Sudan: Darfur

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:17 pm on 30th January 2007.

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Photo of Lord Chidgey Lord Chidgey Liberal Democrat 8:17 pm, 30th January 2007

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, on bringing this debate before us tonight and on the most eloquent and forceful way in which he made the points to which we all listened and to which so many noble Lords have responded with equal concern.

This is an ongoing debate. Only recently, on 26 January, the Secretary of State for International Development, Mr Hilary Benn MP, issued a statement in response to the arrest of 20 UN, NGO and AU staff by the Sudanese police and national security on 19 January. He commented on their subsequent verbal and physical abuse, including sexual assault:

"I utterly condemn these appalling attacks by the Sudanese authorities on those who are in Darfur to help the victims of the terrible conflict there. The Government of Sudan has an obligation to uphold the human rights and fundamental freedoms to which it is committed by both peace agreements and international convention".

On 23 January, in your Lordships' House, my noble friend Lady Northover asked a Question about the response of the UK Government to the UN's warning that its agencies were having difficulty holding the line on Darfur. The Lord President of the Council, the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, replied:

"We are extremely worried about the humanitarian situation".

She also said:

"I utterly condemn the rising violence ... against aid workers ... struggling to deliver vital assistance to nearly 4 million people".—[Hansard, 23/1/07; col. 1002.]

One cannot but agree absolutely with that condemnation and those sentiments, but we must press for action to match that condemnation. We need to be seen to be doing more than joining in the collective wringing of hands. The noble Baroness, Lady Amos, called for all sides to provide safe and unhindered access throughout Darfur. She also noted that movement was slow in consolidating a ceasefire in a renewed political process and on the hybrid AU/UN peacekeeping force to which the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, referred.

Will the Minister tell your Lordships' House whether there have been any signs in the past seven or 10 days of the Government of Sudan recognising any of their obligations, and any signs of a quickening of the movement on the issues to which the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, drew attention in your Lordships' House? I ask this in the light of two important events in relation to Darfur and Sudan in those seven to 10 days. First, and in particular, the African Union has again bypassed Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir in his bid to become chairman of the African Union because of the conflict in Darfur, as a result of enormous pressure from other African countries, the international community, aid agencies and so forth against the president's campaign.

Secondly, Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary-General, made a speech at the AU summit in Addis Ababa—the Minister attended that summit and may well have heard him in person—in which he called for the African Union to show a unity of purpose in bringing peace to Darfur. As war-torn Darfur is now considered to be the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, there is an urgent call for Africa's leaders to show the same unity of purpose and partnership with the UN that brought peace to Burundi and Sierra Leone. Mr Ban went on to say:

"How Africa fares in reaching the Millennium Goals is a matter of life and death for millions of Africans. It is also a test of the ability of the UN to carry out the mandate our membership has given us. It will be one of my priorities to ensure that we meet that test and I will strengthen the organisation of the UN accordingly".

Will the Minister tell us whether he agrees that if, as the UN says, Darfur is the world's largest humanitarian crisis, it is a touchstone to achieving the unity and commitment for which Mr Ban is calling? By the same token, should it not be the focus of additional UN resources that strengthening the organisation must imply? Does he also agree that the UK Government could, and I suggest should, address the effectiveness of the UN Human Rights Council? Is the Minister aware that the effectiveness of that council has been at issue since the rift developed between western members and African and Islamic states? Does he think that the council carries less weight now on this issue, particularly given its new composition? Does he therefore agree that the UK Government could be pressing the council to do more, outside as well as inside Darfur? Should the United Kingdom be pressing the council to use its special procedures mechanisms to do more than simply appoint its country-specific rapporteur to investigate human rights abuses in-country in Sudan after receiving an invitation to do so, in due course reporting internally to the council? Should not the United Kingdom press the Human Rights Council to act now, without waiting for an invitation, by appointing a thematic rapporteur to investigate the wealth of evidence already in existence outside Darfur on extra-judicial killings and the violation of women, which continues to be rampant in Darfur?

Most importantly, should not the United Kingdom Government emphasise that the benefits of having a thematic rapporteur who reports independently on the council's investigations and publishes its reports to the international community—not just internally reporting to the Human Rights Council, from whence it may never emerge—is a far more effective way of keeping the issues of Darfur on the centre of the international stage?