HL Deb 22 February 2000 vol 610 cc126-8

2.52 p.m.

The Earl of Sandwich asked Her Majesty's Government:

What they are doing to help African governments end the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, our interest is in a peaceful, democratic and prosperous Congo. That is why we have worked closely with our African, United Nations and European Union partners since the start of the conflict to urge all parties to reach a negotiated settlement. We strongly support the Lusaka agreement. It is Africa's agreement, and provides the right formula for peace in the Congo and the region. Our aim is now to help implement the agreement and to keep the DRC at the top of the international community's agenda.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that positive reply. Indeed, we should all be grateful for what the Foreign Office is trying to do in that part of Africa, considering that there are nearly a million displaced people in the Congo who are suffering every day. However, will the Government give more consideration to the size of the peacekeeping force that is to be sent to the region and to the international response following the recent discussion in the Security Council? Given the size and importance of the Congo, how can a small force of that size possibly meet its commitments under the Lusaka agreement? Will the Government encourage the United Nations to believe that the situation in Africa is very serious and that it must be addressed today?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, the noble Earl has raised a variety of points. I assure the House that we support the phased approach recommended by the UN Secretary-General. As the noble Earl said, there was a proposal for a peacekeeping force of 5,500. That phased approach will allow the Secretary-General to decide whether the necessary climate of security, co-operation and access exists in each area before UN troops and observers are deployed. We are ready to consider a third phase of the UN mission—a full UN peacekeeping operation—as soon as conditions allow. I believe that the noble Earl and everyone else understands that one has to move with some caution into areas such as this before committing larger groups of troops.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords is the noble Baroness aware of the chilling remark made last week by the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Mr Richard Holbrooke, in testimony to Congress? He said: there is a high probability—in fact a near certainty—of a catastrophic political and humanitarian disaster in central Africa". Will the noble Baroness tell the House whether the United Kingdom Government can bring pressure to bear on Zimbabwe or Uganda, through the Commonwealth Secretariat or in other ways, to withdraw their troops from that dangerous situation?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right about the seriousness and severity of the situation. The UK is providing political and practical support for the peace process in every way that we can. We are providing people and money to implement the military aspects. Six British military liaison officers have been deployed: four in Kinshasa, one in Lusaka and one in Harare. We have given £150,000 to help get the joint military commission up and running, and the quotation given by the noble Baroness shows the absolute priority that must be given to that. We are trying to do all that we can to encourage all the parties concerned to move on that and to take it seriously.

Baroness Whitaker

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the majority of victims of this war, like those of other wars, are likely to be non-combatants and that a large number of them will be women and children? What is being done to ensure that they are supplied with food and clean water?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, my noble friend is right. In such situations it is often the civilians who suffer most. Since the current conflict began, in August 1998, the UK has committed £1.7 million in humanitarian assistance. I assure my noble friend that the organisations with which we work have to identify the beneficiaries of any project supported by the UK to ensure that the resources are targeted at civilians who are most in need. My noble friend asked specifically about food and clean water. Perhaps I may give a few examples. We have given £250,000 to Christian Aid for emergency food aid; for emergency water supplies and sanitation, we have given £320,000 to CARE and Oxfam, and £56,600 to the British Red Cross.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, with the Rwandan army now established in the eastern part of the country, is there not a high risk that the Tutsi/non-Tutsi conflict, which had such hideous consequences in Rwanda in 1996, will spread for the first time to the DRC? Do Her Majesty's Government reckon that we have a proper and a practical interest in international efforts to forestall that, perhaps by urging the Rwandans to withdraw their army?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord again emphasises the imperative to keep up the pressure to move on this question. Our priority in Africa is to build peace and to prevent conflict. Different situations call for different responses. In Africa, that means supporting peaceful African solutions to African problems. We shall continue to play an active and constructive role in the implementation process and to work in the Security Council to support the resolution of conflicts. In the DRC, that means sustaining the Lusaka agreement.

Lord Hughes of Woodside

My Lords, does my noble friend hear a tragic echo of Angola in what is happening in the DRC? Does she recollect that, despite umpteen UN resolutions, umpteen missions, fine words, and, in the case of Angola, appeals to implement the Lusaka protocols, all efforts failed because of a lack of will? Unless there is the will to deal with the situation, we shall go through the same tragedy again and again. Will my noble friend make sure that the will is provided, as well as the physical resources?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, I assure my noble friend and the House that we shall try to ensure that this matter remains high on the agenda of the international community and that we play our part in both resources and effort to achieve some kind of peace.