Democratic Republic of Congo

– in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 19th April 2006.

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Photo of Eric Joyce Eric Joyce PPS (Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MBE, Minister of State), Department for Work and Pensions 2:30 pm, 19th April 2006

My aim today is to introduce a debate arising from a visit by the all-party group on the great lakes region and genocide prevention to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Other hon. Members will want to catch your eye, Mr. Hancock, and develop their own themes, so I shall explain the general context of the visit and mention a couple of points that particularly struck me. I hope that the Minister will reply to those points.

I shall start with a specific matter that struck everyone on the visit. Panzi hospital, at Bukavu on the shores of Lake Kivu where eastern DRC meets Rwanda, is a remarkable place. A small number of doctors and nurses provide health care for women who have been victims of sexual violence and injured, often gravely, at the hands of the illegal militias that roam the forests of eastern DRC. To walk around Panzi hospital and talk to the patients, their carers and sometimes their children is a sobering and serious experience, but it was essential that those of us on the visit did so to set our perspectives clearly.

The group travelled across the DRC, which is a vast country, and met politicians such as Dr. Bahamba Hamba, the governor of South Kivu, which includes Bukavu. We also met a chief of the Batwa pygmies and, at the other end of the visit, we met Vice-President Ruberwa and President Kabila, who were extremely generous with their time. We also met representatives of civil society and international figures such as Bill Swing and Ross Mountain who run MONUC—the United Nations organisation mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is the world's largest such mission—as well as met former child soldiers, international non-governmental organisations and local NGOs that are supported by international NGOs.

Mr. Hunt and my hon. Friend Mary Creagh will present their own views, but I think that the group collectively formed the view that Panzi hospital represents a good prism through which to see many of the problems that beset the DRC. The United Kingdom Government could help to tackle those problems both bilaterally and internationally in conjunction with allies in other countries.

In 1994, the civil war in Rwanda, accompanied by the genocide perpetrated on the Tutsi minority, led to bandits and killers—they were given a number of names, including exFAR and Interahamwe—being displaced into eastern DRC. Initially they were assisted by the UN and semi-settled on the border. Hindsight shows that to have been a mistake, because it led to them running riot in the camps that were set up by the UN. In time, as the UN realised its error and as Rwanda began what has become a remarkable recovery, those bandits and semi-organised militias were displaced into the forests. There, in large part, they remain, augmented occasionally by new recruits, often children and teenagers who are taken forcibly from local communities to provide slave labour and fighters. During the Rwandan genocide, women and children were targeted to remove the next generation of Tutsis; that ruthlessness is now deployed to terrorise communities and enable the militias to subsist in the forest in preference to ending armed struggle and returning either to Rwandan justice or to an attempt to live decent and productive lives in Rwanda or the DRC.

Sexual violence is not confined to eastern DRC, but there it remains a potent tool of subjugation. Women are routinely raped, tortured and murdered as a crude means of dominating communities and eking out a feral existence in the forest. The fear inspired by the militias frequently leads to families to reject abused women. Such women can be seen as a burden due to their injuries, which are often extreme, and sometimes they are a source of shame for their partners, who often rapidly become former partners.

Most of those women have no access to health care and live painful lives, with many dying a painful death. A small minority make the long and hazardous journey to Panzi hospital where they are welcomed and provided with the best health care—modest, but the best—that the region can muster. Some of those women were deliberately injured during and after rape to make childbirth impossible, which leads to a massive requirement for gynaecological assistance and health care. Others have been subjected to such inhuman violence that it is breathtaking that they are still alive and receiving treatment in a place such as Panzi hospital. Dr. Mukaweye, the head of the hospital, told the group about the practice of most militias of following a rape by discharging a round of ammunition into the victim by the same entry point: those who do not die instantly suffer massive internal injuries. Unbelievably, some of the victims have been saved and have, after many months and sometimes years, been rehabilitated back into their home communities. I had never met anyone like Dr. Mukaweye but I know that there are others in the DRC and all over Africa doing similar work. His and his colleagues' work is inspiring, but the need is so great in eastern DRC that they must constantly fight for funding.

A recent EU initiative funded by emergency provisions to provide financial assistance to Panzi hospital is soon to end. I am happy that the Department for International Development is stepping in to help the hospital to extend its capacity by constructing a new surgical wing. However, I wonder whether it is entirely appropriate for the emergency to be interpreted in that way by the EU, given the post-war environment in the DRC and the emergence of a large number of women now reporting with injuries following sexual violence, which, ironically, is consequent on the post-war context rather than on the civil war, which has now ended.

Sexual violence is the sharp end of a series of challenges relating both to security and to wider political development. The hon. Member for South-West Surrey will speak about the security question and what the UK can do to help to expand the capacity of DRC forces in the post-election context. Clearly, it is difficult for the international community judge whether to help to expand the capacity of the armed forces of an unstable state that is not democratic or properly organised and whose Government's remit does not extend across the whole country, perhaps not even outside the most heavily populated places. It is a difficult judgment to make to assist such a country to build up its armed forces when they might be used for the wrong purpose.

The coming election may provide an opportunity and a cause for optimism. If everything goes well it may become appropriate for the international community— perhaps the British Government in conjunction with our allies—to consider ways in which security forces in the DRC be helped to develop their capacity. Without that capacity, there can be no proper infrastructure development: hospitals and schools cannot operate properly unless people can live safely and use them safely. During our visit, all members of the group were struck by the way in which all the local and international NGOs focused on security, which is not what one would normally expect. One would expect them to focus on services and issues such as justice, human rights and so on, but everyone we spoke to emphasised the importance of security and of building up the capacity of the FARDC—the DRC's own armed forces—after the election.

G

Dear Sir,

I will start by saying that there is no doubt in my mind that the UK and the international community as a whole is really trying to help the DRC. Yet it is clear that something needs to change. For example, the IMF has given constant support to Congolese authorities yet their record of financial mismanagement has no precedent, the UN spent hundreds of millions of dollars to organize these elections, yet the two candidates that got to the run-off decided that they should embark in a military face-off this past August. So far all the money that is being given to the DRC is helping those lords of war rearm surely this is unacceptable. The question then is how to help the DRC and here your options are not as limited as one might think. You do not have to support a government that has shown its lack of respect for even the flimsiest version of human rights. Pointing out that the electorate has spoken and that Kabila and Bemba got 65% of the vote together is pointless, Hamas won the elections in Palestine, yet you (the British MPs) have decided not to give them money on principles, so the argument that you must engage if you want change is mute. Today Thomas Lubanga, a small fish in relation to the sharks Bemba, Kabila, Ruberwa et all, lies in a jail cell in The Hague while Bemba, and Kabila are vying for the presidency even though we all know that they are responsible for more crimes than Lubanga. The accusation that Lubanga was only arrested because his militia killed UN troops and not because of the atrocities he brought on the Congolese civilian population take credence. How can you visit the victims of atrocities and then talk to those whose failed leadership has created this situation. This, I’m sorry to say is a sign of moral cowardice, you can not say we will not negotiate with “terrorist” or the world is facing a “battle of ideas” and sit at the same table as people responsible for the death of more than 4,000,000 Congolese. Of course Kabila and Ruberwa will be generous with their time when they meet you more than 50% of the money they use to enslave Congolese daily comes from international donors. You are allowing this government to take a whole country hostage, please stop helping this government and stop believing that any form of government is better than no government if you are trying to prevent a war which is a laudable idea please be aware that given Kabila and Bemba’s past record war is likely to happen regardless, so please stop giving them money to arm themselves as you probably witnessed none of it goes to those who truly need it. If you have to help then create a structure that will mean the money gets directly to the doctors Mukaweye, continuing to finance the present government when one knows what they are doing amounts to supporting their actions, you have been warned by groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty international and even MONUC (the UN mission in Congo) of human rights violation, the IMF has seen first hand the level of corruption yet you’ve maintained you policies, I will end by saying that “to err is human, but to persevere is diabolical”

Submitted by George Bakaly Read 1 more annotation

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

I apologise for missing the first couple of minutes of my hon. Friend's speech. I know that he is talking about the east of the country, and he may have been about to make the point that I wish to raise. When talking about security issues, will he also discuss the Lord's Resistance Army and the fact that Otti is still in the DRC? I was in northern Uganda with other Members at the time that the International Criminal Court served its warrant for the arrest of Kony, Otti and three others, but MONUC chose—there was some confusion—to give Otti a wide berth. If the UN sanctions mean anything, we have to deal with the LRA. Will my hon. Friend deal with the fact that the DRC is in the midst of all those problems and has to be helped?

Photo of Eric Joyce Eric Joyce PPS (Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MBE, Minister of State), Department for Work and Pensions

I thank my hon. Friend for that very valuable contribution. I was not going to mention the LRA, but I shall now that he has mentioned it. It is crucial to recognise that some of these groups are still operating. There has been some progress in that bordering countries have, officially at least, withdrawn their military forces from the DRC. Rwanda has certainly done so. President Museveni, who has recently been recently elected in Uganda—one can say good things about his time in government, but it is harder to find good things to say about his more recent comments—spoke of the possibility of making an incursion into the DRC to deal with the problem of the Lord's Resistance Army. It would clearly be far better for the international community to deal with that problem than for Uganda or any other country to make incursions.

MONUC is the UN body in the DRC and to give it some credit, it is doing very good work. Although it is a very large force, comprising between 16,500 and 17,000 personnel, that is a limited number when dealing with 10,000 or so members of the Interahamwe and various other militias, which are only semi-organised in any case. In time, the problem will be a matter for the international community, and the DRC forces, when they have the capacity to deal with it themselves. In the meantime, there is very much a patching-up mentality. MONUC does its best to keep areas safe—it is deployed, it moves those people around and it catches and kills the odd one—but until we have a proper democracy in a post-election context and a big effort is made by the international community after that election, the LRA will remain a problem. The LRA is a major problem for the whole region and it is time that the international community focused on it more. I am sometimes concerned, however, that President Museveni uses the LRA as a way of pursuing other political objectives.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Does the hon. Gentleman agree, further to the intervention of Mr. Drew, that establishing domestic security, including the build-up of stable armed forces committed to providing it, demands robust international action to end the illicit sale of small arms and light weapons? Given that each year in developing countries in Africa, Asia, the middle east and Latin America about $22 billion is spent on the sale and illicit transfer of such weapons, which kill 400,000 people, is it not vital that we secure the passage of the international arms trade treaty as quickly as possible, then ensure its rigorous implementation?

Photo of Eric Joyce Eric Joyce PPS (Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MBE, Minister of State), Department for Work and Pensions

I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman. All over Africa, and particularly in the DRC, there are millions of small arms, and that situation requires robust action by the international community. There are a number of things we can do. As well as the treaty, one of the ideas raised while we were there was the possibility of instituting air traffic control, which I know has been raised in the past. In Africa, there is very little air traffic control, which explains how arms get moved around. A fairly modest-sized project was proposed a few years ago by the UK Government, but it did not go ahead—it was quite a contentious issue at the time. I am not sure whether the Minister is in a position to comment on that, but one of the things we could do, besides the international treaty that the hon. Gentleman suggests, is look again at the possibility of establishing some means of air traffic control to monitor who is moving what around. At the moment, people can move weapons around pretty much with impunity.

As well as physical solutions to the security problems in the DRC, we need political solutions. At the beginning of our visit, we were fortunate enough to meet Dr. Murigande, the Rwandan Foreign Minister, together with the Rwandan ambassador to the great lakes region. It is clear that Rwanda has had some success in encouraging some of the Interahamwe back to Rwanda. There is a package and some have semi-settled back in Rwanda peaceably, but that process has had limited success so far. Some people will not return to Rwanda because they will be brought to justice, and not necessarily through the Gachacha system. They may well be put in prison, so they are reluctant to go back, and often they are the most powerful people in those communities. Clearly, the UK Government, who are listened to very intently by all the Governments of the great lakes region, could have some influence in encouraging more diplomatic efforts to get all the people we can back to Rwanda. Not all of these people are Rwandans, of course—many may be recruited Congolese—so the problem is fairly opaque. Rwanda has been doing a great deal, it deserves to be commended, but there is a great deal more that we can all do.

On a more specific level, I would like to mention briefly an ongoing problem with marginalised and abused children. My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield will speak a bit more about this. In an impoverished society, it is difficult, and sometimes impossible, to look after children. There is a series of mechanisms by which people in the DRC simply reject their children, who are left to live in the street or in the forest, if they survive at all. There is a phenomenon that has received quite a lot of publicity in the UK press recently. In essence, where the unreconstructed aspects—if I can put it that way without being too pejorative—of the theology of some of the more evangelistic Churches comes into contact with people who are not able to afford their children, the children are accused of witchcraft or some such superstitious nonsense as a mechanism to explain problems in the family and the difficulties that beset extremely impoverished people—and as a means for people to divest themselves of a troublesome child.

We met quite a large number of churchmen—they were all men, I think—and a fair number of them were using a rather odd qualifying argument. Not all of them made the argument, but enough did to make it quite worrying. They argued that the problem was not that there was witchcraft among children, but that sometimes the wrong children were accused of witchcraft. In other words, some of the churchmen were saying, "We think that witchcraft exists among children but the problem is that far too many kids get accused of it when they just have psychological problems". That exacerbates the whole problem by bedding in and giving validity to the idea that such a phenomenon exists. There may be ways in which the Government and other agencies can encourage Churches, which in other modest but important ways operate extremely well—they provide social services and churches, schools and so forth—to look again at those practices.

Those practices do exist, that argument is deployed and we came across it. The phenomenon is seen in the UK because some children from London have been sent back to the DRC and remain there. The UK embassy and the ambassador in the DRC have their eye on the problem, but there is little they can do except monitor it. However, it is important to raise it here and perhaps other agencies, including some of the Churches, will look again at the problem.

The UK Government, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of State for International Development, the Foreign Secretary and Members of all parties in this House, take a great interest in the role of education in the developing world. We had the opportunity to chat to President Kabila about the possibility of some kind of modest link between some schools in the DRC, probably in Kinshasa, and some in the UK. I think that it will be possible to facilitate that in one way or another. Mr. Andy Sparkes, the UK ambassador in Kinshasa, was very encouraging. I wonder whether it might be possible for the Minister to commend the idea of having a link-up because it would benefit kids in the UK as well as kids in the DRC, although it would be fairly modest and, of course, Francophone.

The DRC is led by President Kabila at the head of an interim Government. Elections will take place soon. The UK Government, particularly through our ambassador to the country, Andy Sparkes, and through the Minister and others, have played an invaluable role in facilitating those elections. Not every party is taking part, although I think that most people will vote. It is a pity that it looks as though the Union for Democracy and Social Progress—a major opposition party with a good record in opposition under Mobutu—will not take part, but I think that many of the DRC's voters will take part in the elections.

At one level, it is a little odd that Britain will soon be the largest donor to the DRC. We have no great history there—it is a Francophone country—but that is the way things are currently. Belgium and France could perhaps take more of a leading role. Who knows who will win the election? There must be a modest chance that President Kabila will win it. We got the impression on the trip that if he does, he will take an inclusive approach to choosing his Government and to governing, as opposed to a winner-takes-all mentality, which would send people straight back to the bush and alienate very talented people such as Vice-President Ruberwa and others whom he needs on board.

Let me mention the groups that made the trip, which we found to be invaluable, possible. They include Oxfam, Christian Aid, Tearfund, the Rainforest Foundation, War Child, Save the Children and Amnesty International. All those organisations have hugely valuable programmes in the DRC. They help to support local non-governmental organisations and to build capacity among those NGOs, which will perhaps be their most important role in the longer term. In addition, our embassy in Kinshasa is doing a sterling job—a magnificent job. Andy Sparkes, Jo Gauld and their colleagues deserve recognition for that.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Will the hon. Gentleman give us the benefit of his experience of a recent visit to the DRC and tell us what he learned about the preparations for the June elections? Those elections are a vital precursor to further stability in the DRC. Did he learn how the European troops were to operate with the UN troops already in the country to ensure that there is at least a semblance of free and fair elections?

Photo of Eric Joyce Eric Joyce PPS (Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MBE, Minister of State), Department for Work and Pensions

That is a good point and that matter formed one of the main focuses of our visit. There is room for some optimism that there will be more or less effective elections across the DRC, although perhaps not to the standards of the UK. The position will be more difficult in rural areas. We were struck by how many people had their IDs to vote and by the apparent effectiveness with which MONUC is preparing. We had a lot of time with Bill Swing, Ross Mountain and a commander of a Pakistani battalion—one of the generals on the ground in the Bukavu area. They will give a lot of confidence to people, especially in more populated areas, that it will be safe to vote. No one is suggesting that there will be violence against those who vote. The militias are largely staying out of the process, so I think that there will be a pretty good turnout. Clearly, one has to put that in context. One can look at what happened in the early 1960s, but the forthcoming election will probably be the first real election in Congo at which there is pretty much universal suffrage.

Let me mention Oona King, who founded the all-party group during her period in the House. It is largely because of her efforts that we are having this debate and the issue is being raised today on Sky television and "Channel 4 News" by the team that we took with us. Today's edition of The Guardian carries a good article on the issue. We also took Johann Hari of The Independent with us and that newspaper, too, is providing coverage.

I believe that the interest in the DRC in Parliament— at this debate there has been a good turnout of hon. Members from both sides of the House—and the interest in the media presage a period when the country will step out of the shadows. Four million people have died there, but that figure comes from epidemiological surveys, not daily bombs, so the issue is less media-friendly. I cannot blame the media for that, but now, in the pre-election period, we have a chance to raise the profile of the Democratic Republic of Congo. We hope that the election will be successful, I look forward to hearing what the Minister and other hon. Members have to say.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

Thank you very much for that thoughtful presentation, Mr. Joyce. I shall start the winding-up speeches at 3.30 pm, and four hon. Members want to speak. If hon. Members are generous to one another and we co-operate, everyone who wants to should be able to speak. I ask hon. Members to bear that in mind.

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 2:55 pm, 19th April 2006

I congratulate Mr. Joyce both on his excellent speech, which I wholeheartedly endorse, and on the excellent way in which he chairs the all-party group. I, too, was a member of the group that went to the DRC. I should also like to add to his praise for the work done by Oona King, the former hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow. The fact that in 2003 the DRC did not feature at all in the top 10 recipients of UK aid but by 2004 was the second biggest recipient after India shows the success of Oona King's work in setting up the group and raising the profile of a part of the world whose profile certainly needs to be raised.

Africa, for all its vibrancy, sometimes seems to prove the inverse of the saying, "The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence." One could say that in Africa the grass is always browner on the other side of the fence, because wherever one goes and whatever appalling poverty one finds, there always seems to be somewhere even worse off. One goes to a Nairobi slum, where children with HIV eat charcoal because they are so hungry, and one wonders what could be worse. Then one goes to the DRC. There, despite the street children, the begging and the hunger, security is so bad that poverty alleviation is barely on the agenda. People simply do not have the luxury of worrying about starving: they face the even more immediate danger of being raped or murdered as they sleep in their beds at night.

On the all-party parliamentary group trip, we met villagers who slept in the tea plantations at night, terrified that if they slept under their own roof they would be attacked as they slept. In visiting Panzi hospital, to which the hon. Member for Falkirk referred, we visited what is perhaps the world's only specialist rape hospital, where hundreds of women wait for operations because of rapes that are often so bad that multiple operations are needed. I met a woman who witnessed militia kill her five children and husband and put their bodies into sacks. She was then raped by three men. I heard of a 22-year-old woman who was raped by seven soldiers, after which a gun was fired into her genitals. Remarkably she survived, although she needed six operations. Now, amazingly, she wants to become a nurse.

With no justice system to speak of, rape in the DRC can barely be called a crime. It is more a weapon of mass destruction. It is the means by which militia know that they can destroy a village: if they rape the women, they destroy the slender fabric on which some of the poorest and most fragile communities in the world depend. The lesson of this terrible madness is simple. There can be no poverty alleviation without security, no AIDS drugs without security, no agricultural development without security and no democracy without security. But there is no security.

The army, whose soldiers are supposed to be paid a meagre $10 a month, remains unpaid. The salaries are issued by the central bank and then lost in a giant river of corruption that has as many tributaries as the River Congo. Government soldiers therefore end up practising the rape and extortion that they are supposed to be stamping out. For example, four senior officers are currently being sought for various offences, including a lieutenant colonel who is being sought for the rape of a 14-year-old girl. The army is refusing to hand the officers over—[Interruption.]

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

Order. We shall adjourn for 15 minutes for the Division in the House. I am sorry about that, Mr. Hunt.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 3:15 pm, 19th April 2006

The point about these terrible stories of rape and the atrocities that one encounters somewhere like the DRC is that, time after time, when one asks local people what they really want, the answer is very simple: they want to end the culture of impunity. That culture of impunity in the DRC started with the infamous article 15 of an earlier Kasai constitution, which encouraged people to débrouiller, or manage for themselves. That was a kind of licence for people to look after themselves, whatever it involved. It continued through the Mobutu kleptocracy and has now spread like a cancer beyond looting and extortion to rape and murder.

The international community has been generous in financial terms, but ultimately ineffective. Shamed by the blind eye that we turned to what happened under Mobutu because of the cold war, and doubly shamed by our inaction in the Rwandan genocide, we have since showered money on the DRC. Some $1.2 billion is spent annually financing the 17,000 UN troops in what is the most ambitious peacekeeping force in the UN's history. The DRC is now the top African recipient of UK aid. Soldiers from the Pakistani UN contingent, whom we met on the trip, were decent and brave, but they have a very limited mandate, and they often end up simply chasing the militia from one part of the country to another. That is a particularly sensitive issue in the Kivu region, where the Rwandan Hutu Interahamwe militia are being chased inland, further away from the border areas and, significantly, further away from Rwanda, to which everyone agrees they must return.

The most that can be said of MONUC is that it has succeeded in stabilising the situation and has made elections possible. That should not be underestimated, but what happens after the elections will be crucial. The model has to be what happened in Sierra Leone, where the UN was prepared to stay for three years after the election and where it made a commitment to train the local army for a full 10 years. Sierra Leone is a tiny country compared with the DRC, so the price will be huge, but if we want to stop the rapes, the extortion and the regional instability that affects not just the DRC but Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi, we have no alternative.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

During my hon. Friend's visit, was he able to gauge at all whether the UN stabilisation force has been effective at reducing the number of forced child recruits in the various rebel armies? Does he think that that problem has been tackled at all?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising an important point, to which I intend to return. The simple answer is that the UN has stabilised the situation, but we now have to persuade the child recruits who joined the militias to come back out of the bush, and determine whether the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration process, under which the child recruits are demobilised and reintegrated back into the communities, is actually working. The international community seems to have devoted a lot of money to making that process happen, but when one actually looks at the DDR camps, there seems precious little evidence of that money on the ground, so he legitimately raises a concern about whether the policy is as effective as it should be.

Returning to the issue of the UN force, we have to recognise that a UN peacekeeping force can only ever deal with the symptoms of a problem, not the cause. Attacking the causes of the problem will involve much more fundamental action, including an international arms trade treaty, referred to by my hon. Friend John Bercow, and serious reform of the unpaid, untrained and undisciplined DRC army. We must consider whether some of the money spent on UN forces would be better spent on training that army. We must exert maximum pressure on the post-election regime to stamp out the corruption that filters off soldiers' salaries before they are received.

Given our substantial influence in Rwanda, we can do much more to help facilitate the return of the estimated 10,000 Interahamwe militia members, who terrorised the population of the DRC in a desperate attempt to avoid repatriation. We need an internationally agreed repatriation corridor, complete with credible, publicised amnesties for the majority of militia members who had no part in the 1994 genocide.

We all hope that the June elections come off successfully. Some 26 million people have registered to vote and there was overwhelming support for the new constitution. However, there are plenty of reasons for caution. Consider this: a Head of State gives in to pressure from the west for reform; he declares his country a multi-party state; the newspapers explode with new-found freedom; civil society, the military and politicians agree on a transition to democracy; nearly 400 political parties are formed. Am I talking about the DRC under Kabila in April 2006? No, that was Zaire under Mobutu in April 1990.

When we see pictures of that old kleptocrat shaking hands with President Kennedy in the 1960s, we are reminded that Mobutu was as credible to the west then as Kabila is now. We wish President Kabila well, especially if he wins the election, but we urge him to recognise that, when the time comes, it will not be the acquisition of power but the courage to hand it over peacefully that will place him in Africa's pantheon of respected leaders.

I conclude with a couple vignettes about the child soldiers whom I met in Congo. Rafiqu, aged 13, was driven by poverty to leave his family and join a militia called the Mudundu 40, a rebel group that later merged with the Mai-Mai militia. He learned how to use Kalashnikovs, mortars, M160s and rocket propelled grenades. In his three years as a rebel militia soldier, he was involved in four battles and he thinks he killed about 30 people. Four years later, he is undergoing rehabilitation in a camp run by the excellent organisation Save the Children.

Sadiq, a 12-year-old, woke up to find that militia had stormed into his house and were raping his sister. They then abducted her. In a perverted twist of logic, he joined the same militia to see whether he could get her back. On one occasion, he remembers his commander telling him to execute 10 men, which he did. Now he is undergoing rehabilitation in a Save the Children camp, where he says that for the first time he is in a community with people who care about his future.

Such children are starting their lives again. The DRC is starting its life again. It is not for us but for its people to solve their problems. However, when we find those all-too-rare people—whether they be former child soldiers, an about-to-be-elected President, people working in rape hospitals or young politicians in Kinshasa—with the vision, determination and courage to deal with the problems, we in the international community must do everything we can to give them the support that they need.

Photo of Mary Creagh Mary Creagh Labour, Wakefield 3:24 pm, 19th April 2006

I thank my hon. Friend Mr. Joyce and Mr. Hunt for their valuable contributions and for the good humour with which they conducted themselves during our trip, which was very testing at times. I was grateful for their good humour and good nature throughout.

I add my thanks to the UK ambassador Andy Sparkes and to Jo Gauld, who accompanied us and helped arrange our trip, and I pay tribute to the DFID team in Kinshasa and to our ambassador in Rwanda. I echo the comments made about my friend and former colleague Oona King, who founded our group seven years ago. At 7 pm tonight, "Sky News" will feature some of the people whom we visited, particularly those at Panzi hospital.

Hon. Members need no explanation of the situation in the DRC. During the past eight years, the wars and actions of armed groups have brought people there to their knees. Access for humanitarian groups is restricted by a lack of security outside the main cities. In a recent report, the International Crisis Group estimated that 4 million people had died in the previous eight years of conflict. That means that about 1,200 have died every day in their villages, in the tea plantations and the bush—out of the range of the lenses of the UK and general western media.

We have seen a war waged through arms in the DRC, but now a second war is taking place, waged through HIV/AIDS. There is war also waged through the disruption of basic services and, as has been said, a culture of corruption at all levels, which means that soldiers who should be demilitarised are not paid. So they go back, take up arms and start the cycle of violence again.

I should like to touch on the Panzi hospital, which my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman mentioned. I shall give some numbers that reflect what is happening in South Kivu province. Last year, the hospital treated 3,500 rape victims, 1,000 more than in 2004 and 50 per cent. up on the numbers treated the previous year. There is evidence from South Kivu that after the explosion and violence of 2004, things calmed and tailed off. However, things are escalating again.

An estimated 10 women are raped there every day. As we heard, the rapes are carried out with violence—with the use of knives, bayonets or bullets. The victims are sent back to their communities as cripples and outcasts. We received a report entitled "Women's Bodies as Battlefields" from one of the non-governmental organisations in the DRC. It sums up better than any of us could how women are used in the ongoing war.

The militias' aim is to degrade society by degrading women and its values. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 45,000 women and girls have been victims of sexual violence in the DRC. The international community needs to ensure that each individual, hidden, private sexual tragedy becomes a collective and public human responsibility. One NGO worker told us, "We do not want homes for raped women or orphanages for children born of rape. We want those women to go back to their villages and be reunited with their husbands and for their villages to take collective responsibility for them. We want those children to have the right to grow up and go to school like any other child and not to bear for the rest of their lives the stigma of the unfortunate way in which they were conceived."

The women at Panzi have often been carried over non-existent roads—sometimes by their grandmothers, on piggyback—to seek treatment. My hon. Friend mentioned the incredible work done by Dr. Denis Mukaweye, who runs the hospital on a shoestring. I am glad to be able to tell the Minister that DFID is constructing a new building there. That is wonderful. It will mean that the women who are in for continuous operations will have to wait less time before they go back to their villages.

We heard the story of a woman aged 72 who had been raped in front of her sons-in-law. She refused all treatment and chose to die, rather than return home to the shame that she felt had been visited on her and her family. We heard stories of women abducted by the Interahamwe, gang raped every night, left pregnant with their rapists' babies. How can a mother be taught to love a baby from a man who has used such terrible violence on her? Many girls know that they and their babies will be rejected and even killed if they return to their villages, so they are left with no choice but to stay in the camps. In all the conversations about the programme to disarm, demobilise and reintegrate soldiers, scant attention was paid to the fact that few of those young women, while not formal combatants, have been successfully demobilised and reintegrated. It is difficult to talk about these terrible stories, but it is important that our group visited such people. We heard the stories and saw what was happening. It is important that things are put on the record.

The children of the DRC have no social and legal protection. The social pathologies of the violence, abuse and rejection of children are generalised across its society and go unpunished. The sexual abuse and rape of children is widespread. We must be aware, and be wary of, just examining what hits the western papers and is trendy in the international aid community at any given point, whether that be children accused of witchcraft or child soldiers. Such problems are huge and endemic, but they also stem from the situation of children and their having no legal and social protection.

Photo of Russell Brown Russell Brown PPS (Rt Hon Alistair Darling, Secretary of State), Scotland Office, PPS (Rt Hon Alistair Darling, Secretary of State), Department for Transport

As one of the joint chairs of the all-party group on street children, I, together with two colleagues, will visit the DRC later this year, once the elections have been held. Will my hon. Friend detail the dispersal that happens there? How much does it compound the whole problem and the difficulties in which children find themselves?

Photo of Mary Creagh Mary Creagh Labour, Wakefield

I thank my hon. Friend for that useful question. Before we left for the DRC we had a briefing about the demobilisation and demilitarisation. In general, a series of armies travel with their women, children and families. They are sometimes transported thousands of miles to be demilitarised in one place and are then put back into a brigade in another place. I am unsure about the situation of children being demilitarised and demobilised, and I shall be interested to hear what he finds out.

There is a problem of women sometimes being left thousands of miles away from their partners and ending up in new camps. We visited camp Saio in Bukavu. It is not like a military camp as we in the west would imagine one; there are bunches of chickens hanging around and cabbages growing, because people have no food or money. They live on $10 a month if they are lucky—if they receive it. While their men are away being demobilised those women and children have no money on which to survive. There are problems with the men and their families in the demobilisation campaign and the payment of their wages. As the hon. Member for South-West Surrey said, it is clear that the money simply is not getting through.

One in five children in the DRC will die before their fifth birthday. We visited a Batwa pygmy village, where the children looked like they had chicken pox because they had so many spots on their heads. I asked what was wrong with one of the babies and the interpreter told me that I was looking at mosquito bites. The babies had so many bites because the mothers were sleeping out with them under the tea plantations every night, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. We cannot imagine what it must be like to sleep in the rain with a tiny baby. Development or progress will happen only when such children and their parents have the security to sleep in their beds, when we can provide them with bed nets and when they can receive the education that they so desperately want.

We visited Mbuji-Mayi in Katanga province, where three years ago it was estimated that 5,000 children were living on the streets. People are currently trying to ascertain how many street children there are in Mbuji-Mayi itself. Some 80 per cent. of them have been accused of witchcraft. We visited a centre run by Save the Children, which aims to reunite those children with their families, and to give them a roof over their heads, something to eat and somewhere to wash. Our first sight on arriving at the centre was of 40 naked boys. I took a picture, which I probably would not have been permitted to do had I been in the UK. It was one of the few moments of light relief—all these naughty boys squirting each other and dancing around for us in the puddles.

It is important to put the accusations of witchcraft into the social and economic context in which they occur. There is no slack in families any more, because of the years of disruption caused by the war and the poverty of families. People are unable to feed the children. Some children have been tortured in order to be exorcised; they suffer all sorts of violence. We heard one story of a 16-year-old girl who was beaten to death by her father for being a witch. I was impressed by some of the leaflets that have been produced—I have copies, should colleagues like to look at them—which try to educate the local population that every family can suffer bad luck and unemployment and that a child who sleepwalks or who has epilepsy is a normal child, not a witch.

I conclude with a few remarks about the hopes for the DRC. We all hope that the elections scheduled for early July will represent a new dawn, but they are unlikely to be either elegant or flawless. I hope that they will be good enough to convince the DRC's citizens and the international donors that the first step on the path to a better future has been taken. I want the UK Government to play an active political role in the great lakes region to ensure the repatriation of armed foreign groups, whether we are talking about the Lord's Resistance Army or Interahamwe. We also have a role to play in Kinshasa in ensuring better aid co-ordination between the many countries that offer goodwill and are working there to improve people's lives.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I want the UN to remain in the DRC to provide long-term protection for the civilian population. We should extend the UN's mandate to training the FARDC, which is currently being done informally. I want it put on a formal footing. In addition, as John Bercow said, an international small arms treaty to end the traffic in small arms is vital.

I want our Government to work with that of the DRC to end the culture of violence with impunity, to instigate rape laws to punish those who currently engage in sexual violence with complete impunity, and to work on the better management of resource exploitation through the mining code, the forestry code and western companies. The DRC needs to abolish the death penalty to give some comfort to the people who have committed such atrocities that they will at least be guaranteed the right to life. The new Government need to think carefully about the quick wins that they will have.

I look forward to working with politicians in all parts of the House to ensure that the DRC is at the heart of all our parties' political policy development over the next 20 years, rather than just over the next 10 or five. I look forward to working with civil society and the Churches in the DRC to provide basic services and ensure that people can sleep in their beds at night.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

I thank the hon. Lady for that excellent and moving contribution.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development) 3:37 pm, 19th April 2006

I congratulate Mr. Joyce on securing this timely debate. No nation is more worthy of a debate in this House than the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The debate could not be more timely, given that we are approaching the first democratic elections there for 46 years.

I do not think that there is any disagreement that the DRC has been dealt an appalling historical hand. The recent history of that part of Africa is among the most desperate of any region. The various conflicts that have so tragically gripped that huge nation for the past 10 years are without precedent or peer. Some 4 million people—more than the entire population of Wales—have perished during the various conflicts. More people have been killed in the conflicts in the DRC than in any other conflict since the second world war. Given carnage on that scale, one would think that the headlines would be screaming about what is happening in the DRC, yet the conflict goes relatively unnoticed and unreported, and still it continues.

We have heard some harrowing details from members of the all-party group that visited the DRC recently. Children have been betrayed of their childhood by being forced to serve in the various militias. It is estimated that 300,000 children have served at one time in some of the competing militias, and children as young as seven have been forced to carry arms. We have learned that in parts of the east of the country children comprise as much as 40 per cent. of the militias.

There is no point in going over the political history of the DRC. That depressing and sad tale is familiar to everyone in this Chamber: the brutal, extractive colonial regime, and the bizarre and disastrous Mobutu years, which were followed by the DRC being plunged into a de facto civil war. What is particularly reprehensible is the behaviour of some of the DRC's near neighbours, which for years have taken advantage of the perilous conditions in that country and intervened for purely selfish reasons.

The DRC has not even started to sort out its many difficulties and challenges, but the elections are the best chance that the country has to secure a reputable future and the stakes could not be higher. If it has successful elections, it could have a bright and rosy future. The DRC is the third largest county in Africa and the fourth most populous. It is endowed with fantastic natural resources and should be able to sustain not only itself but the whole central African region. It seems that, perversely, the DRC has suffered most grievously for being in possession of natural resources and wealth, as all manner of people, from colonial rulers to voracious neighbours and corrupt rulers, have sought to acquire some of its wealth for themselves. It is as if the DRC won some great natural lottery but has never been able to cash in the winning ticket.

I visited the DRC last year, but not with the all-party group. I wish I had been able to join colleagues on that trip, as it sounded fascinating. I went with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy to Lubumbashi in Katanga province. Katanga province is at the heart of mining country, which was the engine that drove most of the DRC in the past 30 years. I visited the famous Jacobins mines, which were so famously looted by Mobutu, and saw the first signs of the green shoots of recovery. Foreign investment has started to go into Katanga, which means that some of the dilapidated mines are starting to roll back into production. I hope to see further progress when I visit again this summer.

I found people who were looking forward to a new democratic era with a great deal of excitement, but others who have been thoroughly disappointed in the political process over the past few decades. They have been let down by successive politicians and therefore feel great anxiety and apprehension about the next few months and years, but the Congolese have so much to gain from a new democratic republic. The DRC is at a crossroads: if the process is successful, it will have an opportunity to catalyse the whole of the greater region of central Africa, if not of the whole of the continent. Politically, a new DRC with a normal political life could assist the progress of democracy throughout central Africa. Economically, the reconstruction of a country that is bigger than western Europe and endowed with incredible natural resources and mineral wealth could serve as an indispensable engine to drive the whole of the central African region, if not the whole continent. Culturally, a dynamic and vibrant DRC, with its fantastic music and incredible and unique history and culture, situated as it is right at the heart of Africa—between north and south, east and west—could act as a catalyst for all of African culture, including arts, science and technology, and in all its diversity could communicate that to the rest of the world.

That is what is at stake for the DRC. Economically and culturally, it could start a new African renaissance. However, that is dependent on several factors. Probably the two most important are a fair and free election that is seen as such, and an end to the fighting and interventions from near neighbours. There is no doubt that the elections will be an immensely complex task for the new Independent Electoral Commission. The registration process alone has been tortuous, and the election timetable has rightly been delayed because of logistical and communication difficulties in assuring that everybody in that huge nation has been registered.

As we heard from other speakers, the country has seen the usual political posturing before the election by some political protagonists. It is disappointing that some of the main contenders for the election have chosen not to register as presidential candidates and that there are fewer candidates registered for election to the legislature than there are seats in it. The latter may be the result of communications difficulties in that huge country, but, more seriously, it may show that some individuals and political parties are dangerously suspicious of the electoral process and of each other. I ask the Minister what he is doing further to engender confidence among the political parties and protagonists so that they can feel confident about participating in the election.

The international community has been positively engaged in ensuring that the elections are conducted fairly and freely. As we have heard, the United Nations has its biggest deployment of resources in the DRC and has been instrumental in trying to persuade rival militias to lay down their arms and be repatriated to their home nations. Over the Easter recess, I was in New York and popped in to see some officials in the United Nations. The most obvious sign of its work in the Congo are the blue beret soldiers, but a swathe of activity in respect of relief, development issues and local economic regeneration goes on underneath the surface. I welcome the EU's decision to send the German-led European Union force to assist MONUC during the election. Will the Minister say something about British participation in that force and whether the UK Government will do everything possible to ensure that the mission is a success?

I also welcome the new package from the Department for International Development. The UK may now be the biggest bilateral donor to the DRC. That is to be welcomed on both sides of the House, and I hope that the Government will be encouraged to do much more. Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether aid is getting through to the hardest pressed parts of the country and what the UK Government are doing to support the many NGOs that are active in that huge nation. During my visit to the DRC, particularly in Katanga and Lubumbashi, I noticed the almost total lack of civil society. Will the Minister say what we are doing to help to build capacity within civil society, as that will be crucial in the post-election period?

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

Order. Mr. Wishart, I am sorry to interrupt you, but may I ask you to be a bit generous? There is one more Member to speak, so will you bear that in mind?

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development)

Absolutely, Mr. Hancock. I shall conclude my remarks.

What will the UK Government do to discourage near neighbours from becoming involved in skirmishes in the DRC? It is not as if we are without influence in the area, particularly in Uganda and the other Commonwealth nations. I urge the UK Government to do all that they can to encourage greater co-operation between all the partners in the central African lakes region, and to ensure that the shared ambitions and agenda for the area are addressed.

Most importantly, what are the UK Government doing to ensure that there will be free and fair elections, and will there be assistance in the post-election period? No election in Africa has gone uncontested by the losing opposition, so we have no right to expect that this one will be any different.

Lastly, can we ensure that after the election it will be the Congolese who get their hands on the mineral wealth and the natural resources of their country? That will be very important—a key issue—as the DRC enters the post-election period.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

I call Jeremy Corbyn. I am sorry, Mr. Wills, you have no chance.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 3:47 pm, 19th April 2006

Thank you, Mr. Hancock, for the fair way in which you are chairing this debate. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) and for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) and Mr. Hunt for the report of their harrowing experience.

We must consider the history and the victims of the DRC. I believe that I am the only Member in this Chamber who has a substantial Congolese community in their constituency. The community that I have the honour to represent dates back to the 1960s, when Patrice Lumumba's family first arrived in the Finsbury park area of Islington. They have been there ever since, and there is a substantial Congolese community as a result.

A local church, St. Mellitus, and its excellent priest Father David Ardagh-Walter, actively work with the community. The church has services in Lingala and in many other ways gives wonderful support to distressed people in the community. I put on the record my appreciation of them.

I have not had the good fortune to visit the DRC—I hope that I will in the not-too-distant future—although I have visited Rwanda and Angola. I had an experience that does not in any sense compare with that of my colleagues, but it involved an interesting point of history. I visited the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Brussels, which was constructed by Leopold. On one level, it is a bizarre and absurd folly, but at another level it shows the lunacy of the Belgian policy in the Congo from the mid-19th century onwards and the way in which Leopold manipulated the Congress of Berlin to get exactly what he wanted, which was the private ownership of the Congo. Human rights abuses have gone on ever since. Indeed, there were many reports of human rights abuses at the turn of the century. Roger Casement, a British diplomatic representative, exposed many of them. Sadly, he was later executed for his part in the Easter rising, but he is fondly remembered in Islington for his work in helping to bring about Irish independence.

The intensity of media coverage of conflicts around the world is a distorting prism. It used to be said that a war was serious if it was happening, but that it was very serious if Kate Adie was there—it had to be taken notice of. We now have 24-hour news running on cable channels all over the world, but if I were to step outside this room, stop 10 people in the street and ask them where is the worst conflict in the world, they would talk about Iraq and Afghanistan, and perhaps Colombia; I would be very surprised if anybody mentioned the DRC, or, indeed, any conflict in Africa. I am not minimising the effect of those other conflicts, but at least 3 million people have died in recent years in the DRC. The deaths, violence and abductions continue. A first world war rate of slaughter is happening in one of the largest countries in Africa with the largest mineral resources available anywhere.

It is clear that the intrusion in DRC affairs by forces from Angola, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Uganda and several other countries over the years has not helped the situation, but made it made it much worse. The Lusaka accords allowed an opportunity to withdraw those forces, and in many cases the formal armies were withdrawn, but I am far from convinced that informal support is not being given to forces in eastern DRC by neighbouring countries and Governments. We should be very cautious about those countries' protestations of innocence.

On immigration matters, Committee Room 14 hosted a meeting of hundreds of Congolese people who were terrified of being returned to DRC. I hope that the British Government will no longer return people to DRC, but recognise that the situation there is incredibly dangerous.

Several speakers mentioned street children. Unless we do something to support street children—the victims of war—by giving them hope, education and housing, they will become the terror gangs, criminals and fighters of tomorrow. They know no other course.

Finally, we must consider what the international mineral companies are doing and where coltan, diamonds, gold and all other minerals are coming from. The Congolese people see nothing of those minerals, neither their benefits nor their profits, but because of them, they see environmental destruction, conflict and the arming of illicit groups. There are people in this very city who have made an awful lot of money out of the death and destruction in DRC, and they, too, should be brought to book.

Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 3:53 pm, 19th April 2006

I pay tribute to Mr. Joyce for securing this debate. I pay tribute also to his colleagues, the hon. Members for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) and for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), for describing during the first part of this debate their informative and moving journey to the heart of darkness.

When the hon. Member for South-West Surrey talked about security being the root of all requirements for the people of the DRC, I wrote "stability" on a piece of paper in front of me. I shall discuss four strands of that stability, and it will be interesting to hear the Minister's comments on them.

My first point is about political stability and the forthcoming elections. It is ironic that the country is called the Democratic Republic of Congo. The jury is emphatically out on whether it is democratic, and we shall no doubt find out in due course. Although elections are important and a precursor to achieving stability in most countries, they are not always a solution in themselves, as we have learned to our cost in Africa and elsewhere many times before. The elections are necessary, but I hope that we regard them as the start rather than the conclusion of a process. They are a milestone on a journey, but we should not assume that the elections in themselves will achieve the social outcomes that we want.

My second point is about funding and the financial contribution of the international community. I n a spirit of bipartisanship, I pay tribute to the British Government for their general enlightened attitude to the DRC and other countries. Among advanced and prosperous western countries, through troops and other means, Britain is seen as taking a lead in putting in place aid and measures that support the stability of a country. I only urge the Government to continue to think imaginatively about how they can lead that process. I do not think that anybody present thinks that the solution to the ills of the DRC lies entirely in increasing the volume of aid that richer western European countries provide; none the less, using money intelligently and in places where it can have the maximum impact is important. The Government must continue to pursue that course.

My third point is about the economy. I differ slightly from Jeremy Corbyn on this matter. The DRC is blessed with a potential source of wealth. No country can succeed unless it is able to create prosperity for its citizens, so I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that that the wealth must be structured so that it finds its way to the people of that country. However, international companies, including experts based in this city, have a role to play in ensuring that mineral resources and other infrastructure, including transport, are organised so that they can bring maximum benefit to the people of that country. Far from thinking that there is a potential conflict between western involvement and the prosperity of the Congolese, I think that there is potential for a harmonious synergy that would benefit them.

My final point about the four strands of stability relates to civil structures. We have already heard from the hon. Members for Buckingham (John Bercow) and for Wakefield about the need to reduce the number of arms available in the DRC, to pay soldiers so that it is in their financial interest to remain attached rather than detached from formal structures, and to integrate militias formally into an overall national force, which is a difficult process. When creating those civil structures, it is essential to reduce corruption in the public and private sectors, so that people have confidence in the institutions that exist to serve them.

In conclusion, on behalf of my party, I pay tribute to the Government for the work that they are doing and have done. I hope that the Minister can make further progress on the four areas that I have described this afternoon.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 3:58 pm, 19th April 2006

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock, and I congratulate Mr. Joyce on having raised a very important debate. The moving speeches made by my hon. Friend Mr. Hunt and the hon. Members for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) and for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) have enabled us to understand the dramatic and traumatic effect that the horrendous conditions they witnessed had on them. We appreciate the way in which they were able to express that in the debate. Never having visited the DRC, I cannot replicate that, but I can bring something to this debate by putting some pressure on the Government and requesting information from the Minister. We look forward to what he has to say.

When I started my preparation for this debate, I did as I always do and looked at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office country profile for the DRC. It says:

"The DRC is ranked near the bottom, 168 out of 177 countries, on the Human Development Index. All the socio-economic indicators are poor, made worse by the last 10 years of war. The education system is in a state of collapse, and the public health system is reportedly a disaster. In December 2002, donors pledged some US$2.5 billion for reconstruction."

I shall return to that amount, because it is a huge figure. The profile continues with a description of what is happening today:

"The UK has been part of the international community's efforts to address basic humanitarian needs in the DRC. Britain has provided support for DDR (demobilisation, disarmament and re-integration) of the various armed groups and funded quick-start programmes to provide health and education to war-affected parts of the country. The UK increased its assistance to help rebuild the country to £40 million pa in 2004/05 and 2005/06."

That is a recognition by the Government of the dreadful state of that country.

As a number of hon. Members have mentioned, the DRC is well endowed with minerals. It has diamonds—at one stage it was the fourth largest producer of industrial diamonds in the world—gold, coltan, which Jeremy Corbyn mentioned, and cassiterite. Its forest cover is abundant and rich, if it is sustainably managed, and there are rich agricultural lands. However, as is true of so many other African countries, the DRC's economy needs to be managed properly and to start producing if its dependence on aid is to be reduced.

Surprisingly, I entirely endorse what the hon. Member for Islington, North said about exploitation. It is clear that there has been exploitation by the mining companies, in part because mining takes place in conflict areas. Much of what is produced is smuggled out of the country by the various militias, with not even a penny benefiting DRC's economy. However, exploitation has also taken place because DRC has not had the resources to police mining properly. All such problems require western aid, help and advice to be rectified. If the country could rectify those problems, it could start on the path to prosperity. As the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire mentioned, some foreign aid is beginning to flow into the country. We must ensure that that transition is sustainable and that it benefits the economy of DRC.

One the tragic things that I learned in preparation for this debate—we have not heard much about it today—is that the habitat of lowland gorillas, which were never particularly numerous, is now so damaged that their number has been reduced to a mere 3,000. Human rights must always be paramount, but let us hope also that one of the things that comes out of the election is a reversal of that environmental damage.

As has been said, the DRC is Africa's second largest economy south of the Sahara. It has 56 million people, 56 per cent. of whom are Christian. The DRC held a successful referendum in December 2005. If that is an indication of what might happen in the election in June 2006, it bodes well. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey said that 26 million people had already registered for those elections, which is a positive sign. If we can build on that by working with the 16,000 or so members of the UN peacekeeping force who are already in the country and encouraging the European Union not to place its 1,200 to 1,500 troops outside the country in case of an emergency, but instead put them inside the country to prevent potential abuses in the election, that would also be helpful.

What else is to be done? The World Bank has produced a huge package of $2.9 billion of aid ahead of the elections, but with strings attached. The Opposition will vigorously hold the Government to account on how that aid is spent and what improvements it will bring. In too many African countries we spend millions of pounds in aid, yet the people are getting poorer. Gross domestic product in the DRC fell from $380 per person in 1960 to $115 per person in 2004, and 80 per cent. of the people still live on less than $1 a day. There is absolute evidence from other African countries that millions of dollars of aid are being put in, but people's standard of living is falling. Uganda is a case in point: in the past four years, the proportion of people living on less than $1 a day has increased from 30 per cent. of the population to 40 per cent., yet millions of pounds worth of aid has been put into the country. We have to get a bit clever about using aid—we must set specific targets and make further aid dependent on their being reached.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Although we do not want to live in the past, is it not important that people should not enjoy impunity for offences committed in the past? On that principle, and in light of the fact that the alleged founder and leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots was arrested and transferred to the auspices of the International Criminal Court in March this year, does my hon. Friend agree that it is extremely important to send out a message that actions have consequences and that further referrals of Government and Opposition leaders in the DRC will therefore inevitably be required?

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I was going to refer to the international arrest warrants that my hon. Friend mentions. It is extremely important that there is a good likelihood that those who have committed atrocities will be arrested and punished by the international authorities. We can learn from our experience in other parts of the world. Atrocities have clearly taken place on a massive scale in the DRC.

I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion because I want to give the Minister plenty of time to tell us what the Government are going to do about the dreadful situation in the DRC, but I should like to concentrate on the elections for a moment. Let us hope that the 16,000 peacekeepers can be deployed to ensure free and fair elections. There is quite good press coverage in the DRC at present. Let us hope that the press can operate freely and fairly during the elections, so that we and the citizens of the DRC can be thoroughly informed of what is going on in them.

Following the elections—which, as has been said, will be quite inclusive—the rule of law needs to be properly established. One of the worst things that that we have heard about during the debate is the treatment of children, not only their forcible recruitment into the various militias, but the lives of street children who have to live other than in their own homes at night and who can be picked up, taken to police stations and tortured there. There are many similar child-related issues—sorcery has already been mentioned. Perhaps the most tragic thing in the world is human rights abuses against children, because they are even more defenceless than some adults. All of us—particularly the Government through aid and the NGOs—have a great deal of work to do to help street children.

One issue that has not been mentioned is the number of people in prison. Often, a prison sentence in the DRC is a death sentence. The prisons are overfull and people are there without proper trial. Following the elections, we will be looking for re-establishment of the rule of law, a proper justice system and a proper penal system.

This has been an illuminating debate. The Government can do a great deal. Other colleagues have said that we should put pressure on the DRC's neighbours, Rwanda and Uganda, which are after all friends and allies of ours, to sort out their militias. That will not be easy, particularly given the situation in Uganda with the Lord's Resistance Army. However, I cannot understand why the world has stood by and let the Lord's Resistance Army operate in the way that it has, particularly with the recruitment of child soldiers. We look forward very much to what the Minister has to say about DRC. No doubt he will bring a great solution to that dreadfully afflicted country.

Photo of Ian Pearson Ian Pearson Minister of State (Trade), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Trade), Department of Trade and Industry 4:08 pm, 19th April 2006

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Joyce on securing today's debate. I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss such an important topic, and I acknowledge the excellent contributions to the debate.

I have only a limited amount of time, but I should like to welcome the all-party group's commitment to the great lakes region, its recent visit and the information that its members have shared today. I thank our former colleague Oona King for her work and acknowledge the thanks of hon. Members who participated in the recent visit for the work of our ambassador and staff in the DRC and Rwanda, including DFID staff.

The Democratic Republic of Congo has reached a critical moment. Success or failure over the next few weeks and months will have a wide-reaching impact. The 60 million people of the DRC have suffered enough. They want to see an end to the years of autocratic rule, conflict and destruction. We have heard figures this afternoon, and I confirm that the Government fully appreciate the scale of the problems in the DRC. About 80 per cent. of the population live in abject poverty on less than $1 a day. The latest UN figures put the number of internally displaced people at 1.5 million—the result of continuing violence, mainly in the east. There is a long way to go before we can give the Congolese population the stable, secure and prosperous future that they deserve.

What needs to be done? Free and fair elections will form the first step towards democratic and accountable government. Secondly, the new Government must be representative of the full range of Congolese interest groups and accountable to the people who elected them. All the key players should have a stake in the peace. Next, the new government will need to build a greater respect for human rights and the rule of law. Everyone here today will be aware of the terrible abuses that are occurring on a massive scale in the DRC. Many of those take place in the east, at the hands of armed groups, and frequently—something that the Government find particularly disturbing—of the Congolese army itself.

As the elections draw nearer, the Government in the DRC are increasingly clamping down on freedom of expression. At the same time, we are seeing an unchecked rise in the volume of hate speech against certain ethnic groups. The new Government need to tackle all those abuses. As has been strongly demonstrated, the DRC badly needs a reliable, neutral, well trained and properly paid army. We are seeing the beginnings of a new army, but most soldiers are still unpaid, unfed, poorly equipped, and have not yet received effective long-term training.

We obviously need to see an end to the high levels of corruption and the mismanagement of natural resources. Most of all, we need to sustain the huge amount of support and commitment from the international community that has been given in recent years, and we need to ensure that that continues after the elections. Let me say in response to Mr. Clifton-Brown that we also need to ensure that the aid budget is spent effectively and that it benefits the people.

The UK is working to support the DRC in developing a stable and prosperous future. Several speakers mentioned the hospital in Panzi, and I am pleased that through the Department of International Development a further £440,000 will be provided over two years to help with infrastructure and the training of doctors.

A number of hon. Members raised the issue of children accused of witchcraft. We agree that it is a disturbing phenomenon with real human rights implications. Last year, as part of the UK presidency, we led an initiative to raise awareness of the problem of so-called child witches in the DRC, and we will continue to work with civil society groups, established Churches and the Congolese Government to push for further action to address the problem. Through DFID and the British embassy, the UK contributes to programmes under UNICEF, Save the Children and other NGOs that aim to protect children. While on the subject of children, I commend the idea of a link-up project between schools in the DRC and in the UK, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk

A key issue raised by hon. Members was the army. Primary responsibility rests with the DRC to provide a secure environment. Creating a new army after years of conflict is a huge task, and the FARDC consists of seven integrated brigades of troops from all factions. The UK offered £3 million for basic life-needs support—things such as tents and water—to the newly integrated brigades and their families. That will help them to make ends meet and to stop them preying on the local population, but the assistance is offered on the condition that the Government ensure that the troops are paid.

Photo of Ian Pearson Ian Pearson Minister of State (Trade), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Trade), Department of Trade and Industry

I have less than a minute, and I am afraid that I cannot.

A number of points have been raised and we will ensure that they are fully taken on board. I acknowledge the work of the all-party group. The stakes in the DRC are incredibly high. The Congolese people have to live with fighting, corruption and human rights abuses every day. The international community has a responsibility to help to deliver the elections and the support that the people of Congo want and need—

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

Order. It is with great deal of regret—I offer a personal apology to the Minister—that I have to call the debate to a close. I thank all Members who took part for a moving and purposeful debate. I am sorry that the Minister had such a short time to respond. However, it was important that as many Members as possible were given the opportunity to speak. I also thank the Opposition Front Bench spokesmen for their co-operation. I am sorry, Mr. Wills, that you were not able to intervene.