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Volume 227: debated on Tuesday 22 June 1993

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Conway.]

10.28 pm

This debate gives us the opportunity to raise the issue of Sudan and the Government's policy towards it. It has been sadly neglected. A tragedy has been occurring there on a scale comparable to that in Bosnia and Somalia, but relatively little attention has been paid to it, although the amount of human suffering has been intense. It has been called the silent death of Sudan.

As the Minister will know, I recently visited the part of Sudan under the control of the Khartoum Government. I went there in the company of the hon. Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks), who regrets that he cannot be here tonight. I want to raise questions arising from that visit. Obviously, if the Minister cannot deal with all the issues during the debate, I will be pleased to receive a letter from him afterwards.

I express my appreciation to the Overseas Development Administration and the Foreign Office for the assistance given to us. In particular, I thank our ambassador in Khartoum, Mr. Peter Streams, for the immense help that he and his staff gave, for the very fine work that he does in representing Britain there and for the concern that he shows for the suffering of the Sudanese people.

Perhaps understandably, we have been obsessed by Bosnia and, to a lesser extent, Somalia. Totally inadequate attention has been given to the tragic events in Sudan, a country of great size, variety and charm, with which, of course, Britain has the closest associations.

The term ethnic cleansing has been used and deplored extensively with regard to Bosnia, but it is also applicable to Sudan. We have had the accusation that fundamentalist Islam is seeking to impose its doctrinaire vision not just on the Christian south, but on those Muslims who do not share its purist view.

We also have the cries for help from the Nuba mountains, where the Nuba people claim that their ethnicity, their whole way of life, is being eliminated.

Unfortunately, the outside world is not allowed to see how great the physical, human and social destruction has been. There is no doubt that the scale of misery is huge. No one who has seen the starvation that has occurred in the south can be in any doubt that this is a tragedy of immense proportions. It is a tragedy that has many dimensions.

Literally millions of people have been displaced as a consequence of the civil war that has been going on for 10 years. Apart from the refugees to other lands from Sudan, there are over 1 million people in huge camps around Khartoum. They have been forced to live miles from anywhere, in the desert, in hot, windy conditions, where food, water and medical facilities are completely inadequate. In the past, their primitive homes around Khartoum have been demolished and they have been forcibly moved in their tens of thousands further out in the desert. It is safe to say that in Sudan as a whole there are 2 million to 3 million internally displaced people.

We now face the appalling problems whereby previously self-reliant people are dependent on being fed; they are not able to feed themselves and the international community is forced to feed combatants in a war.

In the Nuba mountains, the international aid organisations have been excluded. Many villages have been destroyed and tens of thousands of women and children have been separated from their menfolk. The Nuba people have been stripped of their lands, which have been sold to Arab business men and mechanised; the soil has been degraded and the Nuba have been used as cheap labour. The environmental consequences of this mechanised farming have been devastating.

There are appalling stories of so-called peace camps, where aid is delivered only in return for religious allegiance. Certainly the Nuba people themselves feel that their whole cultural identity is being frontally attacked.

The Sudanese human rights record has been condemned by the United Nations by 104 votes to eight and the United Nations rapporteur, Dr. Biro, has made it absolutely clear that there are great abuses of human rights in Sudan. Amnesty International has also made it clear that people routinely disappear in that country. In our visit to Juba, we personally established that over 50 people caught in the Juba disturbances of last summer and autumn have disappeared, with no proper trial and no information being given to their relatives about whether they are alive or dead. There is the fully documented instance of ghost houses or secret detention centres being used for the interrogation and torture of detainees without any reference to family or lawyers.

Political parties are banned and since our stay a large number of people associated with the former democratically elected Prime Minister Al Mandi have been detained. The regime are now attacking their fellow Muslims as well as the Christians they have attacked before.

But, of course, much of the concern in this country has come from the Christian churches, because of the difficulties which have been put in the way of worship in Sudan. At the heart of the problem is the determination by the military dictatorship in Khartoum that the country will be run under a system of sharia—the imposition of a religious state. which is inevitably uncomfortable for those not of that faith, or not of that version of the faith.

The witness of Christians, for example, is not allowed in Sharia courts. Sharia extends to all areas of life, including banking and education. Public education systems have been Arabised and Islamised. It is inevitable that that gives second-class citizenship to all Christians or others not of a fundamentalist disposition. How can there be peace within a religious state in a multicultural society? Sharia means that religion determines national identity and is the framework for the political and civil structure. Religion allocates power and resources. There are bound to be problems in a multi-religious, multicultural state such as Sudan, where there is no equality between believers.

Economically, the country is bankrupt. The World bank has withdrawn from a country that does not pay its debts and there is an immense flight of private capital. Behind all the problems has been a civil war which has gone on for 10 years. The country is in dire trouble. There is formally a ceasefire, but the rebels in the south are now in factions and there is still fighting between those factions.

The Sudanese Government have no monopoly on brutality or on abuses of human rights. Appalling atrocities have been committed by the southern forces as well. The factions in the south have been impeding the delivery of food, with all the tragic consequences we have seen on our television screens. What has been especially repulsive has been the way in which innocent Sudanese people have been starved for political or military purposes by all sides. In addition to the already complex situation, the Arab versus African dimension and the Islam versus Christian dimension, there is now a major inter-tribal conflict in the south of the country.

We now come to what we can and must do on our own, with our EC partners and with the United Nations. I cannot stress enough that, because of our colonial history, Britain is the country above all to which ordinary Sudanese look for help from the outside world. That came across to us with enormous force on our visit there. What can we do? First, we must do all that we can to ensure that Dr. Biro's work to investigate the human rights situation in Sudan is aided as far as possible. We must ensure that ordinary citizens can go about their business without fear and that the Sudanese Government give full access to Dr. Biro and his team. He must start his work soon and he must be fully resourced to do that work. What assurances can the Government give on that?

We have to insist that all parts of the country are open to international observers. The Sudanese Government say that they have nothing to hide. Let the Sudanese Government prove that. There is particular concern about the Nuba mountains. We must know whether there have been massacres and on what scale, what displacement has occurred and what abuse of human rights there has been, as has been extensively reported in this country and elsewhere.

The international non-governmental agencies—the aid organisations—are not allowed to work in those parts of the country. Only Sudanese Islamic relief organisations are allowed to work there. For the protection of those people, we must insist that the international aid organisations can work there. There must be unhindered access for humanitarian work. What pressure are the Government applying to allow that to occur? What has been the finding of an EC troika, which has recently visited the country? What has it found and what does it say should occur?

It is not just that the international aid organisations must be allowed to work in the north of the country. There is a continuing problem of access in the south. It is estimated that only one quarter of the population in the south has access to the Operation Lifeline aid programme. The Sudanese Government are also impeding the international NGOs which do not have access to the thousands of southern people who are displaced throughout the country.

One must be even-handed and say that the factions in the south also impede the delivery of food with the appalling consequences that we have seen. Assistance needs to be increased and the logistics from Khartoum and Nairobi to be improved. The world food programme based, or headed up, from Nairobi has been described as overwhelmed by the scale of the task, partly through lack of resources, partly through incompetence and partly because it stops work at the first sign of difficulty while aid organisations such as Goal of Ireland continue their work.

Richard Dowden in The Independent has been devastatingly critical of the United Nations' performance in Kenya from where southern Sudan has to be serviced. What is the Government's view? What are they going to do to remedy the deficiency? It is not merely a problem of food; there is a major public health disaster featuring epidemic diseases such as kala-azar. What assessment have the Government made of the food and medical needs?

There is also a need for safe havens or demilitarised zones and the withdrawal of the fighting factions, especially from the Waat-Ayod-Kongor areas, or the famine triangle. In effect, that seems to have been agreed between the factions on 28 May following the intervention of the American ambassador. Has a safe haven been established? Have the forces been withdrawn? What pressure is being applied? If there is an agreement for a safe haven or demilitarised zone, it is something on which to build.

We must maintain pressure on the Government of Sudan. It is clear that poverty is increasing and that the ordinary Sudanese are facing ever-greater difficulties. The Nigerians have been hosting peace talks in Abuja, and we must be grateful to them for doing that. There is no sign, however, that progress is being made and it is doubtful whether John Garang, the leader of the SPLA, has credibility as the sole representative of the splintered south. There is a grave suspicion that the Khartoum Government are stalling and that the insistence on Sharia is the main obstacle to progress.

Other talks being held in Nairobi between the Government of Sudan and the SPLA united faction seem more optimistic. In Nairobi it has been reported that the Sudan Government have conceded the right of the southern Sudanese to self-determination through a referendum, although it is complicated by northern politicians who still regard the war as a fight against the Government in Sudan for the whole of Sudan and who are not interested in peace or the southern issue.

What information do the Government have on the progress of the Nairobi talks? The British ambassador in Khartoum recently visited the south. What information and views did he bring back? Surely the time has now come for the United Nations and the international community to put pressure on all parties in the dispute. Should not the British Government take up the plight of the Sudanese people at the Security Council to try to find a satisfactory outcome?

All sides seem to agree that Sudan cannot be a unitary state. Whether it becomes a federation, a confederation or two separate states is for the people of Sudan to decide. We must press for genuine steps to be made towards democracy. It is good that in Nairobi there seems to have been some agreement, or movement, on the need for a referendum. Neither the northern Government nor the factions in the south are elected. There is a complete absence of democratisation in Sudan. Will the Government press for a referendum at least in the southern states, if not in the whole of Sudan?

I have raised this issue for debate because of the concern of many hon. Members and of the many people outside, especially the groups that support the aid organisations in this country. I look foward very much to the Government's reply.

10.43 pm

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) for giving the House the timely opportunity to discuss the Sudan. I am sure that the House will be grateful, as I am, for his first-hand account of the situation there, following his recent visit accompanied by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks). I am grateful for his tribute to the work of Her Majesty's ambassador in the Sudan and his staff, who, like those elsewhere in the diplomatic service, fulfil their tasks with dedication and considerable courage.

I found myself in broad agreement with the hon. Gentleman's assessment of the situation and of the causes of the disastrous condition in which the Sudan finds itself. The hon. Member paints a grim picture, and it is all too clear from the many sources available to us that it is an accurate one.

The root cause of the humanitarian crisis is the civil war which has wracked the country for so long. There will be no lasting solution to the problems in the south unless there is a peace settlement. It is crucial that all sides in the conflict—the Sudanese Government and the rival factions in the south—seize the opportunity afforded by the peace talks under way in Abuja. There can be no military solution. We whole-heartedly support the efforts of the Nigerian Government, who are chairing these talks. The Governments of Uganda and Kenya also continue to play a helpful and constructive role.

It is right that the regional powers should be addressing the problem. But it is also our duty and that of our European partners to give every support to the process. This we have pledged to the Nigerian Government. We have also continued to insist in discussion with the parties—the regime in Khartoum and the rival factions of the south—that they seize the opportunity which now exists. We have put this point strongly to Sudanese Ministers. The international community will not understand if any of the parties fails to make the maximum effort. The SPLA leader, John Garang, received that message when he called in at the Foreign Office last month. The British ambassador who, as the hon. Gentleman said, visited southern Sudan two weeks ago, made the same point clearly to rival southern factions. As I speak, the Danish Minister for Development Co-operation is, as the hon. Gentleman also said, leading a troika delegation—on which we are represented by the permanent secretary at the Overseas Development Administration—on a visit to southern Sudan and Khartoum to underline the message.

The Troika will also—this will be a primary objective—underline the seriousness with which the Community and its member states view the humanitarian crisis. It will underline the massive popular concern throughout the western world for the plight of the Sudanese people. There will be a strong message to the Sudanese Government and to the southern leaders that they must ensure that relief aid reaches all those in need throughout the country. Too often in the past the Government or the southern factions have obstructed relief. It is their duty to facilitate and to provide all necessary support and protection for the non-governmental organisations that distribute it. I have to say that in recent months it has been the fighting between factions in the south rather than action by the Sudanese forces that has obstructed our distribution.

The hon. Member referred to the UN relief operation in south Sudan. That is known as Operation Lifeline Sudan—OLS—and it covers a large area of over 100,000 sq. miles of scattered settlements and towns. Much of the area is swampy during the wet season, making some areas inaccessible by road or airlift. Since the beginning of this year, OLS has had agreement from all parties to the conflict to reactivate the relief network to more than 30 locations by air, river, road and rail. That is a complex operation requiring careful assessments to determine the needs and priorities of each area and then to establish the right delivery and distribution systems. The operaton has been disrupted by continuing hostilities, largely by the SPLA factions, which has brought further misery to the civilian population, and destroyed some relief facilities.

The United Nations agencies of the OLS and the international NGOs—non-governmental organisations—have shown courage and tenacity in maintaining relief services, but much remains to be done to relieve the suffering in the most severely affected areas. We await a full report of the visit of the EC troika Development Ministers. But they have already reported that the OLS has done a great deal to alleviate the suffering of more than 600,000 people at risk from shortages of food, medicines and other basic necessities. Those people will need more help to piece together their disrupted lives. Closer co-operation between all those involved and a willingness to give priority to humanitarian aid are essential next steps. The troika is continuing its report on how this can now be achieved. We have provided nearly £23 million since OLS was established in 1989, and we shall now consider ways in which we can continue to help those in need.

I realise that the Minister cannot directly criticise UN operations. However, there have been some very savage criticisms in the press, particularly in The Independent, about the competence of the UN operation in Kenya serving southern Sudan. Will the Minister undertake to look into those criticisms and the references to four co-ordinators for seven or eight planes and to the fact that the UN cuts its activities down when the NGOs are willing to carry on? Those criticisms applied in Somalia where international NGOs were willing to continue, but the UN services backed off from Somalia. Those criticisms must be answered.

I undertake to examine the criticisms that have been made. However, I do not wish to comment this evening on whether they are valid. I will leave it at that for the moment.

I should like to take a moment here to pay a tribute, which I am sure will be supported by the hon. Gentleman, to the British relief workers in the Sudan. The account we received from the British ambassador on his visit to the south this month vividly describes the devotion and courage of hundreds of volunteers, many of them young—including many girls—working for relief agencies such as Save the Children, Oxfam, Care, Concern, Goal and others. They live in conditions of appalling deprivation and, in many cases, considerable danger. Their efforts are essential to the delivery of relief. They have saved the lives of countless Sudanese. Their selflessness is magnificent and humbling to witness.

Her Majesty's Government have committed about £65 million for humanitarian assistance since November 1990 including our share of EC aid. All of that is channelled through the United Nations or non-governmental organisations. We were the second largest donor of bilateral food aid last year. We attached no political strings to that. The priority is to save life and meet basic needs. In addition, we gave our full support to the appointment by the United Nations Secretary-General last month of the Italian diplomat, Mr. Traxler, as senior co-ordinator for the Sudan. He could have an important role in co-ordinating international humanitarian assistance. It is important, as we have made very clear to them, that the Sudanese Government stop procrastinating on this appointment. They should welcome it and they should receive Mr. Traxler for discussions in Khartoum as soon as possible.

The hon. Gentleman referred to human rights. The Sudanese Government like to claim that their appalling reputation on human rights is the result of some form of international propaganda conspiracy against them; and that we play a leading role in a campaign of falsification. Of course that is not the case. There is overwhelming evidence, as the hon. Gentleman said, from many sources of systematic abuse of human rights throughout Sudan, of the regime's lack of respect for fundamental freedoms, including freedom of religion, of brutal interrogation and of enforced movement of population, to which I will refer in a moment. These abuses occur not only in the south. There are persistent and ugly stories of persecution of minorities in the Nuban hills. Obviously, I cannot give the House details of that because the Sudanese Government do not allow sufficient access to the area.

The hon. Gentleman also quite rightly drew attention to the fact that it is not only in the south that the people of the Sudan are enduring misery. Many Sudanese, rendered destitute by civil war and drought, have sought sanctuary around the cities of Khartoum and Kosti ekeing out a meagre living where they can. The visible evidence of large-scale deprivation around the capital has prompted the Government to pursue a policy of forcible relocation of more than 700,000 displaced people to more remote sites, without basic facilities or reasonable access to employment. The Government have also restricted the access of those people to humanitarian assistance.

We and other aid donors have called on the Government of Sudan to halt those inhumane policies. We have sought to replace them with planned, voluntary resettlement to properly prepared sites and pressed for increased access by international NGOs to provide humanitarian assistance where it is needed. We have also provided practical support with grants of about £1·5 million to British NGOs to support their relief programmes.

The settlements are still being bulldozed, however, and families uprooted. The EC troika Ministers are visiting one of the sites today to see conditions for themselves and to renew efforts to secure improved conditions for displaced people throughout Sudan.

That the evidence against the Sudanese Government's overall record is widespread and conclusive is reflected in the remarkable vote in the United Nations General Assembly in December, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, when a resolution highly critical of the Sudanese record was adopted by 104 votes to eight. We co-sponsored that resolution and worked hard to secure its adoption. We also co-sponsored a resolution earlier this year in the United Nations Commission on Human Rights which secured the appointment of a rapporteur to investigate the human rights situation in Sudan on a public basis. That is an important step. We shall continue to do everything we can to keep the spotlight of the world on Sudan in the hope of bringing about change. There have been signs that the regime does react to international pressure. There have been promises to improve co-operation on the distribution of aid. In recent weeks, the regime has also declared a ceasefire in the south. Those signs are, obviously, to be welcomed.

Affection is felt in the House and in the country, traditionally, for the people of the Sudan. Our shared destiny goes back a long way. The colonial legacy comprised mutual respect, rather than bitterness. That makes the turmoil and the misery experienced in the Sudan all the harder for us to contemplate. We will continue to do all that we can to help. I wish that I could assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that I was wholly confident that we could expect a sustained improvement in the attitude of the Sudanese Government and the warring factions to the vital tasks of peacemaking, rebuilding the shattered infrastructure and protecting the human rights of all Sudanese people.

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his service to the House in bringing the issue before it. I assure him that we will continue to press for those vital tasks to he undertaken.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Eleven o'clock.