Democratic Republic of the Congo (Development)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:10 pm on 7th May 2008.

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Photo of John Barrett John Barrett Shadow Minister, International Development, Shadow Minister, Work & Pensions 3:10 pm, 7th May 2008

It certainly is, and it is good to know that the Minister and I have the same concerns about such articles. However, action must be taken to ensure that the money of taxpayers in my constituency and other constituencies is being spent effectively. The Minister's comments are certainly reassuring.

We have heard that the DRC has been brought to its knees by a civil war that has cost the lives of literally millions of people. Ceasefires have been signed, and false dawns have come and gone, but the country remains in the grip of a humanitarian crisis more than five years after the signing of the formal peace agreement to end the war. As a result, the DRC is now one of the poorest countries in the world and looks likely to miss many of the millennium development goals.

We cannot, however, simply talk about the need to increase aid in the DRC. As the United Nations millennium development goals monitor recently noted, the principal obstacle to the achievement of the MDGs in the Congo remains the continued instability in that land. Information collected by the International Rescue Committee shows that a staggering 5.4 million people have died as a result of the conflict between 1998 and 2007, and 1 million people have died since the signing of the peace agreement. It is not for nothing that the DRC has been called Africa's first world war.

The DRC differs from many other places in that relatively few of these deaths are directly due to armed violence. The vast majority of people die from easily preventable and treatable conditions such as malaria, diarrhoea, pneumonia and malnutrition. Children make up less than 20 per cent. of the population but account for almost half—47 per cent.—of the deaths. It is one of the tragedies of the DRC that so many people have died quietly and unnecessarily, almost unnoticed by the international community. It is estimated that 1,000 people continue to die every day as a result of conflict and conflict-related issues. Many of those who survive are left with physical and psychological scars as a result of a brutal campaign of rape and sexual abuse. As in other conflict zones, the displacement of civilians has been a major problem, with 400,000 people displaced in the recent escalation of violence in north Kivu. The insecurity in the region makes it difficult for aid agencies to help displaced populations.

Modest progress was made last year on the political, security and humanitarian fronts, which has given some people in the DRC hope that the country will be able to break free from the circle of conflict and crisis. The elections in 2007 resulted in a relatively peaceful transfer of power, while an extended peacekeeping presence was able to prevent a number of major clashes among the disparate militia groups and armed forces. Significant increases in humanitarian funding have given relief agencies the muscle to make progress. In that respect, DFID deserves praise for its announcement in March that it was increasing funding for the DRC over the next three years. Despite that, conflict has again flared up in north Kivu in recent months, and lasting peace looks as distant as ever.

The Minister will be aware of the call by 63 non-governmental organisations last month for the full implementation of the Goma peace agreement, and I would welcome his views on their call for a high-level independent special adviser on human rights for eastern Congo to focus attention on protecting civilians at risk. I would also appreciate an update on what role we are playing, along with international actors, to help ensure that the agreement that has been reached does not unravel. Getting the parties to sign the agreement was an important first step, but there must now be political follow-through on the ground.

As other hon. Members have said, the war in the DRC contains a more sinister war against women. Mr. Drew mentioned the problem of rape being used as a weapon of war, and there are tens of thousands of victims every year. Some victims are as old as 80, while others are as young as three. Women are raped in front of their villages and families by militia fighters who spill across the border from Rwanda and Burundi. Some women are killed outright by their attackers, while others are taken into the bush for service as sexual slaves. The atrocities are beyond imagination, and I will not go into great detail today, suffice it to say that rape with broken bottles, bayonets and lengths of wood is commonplace.

Hon. Members may have read an interview in The Economist with Denis Mukwege, a doctor treating women in the DRC. He reported that 90 per cent. of the women in some villages have been raped. He said:

"We are no longer talking about 100 women, or 1,000 women...We are talking about 100,000 women."

These are not random acts by misguided or crazed individuals, but a deliberate attempt to dehumanise and destroy entire communities. What is the Department doing to improve security for women and girls? Mass rape thrives in the current climate of impunity, so ending conflict and instability, strengthening accountable state institutions and securing long-lasting peace deals that involve all militant groups must be a top priority.

There is also a grave need to ensure that the crisis does not spill over the border. So far, a degree of restraint has been shown in Kinshasa and Kigali, even if it is not always possible to control the more radical factions on the ground. However, the Congo's natural wealth has in the past fuelled corruption—it will continue to do so, if that is not checked—as well as state collapse and conflict. Better regulation of the sector is not only a development issue, but a strategic one. Hon. Members will know that although the DRC has signed the extractive industries transparency initiative, it has yet to implement it fully. What is the UK doing to ensure full implementation of the EITI? I am thinking in particular of the inclusion of figures disaggregated by mine or project, rather than just by company or sector.

The persisting humanitarian crisis has been called

"the most complex, deadly and prolonged ever documented".

In such a complex political environment, recovering from years of conflict will take many years, but a political solution, involving all parties, remains the only credible solution. I am sure that all hon. Members want to commend the Congolese and international aid workers on the ground across the DRC for their work in one of the most volatile political environments on the planet. In particular, I commend the International Rescue Committee for its extraordinary research work on mortality rates, and the International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch for their efforts to keep the DRC on the political radar.

It is right that we should have this debate today. The continued fighting in the DRC and the resulting humanitarian disaster have not received the international attention that they warrant in this place or the media. Perhaps that is because the conflict has outlasted presidents and UN Secretaries-General; perhaps it is because it does not seem to threaten the world balance of power; or perhaps it is because it is not as easy to distinguish between the criminals and some victims as it is in some comparable conflicts. However, none of those is a good enough excuse for indifference or inaction by the international community. We have probably devoted more parliamentary time to the appalling situation in Darfur, and it is right to debate what is happening there. It is difficult to argue that the situation in the Congo is any less serious, or the outlook any less bleak. It would have been a fine thing to come here today and discuss logistical difficulties in aid delivery and how to increase the effectiveness of our aid. However, finding a political solution to the recurring conflicts is a precondition for development and must continue to be the top priority for all involved.