HC Deb 27 November 1996 vol 286 cc318-20
2. Mr. Llwyd

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what discussions he has had with the Government of Zaire to alleviate the current situation in Zaire; and if he will make a statement. [4586]

3. Mr. Turner

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on recent developments in Zaire. [4587]

Mr. Rifkind

I met Prime Minister Kengo of Zaire on 22 October and our ambassador to Zaire is in regular contact with the Government there. We welcome the return of many refugees from Zaire to Rwanda and will continue to work closely with all Governments in the region, the United Nations and other interested parties in seeking lasting solutions to the problems of the region.

Mr. Llwyd

I thank the Foreign Secretary for that reply. I am sure that he will be aware that there is still a desperate humanitarian problem in many parts of Zaire and a pressing need for a political settlement in the great lakes region. What measures does he believe that the international community can take to ensure that humanitarian organisations, which do an excellent job in extremely difficult circumstances, are assisted in targeting the aid to reach the most needy?

Mr. Rifkind

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the objective must be to assist in a humanitarian way those who face the possibility of starvation or great suffering in Zaire. On 20 November the United Kingdom announced further aid of about £10 million. Indeed, after the United States we have made the largest response in terms of aid to people in Zaire.

I believe that we also need much more effective co-ordination in the international community. Much of the problem is in the innermost parts of Zaire, and we simply do not have the information as to its scale. A Royal Air Force Canberra aircraft is carrying out reconnaissance work which we hope will provide some of that necessary information.

Mr. Turner

I, too, welcome the Foreign Secretary's statement, but may I press him a little on the subject of the refugees returning to Rwanda? What do the Government propose to do, especially about adequate housing? Hundreds of thousands are returning from eastern Zaire and a catastrophe is taking place. I should like to think that our Government were doing something positive about providing housing.

Mr. Rifkind

As the hon. Gentleman said, approximately 400,000 to 500,000 Rwandan refugees have returned to Rwanda. That poses a major challenge both for the Rwandan Government and for the international aid agencies. We are co-operating closely with those agencies and, as I said earlier, we have announced extra financial help. I am sure that help will also come from other sources. We stand ready to be a party to any improved co-ordination that is required to ensure that the large sums available for the provision of food, medical aid and shelter get to the people who need them.

Sir Sydney Chapman

Can my right hon. and learned Friend give the House any more up-to-date information about the situation in the area south of Lake Kivu? On the very welcome announcement—albeit only a week ago—of an additional £10 million for humanitarian aid, can he tell the House when that aid equivalent will be distributed, if part of it has not already been distributed, and will he bear in mind the urgency of getting it to the recipients as soon as possible?

Mr. Rifkind

Yes. I should emphasise that the £10 million is in addition to the large sums of aid previously given. Since 1993, both directly and through its contributions to the European Union, the United Kingdom has given about £140 million for humanitarian aid in the great lakes region.

On the situation in south Kivu, one of our military personnel visited Bukavu and we understand that the town is relatively quiet. There is no concentration of refugees there, but there are thought to be substantial numbers of people of Rwandan origin further inland. What is not known is either their physical condition or whether they want to return to Rwandan or prefer, for their own reasons, to remain in Zaire. We hope gradually to piece together such information as it becomes available through reconnaissance and other means.


With the recent apparent easing of the refugee crisis, would it be sensible to send troops in? Should we not be careful before committing troops in a complicated civil war from which it might be difficult to extricate them?

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend raises important points. There is no obvious military rationale for an international military force either in Rwanda or in Goma, from where the refugees have largely departed. More uncertain is south Kivu and inland Zaire, where there is an absence of the sort of information that one would require to know what the mandate and purpose of a military force might be. We are very proactive in this respect.

As I have said, a Royal Air Force Canberra aircraft is providing invaluable information. We are co-ordinating closely with other countries. There is discussion on whether there is a continuing need for a multinational force. While we do not rule it out, the case for it has been transformed by developments in the Goma area in the past 10 days. It is difficult at present to identify the purpose of such a force, but we cannot rule out the situation changing again, as it has done in recent times.

Mr. Ernie Ross

As the Foreign Secretary knows, in September 1994 the World Service started broadcasting to the region in Kinyarwanda and Kirundi, giving messages of instruction to the refugees and linking families who had been separated by the crisis. In welcoming that, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman note that, when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees asked refugees how they found out where to go, they said that they regarded the World Service as the prime source of reliable news? Does the Foreign Secretary welcome the fact that, as a result, the UNHCR has given a contract to the World Service to extend its service to 30 minutes from December, and is that not one reason why the Chancellor was right to make up the World Service's funding shortfall?

Mr. Rifkind

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments, including his final sentence. The BBC World Service was good enough to issue a statement yesterday congratulating the Government, and the Foreign Office in particular, on their support for the service, and confirming that the allocation to be provided meets its requirements.

Miss Emma Nicholson

The Foreign Secretary has rightly said several times that the free flow of accurate, unbiased information has been instrumental in guiding humanitarian aid to the right places and in ensuring that returning refugees knew that it was safe to go home and that they would be assisted in settling back in their villages. How, therefore, can he continue to support Britain's withdrawal from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, which is playing such a crucial role?

Mr. Rifkind

I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Lady about the crucial role that she says UNESCO is playing. I do not want to enter the wider discussion about UNESCO, but the information that I have given the House demonstrates that our non-membership of UNESCO is in no way inhibiting, preventing or limiting our ability to assist in the humanitarian crisis. The United Kingdom is providing more help than most and can hold its head up high; it does not need membership of UNESCO in order to provide help for the starving in Zaire.

Mr. Robin Cook

The Foreign Secretary knows that many hon. Members are concerned that a British company has been implicated in the supply of arms to the Hutu militia, both at the time of the genocide in Rwanda and while they were terrorising the UN camps. Can he confirm today's reports that the Isle of Man was not instructed by the Home Office to make its law consistent with the UN embargo? Will he at least express regret at that omission and accept that it is especially embarrassing for Britain, which, as a member of the Security Council, might have been expected to be particularly vigilant in enforcing a UN embargo?

Mr. Rifkind

On the allegations about a company registered in the Isle of Man, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, Customs and Excise is investigating whether there has been a breach of the law which might require a prosecution. In addition, as I have said—and as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is well aware—one of our interdepartmental committees has been asked to look at the precise allegations that have been made. I expect a report in the next few weeks. The time to comment will be when we know the facts, as opposed to press speculation.

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