Bishop of Wakefield urges proactive response to crisis in Central African Republic

“It is not surprising that the violence and insecurity that now plagues this country has hampered the delivery of humanitarian aid. As a result, local faith groups and a few national and international NGOs are the primary responders” – Bishop of Wakefield, 18.11.13

On 18th November 2013, Conservative Peer Baroness Berridge led a short debate to ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the security and humanitarian situation in the Central African Republic and the Great Lakes region of Africa. The Bishop of Wakefield, the Rt Revd Stephen Platten, took part in the debate, focusing his remarks on the need to sanction the perpetrators of violence in the Central African Republic and the urgent need to tackle sexual violence in conflict.

Bishop of Wakefield PlattenThe Lord Bishop of Wakefield: My Lords, I warmly congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, for securing this debate and for introducing it with such clarity of purpose. Those of us of a certain age will remember graphically the tragedy of the Congo, going all the way back to independence itself. This was followed by the Katanga breakaway movement and the instability there, and the subsequent tragedies made the entire Great Lakes region a terrible, open wound on our common humanity. As we know, that conflict, which began all those years ago, continues in a number of countries.

It is now some four months since the Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department for International Development, Lynne Featherstone, described the situation in the Central African Republic as, “the world’s forgotten crisis”. It is shameful that this crisis remains hidden from sight, and that the UN humanitarian appeal still seems hopelessly underfunded. Our inability to address this complex emergency and to provide adequate protection for civilians has seen this crisis spread far beyond the republic’s borders to destabilise a region already facing significant challenges. Other noble Lords have already made similar points in this debate. As the Catholic Archbishop of Burundi has recently noted:

“There is a terrifying, real threat of sectarian conflict”.

The noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, has already hinted at this.

The UN Secretary-General’s recent report to the UN Security Council warned that the human rights abuses, such as,

“arbitrary arrests and detention, sexual violence against women and children, torture, rape, targeted killings, recruitment of child soldiers and attacks”,

are becoming ever more common. The reports from the republic confirm all that has been said by the International Federation for Human Rights, which describes the human rights violations as “international crimes”. Nor can there be any dispute that Seleka is the main perpetrator of such atrocities—that point has been made by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock of Holyhead, in the debate already.

It would be helpful to hear from the Minister what progress is being made by the international community to place sanctions on Seleka leaders and warlords, including the freezing of their financial assets. What steps are the Government taking to respond to the allegations of sexual violence and rape? Not long ago, I was fortunate enough to secure a debate on the prevention of sexual violence in conflict. The Foreign Secretary’s Prevention of Sexual Violence Initiative and its team of experts ought to provide an excellent instrument to assist future prosecutions by the International Criminal Court. This is immediately germane to the conflict to which we are all referring in this debate. Measures such as these would surely go some way towards curtailing the level of violence which we are witnessing today.

It is not surprising that the violence and insecurity that now plagues this country has hampered the delivery of humanitarian aid. As a result, local faith groups and a few national and international NGOs are the primary responders. The Catholic development agency, CAFOD, reported last month that the church is one of the few organisations at present responding to the crisis, by sheltering displaced people, delivering humanitarian aid and addressing religious tensions. Its efforts, however, have been hindered due to lack of funds and problems gaining access because of the violence. Could the Minister assure us that the UK will recognise and strengthen civil society and faith-based groups’ capacity for action, and ensure that they may play a strategic role in the process of reconciliation and reconstruction?

I thank the Minister—a near neighbour of mine in West Yorkshire—for all that she has been saying recently across the Atlantic about religious freedom and strategies for coherence across communities. Most importantly, perhaps, this will assist in the avoidance of sectarian conflict and of the use of religion for political purposes.

Finally, I merely note that it is a tragedy that a country with such abundant natural resources, already referred to by other noble Lords, should be one of the poorest in the world, and subject to such political unrest and economic instability. It is to be hoped that the UN peacekeeping effort will take steps to secure the country’s mining sites, so preventing the republic’s current crisis from spiralling into a wider resource conflict, fuelled by all those greedy for power and greedy for more money.

The Senior Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Warsi): …My noble friend Lady Berridge and the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, raised the underlying religious tensions in this conflict. We are of course aware of reports of radical religious groups in the country and that some components of the Seleka coalition have pursued an agenda which has been divisive in terms of religious cohesion. However, we have no direct evidence of the presence of specific terrorist groups in the country at this stage. The Central African Republic traditionally has seen Christians and Muslims coexist peacefully but we are concerned about recent reports of religious tension. As the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, has said, the issue is much more complex than a single interreligious conflict. The point was also raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield, who I thank for his kind comments in relation to my recent comments on the persecution of Christians.

My noble friend Lady Berridge also spoke about the commitment of funds to a security mission. The UN and the EU are unable to make any firm commitments to a regional peace mission until the African Union presents a coherent strategy and details its costs. The UN Secretary-General’s report today is vital in determining these next steps. The UK supports a solution led by the African Union and the Economic Community of Central African States. The UN Secretary-General’s report into options for international support for MISCA—which, as I have said, is due today—will be important in determining what further support the international community can provide.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, asked why effective action had not been taken so far. Improving the security situation and enabling humanitarian aid to access those in need was for us the important basis for a solution. The EU has set aside funds to support the African-led security mission and a UN resolution is expected in the coming days. We think that that will mandate the mission.

My noble friend Lady Berridge also asked about humanitarian support. I referred to the £5 million which has already been committed but the UK is also urging other donors to step forward and support humanitarian action in the Central African Republic. While access has been restricted due to the ongoing insecurity in the country, agencies have been able to operate there and some aid is getting through.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, also asked about the 3,600-person peacekeeping force and when that would be deployed. On 19 December 2013 there will be an official transfer from the previous peacekeeping mission to the new African Union-led MISCA. Troops from Chad, Cameroon and the Republic of the Congo and Burundi are expected to take part. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield asked about sanctions. At this stage sanctions have not been ruled out. They will be considered when we can be sure that they will be effective and that they are targeted.

The right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, asked about preventing sexual violence in conflict. We firmly believe that preventing sexual violence and tackling impunity for these crimes is central to breaking the cycle of violence both in the DRC and more widely. The House will be aware of the Foreign Secretary’s launch of the preventing sexual violence initiative in 2012, which aims to address crimes of sexual violence by increasing the number of perpetrators brought to justice and to help states increase their capacity to do this. At this stage the Central African Republic is not a priority country for the PSVI but the international effort to restore security in the country will help to start to address this terrible problem. However, extensive work is being done within the DRC and we are working with the office of Zainab Bangura, the special representative on sexual violence in conflict, to support the DRC Government to co-ordinate the work of the international community…