Terrorism: Charities and NGOs

– in the House of Lords at 2:36 pm on 23rd October 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Rawlings Baroness Rawlings Shadow Minister, International Development 2:36 pm, 23rd October 2007

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What measures they are taking to protect British charities and non-governmental organisations from terrorist attacks or hostilities conducted by foreign Governments when abroad.

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN)

My Lords, to help NGOs and the British public to take informed decisions on where to travel and work, the FCO provides advice on the threat from terrorism or hostilities, primarily through our travel advice and the Security for Information Service for Business Overseas—SISBO. This advice draws continuously from a wide variety of sources, including the local knowledge and experiences of the FCO's posts overseas and intelligence sources. We also encourage NGOs to avail themselves of the UN and NGO security networks in the countries in which they work.

Photo of Baroness Rawlings Baroness Rawlings Shadow Minister, International Development

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his helpful reply. In light of the continuing violence in Darfur and the even greater necessity for the unhindered and uninhibited delivery of humanitarian assistance, what are the Government doing to secure the full co-operation of the Sudanese Government in protecting British charities and NGOs from official interference?

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN)

My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right to be concerned about the situation in Darfur, where there is a continuous loss of life among relief workers, as there is among the refugees more generally. There is also limited access to Darfur for humanitarian work because of this. I have, during my visit to Khartoum and Darfur, insisted to the Government in Khartoum that it is vital both that there is full access to all Darfur for British and other humanitarian workers and that they are safe when they travel. The NGOs are part of a network of NGOs that co-operates closely with the UN on security matters to try to give them as much protection as they can get in that dangerous place.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Deputy Leader, House of Lords, Spokesperson in the Lords, Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords, Home Affairs

My Lords, does the Minister accept that it is in the nature of civil society organisations and non-governmental organisations while working abroad not to wish to be too closely associated with their home Government, and that it is therefore quite correct that the British Government should not lobby primarily on behalf of British NGOs but should work with other Governments so far as possible to help to promote security for all non-governmental organisations working in some of these dangerous areas?

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN)

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite correct. We are careful to ensure that we speak on behalf of all international, and indeed Sudanese, NGOs. However, let me again draw attention to the fact that British NGOs are—God bless them—very active in Sudan, and are therefore particularly at risk.

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench

My Lords, can the Minister tell us who was responsible for the killing on 17 October of three humanitarian workers working on behalf of the World Food Programme in Darfur to try to deliver food aid there? What does he say to the comment of the co-ordinator of the United Nations humanitarian affairs group that there was a 100 per cent increase in attacks on humanitarian aid workers in August and September? Given that at least 200,000 people have been killed there, 2 million people have been displaced, and 90 per cent of the villages have been razed to the ground, when will an effective peacekeeping operation be put into place in Darfur and Chad?

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN)

My Lords, the noble Lord will forgive me if I cannot speculate on exact responsibilities for the deaths of the WFP workers, but I will get back to him with what detail we have. More generally, the violence had receded for a period in Darfur—the statistics that he mentions of 2 million displaced and several hundred thousand dead largely refer to the period several years ago—but it has peaked again in recent weeks, admittedly at a lower level. We believe that that is in the run-up to the peace talks, which will begin on 27 October in Tripoli, Libya, as all sides try to maximise their control of territory in advance of those talks. The Prime Minister made it clear in the other House that the number one task of the Tripoli talks is to consider a ceasefire—and we hope that it will be achieved on the first day.

Photo of Lord Jay of Ewelme Lord Jay of Ewelme Crossbench

My Lords, I must declare an interest as chairman of an NGO called Merlin, which provides medical help in some of the most dangerous parts of the world, including Sudan and eastern Congo, where I was recently. Does the Minister agree that it is in the nature of many NGOs to operate in places where the FCO, important though its advice is, would strongly advise them not to go? In those circumstances, the crucial thing is that they are able to rely in particular on the United Nations and its organisations to help to co-ordinate the security that they need.

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN)

My Lords, the noble Lord puts me in a difficult position: it is hard for me to say that FCO advice is not always right. Like him, I have a background in NGOs and I know that sometimes its advice is to be taken and then ignored if you believe that the balance of risk is one that you as an organisation and an individual can bear on behalf of your sacred mission, which is to provide humanitarian relief to people who otherwise would not receive it.

Photo of Baroness Rawlings Baroness Rawlings Shadow Minister, International Development

My Lords, how are the Government tackling threats to the safety of British charities and non-governmental organisations that are working in Russia?

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN)

My Lords, the noble Baroness asks a difficult question, and I reserve the right to come back with a supplementary answer. This has been a problem for all international NGOs working in Russia, particularly in the areas of human rights and democracy building. Many of them have seen new restraint on their action and new law that she is well aware of, all of which is making their position increasingly difficult. We, like they, are fighting to preserve freedoms in Russia, particularly the freedom for international and Russian civil society to operate openly and to contribute to the political debate in that country.

Photo of Baroness Gardner of Parkes Baroness Gardner of Parkes Conservative

My Lords, I was chairman of an NGO that had to pull out of one of the Latin American countries during an absolute crisis, when people were not safe at all. Will any thought be given at the meeting in Tripoli to whether it is possible that some kind of identification could be provided for NGO workers? It is accepted worldwide that a person wearing the red cross should be safe, although they are not always safe. Is equivalent thought being applied to something that would be acceptable for humanitarian NGOs?

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN)

My Lords, the noble Baroness is aware, and has implied in her question, that the red cross and, indeed, the blue flag and helmets of the United Nations, have increasingly—sadly—in recent years made them targets rather than protecting them. There is no doubt that when attacks on NGO workers occur, increasingly it is because people know perfectly well that they are humanitarian workers, and that, sadly in the modern world, has made them a political target rather than something to be protected because of their neutrality.