South Sudan

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:18 am on 14th January 2014.

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Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development 11:18 am, 14th January 2014

It is a pleasure, Sir Edward, to serve under your chairmanship. I thank Mr Bain for securing this extremely important debate. As chair of the associate all-party group for the Republic of Sudan and South Sudan, his experience and knowledge is huge. His was a powerful exposition of the situation in South Sudan, and I thank him for that.

The UK is deeply concerned—I am deeply concerned—by the terrible violence in South Sudan that began on 15 December 2013. We have been at the forefront of humanitarian and political efforts. Conflict is continuing in parts of the country and there are large numbers of reported deaths. The ethnic dimension, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, of some attacks is deeply worrying. We have been calling on all sides to ensure protection of civilians and respect for human rights. We are urging the leaders on both sides to remain engaged in the talks led by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development and to agree on the immediate cessation of hostilities while pursuing a sustainable political solution to the crisis, rather than continuing to seek resolution through military means.

South Sudan is close to my heart. It was the first country that I visited when I took up my post. I saw an 18 month-old country full of optimism, hope, possibility and potential. It was undeveloped and there were huge needs and challenges—but it was all there. It is heartbreaking to think how much of a setback the current situation will be and to wonder how any good things can continue. Even before the crisis, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North East said, South Sudan had one of the largest humanitarian emergencies in the world, with a complex mix of needs, including refugees—more than 225,000 are Sudanese. I went to the camps on the border of Blue Nile and South Kordofan, and refugees were pouring across the border. As the hon. Gentleman said, there are no roads, and we had to go by helicopter. It is a logistical nightmare, particularly in the rainy season, when everything becomes inaccessible.

South Sudan, a poor, young and vulnerable country, already faced immense challenges, and now it has deep difficulties, including internal displacement of people, populations affected by floods, returnees from Sudan and a large population affected by chronic, severe food insecurity. Those pre-existing issues have not gone away, but the response is being disrupted directly in areas affected by the current crisis, and indirectly elsewhere, as a result of disruption of supply routes and markets, and the evacuation of humanitarian agency staff. In addition, the humanitarian situation that has developed as a direct result of the conflict is extremely urgent. We estimate that there are more than 350,000 displaced people within South Sudan, large numbers in UN bases, and an additional 50,000 people have been displaced to bordering countries—the majority to Uganda. Many are in acute need of food, health care, shelter, clean water, sanitation and protection, and we are concerned about reports of the conditions in which some displaced people are living, including in UN camps. Thousands of people are yet to receive any humanitarian assistance, and remain fearful for their safety and that of their families.

Alison McGovern spoke about the people who were on a boat on the Nile and, sadly, drowned. People are swimming across the Nile trying to escape their dreadful situation, because it is better than staying. Aid agencies are doing a tremendous job in reaching those in need, where security allows. The ability to provide assistance remains severely constrained because of the fragile security situation and subsequent lack of humanitarian actors on the ground. Without progress on the security front, aid efforts will remain inadequate, especially in the areas worst affected by conflict, such as the town of Bor in Jonglei state.

The humanitarian crisis remains our priority and the focus of our efforts. Our existing significant humanitarian programme—more than £60 million in 2013—has put us on the front foot in responding to the crisis with the redeployment of funds to ensure a rapid response. DFID is supporting the efforts of aid agencies through direct funding and by supporting logistics. On 30 December the Secretary of State announced a further £12.5 million commitment to provide immediate supplies and support to key organisations operating in South Sudan, including the International Committee of the Red Cross and UN agencies. That package of support will provide emergency medical treatment for thousands of people, clean water to 5,000 people and tents for 7,500 people who have fled their homes, including family-sized tents which provide women, girls and young children with some privacy and a safe space. That issue was raised, rightly, and it is a priority for DFID. The support package will also support the logistics of the humanitarian effort, through support to the UN’s humanitarian air service, which airlifts aid workers and humanitarian supplies to those in need across the country. On 5 January a UK-funded emergency relief flight carrying life-saving water and sanitation equipment landed in South Sudan to avert a potential health crisis that was emerging from the conflict. Via trusted partners, we are closely monitoring the situation on the ground and we stand ready to provide further assistance as required.

The facilitation and provision of humanitarian assistance, on the basis of need alone, must be allowed. We have called on all parties to ensure safe, secure access for humanitarian agencies and respect their neutrality, and to meet their own obligations to avoid civilian casualties and direct attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure.

As I have said, before the current crisis, South Sudan was already one of the poorest countries in the world and more than half of its population were below the poverty line. Alongside our emergency humanitarian funding, the Department for International Development has a long-term development programme. However, that has been completely disrupted—I cannot put it any other way—because so many of our staff have had to leave, as have our implementing partners. Our priority at this point is to assess and respond to the immediate humanitarian situation. In the UN Security Council the UK was quick to agree to an emergency troop uplift of 5,500 to the UN mission in South Sudan, almost doubling existing numbers. We are now considering how to give more support to UNMISS through airlifts and by helping to fill gaps.

As to the specifics on what representations have been made, we are co-ordinating closely with other donor agencies and development actors and we know that further pledges are coming down the line, and are likely to be confirmed in the coming days, to contribute to the immediate funding shortfall that the hon. Member for Glasgow North East raised. As I have said, we have already contributed an extra £12.5 million. On the matter of UNMISS, I heard criticisms of the UN operation when I was in the country, and particularly in Jonglei. The need for regular review of all peacekeeping missions is built into the system, and clearly the latest events will have to be taken into full consideration at the next review.

The UN has been gathering disturbing reports of human rights abuses, and we are deeply concerned, as everyone must be. We welcome efforts by the UN mission in South Sudan to investigate reports of abuses and ensure that civilians are protected. The UN Security Council agreed on 24 December to strengthen the UNMISS human rights component. We of course welcome the Sudan People’s Liberation Army’s announcement that it will investigate the involvement of organised forces in the killings in Juba. The UK is currently in discussion with international partners on how best an independent review can be taken forward. We welcome the UN Secretary-General’s announcement on Friday that he would send the assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Simonovic, to South Sudan.

On 10 January the UN Security Council statement gave a clear welcome to the African Union Peace and Security Council’s decision to establish a commission of investigation to ensure accountability, reconciliation and healing among all South Sudanese communities. The hon. Gentleman raised those issues and they are at the core of the matter. The situation may have started with political machinations, but the people were living side by side perfectly peacefully and they have now been drawn completely unnecessarily into ethnic divisions. The immediate focus is obviously on the cessation of hostilities, but I agree about the way forward in the longer term.

Humanitarian access is severely constrained. UN agencies and NGOs are on the ground and providing support where they can. I do not have the full breakdown of the uses to which new UNMISS troops will be put. DFID is still in the process of assessing needs, and therefore the deployment will presumably follow the needs that are expressed.

I will touch on the political side, and the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The Foreign Secretary has been in touch with both Kiir and Machar and is trying to bring all sides together. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development is the mechanism for taking those matters forward, but we are urging President Kiir to ensure that the issue of detainees will not prevent constructive discussions from progressing. We are working closely with our Troika partners, the US and Norway, and the EU and regional players, to support the political process.

I thank all hon. Members who have attended the debate for their interest in and concern about a matter that is close to my heart. The hon. Member for Glasgow North East gave an excellent exposition of the situation. My Department, working hand in hand with the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence will continue to focus our efforts on ensuring that we are responding to the humanitarian situation and continuing efforts to support the political process.