[Mr George Howarth in the Chair] — Backbench Business — Political and Human Rights (African Great Lakes)

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 13th May 2014.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Lancaster.)

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 9:30 am, 13th May 2014

I am pleased that we are having this debate on the political and human rights situation in the African great lakes region. First, I want to say a big thank you to the all-party group on the African great lakes region, not just for its preparatory work for today’s debate, but for its work over a lot of years to draw attention to the situation facing people throughout the African great lakes. At one point it was the largest all-party group in the House. I do not know whether it still is, but it has always had a substantial membership.

My constituency includes a considerable diaspora community, mainly from the Democratic Republic of Congo, but there are also people who have sought asylum here from Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. I hear harrowing stories from them of the life they have left behind. Obviously I welcome them into my community, as well as the contribution they make to our society and the work they do in this country. The numbers of people seeking asylum is an issue and is testament to the problems that they are trying to escape from back at home.

I will discuss the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda; there is also obviously a relationship with the neighbouring countries of Kenya, Angola and Tanzania. We have to set this debate in its historical context, and to do that we have to think for a moment of the tragic history of the whole region, from the arrival of the first Europeans to the tragedy of the slave trade and all that went with that, and then the colonial occupation of the region, particularly by the Congo Free State in the case of the DRC, but also by Belgium, Britain and France. We must also consider the incredible wealth in minerals, rubber, timber and other natural resources that has been dragged out of the region and made an awful lot of people and an awful lot of companies all over the world very rich indeed.

Levels of brutality in the colonial world are almost unsurpassed by what happened in what is now the DRC. We should recall that the European powers sat around a table in Berlin in 1884 and calmly carved up the whole region with straight lines on the map to represent areas of European influence and control. King Leopold was given Congo personally. It was not even given to the Belgian state—that did not happen until some time later, in 1908. The huge personal wealth he gained and his obsession with dragging it out of that place is the stuff of legend. I urge everyone to read Adam Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost”, a salutary book that explains exactly the brutality associated with that time. Some heroic people stood up against it. One was E.D. Morel, a shipping clerk in Liverpool, who worked with others who were opposed to what was going on in the Congo and helped to expose it. Later, he became a Member of this House and I think he was the first Labour Foreign Minister, in the 1920s.

After the first world war, which we are commemorating this year, the victorious powers at Versailles changed a few names as German colonies became French or Belgian ones; nevertheless colonies they still were, and they were still administered. The independence movement in Africa took off in 1945 with the Pan African Congress held in Manchester. Independence was achieved first in Ghana and then in many other countries.

In the case of the Congo, independence came rapidly in 1960-61, when the Belgians basically threw in the towel, gave up and left very quickly. Patrice Lumumba became its first Prime Minister. He lasted only a very short time but is still a legendary figure, as he attempted to unite the country and make the change from colonial rule. The battle for control of the rest of the Congo after his death killed many people and resulted once again in a scramble for mineral wealth and the abuse of power and of human rights there. Tragically, that has gone on ever since, with extraordinary levels of human rights abuses and of death. I will come back to that in a moment.

As for neighbouring countries, Rwanda, as we debated last week in the House, went through the horrors of the genocide as the Tutsi and Hutu groups set about each other. Anyone who has visited the memorials in Kigali will realise the sheer scale and horror of that genocide. I have been to Rwanda a number of times, and have visited all the other countries in the region. Talking to schoolchildren in Rwanda about what they have been through, one realises that horror, and wonders what more could have been done to prevent it and can still be done to defend and protect human rights and democracy, which are the best defence against the excesses of those who seek to abuse human rights.

It is not just an issue for the DRC and Rwanda. In Uganda there has been horrific abuse of human rights on many occasions, particularly during Idi Amin’s reign. That abuse unfortunately still continues there, particularly in respect of gay people—I will come back that matter in a moment. In Burundi, there is a similar story of the tragic loss of so much life.

I will speak on the DRC first, then move on to the other countries quickly to give colleagues time to speak. In the DRC the situation is really quite appalling. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs confirms that

“conflict in the DRC has resulted in a total of 2.9 million internally displaced people currently living in camps or with host families in the DRC, as well as extensive suffering through human rights abuses committed by armed groups, the DRC armed forces…and police. Over 60% of the total figure came from just two regions of eastern DRC: North and South Kivu. The persistence of a complex mosaic of violent conflicts has caused widespread death and displacement”.

It goes on to describe the numbers of refugees and the problems that they face.

I have visited refugee camps in Goma, and it is a frightening and depressing experience. On one occasion, along with Eric Joyce, I met a group of hundreds of women, all of whom had suffered rape and violence, and were all victims of that war. Nevertheless, they were trying to build on the strength of women together to oppose the use of rape as a weapon of war. I visited camps where mainly women and children were living, often in quite limited conditions. Now, I do not blame the UN, which was doing its best to provide food and shelter. Nevertheless, the situation was odd. This was a skilled group of people, all of whom were quite capable of growing enough food to feed themselves and their families in what is the most fertile place in the world, but who were being fed on rice and maize imported from the USA and were not allowed to grow any food in the camp because the UN did not want them to take up permanent residence there. That is one of many issues we have to face.

Behind that issue, of course, is the one with which I started—the mineral wealth that has come out of the Congo. There is clear evidence that mineral companies make a great deal of money out of the DRC’s minerals. Some of those, such as coltan and diamonds, find their way through Rwanda, and make a lot of people very rich. There is no wealth among the poorest people living on top of the world’s greatest mineral resources in one of the world’s most prolific forests. There is something deeply tragic and appalling about such poverty alongside such potential wealth. It is as though the tragedy of the 19th century has gone on for ever more.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour, Edinburgh North and Leith

My hon. Friend may be coming to this point, but does what he said about the mining industry not illustrate the absolute importance of transparency in the extractive industries, something that needs direct action by western Governments, including our own?

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I absolutely agree. The DRC has signed up to the extractive industries agreement, but it is clear to me that the effectiveness of that agreement is strictly limited and we need something much tougher. Indeed, we must ask questions of those mineral companies based in this country and Switzerland who import a lot of this stuff and are clearly making a lot of money out of that poverty.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Does my hon. Friend note that the Catholic episcopal conference in Congo said that one of the best things that the international community could do is host a proper international conference on the extractive industries, asserting land and labour rights and addressing the false pretensions of those paramilitary groups who present themselves as somehow protecting those rights?

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

I am pleased that my hon. Friend raised that because I had an interesting meeting last night with a group of representatives, including Bishop Ambongo, Bishop Murekezi, Bishop Kambanda, Denise Malueki, Father Santedi and Consolate Baranyizigiye from Burundi. They represent the Church in the region and made a number of good demands, or hoped-for results, one of which is to bring together the Churches throughout the region. The second was, in the long term, to look for peace in the region with greater involvement of the international community in the UN in both respecting international accords and conventions and working to create a climate of confidence and co-operation at all levels in the Administration. They are on a visit to this country and will address a meeting upstairs in the House later today. They are very welcome, as are their efforts, and I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention

I want to draw attention to two other issues in respect of the Congo. The first is the need to understand the relationship with Rwanda, which is a relatively powerful and efficient country compared with the lack of governance in much of the DRC. Yet there is clear evidence of vast resources flowing into the conflict in the eastern DRC and an imbalance between the relative power and structure of the Congolese army compared with those of the rebels and the high level of suspicion of Rwandan involvement, which is hotly denied by the Rwandan Government but is an issue that we must address in relation to Rwanda because that conflict has cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people through the consequences of that war.

There is also a renewed threat from and thirst for minerals in the region. The World Wide Fund for Nature sent an interesting briefing to us describing the problems facing the Virunga national park, which was the first national park to be established in Africa in1925. It has extraordinary landscapes, high levels of biodiversity and is a world heritage site. It is also home to the internationally important Ramsar wetlands and to the only two populations in the world of critically endangered mountain gorillas as well as many other animals. All that is under threat as people eye up the possibility of exploiting oil and other resources in that national park. The chimera of short-term wealth from mineral and oil is attractive, but the reality is that sustainability of the forest and the planet depends not on destroying national parks, but protecting them. In the long run, there will be more wealth and better resources for people living in national parks of world importance than if they are allowed to be destroyed quickly for short-term mineral wealth. I hope the Minister will indicate Government support for that.

A question for the Home Office—the Minister is from the Foreign Office, but he may be able to help with this—is that I am deeply concerned about the safety of anyone who is returned to the DRC as an unsuccessful asylum applicant in this country. There is chaos at the airport in Kinshasa and elsewhere, and a considerable threat to the families of those who have sought asylum or returned having failed to gain it. There is a serious lack of co-ordinated governance and transparent democracy in the Congo. I have been there as an election observer, and the election I observed with my hon. Friend Hugh Bayley and others was relatively well run compared with later elections in the DRC. There are big issues about democracy, human rights and minerals in the DRC.

I spoke about the legacy of genocide in Rwanda and the horrors that go with that. One can fully appreciate people’s anger and the need for every young person in Rwanda to understand what happens when a society completely breaks down and hundreds of thousands of people are killed with the most appalling brutality, and the feeling of immediacy. However, it is right to draw attention to the excesses of the Rwandan Government and their treatment of political dissent, the number of opponents of the President who have disappeared and the number of journalists who have been arrested or prevented from reporting what is going on in that country. There can be no justification for the abuse of human rights because of the horrors of Rwandan history. Surely the lessons of history are that the best protection against evil and excess such as happened in Nazi Germany or towards mainly the Tutsi people in Rwanda is a strong democratic society where there is freedom of expression and rights of representation.

Likewise, across the border in Burundi, there are serious problems with the new law on journalists and the way in which they are allowed to report and express what is going on. We must again raise those matters. I was part of an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Burundi some years ago when a number of the issues were discussed and raised.

The world is well aware of the laws that have been perpetrated in Uganda to make homosexuality a crime and the threat to those who have been caught allegedly committing acts of criminal activity—homosexual relations—who may face the death penalty as a result. Should we really have normal relations with the Ugandan Government while that is going on? Should we not be making much stronger representations and looking at the levels of human rights abuse that continue to take place in Uganda? The whole history of Uganda from Idi Amin onwards is one of terrible tragedy, with not just the anti-gay law but the behaviour of the Lord’s Resistance Army and excesses by the armed forces in trying to deal with that. Having met former child soldiers who were recruited into various militia forces in Uganda and other countries in the region, one must have some humanity and understanding.

My final point is that we are elected Members of Parliament and proud of that. Many concerns have been expressed by the IPU’s human rights committee about the treatment of Members of Parliament and other elected members who have become—how shall I put it?—unpopular with their Governments. The matter of Leonard Hitimana from Rwanda was brought to the IPU’s human rights committee. He disappeared in 2003 and it is believed that he was abducted by state forces.

There are a number of other cases, such as that of Hussein Radjabu in Burundi, who, likewise, apparently remains in jail as an elected parliamentarian. I do not believe that parliamentarians should be above the law or allowed to act with impunity, but it is important to recognise that one should not be arrested or imprisoned because of one’s political views—only for any criminal acts that may have taken place.

As we search for long-term peace in the region, we have to take up the issues of human rights and of conflict minerals and the profits that have been made from them. We should also become a force that tries to protect the environment, human rights and the populations of the area, rather than allowing the mineral companies of the world to do what the colonialists did in the 19th century, which was to destroy the pristine and beautiful environment for the short-term wealth that minerals can bring. We should look for something more sustainable in the future. I am delighted that we have the opportunity to debate the matter today and I look forward to the Minister’s response to my remarks.

Photo of Tom Blenkinsop Tom Blenkinsop Opposition Whip (Commons) 9:50 am, 13th May 2014

I congratulate my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn on securing what is a very important debate, given the events that are likely to happen in terms of democratic processes in the area of Africa that we are discussing. I am not well known for my interest in such issues or for speaking out about them in debates, but having often met members of the Congolese community in the Tees Valley, I felt that it was my duty to make some of the points that they have made to me and to talk about related issues that I have been investigating for some time in a personal capacity.

I want to talk about three things to do with the Democratic Republic of Congo: first, the forthcoming elections in 2016; secondly, UK, EU and US investment in the DRC, in terms of conditionality; and thirdly, DRC returnees from the UK.

There have already been attempts, as there were in 2011, to revise article 220 of the constitution, which limits President Joseph Kabila’s mandate to no more than two terms of office. He has been in power since 2001, following the death of his predecessor, President Laurent Kabila. Joseph Kabila, however, was not elected to office until 2006 and he retained power in very dubious circumstances in 2011. Some—indeed, most—would argue that a tenure that has lasted since 2001 has already exhausted a two-term period of power. Be that as it may, article 220 of the DRC constitution restricts any incumbent to a maximum two terms. However, it is Kabila’s intention to overcome that obstacle in order to present his candidature again in the forthcoming election. Kabila also plans to initiate another change by proposing a government of coalition, indicating his desire to remain in place for the foreseeable future until there is the establishment of a democratically elected President.

Post the 2011 elections, there are obvious questions to ask—for example, about the house arrest, since 2011, of the opposing presidential candidate, Mr Tshisekedi. That situation needs to be taken far more seriously and questioned far more profoundly in the run-up to the 2016 elections, in terms of candidates’ freedom to campaign. It is well documented in the EU report and by others that Joseph Kabila named his supporters to the Supreme Court before the 2006 election and again before the 2011 election. The Supreme Court, or rather, the judiciary, does not work independently of the Executive—namely, Joseph Kabila.

It is also clear from the EU final report and the report by the UN human rights department, Kinshasa, that the police stand accused of human rights violations when violently repressing attempts by the civilian population to greet Etienne Tshisekedi on 26 November and before, during and after the elections. The final report by the EU mission in 2006 recommended measures that should have been put in place before the 2011 election.

Electoral fraud began long before observers arrived in the DRC. For there to be “huge irregularities”, the grounds to allow irregularities had to be in place during the registration process and during the naming of members of the Supreme Court, entailing a changing of the constitution six months prior to the election to allow one round of voting. It is clear from the EU final report that observers were not allowed to observe properly.

Recently, and more worryingly, an Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesperson said in Geneva on 6 May this year, about the judgment that 14 officers of the FARDC, the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, were acquitted of charges of mass rape and murder in 2012, that

“the judiciary has not met the expectations of the numerous victims of rape who had fully participated in the trial…The outcome of the trial confirms shortcomings in the administration of justice in the DRC.”

He also said:

“The crimes perpetrated in Minova …were extremely serious and widespread”, and that they were

“perpetrated in a systematic manner and with extreme violence”.

Yet on 22 March 2013 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office stated and promised:

“We are also working with DRC government to help consolidate peace in country through the Security sector accountability and police programme (SSAPR) managed by DFIDThe UK will also use its G8 Presidency in 2013 to seek to address impunity for sexual violence in conflict and improve the response to these crimes”.

It continued:

“This includes support to security sector reform, demobilisation of armed groups and a more effective military justice sector.”

It is clear that the judiciary under Kabila is hardly reformed in any way, shape or form, and the omens appear very poor regarding any form of democratic progression.

Secondly, on UK, EU and US investment in the DRC, the Department for International Development funded the electoral registration in the DRC prior to the 2011 election, to the tune of £40 million. However, as the Secretary of State for International Development said on 5 February:

“There was mismanagement and poor planning of voting operations, which strongly affected the credibility of the national electoral commission and the results of the 2011 elections.”—[Official Report, European Committee B, 5 February 2014; c. 7-8.]

That widely held and critical assessment needs thorough examination for 2016.

The United States is prepared to give the Democratic Republic of Congo $30 million in aid for stability and democracy building, but only if President Joseph Kabila agrees to step down at the end of his current term of office in 2016. Secretary of State, Senator John Kerry, on touring Africa, said that the DRC Government also need to schedule elections soon. The vote is tentatively set for 2016, although a firm date has still not been set.

In a private meeting, Senator Kerry said that he urged Kabila to follow Congo’s constitution in the upcoming elections, which would prohibit him from running for a third consecutive term as President. It is not clear whether Kabila agreed to that.

As Senator Kerry stated:

“It is important to the people to be able to know what the process is, to have confidence in that process…The sooner the process is announced, the sooner that the date is set, the sooner people have an ability to be able to participate. And we believe it ought to be done in keeping with the constitutional process of the country.”

The $30 million pledge would more than double the $12 million in assistance given to the Congo last year linked to elections and stability assistance. Some of the money could go to non-governmental organisations. Last year, the total US aid to the Congo was about $210 million.

UK support to the DRC is increasing to the tune of £250 million a year, which vastly outstrips the European development fund framework, which I think is just over €700 million over a six-year period. In short, the UK’s support to the DRC is rising massively in comparison with the EU’s and the USA’s, and with hardly any of the concerns uttered by the US State Department. The lack of conditionality in the aid programme to the DRC has been pointed out by a European Court of Auditors report released in October last year on efficiency of EU aid to the DRC.

The watchdog noted that

“the effectiveness of EU assistance for governance in the DRC is limited”, and that

“Risks have not been adequately addressed, programme objectives tend to be overly ambitious…and policy dialogue has not been exploited to its full potential and adequately coordinated with EU Member States” in all areas.

The report stated that the EU needs to be

“more demanding of the Congolese authorities when monitoring compliance with the conditions agreed and the commitments made”, and that the Commission should

“(a) strengthen its use of conditionality and policy dialogue. This will involve (i) setting clear, relevant, realistic and time-bound conditions, (ii) periodically assessing compliance with the agreed conditions, and (iii) responding firmly, proportionately and in a timely manner if the DRC government shows insufficient commitment to compliance, where appropriate by suspending or terminating the programme;

(b) urge the DRC government to adopt the necessary measures for improving the functioning of the thematic working groups, and monitor the implementation of those measures;

(c) take a more active leadership role towards EU Member States to encourage coordinated policy dialogue and increase EU leverage over the DRC government.”

Those conclusions not only should be heeded by the UK Government, but must be implemented in conjunction with other EU member states and the USA.

Thirdly and finally, I want to deal with the monitoring of Congolese asylum seekers returned to the DRC and contradictions in the “Country Policy Bulletin”. The report, entitled “Unsafe Return”, documents the post-return experience of 17 Congolese men and women who were forcibly removed to the DRC from the UK between 2006 and 2011. Eleven of those were clients of Justice First, a charity that operates in the Tees Valley. The report was written to provide evidence to the Government that the DRC is not a safe country to which to return asylum seekers and to request the Government to review their decision, in the “Country of Origin Information Report” for the DRC of 2009, that it was safe for them to return. No monitoring mechanism is in place to test the UK Border Agency hypothesis that it is safe for rejected asylum seekers to be returned to the DRC. Every effort has been made, as is documented in the report, to show that all the evidence is credible.

The report’s author visited the DRC in 2011 to verify the situation of the returnees still living there. At least six returnees had fled the country, and others were found to be still living in hiding, fearful of re-arrest and unable to live with their families because of threats. Those returned consistently reported being punished in the DRC, as they had spoken out in this country about having been ill treated and the lack of human rights in the DRC, thereby betraying their country and the President.

A Congolese immigration official was interviewed in 2011. He explained that when UK immigration passed on the names of those to be removed, the files in the possession of the immigration authorities were studied. If the asylum seeker was deemed to be a problem to the state, the secret services would be alerted and the asylum seeker imprisoned or worse.

Of the number who were traced, 15 were arrested at the airport, two were arrested after leaving the airport building and transferred to Kin Mazière prison, one was arrested after leaving the British embassy in Kinshasa, three were arrested at home, one was threatened with death in Tolérance Zéro by officers and four were threatened at the airport. Congolese human rights activists and a lawyer confirmed that detainees were not given access to lawyers during their imprisonment. Returnees reported the following ill treatment in prison. One was handcuffed, blindfolded and severely beaten. Six were severely beaten. Two were given electric shock treatment. Two of the men were sexually abused. Two of the women were raped. Two of the women received slaps and blows with hands and fists.

There is much more information in the report, which I am sure the Minister is aware of; I am happy to give him a copy if he requests one. It makes me very, very angry that people who sought asylum in our country from that regime were returned. I hope that the Minister takes on board the points that I have made and that he will get back to me as soon as possible with any response.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights) 10:02 am, 13th May 2014

I congratulate Jeremy Corbyn on bringing this matter to Westminster Hall for consideration and on giving us all an opportunity to participate in the debate and to underline further some of the things that he spoke about very clearly in his presentation. It is always good for us in the House to be aware of things that are happening elsewhere in the world and to reflect that in Westminster Hall debates, but some of the information that we have as elected representatives comes through our own constituencies. That is one reason why I want to make a contribution to the debate today.

The great lakes region has been the site of more than a decade of unrest. The outflow of more than 2 million Rwandans in the wake of the 1994 genocide was an exodus of unprecedented size and swiftness. There was a debate in Parliament last week on that issue. It was raw for the Members, because some had had the opportunity to go to Rwanda and see how that country had suffered. The failure of the international community to respond effectively set in motion further cycles of conflict in the region, including the devastating war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that has involved many other countries in Africa and has claimed the lives of more than 3 million people. I can tell people trying to visualise what that means that it is the whole of the population of Northern Ireland doubled. That gives some perspective. It gives an idea of the numbers who were murdered.

Tom Blenkinsop referred to some of the issues in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Cases of police brutality against migrants have been catalogued. There have been cases involving Congolese soldiers. Some were charged with rape. Unfortunately, in that region, rape seems to be used as a weapon against women. The hon. Member for Islington North referred to that practice, and each and every one of us inside and outside this Chamber is deeply disturbed by it.

According to Mr Rupert Colville, 14 officers were acquitted. He added that the UN human rights workers on the ground were still carefully analysing the judgment, but said that in the light of what is known so far,

“the judiciary has not met the expectations of the numerous victims of rape who had fully participated in the trial.”

In the trial, women were asked for their statements and they made them. The trial that went ahead was for a mass rape that took place in 2012, but again no one has been made accountable for that. It seems that they have all been able to get away with it—or most of them have. Perhaps in his response the Minister can say whether there have been any discussions with the Democratic Republic of the Congo about the atrocities.

Elsewhere in the region, a decades-long conflict in northern Uganda has abated in intensity, but the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army has increased its activities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in the Central African Republic.

There is great concern—it is certainly a concern of mine and I believe that others are concerned as well—in relation to business. From the background notes that we have been given and from our own previous knowledge and discussions, we are aware that some western companies are very keen to push into the DRC and start drilling. We must be ever mindful of the human rights of the local people, their land ownership and their lives.

Let me quote from the notes. A recent report by Kofi Annan’s Africa Progress Panel claimed that five mining deals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo alone were sold to western firms for $1.36 billion less than they were worth, short-changing the people of the Congo. I am not against big business—far from it—but I like to see fairness and transparency and what is right, and I am afraid that in this instance those are all sadly missing. It seems that some people and some companies—not all—wish to go ahead and override the opinions of local people.

It is important that we also put this point on the record. There is some indication that the world-renowned Virunga national park, home to the rare mountain gorillas, is involved. That is something that we are probably aware of from our own interests outside the Chamber. Again, some companies have said that they will not explore for oil, but one company, SOCO, has declared that it is quite happy to pursue any of the rights for oil in those hills. Other companies—Total, the French oil giant, and Britain’s Dominion Petroleum—have said that they will certainly not do that.

It is important, when we realise that things have been undervalued and the Congolese people let down, to remember the following. Some 7 million children in the DRC lack access to education. Some 2.4 million children are acutely malnourished. Malaria, cholera and measles are a major threat due to inadequate health care, water supplies and sanitation. Roads are a mess, and electricity is scarce and expensive. Some 6.3 million people require food support. That is what is happening in the Congo. Then we see some big businesses relentlessly pursuing dividends for their people.

Photo of Eric Joyce Eric Joyce Labour, Falkirk

The hon. Gentleman is making a first-class speech, if I may say so. What he says about the requirement for transparency is absolutely true, and the UK is currently signing up to the extractive industries transparency initiative. It is fair to say that many of these deals in the past have involved middlemen who take off huge amounts of money and subsequently sell on to extractive industry companies. Perhaps the key thing for us is to ensure that the companies based in the UK adhere to the standards that we would expect them to.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I say to the Minister that there is an indication that some British companies are being morally and financially correct, but other companies are not, and those companies need to be made accountable. I think that that is the point that the hon. Gentleman was making, and I fully endorse it.

As a whole, the region continues to host more than 1 million refugees and 10 million internally displaced persons. That is a vast number—10 million internally displaced persons. One major source of those conflicts has been disputes over group and national membership. Ethnic, racial, and religious populations have been identified as illegitimate members of local communities and nations, and their exclusion has been used to legitimise individual persecution, ethnic violence, civil war and genocide. Targeted populations have been forcibly displaced from their homes, social networks and governmental protection, and they have been forced to seek refuge within their own countries and across borders.

If we look at specific countries in the region, it is clear that there is persecution against Christians. Mombasa in Kenya has been perceived as a place where there is freedom to preach and share Christianity, but some in that community have different intentions. Worthy News reported:

“Three people were injured after a mob of about 10 assailants attacked worshipers at a church in Bamburi, Mombasa last week, according to All Africa Global Media. The gang gained entry into the Bride of the Lamb International Ministries compound after they cut through an iron fence; after the assault, they fled to the adjacent Tower of Faith Church where they injured four others.

Bride of the Lamb International Ministries Chairman Michael Peter said that the attacks were intended to target the clergy.

‘This is not the first time our ministry has been attacked,’ said Peter. ‘Over the past few weeks we have had attacks on our churches across the country including our residence here.’

Peter said the ministry had reported the attacks numerous times to the Bamburi police station, but to date no action has been taken.”

That report describes attacks specifically on a religious minority group, namely Christians in Kenya. I will mention a couple of other countries as well, to highlight the problems that we face.

In Zanzibar, Tanzania, there was serious violence driven by—excuse my Northern Ireland accent—“Vugu vugu la uamsho”, the Revival Movement for the Preservation of Islam, which claimed to be wiping out all Christians from the Zanzibar archipelago, mainly Zanzibar Island. Churches were burnt, church property was looted and Christians, especially Church leaders, were threatened with death. The Zanzibar archipelago is the scene of serious hostilities against Christians, not only on the islands but on mainland Tanzania. Many of us would not imagine that there would be any problems in Tanzania, but there certainly are. We must highlight the problems during this debate, and I hope that the Minister will give us some idea of what our Government can do about them.

In Tanzania, there are strong Islamic militant groups that often persecute Christians heavily. On mainland Tanzania, the push for the further spread of Islam is less violent but equally persistent. Part of that push is happening through the constitutional review process and the strategic infiltration of main sectors of society. Such groups are putting people in society so that they can directly influence what happens and impact on those of a Christian faith. If the push for secession succeeds, the presence of the Church on Zanzibar and Pemba Island is likely to be reduced to nearly zero. That cannot be allowed to happen, and I hope that the Minister can give us some answers.

The frantic moves of Islamists in mainland Tanzania will continue. For the Church, that means that difficult times are likely to be ahead. Kenya and Tanzania are just two of the nations in the region in which Christians are experiencing increasing persecution. I recently spoke to a constituent who is a member of a local Church of Ireland congregation in Newtownards, one of the main towns in my constituency, who told me how the lives of two of their missionaries in Tanzania were being made more difficult every day. That is a contribution from some of those I represent, who are telling me what is happening on the ground.

The fact is that although many of the nations we are discussing are Christian on paper, the Government are not supporting those ideals or dealing with the persecution against Christians. There seems to be a somewhat lackadaisical attitude to the incidents that have occurred, and it is time that our Government asked the Governments in those countries to stand up against such actions. That is where we, in this Chamber, must come in. We must speak up for those in the region who are being persecuted, we must stand up for the two missionaries I have mentioned who are linked to that church in my constituency, and we must apply pressure to the Government to do what is right. That can be done in numerous ways, such as through embassies, through the fair distribution of international aid—I am aware of examples of international aid being directed away from Christian religious groups because of their beliefs—and by applying pressure at all levels to ensure that Governments realise that, although we seek to help them and their populations, we cannot and will not do so while closing our eyes to the plight of people whose only crime is to follow Jesus.

I support the hon. Member for Islington North in this debate, and I ask the Minister again what is being done to combat the problems and what the Government will pledge to do from this day forward. My constituents are deeply interested in the matter, and I know that I am not the only MP who has an interest in it. Let us use any influence that we wield for the good of the people in the great lakes region—and, indeed, throughout the world.

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw 10:15 am, 13th May 2014

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for the debate. I want to make four points. First, briefly, the Prime Minister in government has been keen to emphasise the Christian nature of the country and the Government. I had the opportunity, with the Bishop of Durham, other Church leaders and some parliamentarians, with the assistance of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, to visit the great lakes last summer. We were hosted by local Church leaders in Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

The role of the Church, post-conflict—and, more critically, post-border—in reconstruction is one that the Government, in their international development and foreign affairs work, must build on. I will come on to Burundi in my fourth point, but there and in Rwanda we see Church leaders, from different ethnic minorities in each country, working alongside communities that have been in conflict in different and tragic ways more or less ever since independence. Whether we wish it or not, a critical element of our role is to assist in bringing together the Churches to work on the problems in the region. There are a variety of Churches; the Catholic Church is hosting a meeting today, and the Church of England has got a particular role in relation to the problems we are discussing, which I hope that the Government will capitalise on. The Church of England—not least in Nottingham and Nottinghamshire—has done an immense amount of work over many years to build links across the great lakes, not least in Burundi.

Secondly, I want to talk about the group that nobody seems to be dealing with, namely the Twa community. The Department for International Development, wrongly, does nothing about them; it has done nothing about them for many years, so that is a criticism not merely of any changes made by this Government, but of the continuing lack of priority given to the group. That community of former forest dwellers across the great lakes is small in number now. It was once great in number, but its members were murdered in greater numbers than anyone else under Belgian colonial rule; vast numbers of the Twa were murdered over the past century. Those who remain in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi are the most impoverished of the poor. They are the most disfranchised and the least represented. Having been removed from the forest for the benefits of nature conservation and western tourists—

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

—and business, they have incredible levels of inter-communal violence, particularly sexual violence and rape, and they are struggling to cope with life outside the forest.

It is not for me to come up with or even to suggest solutions, other than to say that without question, DFID ought to give proper priority to projects working with the Twa, not least those that develop youth leadership and potential community leadership. There is some exciting church-led work in that area, which is creating new leaders for the future. That is vital if the Twa are to continue to exist and not disappear in what I would describe, I think accurately, as an assisted genocide—a genocide assisted by the inaction of everyone, both inside and outside the country. We share some responsibility for that. With our proud history of international development, such projects ought to be the kind of thing we are good at. It is rather shameful that over the past decade we have done nothing about the Twa in those countries.

Thirdly, other Members have already raised the attempts by SOCO, a UK-based oil exploration company, to plunder the reserves in the Virunga national park. I would make two points. I do not wish to be trite, but it is a fact that there are more parliamentarians in Britain than mountain gorillas in the wild. If we balloted our constituents on which they would like to preserve for the future, I suspect that parliamentarians would lose out, and lose out heavily. We have a responsibility to future generations. It must be cost-effective to preserve wildlife. There may well be roles for the Twa to play in that, for their economic livelihoods. After all, they are removed from the forest to allow tourists to visit the mountain gorillas and bring in hard currency.

The point is more fundamental than that for human beings. The national parks in the great lakes region are the natural borders and boundaries that, more than anything else, will preserve nation states and restrict cross-border conflicts. The Akagera national park between Rwanda and Tanzania is being rebuilt. It has an horrendous history from the genocide, but, as well as having income-generating potential for the country, it serves as a natural brake on cross-border issues. The Volcans national park in the north-west corner of Rwanda, the Virunga and others serve a similar purpose. The preservation of such natural borders and the wildlife they contain is therefore ethically right and economically sensible for the long term—for tourism and livelihoods in 50, 100 or 150 years, not just the profits for SOCO or whatever in the next 10 or 20 years. Such preservation is critical to these countries’ competitive advantage, but also to minimising conflict now and in future. That should be seen as part of our foreign policy and international development work, and be given much higher strategic priority.

Fourthly and finally, I want to make a slightly longer point about Burundi, which is 178th out of the 187 countries assessed by the UN for poverty; it is not the poorest, but it is virtually the poorest country in the world. The UN says that Burundi is likely to achieve one out of the 18 millennium development goals. That is beyond the scale of most countries. For a post-conflict country with such a level of poverty to go without support from this country—here I will criticise this Government—is, whatever the reason, a mistake that must be reversed by whoever is in power after 2015. We must stop our lack of engagement with Burundi on international development.

I know that the Minister is a good man and a good Minister, in my experience. I do not normally give even the most modest praise to Tories, but he is a good man and has been, in my view, a good Minister. As he has been to Burundi, I would like to hear about his experience; perhaps he might like to give us his recommendations about how the Government should relate to that country, because it is applying for Commonwealth status. I hope that the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association will engage with Burundi on not just a parliamentary but an official level, and on a more intense basis. We should be in there, assisting a country that is increasingly looking to the English language, to the Commonwealth—not least because of the trade links with east Africa—and to us. There is a lot that we can offer.

Many criticisms can rightly be levelled at Burundi. It is not exactly a pluralistic democracy of the highest calibre. Currently, there is not the freedom of media and on-governmental organisations that we would want and expect. However, Burundi has had the most successful repatriation of displaced people in recorded history. More than 1 million refugees have returned, without civil war breaking out, and reintegrated into one of the world’s poorest economies. Although there have been, and remain, issues of land disputes and so on, on balance the process has been incredibly successful compared with any other such mass movement of people back into a country after they had been driven out by civil war. Many second-generation Burundians were born in Tanzania but have returned to their historic roots, sometimes with elderly family, sometimes without. That has been handled extraordinarily well. We should praise them for that, but we should also be in there with them.

The people of Burundi have recovered from what was an almost hidden war, certainly in terms in the western media, in which as many people were killed as in Rwanda, over a longer period and with some of the same ethnic conflict bases. If any of that had ever been reported by the western media, people in this country would have been jumping up and down. But it was a secret civil war in a country that no one had ever heard of and that very few people across the world and in Britain have heard of. Yet Burundi has come out of that conflict, so we should be there using our great expertise in pluralist democracy and in building up civil society and its institutions. We have expertise in how the Churches can contribute to that process, because they—not least the Church of England—already play a significant part in what is happening in Burundi, and I would say a positive one.

There are many reasons why modest investment by DFID and better engagement—including by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—would pay great dividends for us, for Burundi and for the great lakes region. I hope that the Minister will give some encouraging signs that this country will re-engage. If this Government do not, I want to put on the record for whoever is in power after 2015 the fact that this demand will not go away. We should re-engage, DFID should re-engage, and our diplomatic staff should be in Burundi, representing us and assisting the country.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury) 10:29 am, 13th May 2014

I am delighted to contribute to this debate, which was introduced by Jeremy Corbyn. I do not want to cover the same points that other Members have articulated so well, but I would like to make a few observations.

It is good that we have had a debate focusing on human rights across the great lakes region as a whole rather than looking only at specific countries. When we look at the great lakes region, and hear from many of the people trying to grapple with the human rights issues and to build towards peace and reconciliation in a sustainable way right across the region, we have to be conscious of what John Hume—who is from my part of the world—used to talk about, which is the framework of the problem being the framework of the solution, and to emphasise that if we are to solve conflicts we need to look at the totality of relationships and affirm the primacy of rights. Whether we look at the great lakes region on a country-specific basis or at how the conflicts there enmesh and affect each other, we see the importance of those aspects. It is important that the hon. Member for Islington North has focused so heavily on the human rights dimension in the region.

There have been other debates on countries in this region, including the debate in the Chamber last week on Rwanda, which Jim Shannon referred to. Sometimes there is an understandable inclination for people here to look at what is happening in particular countries, at what particular regimes have done and at the progress that has been made in various transitions, and basically ask, “Do people pass the good egg test?” If they do, it is felt that we should not raise too many of the other concerns that exist. We hear that sometimes in relation to Rwanda and some of the other countries in the region, where people are trying to encourage progress and to recognise, support and uphold some of the positive developments that have taken place. However, at times people seem more relaxed or even complacent about the serious human rights issues that exist in a number of different regimes.

It is also important to reflect, as we have done so already in this debate, that we must listen not only to the political voices from these countries but to the voices of human rights activists, of disparate civil society and indeed of pastoral leadership, right across the churches in these different countries. Those pastoral leaders are basically saying that there are standards and networks that could be asserted and built up, and they are asking the international community and the diplomatic community to reinforce their efforts. They also try to give the international community and the diplomatic community a context. Earlier, I referred to the request that has come from the episcopal conference in the Congo for an international conference on the extractive industries, which could create a context for dealing with quite a number of the issues we have discussed, including on a cross-border basis, and doing so to a full regional standard that deals with land rights, labour rights and all the issues of governance, while also promoting a strong anti-corruption agenda.

John Mann asked some questions about Burundi, and he talked about the progress that has taken place there. Of course, in Burundi there is a real danger of regression, which is why I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is regrettable that the Department for International Development took the decision about Burundi that it did some time ago, because it basically sent the signal that Burundi was in the “done” box and that everything there is okay, when it is quite clear that things in Burundi are teetering in a dangerous way. After her recent visit to Burundi, Samantha Power said:

“If you take a political crisis on the one hand and combine it with armaments on the other, those are precisely the ingredients for the kind of violence Burundi has managed to avoid now for a good few years”.

As the hon. Gentleman has said, the Minister who is here in Westminster Hall today was also in Burundi recently, and it would be interesting to hear him address that particular situation in the country.

Regarding Rwanda, the US State Department has at least moved now to being quite clear about its concern regarding the number of murders that have taken place of prominent Rwandan exiles, which appear to have been politically motivated. The US has also focused on human rights problems in the country, including the targeting of political opponents and human rights activists. There are questions to be asked about the rule of law, the security forces, the judiciary and the restrictions on civil liberties. At least it appears that some clarity is starting to emerge within the US Government in relation to some of these concerns. However, it is not clear that the same clarity is emerging within the UK Government.

In relation to Congo, I can understand that as we see the situation there changing, with the M23 receding, people now think that there is a more benign situation there. In the absence of the M23, however, what we are seeing in parts of eastern Congo is, of course, all sorts of disparate paramilitary elements breaking out there. At one level, those elements are too small to be of any real threat to the Kinshasa Government, but at another level they are visiting absolute havoc on the people in those areas. In terms of human rights concerns, those groups should be as big a concern to us as if we were talking about one single coherent paramilitary entity.

It is also important to recognise that at times there appears to be impotence and indifference in relation to the Congolese Government as far as diplomatic interests are concerned. For example, going back to some of the issues that were raised earlier about Congo and the issue of conditionality of aid—the recent EU report was cited—a question arises: is there really any conditionality attached to aid in the Congo whatsoever? When he replies to the debate, can the Minister tell us whether the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or DFID have any set of requirements regarding any change that they want to see the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Government implement. We hear the language about efforts “on increased donor co-ordination”, but what does that mean? What are the standards that apply, and what is the purpose of and what are the targets for those so-called efforts, and where are they getting to? Is a clear message being given to the Government of the DRC and, if so, is that message being taken?

In a recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine, Jason Stearns summed up what we know is the difficulty and the dilemma for the international community as it tries to have a positive influence in a situation such as that in Congo. He talked about the difficulty of

“the dueling imperatives of maintaining good relations with the government in Kinshasa and pushing back on issues of governance and human rights.”

He added that in those circumstances it was difficult to see the “political clout” being mustered that would

“coordinate policy, impose conditions on aid, and hold the Congolese government accountable.”

That is an authoritative observation and I hope that the Minister will assure us, when he responds to the debate, that there are some more positive aspects and that some more active good is being done by the international community, particularly by the UK Government.

Photo of Ian Lucas Ian Lucas Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 10:38 am, 13th May 2014

Thank you, Mr Howarth, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to speak in a debate chaired by you.

I thank all Members who have participated in what has been—almost by definition—a wide-ranging debate concerning a hugely important but under-addressed issue. It is under-addressed not only in the House of Commons but in the UK as a whole.

First, I thank my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn for his wide-ranging introduction to the historic context of this region, which is so important. We need to be involved with and to participate in the process of trying to achieve progress in the region, not only because we are of humankind but because we have a historic responsibility in the region, and we need to address the deficiencies of the past in order to make progress in the future.

The issues that have been raised during this debate include the importance of considering the fact that this region is one of the richest areas on the planet in terms of the extractive industries but the people who live in the region do not see the benefit of those industries. It is vital to put right at the top of the priority list the importance of good governance, because good governance is a precondition of being able to make progress in the region.

In certain areas of the region, such as Rwanda, we have seen progress on material wealth. Anyone here who has visited Rwanda will have seen the progress on infrastructure and the Government’s capacity to deliver to the people of Rwanda in practical terms.

We have also heard concerns today, including from my hon. Friend, that the Rwandan Government are not allowing the development of an effective Opposition within a pluralistic democracy in the way that we would like. That is a common concern. Last week I participated in a debate commemorating the genocide in Rwanda, and the progress that has been made in Rwanda is extraordinary, but one sometimes wishes that some of the language used by Rwandan politicians and those who speak for Rwanda was more measured when we hear of deaths occurring in other parts of the world. Now that Rwanda is in the Commonwealth, it has accepted the importance of a pluralistic democracy, which Members here would like to see. We would like the Rwandan Government to take that on board much more.

My hon. Friend Tom Blenkinsop spoke with great authority on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and he obviously did a great deal of work to prepare for this debate. Shortly after I took on the Africa brief, I visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo in November 2011 when the last elections occurred. I was struck by the people’s massive enthusiasm to vote in those elections. I was in Kinshasa, and the election I saw was in some difficulty because of the electorate’s intense passion to vote. We might be encouraging some of our electorate to take steps towards a polling station over the next few days, but in the Democratic Republic of the Congo no such exhortation was needed. The difficulty within the Democratic Republic of the Congo is that the elections delivered in 2011 are not widely accepted as credible, which has been a block to progress. As we progress towards 2016, what steps are being taken to ensure that belief in the system, which was not there in 2011, can be secured by 2016? In 2011 the electoral authority, CENI, was widely discredited, and it is important that the Democratic Republic of the Congo has a Government in which it can believe by 2016.

We then heard about the conditionality of aid, which is another issue that kept cropping up. Good governance in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is important because this has been a difficult period. I was in the country about a year ago when there were intense problems relating to eastern Congo and the activities of the M23. Some progress has been made since then, and I commend not only the UK Government but the Minister personally for his hard work. What is his current assessment of the progress of the development of governance in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Now that there is less pressure and immediate violence in eastern Congo, what is the current position?

I am also interested in what my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland had to say about returning asylum seekers and his worrying accounts of the way they have been treated. I support what he said about investigating those cases and seeing what is actually being done to address the appalling conduct of the security forces, as it seems, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

My hon. Friend Jim Shannon—if I may call him my hon. Friend—spoke eloquently about the importance of human rights in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He also referred to the extractive industries and the importance of the churches in the region. On my first visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2011 I was privileged to leave Kinshasa, which in my experience is not the most attractive city on the planet, to go south to Bas-Congo to visit the region’s idyllic Salvation Army church. Every day, churches are carrying out intensive work on behalf of the region’s people. The churches have a positive role, which the UK Government recognise, but they need to recognise that role more often because people work extremely hard to carry matters forward.

My hon. Friend John Mann spoke eloquently about Burundi, for which I am glad. I think the Minister went there recently.

Photo of Ian Lucas Ian Lucas Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I am sure that will please my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw, and I hope we can hear about it from the Minister.

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

It would please me even more to hear that the Labour Front-Bench spokesman will commit to the UK re-engaging the Department for International Development in Burundi when we are in power.

Photo of Ian Lucas Ian Lucas Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My hon. Friend set out Burundi’s position on the index, which concerns me deeply. There is a real issue with the UK’s engagement and development of relationships with smaller countries in Africa. Some of the decisions that we made before 2010 relating to withdrawal from smaller countries should be revisited. I have taken on board what he says. I have a particular interest in smaller countries in Africa that leads me in the same direction.

My hon. Friend Mark Durkan has again brought his substantial experience of African issues to bear. He stressed that the primacy of rights is important and is linked to the essential question of governance. It is about the capacity of countries in the region to deliver rights for their citizens and good governance that improves lives. As we speak, there is a great deal of intense work in the region. I mentioned earlier the progress that has been made in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda through the peace, security and co-operation framework, which led to intense international activity. I commend Mary Robinson’s work in the region. I would like to hear about the UK Government’s position on what is happening there at present. What more needs to be done? What are the UK Government’s priorities?

The extractive industries are important, and we had an excellent suggestion for holding a conference to try to impose a structure to deliver better governance and to emphasise the obligations of international companies to work with Governments in the region to ensure that the people of the countries concerned benefit.

The Government have done excellent work on sexual violence, but worrying concerns have been raised about the acquittals of officers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. What is the Government’s assessment of the effectiveness of the procedures that are in place to address sexual violence in the region? What steps are the Government taking in response to those concerns? Will the Minister also update us on efforts to integrate the preventing sexual violence in conflict imitative in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and throughout the great lakes region?

This has been a wide-ranging debate on a massive topic for a massive region with huge problems. I thank all of the participants, and I look forward to the Minister’s response to the points raised by me and my colleagues.

Photo of Mark Simmonds Mark Simmonds The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 10:49 am, 13th May 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Howarth. I particularly congratulate Jeremy Corbyn on securing this important debate and on the knowledgeable and detailed way in which he set out many of the challenges across the great lakes region. I know that he has a particular passion and interest in the important area of human rights, and that came over strongly in his contribution.

The hon. Gentleman neatly set out the challenges of the region. He highlighted the extensive suffering, both historic and, sadly, more recent, in the DRC and elsewhere in the region; the appalling atrocities, particularly those that relate to rape being used as a weapon of conflict; the significant challenges around the illicit use of extractives; the important issue of Virunga national park; and the challenge of the failed asylum seekers. He also mentioned Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. He packed a tremendous amount into his contribution.

If I may, I will try to respond specifically to the points that all Members made. It has been an excellent debate and all the contributions have been significant, powerful and articulate. That demonstrates the great knowledge that exists across the House in these important areas and our ongoing interest, as parliamentarians in the UK, in doing everything we can to improve the lives of those who live in the great lakes region.

It might be an obvious point to make, but we are talking about vast geographical areas, which create part of the challenge. The DRC alone is approximately the size of western Europe. That is why it is important that we continue with our development assistance to help lift people in the great lakes region out of poverty and that we support the work of improving political and human rights situations on the ground.

The hon. Member for Islington North rightly raised the issue of conflict minerals. The OECD’s “Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas” includes specific guidance on gold, tin, tungsten and tantalum, all of which are used in consumer electronics. We encourage and expect UK businesses to respect all laws and the voluntary principles. The United Kingdom is chair of the voluntary principles on security and human rights, which are designed to guide companies in maintaining the safety and security of their operations in a framework that encourages respect for human rights. I am the Minister responsible and I am encouraging our team, as part of our chairmanship, to persuade more companies and more countries, both in the region and internationally, to participate in the voluntary principles.

It is important that the DRC should be committed to improving openness and the accountable management of resources. We encourage the DRC to pursue its EITI accreditation and believe that that is important. I met with President Kabila and Prime Minister Matata in February this year. During my visit to Kinshasa, I reiterated our view that it is important that the DRC retains its candidature status. That will ensure that the DRC and its people get full benefit from the mineral wealth of the country and maintain investor confidence. That idea is a main driver behind our Prime Minister’s G8 agenda of tax, trade and transparency, which could play an important role in ensuring a fair balance between the return on capital invested and people in the DRC benefiting significantly from the minerals in their country.

The hon. Members for Islington North, for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Bassetlaw (John Mann) raised the issue of Virunga national park. I want all Members to understand that the UK continues to oppose oil exploration in Virunga national park. Many of the points that the hon. Gentlemen made were absolutely right. We urge the companies to act appropriately and the DRC Government to respect the international conventions to which it is already a signatory. We are committed to supporting UK companies in the great lakes. Investment needs to be responsible and sustainable.

I reassure the hon. Gentlemen that I have lobbied in the DRC, making clear the UK Government’s position verbally and in writing.

The hon. Members for Islington North and for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) rightly mentioned the issue of failed asylum seekers returning to the DRC. We need to acknowledge that the UK has a proud history of helping those who need to escape persecution to access the UK. Each application, however, is judged on its individual merits, and any decision to refuse asylum is made on the basis that it is safe for someone to return to their country of origin. All Members will be aware that the courts have ruled that failed asylum seekers who are returned to the DRC are not at risk of treatment contrary to article 3 of the European convention on human rights. I would be grateful if the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland sent me the report to which he referred.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the importance of elections in the DRC. When I met President Kabila in February, I encouraged him to draw up a clear electoral timetable to cover the period from now until 2016. We continue to work closely with the DRC Government, the UN and international partners as those plans develop. Progress needs to be made on the outstanding recommendations of the EU election observation report to which the hon. Gentleman referred. We encourage the Congolese Government to implement those recommendations. To respond to the shadow Minister’s point, I should say that in November last year I met with the head of the Congolese electoral commission and encouraged the full implementation of the reforms. We offered our support on that.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Will the Minister be talking to the UN and MONUSCO about how they behave, what they will do during the elections and what support they can give the electoral process?

Photo of Mark Simmonds Mark Simmonds The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I assure the hon. Gentleman that those conversations not only will take place, but have started already. When I was last in Goma, I met Martin Kobler and we discussed the security situation, the broader political situation and the role that Church groups and others can play in building security and stability.

There are several points that I want to make quickly in the time I have left. The first is on the donor co-ordination of development spending. DFID leads donor co-ordination in the DRC and is working closely with the Government, MONUSCO and other donors to ensure that our development assistance can best help the people in the region out of poverty. We have significant accountability mechanisms in place. The UK is one of the largest donors to the DRC. DFID supports inclusive institutions, the empowering of citizens and the holding of service providers to account. Support to the DRC is based on DFID’s partnership principles, of which hon. Members will be aware.

A number of Members touched on the appalling levels of sexual violence. Tackling that is a significant priority of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with the preventing sexual violence initiative. We are holding a conference in June. I am delighted that the Democratic Republic of Congo is a signatory to that initiative and wants to be a key participant in the conference. I went to Goma with the Archbishop of Canterbury, where I visited some of the victims of these appalling events. I reiterate my thanks to faith groups and recognise the significant contribution they make and continue to make in tackling sexual violence and in building capacity and rehabilitation for those who have suffered sexual violence.

Our role is not just bilateral, but multilateral, through important organisations such as the UN Human Rights Council. The hon. Member for Strangford rightly raised the persecution of Christians, and we share his concerns about the rising tide of violence against Christians in middle east Africa and the north of Africa. On Tanzania, there is an impressive record of peace and stability, although we are concerned about the violence that led to the death of the priest in Zanzibar, which he mentioned. Alongside our EU partners, we have urged that the highest levels of the authorities investigate that.

I want to touch on Burundi, which a number of Members raised as a particular concern, especially the hon. Member for Bassetlaw. We give aid to Burundi; we contribute 15% of EU funding and 30% of World Bank funding to the country. There will be significant sums of money in the next three or four-year period through the EU loan, and Burundi is targeted to get more than €400 million. We are, however, concerned about the country. That is one of the reasons why I visited. I was the first Foreign Office Minister to go to Burundi for many, many decades. I discussed some of the existing challenges with the President. We are committed to reducing poverty and supporting human rights and free, fair and credible elections while building the capacity of civil society, and there are concerns in Burundi about political tensions and the closure of political space.

In the time I have left, I want to reassure all hon. Members that the UK Government will keep the great lakes region at the forefront of our priorities, play our role bilaterally and through multilateral institutions and support the UN deployment in the eastern part of the DRC as well as the wider peace and security framework.