[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair] — backbench business — Sudan

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 28th April 2011.

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Photo of Tom Clarke Tom Clarke Labour, Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill 2:30 pm, 28th April 2011

It is a real pleasure to be speaking under your chairmanship, Mr Walker, and I welcome you to our debate. I also welcome hon. Members attending the debate, given all the influences of this afternoon. I am extremely grateful that they have come to what is, nevertheless, a very important debate. I declare an interest as the chair of the all-party group of parliamentary friends of CAFODCatholic Fund for Overseas Development. I want to place on record my sincere thanks to Mr Speaker and the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate on the humanitarian and political situation in Sudan.

As hon. Members present at this debate already know, Sudan has recently voted to separate, in a week-long referendum which began on 9 January, and will formally divide on 9 July 2011. Along with the Sudanese people, I was very pleased to welcome the referendum, which is one major step towards completing the comprehensive peace agreement of 2005. After years of civil war, it seemed that finally a peaceful solution would be achieved. Unsurprisingly, however, a number of issues remain unresolved and require our urgent attention. In my view, alongside our international obligation as a guardian of the peace agreement, it is also our moral duty to ensure that a lasting peace is achieved.

In fairness to the Foreign Secretary, his action on Sudan in the run-up to the referendum was clear and constructive. He chaired a special session of the UN Security Council and announced Sudan as a priority for the Foreign Office. That has to be welcomed by all parts of the House. However, success in Sudan is not the final piece in the jigsaw; it is the first piece in a new jigsaw. I am sure that the Government will listen to the arguments put forward today not only by myself, but other hon. Members, and, more importantly, act on them with the urgency that they deserve. The issues are many and require greater detail than I can afford, given the time today. However, I will endeavour to offer an overview of the main causes for concern that the UK could and should act on, and I am sure that other hon. Members present will wish to explore those issues in greater detail.

The fertile and oil-producing border area of Abyei is proving to be a hot-spot of escalating violence and political turmoil. As the Minister will know—I welcome his presence this afternoon—the separate referendum in this part of the region has been stalled. That is because a nomadic tribe, the Misseriya, are now claiming to be residents of that area. Consequently, they are exerting their right to vote in the referendum. That is a serious and intractable problem which is causing civil unrest of grave concern. The UN has also reported that both the armies from the north and south are deploying heavy weapons. What is more, President Bashir has insisted that there can be no decision on the future status of Abyei that excludes the Misseriya. Is that not a clear attempt to influence the outcome of the referendum in favour of the north, which is lacking in the kind of balance that I believe is necessary, and for which I will argue later?

I am sure that the Foreign Office understands those issues. It has previously acknowledged the complexity of the situation that I have described. I note that the Government have also signed a statement, issued by the Troika on 15 March, condemning violence in the area. I welcome very much those interventions, but words need to be backed up. Will the Minister tell us what further steps the UK will take to ensure that this situation is resolved, and that the referendum is carried out with fair representation of the resident Dinka people? Will the Minister outline what support will be given to officials to uphold the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which empowers the Dinka people to choose their status in the referendum? I fear that unless the situation is properly addressed, the north will continue to exploit the peace process for greater concessions from the south and, inevitably, the south will fight back.

Another major threat to the peace process is posed by the recent reports of divisions between various factions in the south. I do not wish to add to the rumours that I have heard. However, it would be catastrophic for the peace process if those reported conflicts were to escalate on the eve of independence. There is a clear need for diplomatic assistance and our Government have to make sure that they continue to fulfil their role as one of the guarantors of the peace agreement. I accept absolutely that in that role, the Government have to be more even-handed between north and south than I feel I am able to be in this speech today. I echo the words of the Minister, when he said:

“It is important to recognise that we need not just to reduce the risks associated with disasters when they happen, but to have much better co-ordination on identifying and preventing risks before they happen”.—[Hansard, 8 March 2011; Vol. 524, c. 886.]

Will the Minister tell the House what steps he and his colleagues will take to bring those words into fruition and co-ordinate an effective diplomatic mission to resolve the conflict in Abyei, and between the various factions in the south, before it escalates into full-blown civil conflict?

I would now like to draw the Minister’s attention to another outstanding issue—the popular consultations, which were due to be held in the South Kordofan and Blue Nile states. Although the consultation process is under way in the Blue Nile, it has yet to begin in South Kordofan, a clear indicator that the north is not taking those marginalised areas of Sudan as seriously as I believe it should. It is perhaps worth recalling the words of American historian Howard Zinn:

“The memory of oppressed people is one thing that cannot be taken away, and for such people, with such memories, revolt is always an inch below the surface.”

Will the Minister acknowledge the potential dangers if the north continues to ignore the demands of its marginalised states? Will he commit to putting added pressure on President Bashir meaningfully to uphold the promises in the comprehensive peace agreement for popular consultations to meet the expectations of the Sudanese people in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile?

The Minister will also be aware of another matter which affects all three states previously mentioned and which has yet to be resolved—border demarcation. That highly contentious issue directly affects 10 border states and some 13 million people. As always, these matters are complex. Can the Minister say what he and his colleagues are doing to support the important process of border delineation?

Following the independence of the south, the threat from the hardliners in the north is that sharia law will be more strictly applied and that there will be no place for southerners, especially if they fail to convert to Islam. Compare that with the south, where northerners have already been given guarantees that they are welcome to stay and to continue in whatever is their line of business. Does the Minister agree that Khartoum should be encouraged to adopt a similar attitude? What steps is he taking to ensure that the rights of southerners living in the north, and of northerners living in the south, will be respected?

The national debt, which is approximately $40 billion, is a big issue. South Sudan simply does not have the economic wherewithal to service that financial burden. However, north Sudan has offered to take on all of the country’s international debt when the south gains independence in July, requesting that that be in exchange for inclusion in the International Monetary Fund’s heavily indebted poor countries initiative. We are aware that our Government intend to cancel the £1 billion of Sudan’s debt that is owed to the UK, but when will that happen? What are the implications for the budget of the Department for International Development?

The Minister ought also to be aware of the important role of the Churches in mitigating the effects of conflict and in protecting the rights of citizens, despite the continued attempts by Khartoum to restrict their work. Non-governmental organisations such as CAFOD, which has worked in Sudan since the mid-1970s and has provided those essential links to the Church, have proven effective in dealing with the humanitarian and political crises.

There is much anticipation about the Government’s position on the humanitarian emergency response review. I suggest, too, that the Government take on board Lord Ashdown’s point of view, which I share, that

“indigenous and faith-based NGOs are often the first to respond, and understand both culture and context”.

Based on that shared view, will the Minister continue to support the work of the Churches in Sudan? Many NGOs have asked the Government to define the support to be provided. I welcome the Minister’s view on that aspect.

Another major issue is the unfolding humanitarian crisis. More than 190,000 southerners have returned from the north to the south since November 2010. I urge the Government to continue to live up to our responsibility to help the poorest in the world. Currently, the British public are legitimately concerned about cuts, but let that not deter the Government in their resolve to help those who need our attention.

I have covered only a handful of the issues facing Sudan as it approaches a new chapter. I have not even touched on the difficulties of ensuring a fair division of oil revenues or of the terrible threat posed by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Of equally great importance, we should never forget the plight of people in Darfur and the devastating human misery and suffering that the violence has caused. While conflict continues in Darfur, peace across the rest of the country is under constant threat. The international community has still to meet that challenge.

I would now like to conclude my speech with some final recommendations and thoughts, as I look forward to the contribution of other hon. Members. South Sudan is one of the most underdeveloped regions on the African continent. The UK special representative for Sudan, Michael Ryder, has recommended that the Government begin to outline a post-CPA framework. Does the Minister have any plans to do so? If so, what kind of action does he envisage the UK Government taking?

DFID’s wealth creation strategy could play a significant role in helping south Sudan prosper as it develops. As Ministers draw up their plans, I suggest that they take heed of informed contributions such as CAFOD’s “Think Small” report, which outlines the importance of small and medium-sized enterprises, in particular in developing countries where the informal sector is so prevalent.

I take the opportunity to express my support for the principle of country-by-country reporting, which would bring particular benefits to south Sudan. As a new country with significant oil resources, it will be starting from a blank page. Country-by-country reporting is one piece of the jigsaw that could help the people of south Sudan to hold their Government to account and to ensure that wealth is fairly shared. Country-by-country reporting is supported by the Chancellor, who has promised action to take it forward at a European Union level. What will such action look like?

South Sudan has enormous potential as a country, but our support is paramount at this critical time of state formation. So far, the UK Government have played an important supportive role: they must continue to do so. The alternative would be a travesty for the people of Sudan, who are waiting, hoping and praying for the international community to respond, and to respond positively. I called for the debate today because I and many others agree with that plea.