Debate on Congo

Subject: “To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the conflict in the eastern Congo.”

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, for introducing this important debate. The unrest in eastern Congo is a chronicle of yet another region in Africa that has the mineral and agricultural wealth to be self-reliant but has never been able to achieve lasting peace.

The conflict in the region is about cultural identity and intolerance. It has resulted in a humanitarian crisis in which millions of internally displaced persons have been forced to leave their homes and innocent civilians are living in constant fear for their lives. The lawlessness in the region is indicative of a country where state institutions that should uphold law and order are desperately ineffective. Corruption permeates all levels of authority. The failure of the Amani peace programme to initiate a strategy for peace in North Kivu illustrates the importance of properly functioning state institutions to any regional initiative.

The militia are violating women as a means of exerting control, humiliation and submission. The abuses in this region are said to account for the majority of the work carried out by international aid organisations. The main culprits in this violent crime are the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda-FDLR-the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, or FARDC, who perpetrate more than 90 per cent of the sexual abuses in eastern Congo. They are violating women, young girls and infants as young as three years of age. The level of brutality is alarming and leaves victims with physical and psychological wounds. There is a stigma attached to rape which results in many victims being ostracised from mainstream society in several parts of the region. The majority of victims are therefore reluctant to report their abuse for fear of rejection by their communities.

The militia groups in the region are a persistent danger to all citizens, but especially to women and children in eastern Congo. I strongly welcome the decision taken by the UN Security Council to improve the strategy among its forces in the region to protect citizens from militant attacks. Reports suggest that a significant number of abuses perpetrated against vulnerable citizens in the Congo are not being reported. What recent reports has the Minister received from the Congolese Government concerning the safety of women and children in eastern Congo?

Militia groups are still recruiting child soldiers in alarming numbers. The families of these children are often killed on the spot if they attempt to resist the advances of militants. The Congolese Government adopted the law on the protection of the child, but the departments that have been tasked with implementing the law and upholding the rights of children are ineffective. Children in eastern Congo are born into disadvantage, as deprivation and abuse are commonplace. The UK Government and their international partners must exert greater pressure on the Congolese Government to protect and uphold the rights of infants and young citizens as a matter of urgency.

The UK was criticised in a recent United Nations Group of Experts report on the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo for failing to provide information about telephone calls made to UK numbers from Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda military satellite phones and for failing to provide information about payments made to the FDLR website, a point also made by the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey. It is clear that the Rwandan rebels are using these funds to co-ordinate and manage their activities in the region. What steps are the Government taking, along with their European partners, to apprehend and arrest FDLR leaders and supporters who are living in the United Kingdom?

The lawyer of Laurent Nkunda has recently stated that the former leader of the National Congress for the Defence of the People, or CNDP, is prepared to face trial for alleged war crimes or go into exile as a means of ending his detention without charge in Rwanda. The UN has accused Nkunda and the CNDP of crimes ranging from recruiting child soldiers to sexual violence during his leadership. As the biggest donor to the DRC and the second largest to Rwanda, what plans do Her Majesty’s Government have to act on this recent development?

The situation in eastern Congo is an immense tragedy. General elections are to be held next year in the DRC in the absence of United Nations observers. This is of great concern, since corruption and violence are rife. I would like to see the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region take a more substantial role in bringing stability to eastern Congo. Failure to make an impact will result in many citizens fleeing across the border to Rwanda, which is already Africa’s most densely populated nation. The absence of a strong state is the main barrier to peace in the region. The Government and institutions are seen as being remote by the vast majority of citizens, who, as a result, often turn to the militants for protection and survival. A lasting solution to the conflict in eastern Congo will not be achieved without reforming the security sector and installing a properly functioning judiciary.

Finally, eastern Congo’s mineral wealth continues to play a vital role in sustaining the activities of militant groups. Recent reports have shown a direct link between British companies and minerals obtained from mines that are controlled by militias in the region. The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, referred to this in his speech. This evidence suggests that the UK is in breach of the UN Security Council resolution that states that countries must provide details of organisations that are purchasing minerals from militant groups in eastern Congo. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell the Committee what steps Her Majesty’s Government will take to ensure that this information is given to the UN sanctions committee in the near future.