Dáil Éireann - Volume 666 - 05 November, 2008

Priority Questions. - Foreign Conflicts.

Deputy Billy Timminsasked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo; the steps Ireland can take to assist in the situation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38568/08]

  Deputy Micheál Martin: The resurgence of fighting in the North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo is a matter of grave concern, both in terms of its implications for the humanitarian situation and for the stability of the wider Great Lakes region. It has seriously undermined the Goma and Nairobi peace agreements and placed the progress made over the past year in the Great Lakes peace process in grave jeopardy. The position, notwithstanding a fragile ceasefire, remains volatile. I am particularly concerned by reports of widespread attacks on civilians by all sides in the conflict and the plight of the estimated 1.5 million people now displaced in the Democratic Republic of Congo, more than 1 million of whom are in North Kivu. News of clashes yesterday is also disturbing.

MONUC, the UN peacekeeping force which, at 17,000 strong, is the UN’s largest peacekeeping operation, is mandated to use all means necessary to protect the civilian population. Since 2001, three Irish Defence Forces officers have been deployed with the mission as military liaison officers. MONUC is now seriously over-stretched and UN officials have called for extra troops and air assets. The UN Security Council is fully seized of the matter and has been discussing appropriate responses as a matter of urgency.

UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has been heavily engaged in discussions in an effort to stabilise the situation. Secretary General Ban’s appointment of the former Nigerian President, Mr. Olusegun Obasanjo, an experienced mediator in regional disputes, as his special envoy to broker a political settlement is a particularly welcome development. The African Union, led by its current chairman, President Kikwete of Tanzania, has also been to the forefront of efforts to restore calm. It is not as yet clear if there will be agreement to hold talks involving the Governments of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, as urged by the Secretary General.

[45] The EU is the largest humanitarian donor to the Democratic Republic of Congo and has played a key role in supporting peace efforts to date. Ireland fully supports the excellent work of the EU’s special representative to the Great Lakes, Roeland van de Geer. Last week, the EU Commissioner for Development, Louis Michel, visited Kinshasa and Kigali to urge the Presidents of both countries to find a diplomatic solution to the current crisis.

I also commend the efforts of my British and French counterparts, David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner, who have been engaged in vigorous diplomatic efforts over the past week, met with Presidents Kabila and Kagame during a visit to the Great Lakes last weekend and briefed colleagues in Marseilles on Monday. At present, it does not appear there is likely to be an ESDP mission, with the focus instead being on support for the United Nations.

Ireland is a significant humanitarian donor to the DRC. Already in 2008, Ireland has committed more than €11 million in humanitarian aid funding and our support to the country since 2006 totals more than €31 million. In response to the worsening crisis, the Government has allocated up to €1 million in extra funding for humanitarian relief in North Kivu. In addition, Irish Aid has allocated more than €8 million in funding to Rwanda since 2006. The European Union has announced an additional €4 million in humanitarian aid for North Kivu.

The crisis in DRC will be high on the agenda when I meet with my EU colleagues at the General Affairs and External Relations Council on 10 November.

  Deputy Billy Timmins: The Fine Gael Party supports any humanitarian or other measures and assistance the European Union or Government can provide. The Minister indicated that MONUC, which has 17,000 troops and costs €1 billion, is the largest UN peacekeeping operation.

I listened to Deputy Michael D. Higgins comments on the failure of the current financial model and the role of the United Nations. Does the Minister agree the current problems in the Democratic Republic of Congo are a classic example of the failure of United Nations peacekeeping? MONUC is a strong, established peacekeeping force which has fallen into disrepute and lost the confidence of local people. Approximately 1 million people have been displaced. It is made up of a number of nationalities. The force has been subjected to investigation. For the first time, an internal disciplinary investigation unit was set up to deal, inter alia, with the sexual exploitation of the local population. I implore the Minister to use his influence at the GAERC meeting to examine the concept of the EU providing peacekeeping support for the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We can talk about the African Union using its influence and I notice the British and French diplomats stated, “You better stop the war, or else...”. What is meant by “or else...”? No one likes to see the use of force, but we must have a meaningful peacekeeping presence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and regrettably, the force there at present does not supply it.

  Deputy Micheál Martin: The force was established in 1999 and there are 17,000 troops from the 20 different countries involved. It is clearly the largest and most expensive UN peacekeeping mission, with a budget exceeding $1 billion, so this is no mean attempt to deal with the problems. It is mandated to use all necessary means to protect civilians from physical attack. It is clearly signalling to the international community that it is overstretched and it has had to reinforce its presence in North Kivu province, cutting back on vital troop presences in other provinces. It fired on CNDP rebels last week in an attempt to halt their advance towards Goma.

From an equipment viewpoint, logistics supports and so on, again there are clear indications it needs additional support. With France holding the EU Presidency, the French Foreign Minister, Mr. Bernard Kouchner, articulated at Monday’s meeting the key question in terms of the [46] nature of the response and the obligation to protect citizens in particular situations such as this. He also sent out a clear message that there will be accountability for unacceptable activities by governments as well as armed leaders and so forth, as regards horrendous attacks on civilians.

We will work with both the EU and UN to support regional engagement. The engagement of the regional leaders is the key to stabilisation and ultimately the resolution and the restoration of the Nairobi peace process.

  Deputy Billy Timmins: I realise the EU does not have an infinite well of human resources. However, will the Minister acknowledge that Pakistan, with 3,500 troops, cannot secure its own border; India, with 4,300 troops, is in a nuclear stand-off with Pakistan; South Africa, which faces difficulties with refugees coming in from Zimbabwe, is providing 1,000 troops? The EU should have a role. When it was established it had, as a primary goal, the promotion of peace, internally and externally. There is an onus on the EU to supply the security contingent to assist the force that is there at present.

  Deputy Micheál Martin: That is a very reasonable proposition and it has neither been ruled in or out. It will require the agreement of all the member states as regards participation, particularly in the context of the battle groups for rapid deployment under a UN mandate. Again, no decision has been taken and it is probably an issue that will surface at the GAERC meeting. We have an open mind with regard to EU engagement along the lines to which I have just referred. Again, one has to be very careful. There is a need to assess the situation to ensure that logistically and from a perspective of feasibility, it would add value to the situation. The Deputy has made a legitimate point.