My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for initiating this debate. Achieving peace and stability in any region that has been ravaged by war and has a wealth of cultural differences is always a challenge. In this region of Africa, the task is that much greater as these variations are coupled with intense poverty and tribal intolerance. Since independence from Britain in 1956 and the subsequent civil war, Sudanese politics has been characterised by violence, ethnic and religious prejudice. Sudan's vast area, 133 languages and mineral wealth should have given it great responsibility and influence. It has yet to rise to this challenge.
National elections in Sudan are scheduled to take place in April this year. The continent's longest civil war formally ceased with the ratification in Kenya of the 2005 comprehensive peace agreement. The CPA has been successful in returning thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons to southern Sudan. The agreement has enjoyed further success with the creation of the Abyei Boundary Commission. The comprehensive peace agreement will expire in July 2011.
It is encouraging to see that the vice-president of Sudan and his counterpart in southern Sudan have reached an agreement on increasing the allocation of seats in the National Assembly for southern Sudan. The recent approvals of the southern Sudanese referendum law and legislation that will determine the future of the Abyei region are also positive developments. Both Governments must now agree to accept the results of these imminent elections. Southern Sudan will vote in January 2011 on secession. The Sudan People's Liberation Movement has expressed its concern about a clause in the Bill that would allow the use of absentee ballots for southerners who live outside the territory. A census produced by the Sudanese Government suggests that over half a million southerners live in northern Sudan at present. This figure has been disputed by a number of officials in the south.
The Government of southern Sudan have welcomed the Abyei Referendum Bill. Residents of the Abyei region, which has significant mineral wealth, will be able to decide whether to continue as part of northern Sudan in the southern Korfordan state or to revert back to being part of southern Sudan. This decision has not been welcomed by all southerners. Representatives from the Misseriya tribe of Abyei have asked President al-Bashir not to ratify the Abyei referendum law. The Misseriya group in the National Assembly left the parliament in protest before the Bill was announced, as the Bill does not give the Misseriya people the right to vote. Some members of the tribe see this as discrimination and have pledged to disrupt the result of the vote if the Bill is not amended in their favour. The Speaker of the Assembly has stated that the Bill would not be amended and participation in the Abyei vote is the decision of the commission, which will be chosen by the National Congress Party and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement. Members of the SPLM have argued that the comprehensive peace agreement only grants the Misseriya people access to water and grazing for their cattle.
This dispute reflects the extent to which Sudan is a fractured state. The complex nature of this disagreement should serve as a reminder to the international community that Sudanese politics should not be viewed in simplistic regional terms. Tribal divisions within the SPLM have also contributed to the volatile situation in southern Sudan. Violence in the region resulted in 1,200 deaths last year. Most of the unrest has occurred in Jonglei, which is the biggest state in the south, and hostilities among southerners could cause the election in 2011 to be postponed. The Government of southern Sudan must take steps to improve security in the region to avoid the outbreak of a civil war. The current climate in the region suggests that more efforts should be made to bring extra security to southern Sudan. Does the Minister agree that the African Union could play a vital role in bringing peace to the region? If so, what steps will the Government take to support an enhanced role for the union?
I welcome the decision taken last month by Chad and Sudan to renew discussions about promoting peace on their mutual border after years of tense relations. I am optimistic that the meeting scheduled to take place in Chad today will result in a significant breakthrough for the security of the region. The historic context of diplomatic difficulties between Chad and Sudan has its foundations in the Darfuri conflict and ethnic identity. Tribal identity is at the heart of the unrest that has devastated this region. The obvious lack of confidence of the citizens in the state and the constant struggle for food, land and resources have caused some people to seek militia groups rather than the Government for protection. The Janjaweed in particular bypasses national divisions to recruit members along tribal lines. An improvement in relations between Chad and Sudan will contribute to achieving peace in Darfur, where approximately 300,000 people have died since hostilities began in 2003. Darfur has resulted in 3 million people being displaced, a number of whom have crossed the border into eastern Chad.
The instability in the region also has implications for the elephant population in Chad. Janjaweed militiamen have been raiding Zakouma National Park and areas surrounding the shared border, killing elephants for their ivory. As a consequence, the elephant population in the park has been significantly reduced. The profits gained from selling ivory have helped the Janjaweed and other militias to purchase weapons and to finance their operations in Chad and Sudan.
The activities of the Lord's Resistance Army in the region have caused a number of refugees to seek asylum in both Chad and Sudan. The terror unleashed by the LRA is one of the main stumbling blocks to peace in the region. The United Nations was forced to suspend humanitarian work in Sudan near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo as a result of sustained attacks from the Ugandan LRA rebels. The LRA and other militias in that region have unashamedly abused women and children in their quest for power. The international community must put greater pressure on the Sudanese Government to implement the recommendations made as a result of the Doha peace process and the Sudan People's Initiative. A successful resolution of violence in Darfur will become a reality only if regional dialogue among the neighbouring countries is implemented. There are humanitarian implications, with widespread malnutrition among infants and a scarcity of resources as a whole.
The progress that Sudan has made in the last few weeks is to be commended. Greater challenges lie ahead over the next 12 months. We have a duty as part of the international community to assist both Sudanese Governments in making sure that all elections held over the next year are free and fair. The Abyei dispute must be monitored to ensure that it does not result in violence between the Ngok Dinka and Misseriya tribes. Tribalism is viewed as far superior to nationalism in this region. We must therefore respect this outlook in our dealings with all groups in Sudan.
Sudan is the largest country in Africa. We have a historic connection with Sudan. We need to continue to work towards resolving the political, tribal and humanitarian problems in order to achieve peace and prosperity not only in Sudan but in Africa as a whole. With regard to humanitarian issues, I declare that I am the chairman of the Sheikh Abdullah Foundation and that my charity has undertaken humanitarian work in Sudan. The Muslim charities in the United Kingdom have now agreed to work in harmony when carrying out aid work in Sudan and I hope that we can all undertake good work there.