Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:47 pm on 18th December 2000.

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Photo of Lord Avebury Lord Avebury Liberal Democrat 5:47 pm, 18th December 2000

My Lords, the greatest tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, is that every time she raises the subject of Sudan, we all receive this flood of bumph from the European Sudanese Public Affairs Council and the egregious Mr Hoile, who is sometimes referred to as "oily Hoile". Unlike some other noble Lords, I always read his pamphlets with great care, except when they arrive immediately before a debate and I do not have time to do anything more than open them. I can assure Mr Hoile that I shall read his remarks, but not until after the debate. He must send them a little earlier if he wants me to entertain them before I speak.

I have been in correspondence with Mr Hoile on a number of occasions. I have asked him if he would tell me how the European Sudanese Public Affairs Council is financed, and I have yet to receive any response. I should like to know. It is a matter of legitimate interest to everyone who is in receipt of these documents.

Once again, we are greatly in the debt of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for drawing our attention to the formidable problems of Sudan, which has suffered, as she said, from the effects of a civil war of unparalleled ferocity. She pointed out that it has resulted in the deaths of 2 million people and the displacement of another 5 million people.

Like many other countries in Africa, Sudan was carved out by the British imperialists, with no regard to the affinities of its people, bringing together under one sovereignty the Arab and Muslim inhabitants of the north and the African Christian and animist peoples of the south. Not only were those differences the causes of the conflict but, as the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, said, there are many other subdivisions which equally have led to strife among the people. But that is the main division and the reason for this civil war.

It has proved impossible to find a solution through the efforts of IGAD, the forum in which the states of the region come together, mainly because the NIF regime prefers to impose its will on the south by military force rather than to negotiate on the basis of self-determination for the south. However, IGAD has at least produced a Declaration of Principles which calls for a referendum, and the latest talks have been about what areas constitute the south for the purposes of this test of public opinion.

The south has made its own mistakes. Colonel Garang's policy of "New Sudan", which entailed an alliance with northern opposition forces, is in tatters, as the leader of the NDA, Mohamed Osman El Mirghani, prepares to defect and Sadiq el-Mahdi, leader of the Umma Party--as the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, pointed out--made a triumphant return to Khartoum last month, leaving the southerners effectively on their own. The so-called NDA forces, which seem to have been entirely southern SPLA troops, suffered a crushing defeat outsided Hamish Koreib in eastern Sudan at the beginning of November, showing the folly of Garang in trying to widen the conflict into a revolution against the NIF regime throughout the country.

The return of el-Mahdi could be a catalyst for change. He has been characterised in the past as having intrinsically limited support because he is the leader of the Ansar sect, and that is represented by the Umma Party, but it was estimated that as many as 2 million people turned out to meet him when he arrived back in Khartoum on the 23rd November. He immediately struck a conciliatory note when he said to a crowd of several hundred thousand at Friday prayers the day after his return that in a country as diverse as Sudan in terms of culture and religion, there was not going to be an Islamic state. He was even more daring when he pointed out that the laws of Islam as handed down by the Prophet had changed very little, while the world had changed enormously. He said that Muslim scholars and jurisprudence had to adapt and change the laws. El-Mahdi also insists that the agreement he has made with the NIF regime contains the right of self-determination for the south, which is lacking in the Libyan-Egyptian proposals endorsed by the NDA.

While the break between General el-Beshir and Dr Hasan el-Turabi signalled the abandonment of the hard line ideology previously adopted by the regime, and thus prepared the ground for a return to pluralism, it is not yet clear how the Umma Party and the DUP can play any immediate role in determining the policy of the state. The regime was determined to proceed with the presidential and parliamentary elections that are now being held over a 10-day period ending on 23rd December. But in 112 of the 360 constituencies there were no candidates other than those of the government; in the remainder, the main opposition parties urged a boycott and very few people have gone to the polls, at least in Khartoum. The new parliament will thus lack any democratic legitimacy, while in the presidential election el-Beshir's opponents are a former incumbent who was deposed in the coup of 1985 and three unknowns. The real opposition will continue to be extra-parliamentary, and that cannot be a recipe for greater stability in Sudan over the next five years.

On the human rights front, the situation remains as bad as ever. In spite of an order by el-Beshir to stop bombing in the south, warplanes resumed the indiscriminate attacks on civilians in July, as Susan Rice saw for herself when she visited the south last month. The town of Yei has been mentioned several times. It has suffered repeated attacks; an attack in the middle of November killed 40 people and put the only hospital out of action, supposedly as a message to Susan Rice, who was due to visit Yei but did not in fact go there.

Susan Rice met women freed from slavery, and demanded an end to what she called a heinous practice. The UN estimates that 15,000 southerners have been abducted in raids by tribesmen from the north, encouraged by their government, over the past 10 years and taken to the north as slaves.

Although el-Beshir speaks about religious tolerance and co-existence, Christians are not allowed to build churches; apostasy from Islam is punishable by death; and family law is heavily biased against non-Muslims. Students, political activists and human rights defenders are targeted. They are frequently detained without trial, and a number have been murdered by agents of the state.

All these and other issues have been covered by the Special Rapporteur in his report to the General Assembly published in September this year. He confirms allegations that have been made about particular human rights violations associated with oil developments in Upper Nile. Ethnic cleansing has replaced the local Dinka and Nuer people with northern Baggara tribesmen and the oil-producing area is being violently Arabised. I agree with the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that oil is a dangerous catalyst for human rights violations. Although a humanitarian crisis is developing, OLS has been prohibited from bringing in aid, and 40,000 displaced people in Bentiu are mostly in an alarming nutritional state. The Special Rapporteur says that further influxes may be catastrophic.

On top of all the man-made disasters, Sudan is beginning to suffer drought in the south and west of the country, in Darfur and Kordofan. The WFP country office says that food stock levels are at a dangerously low level, cereal prices are rising and livestock prices are plummeting; and wells, dams and other water resources are drying up. About 700,000 people are said to be affected.

What can Britain do? We have provided financial and political support for a permanent negotiating secretariat in Nairobi and we are in regular contact with all the parties, pressing the case for talks and explaining the benefits that peace would bring to the civilian population. I think that we should go further and tell Khartoum that we deplore the resumption of bombing, and that we hope that they will refrain from new offensive operations in the dry season. We should also tell John Garang that he is off-side in opening hostilities anywhere outside the south. We should try to understand what Sadiq el-Mahdi's agenda is, and how this can be pursued outside the framework of parliamentary politics; and we should urge General el-Beshir to hold talks with el-Mahdi, and with the DUP, to establish a basis for returning to a genuine multi-party system based on religious and ethnic equality, and implementation of the IGAD Declaration of Principles.