– in Westminster Hall at 3:30 pm on 5th May 2004.

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Photo of Ann McKechin Ann McKechin Labour, Glasgow Maryhill 3:30 pm, 5th May 2004

I welcome this opportunity to speak about a nation which receives very little public attention in the United Kingdom and which is facing a crucial period in its history, as it seeks to move from many years of conflict and debilitating poverty to a period of peace and, hopefully, real development progress.

I welcome the Government's country engagement plan for Burundi and their increased aid spending on that country in the past few years. The Department for International Development has been working hard to ensure that we have a comprehensive set of policies for the entire great lakes region. It is also working closely with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence to achieve that. However, given that Burundi is in a critical period, I wish to press the Minister further on his future policy intentions.

Burundi is the smallest nation in the great lakes region, with a population of just over 6 million. It is also the third most impoverished nation in the world: more than 99 per cent. of its population lives beneath the absolute poverty threshold of $1 per day, and 85 to 90 per cent. of its people subsist on less than $1 per week. Like its neighbour Rwanda, it has suffered an extensive period of ethnic violence between its Hutu and Tutsi populations. It has been estimated that 200,000 people have been killed since 1993, when the conflict escalated. At times that internal conflict has spilled over into Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has had detrimental effects on the stability of the region. That is one of the main reasons why the search for peace in Burundi is so important.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela helped to broker a three-year power-sharing agreement in 2001. That was a key breakthrough. Subsequent negotiations led to the largest rebel group, the Forces for the Defence of Democracy—the FDD—signing a ceasefire with the Government in late 2002. However, this week the FDD accused the Government of not abiding by the peace accord and of not giving it adequate representation in the current Administration. I understand that, according to a United Nations report issued yesterday, the transitional Government are ready to meet the FDD's demands, but I would be grateful if the Minister said whether our Government have had any discussions this week with the Burundi authorities about the problem, and whether they are able to make any assessment of the consequences. Also, is there any sign of progress in persuading the remaining rebel group, the FNL—the Forces for National Liberation—to join with the transitional Government in the search for peace?

Elections are due to take place in October, and for them to pass off successfully it is crucial that security is achieved throughout the country. Sadly, however, extreme and intense violence continues to occur in pockets. In Bujumbura Rurale, the Centre de Blessé medical centre in Kamenge recently had 76 reported rape cases in just one week. On average in the last 12 months more than 100 rapes per month have been reported in that centre alone. That reported figure suggests that the real figure is far higher. In addition, civilians continue to be killed, seriously injured and forced to leave their home as a result of the conflict.

Last year, the African Union deployed a peacekeeping mission to Burundi, and I welcome our Government's £2 million contribution toward the cost of it, in addition to their share of the €25 million that was provided from the European Union aid fund. Despite that, the mission is suffering from a serious lack of funds and logistical support. However, as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently stated, it has performed very well in difficult circumstances and it has already made a significant contribution to establishing an atmosphere of peace and security. However, severe problems remain, not least in the area surrounding the capital, and it is important that the peacekeeping force is able to operate effectively throughout the country.

Last month, Kofi Annan, responding to a direct request from the African Union, proposed that the mission be taken over by the UN. I understand that the Security Council has, in turn, given him permission to plan a mission, but has yet to give final approval. Can the Minister confirm that the UK Government support the UN taking over from the African Union forces, and will they work to lobby other UN member states to support such a plan? I certainly encourage the Government to consider whether it is possible, prior to the October elections, to provide further funds to the force and any suitable technical assistance that it may require.

I am deeply concerned by the Rwandan Government's admission on 26 April to making a substantial deployment of troops along the borders of both Burundi and the DRC, despite denying such a suggestion earlier that week. On that same day, the DRC Foreign Minister was reported as saying that the presence of Rwandan troops amounted to a threat to the trust and bilateral relations between the two nations. That is another worrying sign, given the fact that that country is going through a transitional form of government. I am worried that such a deployment could have an equally destabilising effect on security in Burundi at this sensitive time in its search for peace and elections. Do the Government believe that Rwanda has legitimate security concerns to merit such movements, or that the terms of the memorandum of understanding between the United Kingdom and the Rwandan Government are being fully respected in respect of current events?

Development issues also affect Burundi. First, refugees are now returning to Burundi as peace begins to be established. They are coming back in their thousands, and those numbers are expected to increase dramatically once political leaders call for Burundi citizens to return to register to vote for the elections in October. Can the Minister give any indication of how DFID assesses the state of preparation of international agencies to cope with that influx? In the longer term, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is planning for upwards of 500,000 people to be repatriated to Burundi by 2006. That is in addition to the ex-combatants and the formerly internally displaced people who are returning to their homes in rural areas. In such a small and terribly impoverished nation, that creates a tremendous stress on very poor rural communities. I urge DFID to assist in strengthening basic facilities in the rural communities to cope with the influx and provide funds for projects to establish links between the returning groups to prevent the possibility of further conflict.

A study published this week by Médecins sans Frontières shows that mortality rates in Burundi are three times higher than those of a country in a stable situation, and well above the internationally recognised thresholds that indicate an emergency situation. The main causes of mortality are identified as infectious diseases: malaria is the main killer, but there is an increasing and worrying incidence of HIV/AIDS infection. Despite the fact that the right to health is enshrined in the policy of the Burundi Ministry of Health, the study shows that the cost-recovery system operated by the Ministry, whereby patients pay the entire cost of all medical acts, medicines and laboratory tests, excludes almost 1 million people—just less than one fifth of the total population—from any type of basic health care. In addition, the researchers found that more than 80 per cent. of the households that consult health centres are obliged to resort to extreme solutions, such as selling cattle or land, or incurring debt from their neighbours, to pay the price of the consultation.

DFID's analysis points to the fact that immunisation rates have dropped from 83 per cent. in 1993 to only 54 per cent. in 2001. One of the examples quoted in the report shows clearly how the system has exacerbated the current problems. A man called Reverien from the Musaga district said:

"My wife died two months ago, very probably from malaria because she had a lot of fever and vomiting. But she never went to a health centre because of lack of money. I don't even have enough to feed my two children, so how could I have paid the price of a consultation? I thought she would eventually get better. That didn't happen. After four months in that state, she finally died."

The 2003 budget for the Ministry of Health was estimated to be only 2.2 per cent. of the total budget. An adequate basic service for all cannot be obtained from such a budget. The human price of the inadequacies of the current system cannot be overestimated. The funds pledged at the international donor conference held in Brussels in January this year focused on the clearly important issues of demobilisation and the return of refugees. However, the future of the health and education sectors in Burundi was not even discussed at that meeting. I am sure that the Minister agrees that there is an urgent need to ensure that a free basic health care system is introduced in Burundi, as it is a key prerequisite to development, progress and disease control. Has his Department held discussions with the Burundian authorities, the European Union and our international partners on that issue? Will the Government urge that appropriate exemptions from the cost-recovery scheme be made for vulnerable elements of the population, to ensure that every person can receive basic health coverage?

Burundi also suffers from unsustainable levels of debt. Its economy is highly dependent on coffee exports, the global market price of which remains depressed. It is entitled to apply for relief under the heavily indebted poor countries scheme, but due to the level of conflict in recent years it has yet to reach the initial decision point. Given that the final expiry date for reaching the decision point under the HIPC scheme is later this year, I urge my hon. Friend to put pressure on the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to consider an alternative arrangement to allow Burundi to obtain that essential concession —when elections have taken place and, hopefully, stability has been achieved. The recent announcement of bilateral debt relief by the Paris Club of creditors is welcome, but given Burundi's precarious financial position, further relief from the HIPC initiative is vital if more funds are to be spent on services, such as health and education.

Earlier this year, I was asked by International Alert, a United Kingdom non-governmental organisation, to take part in an evaluation of parliamentary peace forums known collectively as the AMANI forum, that have been established in Parliaments throughout the great lakes region. The role of the forums in Uganda and Kenya has made an important contribution to the search for reconciliation and peace. Unfortunately, due to security concerns at the time, I was unable to take part in the visit to the Burundi Parliament, but it is clear that its parliamentarians often feel isolated and that they lack either the capacity or experience to consider many of the complex problems that they face, especially—as in any impoverished nation—in relation to their control of the armed forces in the country and the attempt to reconcile their communities. Has the Department for International Development made an assessment of how it can support the parliamentarians as part of its declared objective to support peace-building activities in the country? As my hon. Friend will be aware, the UN is proposing to hold a special conference on the great lakes region later this year. It is important that parliamentarians and Ministers from the region take a full part in the work programme. I hope that his Department can assist in that respect.

A huge number of complex problems face Burundi. However, this year gives it and its citizens a window of hope. As I said, I welcome the Government's increased commitment, but I strongly urge them to continue working as hard as possible to allow peace and democracy to have a chance. Burundi and its people have suffered greatly and now is our time to help them.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development, Party Chair, Co-operative Party 3:44 pm, 5th May 2004

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend Ann McKechin on securing the debate on Burundi and, more generally, on her work with the all-party group on heavily indebted poor countries. She is a great campaigner in the House on many specific issues relating to Burundi. I also welcome the fact that my hon. Friend has succeeded in securing the debate because it provides an opportunity to highlight the work that the UK and the rest of the international community are doing to help bring about lasting peace in Burundi and alleviate the population's suffering, which she so graphically described.

In effect, the country has spent the past 10 years in the grip of an appalling civil war. I agree that this is a critical time for Burundi. My hon. Friend alluded to the fact that the date for the end of the transitional Government created by the Arusha accords of 2000 is fast approaching. If the transition is to be successful, elections to appoint a new Government and a new president must take place before 31 October. To create an environment conducive to elections, the process of demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration must be up and running, and army integration and planning for security sector reform must be well under way. That will require not only significant political commitment in Burundi but the active engagement and support of the international community, without which the peace process could, sadly, fail, potentially plunging Burundi back into civil war, with considerable adverse consequences for the rest of the great lakes region.

As my hon. Friend highlighted, the humanitarian situation in Burundi is grim. The country is one of the poorest in the world, with quite appalling human development indicators. It rates as low as 171st out of 175 on the UN world development index, and almost 60 per cent. of its population live on less than $1 a day. Life expectancy at birth is only 40 years—a drop of 10 years since the start of the conflict in 1993, and—to complete a particularly grim picture—the mortality rate among under-fives is one of the highest in the world, with one Burundian child dying every 10 minutes. On top of all that, large numbers of refugees and internally displaced people are returning home as a result of the reduction in conflict; that is putting pressure on host communities, which already have little capacity to cope.

My hon. Friend alluded to the fact that the UK, through the Department for International Development, has significantly geared up its response to Burundi's needs in recent years. We have developed a strong relationship with the Government of Burundi, and I believe that we are respected in the donor community and seen as unbiased and a serious supporter. In the last financial year, the Department committed more than £10 million to Burundi, including significant contributions to the African Union peacekeeping force, about which I shall say a little more in due course. Our staff have also sought to play an active role in improving donor co-ordination in Burundi, working closely with key multilaterals, such as the World Bank, the UN and the European Commission, on issues such as the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration process, security sector reform and election support, which is crucial in the context of the upcoming parliamentary elections. We are also working on humanitarian assistance and, more generally, on social and economic reform.

My hon. Friend touched on the African Union mission in Burundi, which comprises 2,500 troops. It is particularly significant, because it is the African Union's first peacekeeping force to be deployed in Africa. It has been in place since June 2003, and its deployment has been an essential part of the search for a sustainable peace. I want to place on record our appreciation of the contributions that Mozambique, Ethiopia and, in particular, South Africa have made to the force. The UK has provided £5.7 million to support the mission, including support for the Mozambique contingent. My understanding is that the force has sufficient funding at the moment and for the period up to the possible conversion to a UN mission. However, we shall keep the significance and terms of funding under close review, to help us to play our part in ensuring that such peacekeeping contributions can continue.

My hon. Friend asked whether the UK supported the UN Secretary-General's proposal for the creation of a UN peacekeeping mission to take over from the African Union force. We strongly support that, and we hope that there will soon be agreement on a positive Security Council resolution to begin the process. Clearly, with a robust mandate from the Security Council and the increased human and financial resources, a UN peacekeeping operation should not only help to create a more secure and stable environment but should also help to move forward the urgent work that is needed on disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration and election preparations.

Alongside the humanitarian challenges in Burundi, which are immense, we need to put the progress that has been made in context. More of the country is becoming accessible as the level of conflict is reduced. United Nations agencies are beginning to gear up their work significantly to meet the challenges that will, clearly, continue to be acute in the coming months. We are expecting the UN to issue a revised, consolidated appeal for Burundi, based on the latest assessment of the situation there. We are pleased that the humanitarian agencies in the field are strengthening their capacity to deal with the current situation. In particular, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has established regional offices in country, and has good systems in place to deal with the current planned returns of refugees, to which my hon. Friend alluded. As we all know, refugees make their own decisions on when and how to move. Contingency plans are in place to assist with such movements, but we must be in a position to respond quickly if people return in significant numbers. I am confident that my Department has the systems in place that will enable us to respond quickly in that case.

My hon. Friend focused, rightly, I think, on the plight of the civilian population in Bujumbura Rurale, who have borne the brunt of the continued fighting in recent months involving the Burundian army, supported by the Conseil National pour la Défense de la Démocratie and the Front pour la Défense de la Démocratie, in opposition to the Force Nationale de Libération. Large numbers of people, as my hon. Friend said, have had to flee their homes. The incidence of rape and violent attacks is high, and humanitarian access to the area continues to be difficult. Despite the FNL's recent announcement of a ceasefire and its willingness to negotiate directly with Government, fighting continues in three districts where the FNL has concentrated its forces. Tens of thousands of people remain displaced from those areas and are dependent on deliveries of food from the World Food Programme and non-food items from the Catholic Relief Services. We hope that the FNL offer of a unilateral ceasefire will be taken up by the Burundi Government and that the latter will cease their current offensive against the FNL. We hope that all sides will accept the futility of continuing to fight and will enable the FNL to take part in the political process that has gained such success and momentum since the Arusha accords. It is clearly for Burundians to decide whether the FNL should join the transitional Government, but the matter remains a difficult subject for negotiation, not least because of the FNL's appalling human rights record, of which I am sure my hon. Friend is aware.

My hon. Friend asked about our views on the possible withdrawal of the CNDD-FDD from the unity Government. We understand that their agreement to join the transitional Government last year was a huge step forward on the road to peace in Burundi. It would have enormous implications for the future of the country if the movement decided to withdraw from government at this critical stage in the run-up to the end of the transitional administration. We understand that the Government are working hard to overcome the difficulties perceived by the CNDD-FDD. I hope that it will be only a matter of days before the key issues that divide the parties are resolved. It is worth noting that the CNDD-FDD has given assurances that its possible withdrawal from the unity Government would not signify a return to arms. I am sure that my hon. Friend welcomes that commitment, and I hope that that commitment and the work of the Government will enable the concerns between the two parties to be resolved.

DFID has supported the work of Médicins Sans Fontières in Bujumbura Rurale, including its centre for war wounded at Kamenge. We are considering what further assistance we can provide. We are due to send a needs assessment mission to Burundi this month, in order to identify how else we can support the Burundians in terms of health and other essential services. My hon. Friend asked about our views on health care. We welcome the extremely useful MSF report. Our priority is to ensure that the poorest of the poor are able to access medical services and, for the moment, the best way to achieve that is through health services being provided free of charge. I understand my hon. Friend's concerns about the need to strengthen the country's health systems. We already provide significant support for health care through our humanitarian assistance, particularly the regional support that we give to those tackling HIV/AIDS, to which my hon. Friend alluded.

Finally, I shall touch briefly on my hon. Friend's concerns about the HIPC initiative. Although the UK is not one of Burundi's bilateral creditors, we strongly support its moving towards the HIPC decision point, which we hope will be reached in mid-2005, with completion point in December 2005 at the earliest. How are we helping to achieve that? So far, we have contributed $2 million to the multi-donor debt trust fund to help with arrears clearance and with the regularisation of relations with creditors, which is one of the prerequisites for the HIPC decision point, and offering ongoing technical assistance to the Ministry of Finance—in particular its debt management division—to help it to make progress in that respect. We are also encouraging other donors, as my hon. Friend suggested we should, to follow the UK's example of going further than is required under the HIPC initiative by trying to provide 100 per cent. relief on the debts owed by countries when they qualify for the HIPC initiative. We are encouraged by the World Bank and the IMF's approval in January of Burundi's first IMF poverty reduction and growth facility. We are also encouraged by the publication of the interim poverty reduction strategy in Burundi and, as my hon. Friend also mentioned, the recent Paris Club granting of debt relief for Burundi on Naples terms.

I have tried to answer as many as possible of my hon. Friend's questions. I shall refer to Hansard to see whether there are any others to which I should respond, and if there are I shall write to her.