My Lords, I am deeply grateful to all noble Lords contributing to this debate. As I have visited South Kordofan and Blue Nile State, which are currently suffering Government of Sudan genocidal military offensives, I speak with a heavy heart from first-hand evidence. These two areas will be my primary focus. I must also mention ongoing atrocities in Darfur, violations of human rights elsewhere in Sudan and the problems of the Beja people, whom I have visited several times.
First, in Darfur, President al-Bashir continues his assaults unabated and now, alarmingly, supports the notorious Janjaweed. The widely respected Enough Project claims:
The U.N. Security Council mandated that the Sudanese government disarm its Janjaweed militias a decade ago. This never happened. Now, many of those same men are moving across the country on government command, burning civilian areas to the ground, raping women, and displacing non-Arab civilians from their homes … Unlike the Janjaweed fighters from the past, however, Sudan is not keeping the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) at arm’s length. Instead, these fighters boast full government backing and formal immunity from prosecution due to their new status as members of the National Intelligence and Security Services … the Sudanese government’s continued support of Janjaweed groups has become much more clear … Sudanese diplomats have thrown their political capital behind the group and boast that they successfully blocked the U.N. Security Council from issuing a statement criticizing the RSF … these forces have not restricted their crimes against humanity to … Darfur … their first act was to lethally suppress peaceful protesters during the September 2013 demonstrations in Khartoum”.
The Government of Sudan’s brutal suppression of freedom of speech, the press and civil society is documented in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders and illustrated by the recent closure of Salmmah Women’s Resource Centre. Will the Minister say what representations have been made by Her Majesty’s Government concerning increasing violations of freedom of speech, the press and civil society?
Another grave concern is the Government of Sudan’s denial of freedom of religion and belief. The notorious barbaric sentences and treatment meted out to Meriam Ibrahim, with the death penalty for alleged apostasy, 100 lashes for adultery and her treatment in prison, where she gave birth in shackles, may be heralding more widespread persecution of non-Muslims that does not hit the headlines and may be carried out with impunity.
For example, there are reports of another apostasy case in El Gadarif against another Christian woman, Faiza Abdalla, whose family had converted to Christianity from Islam before she was born but kept their former Muslim name. When she told authorities that she was a Christian, she was arrested and incarcerated under suspicion of having left Islam. A court has terminated her marriage to her husband, a lifelong Christian from South Sudan, on grounds of adultery. What representations have Her Majesty’s Government made to the Government of Sudan concerning this case and other gross contraventions of the right of freedom of religion and belief?
I turn to the horrendous situation in South Kordofan, especially the Nuba mountains, and Blue Nile State. I visited these areas with my small NGO, Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust. We witnessed Antonov aircraft targeting schools, clinics, markets and people working on their crops and we saw the terror that drove them to hide in deadly snake-infested caves in the Nuba mountains or desperately to seek shelter in river beds and under trees in Blue Nile. We visited villages where hundreds of people had died of starvation. They are now deserted because of recent bombings. We saw the fresh craters. This ruthless killing of civilians reflects al-Bashir’s commitment to turn the Republic of Sudan into an Arabic, Islamic state through ethnic and religious eradication of black Africans and non-Muslims.
A report by the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Agency on
“A carefully conducted survey, carried out at great risk by workers in the field, has revealed the scale of the looming catastrophe … in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile States … The dry season offensive—launched by the Sudanese Armed Forces in January this year—has driven civilians away from their homes and their farms”,
with the Government’s deliberate strategy,
“to use of starvation as a weapon of warfare … In many locations food has been all but exhausted, water is scarce and essential medications are nowhere to be found. Nearly one million civilians in South Kordofan and around 100,000 in Blue Nile states have fled from the areas of conflict. A further 400,000 people in South Kordofan are now internally displaced, hiding in the caves … President Omar al-Bashir … launched an operation called ‘Decisive Summer’ in January 2014 … The Sudanese Armed Forces were reinforced by the Rapid Support Force, which included members of the notorious Janjaweed … Schools and homes were destroyed. On
An aid organisation that cannot be named has sent me the following message:
“Between the dates of June 7th to 16th of 2014, our staff compound, food convoys, and warehouses were bombed in 8 intentional attacks over the course of 9 days by approximately 37 bombs and 73 rockets … unmanned surveillance drones were sighted prior to the majority of the attacks ... The organization strongly believes that these attacks are further evidence of the GoS’s clear, sustained, and unapologetic attack against humanitarian actors .... A country ... should not use the withholding of food and medicine as weapons of war to kill its own people”.
The Government of Sudan refuse to allow aid organisations access to these regions. However, HART has very responsible partners who have delivered food with funds that we have been able to provide. We met communities in those remote areas, some of whose people had already died from starvation and bombardment. They were poignantly grateful, saying, “Thank you for the food. This means we can stay in our own land. Even if we die from bombs we prefer to die in our own country than to have to flee to exile abroad because we have no food”. Will Her Majesty’s Government consider cross-border aid operations to the people in these states? There are reliable partners who will account for funds provided and ensure that they reach the civilians who are now dying from starvation and lack of any medical care.
The Islamist guru in Khartoum, al-Turabi, has declared his intention to take his militant Islamist ideology through Africa from Sudan to Cape Town. The international community continues to allow Khartoum to fulfil its ethnic and religious cleansing with impunity. There is a real danger that those seeking to resist militant Islamism will fail, leaving the way wide open for the expansion of this lethal ideology far beyond the confines of Sudan. Many of those currently dying are Muslims as well as Christians and traditional believers.
There are clear national and international legal obligations to act. The SRRA appeals to the UN Security Council and the international community to: declare the situation in the two areas a humanitarian emergency requiring an urgent response from all actors; demand that SAF immediately halts its aerial bombardment and air strikes against civilians; require the Government of Sudan to lift restrictions on the delivery of food and other humanitarian items and to permit UN agencies and other independent international organisations immediate free and unhindered access to needy civilians to stave off mass starvation and provide medical care; to press the Government of Sudan to agree a cessation of hostilities with regional and international monitoring mechanisms; to consider the most effective means, including air drops, to access those civilians trapped by ground attacks and lack of roads; and to urge national and international authorities to conduct independent investigations into allegations of summary executions, detentions and torture inflicted on the basis of ethnic and political affiliations of individuals in the two areas.
Whenever I and other noble Lords have raised these issues in debates, and the question of sanctions, which could have an impact on the culture of impunity, we have been told that Her Majesty’s Government wish to continue to talk to Khartoum. While we appreciate the importance of dialogue, it has been apparent over two decades that al-Bashir’s Government are very happy to talk—and to continue killing while they talk. The people of Sudan have suffered far too much for far too long. They look to the United Kingdom for help, believing, as I do, that we have a particular historical responsibility. We are also members of the troika with continuing responsibility for the implementation of the CPA. They will read this debate with acute interest and deep concern. I sincerely hope that they will not be disappointed by the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, is remarkable for her vigour and tenacity in standing up for so many of the most oppressed people in the world. I congratulate her on it. Some years ago, it was my duty to withdraw the Conservative Whip from her. Some might take that as a hostile act, but she never seems to mind.
My interest in this debate stems from a small charity called Kids for Kids, of which I am a patron. It is a highly focused UK charity, which works only in Darfur to help people to stay in their villages rather than be forced to flee into the vast camps as refugees. Its first programmes, which still continue, were about lending goats to starving families, hence the name. I hear about Darfur in particular through this charity. It has a big enough task because Darfur is the size of Spain.
To be driven from one’s home and livelihood is to be deprived of a most basic human right. The camps do amazing work, but nobody wants to leave their homes and land in order to be dependent day by day and year by year on food handouts. Over the years, drought and sheer poverty have been powerful drivers, creating refugees as well as waves of sickening violence, particularly from militias. NGOs such as Kids for Kids can and do help to fight drought with wells; they can fight poverty and malnutrition with goats, donkeys and agricultural advice; but NGOs cannot fight violence. That has to be done with politics. The international agencies have worked to bring about agreement and find solutions, but have not succeeded and the situation keeps getting worse.
This year so far, another 250,000 Darfur people have become refugees. Some say it is more like 500,000—the figures are not clear. They are added to the 2 million to 3 million Dafuri residents already displaced and in camps as refugees, many for some years. That is out of a total population of 7.5 million in Darfur in 2008. The Abuja agreement of 2005 and the Darfur peace agreement of 2006 have not brought peace. The Doha Document for Peace in Darfur, signed in 2011, might still provide a basis for a settlement, but it simply has not worked so far or been implemented properly.
The Sudanese Government have to take primary responsibility, but the UN and other states like ourselves have, as the noble Baroness made clear, an important role to play and we must recognise that we have not yet been effective. Can the Minister tell us what progress has been made since the Security Council resolution was adopted in April? Can the UN-African Union Mission in Darfur be given new vigour and impetus to make a difference to this appalling situation?
After more than a decade of violence, the whole area seems to be getting stuck in a permanent state of violence, with millions of permanent refugees. It is getting like Palestine, which we were discussing a few minutes ago, where UNRWA does its best for millions of refugees from half a century ago but who are still refugees, where UN resolutions are flouted with impunity and where violence is seen as the only way forward.
Violence is no solution in Palestine or, for that matter, in Darfur. Agreement must be found by negotiation. The bitterness does not deteriorate over time; it festers and feeds on itself. It leads to appalling inhumanities and the crushing of all human rights. As the noble Baroness indicated, it exaggerates religious and tribal differences to lethal degrees over a short time. Peace efforts must be redoubled in Darfur and the whole of Sudan to bring about more inclusive government and more equal treatment.
My Lords, I, too, pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, who relentlessly and courageously supports those denied fundamental freedoms, who are excluded and marginalised, and who are too often forgotten. The noble Baroness earns the respect of us all.
The first six months of 2014 have brought devastation, death and destruction to Sudan on a scale not seen since the height of the genocide in Darfur from 2003 to 2005. In 2013, violence caused a further 460,000 new internally displaced people. So far in 2014, another 215,000 people have been forced to flee their homes and 3.5 million people in Darfur—half the population—are in need of humanitarian assistance. There are still 300,000 Darfuri refugees in camps in Chad.
Sudan faces a terrible humanitarian disaster but, tragically, it has slipped off the international agenda. Political freedoms, religious freedom and freedom of speech are under attack, newspapers are censored and banned. Access to justice is rare. There is evidence that torture, beatings, rape and other inhuman punishments are routinely used. Sudan, as the FCO report says, is the country that makes most use of the death penalty. In Darfur, reports of human rights abuses have considerably increased. Sexual, gender-based violence almost doubled in the last quarter of last year. The chief prosecutor of the ICC has described reports of “disturbing” abuses in Darfur to the Security Council. There are also very grave concerns about the denial of children’s rights to education, to nutrition and to the freedom to be children and not to be forced into the army. LGBT rights are routinely denied. Anyone identified by the authorities is fined, flogged, stoned or imprisoned, and can even face the death penalty. Human Rights Watch says that human rights abuses,
“are intensifying in Darfur, making accurate, timely public reporting on human rights abuses more important than ever”.
Does the Minister agree that it is shocking to learn that, in Darfur, public reporting of abuse has all but ceased and that the latest report by the UN human rights commission was as long ago as in January 2009? In 2004, the United Nations Security Council mandated the Sudanese Government to disarm their Janjaweed militias. They never did, denying any close connection with the violent Arab militia. Now, in 2014, as the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor has said, the Janjaweed have been trained and rebranded as the Rapid Support Forces and are attacking unarmed civilians in Darfur, and North and South Kordofan, with impunity.
Far from distancing themselves from the destruction caused by the RSF, the Sudanese Government admit that it is a vital part of their campaign to eliminate what they describe as a “rebellion” or “insurgency” in the marginalised areas of Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile. The behaviour of the Sudanese RSF has been so ruthless that several Sudanese politicians who usually in the past have supported the regime obediently have spoken out and been jailed as a consequence. At the start of the year, President Bashir warned that 2014 would witness,
“the end of all tribal and ethnic conflicts and insurgency”,
through a military campaign called the “Decisive Summer” mobilisation. He meant it, and he has pursued that objective remorselessly.
Recently, the UN Secretary-General ordered a commission of inquiry into the poor performance of UNAMID, the peacekeeping force in Darfur, following evidence that human rights abuses are extraordinarily frequent and that it is sending misleading reports to the United Nations and to the African Union. In addition, UNAMID is failing to protect vulnerable civilians, which leads to serious abuses of human rights as women who face violence and rape are denied protection, as has been the case in Darfur, and more generally in Sudan, for far too many years. Meanwhile, the Sudanese authorities continue to place daily restrictions on the activities and movements of UNAMID, other UN agencies and humanitarian aid groups.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has reported that Sudan is among the least free and tolerant countries on earth, ranking it with Iran, North Korea, Burma and Saudi Arabia. Freedom House gives Sudan its worst ranking, as does Transparency International. None of this augurs well for a genuine national dialogue. For these reasons, the UK must surely not fund any part of the forthcoming 2015 election process due to take place in Sudan, because there is absolutely no basis for us to believe that those elections will be free, fair or credible.
Meanwhile, the Doha peace process has stalled, lacking credibility in the eyes of many in Darfur. The UK has invested time and effort in Doha, but most civil society groups are calling for a more comprehensive dialogue that includes all marginalised areas, considers devolution of power to the regions and provides a fully revised constitution that guarantees the rights of minorities.
Against that background, I must ask the Minister what the UK’s position is on demands being made by civil society organisations. Is she aware that 60 of Sudan’s laws violate its own constitution? Will the Minister assure the House that the UK is strongly pressing Sudan to respect the many international and regional conventions and treaties it has signed guaranteeing the human rights of its citizens irrespective of ethnic background or faith?
My final point relates to the engagement of the UK in the negotiations taking place on dropping Sudan’s external debts. Will the Minister confirm that UK officials participated in the technical working group on Sudan’s external debt, which met most recently in Washington in April? Will she agree that, as long as these talks go on, Sudan will have no pressing reason to respect its obligations under international human rights law or, indeed, its own promises to the African Union and the UN? Surely the Minister will recognise and agree that UK actions count for much more than our occasional words of condemnation of the regime in Khartoum.
It is almost 10 years since the UN Security Council first reported the situation in Darfur to the chief prosecutor of the ICC. Last month, the ICC urged the Security Council to support efforts to ensure that the individuals indicted in war crimes cases in Sudan’s Darfur region are delivered to The Hague for prosecution. What has been the Government’s and the Security Council’s reaction to this ICC demand for urgent support at this time? Does the Minister agree with the chief prosecutor that there has now to be a dramatic shift in the council’s approach to arresting Darfur suspects? Is it not starkly clear that the regime in Khartoum will change only when our pressure includes the enforcement of outstanding Security Council resolutions imposing targeted smart sanctions on the architects of the continuing suffering and misery of the people of Sudan? If we delay, they prevail—and millions suffer horrifically.
My Lords, I, too, am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. Unlike her, I cannot claim to be an expert on Sudan, but some of my colleagues who would normally speak on this issue have been unavoidably detained today in another debate of some importance to the church at the General Synod in York. I am very grateful for this opportunity to contribute to this debate because the human rights issues it raises are of such enormous significance, not only for the individuals directly concerned but for the way in which we direct our foreign aid and conduct our foreign policy.
With regard to foreign aid, there is clearly a real humanitarian crisis in Darfur, as we have heard, especially in the mountainous northern part of Sudan which borders Egypt. We have already heard about the thousands of refugees, but famine is also endemic there. One colleague who visited recently talked to people who were reduced to eating leaves off the trees. The population of that bit of the country is still predominantly Christian, and government help or support is virtually non-existent. What is more, aid agencies are able to offer little assistance due to the dangerous conditions, the poor infrastructure and, as we heard earlier, the periodic refusal of the Government to let them in. This means that the local Christian diocese has to shoulder most of the burden of caring for people who are in desperate need, and of attempting to feed them when its own resources are pitifully small. Have Her Majesty’s Government given any consideration to providing aid, and so helping to meet people’s basic human rights to food and drink, through the church in that part of Sudan? Heroic efforts are being made to alleviate desperate need, but funding is urgently required.
Where foreign policy is concerned, that leads on to the way in which human rights, and religious freedoms in particular, are being flouted in Sudan. The recent case involving Meriam Ibrahim, which has already been mentioned, and the closure of the Salmmah Women’s Resource Centre, illustrate this all too graphically. In theory, Sudan has ratified the optional protocols of the UN human rights conventions but, in practice, increasingly Sharia interpretations of the 1991 criminal code are having a devastating effect on many lives.
For instance, Lubna Hussein was sentenced to a lashing for allegedly dressing indecently in public by wearing trousers. Intisar Sharif was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery. Indeed, offences such as adultery, apostasy and armed robbery all have fixed sentences that include death by hanging, stoning, crucifixion or whipping. These penalties are clearly at odds with the basic freedom from physical harm which the Human Rights Act entails.
I would therefore be most grateful for some indication from the Minister as to any pressure that is being or could be applied to the Government of Sudan to ensure that they begin to respect their religious and cultural minority groups. In particular, I wonder what we are doing at and through the United Nations to press the Sudanese Government to honour the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including and especially Article 18, which relates to religious observance.
My Lords, the foreign affairs teams in the Lords and the Commons have been extremely busy lately with increasing problems all over the globe. From the invasion of Ukraine to chaos in Iraq to the crisis in Syria—and today we have been discussing the latest crisis in Gaza—the international community has to consider and act on many serious conflict and human rights situations, which occupy its time, energy and commitments, so I am grateful to the noble Baroness for ensuring that our focus has been brought back to the topic of human rights in the Republic of Sudan. As my noble friend Lady Kinnock suggested, Sudan seems to have fallen off the radar recently. It is not a new topic—although it has perhaps been overshadowed by other recent conflicts—but it does need our urgent attention.
The hope for a lasting peace in the region that was felt when South Sudan split off from Sudan and became an independent nation has sadly not been translated into reality. Sudan remains politically fragile, it has a heavy debt burden and the economy is in a dire situation. On top of this, serious internal conflicts continue, particularly in Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan, as has been mentioned. In recent months there has been a serious and deeply troubling escalation of violence in Darfur and with South Sudan, and there have been access restrictions for major aid agencies, many of which are critical for food distribution. In fact, my own brother has recently been stopped from carrying out humanitarian aid in Sudan.
There is an urgent need to create a favourable environment within which Sudan can address the underlying and long-term causes of its internal conflicts. This necessitates upholding human rights, including the freedom of expression, and a cessation of hostilities, both of which are essential for this process to be successful. Regrettably, we have not seen these essential elements for building peace and maintaining the rights of the people of Sudan in the actions of the Sudanese Government.
The Government continue to arrest human rights defenders, journalists and political leaders. The recent case of Meriam Ibrahim, a Sudanese Christian mother who was sentenced to death by hanging for “apostasy” and flogging for “adultery” while eight months pregnant, was brought to international attention. Along with others in the House, I welcome her release from prison. However, she is still unable to leave Sudan because further charges remain against her. We must remember, however, that this is just one case which has captured the international community’s attention. Religious persecution remains widespread within the country, as was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and the right reverend Prelate.
In June, Amnesty International highlighted the fact that family members of three Sudanese activists who remain in detention without charge in Khartoum have reported that they show signs of torture and ill treatment. Human Rights Watch has raised concerns that:
“Despite the secession of South Sudan and the end of the transition period in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, during which Sudan adopted an Interim National Constitution, the government has yet to pass a new permanent constitution”.
There are grave concerns about widespread impunity for serious human rights violations because Sudanese law grants immunity to law enforcement, military and security agents—and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and my noble friend Lady Kinnock, said, the Janjaweed militia. Will the Government use all available channels to push for a review of the Sudanese criminal code, which currently permits torture and human rights abuses?
The implementation of the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur has been slow and the main armed groups are mistrustful of the process. The process for a lasting peace necessitates the involvement of all stakeholders, from civil society to armed groups, and there are concerns that President Bashir’s “national dialogue” is associated with traditional elites and is not inclusive. I ask the Minister: what will the Government do to ensure that President Bashir’s national dialogue initiative becomes a process capable of reaching a more comprehensive solution?
The humanitarian situation in areas of conflict within Sudan is cause for significant concern and, with the disruption to planting and future harvests under threat, is likely to rapidly deteriorate. The violations of human rights by the Sudanese Government, pro-government militia groups and anti-government armed groups include indiscriminate aerial bombardments, arbitrary detentions, torture and ill treatment of detainees, extrajudicial executions and the forced displacement of civilians.
Since the beginning of this year, there have been huge numbers of newly displaced persons. In Darfur, 500,000 people were displaced in 2013, a significant increase on previous years. In South Kordofan and Blue Nile, more than 1 million people have been forced to flee their homes, while at least 230,000 live in refugee camps in South Sudan or Ethiopia. In total, about 2.3 million people have been displaced. On top of this, in the past few weeks there has been increasing evidence of the forcible removal of Eritrean refugees and other asylum seekers to home countries, which the UNHCR has labelled “an act of repression”. Is the Minister aware of this, and have representations been made to the Sudanese Government on this issue?
There are serious problems with restrictions on access for international humanitarian agencies such as the ICRC and the UNHCR due to the introduction of administrative obstacles, including travel permits. The suspension of the ICRC’s operations in Sudan, as of February 2014, is particularly worrying. What more can be done by Her Majesty’s Government to increase pressure on the Sudanese Government to allow access for humanitarian agencies?
Although the international community has for years expressed concern about human rights abuses in Sudan, it continues to deal with Sudanese leaders who have been indicted by the International Criminal Court on counts of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. Will the Minister therefore clarify whether assistance is still being given to British trade missions in Sudan? Does she agree that we should warn British companies of the corruption and other serious problems that they face when trading in the country?
The Sudanese Government’s systemic violations of the freedom of the press and civil society are of great concern. It is imperative that the British Government unite with their allies around the globe to put pressure on the nation’s leaders to seek a resolution to the conflict and underline the fact that the country’s economic, social and political development is at stake.
So many innocent people are being affected by the political games and military manoeuvres directed by the leaders of the country. The Sudanese conflicts are having an unbearable impact on basic human rights, including the right to food, shelter, life and education.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for raising the important issue of human rights in Sudan. The dire human rights situation in Sudan is central to our engagement in that country both through our embassy and through the joint FCO/DfID Sudan Unit in London.
Let me respond to the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, and other noble Lords on how we tackle these challenging circumstances. First, we lobby the Government of Sudan on human rights abuses and demand greater transparency and accountability. We also provide tangible support to specific projects. This year, for example, our embassy is offering support to the establishment of a human rights law centre in Khartoum. Our support will also help strengthen human rights monitoring within the country and develop the capability of civil society organisations within Sudan, a point to which the right reverend Prelate referred. In so doing, we are able not only to make a difference on the ground but to maintain contact with a wide network of human rights defenders, who are essential to our work. We also speak out on issues of concern through both ministerial and ambassadorial statements and through social media. We have become involved in cases of huge concern such as that of Meriam Ibrahim, the woman who was recently sentenced to death for apostasy.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, referred to a whole spectrum of human rights abuses. Another way in which we challenge such abuses is by supporting the work of the UN independent expert on human rights in Sudan. We welcomed his statement on human rights during his recent visit to Khartoum and look forward to seeing his final report at the Human Rights Council in September as it will provide us with an opportunity to highlight our concerns and debate some of the issues that were raised.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, referred to the ICC. We continue to make it clear to the Government of Sudan that the international community expects compliance with the arrest warrants for the ICC indictees. We equally expect other Governments who are parties to the Rome statute to comply with their legal obligations. In common with other EU countries, we have a policy of having no contact with fugitives from the ICC.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, referred in some detail to Darfur. She deserves huge credit for her work to keep in the public eye this appalling conflict in the two areas in Darfur, often displaying great personal courage in finding the latest information. The turn of events in Darfur is heartbreaking. Only this afternoon, my honourable friend the Minister for Africa has been discussing the conflict there with Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the head of UNAMID and the AU-UN Joint Special Representative for Darfur. The most recent report of the UN Secretary-General made it quite clear that it was the Government of Sudan and their rapid support forces who bore primary responsibility for the widespread abuses against civilians, including horrific sexual violence against women and girls and the looting and burning of houses. We have made it clear to the Sudanese Government in the strongest terms that such actions are not only wholly unacceptable but undermine their apparent aspiration for a national dialogue. The Secretary-General’s report also made it clear that the armed opposition, in particular the Sudanese Liberation Army’s Minni Minnawi faction, bears heavy responsibility for civilian displacement.
The escalation of aerial bombardment and the apparent targeting of hospitals by the Sudanese armed forces are appalling and we condemn them in the strongest terms. Ultimately, the conflict will be resolved only if both the Government and the SPLM- North can approach negotiations convened by President Mbeki and his high-level panel with serious intent, as they are required to do by UN Resolution 2046.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, referred also to cross-border aid. We do not believe that going down the route of providing cross-border aid is the right thing to do at this stage, given the sensitivities, risks and difficulties involved in monitoring where it goes, but we genuinely keep these policies under review and are always open to further discussion. I am sorry that that is not the news the noble Baroness wanted to hear today.
My noble friend Lord Cope referred to the Darfur refugees. We have raised this matter repeatedly with the Government of Sudan, calling for humanitarian access to those refugees, and the Minister for Africa spoke to the Foreign Minister of Sudan on
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle and other noble Lords raised the truly appalling case of Meriam Ibrahim, which has quite rightly inspired worldwide condemnation. I am proud that the UK led the way in calling for her release through statements by the Prime Minister and other senior Ministers. It is a great relief that Meriam Ibrahim has now been released, but we are concerned that she is still unable to travel. As the right reverend Prelate will know, the issue of freedom of religion or belief is one of the six key priorities in my human rights brief and is a personal priority for me. I have been at pains to detail what we mean by freedom of religion or belief, which includes the freedom to have a belief, to manifest that belief, to change that belief and not to have a belief. It is important that we make sure that that is detailed in that way when we have those discussions. The right reverend Prelate will also be aware that we now have a sub-group on freedom of religion or belief as an advisory group within the Foreign Office. The work of that group will also inform our responses to cases such as that of Meriam Ibrahim.
We are also aware of the case involving Faiza Abdalla and other apostasy cases before the Sudanese court. Although the full extent of those cases is not documented, it is clear that Meriam Ibrahim’s case is not an isolated occurrence and the broader issues of religious freedom still need to be addressed in detail. We are working with local Sudanese partners to investigate those cases and continue to call on the Sudanese Government to abide by their international obligations to uphold every citizen’s right to freedom of religion or belief. Of course, those obligations are enshrined in Sudan’s constitution and, indeed, in the very religion which Sudan purports to follow.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, spoke about the freedom of the press. Of course, that is a vital component of a genuinely open and transparent national dialogue process. Our embassy in Khartoum regularly raises that in discussions with the Sudanese authorities. During his visit to Sudan in January, my honourable friend the Minister for Africa met Sudanese journalists and editors and stressed to senior members of the Sudanese Government the importance of open, democratic space and respect for fundamental freedoms. Our embassy, with the British Council, is jointly funding the Thomson Foundation programme to build capacity for Sudanese journalism, including media training and a sponsored visit to London by Sudanese newspaper editors.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, also raised the issue of women’s rights and the PSVI. She will be aware both of the work that we are doing in the build-up to the Girls Summit, where we are encouraging Sudan to be represented, and in relation to the Ending Sexual Violence initiative, where we are pressing the Sudanese Government to take forward some of the summit’s recommendations.
The noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, raised the issue of torture. Of course we are deeply concerned at the reports of individuals being tortured while in detention. The visit by the UN independent expert has highlighted the urgent need for those claims to be fully investigated by the Sudanese authorities. Although we welcome the release on Friday of Mohammed Saleh, whose case was specifically raised by the independent expert with the Government, we still feel that more needs to be done by the authorities fully to investigate all claims of torture.
The right reverend Prelate spoke specifically about delivering aid through churches. Aid is given directly to NGOs in Sudan. However, access is limited by the Government of Sudan to certain areas and it may well be that using faith communities could be a way forward. I know that those matters were raised directly with the Foreign Minister of Sudan on
My noble friend Lord Cope spoke about the strategic review of UNAMID. That review is already showing signs of improved efficiency. We are currently in internal discussions on the mandate renewal, which is due in
August next year. The Minister for Africa, Mark Simmonds, met the head of UNAMID only today to discuss that. If anything has come out of that I will certainly write to my noble friend to update him.
The noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, spoke about access for humanitarian agencies, of which ICRC’s suspension is part of our concern. We have made clear to the Government of Sudan that ICRC is an independent organisation with a distinct mandate conferred by the international community, including Sudan, and thus plays a unique role in helping victims of armed conflict and other violence. As a party to the Geneva Convention, Sudan is obliged to allow the ICRC to implement its international mandate. Lynne Featherstone, the DfID Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, reiterated that when she met Foreign Minister Karti on
The noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, asked about debt relief. We are not negotiating debt relief with the Government of Sudan. We have been clear that the Government of Sudan can achieve debt relief only through the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries process, which includes making serious attempts to reduce poverty, including by ending internal conflict. Sudan cannot realistically expect to achieve debt relief until it makes serious efforts to end its internal conflicts.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, raised the issue of sanctions. We would not rule anything out. The suggestion of sanctions is of course interesting, and I will certainly read Hansard as to the specific suggestions that she made, but a number of international mechanisms are in place that we should focus on: UNAMID and the strategic review ensuring that it is efficient and working is one; Sudan at the Human Rights Council is another; the African Union high-level implementation panel calling on both sides to engage in serious mediation over the two areas is another. So there are various levers that we can use.
In conclusion, at face value, the national dialogue launched by President Bashir earlier this year is to be welcomed, but it is clear, not least from the examples raised in this debate, that the Government’s recent actions are undermining their stated intentions. National dialogue leading to real reform is what Sudan desperately needs, so we should continue to remind the Government of Sudan of that commitment; to welcome positive steps such as the release of three political detainees last week; and to support those moderate voices within the Sudanese Government and society who are pushing for reform.
We can do that only by remaining engaged but, at the same time, we should continue to condemn the appalling actions of the Government whenever we see them, from South Kordofan to Darfur. We must ensure freedom of religion, freedom of the press and the protection of other human rights. The case of Meriam Ibrahim shows that the weight of UK and international pressure can make a real difference, but the challenge for all of us now is to ensure that that pressure leads to a fundamental change in attitude and approach from the Sudanese authorities. We must get to a point where there will no longer be a need to raise individual cases because the Government have come to understand that respect for human rights is vital for their own good governance. We will continue to push that.
I was asked a number of questions in today’s debate. I hope that I have covered most of them. If I have not, I am sure that noble Lords will write to me and I will answer them more fully. Once again, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for providing an opportunity to discuss this important issue.