situation is catastrophic. Much more work—and substantial funding—is required to ensure the implementation of the Transitional Government's road map for economic and social reunification and reconstruction".

For too long the international community has failed to provide the resources, and the political will and attention, to achieve tangible peace in this troubled area. For now, we have an opportunity to redress that deficit and I strongly urge our Government to continue and add to their efforts to secure progress for the Congolese people, who deserve our support, and who also deserve peace and justice.