Debate on violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo


On Monday March 27th 2006 the House of Lords heard calls for more to be done to end the violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – and especially to take more seriously the plight of the Congo’s children. The debate was triggered by an Unstarred Question tabled by the Bishop of Winchester, Michael Scott-Joynt. He was supported in the debate by Lord Giddens, Lord Alton, Lord Avebury and Baroness Morris. The Minister for Africa, Lord Triesman, replied on behalf of the Government. Democratic Republic of Congo 7.15 pm.  For the text of the full debate, click here.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, the House is greatly indebted to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester for providing us with this rare and welcome opportunity to debate the catastrophic situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I wholeheartedly endorse the remarks that he made earlier.

Imagine for a moment that we woke up tomorrow and read a newspaper headline that told us that the whole of the population of the Republic of Ireland had been wiped out. Presumably, we would be shocked into disbelief. In the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the equivalent is exactly what has happened—4 million people have died over just 10 years. That is the biggest loss of life in any single conflict since the Second World War. Together with the loss of life in Sudan, Darfur, Rwanda and Uganda, it totals a staggering 7 million lives lost. This is Africa’s Great War, and until it ends it is impossible to see how development or human progress can be properly sustained.

Over a recent, brief, comparable period, twice as many people died in the Congo than in conflicts in the Middle East, yet lives in the Congo hardly rate a column inch, let alone a television report. That begs the question—why do we seem to attach so little relative importance to a life lost in the Congo compared with the loss of a life elsewhere in the world?

For all the proper political interest in Africa during 2005, little was done to stabilise the Congo. When the Prime Minister appeared before a parliamentary committee a few weeks ago, it was significant that in two and a half hours of exchanges Africa was not mentioned once. Notwithstanding what the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, said about our welcome contribution to reconstruction in the Congo, it is depressing how quickly political issues move on—although the Minister has shown consistent and real commitment to the continent.

Just over a year ago, under the auspices of the charity Jubilee Action, along with Canon Anthony Harvey, Sam Burke and Raphael Mpanzu, I travelled to the DRC and compiled a report on the devastating consequences of the continuing violence there—the report is published on the Jubilee Action website. On return, a small charity to help Congo’s street children, the Jedidiah project, was set up under Jubilee’s auspices. The right reverend Prelate, the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, and I are among its patrons. One of the first initiatives was to help St. Martha’s School in London to send a container of equipment to Kinshasa. That is a good example of how young people get on with making a difference when we who have so much political influence often seem so impotent. Perhaps they understand better than we do that, where there is constant attrition, other children are the greatest losers.

I attended a recent meeting of the All-Party Group on Street Children, where it was said that 40,000 children are now living on the streets of the country’s capital, Kinshasa, with 6,000 more in Lubumbashi, 7,000 in Kananga, 7,000 in Bukavu and 2,000 in Goma. This crisis has been brought about by the continuing conflict in the east and north-east of the country, by the spread of AIDS, by poverty and by a negative view of orphaned children. The crisis has even spilled over into the inner cities and suburbs of Britain, with evidence emerging, thanks mainly to the BBC, of children being trafficked into Britain and some being branded as “witch children” and used in sordid rituals, including dismemberment. The torso of one child believed to have been killed in some such ritual was retrieved from the River Thames; the child is believed to have originated in the Congo.

Inside the DRC, children have become cannon fodder for the rival armed insurgents. As many as 300,000 children have been recruited into the competing militias, and the demobilisation process and subsequent reintegration into society have proved to be a painstakingly slow business. UNICEF told me that in broad terms about 30,000 children are still under arms and comprise about 10 per cent of the armed groups. Despite the demobilisation programme, it said,

“both recruitment and re-recruitment is continuing”.

Children as young as seven carry arms. I cannot adequately emphasise the importance of ending the traffic in small arms from neighbouring states, which is in breach of UN Security Council Resolution 1493.

Amnesty International reported in December 2003 that,

“all armed forces in the DRC”,

had used children as soldiers. In the east of the country, children have comprised as much as 40 per cent of the militias. Some were sent into combat, and some were used as sex slaves. In the light of the graphic comments, I make it clear that this is a direct quotation from Amnesty’s report:

“Some were forced to kill their own families; others were made to engage in cannibalistic or sexual acts with enemy corpses. Girl soldiers were raped and some died as a result”.

Sexual violence has often been accompanied by subsequent HIV/AIDS. In January 2004, Human Rights Watch confirmed those reports. The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, has already referred to that. I quote from the report:

“All groups have recruited children, some as young as seven years old, for military service, subjecting the children to the risks and trauma of military operations”.

UNICEF told me that, as well as being used as combatants, children have routinely been used to clean and carry guns and to collect and prepare food and camps for combatants.

Organisations such as War Child, Jubilee Action and the Princess Diana Memorial Fund have all identified this as the world’s worst humanitarian disaster and have committed themselves to highlighting the plight of Congo’s children and to offering some practical small-scale help. They need our full support. When War Child gave evidence to the all-party group, it told the story of a boy called Jacques whose mother and father were used as human shields and burnt alive. He is now on the streets in Bunia. It also told the story of Jean, aged 12, who fled Bosinga after bombardment by rebel militia. Her mother and father were both killed and she fled to Gbadolife, over 100 miles away, where she is now living on the streets.

So what can we do? Governments such as our own can insist that the declarations in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child are put into effect. Likewise, the International Crisis Group’s Congo action plan needs urgent implementation. We should be working with other players in the international community to exert real pressure.

Undoubtedly, Congo graphically illustrates what happens when a state fails and is disfigured by corruption and conflict. This is not some small sideshow. The DRC is the third largest county in Africa and the fourth most populous. Per capita income is just $107. Paradoxically, a country that is rich in minerals and natural wealth, and which should be able to sustain itself and its people, has suffered grievously as a consequence of its own natural riches—which everyone, from colonial rulers to voracious neighbours and corrupt rulers, has sought to acquire for themselves. As a result, Congo has been benighted by exploitative rule and by callous and corrupt leadership.

During my visit, I heard many allegations that, to this day, with the complicity of western governments, European quartermasters continue to fuel the conflict through the sale of weapons. The country’s Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, Professor Mbwinga Bila, told me that, as a consequence of the long corrupt and rapacious rule of President Mobutu and the almost incessant armed violence since decolonisation,

“the decaying infrastructure we have today is the one we inherited at the moment of independence. In fact, we have even less now than we had then. The only change is that in 1960 the infrastructure supported a population of 14 million and today the population is closer to 60 million. We have had 35 years of bad government followed by 10 years of armed conflict”.

I visited a hospital and a school in Kinshasa. In the hospital, I saw a premature baby unit, where there were nine incubators—only two of them worked. I learnt subsequently that the children in the non-functioning incubators died. I also visited a school, Mbenseke Futi, situated about 50 kilometres from the centre of Kinshasa. There are about 300 children in the school, including 50 street children. The headmaster showed me decaying buildings, including a wing that had been storm damaged in 1991. Food was being prepared over open fires. Teachers had not been paid in months. There was nothing to treat the malaria that affected all of the children. The sleeping conditions—wooden slats on bunks in filthy dormitories—were an absolute disgrace. When I asked him about this, Minister Bila said:

“In our schools, books don’t exist, parents have to pay and the buildings are in ruins”.

He was quite emphatic. He said that,

“the real problem is the war. It has destroyed the infrastructure”.

Surely that must be our starting point in tackling the conflict in that country. When the Minister comes to reply, I hope that he will be able to tell us what action is being taken to bring about the end of this conflict and what more we can do to accelerate the demobilisation, reintegration, protection and education of the children—especially those under arms, the street children and the so-called “witch children”. I hope that he will say what leverage we are exerting on Rwanda to end all military involvement in Congo, and to actively collaborate with the DRC, starting with the exchange of ambassadors. I raised that issue directly with the Rwandan President Paul Kagame when I subsequently visited Kigali; it is a small thing, but it would be an important step forward, as would working with the DRC and with MONUC—as the right reverend Prelate mentioned earlier—in disarming the militias. I hope that the Minister will say what we are doing, along with other western governments, to hunt down and prosecute the arms dealers I mentioned, and those benefiting from involvement in Congo’s conflicts. What measures are we taking to help to build up agencies involved in conflict resolution, reconciliation, human rights advocacy, and the training of judges, magistrates and police officers?

I could have returned from my visit to the DRC deeply depressed, but these are not insuperable or insurmountable challenges. By helping to heal this wound at the very heart of Africa, and by driving out corruption and conflict, we will be creating a climate in which real development can occur. If, however, as our first priority, we do not solve those issues, everything else that we try to achieve—including elections—will be in vain.