Sudan

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:10 pm on 15th October 2020.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 3:10 pm, 15th October 2020

I extend my thanks to Harriett Baldwin for setting the scene so well, as she always does, and for bringing this important debate to Westminster Hall. I also put on record my thanks to her for the excellent work she did in her former position as Minister for Africa. It is not a surprise that she is here to put the case, and we are pleased to benefit from her wealth of knowledge. I am also happy to see the Minister in his place.

I echo the comments that the hon. Lady made in the House in June last year, when she rightly described attacks against civilians in Sudan as “sickening and brutal,” and they were. How else could one describe the terrible killings of over 100 peaceful protestors in Khartoum by members of the security forces? There is an urgent need to conduct detailed investigations into that violence and to hold all those found complicit in human rights violations in Sudan to account. When the Minister responds, can he tell us if he has had those discussions and, if so, can we be assured that those involved in those terrible atrocities will be accountable?

The Sudanese constitutional declaration commits to establishing an independent committee to investigate these killings. I urge the Minister to encourage his Sudanese counterparts to bring the people responsible to justice and to offer any support that the Government can to help make that happen. There is also a need to ensure that other human rights—particularly freedom of religion or belief—are respected in Sudan. At this point, I should register an interest as chair of the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief.

In terms of that fundamental human right, there have been many positive developments recently in Sudan. We have to welcome those, because that is good, positive progress. The Government have abolished legislation that made apostasy punishable by death. It has also made changes including the end of public flogging; the banning of female genital mutilation, which the Lady referred to, and which we all abhor, so we are glad to see that step; allowing non-Muslims to drink, import, and sell alcohol; and giving women the right to travel abroad with their children without producing proof of permission from their husbands. Some of these are small steps, but they are giant steps for people who have had their basic human rights denied for many years.

However, there are still problems. For example. Sudan’s criminal code contains several other provisions that limit personal freedoms and criminalise blasphemy, which have not yet been changed. So there are things we can still do. Churches have also been targeted by attackers, despite recent developments. As Sudan moves slowly towards a transition to equality and opportunity, and the right for people to express themselves, we find that some are holding things back. For example, a temporary straw church building belonging to the Sudanese Church of Christ in Omdurman was set on fire on 14 August 2020, just a few months ago.

In another recent development, on 13 August 2020, a judge in Khartoum sentenced a Christian woman to two months imprisonment and a 50,000 Sudanese pound fine for violating article 79 by dealing in alcohol, despite amendments that have been introduced, but which do not seem to be being implemented, stipulating that article 79 is no longer applicable to non-Muslims. The Government have made a commitment, which has to be delivered on. A Christian woman found herself in a position where she thought she was working within the law but is then disciplined because of the interpretation of it.

These incidents highlight how much more work there is still to do. It is important that the UK Government push for commitment to human rights reform. The hon. Lady referred to that, I want to see it and I believe everyone here would say the same thing. International scrutiny will be essential to make sure that the demands of Sudanese people are met. Those demands include the creation of a transitional Parliament representing every region, and it is important to set aside seats in it for those of other ethnic and religious minorities. Other countries have done it. Why not Sudan?

The demands also include the appointment of civilian governors, justice and accountability for human rights violations, so that when violations happen there is a methodology for addressing them. The UN Human Rights Council, in particular, should be pushed to maintain close scrutiny of the human rights situation in Sudan: is it transitioning correctly and are the steps that have been committed to taking place? That needs to be established. The Human Rights Council should also be pressed to adopt a resolution allowing for annual independent reports from an individual or a body mandated to monitor and investigate human rights abuses in Sudan. I believe that, if we can monitor, check and regulate from outside we can see whether the job that the hon. Member for West Worcestershire and I want done is getting done.

I urge the Minister to help by pushing for the removal of sanctions on Sudan, and encouraging the US to remove it from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. The hon. Member for West Worcestershire is absolutely right about that. If we are to encourage democracy and encourage the country to move forward, we need to do that, and I fully support it. Restrictions on US foreign assistance would be lifted and Sudan would be allowed access to much-needed debt relief and financing from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. If we want to bring a nation forward and give it the opportunities that others have had, one thing that must be done is to give people the opportunity to have a better life—a better quality of life and greater wellbeing through employment, living standards, and so on. That can happen if we act as I have outlined.

Finally, I call on the UK Government to work with the international community to provide financial and technical assistance to the Sudanese Government for the reform process, so that we can help them to manage the process and the transition from a dark past to a bright future. It is a pivotal and delicate moment in Sudan’s history, and we want to help. There is a good opportunity for progress, after decades of oppression, but there is also the ever-present danger of descent back into tyranny and chaos, as we know all too well from the Arab spring, which showed how quickly things can change. I know that the Minister acts on his words, and we know him by reputation and the job he has done in the past. I urge him to do all he can to ensure that that pain of transition will turn to prosperity for the Sudanese people. That is what I and the hon. Member for West Worcestershire and, I believe, the Minister all want.