Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:42 pm on 7th October 2002.

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Photo of Baroness Rawlings Baroness Rawlings Conservative 8:42 pm, 7th October 2002

My Lords, once again I congratulate my noble friend Lady Cox on initiating this important debate. It is especially important that we discuss the situation in Sudan regularly because, as many of your Lordships have pointed out, it is extremely volatile and subject to almost weekly change.

It is also a timely debate because the peace process in Sudan is at a crucial point. At present, Sudan has the prospect of negotiating a lasting settlement. The Machakos protocol represents the latest series of talks between the Sudanese Government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army. Although negotiations broke down during early September, I understand that talks are due to resume in a week's time. This should be welcomed. It will come as a massive relief to the millions of Sudanese longing for an end to Africa's longest-running war.

Fighting, however, has not ceased completely. As your Lordships know, the Sudanese situation is so complex that ostensible progress towards peace is rarely an unqualified success. Only last week the National Democratic Alliance, which includes the SPLA as its largest component, said it had taken a town on the Sudanese-Eritrean border. It is clearly very difficult to comment constructively on a situation that changes virtually from week to week.

It is for this reason that I should like to focus today on the humanitarian situation in the Sudan, in which the prevailing conditions are rather more sustained. Although the resumption of talks represents welcome progress, unmitigated civil unrest has taken its toll on the Sudanese. The figures are well rehearsed and I firmly believe that we have a moral and political responsibility to act. Anyone familiar with the history of the Sudan will recognise that Britain has certain responsibilities towards that country. The current global situation demands that we deal with the barbarous circumstances in countries like Sudan, which we should remember was the haven of Osama bin Laden before he moved to Afghanistan.

I should like to say a few words on the way I perceive the humanitarian situation to be affected by other events in Sudan. I speak with due humility, given the expertise that exists among noble Lords who have already spoken. The single most important factor in starting to deal with the terrible problems of the Sudanese is to initiate a genuine ceasefire. As my noble friend Lady Cox mentioned, it is all too easy to see the problems in Sudan as a jihad between the Muslim north and the Christian and animist south. The logical conclusion is that any lasting peace settlement in Sudan should be firmly rooted in secular democracy, with religious freedom as a pre-requisite for lasting peace.

However, each group involved in the peace process has its own agenda, be that dominance of the country, exploitation of oil revenues or independence and secession from the state of Sudan as we see it now. Clearly Sudan's problems cannot be solved by peace talks designed specifically to address religious conflict. If a ceasefire is a prerequisite for progress and the improvement of people's lives, the possibility of achieving one is hampered by the different interest groups wrangling for supremacy.

As we have already heard, Sudan's oil resources present the peace process with a major problem and cannot be separated from recent developments within the country. Time and again we are forced to acknowledge that the drive for self-determination is hampered by oil. The NIF government see oil as the factor that gives them the decisive advantage in the war against the rebel groups. On the other hand, the SPLA has focused its campaign on damaging the oilfields as a means of hitting the government's revenues. I do not think that the answer is to halt Sudan's oil production. Making the country poorer cannot be an answer. Until a settlement is properly founded the Sudanese oil revenues will do nothing for the population as a whole.

My noble friend Lord Moynihan forcefully stressed that now is a crucially important time for the peace talks to address the problems that will determine the future of the Sudanese. It is also a crucial time for the international community to determine its engagement with the peace process. A determined, internationally-supported drive for peace is essential if the conditions for development, increased respect for human rights and justice are to triumph.

I should be grateful if the Minister would explain to your Lordships' House how the Government intend to respond to the resumption of the peace talks; how they perceive the future of Britain's relationship with the Sudan; and what progress is likely to be made to alleviate this long-standing humanitarian crisis. Specifically, I should be interested to learn what consideration the Government have given to the recommendations of the International Crisis Group. These recommendations should be regarded as an important starting point in any discussion on the next steps to be taken in securing peace for the Sudanese.