By Linda McAvan, LCID Vice-President, Labour MEP for Yorkshire and The Humber and Chair of the European Parliament’s International Development Committee
A visit to the Panzi hospital in Bukavu, Eastern Congo, is a journey into hope and despair in equal measure. The hospital is run by Dr Denis Mukwege, a gynaecologist specialising in treating the victims of sexual violence in this conflict-ridden region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the biggest country in Central Africa. DRC is a country with huge mineral wealth, but one which lies at the bottom of the Human Development Index – 187 out of 187.
Dr Mukwege is a truly extraordinary man who not only treats the victims, but speaks out against the perpetrators, and has survived two attempts on his life since he received the Sakharov Prize for Human Rights from the European Parliament last November. His hospital is now protected by UN troops and he himself is largely confined to the hospital grounds for his own safety. The motto of the hospital is Dire La Verité – Speak the Truth – and the estimated 45,000 victims treated there over the last two decades, women and children, some as young as six months old, are given not just medical treatment, but psychological support and encouragement to speak out to bring the perpetrators to justice. When we met some of them at the hospital, they pleaded with us to protect Dr Mukwege and support efforts to stabilise the region.
The violence in Eastern Congo largely stems from instability linked to one of the worst atrocities of modern times: the Rwandan genocide of 1994. After the slaughter of an estimated 800,000 Tutsis, over a million Hutus fled over the border into Eastern Congo, fearing reprisals as the Tutsi-led army moved in to take over the country. In the years that followed some returned home to Rwanda and took part in reconciliation efforts, but others remained as armed gangs, living off the proceeds of illegal mineral mining. It is these armed gangs and the soldiers and police sent to fight them who carry out most of the rapes. And it is these same “conflict minerals” that all too often find their way into our mobile phones and other electronic devices.
The aim of our trip was therefore twofold: to support Dr Mukwege and his work, and to build support for a new EU law to regulate conflict minerals by banning these illegal minerals from the EU market. A draft law is currently before the European Parliament and ministers from the EU’s 28 countries. But the draft is weak, only requiring voluntary measures by industry. Labour MEPs and our allies want a mandatory law. Our Tory-led government is opposing the mandatory approach and last week, in a major blow, Tories joined UKIP MEPs and others on the right to block tougher measures at the committee stage of the law.
Labour MEPs and our allies will now re-table amendments in the hope that the full parliament will back them at a vote in May. Dr Mukwege has now written to all MEPs urging them to back tough, mandatory rules. Similar letters have come from Bishops, human rights organisations and other NGOs. Having seen what we saw in Bukavu, we must not let these calls fall on deaf ears.
Grassroots organisations and members of the public can help in the campaign by writing to MEPs ahead of the vote on May 18th and after the election, contacting ministers and MPs. Only a mandatory law, making the minerals traceable, will ensure that the minerals no longer fuel conflict and there can be space for real development in the DRC and elsewhere.