[Mrs. Janet Dean in the Chair] — Darfur Crisis

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:27 pm on 18th May 2006.

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Photo of John Barrett John Barrett Shadow Minister, Scotland 4:27 pm, 18th May 2006

The situation in Darfur is possibly the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time. If there is one part of the world where everything that could combine to cause the maximum of human suffering and misery did so, Darfur is it. Conflict, with the Arab militias and the Janjaweed, too many guns, a corrupt Government, global warming, religious divides, refugees, famine, human rights abuse, civil war and poverty: the scale of the problem, like the scale of the country, is different from that here in the UK.

The debate so far has been excellent. I particularly commend the speech by John Bercow, who is always a hard act to follow, but there have been excellent speeches from members of all parties. The Chairman of the Select Committee, whose report was mentioned earlier today, would have been here were the Select Committee not visiting the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The numbers might be estimates, but they are all staggering, with more than 3 million people needing food aid and up to 300,000 estimated by the UN to have died in Darfur during the conflict. Millions have fled their destroyed villages with many heading for camps near the main towns or over the border into Chad. The Janjaweed patrol outside camps: Darfurians are killed and women raped if they venture too far in search of firewood or water. Some 200,000 Darfurians have sought safety in Chad, but many are camped along the border and in danger of attack. There are also those who, although they have not been displaced, have been impoverished by the collapse of the rural economy caused by the continuing violence in the countryside.

Early in 2006, a total of 3.5 million Darfurians, more than half of the region's population, were in need of humanitarian assistance. Nowhere is Sudan's humanitarian crisis as acute as in west Darfur, and the United Nations estimates that 716,000 people have been uprooted and have taken refuge in internally displaced persons camps over the past two and a half years.

The images from my last visit are lodged in my mind, and they will be brought back to life this summer when I hope to return. They are images of villages burned out, attacked in a co-ordinated way from the sky and the ground, and of Antonov bombers and helicopter gunships sitting side by side with the white helicopters of the AU, mentioned by Mr. Mitchell. They left me and others with no doubt about what had been happening and who were involved.

We visited camps where we met women and children and old people but relatively few men: the men were either dead, fighting or missing. We watched people walking for miles with nothing and starting again with the few basics of life—PVC sheets, food, some soap, containers for water, but not much more. We saw women taking their lives in their hands as they risked everything to obtain firewood, while in the distance they could see men waiting to rape them or possibly kill them.

I pay tribute to the non-governmental organisations and the workers, who are doing an excellent job. Many of them are young and some are inexperienced, but they have real commitment. They are from various organisations including Médecins sans Frontières and Oxfam. However, I pay special tribute to Save the Children, which pulled out of Darfur following the execution of two of its staff in a roadside incident. That incident followed another two of its staff being killed by landmines.

Even with the work that is going on in Darfur, the UN estimates that it has no access, or only limited access, to about 650,000 civilians who need assistance. Those people are living close to the edge of a cliff that has a very long drop. Relief workers are struggling to reach hundreds of thousands of civilians in dire need of food, water, shelter and protection from further attacks. Jan Egeland, the UN's emergency relief co-ordinator said recently that humanitarian access was the worst it had been since the spring of 2004, and:

"The world's largest aid effort now hangs in the balance...If we are to avoid an imminent, massive loss of life, we need immediate action".

The work being done by those agencies in villages with no water, no sanitation, no food, little health care and little security makes the task ahead—at least to restore security, which, as the hon. Member for Buckingham said, is the basic requirement; the rest will follow—all the more important.

DFID's role in the reconstruction and the funding promised by others is important. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for once again briefing Members immediately on returning from his trip. It is not the first time that he has done so. I clearly remember that after visiting the earthquake in Pakistan he flew straight back and reported to the House.

I would like to raise a number of issues following on from that visit and the recent signing of the peace agreement. The UN force must be deployed as a united force, not as a common enemy from outside. As the Secretary of State said, there is no reason for it to be a problem. If the UN force can continue to hold the peace in the south and to bring peace in Darfur region, it will have been a great success.

Even in areas where humanitarian agencies have had safe access to civilians, the Sudanese Government have obstructed relief activities, as we heard from Mr. Drew. In fact, one could go so far as to say that they had conducted a campaign of administrative harassment; the restrictions included delaying visas and travel authorisations, using laws to regulate the activities of NGOs and imposing arbitrary and onerous regulations on humanitarian agencies.

We saw that happen also during the 21-year civil war in south Sudan; the Government regularly blocked humanitarian agencies, using tactics ranging from outright denials to flight bans and an array of other obstacles. Those delays must not be allowed to continue in Darfur. The role of the Sudanese Government was mentioned by the hon. Member for Buckingham, who is not known for mincing his words.

The recent peace treaty almost assumes that the Sudanese Government are an innocent party, hoping to resolve the problem by incorporating the rebels into the army and the police. To a certain extent, the fact that up till now there has been co-operation between the Sudanese Government and those groups is being ignored. That point was raised by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield.

We can learn from what is happening elsewhere. Following the conflict in Sierra Leone much training was given to former combatants in carpentry, mechanics and blacksmithing, but, because the economy had not taken off, there was little or no demand for those skills or the products that they produced. Blacksmithing tools are now lying stored in a warehouse. It is important that the wealth of the country is spread, or the divide will remain and the frustration will grow. The unemployed youth who previously went out to fire a gun will be even more frustrated if he is trained and then finds out that no one wants his skills. The country is rich in oil revenues, which must be spread throughout the country, so that the economy can once again come to life. There is a risk that if the economy remains poor, or remains in the hands of a few, conflict will return.

Avoiding a return to violence after it has stopped is a challenge for all involved, and much reconstruction work is required. The basic infrastructure of roads, water supply, health facilities and education is lacking in many parts of the country. The democratic institutions need to be rebuilt and such basics as water supply will make a huge difference.

We must take heed of what is happening in the south after the signing of the peace agreement and the civil war. The war caused the death of about 2 million people. According to humanitarian agencies the death toll was one of the highest in any war since 1945. It ended with the signing of a peace agreement, but in the fight for control of southern Sudan one in five of the southern Sudanese population was killed.

Expectations in the south have, however, been raised, and those who have been fighting are waiting for a peace dividend. If there is no sign of that the ingredients for conflict will be present, and the conflict could resume. My hon. Friend Susan Kramer mentioned compensation. The danger in compensation is that individual political groups will try to outbid each other in offering large amounts. That will raise expectations and, when those are not fulfilled, the frustration may end in violence.

We look forward, following the signing of the peace agreement, to elections to regional government in Darfur. However, I have a word of warning: we should not expect that the advent of elections will necessarily bring immediate peace. When the Select Committee recently took evidence, a witness answered our question about what factor was most often overrated in post-conflict situations by saying that it was elections: often, there is an expectation that conflict will reduce after everyone has had their vote, when, in reality, there is usually a lull before the elections, when everyone thinks that they will get their way through the ballot box, but conflict resumes when they lose.

I hope that those who have suffered most will have access to compensation to help them rebuild their lives. They are starting from a low level and will not need a huge amount to get them back on the bottom rung of the ladder. However, what is needed in Sudan and Darfur is good leadership and the recognition that those who led the fighting are not always the best people to lead the reconstruction. We look to Sudan and Darfur to produce politicians whom we can trust. That has not been the case so far.

Other hon. Members have mentioned the permanence of the camps. That will be a problem. The World Food Programme has been successful in supplying food to those who are hungry. Oxfam and Médecins sans Frontières have been providing water, sanitation and health care facilities. People are now being urged to go back, if peace holds, to their villages, where there are few, if any, of those facilities.

We must also keep in mind the contribution of other parts of the world to the conflict in Sudan. There are, as I said earlier, too many guns in the country. There have been concerns about the rise in imports to Sudan from Libya. Libya has had sanctions lifted and can now import weapons. Old, second-hand weapons are leaving Libya and crossing the border into Sudan. There is also concern about the supply of arms from Russia and the fact that Sudan's oil is going to China. As was mentioned earlier, it is all part of one, large problem, because the oil from Sudan is fuelling the fastest-growing economy in the world, which has one of the most rapidly growing rates of pollution. That affects global warming, which affects the very nomads and herdsmen who find that they have nowhere to feed their animals and there are conflicts over land rights.