HL Deb 20 October 1998 vol 593 cc1307-10

2.45 p.m.

Lord Judd asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking bilaterally and multilaterally, including action through the European Union, the Commonwealth and the United Nations Security Council, to promote political solidarity to the problems of the Democratic Republic of Congo and to prevent the escalation of instability and conflict across the region and the African continent.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, Britain is working hard for peace. We are actively encouraging all the states involved in the fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo to pursue a negotiated settlement. We have made clear that there can be no military solution. Only a process of dialogue and negotiation can bring about a settlement that will last. We are also taking action with our European Union partners and in the United Nations Security Council to promote a peaceful solution.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it was highly significant when the Prime Minister said at the UN in New York last month that there are few higher priorities than bringing peace to the Great Lakes region? Does she agree that apart from promoting the kind of approach which she has constructively suggested, if peace is to be brought it is absolutely essential to work at an economic programme for the region which makes use of the immense mineral resources in the interests of the people of the region as a whole? Meanwhile with 14 nations involved, thousands of refugees, ethnic cleansing and indiscriminate killing, are we encouraging and supporting Dr. Kofi Annan as the first African Secretary General of the UN to use all his authority and good standing to try to promote the solution which my noble friend has outlined?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, of course I can agree that bringing peace to the Great Lakes region is an important priority. We support the initiatives of the Southern African Development Community and the Organisation of African Unity for a peaceful solution. We have encouraged them to use all their influence and, of course, through our chairmanship of the Security Council this month, we are actively encouraging the discussions between the Secretary General and other council members to find concrete ways in which the UN can support a regional peace initiative. In our view it is vitally important that there is regional backing for any solution to this grave problem.

The noble Lord also raises the question of the immense resources of the area. We believe it is important that there should be a future programme in the area. Before the current conflict began a trust fund to help reconstruction and rehabilitation in the DRC was set up by the World Bank. I hope the noble Lord will be pleased to learn that we pledged 10 million US dollars to that. The future of the fund will need to be re-examined when there is a peaceful resolution to the conflict. However, we are looking ahead.

Lord Steel of Aikwood

My Lords, does the noble Baroness accept that when I was in Kinshasa in April it seemed to me that neither the political structures nor the communication structures were anywhere near in place for the holding of elections? Can the noble Baroness confirm that, since then, matters have deteriorated and there are about four or five forces from neighbouring countries now in the country? Does she welcome the declaration yesterday by the rebels of a ceasefire, and will we, therefore, encourage President Kabila to enter into direct discussions with those rebels in order to bring some relief to the people of that country who suffered so much under the rule of President Mobuto?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Steel, is of course quite right. There is a highly complex situation on the ground in the DRC. There are many different elements involved in this struggle from within that country and of course from neighbouring countries too. A few days ago the rebels took the strategic eastern town of Kindu.

The noble Lord raises the question of President Kabila's discussions with the rebels. We have actively encouraged all those involved in the fighting to pursue a negotiated settlement. Both the internal issues and the concerns of the neighbouring states must be addressed if a lasting peace is to be achieved. We have, therefore, urged President Kabila to accept that the rebels must be included in any talks. We hope that those talks will establish a basis for a genuine, representative and accountable government in the DRC.

Viscount Brentford

My Lords, can the Minister tell us to what extent institutions such as schools, hospitals and other medical facilities still function in eastern Congo, or is it the case, as normally happens, that it is the poorest and most vulnerable who suffer most from the conflict?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as is always the case in these terrible conflicts, it is the poorest who suffer most. At the moment the situation is highly complex and volatile. The rebels hold a number of major towns in the east and strategic areas in the south west. Their advance on Kinshasa was halted by the intervention of sizeable contingents from Angola and Zimbabwe, with Namibia providing logistical support. Chad and the Sudan have recently provided troops to Mr. Kabila's forces and there are also credible reports that Libya is providing logistical and financial support. I give your Lordships this overview to indicate the complexity of the problems that are faced and the undoubted disruption to the people of the DRC.

Lord Hughes of Woodside

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the United Nations' capacity to provide a peaceful solution in the Congo is diminished by the inability of the United Nations to resolve the issue in Angola, where the UNITA rebels have still not carried out their agreements under the Lusaka protocol? Does she not agree that failure there diminishes the credibility of the United Nations and makes its work more difficult?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I do not believe that apportioning blame or saying who has failed where is helpful. I hope I have made it clear that a number of different countries are involved in this conflict and that we, chairing the United Nations Security Council this month, are doing all we can to ensure that the United Nations plays a leading role in trying to find a solution to this enormously complex war.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the work of the United Nations. What assessment have the Government made of the criticism by Human Rights Watch of the United Nations Security Council presidential statement issued in July as "weak" and an "insult to the victims" of humans rights abuses?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we have supported the special envoys from the United Nations, Mr. Dinka, the Secretary General's representative and regional adviser for the Great Lakes, and Mr. Sahnoun, the Secretary General's special envoy in Africa. The fact is that neither has a specific mandate to make recommendations about a settlement in the DRC. We believe that the circumstances in the DRC call for action on behalf of the UN by a high level political figure with real clout, possibly a former head of state or a senior Minister with influence in Africa. The view of Her Majesty's Government is that we should not look back to statements of criticism but should look forward and try to find a real solution to a real problem in the DRC.

Lord Rea

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that part of a solution to the conflict in the Congo area might be some redrawing of national borders which were put in place by the colonial powers at the time and, as in many parts of Africa, do not reflect the ethnic realities on the ground?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, such a proposal begs all kinds of questions, not only about the DRC itself but about the surrounding countries. We must look for a clear role to be given to the Southern African Development Community and the Organisation of African Unity. Both of those bodies are working hard to bring the parties together, to negotiate initially a ceasefire and then a peaceful solution. We shall, of course, listen to what they say about issues of borders and ethnicity. We fully support their efforts and will do everything that we can to help them achieve a negotiated settlement.