Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:36 pm on 30th March 2009.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham 8:36 pm, 30th March 2009

It is a pleasure for me to follow Mike Gapes, who has vast experience of international affairs stretching back a number of decades, and which experience he deploys to full effect in chairing the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs.

A little earlier, my hon. Friend Tony Baldry lamented the lack of contributions on the subject of Darfur, though I can safely say that he virtually single-handedly atoned for that error of omission. However, if I needed any encouragement and exhortation to speak on the subject, my hon. Friend generously provided it, and I would like to focus narrowly my remarks on the subject of Darfur, which I regard as one of the greatest humanitarian crises continuing to unfold in the world today.

Reference was made earlier in the debate to the issue of the International Criminal Court warrant against President Bashir, and to the immediate and wholly unjustified consequence that 13 international aid agencies were expelled from the country, together with a number of others whose work was curtailed. Inevitably, that has had a deleterious consequence, which was entirely predictable and will not cause the slightest loss of sleep to one of the worst tyrants and thugs on the face of the planet—namely, Bashir himself.

It is important to note, however, something that is factually established, with the signature of the Government of Sudan, and which is therefore clear beyond doubt or argument. There was a joint United Nations-Government of Sudan humanitarian assessment of the situation in Darfur between 11 and 19 March this year, culminating in the issue of a joint report on 25 March. It makes sobering, and perhaps harrowing, reading. What that assessment found was significant: approximately 650,000 people in the region were judged not to have access to full health care; feeding programmes for pregnant women and for malnourished children continue to be disrupted; and 1.1 million people who are currently receiving food rations as a result of the emergency two-month programme under the auspices of the World Food Programme stand to cease to receive those rations unless alternative sources of supply are urgently identified and delivered.

As if all that were not sufficiently grievous, we have to reckon with the UN warning of imminent and major water shortages, which are on the way as sure as night follows day. The implication of that, of course, is that we face a double whammy of humanitarian crisis. Not merely is the ugly phenomenon of thirst and hunger likely soon to be exacerbated, we face in addition the prospect of an exponential increase in diarrhoea, cholera and a plethora of water-borne diseases. If we reflect on the significance of those water shortages—the damage to sanitation, the impact upon hygiene, the detrimental effect on waste management—and of the withdrawal of a vast repository of professional expertise in international NGOs, the consequences for some of the most vulnerable people on the face of the earth scarcely bear contemplation. Yet we have a duty to contemplate them and decide within the international community what action is to be taken.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury rued the inadequate reference to the subject, and one might add that, in addition to our not having said much about the humanitarian crisis that is continuing to engulf the people of Darfur, we have said next to nothing about the security situation and particularly its interrelationship with the humanitarian aid effort. The truth can be starkly stated. Aid workers go about their business not in a congenial or even moderately benign climate but, to their enduring credit, in a climate of fear, suspicion and apprehension about what will happen to them or to those whom they are seeking to help.

There are recent examples that underline that point. Very recently, three Médecins sans Frontières workers were kidnapped by a pro-Bashir militia and taken away from the line of duty and the people whom they wanted to help. As if that were not bad enough, as recently as two weeks ago on 16 March a local employee of a Canadian aid agency was shot dead. It behoves the House, the Government and the international community to decide what is to be its response to the wholly unacceptable situation in which a thuggish and tyrannical regime is cocking a snook at the international community and entertaining, apparently without any concern at all, the prospect of an even worse humanitarian plight in weeks to come than has obtained to date. We must have a response to that.

I look forward to the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, Mr. Lewis, offering the House the Government's assessment of the scale of identifiable need both now and in a couple of months' time when the wet season comes. I should appreciate it if he could give some indication of how the Government and the international community intend to plug the gaps in aid delivery, and how they intend to finalise that planning now so that deliveries can come on stream when the World Food Programme withdraws.

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