Darfur

Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 6:57 pm on 5th June 2007.

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Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington 6:57 pm, 5th June 2007

I am grateful to have the opportunity to take part in the important debate on the situation in Darfur, which might be described as Africa's holocaust. Sudan has experienced Africa's longest-running civil war. The notion of liberal interventionism—that powerful western countries have a responsibility to intervene on humanitarian grounds, sometimes stretching the bounds of international law to the limit—has been tainted by the war in Iraq. However, if ever a situation cried out for liberal interventionism, it is that in Darfur.

The humanitarian crisis has touched the conscience of people all over the world. I pay tribute to the work of not only aid agencies, but people in the faith communities, who have kept the issue at the forefront of debate. Indeed, I believe that public opinion has impelled politicians rather than the other way round. That is to the credit of those who are active in aid agencies and faith groups, and ordinary people who have, over the years, written, campaigned and tried to keep the issue where it should be.

During the debate, we have heard about the 4 million displaced people, the hundreds of thousands of people killed, the terrible incidence of rape and the indiscriminate bombing of civilians. One of the intrinsic aspects of the dispute has also been mentioned: it is a war between the Arabs of the north and the Africans of the interior. That is not much discussed. It has been mentioned again and again in the debate that the Sudanese Government seem to think that they can behave with impunity. In the face of all the evidence, all the reports and all the pressure, they are giving tacit support to militia who, in common parlance, are indeed engaged in genocide. The fact that the Sudanese Government believe that they can behave with impunity actually points—despite the best efforts of my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and for International Development—to the ineffectualness of international action so far.

Much has been spoken about the need for sanctions, particularly action against businesses supporting and making money out of the region. I support everything that has been said about the role of sanctions, but we need to bear in mind, as we look forward, that sanctions can play only a short to medium-term role. In the end, as the economist Jeffrey Sachs said, Sudan's underlying problem as a country is that it is desperately impoverished with a terrible lack of water and food. Underlying the ethnic nature of some of the conflict is a desperate struggle for scarce resources. When the politicians are finally able to broker some sort of peace settlement, what will be needed in Sudan is not a sigh of relief and turning to the next international crisis, but a genuine economic restructuring. That would be the appropriate aim from the west.

I want to say a few words about the point raised by Tony Baldry about the framework of international law, especially when it comes to humanitarian interventions. I served on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee during the 1997 Parliament. It conducted an inquiry into international law in relation to humanitarian interventions in the particular context of Kosovo. We had hearing after hearing and dealt with vast piles of papers. Having dutifully waded through them and dutifully listened to the international lawyers, I realised that international law on humanitarian interventionism is really what the last lawyer told us it was. It is work in progress. If we believe, as I do, that there are times and places where liberal interventionism is really called for, we need to seek in the longer term a more robust legal framework.

I did not vote in favour of the war in Iraq, which for me was outside the framework of international law. I believe that we cannot allow that sort of American-led intervention, but that is not to say that there is never a case for liberal intervention. Actually, the framework of international law that applies at this point does not allow for it. While dealing with the immediate and pressing problems in Darfur and elsewhere, international institutions need to work on a framework, on a code, and on getting resources for those that would make it possible to have genuine humanitarian interventions that can go forward with the support of the whole international community and cannot be blocked by individual members of the Security Council, which may well have their own narrow selfish interests rather than relieving genuine suffering at heart.

I believe that the role of the African Union force is vital. The way forward in this sort of international crisis is not direct western military intervention, but greater reliance on properly funded and supported regional forces. I hope that the EU, Britain and, of course, the UN will do all they can to support and allow the African Union force to continue its work. Ideally, as has been said, it should be a hybrid force of the African Union and the European Union. However, in this sort of crisis we should look first and foremost to a regional force rather than to the UN, although such a regional force should have UN backing. The African Union has done some good work in Sudan in practice, but it is important to support the work of the African Union force in principle—financially and in many other ways. I very much support what has been said about the need to take action against the different business and financial interests that are benefiting from their investments in the region.

I congratulate my right hon. Friends on allowing us to debate this issue in Government time. There were divisions among all the parties on the issue of Iraq. If the notion of liberal and humanitarian interventionism is to be rehabilitated—sadly, in the cruel, violent and economically unstable world in which we live, it must be—the surest way of doing so is for the international community to be seen to act effectively and decisively—politically socially and, if necessary, militarily—to end the tragedy in Sudan.