African Great Lakes Region
I spoke in a debate on the 12th January about the Great Lakes Region of Africa – countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and others. Some of these are amongst the poorest on the planet and although we have historical and present day ties to them, we do little to assist them to progress. We should be doing all that we can to support democratic accountability and ensure stability in the region.
Here’s what I had to say:
There can be few areas of the world where the real legacy of colonialism remains so apparent as the great lakes region of Africa. Few areas have such outstanding resources—natural resources and resilient people—but few areas also have a greater burden to bear due to the horrific history of western greed and appropriation among other reasons.
I have a particular interest in, and many friends from, the DRC and I wish to focus on it today. This is a country that has never had a peaceful transition to democratic power, and that is tragic. The fact that the Church has brokered a deal at least puts the democratic transition back on the table in the coming year and that is to be welcomed, although only cautiously as it remains to be seen whether President Kabila will sign up to the transition; his record, as we know, is not a good one.
This is how Amnesty International summed up the last year in the DRC:
“Government repression of protests…intensified. Violations of the rights to freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly increased. Human rights defenders, youth activists and politicians were threatened, harassed, arbitrarily arrested and in some cases convicted for peacefully exercising their rights…numerous armed groups perpetrating serious abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law…high civilian death toll and mass displacements.”
It is understandable, therefore, that people are cautious, but, as I said, a deal has been struck and right now the DRC is in a better place than before. I hope that this limited progress will be a call to action for other countries in the region, and those elsewhere with strong links to the DRC, to support the formation of a transitional Government as per the deal and ensure that Kabila does indeed step down and democratic elections do indeed take place later this year.
However, the key structural problems across the region remain and will continue to drive instability unless they are tackled. Many of these stem from the colonial period, as I mentioned at the start of my speech. Good governance of natural resources is a massive issue and is essential, but others have spoken, and will speak, about that.
Unequal distribution of land continues to impact on many of the countries in the region. Those who have been displaced because of internal conflict often return to find their land has been redistributed in their absence. While that is traumatic enough for an individual, it becomes far more destabilising if entire communities or ethnic groups are displaced and return to find their land has been seized or sold off in its entirety in their absence. Instability in one country can quickly spread across state boundaries, and there remain those who are more than willing to exploit this.
There are also very real political and financial difficulties placed on states hosting refugees from neighbouring countries.
Some 100,000 displaced Burundians currently reside in Tanzania. We would do well to remember that it is the poorest countries who host the majority of the world’s refugees—and I think we will probably find they complain less because they do not see what they do as charity; they see it as their duty to humanity.
As the Scottish National party’s civil liberties spokesperson in Westminster, it would be remiss of me not to mention some of the very real dangers facing journalists, civil organisations and opposition leaders in the region. That is something that we in this Parliament can affect; by looking to build links with our parliamentary colleagues in the great lakes region, we can work to strengthen democracy and the rule of law.
I know that a great many colleagues are involved with projects and associations that work across Parliaments to help other countries develop their democratic institutions. In my role as vice-chair of the all-party group on Africa, I recently chaired a meeting here in Westminster looking at how the UK can support the participation of women and the rule of law in the DRC. It was attended by some very impressive and some very courageous women from the DRC—campaigners, activists, refugees, academics, and Eve Bazaiba, a Member of the DRC Parliament since 2006. If we need one reason above all others to do everything in our power to support the people of the DRC, it is these women and all the women and children currently living there, so many of whom have been, or will become, victims of sexual violence.
Amnesty International described the rate of sexual violence in the past year as “rampant”. It is out of control. As we have heard, 1,000 women are raped a day—that is 48 per hour, which means that since this debate started not that long ago about 34 women have been raped in the DRC.
When I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament, I attended a meeting with campaigners against sexual violence in the DRC. What I heard from them haunted me for a long time. I rarely allow myself to think about it, far less speak about it, because it was so overwhelming. I cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like for those women to experience it. Today I am choosing not to share those stories that haunted me, but I remain in awe of those women because, while they courageously told their personal stories, I cannot bear to repeat their words. The sexual violence that they experienced in the DRC was savage, and if it is something that I find unspeakable, it must be extreme. We cannot turn our backs on the people in that region, and in the DRC in particular. We cannot merely tick boxes; we must tell the people of the DRC that we in this House really do care.
That means that the very least we will do is play our part in ensuring that the people of the DRC are able to participate in free and democratic elections later this year.
To see the full debate click here