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Sudan

Volume 405: debated on Tuesday 13 May 2003

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2 pm

I am delighted to have the opportunity to debate the vital issue of Sudan. I understand that peace talks resumed in Machakos last Saturday, and that prior to the recommencement of those discussions both sides expressed confidence that the new phase could bring about a final agreement to end the war. Frankly, I think that few things in the world can be as important as this issue. At the very least 2 million people have died— goodness knows how one estimates it—and 4 million people have been displaced. It is said that one in eight of the world's refugees originate from Sudan. A vast diaspora of able, talented people have been lost to their country. The latest round of fighting and war, which amounts to the last 20 years, has devastated the largest country in Africa.

Apart from a respite between 1972 and 1983, the country has been at war since independence in 1955. Members of the all-party Sudan group travelled to the country just over a year ago. They went to the north and the south, to the cities and the countryside, and they had talks with the Government, the Sudan People's Liberation Army, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, other opposition parties and civil society at large. Last April, people talked to us of peace. I believe that Sudan wants peace and that nobody in the world knows the vicious reality of war better than the people of Sudan.

The Government have excelled in the careful, painstaking, patient, highly skilled and principled diplomacy that has been required to help the negotiations and to support the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, or IGAD, process in the search for peace. I am proud of that record. The work of the Sudan unit, which was set up between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, is superb. That work reflects great credit on all the Ministers and officials involved. In particular, it reflects on my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short). It is highly appropriate today to pay tribute to her compassion, commitment and wholehearted resolve to ease the problems of war and poverty which exist in Africa on a grotesque scale. I pay tribute to the work that she has done over the past six years.

Above all, the progress that has been achieved so far at Machakos reflects great credit on General Sumbeiyo, the Kenyan chair and chief negotiator at the talks, on the Government of Sudan and on the SPLA and SPLM negotiators. So far agreement has been reached on a referendum on self-determination for the south after a six-year period, on the non-imposition of sharia in the south and on democratisation and regional development. Those issues were brought to our attention when we visited Sudan last April, and Sudanese constituents of mine first raised them with me years ago, when they came to my surgery and explained why they were in this country. They are long-running, consistent and heartfelt demands.

The Machakos agreement is a real sign of progress. These are historic developments that create the conditions for the Sudanese people themselves—not anyone else—to decide the future of their country. They provide the best opportunity for 50 years for those who believe in a united Sudan on the one hand, and for those who believe in self-determination and the separation of the south on the other, to resolve the matter democratically, fairly and in peace. Instead of war the people of Sudan could have open debate. They could have persuasion through argument and example rather than through the gun or the helicopter gunship.

The six-year interim period will be an opportunity for those who want a united Sudan to show their fellow Sudanese that they can have a better life there. On the other hand it will be an opportunity for those who want self-determination to show that the south can rule and manage itself well. Above all it will be an opportunity for those people of Sudan who simply want a much better life for themselves and their families in any part of the country to decide what they want for the future. There is a huge amount more to do and I would be grateful to the Minister for any insight that he could give us on the future development of our Government's policy towards Sudan. There are still serious issues to resolve. Despite the memorandum of understanding on the cessation of hostilities and humanitarian access, we have still had serious breaches of the ceasefire.

Fighting continues around the oilfield areas in the western upper Nile, and far to the west we seem to have an emerging conflict in Darfur. The verification and monitoring team have been refused security clearance by the Government of Sudan. Despite the fact that Sudan's human rights status at the UN has been upgraded and that there will be no more monitoring from the UN human rights rapporteur, there are still almost weekly reports of political arrests.

I want to raise a point to which I hope my hon. Friend will respond. It is a great sadness that Gerhard Baum has not been reappointed. I wonder whether we could ask the Minister what pressure the British Government have brought to bear to make sure that if Gerhard Baum is not reappointed, someone is given that role, because it is so important for the UN.

My hon. Friend makes his point clearly and well. I agree with all that he says. We still have daily reports of political arrests, newspaper closures and torture. Despite the progress at Machakos there are still crucial issues of power and wealth sharing and security. The situation of three contentious areas, Abyei, the Nuba mountains and Funj, is crucial. When we get the final agreement at Machakos, there will be an overriding and pressing need to ensure that its peace and political agreement are sustained. It will be imperative to ensure the embedding of peace, democracy, human rights, and economic and social development, and above all to build the confidence of Sudanese people that the new condition of their country or countries can be permanent, rather than harking back to the Addis Ababa agreement. We then had a respite from war but not, in the end, a sustainable peace.

There are key issues to be resolved for the people of Sudan. What will be the UN's role in verification, monitoring and peacekeeping? How will civil society and the wide range of opposition groups that have so far been excluded—perhaps necessarily—from the negotiations at Machakos be involved and engaged in the future development of the country? They have a fundamentally important role. There are many armed groups and militias that, again, have not been involved in the peace process. How will the issues raised by their presence and continued activity be resolved? How will the world move from what has, I think, been the biggest humanitarian relief enterprise that it has ever seen to the provision of development aid? How will that be coordinated between agencies and Sudanese institutions to ensure that it is effective and sustainable? What crucial developments must take place before the six-year interim period begins, and when during the process will we see effective and open elections?

Sudan is a potentially wealthy country with considerable oil reserves, which must be used for the betterment of Sudanese society, the development of the country and the interests of all the people of Sudan. What will be the impact of the extractive industries initiative on the absolutely essential needs to make oil revenues transparent and to ensure that they truly benefit the people of Sudan? How can the process of debt relief and assistance be benchmarked against progress on peace, democracy and human rights? Will there be effective co-ordination between international organisations and the EU on that?

Given that there is a large population of Sudanese people in this country and elsewhere in the world, how can we build the capacity of the Sudanese diaspora to return and to make a significant contribution to a country devastated by war? Last week, I was with a different all-party group in Angola where one of the inspirational things to be seen is the 2 million or so people moving within the country, who have come from outside it—from Zambia and from the Democratic Republic of the Congo—literally to rebuild their lives.

In the past few days, I have met people with skills and training, acquired in countries such as Zambia, which they are now looking to put to good use in their own country, Angola. How can that country assist the Sudanese people who have lived there, often for many decades? Many of them have important skills that could benefit the people of Sudan, but others need help to develop skills that could be used if they went back there. How can we help to build the capacity of the Sudanese diaspora?

I fully accept that I have asked far too many questions for the Minister to answer today, but this debate is part of a process. The issues of Sudan are raised regularly in the House. There are regular meetings of the all-party group, which brings together many Sudanese people from across the country. I hope that contact within the all-party group; between MPs and their constituents; between Sudanese people and people concerned about Sudan in this country; and among parliamentarians, Ministers and officials, can help to clarify many issues. Sudanese organisations, representatives and individuals, European and worldwide organisations, and Governments and NGOs can all be brought together. One of the great advantages of this place is that we can bring so many people together and bring so much intelligence, knowledge, experience and commitment to bear on problems.

It was an absolute privilege to visit Sudan last year as part of the all-party group. I very much hope that we will be able to go back later this year. Among the desperate circumstances of a country that has been ravaged by war—and has gone through the worst experiences that people can go through—one acute impression that remains with me is that of Sudan's huge potential, not only to resolve its problems, but to play a major role in the wider development of Africa, perhaps as part of a swathe of countries including Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Those huge, resource-rich countries from north-east to south-west Africa are, I hope, emerging from war. I hope that they will be involved in the new economic policies for African development.

Sudan is a country with a foot in both the African and Arab worlds. I believe that it presents an opportunity to build a bridge between Africa and the middle east. Sudan is well placed, geographically, socially and historically, to play that role. Arabs and Africans—Christianity and Islam—have for too long been characterised as being in bloody opposition to each other in Sudan. I hope that the country's cultural variety can become as important an asset as its oil wealth and other natural resources. Whether Sudan remains united or becomes two countries living side by side in peace and harmony, today is a good opportunity to face its problems, to welcome the progress that has been made, to look forward to the future and, above all, to wish all the people of Sudan well.

2.18pm

It is more than a year since I had the good fortune to introduce a debate on Sudan in this Chamber. We were anticipating conflict with Iraq, and I remember commenting that the Government had their hands full and their eyes firmly fixed on many other targets. However, we were glad that the former Secretary of State for International Development had focused her attention on the matter, along with the Americans, and that there was enormous good will from the people of this country to the people of Sudan, north and south, in their search for agreement. We all welcomed the appointment of Alan Goulty in his role of seeking to achieve progress. 1 believe he has done that.

My diocese of Salisbury has had a link with Sudan for more than a quarter of a century, and it is a very lively link. One can follow its progress on the diocesan website to see the exchanges and the actions among people in the Salisbury diocese, and the interaction with people in Sudan. One problem for the Sudan Churches is that they have hardly any money, so they rely on sources in this country. Therefore, I pay tribute to the Sudan Churches Association in the UK. It raises modest sums of money with which it keeps the churches in Sudan afloat by finding funds for each of the 24 bishops of the Anglican communion.

Yesterday, the Sudan Churches Association had a long-standing appointment with the Secretary of State for International Development. Sadly, by the time its delegates got to the meeting, the Secretary of State was gone. However, they were fortunate that Alan Goulty was in London, and they had an excellent meeting with him instead.

The Sudan Churches Association sought to establish what the role of the inter-faith communities in Sudan would be following the settlement that was so warmly expected. I get the impression from some reports that emerge that the talks are going better than it appeared at first. I hope that that is true. It seems to me that both sides recognise that there must be a compromise if we are to move forward. The goals being addressed by the peace talks are modest and realistic: people realise that, instead of giant leaps, there will be a modest, step-by-step approach to peace and a new world for the people of Sudan.

The original target for signing the agreement was the end of June. I regret to say that I believe that that is over-optimistic, not least because of the American Sudan Peace Act, which will be revisited in October. It is not likely that we will see much progress until then, so I simply hope that an agreement is signed by the end of 2003. That would be enormous progress. Something that has taken so long to achieve is more likely to stand the test of time.

What matters most is that the eventual agreement is translated into sustainable reality in the south, and I believe that the inter-faith communities are keen to look forward. We have all had enough of recriminations and looking back—indeed, looking back 80 years and more. We know about all that. The inter-faith communities, like almost everybody in Sudan, want to know what they can do to help to move things forward.

If an agreement can be signed, the environment for moving forward will become easier. The inter-faith communities will need to operate within the parameters of any agreement that is reached and work with the grain of that agreement. It is easy for us in Westminster to say that, given the horror of the past 20 years and more, it will be hugely difficult for anyone to be prepared to work with the grain of an agreement, when they cannot conceivably agree with every dot and comma. However, that has to happen: people must move forward with the new political realities. Above all, the initiatives must come from the Sudanese people. The faith communities and their strong supporters in the UK and elsewhere must help the people of Sudan to help themselves. That must be the tone of the approach of those in this country who wish to see progress in Sudan.

In modest ways, we can all help. For example, a computer expert from Salisbury recently travelled out for three weeks to train Sudanese nationals. He went to Aruha in Kenya, but he achieved an enormous amount there. Those of us who play with our computers every day and e-mail all round the world forget that if one is sitting in Sudan that is not so easy, as there is no help desk to phone—something that I do regularly—when things go wrong and one is not completely computer literate. Therefore, any help, however practical, is of enormous benefit and will become more important.

Another welcome development is that, just yesterday, two Sudanese youth leaders from Juba arrived in Salisbury for six months. They will work alongside the youth communities in my constituency, and I hope that that is the first of many exchanges. It has been extremely difficult to arrange visas for them, and the Foreign Office has a role to play in helping to facilitate such exchanges in both directions. I ask the Minister to do his best to ensure that no more obstacles, unless they are absolutely necessary, are put in the way of ensuring the free exchange of people with skills as we seek to help with the rebuilding of that country.

Another fine example is a young lady from Marlborough college who is going out on a gap exchange to work on a programme supervised by the Mothers Union in Sudan. She will be working at a basic level in the community, simply using the skills that she has acquired from her education in this country to try to help where she can and to learn from the people of Sudan about their problems, their skills and knowledge, their country and their relationship with nature, which she may not know about as someone from a rich background in this country.

Those are modest ways in which we can all help, and I hope that we swiftly see such improvements and more contact at a simple level between the peoples of these countries. I also hope that the Minister can give us an uplifting progress report and that we have another debate, hopefully within a year, so that we can see where we have got to. It is very important that the people of Sudan know that, here in London and in the House of Commons, we are following progress closely and making every possible effort to ensure that the peace process works in the long term.

2.26 pm

I am delighted to take part in this debate, particularly as I accompanied my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) to Sudan a year ago last April. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) who knows, loves and cares so much for Sudan. The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) has also been to Sudan and will speak of her direct experience.

I shall not speak for long because it is important to obtain answers to the questions asked by my hon. Friend and that the Front Benches have an opportunity to look at the formal ways in which the Government and the Opposition can take the process forward. As my hon. Friend said, anyone who goes to Sudan immediately falls in love with it. It is a wonderful and diverse country with a rich history, but it has many problems. I have just struggled through the Deborah Scroggins book about Emma McCune who married Riek Machar. It shows the depth of the country's problems. Whether through Christian obligation or common humanity, we should, as a nation, do something about that because of our historical entanglement with Sudan, but others will also play a part.

I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre about the role of the UN special rapporteur. I make no apology for doing that, and I challenge my hon. Friend the Minister, not to explain how the negotiations are going, but to reply to a basic question about the role that the triumvirate—the United Kingdom, the United States and the Norway—is playing to ensure that everything possible is taking place appropriately following the Machakos agreement. I seek an assurance that the Americans are fully engaged in the process. From all the evidence to the all-party group during the past three or four years and particularly on the back of the Danforth initiatives, it seems that they are fully engaged, but, as is so often the case, other conflicts come and go.

One thing was imprinted on my brain when I went to Sudan. The plea was always made not to forget Sudan if other conflicts emerged. The history of the country is that it has always come low on the list of priorities. That is to our shame, and it is something that we must rectify. We must get it right now, because there will not be a better opportunity. Otherwise, the result will be another decade of conflict.

Therefore, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister in the nicest possible way whether he can assure us that the Americans are fully engaged, that they are totally behind the Machakos negotiations and that not only will they see the negotiations through to completion, which, as the hon. Member for Salisbury, who is my hon. Friend in this respect, rightly says should be by the end of this year, but that they will engage properly in rebuilding—or building, in some cases—the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre rightly concentrated on the issue that some of us feel most strongly about, which is human rights abuses. I am indebted to the Sudan Organisation Against Torture, which, to be fair, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office funds. It produces graphic reports—sometimes too graphic—of some of the abuses that occur in various parts of Sudan. We had the opportunity to talk to Sudanese judges when we were there and, by golly, that was an education. Some of us struggle with just one form of law. As far as I could make out, they work under five different forms of law. Christian judges may try a Muslim under sharia law in the south. That tends to change one's view of sharia, which is sometimes seen as a totally alien system.

It would be helpful to know what assistance we are providing for Sudan's incipient legal system. Without its being properly embedded, any chance of human rights, even with a peace settlement, will not come until some distant time in the future. It would be good to know what progress was being made to encourage a better system of justice not just in the south, which we saw, but in the north.

When we had our briefing with the Department for International Development and the FCO on our return from Sudan, we made it clear that we were keen to discuss how the primary education system could be further supported through teacher training initiatives, and to ensure that sufficient equipment was being supplied. A similar plea can be made for the health system.

We had a discussion—I put it no more strongly than that—with the former Secretary of State for International Development about the need to twin-track conflict resolution with capacity building in education and health to give people hope. Otherwise, they see the effort being made to stop the fighting but no actual improvement in their quality of life. I would appreciate it if my hon. Friend the Minister could give some assurances on that matter.

"Capacity building" is an awful term, but it is clear that what has bedevilled Sudan and resulted in lost opportunities is the political process. There are many conflicting political parties, all of which, in their own way, take a sincere stand, but the complexity and movement between sides make it difficult to achieve the stability that is needed to build peace. We heard from Alan Goulty about some interesting work done through training provided by the Government. It would be good to hear from my hon. Friend the Minister that that is continuing, that it is a vital part of Machakos and that we are seeing a genuine attempt to provide democratic structures by helping the political parties rather than replacing them. We might not describe the political parties as—I tread gently on this point—traditional, but the process has to start with what is available. Too many African countries have ended up with their less savoury elements running things, which is unacceptable.

My hon. Friend mentioned my next point, which I shall stress. It is crucial that the territorial integrity of Sudan, regardless of whether it is independence for north and south or condominium, remains intact. Sudan's problems sadly do not begin and end within its boundaries. Eritrea and Ethiopia, which are unstable regimes, are next door and there is also the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is the most unstable of the lot. Furthermore, the Ugandan army seems to have been charging across southern Sudan looking for the Lord's Resistance Army. Sudan is trying to provide stability and it cannot help to have armies encroaching on to its territory. That important issue needs to be fully explored.

Finally—I expected my hon. Friend to mention this because he has been chasing around Angola with Joseph Fiennes—I commend the Christian Aid booklet "Fuelling poverty—Oil, war and corruption", which is worth plugging partly because Christian Aid helped to fund us to go to Sudan. Sudan is bedevilled by its status as an oil state. We know the history of the fighting in the oilfields. I am not pointing the finger, although most of us know who is to blame. One of the ways in which the developed world can exert pressure is by saying, "We want to help you develop your resources, but that can only be achieved when you have peace and stability. We are not going to use your resources as a way to exploit one side and to damage the other."

The history of oil exploration in Sudan has involved companies saying that they want to improve the quality of life of people who live in the area and then suddenly moving them out. We met some of the oil people when we were in Khartoum. They made all the right noises, but those noises have not been carried through. Although it may be difficult for us in the west to influence oil policy given that the Malaysians and the Chinese are responsible for production, we should not lose sight of the fact that oil is an integral factor to settlement of the war in Sudan and, particularly, to building peace. It is not as though Sudan has no resources; it is just that the resources have become part of the problem rather than the solution.

We all feel passionately about Sudan and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre for giving us the opportunity to discuss it. As he said, I hope that the message reaches Sudanese people who live in parts of the world other than Sudan that we are obliged to do something about the problem and are fully committed to any measures that we can take here in Westminster.

2.38 pm

This is an important debate on an important subject, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) on securing it. The discussion has been positive and constructive, and a great deal of expert opinion has been offered in thoughtful and constructive ways, which is a pleasant change from some debates in this Chamber.

Much mention has been made of the all-party group's report. It is important that we commend the group on its thorough work, which contains some positive proposals. I hope that the Minister comments on how those proposals have been brought forward. Not only the Members present this afternoon, but others who contributed to the process, should be congratulated on their work.

We have heard this afternoon of the truly desperate history of Sudan, particularly over the past half century, which has been characterised by violence, war and only the briefest peace. It is truly staggering to reflect on the fact that about 2 million people have died in that time. As a Scottish Member of Parliament, I reflect on what a huge proportion of the Scottish population that represents. As the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre highlighted, we need to add to that the staggering number of people who have been displaced from Sudan as a result of the conflict. We are talking about one in eight of the world total.

It is sad that we do not pay enough attention to the whole conflict more regularly in the House, because, undoubtedly, Britain has an important role to play in helping to settle what goes on. I join others in recognising that, ultimately, the conflict must be settled internally, but a responsible role for external parties is clearly a key to proper progress.

In the past year, there has been good, constructive progress under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. Kenya's lead in that process has been widely recognised. The various developments that have occurred in the past 12 months ought to be celebrated. The Machakos protocol and the subsequent extensions of the memorandum of understanding have demonstrated a momentum, which we hope will continue to build and achieve the ultimate objective of a sustainable peace in the country.

A couple of features of the recent developments are worth noting. The agreement to extend the cessation of hostilities to June is welcome, although none of us would be foolish enough to pretend that there are not violations of that arrangement. Equally importantly, the agreement not to go on with attacks on civilians, which lasts until next March, is a positive development. That is particularly true of the oilfields, which, as Members have highlighted, are a particular concern.

All those things are enhanced by the agreement of the parties to allow external players to investigate the ongoing areas of conflict, although it is dispiriting to hear that the reality is not necessarily measuring up to the hopes that we might have. The creation of the verification and monitoring team is clearly an important part of the process, but if it is unable to get security clearance and unable to do its job, sadly it will be ineffective. I hope that the Minister can explain how he sees the problems for the monitoring team being resolved.

In this country, we have an important historical legacy as a result of our colonial involvement and our long-term involvement with the country since then. One of the most recent and positive developments is the appointment of the special representative for Sudan, who acts as an observer and reports to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and to the Department for International Development. Alan Goulty's role has been praised by a number of people this afternoon. It certainly is an imaginative way of dealing with Britain's relations with Sudan, not least because in many ways it recognises the overlapping responsibilities of the two Departments. That is sensible, and it shows that peace, security and development in Sudan are all intertwined.

The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) focused on points concerning how humanitarian aid has been provided and the importance of looking at development aid. Over 40 or 50 years, whole generations have come and gone without the vital help necessary in education services, health and developing sustainable food supplies. Surely we are at a point where we need to reappraise the situation.

The Government have made it clear that there are significant sums available for development assistance. I accept that such availability is a major incentive for all sides to work towards a peace process, and there would be risks if we moved into serious development work in an unstable environment. Equally, at present, we are not achieving what we need to achieve and whole generations of families are growing up in Sudan without the support that we in the international community should be willing to give them.

Last year, the all-party group highlighted that issue and it remains one of particular importance. In a debate secured by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), the then Secretary of State highlighted in a series of interventions the fact that more effort would be made to develop educational support services in Sudan, and I hope that the Minister tells us how that has been progressing.

For the future, we need a sustainable peace in Sudan, which will require a number of difficult problems to be resolved. The issue of human rights has already been mentioned, and I share the sadness of others that the United Nations rapporteur has not been reappointed. Can the Minister say what efforts will be made to overturn that disappointing development?

In the world post-Iraq and post-11 September, we are all acutely conscious of the risks of international terrorism. Building up the state in Sudan to cope with such pressures is also a very important principle. Whether we are talking about democratisation, relationships with neighbours or sharing the power and wealth of that great country, there are many difficult areas still to cover. We have not even touched on self-determination and how such matters will develop.

It would be reasonable to focus on the diplomatic activity of the past year and conclude that the developments have all been positive, but not all commentators are that sanguine about the prospects. We must recognise that there is a long way to go before there will even be a peace deal, never mind the successful completion of the proposed six-year transition before the referendum can take place. Although the people of Sudan must drive that process, we must not ignore our responsibilities. The hon. Member for Salisbury gave some very good constituency examples of positive, constructive, small-scale initiatives. On a larger scale, we all must echo that enthusiasm and commitment.

In the post-Iraq situation, it is critical that we do not lose sight of the terrible events of the past 50 years in Sudan and that we are not distracted from resolving the issue by problems elsewhere. Like others, I welcome the role that the United States has played in Sudan. I hope that the Minister can confirm that, as far as he is aware, the US will remain engaged in the area. The European Union, too, must play its part. Recent press reports suggest that it might be looking again at Sudan, after 10 years in which it put aid on the table and then took it away. In that respect, the UK must take a leading role.

We have a great opportunity, and the cost of missing it will be measured in lives lost. We cannot contemplate that, nor can people in Sudan.

2.50pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) on securing the debate. I also congratulate members of the all-party group on Sudan on the work that they have done in keeping the needs of the Sudanese people on the agenda. It is well worth paying tribute to them, because it is important that that work is done.

I had the privilege of visiting the north and the south of the country shortly before the conflict broke out in Iraq. My visit certainly opened my eyes to the complexity of the problems that beset the country, and I am grateful to our ambassador in Khartoum, William Patey, for helping me to see how complex the problem is. Often, the wider British public see the conflict in very simplistic terms—as a matter of north versus south, or of Christian versus Muslim—but the reality is much more complex. There are, for example, tribal and territorial disputes. The issue is not as simple as north versus south. Great territorial gains have been made, and the situation is probably much more of a patchwork.

The ambassador explained to me that there was also a real problem with warlords establishing themselves. They have absolutely no intention of giving up fighting if they can possibly avoid it. I therefore came away from my visit with, not a pessimistic view, but a more realistic view of how difficult it would be to proceed towards peace. We should not give up on achieving peace just because the situation is complex.

The overwhelming problem is security. We should not shy away from acknowledging that, although there is technically a ceasefire, there are daily violations of it. Indeed, the situation makes a mockery of the word. The day I flew south to Rumbek, we had barely landed on the airstrip before aid agency representatives came to the plane to report a particularly terrible violation of the ceasefire, involving the gang rape of women. That brought straight home to me the fact that there is no such thing as a real ceasefire. There is serious conflict in Darfur, and heavy fighting continues in western upper Nile, but we still hold on to the word ceasefire. It is important that we record in the debate that the ceasefire is very fragmented.

The current cessation of hostilities is due to expire in June, so it is important that we get agreement on renewing it and that a detailed agenda for the next round of talks on security arrangements is agreed before then. That is absolutely imperative, given that the time scale is slipping. What importance does the Minister attach to achieving security before a peace deal is signed? What assessment has he made of the armed conflict in Darfur and the other areas that I mentioned? What discussions is he having with the two warring parties about helping to halt the violence? Before my group went to Sudan, his Department briefed us very well. It impressed on us the fact that if we had time to do nothing else, we should at least take the opportunity to speak to the leaders of the two sides—the Government of Sudan and the SPLA-SPLM—to persuade them that stopping the fighting was in their hands. In many cases, they are the source of the arms that are needed to continue fighting. We did impress that on the two leaders.

I am deeply concerned about the human rights abuses in Sudan, and I share the view of the hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore) that an error has been made and that Sudan might be sliding off the hook of international censure. Last week, the United Nations Committee on Human Rights killed a resolution that would have extended human rights monitoring in Sudan. Of its 14 members, 13 voted to reject the resolution. In view of the dreadful abuse of human rights that is going on, that was a surprising decision.

The ceasefire monitoring mechanism is also proving ineffective. The members of the civil protection monitoring team with whom I flew to the south of Sudan at dead of night would be the first to explain that they are often impeded in their work. I am sorry to learn that since my visit on 7 March, the Government of Sudan have prevented them from operating as they previously did. That is not conducive to our believing that the Sudanese Government take human rights abuses seriously and that they intend to do something about them. What assurances can the Minister give that full human rights monitoring—which should be the precursor to the lifting of international censure—will be allowed to resume? We should not just ignore the fact that human rights abuses are continuing; they must be tackled.

One does not realise until one visits the country what a contrast there is between the north and the south. Khartoum is a huge city, its population swollen by refugees from the south. Its essential services are in place and are well developed by comparison with those of the south. In the south—in Rumbek—there was nothing. All that remained of brick buildings was rubble. People were living in the forest in diminished circumstances. They were angry, afraid and hungry and I did not find among them the optimism about concluding the peace that I found in the Government. It is in the Government's interest for there to be peace so that they can develop the country economically. The profound pessimism in the south can be explained by the miserable conditions in which people are living.

At Lokichoggio, I saw one of the UN's largest food aid warehousing arrangements. Planes fly in and out, but aid does not reach all parts of the south. People are starving because the food pipeline is not adequate to meet the needs of all. We should not skate over that fact.

The question of oil revenues is central—it is a key cause of conflict. It is a tragedy that a large African nation with such wealth should have fought so desperately for so many decades about who owns that wealth. I saw clear evidence that the construction of the oil road is continuing; that was, in part, what the civil protection monitoring team went to look at. The road will reinforce the current position; the flow of oil revenues is more likely to benefit the Government in the north. It is good to make progress, and I am sure that the southern Sudanese will be delighted to have scope for self-determination. However, my concern about the proposed framework for peace is that, if separation occurs prematurely, southern Sudan will not be a viable state, especially if the wealth from oil is corralled by the north.

Today, as we acknowledge the significant contribution of the former Secretary of State for International Development in this area, we should remember what she said at the end of last year. She did not beat about the bush. She said that our task was to challenge the Government of Sudan to
"work hard to improve life for southerners if they want to keep their country unified."
It is worth reminding ourselves of that important challenge.

When I visited the refugee camps outside Khartoum, I was made very aware of the disadvantages suffered by those people. They are living on the periphery of the city, which is too far away for them go to work. Unemployment in the camps is therefore high, and one of the consequences is an increase in the rate of AIDS.

I visited the medical centre that treats AIDS cases. One doctor, who serves 60,000 people, told me that the decision of the Sudanese Government to require all Sudanese citizens to pay for their medicines was disadvantageous to the refugee community, because they do not have the money. The medicines had hitherto been free, and the doctor explained that charging for them placed him in a difficult position because the refugees believed that he was pocketing the money. The Government's decision broke the relationship of trust between the doctor and his patients. He said that people were stopping their treatment ahead of time, especially the treatment of AIDS and the complications that go with it such as tuberculosis. He said that that would help spread those diseases among an already deprived population. I wonder whether the Minister can do anything about the specific matter of charging for medicines, especially charging refugees.

I remind the Minister that Sudan has 76 per cent. of the world's remaining cases of guinea worm disease. I am sure that he is aware of that, but I saw cases of the disease and was struck by it. It is one of those diseases that are often low on the agenda in developing countries, but it affects Sudan disproportionately. I hope that the importance of combating that debilitating disease has not dropped off the Government's radar screen.

As regards food, it is no exaggeration to say that in some parts of southern Sudan the constriction of food relief amounts to genocide. The word is often overused in relation to issues of international development, but the aid agency Concern has revealed that one in four children are acutely malnourished in the Aweil region of southern Sudan. Anything that the Government can do to make a better assessment of that patchy provision of food aid would be valuable, especially for those who are simply slipping through the net. I ask the Minister to make a new assessment of the food crisis in Sudan, and to bring it to the public's attention. It is not enough to have food stockpiled at Lokichoggio, for it to go to certain parts of southern Sudan, and for it not to reach other parts of the country.

I am deeply concerned about the institutions of civil society; in the south, as far as I could see, they have been crushed. There is virtually nothing there. I met the judiciary of the southern Sudan, who are basically out of a job as a result of the imposition of sharia law. They are all trained in British jurisprudence, a completely different system, and they appealed to me for such basic items as law books. They no longer have a library—it was burned in Rumbek.

If we want southern Sudan to become viable and if we want to enable peace to take hold, the institutions of civil society must be buttressed, and there are practical things that we can do to help. The Minister might be intrigued to learn that one of the major opposition parties in Sudan, a Muslim party, has suggested a way forward on the divisive issue of sharia law. It suggests applying it to Muslim Sudanese but not to non-Muslim Sudanese, and proposes running the two legal systems coterminously. That suggestion, which comes from the people themselves, is worthy of further investigation.

The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), whose ongoing commitment to Sudan I commend, mentioned education. I was especially struck by the discrimination in the education service. Certain Sudanese children are discriminated against on account of their religion. The Christian schools are outside the state education system and are run only thanks to volunteers. In the two schools that I visited there were as many as 120 children in a class. The temporary nature of those schools—they have no fixed walls and everything is made of rush matting—sends a strong signal that such children are not catered for in the Government of Sudan's educational programme. Can the Minister say what is being done to ensure that all Sudanese children have access to a good education?

Since we do not know the full extent of the mining of Sudan, can the Minister give us an update on the progress towards relieving the country of land mines or on any plans to do so? At the very least, access routes should be made safe. Once a peace is concluded, people will not return to rural areas if they do not feel that it is safe to do so. That will be an important feature of the peace.

I have one deep concern, which is that in the desire to conclude a peace in Sudan we could skirt over the problems that remain. Sadly, we know from examples all too close to home that if such problems are buried or shoved under the carpet, the peace will not hold and the problems will surface again. I am concerned that not all parties have been invited to the negotiating table. I cite the example of women. I met a large group of widows in southern Sudan who were angry about the ongoing conflict and not optimistic about the prospects for peace. They told me something very telling. They said that they did not believe that men could make peace. It might be politically incorrect to say that, but if one puts oneself in the shoes of a Sudanese widow who is looking around at her friends who are also widows, it is not a strange conclusion to draw. Those women are not substantially represented at the peace talks in Karen and I am concerned that other parties are missing from the negotiations.

A Government spokesman in Sudan put it to me that the peace talks had in some ways rewarded the two warring factions and that the two parties to the talks did not represent all the parties that needed to be involved. I seek an assurance from the Minister that that is not being overlooked. All parties must be at the table for the peace to hold.

It would not be appropriate to conclude without paying tribute to the work that the Kenyan Government have done to bring about the peace talks over a very long period—so long that the peace talks have become a fixture. Some of those taking part in the talks live almost permanently in Kenya. We want to see peace, but a quality of peace that will hold and of which all the people—those in the north and the south, those on the periphery, those in Khartoum, those displaced and those wishing to return—will be beneficiaries.

3.8pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
(Mr. Mike O'Brien)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) for securing this debate. I also congratulate him on his effective chairmanship of the all-party Sudan group. His work is most welcome. I, too, join him in praising the energy and commitment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) and her efforts on Sudan in recent years. Her focus on the country has been effective. I also join the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) in paying tribute to the Kenyan Government for their enormously important contribution to those efforts.

New momentum has been injected into the Sudanese peace process following the summit between President Bashir and Dr. Garang in Nairobi on 2 April. Both leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the peace process, the Machakos protocol and the agreements on cessation of hostilities and unimpeded humanitarian access. That is important, but I take the point that the hon. Member for Meriden made—ceasefires and agreements are subject to proof. Sometimes, what is written on paper is not what is delivered in practice. However, the fact that things are written on paper is a step forward. It may take some time for those who signed the documents to implement the obligations in them, but we hope that they will be able to do so.

We hope also that what is agreed in principle can be implemented in practice. There is reason, despite the history of that country, to be optimistic for the peace process. The timing may slip, but there is still a good chance for an agreement this year. Outstanding problems must be resolved on power and wealth sharing, the three conflict areas, the ceasefire and security issues, but discussion of those issues has begun.

We in Britain will continue to offer the Government of Sudan, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement and mediators our full support and advice. We welcome the parties' agreement to an addendum to the memorandum of understanding on cessation of hostilities, which followed an outbreak of fighting in western upper Nile at the beginning of this year. The addendum is important. It contains new and welcome initiatives to build confidence among the parties, including the establishment of a verification and monitoring team to verify reports of fighting on the ground. A senior British liaison officer has been appointed to head the team. He departs for Nairobi this week. We have also contributed other personnel, and $500,000 towards the operation. I will return to that matter shortly, and answer questions.

The Government of Sudan and the Sudan People's Liberation Army have expressed concerns about the tasking of the verification and monitoring team. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development special envoy, Lieutenant-General Sumbeiywo, has proposed a compromise position, which we hope will be accepted by both parties. We will continue to work with the mediators to ensure that the verification and monitoring team becomes operational as soon as possible.

We are concerned about the escalation of fighting in Darfur. Changes in the local administration, drought, deforestation and food insecurity, as well as access to land, have fuelled ethnic conflicts and insecurity in the region. I hear the point that the hon. Member for Meriden made about the complexities of the issues. She said that the matter could not merely be seen as a north-south issue, or one of religion, but that it is a very complex jigsaw of rivalries and conflicts. I say to the hon. Lady that the fact that the two protagonists are prepared to enter into dialogue is welcome, but that by themselves they will not resolve all the issues at stake.

In Darfur, mediation efforts have so far come to nothing and the situation is still extremely difficult. All sides should know from bitter experience that a military solution is not in prospect, and that peace and reconciliation offer the only real chance of a brighter future for the people of Sudan. Humanitarian access was restored to Darfur last week, but the provision of humanitarian assistance to the people of Darfur will remain difficult while the fighting persists. When we talk about getting aid there, providing assistance, and health and education, we must remember that in many of those areas most in need, there is still fighting, so delivery of services is extremely difficult.

We continue to be concerned about the human rights of all in Sudan, regardless of their ethnic and religious background. The promotion of human rights remains one of our priorities. We are, of course, disappointed that the EU-sponsored resolution on Sudan was not adopted by the UN Commission on Human Rights on 16 April. Also, the mandate of the special rapporteur, Gerhardt Baum, has ended. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre asked what we have done about that. We lobbied members of the Commission on Human Rights on the resolution before the vote was taken, arguing that Sudan's human rights situation continues to merit commission action. We also are consulting our EU partners on the next steps to take, and we will continue to press for improvements in human rights as part of the ongoing dialogue between the EU and Sudan. We must ensure that we have the cooperation of other countries, which is sometimes easier said than done. We shall continue our efforts in that respect. We acknowledge that the Government must be seen to take a high-profile interest, and we shall continue to do so.

We all know that the only long-term answer to the suffering in Sudan is a just and lasting peace agreement that allows the people to rebuild their lives. Alan Goulty and his team in the joint FCO-DFID Sudan unit continually consult the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement. We will continue to offer the parties and the mediators our full support and advice, and we will remain actively involved in helping them to reach a comprehensive peace agreement. I will pass on to Alan Goulty and his team the praise of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre and others. The Sudan unit is showing the patience, skill and care that are its hallmark. It is a positive point that Members have recognised that, which I know will give the team the encouragement that it needs to continue that work.

We are also working with donors and partners to ensure that resources are mobilised immediately after a peace agreement is reached to assist with the rehabilitation and development of Sudan and to deal with the problem of its external debt. We recognise that a sustained international effort will be needed to help Sudan following a peace agreement and we remain determined to play a part in that. Therefore, Sudan will remain a priority for our diplomacy.

The hon. Member for Meriden asked about land mines. There is little accurate information on the precise number and location of land mines in Sudan. What is known is that many roads in Sudan are not used by local populations or the humanitarian agencies—or, indeed, by anyone else—because of concerns about land mines, which means that a key artery of commerce and revitalisation is simply taken out of use. That debilitates the country's prospects.

Removing mines in areas where there was fighting is difficult, however. Mine action is possible only in the Nuba mountains, where a ceasefire seems to have held since January 2002. We have contributed £1.4 million to the UN Mine Action Service over the past year for mine clearance in the Nuba mountains region and to prepare for further mine action throughout Sudan. Land mine mapping and clearance are vital to enabling the free movement of people, particularly the return of internally displaced persons and refugees; to reducing the cost of transporting humanitarian aid, most of which depends on air transport; and, in due course, to kick-starting economic regeneration. The project reflects DFID's key objectives for its humanitarian mine action and its three-year global agreement with UNMAS.

The European Commission has also funded a de-miner training and Sudan land mine information and response initiative through Landmine Action, a UK NGO. We are anxious that Landmine Action's activities should be undertaken in full co-operation with UNMAS, which is the lead co-ordinating agency for mine action in Sudan, and we are in contact with the European Commission, UNMAS and Landmine Action to encourage that co-ordination.

The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) asked about the role that the Churches can play. We meet the Churches regularly, and Alan Goulty met a group of Church and faith leaders and aid agencies only yesterday. The Churches have a key role to play in building the consensus for peace in Sudan. When there is peace, their role will become even more important in rehabilitation work at the community level. I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating those people who are seeking to help the Sudanese people in practical ways. He gave examples of that, which are most impressive, and I share his praise for the people who are prepared to make those efforts.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) asked whether the Americans are engaged in the process. The evidence is that they are. It has been said often that the American political process is like a lighthouse that shines its beam on only one thing at any one time. That may be true of the media, Congress and the higher echelons of the leadership, but in relation to countries such as Sudan, there are those in the State Department and elsewhere who take a key role in pursuing such issues. Our work in this area has shown that there is considerable engagement by the US Administration.

My hon. Friend also asked about the justice sector. The UK Government support work to develop the justice sector, both in Sudan Government-controlled areas and those controlled by the liberation movement. The Government have provided the embassy small grants scheme, and when there is peace we plan to gear up our support to develop legal systems in Sudan. A DFID mission is in Sudan to plan for that. We are aware of the problem and will ensure that we continue to work on it. It is one of those issues that it is difficult to do much about until the fighting stops, but we are doing what we can in terms of preparation.

My hon. Friend asked about democratisation. Elections have been discussed by the parties at the talks, and they will be held at some point in the six-year interim period. The hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore) asked about health and education, and the hon. Member for Meriden asked about HIV. On the broad question of health, the UK has supported emergency health work in Sudan, focusing on lifesaving treatment for conditions such as TB, kala-azar and malaria. There is more than one issue that we need to focus on.

We support nutrition programmes in the most food-insecure areas of Sudan. When there is a peace agreement, it will be important to rehabilitate the whole health system throughout the country. The country is poor, and the health service is almost non-existent in places. There will have to be a major effort. We will not be able to do it all by ourselves as country, so we must mobilise the international community to ensure that the work is carried out.

We are considering the key issue of HIV/AIDS prevention, particularly as the peace agreement draws near. We have supported HIV/AIDS prevention throughout our humanitarian programme, and it will be part of our work post-peace. We will look at the issue of charging people for HIV medicine. In many ways, that is likely to cause more problems. Quite how much we can do about that in practice I do not know, but we shall examine the matter and write to the hon. Member for Meriden when we have further information. The point that she makes is very well taken.

The hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale raised the question of the education system. Its rehabilitation, particularly in the conflict-affected areas and the south, will be a major priority once there is peace. Britain has supported schools rehabilitation in the Nuba mountains, where there has been a ceasefire. Books and equipment have been supplied to more than 100 schools. Basic rehabilitation in the Government of Sudan-controlled areas will be completed by this month.

The teachers' centre in the area controlled by the SPLM-SPLA has been rehabilitated and work on schools will start shortly. We will expand the programme to north and south Sudan during 2003. We have also supported scholarships for women. More than 100 have been awarded to students working in the region, and the subjects being studied include medicine, rural development and gender studies. The latter may not be a great priority in our universities, but in Sudan gender studies and how one deals with some of the complex issues faced by women there are highly important.

The hon. Member for Tweeddale, Etterick and Lauderdale and my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre asked about UN monitoring. The UN department of peacekeeping has been at the peace talks in Kenya, although UN planning regarding monitoring is at an early stage. Crucially, the Government of Sudan need to agree to a UN mandate before the UN can play a full role. We are trying to see whether we can assist in achieving that agreement.

The hon. Member for Meriden also asked about achieving security before a peace deal, indicating that we could urge parties to extend the cessation of hostilities and improve its quality. We can do that. However, we hope that with hostilities ending in June and with a peace agreement hopefully reached, an opportunity will be provided to ensure that the ceasefire is properly implemented. Achieving security before an agreement is desirable. I honestly do not know at this stage how far we can go towards achieving that, but it is important that we do all that we can. We will work through the UN verification and monitoring team, and in any other way we can.

There are two other issues worth mentioning. The hon. Lady asked about civil society. I agree with her on the importance of engaging with civil society groups and building on the capacity there, including Church and women's groups in Sudan and in the neighbouring states, as well as on involving NGOs and others outside who wish to help in reconstruction and development. The matter involving Churches, which the hon. Member for Salisbury raised, is important: once we achieve peace, there should be a real effort to rebuild civil society and a capacity to engage with them. It will be important to have groups make contact, and perhaps provide support and recognition of the fact that there is concern about the issues in this country and elsewhere.

I want to emphasise the importance of the Sudanese diaspora in this country. We meet regularly in Parliament, and the Committee Corridor is turned into Africa due to the number of people who turn up who are passionately concerned for the future of their country. In what ways are the Government prepared to engage with Sudanese living in this country to help them to plan for the future of their country?

The Sudanese community here are very concerned about the situation in Sudan and have been working hard to see whether they can achieve an agreement and end the killing. Many Sudanese who make a contribution to Britain also have families in Sudan. They feel threatened and they are concerned for their families. It is difficult to agree to meet representatives of all the Sudanese diaspora, but, if I may discuss later with my hon. Friend the best way to engage them, in principle that seems to be a very positive approach.

The UK is one of the largest bilateral donors to Sudan. Since 1991, we have committed over £220 million, including the UK's share of European Community food aid, to Sudan and Sudanese refugees through Operation Lifeline. In 2003, we committed about £15 million to support humanitarian work and the peace process. Today, there are opportunities for Sudan that have not existed in recent years: there is a prospect of real peace and a willingness to be optimistic, although that has not yet percolated down to those who have suffered most—the poorest in the most marginal areas who have been the victims of too much violence, intimidation and starvation. However, we are seeing a chance for the main parties to be reconciled and to reach an agreement that will end the killing, which would be the best news that Sudan could have.

The Government are committed not only to helping the parties to reach an agreement, but to doing all we can thereafter to ensure that the agreement produces a better future for the children of Sudan, which will mean that they do not have to go through the same deprivations, inhumanities and traumas as their parents.