Darfur (Sudan)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 9th June 2004.

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Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan Conservative, Blaby 12:00 am, 9th June 2004

I welcome this opportunity to raise the subject of the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. I also welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Mr. Mullin. I think that he has been drafted in at quite short notice, so I sympathise with him. I know, however, that he has long taken an interest in human rights issues, which are among the most important in Darfur at the moment.

I regret that the Secretary of State for International Development is unable to be here, although he wanted to be, and his attendance at Westminster Hall debates is extremely good. He is likely to make a statement later today on the situation in Darfur, and I look forward to that. The importance of the crisis has been highlighted by, among other things, the coverage that it has recently received on the BBC and in other media outlets. It is rightly described as possibly the most serious humanitarian crisis in the world at the moment. I should add that I have not come to attack the UK Government—the Department for International Development is the second biggest donor in Darfur after the United States.

I have not been to Darfur, although I may be going at the end of the month. After my speech today, however, I may not be especially welcome. I went to Sudan a couple of years ago with members of the all-party group on Sudan, and I see my three companions here today, including the chairman of the all-party group, Mr. Dawson.

I want briefly to discuss the history of Sudan before considering the situation in Darfur, how responsibility can be apportioned and what, if anything, the UK Government and the international community can do.

Geographically, Sudan is the biggest country in Africa; it is the most enormous place, and Darfur is something like the size of France. Sudan is also grindingly poor, and I have memories of that from two years ago. There is poverty not only in the rebel south, where people have absolutely nothing, but elsewhere, and we saw people around El-Obeid who had next to nothing. So, it is not just the rebels who are poor—everybody is poor. However, the Government did not seem especially interested in furthering the good of the people in Sudan, other than in Khartoum.

Sudan was always a backward place. Parts of it, particularly the north, were colonised by the Egyptians, while in the south, Arab slave-raiding parties would seize slaves. That is pertinent because it reflects on attitudes today.

People in Britain tend to know about Gordon of Khartoum and his historic death in 1885, and about the Kitchener expedition of 1898, which was much popularised. Indeed, Winston Churchill took part in a marvellous cavalry charge, which he describes so well in his books. There then followed the Anglo-Egyptian condominium and the Sudan political service. My godfather worked in the service immediately after the war, and it was well described by Wilfred Thesiger. It was an honest and honourable profession, although it must be said that Sudan did not develop enormously as a result of its work.

Independence came in 1956. Civil war has raged on and off since then and has claimed the lives of perhaps millions of people, although I am delighted to say that a peace agreement was signed on 26 May in Naivasha. I shall say a bit more about that later. In 1989, the National Islamic Front, which now forms the Government, seized power under Brigadier al-Bashir, who is now a lieutenant-general. Nobody ever claimed that the Government had any democratic legitimacy, although, of course, they have de facto legitimacy.

One must understand a point to which I alluded earlier. To use shorthand, there is an Arab ethnic grouping in the north. It is not a distinct grouping, but it is more Arab. In the south and west, the ethnic grouping is more black African. That is extremely important because of how people see things in Sudan. Sharia—Muslim law—is also an issue, but not in Darfur, because it is Muslim. However, it was certainly an issue for Christians and animists in the south.

In Darfur, there are perhaps 1.2 million displaced people and refugees, although no one is quite sure. There are 100,000—perhaps more—refugees in Chad, across the border. Estimates vary but about 30,000 people have been killed in Darfur in the last year, and there is no doubt that it is a huge humanitarian crisis. A report from Oxfam, quoted by my local paper, the Leicester Mercury, on Saturday, described refugees fleeing the conflict, who had

"abandoned their homes, their possessions and their livelihoods, clinging on to the hope of finding somewhere safe . . . Even if they get to the refugee camps, the situation is little better. Malnutrition and diarrhoea are spreading quickly and mortality rates climbing steadily . . . Eastern Chad is . . . on the brink of disaster".

Humanitarian agencies have warned of the risk of famine in the displaced population, unable to return home to plant crops before the rainy season. The rainy season is starting now; the displaced people are not returning. A United States Agency for International Development administrator stated in Geneva on 3 June:

"We estimate right now if we get relief in we will lose a third of a million people. And if we don't, the death rates could be dramatically higher, approaching a million people."

Delay in taking action is not an option.

It is difficult to estimate the number of fatalities that can come from such a ghastly crisis, and such estimates tend to be wildly wrong. The message that comes through, however, is that there is a terrible crisis and action needs to be taken. The situation should be taken in the context of the much heralded—by the Sudanese Government—peace deal in Naivasha at the end of last month.

To digress slightly, what about upper Nile? Not included in the peace agreement—and not, of course, in Darfur—is the Shilluk kingdom. I have a briefing from World Vision, which states that in upper Nile,

"since early March 2004 . . . between 50,000 and 120,000 men, women and children were displaced by a series of militia attacks . . . Humanitarian personnel cannot access the area . . . the Sudan Civilian Protection Monitoring Team documented the wholesale destruction of . . . villages . . . The compounds of World Vision and another German NGO . . . were destroyed and looted."

We do not know what is happening there, but it gives greater context to what is happening in Darfur.

In Khartoum, there is what is best described as a political elite. It tends to be almost exclusively of Arab extraction and to look down its nose at the black Africans. The National Islamic Front of President al-Bashir is now called the National Congress party, but it has roots through the National Islamic Front back to the Muslim Brotherhood, which sprang up in Egypt. I have already mentioned that it has no democratic legitimacy, but I would like to turn to its honesty.

In April or perhaps earlier, the Sudanese Foreign Minister, Dr. Mustafa Ismail, came to a meeting, which was attended by at least two Members present in the Chamber. He talked vividly about Darfur, because we asked him about it. He said that only a few hundred had been killed and that the Government of Sudan were definitely not supporting the militia in Darfur—the Janjaweed. I recall particularly, because I took the issue up with him, that he blamed the European Union for not giving sufficient development aid. He also blamed President Clinton. I blame President Clinton for many things, but he blamed him for encouraging rebel movements in Sudan.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights concluded its report of 7 May with the statement:

"It is clear that there is a reign of terror in Darfur . . . The current pattern of massive and gross human rights violations . . . raises very serious concerns as to their survival, security and human dignity".

That means the survival, security and human dignity of those who have remained in Darfur. The report said that the situation was characterised by

"repeated attacks on civilians by the military forces of the Government of the Sudan and its proxy militia", particularly the Janjaweed;

"the use of disproportionate force by government and Janjaweed forces"; total impunity for the Janjaweed, who operate

"in close coordination with the forces of the Government of the Sudan"; and a

"pattern of attacks on civilians includes killing, rape, pillage, including of livestock, and destruction of property, including water sources".

Asma Jehangir, the UN rapporteur, echoes that on the BBC website in a story on the extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions. She says:

"the numbers are staggering, the situation is terrible . . . there is no accountability and in some areas the government officials are also in a state of complete denial."

So what can we conclude about the Government of Sudan? I conclude that they do not tell the truth and are not to be trusted. They have form. Between 1991 and 1996, when they were still the National Islamic Front, they played host to a fellow called Osama bin Laden. According to reports, al-Qaeda forged an alliance with al-Bashir's Government. Osama bin Laden was expelled from Sudan in 1996, but in 1998, President Clinton launched cruise missiles against a couple of targets in Sudan, one of which was the al-Shifa chemical factory. We should remember that President Clinton was not a great man for sending cruise missiles, but it appears that those missiles were designed to hit al-Qaeda, which was believed to be present at the targets. I did not appreciate that at the time, because none of us knew very much about al-Qaeda.

Since 11 September 2001, the start of the war on terror and the invasion of Afghanistan, the Government of Sudan have become a great deal friendlier and more pliable, and we may draw our own conclusions as to why that may be. However, they are still the same people. Al-Bashir is still the President, his elite group is still undemocratic and autocratic, and they are still on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.

As I said, the Government of Sudan have form. I have in my hand "The scorched earth: oil and war in Sudan", a document published by Christian Aid in 2001. I will not talk at great length about it, except to say that the tactics employed, which are described in the booklet, are almost exactly the ones that are now being employed in Darfur. Leaving aside the issue of oil in Sudan, I particularly recall, when we were in Sudan two years ago, hearing about the train that ran down to Wau, which was in the south and surrounded by rebel areas. As the train ran down, armed Arab militia on horseback, fanning out to perhaps 20 km on either side of the track, would plunder, kill, rape, pillage, and take slaves—in the 21st century, for God's sake—as they proceeded down to Wau. As soon as the train withdrew, the rebels would blow up the track. It seems to me that what has happened now is exactly the same. In its report last month, the International Crisis Group said of Darfur:

"The situation mirrors the dynamic of other conflicts throughout Sudan, pitting a periphery that views itself as the victim of discrimination against a centre in Khartoum that is seen as holding all the economic and political cards."

I do not intend to say much more, because many Members want to speak and, given the importance of the situation, they should be allowed to have as much say as they can. I will, however, say this: Darfur is a long way from us and is a little part of a country of which we know remarkably little, but it is the world's most serious humanitarian crisis and it will not go away.

So what can the international community and the UK Government do? First, we need to be less supine in what we say. The Secretary of State was extremely diplomatic on the radio on, I believe, Monday. I have been less diplomatic today. The Government of Sudan must take responsibility for what is happening in Sudan. We are contributing humanitarian aid, but Sudan needs yet more. The crisis will not go away for at least a year. We must pursue the matter at the UN, although I know that we are doing so to a certain extent. The Security Council noted the prolonged absence of an accredited resident humanitarian co-ordinator, which is a serious obstacle to international operations in Darfur. I hope that the Minister will tell us what is happening in that regard.

Will the Minister also tell us what has happened about the African Union monitoring force, which has been agreed? I know that the British Government have agreed to provide part of its funding; the rest must come from the European Union. Let us at least do that so that we can know what is happening. It is all very well to wring hands—people might say that I stand here wringing mine—but people are dying now, so this humanitarian crisis must be dealt with now. The crisis will go on for perhaps a year or more, but the long-term solution is political: to make the Government of Sudan accountable and to make them take responsibility for their actions and their people. I urge the UK Government to be bold and outspoken in what they say to the Government of Sudan, and to mobilise international concern so that pressure can be put on them for real change. I shall not elaborate on the sanctions or other actions that we might take, but this crisis needs reaction from the international community. I hope that the Minister can reassure me.

Several hon. Members rose