Entry: "Westminster Hall: The Great Lakes - 11 December 2001"

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Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): The issues relating to the region around the Great Lakes are incredibly important. A humanitarian catastrophe continues to unfold there, as it has for at least the past 10 years. In that region, it is difficult to draw the line between the end of one conflict and the beginning of another.

To put the debate into perspective, I shall explain some recent background. It is impossible to understand the conflict without considering the region as a whole. The present conflict in the Great Lakes began in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and dates back to 1998, since when 2.5 million people have died in it. That figure is staggering, but the fact that we rarely hear anything said about it is even more staggering. I am thus especially grateful to those hon. Members who have given their time and made the effort to be here this morning.

The war in the Congo is Africa's most complex war. It has been described as Africa's first world war and has dragged six foreign armies into the country. One of the biggest problems is the wealth of the Congo, which some people argue not only sustains but actively perpetuates the war. The recent history of the region shows the interplay between Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC. It is clear that the current conflict in the Congo stems from the wave of violence unleashed by the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

We need to consider how British policy has changed and could perhaps change further in the future. In 1994, when the genocide in Rwanda occurred, the British ambassador to the United Nations cautioned against using the word "genocide". He rightly pointed out that if we used that word, we might be liable under our international treaty obligations to do something. As we all know, we did nothing. The international community did nothing until it was far too late.

I am still haunted by the genocide site in Rwanda that I visited with two of my colleagues from the Select Committee on International Development who are here this morning. What haunted me most was not the 5,000 or 10,000 corpses that we saw and stepped over in the school into which people had been herded and murdered over a 36-hour period, but the fact that many of the children's bodies had only one foot. Several of us could not understand why those small children had only one foot. When we asked, we were told that when the adults were escaping, the militia cut off one of each child's feet to stop them escaping. They killed the parents and then came back to finish off the children.

The vision of that classroom full of children with only one foot writhing around on the floor has never left me. That was one of the reasons why I set up the all-party group on the Great Lakes. I am extremely grateful that more than 100 Members of Parliament have joined it.

The second thing that has always haunted me was that in those classrooms the only sign of the international community was some plastic sheeting placed over the open windows on which was printed the UN logo. When I said to someone that that looked very strange—as though all that the UN did was to put up curtains after the genocide—they said, "Yes, that is basically what happened." Is not that an allegory for our modern times? The UN is doing the window dressing.

All of us who take an interest in the region—and even all those who take no interest in it—realise, post-11 September, that window dressing in areas of disaster, conflict and genocide will eventually return to haunt us. I am not saying that the conflict and the humanitarian disaster in the Great Lakes region—however tragic and all-consuming they are—will burst into our consciousness as the attacks in New York and Washington have done. That will not happen right now, but if we do not do something about the Great Lakes in particular and Africa in general, there is no doubt that, at some point, we shall pay the price for indifference that leaves millions of people to starve or be killed. Some of them are killed in the most brutal of ways, as I described. The deaths of others are equally brutal, but not so televisual: starving to death does not trigger many peacekeeping forces. It has not done so in the past.

We hope that that might change in the future, given what is happening in Afghanistan. I very much hope that as we consider the situation in the Great Lakes region, we might see there the germs of what has happened in other parts of world, so instead of waiting for a disaster—although some might argue that one has already happened—we might try to pre-empt it.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): Is not what my hon. Friend is saying exactly the message that the Prime Minister was giving in a tremendous speech to the Labour party conference in October? He pledged not to allow a Rwanda to occur again and to heal the scars of Africa. That shows a new way forward for the Government.

Ms King: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I see consternation on the faces of some Opposition Members, but I hope that we can agree with the Prime Minister's words, wherever we are on the political spectrum. I cannot imagine that anyone could say that we would not take action if a Rwanda were to happen again and 1 million people were butchered. I know for a fact that at least three of the four Opposition Members present agree with those sentiments. Indeed, they have agreed with them.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): I had not planned on intervening in the debate, because I think that everyone will agree with the hon. Lady's sentiments. Opposition Members may, however, disagree with the political slant of some of the comments. As hon. Members may recall, the Prime Minister made a rather all-encompassing conference speech that included justifying early euro entry on the basis of the 11 September attacks. Perhaps that is why there were looks of disagreement on Opposition Members' faces.

Ms King: I am sure that I would be ruled out of order were I to outline the merits of early euro membership or link such membership to Britain's national security. Although I am certain that there is such a case, I shall leave it for another time.

I was trying to explain some of the background to the crisis in the Great Lakes region. Part of the background is elaborated in a truly startling and inspirational book, which I recommend that everyone read, entitled "King Leopold's Ghost". Although it traces the history of the Congo and the Great Lakes region back a couple of hundred years, it deals particularly with the 19th century. It is instructive to examine events in the Great Lakes region from 1870 until independence in the early 1960s.

I am not one of those black people who gets up and gives a speech on colonialism every five minutes regardless of the subject, and I think that my colleagues who know me will defend me on that point.

However, I think that all the Select Committee members were truly startled by the extent to which the colonial era in that part of Africa has conditioned almost all subsequent events there. I shall give an example.

When the genocide began in Rwanda, everyone said, "These bloody Africans are hacking each other to death. It is a tribal conflict. It is what Africans do." I was astonished to discover that the Belgians had introduced a law that was essentially like apartheid in South Africa and made it illegal for Rwandans not to declare that they were either Hutu or Tutsi, thereby creating an ethnic construct. What do the terms Hutu and Tutsi mean? "Tutsi" simply means that one has cattle, and "Hutu" that one is an agricultural labourer working the land. Originally, the terms were not ethnic or tribal distinctions.

In that society, working with cattle was more highly valued than working the land. Those who had cattle had assets. Consequently, the Tutsis, who comprised only 15 per cent. of the population, became the more powerful group, and the Hutus, who comprised the majority and worked the land, became the less powerful. It is essentially a class structure, but the colonial power of the time found it useful to play one group off against the other, and so made it illegal for those Africans not to belong to one group or the other.

I asked some Rwandans whether they were Hutu or Tutsi. Although we may talk about political correctness in this country, in a country where a genocide has occurred, it is a deeply impolitic question. However, one Rwandan tried to explain to me that it was not really possible to answer the question. He said that his family were neither Hutu nor Tutsi as they neither had cattle nor worked the land. He said that their society was not that simplistic and that everyone could not be divided into a group that owned cattle or worked the land. However, he also said, "The Belgians just gave us a stamp on our identity card and we became an ethnic group." The distinction was, literally and figuratively, a political construct. What does that mean for us today?

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): I thank the hon. Lady for giving way in her fascinating speech. Will she not, however, give credit to Paul Kagame, the Rwandan leader? On taking control, he ensured that both groups were included in his Government. He also ensured that there was no reference to the two different groups in official literature. Whatever his faults, he has made great strides in that direction.

Ms King: I thank my hon. Friend—I call her that deliberately—for that intervention and could not agree more with those sentiments. President Kagame has lately come in for no little criticism. Although I certainly have some differences in respect of how the Rwandan Government are pursuing their legitimate desire to protect Rwanda's security, I believe that Paul Kagame is one of the leading inspirations in African politics. Although my greatest fear in making such a statement is that my words will come back to haunt me, if there was ever a man with integrity whom I trust not to make those words haunt me, it is President Kagame. The Select Committee and I—I have met him on several occasions—have been impressed by his dignity, resilience and thoughtfulness.

How has the Hutu-Tutsi divide affected the continuing conflict? The current conflict, dating from 1998, was unleashed by the wave of violence that followed the genocide. People in that region of Africa, which extends from eastern Congo to Rwanda and Burundi, have been on a dreadful, hellish merry-go-round whereby waves of internally displaced people are pushed from one country to the next. Such displacement occurred even before independence in the 1960s, when the first massacres occurred and Tutsis were displaced from, for example, Rwanda. Subsequently, some of them went to the Congo and Uganda, after which they returned to their own country and themselves displaced the genocidal regime. The Banyamulenge are a group of Rwandans who have been living in the Congo for hundreds of years.
Select Committee Members who visited the Congo this summer made one fascinating discovery. In 1994, Rwandans fleeing genocide arrived in the eastern DRC and helped to push the local economy past the point of no return. The economy was desperately stretched: all the remaining cattle, for example, were sold off and people were left with no means of survival. Tutsis went from one impoverished country to another to flee genocide, with catastrophic results.

Subsequently, relations between the Rwandan and Congolese Governments have deteriorated. As many hon. Members will be aware, President Kagame was initially an ally of the elder President Kabila, who turned out to be far less reliable than had been hoped and did not measure up to expectations in the west. He grievously disappointed his Rwandan and Ugandan allies, because the activities of those who committed the genocide continued in eastern DRC. The Rwandan Government continued to face attack from those who had committed the genocide and were committed to finishing it.
The all-party group's rather controversial view is that the Rwandan Government were justified in sending troops to the DRC when Interahamwe activity and that of the genocidiaires in eastern Congo was blatantly threatening Rwandan security; it continues, on occasion, to threaten it.