Darfur (Sudan)

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

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Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Whip 12:00 am, 9th June 2004

I join other Members in congratulating Mr. Robathan on securing this timely debate. There have been heartfelt contributions from all Members present, all expressing a desire to help the people of Darfur. The situation there is desperate, and I will not repeat the statistics about displaced people. It is the worst humanitarian crisis that the world faces. As well as the hunger and murder, the Ebola crisis developing in the south may spread throughout the country. If things were not already bad enough, there is that element to add to the picture as well.

I am grateful to Alan Goulty, DFID's official, for briefing me on the subject on Monday. From what he was saying and from press reports, it appears that the Government and DFID have done much to alleviate the situation in Darfur and facilitate the peace process in the south, and I congratulate them wholeheartedly on that. However, it appears—I put it no stronger than that—that the UK and other countries could do more to apply the necessary pressure to the Sudanese Government to fulfil their obligations to the people of Darfur.

I hope that the Minister will set out how the UK Government can exert pressure on the Sudanese Government to ensure that the security and protection of civilians in Darfur is maximised. I welcome the statement yesterday from the Secretary of State in which he said:

"Action must also now be taken to bring irregular forces and militias under control. The Government of Sudan needs to take steps immediately to provide security to Darfurians, who told me yesterday that they will not return home until is it safe to do so."

I hope that that statement is the first notch and that pressure will be ratcheted up if the Sudanese Government do not respond.

Perhaps there have been developments in the last couple of days, but one thing that surprised me during the meeting on Monday was that by then the Sudanese Government had made no public statement condemning what is happening in Darfur. They had not distanced themselves from the Janjaweed nor ordered the militias to cease human rights abuses. I hope that more forthright statements have come from the Sudanese Government in the last couple of days.

It is interesting that in the notes from the all-party group on Sudan, which does an excellent job and produces very good briefings, Dr. Ismail is quoted as saying that

"the people in Darfur need security urgently and the Government of Sudan needs to move quickly to ensure their security . . . there is a humanitarian urgency . . . the Government of Sudan should collect weapons from those not in regular forces."

That is a positive statement but it is weak in its condemnation. With the contact that the Secretary of State has had, perhaps the Minister will be able to reassure us that condemnation has been more forceful in the last couple of days. I understand the niceties of Sudanese politics, and the concern may be that forthright condemnation from the Government would lead to the breakdown of the peace process. Therefore it must be done tactfully. It must be done, however, because the killing continues.

I welcome the fact that our Government are putting more resources into assisting the African Union. A timetable is needed to ensure the improved protection of civilians and humanitarian access and the speeding up of the customs clearing process. I understand that it currently takes weeks and that the target is to reduce it to seven days.

The most urgent task is to get the Government of Sudan to do all that they can to halt the killings and destruction in Darfur. I hope that the Minister can tell us what means our Government have at their disposal to encourage the Sudanese Government to send the necessary public signals, to issue the relevant military orders and to do their best to deploy more impartial police and security personnel in Darfur. On the latter point, it would be a source of enormous concern if the Sudanese Government simply encouraged the Janjaweed to swap their uniforms for police uniforms. That would not create a climate in which displaced people would want to return to their lands.

The Sudanese Minister of Foreign Affairs claims that ethnic cleansing is not taking place in Darfur as ethnic cleansing means depopulating areas and bringing in a different group to replace those who have fled. Does the Minister agree, however, that what is happening amounts, in effect, to ethnic cleansing if the original inhabitants cannot return in the short term because of the rain, in the medium term because they have been unable plant their crops for next year, and in the long term because they cannot trust the security forces? At the very least, one ethnicity has been cleared out, and the land has been left empty. What assistance could the UK Government give to encourage the creation of a police force that people in the region can trust? Could they perhaps do something about training?

Clearly, the situation in Darfur is desperate, but there are positive developments, and the peace process is one. I hope that the Minister will be able to say something about the applicability of the model that has been developed for the south. Could it be transposed on to Darfur to provide Darfurians with some of the devolution that they seek?

I turn briefly to the role that the UK can play in getting the international community more involved. Would the Minister support a firm statement by the UN Security Council condemning atrocities in Darfur, or does he agree with the Secretary of State, who is quoted today as saying that talk of military intervention is unhelpful? What role does the Minister see other countries on the Security Council playing? I understand that China, Pakistan and Algeria have not been terribly helpful in developing clear statements or firm action on the issue. Does he believe that the European Union has a greater role to play in bringing an end to the violence? Can the Government do more to encourage our key European partners, such as France and Germany, to contribute greater assistance?

One hopes that the situation in Darfur will be resolved at some point, but as several hon. Members have said, there will be still be a significant humanitarian and environmental problem once the situation has been resolved. The region is badly affected by climate change and desertification, so the land will probably not be able to support people. What role can we play in the longer term in providing developmental aid to the region? Clearly, such aid will be needed once the humanitarian crisis and military conflict have been resolved.

Darfur is isolated from the rest of world; it is 800 miles from Khartoum, with no roads. It is our responsibility to put it centre stage and to keep it there. The international community must use all the means at its disposal to stop the killing and to provide the humanitarian assistance that is needed to prevent the tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths that could occur. We still have time to prevent this disaster from turning into a calamity of biblical proportions, but time is slipping away, and we must redouble our efforts before it is too late.