20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide

Hugh Robertson responds to a parliamentary debate held to mark the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Hugh Robertson): This has been a moving, powerful and constructive couple of hours. At the outset, it is appropriate to join other Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark) on securing this important debate. I wish him a very happy birthday on behalf of us all. I thank all Members who have participated. I thought that this might be one of those afternoons when the House was at its best, but it has exceeded itself. It has been fascinating for me to listen to the strong support for Rwanda.

Everyone would acknowledge that Rwanda is a country that can divide opinion, but the support for it has been clear today, from people who know a lot about the country and have visited it. I was struck by the quality of the contributions and the excellent point made by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) when he said that Rwanda is now in the Commonwealth.

Perhaps I should apologise for not being the Minister with responsibility for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), who, with the Foreign Secretary, attended the commemorations in Rwanda and is on the continent at the moment, but this does have a personal resonance for me, as in 1994 I was serving in Bosnia. I was on loan to the Foreign Office from the Army and I was looking after the British detachment in Sarajevo that was responsible for trying to secure the aid that flew into the city when it was under siege. Many Members have made the point that the world reacted a little late to the situation in Rwanda—we would all agree with that—and I suspect that part of the problem may have been that the world’s attention was focused on the Balkans and not on Africa.

Let me deal with some of the contributions, starting with the one made by my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree, who did a good job at the top of the debate of reminding us of the chilling events of 20 years ago and then drawing the lessons out in respect of the importance of R2P. Let me join others in wishing him well with his charity, thanking him for setting it up and congratulating him on that excellent initiative.

The hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) spoke movingly about the special relationship between Rwanda and the UK, giving us some valuable insights on the basis of his visit. I was struck by the positive impression he gave of the country, as others have done, and of its achievements since that awful process 20 years ago.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) also gave us some personal impressions of the memorial site and talked about the events leading up to the genocide, the mass nature of it, the speed with which it happened and international inaction. He rightly draws lessons from that, but I fear that they are pretty regular lessons from conflicts of that sort right the way around the world. Indeed, one could have said many of the same things about the conflict in which I was involved in Bosnia. I agree with him that 20 years on is a very good time to encourage Rwandan society to use that experience to develop civil society.

It is always a pleasure to hear the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) speak and I would like to join him in praising the work of the Aegis Trust, as many others have done. He asked a question about the veto power; it is a good question and it is central to what might happen. That French proposal is part of a wider package and the wider debate on Security Council reform. He will doubtless be pleased to hear that I can assure him that the UK wholeheartedly supports the principle that the Security Council must act to stop mass atrocities and crimes against humanity. I am happy to put on the record the fact that I cannot envisage any set of circumstances—I have been thinking about this over the past hour—in which we would use a British veto to stop such an action. In a sense, the difficulty with the proposal was set out in the intervention made by my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree: the problem with reforming the United Nations is always getting the agreement of the five permanent members of the Security Council and agreement more generally. As we have seen on Syria, the likelihood is that any such initiative—clearly we have not yet put it to a vote—would attract a veto from other powers, but the principle is certainly correct.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) in paying tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who really did introduce Rwanda to many of us. She made some excellent points about the development of its economy, and I loved the term “villagisation” and what she said about encouraging exports. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), who has been widely praised for his command of Swahili, made a good point about the BBC World Service, the impartial reporting by the BBC and the role the BBC played in bringing this conflict to the world’s attention. He is absolutely right about not forgetting the survivors and about the benefits of early intervention, and I thank him very much for the work he is undertaking with Project Umubano.

I particularly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) on his work teaching business skills, because if we look at the economic figures in Rwanda, we see that he is clearly having a considerable effect very early on—the benefits of early intervention. He rightly talked about the importance of community engagement.

The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash) is entirely right about the lessons of 1994 and early engagement. I should love to be able to tell her confidently that the lesson has been learnt and the mistake will never be repeated, but, given the way in which the world works, I suspect that that would be over-confident. It could be argued, however, that the key driver in the intervention in the Libyan conflict was the threat of a massacre. She can take some comfort from the fact that people are now thinking in such terms, and that the work of R2P, and other work that is taking place, has made the international community much more focused on the issue than it was 20 years ago. I do not pretend that this is a perfect world, but I think that progress has been made.

I thank the hon. Member for Wrexham for a very elegant summary, and for making the point about the Commonwealth. I agreed with everything he said, and I thank him not only for what he said, but for the way in which he said it.

The events of 20 years ago were sufficiently important to this country for us to send both the Foreign Secretary and the Minister with responsibility for Africa to attend the genocide commemorations in Kigali on 7 April, to pay tribute to the victims and to demonstrate our commitment to Rwanda. I am delighted that so many members of the all-party group were there as well.

In the past 20 years, Rwanda has made astonishing progress, and I use that word advisedly. Poverty levels have been lowered, the Rwandan economy continues to grow, and more and more Rwandans are finding work. Access to education has increased substantially, and girls are given the same access as boys.

It should be a matter of some pride to us that this country has been Rwanda’s long-standing friend. We have been one of its development partners for many years, and we will continue to be a close partner. However, as many have acknowledged, there is much left to do. We will continue to urge the Rwandan Government to address human rights concerns such as freedom of expression, and to ensure that political space is opened. It is important for Rwanda to use its growing confidence to be a force for good in the region and on the international stage. We would have an extraordinarily positive legacy if it were to do that against the backdrop of the dreadful events of 20 years ago.

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