South Sudan — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:23 pm on 24th March 2014.

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Photo of Baroness Warsi Baroness Warsi Senior Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Jointly with the Department for Communities and Local Government), Senior Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Faith and Communities) (also in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 7:23 pm, 24th March 2014

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Chidgey for tabling today’s debate, and to noble Lords for allowing me to adjourn the House for a short period to allow as many speakers as possible to take part. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part for their contributions. I also take this opportunity to commend the continued work of the All-Party Group on Sudan and South Sudan, of which I know that my noble friend is a member, as are other noble Lords here tonight. Their work ensures that parliamentarians of all parties are kept informed as the tragedy in the region continues to unfold and helps to raise awareness of the dire humanitarian situation facing millions.

This House’s continuing interest in both countries is evident from the last six months, in which we have had two debates, three Oral Questions and over 50 Written Parliamentary Questions. Since I updated your Lordships on 7 January, the picture has got no better. Huge efforts by IGAD, the African Union and the UK and its partners were put into getting the two sides to sign a cessation of hostilities agreement, which happened on 23 January. Not only have both sides blatantly disregarded it but they are showing no sense of urgency in political talks. The Government, in particular, have resorted to unacceptable rhetoric against UNMISS.

Through our Ministers and our special envoy we continue to work closely with the IGAD countries, the troika and the EU to try to move entrenched mindsets. We are providing both financial support and technical expertise to the IGAD process. In the Security Council we are making it clear that UNMISS should prioritise the protection of civilians, the facilitation of humanitarian assistance and the investigation of human rights.

The African Union has now established its commission of inquiry into alleged human rights violations. We fully support that commission and look forward to its findings. In the mean time, a report from UNMISS has made clear the depth and scale of human rights atrocities by both sides. These include extrajudicial killings, targeting of civilians, torture, recruitment of children and sexual violence.

My noble friend Lord Chidgey spoke about the commission of inquiry. We recognise the capacity limitations that the African Union faces and are encouraging it to liaise closely with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and UNMISS, and we welcome the efforts UNMISS, Human Rights Watch and others have already made to report these atrocities.

The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and other noble Lords referred to the dire humanitarian situation. It is getting worse. More than 900,000 people have been forced from their homes. Around 75,000 are still sheltering in UN compounds in appalling conditions. The UN has declared a level 3 emergency—the highest level of humanitarian crisis. In response to my noble friend Lord Avebury and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, I can confirm that there is a very real risk of famine. We have responded by committing an extra £39.5 million for emergency assistance. This is helping to provide food, shelter, water, sanitation and tents, which afford some privacy to women, girls and young children. We are pressing all sides to ensure that unhindered access is given to humanitarian agencies.

We are, however, reviewing with the UN humanitarian country team and other donors how best to reach displaced populations that are on the move because of the security situation. This was a priority issue for the UN emergency directors’ visit to South Sudan last week, and we expect to announce a further package of support very soon. The UK is currently the second largest contributor, after the US, to the crisis response plan. We are lobbying other donors to contribute more, most recently through the working party on humanitarian aid and food aid in Brussels.

The South Sudanese population deserve better than this from their leaders. Beyond an immediate cessation of hostilities, they need to see a truly inclusive settlement which brings in not only politicians but—as the noble Lord, Lord Luce, said—a full cross-section of civil society, including church groups, women’s representatives and minority groups. Those politicians currently standing trial in Juba must receive a fair and transparent trial. There needs to be a comprehensive national reconciliation process which properly addresses the deep-rooted political and social grievances that existed even before the current conflict. There must be a full inquiry into alleged human rights violations, and proper accountability for those found guilty. Access must be granted for humanitarian agencies needing to deliver and pre-position urgent aid before the rains. Humanitarian assets should be protected, and staff safety guaranteed.

My noble friend Lord Avebury asked about the other challenges to aid, and about what guarantees rebels have given in relation to aid. We have a real problem in relation to looting, commandeering and destruction of humanitarian assets. This is constraining the response and risks fuelling the conflict. The UK and our humanitarian partners are taking measures to reduce the risk of looting of humanitarian supplies during the conflict. We have called on all parties to respect the independence, impartiality and neutrality of humanitarian personnel.

My noble friend Lord Chidgey drew attention in the Question to the role of Sudan, and he expanded on that in his speech. We should recognise the fact that the Government in Khartoum, in their role as a member of IGAD, have chosen to put their full support behind the peace process and are resisting any temptation to intervene militarily. We acknowledge that Sudan has played a constructive role in that capacity. The two Governments have remained on good terms, with President Bashir’s visit to Juba in January being followed by a number of mutual exchanges, including most recently a visit by the South Sudanese Defence Minister to Khartoum last week. Our envoy Tim Morris was in Khartoum last week and held constructive talks with senior government Ministers. The Minister for Africa, Mark Simmonds, also discussed the situation in South Sudan during his visit to Khartoum in mid-January.

As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, said, it is important that all regional leaders play a constructive role in the ongoing discussions and negotiations. However, we should also highlight our deep concern at the turn of events within Sudan in recent weeks, in which the upsurge of violence in Darfur has led to the displacement of about 120,000 people. The Minister for Africa issued a Statement condemning this on 6 March.

The noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, also referred to other regional players such as Uganda. The presence of Ugandan troops in South Sudan is at the invitation of President Kiir. However, we have been clear to all South Sudan’s neighbours that their actions should not contribute in any way to escalating the violence. We welcome Uganda’s stated intention to withdraw its troops once a regional force has been established and we have been in regular contact with the Ugandan Government about this.

My noble friend Lord Chidgey spoke about Abyei and the withdrawal of police forces. We have repeatedly made it clear to both Governments through the UN Security Council and through our embassies that they should comply fully with the Abyei interim agreement of May 2011 and with UN Resolution 2046, including by withdrawing all their forces from Abyei. We have been clear that lack of progress in implementing agreements will only invite further unilateral action, increase tensions and raise the risk of conflict. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, also asked about our support for Abyei. We are very supportive of the role which the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei is playing in trying to keep the peace. Beyond UNISFA, all our support for the people of Abyei goes through UN agencies. I can certainly write to the noble Baroness with a full breakdown of that support.

The noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, asked about debt relief. We are committed in principle to seeing debt relief for all heavily indebted poor countries, including Sudan, where we are confident that it will lead to poverty reduction. We continue to make it clear to the Government of Sudan that they will need to meet the requirements of the internationally agreed HIPC initiative before the UK will provide debt relief as part of a multilateral Paris Club agreement. The Minister for Africa, Mark Simmonds, made this position clear to the Sudanese Government when he visited Khartoum in mid-January of this year. The noble Lord also referred to UN targeted sanctions. We have made clear, as have the EU and the US, that we stand ready to consider targeted measures against individuals obstructing the political process in support of the African Union and the IGAD effort.

My noble friend Lord Chidgey referred to peace talks and civil society, as did the noble Lord, Lord Luce. We welcome the civil society forum, which was held in Addis last week, and its subsequent declaration as an important step towards ensuring that civil society views are heard and properly engaged. My noble friend also asked about the UNMISS mandate, which we believe must reflect the changed environment in South Sudan so that it can focus on protecting civilians, enabling humanitarian assistance and investigating human rights abuses and violations. We are encouraging the UN Security Council to bring forward the renewal of the UNMISS mandate so that it is better able to respond to these priorities. In the medium term this is bound to entail less of a role on state-building, which I think was also referred to during the debate.

The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, referred to the staffing in the Sudan unit. We have no plans to reduce staffing in that unit. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, also asked about this. We have a UK envoy, Tim Morris, who was appointed in January especially to cover the South Sudan talks. He has been travelling extensively in the region in support of those talks; in fact, I think that he may be there today. A new special representative for Sudan and South Sudan will take a post in the summer.

My noble friend Lord Sheikh asked about what representations the UK had received from the African Union and what support it would like the UK to supply. We have not received a direct request for assistance, for example with the commission of inquiry, but we are encouraging it to work closely with the UN and would be happy to consider any request. We are providing financial and technical support to IGAD—I think around $1million—which is mediating the wider talks.

The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, spoke about the attempted coup, as he described it. There are conflicting accounts of the precise circumstances that led to the conflict. We have not seen any evidence of a coup attempt, but we are urging leaders on all sides to restrain their followers and to work actively to prevent the situation deepening divisions along ethnic lines. While there have been deeply disturbing occurrences of ethnically targeted killings, it is clear that the crisis began initially as a political one.

My noble friend Lord Avebury asked about discussions between the UN and IGAD, and the role specifically of the Ugandan forces. Our envoy Tim Morris is, as I said earlier, in Addis Ababa today. He is discussing with IGAD, the troika and the EU envoys, the nature of any popular deterrent force. We believe it is essential that any such force comes under the UNMISS hat, albeit drawing on regional forces. It will be for IGAD countries to agree on whether that should include Ugandan forces.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, spoke about child soldiers. We are concerned about the number of child soldiers that have been recruited. It is vital that the commission of inquiry looks into this thoroughly during its investigations.

The noble Lord, Lord Luce, spoke about civil society, but I think I have already addressed that earlier.

In conclusion, bringing lasting peace and development to South Sudan is a huge and complex challenge which will require time, patience and unceasing attention from the regional and international community. For the good of the South Sudanese people, who have suffered for far too long, the UK will remain centrally involved for as long as is necessary. I know from the interest in your Lordships’ House that we will continue to keep this matter on an important and priority agenda.