South Sudan - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:22 pm on 4th July 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Cox Baroness Cox Crossbench 6:22 pm, 4th July 2018

My Lords, I too thank warmly my noble friend Lord Curry for securing this debate on one of the worst humanitarian crises in our world today. I will focus primarily on Bahr-El-Ghazal, in the north-west of South Sudan, which I visited many times during the previous war, inflicted by the Government in Khartoum between 1989 and 2005, when I walked through countless killing fields and burnt-out villages. I have also visited it many times since the peace agreement and during the present civil war, most recently earlier this year when I visited my small NGO, Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, or HART. We met hundreds of people displaced by conflict and witnessed the overwhelming humanitarian crisis they are now suffering. We have heard the statistics but they are worth repeating: there are 1.8 million internally displaced people now in South Sudan and an estimated 2.5 million refugees in neighbouring countries, the vast majority of whom are women and children.

Food insecurity is at unprecedented levels as the civil war has limited the access to farming land, reduced harvests and prevented cultivation due to fear of violence. The greater Bahr-El-Ghazal and Upper Nile regions continue to have the highest prevalence of acute malnutrition. According to the UN, two-thirds of households in the city of Wau— the major city in Bahr-El-Ghazal—are food insecure. The country remains highly susceptible to endemic disease, exacerbated by water, sanitation and hygiene problems. There are also escalating problems with the provision of healthcare caused by the looting of healthcare facilities, attacks on healthcare workers and a shortage of skilled healthcare professionals.

Our partner in Wau is the Anglican Archbishop Moses Deng, who works with Christian Action for Relief and Development, or CARD. He reported that on 13 June there were clashes between government and opposition forces just south-east of Wau. This is considered to be the first stage of a military campaign aimed at expelling opposition groups from the surrounding areas. CARD also reported that last week, on 30 June, when a new ceasefire was set to take effect, government forces and rebels launched attacks on each other’s positions. The archbishop told us that the repeated ceasefire violations are a result of people within both government and opposition forces being unhappy with the agreements that have been signed, or of their benefiting from the war. The situation is dire and needs urgent attention.

Time allows only one detailed example of the suffering endured. In March 2017, 5,000 IDPs flocked into Wau’s cathedral compound seeking refuge from local conflict. Archbishop Moses had to borrow money from local traders to buy food for these IDPs, as many were on the brink of death from starvation. He sent an urgent request to HART asking for emergency funds for life-saving food. HART, as a very small NGO, was able to send only £10,000—I wish I were Bill Gates. However, the Archbishop was profoundly grateful, saying this would buy a lot of sorghum and prevent him being arrested for his inability to repay loans from the traders.

This is surely an unacceptable situation. With DfID pouring massive funds into South Sudan, for which great credit is due and deserved, there must be a way for emergency funding to be made available to save lives in emergencies such as this. When I asked the Archbishop about applying to DfID he shrugged his shoulders in despair, saying he does not have the resources to invest in complex bureaucratic procedures, adding that, before aid is given by the big NGOs, assessments are made and by the time the assessments have been assessed, the people have died. I ask the Minister, therefore, what advice can be given to people such as our partners in Bahr-El-Ghazal and other parts of South Sudan on how to access emergency funds to save lives. I appreciate the need for accountability for taxpayers’ money, of course, but surely a situation such as this requires more readily available life-saving emergency funding than can be provided by a small NGO such as HART.

I can share a ray of light on this dark horizon. When those 5,000 IDPs flooded into the cathedral compound, they came from three different tribal groups with historic animosity and conflict. Our partners there exerted robust peacekeeping skills in their compound by grouping individuals from the three tribes together. Desperate civilians laid down side by side and made friends. They left three months later for the new IDP camp at Hai Masna with reconciliation achieved and hostility abated. Throughout the country, the South Sudan Council of Churches is intensifying its peace- building and reconciliation at grass-roots level, with initiatives to provide desperately needed education and healthcare. The diocese of Wau has also established new schools for children who were previously denied access to education because of constant aerial bombardment by the Khartoum regime. Secondary schools have been equipped with special provisions for girls reaching puberty, who often drop out of school at that stage for social and personal reasons.

We are continually inspired by the courage, resilience and resourcefulness of the people of South Sudan. Will Her Majesty’s Government ensure the provision of more accessible resources for the peacebuilding and skill-learning initiatives currently operating at local level, which are so important for conflict reduction and the building of essential skills and qualifications for the development of this new nation? Its people have suffered far too much for far too long, but they are still there, working hard to build a brighter future, and despite their pain they still smile their famous, courageous South Sudanese smiles, which make me feel very humble.