William_hagueYesterday in the House of Commons Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague asked the Government to make a statement about the Democratic Republic of Congo. Bill Rammell did so on behalf of the Foreign Office.

The situation there is desperate. It is heartening that the Conservatives appreciate that fact. The calm, cool questioning from William Hague was absolutely the right approach.

The exchange has been reproduced here in full, the better to avoid sweeping this issue under the carpet.

"The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Bill Rammell): Recent fighting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has further worsened a dire humanitarian situation. The displacement of an additional 55,000 people in North Kivu in the past week compounds the suffering that has continued for years. Access to food, sanitation and shelter is urgently needed. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary saw the suffering caused by the violence at first hand when he visited DRC on 1 November. We are determined that that suffering should be effectively addressed. The UK has increased its commitment to provide humanitarian aid, and we are supporting flights to help meet the immediate needs of displaced people in the region. We urge all parties to observe the current ceasefire and allow humanitarian access to those affected by the fighting. Contingency planning is under way to strengthen the provision of aid to those who need it.

The issues underlying the violence are political. The leaders of DRC and Rwanda need to co-operate to reach political solutions to those issues, and in that regard I welcome the appointment by the UN Secretary-General of former President Obasanjo of Nigeria as his special envoy to facilitate this process. I also commend the action taken by the chairman of the commission of the African Union in appointing an emissary, who will travel to Kinshasa tomorrow. It is right that regional partners should play a role in the efforts to stabilise this volatile region and encourage stronger relations between neighbours. We will continue to do everything possible to bring peace to the region.

Mr. Hague: I thank the Minister for providing that answer in the Foreign Secretary’s absence.

In view of the precarious humanitarian situation in DRC, including the loss of life, the risk of the spread of violence and the danger to peace, and the possible deployment of British forces, which has been mentioned, I hope that the Minister agrees that it is important that the Government continue to update the House as the situation develops. The Opposition are pleased that the Foreign Secretary visited the region quickly at the weekend. We support the work that he has done, his close co-operation with the French Foreign Minister and the product of that mission.

I would like to question the Minister on four matters: the first is the scale of the humanitarian problem. It is said that 500,000 people are on the move without camps or fixed locations to go to. That is a fairly desperate situation. Does he have any more information about that?

The second matter is the continuing role of United Nations troops. The House will be aware that the largest UN deployment in the world is in DRC; it involves 16 countries. What is the disposition of those forces? Where and how are they deployed? Can the Minister comment on their strength and effectiveness? The head of UN peacekeeping operations is in the Congo assessing the situation. When will he report to the UN Security Council? Five thousand UN troops are meant to be providing protection for aid. Is the Minister satisfied that those troops have the organisation and capability to do that effectively, especially given that the commander of the UN forces has resigned?

The third matter is the involvement of UK troops. Last night—I think—the Foreign Secretary said:

    “We are not ruling out sending British troops to back up the UN force”.

A few days previously, the Minister for the Middle East and Africa, Lord Malloch-Brown, said that that option had to be

    “developed and on the table”.

How developed and on the table is it?

Fourthly, on the politics of the situation, the joint ministerial statement between the Foreign Secretary and the French Foreign Minister rightly stated that the first priority was that the DRC Government

    “Should take proper command of its forces, honour its obligations under the Nairobi Accords and establish channels of communications with all communities in the country and its neighbours”.

In the Government’s opinion, are those things beginning to happen? Is the Minister satisfied that all possible pressure is being exerted on General Nkunda to ensure that his forces lay down their arms?

The Foreign Secretary and French Foreign Minister have warned both the Congolese and Rwandan leaders that they will be held to account for any further fighting. Can the Minister say more about how it is proposed that they will be held to account? Has he raised that matter with the International Criminal Court, which is already involved in the Congo?

Finally, in welcoming the impending visit by the UN Secretary-General to the region, and other initiatives, including those of the African Union, how confident is the Minister that the Congolese and Rwandan leaders will be persuaded to pursue existing road maps on disarmament, integration, transitional justice, resource sharing, institution building and so on? Does he agree that, if the responsibility to protect is to mean anything, the UN has to demonstrate how it will assert its collective responsibility never to allow anything like the 1994 Rwandan catastrophe to occur again?

Bill Rammell: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for those questions and the tone in which they were put. It is certainly imperative that the Government keep the House up to date. Like him, I think that the Foreign Secretary’s visit at the weekend was exceedingly timely and constructive.

The humanitarian situation is bleak: 55,000 people have been displaced in the last week, which makes the figure 250,000 since August and 850,000 in total. That is very concerning.

On troop levels, the right hon. Gentleman is right to point out that the MONUC force—the UN force in DRC—comprises 17,000 troops and is, therefore, the largest peacekeeping force in the world. Some 85 per cent. of the force is located in the eastern part of DRC. However, the first and overriding priority of the international community is to ensure that MONUC is effectively deployed. We are pressing, even today, to ensure that the troops are deployed in the right places for the maximum impact.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the involvement of British troops. We have made it clear that that is on the table as a last-case contingency provision, but even if we were to consider that, it is certainly not our immediate priority. Our immediate priority is to ensure that the MONUC force works effectively, because it is a substantial force. Were we to consider a contribution of further troops, we would do that in conjunction with our international partners on a contingency basis. We would need to be very clear about how any additional forces could supplement MONUC’s efforts. A hasty, poorly planned deployment could complicate the situation further, which is why we are focusing all our efforts on ensuring that MONUC, which has the troops on the ground, operates effectively.

The key to the situation is a political solution. It is welcome that President Kikwete has given a commitment to bring the two leaders together within the region. As the shadow Foreign Secretary pointed out, there are road-map commitments and a potential solution in place. We all need to use all our efforts to ensure that those solutions are taken forward."

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