Sudan: Darfur

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:30 pm on 1st November 2004.

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Photo of Baroness Cox Baroness Cox Crossbench 2:30 pm, 1st November 2004

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is their response to recent developments in Sudan, with particular reference to the crisis in Darfur.

My Lords, I am most grateful for the opportunity to raise this Question tonight as the situation in Sudan is so grave, and I am deeply grateful to all noble Lords who will be speaking. My only regret is that, given the short notice for the Question, some other noble Lords who would also have made valuable contributions cannot be here. I refer in particular to my noble friend Lord Alton who has recently visited Darfur. I have read his detailed report, and his findings inform my contribution.

The toll of human suffering in Darfur includes 70,000 killed and 1.6 million displaced, with 200,000 who have fled to Chad, as well as countless victims of atrocities such as torture and rape. UNHCR's recent report, Volume 3, 2004, describes Darfur as, "today's worst humanitarian crisis", and graphically portrays the horrors inflicted on countless innocent civilians. I quote:

"Gunmen on horseback killed indiscriminately, raped, pillaged and torched the mud-brick houses".

Detailed stories of individual horror show the human agony and anguish behind the statistics and generalities:

"They ripped my child from my back, and when they saw he was a boy, they killed him in front of me".

Numerous other reports, such as the Human Rights Watch report in May this year, Darfur destroyed: ethnic cleansing by government and militia forces in western Sudan, give details of mass killings of civilians, looting and destruction of property, burning of crops, aerial bombardment and mass rapes. There have also been credible, authoritative reports of the use of chemical weapons, specifically micotoxins, by the Government in Sudan in conjunction with Syrian experts. The catalogue of atrocity and man-made suffering is endless and horrendous.

There are of course complex issues behind this conflict. The local population has long felt marginalised and deeply concerned about lack of involvement in discussions and decisions concerning the distribution of wealth and power in a future Sudan, prompting some of the rebel insurrection. However, the response of the Government of Sudan has been brutal, involving support from the infamous Janjaweed, which has been a major force in the widespread attacks on civilians and the appalling catalogue of death, destruction and atrocities. Forces of the Government of Sudan have also been heavily involved themselves in offences against civilians, and the infamous aerial attacks by low flying helicopters and bombardment from higher flying Antonovs. There is indeed a strong case for indictment of the Government of Sudan for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Some of this horror has been publicised by the media which have, belatedly, focused on Sudan. Images of the horrors of Darfur have appeared on our television screens, while many accounts and analyses have featured in the print media. Such coverage has helped to bring pressure to bear on national governments, international organisations and aid agencies to try to alleviate the humanitarian crisis, to bring about a ceasefire and to hasten a political solution.

However, any solution to the tragedy of Darfur must be set in the wider context of the long-running war in Sudan. Tragically, the media arrived too late for the 2 million people already dead and over 4 million already displaced in other parts of Sudan. Since the National Islamic Front regime seized power in 1989, I have made 27 visits to areas it has designated as "no go" to United Nations Operation Lifelines Sudan and other aid agencies. I have walked through killing fields similar to those of Darfur, in Bahr-el-Ghazal, the Nuba mountains, western and eastern Upper Nile and southern Blue Nile. I have also witnessed the suffering inflicted on the Beja people, driven from their lands into the harsh deserts of eastern Sudan, and the deliberate bombing of hospitals and feeding centres in many parts of southern Sudan administered by the SPLM.

Many commentators continue to speak and write powerful and well-justified criticisms of the Government of Sudan's genocidal policies. I respect and endorse their concerns.

However, it is perhaps time also to turn to endeavours to bring more humanitarian relief, which is urgently needed if many more thousands of lives are not to be lost in the near future, and also to political initiatives to bring peace and justice to all the people of Sudan. In doing so, perhaps I may pay tribute to all the efforts which have been made in numerous peace initiatives—culminating in Navaisha and Abuja, and the recent announcement that the UN Security Council will be convening two meetings in Nairobi. The US Ambassador to the United Nations, John Danforth, has claimed:

"This is certainly more than symbolism. It furthers the peace process in Sudan [and] is an opportunity for the Security Council to demonstrate to all sides in Sudan that the international community is not going to go away".

Many other initiatives are already under way, such as the deployment of African Union forces, although there are widespread concerns over delays in their availability and the adequacy of their capability. Other responses are also being advocated which will, I am sure, be mentioned by other noble Lords and by the Minister.

Perhaps I may limit myself to one recent development that involves an organisation which I was privileged to help to launch last year in Indonesia: the International Islamic-Christian Organisation for Reconciliation and Reconstruction, which abbreviates to IICORR. We have been able to play a constructive role in the conflict areas of Maluku, and we have been grateful to receive support from Her Majesty's Government in this process.

I have recently been approached by representatives of key political groups in Khartoum, including some within the government, to ask IICORR to help to develop comprehensive peace initiatives and political solutions which will be necessary if democracy and civil society are to develop in Sudan. I therefore welcome the opportunity to raise that possibility here tonight. I realise that the Minister may not be in a position to make any commitment this evening, but she may be aware that two weeks ago I wrote to her honourable friend Chris Mullin, the Minister, on this matter, and I hope that Her Majesty's Government might be willing to consider this proposal sympathetically in due course.

Given IICORR's commitment to working with representatives of different faith traditions and its credibility in helping to promote reconciliation and reconstruction—the two must go hand in hand—in conflict zones in Indonesia, we are pleased that some of the key players in Sudan see our organisation as possibly being in a position to play an appropriate role there, in particular given that I have been such a long-standing and outspoken critic of the Government of Sudan's record of gross violations of human rights.

I am always prepared to listen to genuine proposals for peace and policies genuinely intended to bring justice for all the people of Sudan, and if IICORR could play a helpful role—with the blessing of Her Majesty's Government and, perhaps I may dare to suggest, appropriate support—we in IICORR would be happy to make whatever contribution we could.

But I must naturally emphasise the caveat that I am aware that one partner to any negotiations will be a regime with incalculable quantities of blood on its hands, which has repeatedly continued to kill even while it talked peace. Therefore there will be a need for clear-cut conditions and safeguards built into any initiatives to ensure that we are not crying "peace" when there is no peace. This requirement is of course inherent in any peace process, whether IICORR is involved or not.

Any viable peace process must include modalities for oversight by experts and independent verification that commitments made by the various participants are fulfilled. Moreover, while it is sometimes advisable to conduct negotiations discreetly, there must still be complete transparency as far as many elements of the peace-making process are concerned.

I conclude by thanking once again all those contributing to this debate, for addressing the continuing tragedy in Sudan and highlighting the agonies of its long-suffering people. I look forward very much to the Minister's reply, which will be heard with great interest by all concerned—those who are suffering, those who are trying to bring relief, and those who are trying to achieve a peaceful settlement which will not betray any who deserve justice.

This is a critical time for Sudan. The enormous toll of man-made agonies inflicted on its people, much of it untold, has been allowed to continue for far too long. It is my hope and prayer that there may be some rays of hope on that dark horizon in the form of initiatives which will help to bring reconciliation based on realism. For only on that basis can there be a true and lasting peace so yearned for by the vast majority of the people of Sudan.