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Conflict in South Sudan

Volume 642: debated on Tuesday 5 June 2018

[Sir Graham Brady in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the conflict in South Sudan.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I thank my colleagues from the all-party parliamentary group for Sudan and South Sudan, as well as Will Archer, who provides the secretariat, for their hard work to raise issues of peace, social justice and human rights in both countries. I would like to use my time in this short debate to set the scene of the horrific conflict in South Sudan and urge our Government to stay the course of peace in the world’s newest state.

In the world of international crises, competition to be the worst humanitarian catastrophe is tough, to say the least. According to the UN, today we have the worst refugee crisis in the world since Rwanda in Syria, the worst humanitarian crisis in 50 years in Yemen and the worst man-made disaster in the world in Myanmar. There is the return of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the renewed bloodshed led by child soldiers in Central African Republic, and the growing African slave trade in Libya. Yet sadly, in the grimmest competition of all, South Sudan is up there with the worst.

Will the hon. Gentleman join me in welcoming the announcement in the last few hours that the President of South Sudan and the rebel leader have agreed to meet for talks to try to restore the 2015 peace negotiations?

That is good news, indeed. We all need to work together to help peace to prevail. Sadly, in the history of South Sudan, we have been here before. That is not a reason for us not to make better progress this time. I know the Minister is focused on this issue, because I have heard her speak on it many times. She will want to ensure that the British Government do everything they can to encourage a positive process.

Born in 2011 after decades of conflict with Sudan, South Sudan became the world’s newest country and a beacon of hope for post-conflict societies. The eyes of the world watched as a brand-new state was formed with the help of millions of dollars from the international community. Barack Obama said proudly at the time,

“Today is a reminder that after the darkness of war, the light of a new dawn is possible.”

Sadly, the jubilant scenes of July 2011 quickly faded into violence. In December 2013, conflict erupted between warring factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement party, quickly escalating into a national crisis, which divided communities along ethnic fault lines. The regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development—IGAD—brokered a peace deal in 2015, to which the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) alluded, but by July 2016 conflict had kick-started again and the last two years has seen escalating violence and tensions across the country.

My hon. Friend knows I have a passionate interest in the country. One sad aspect of this is that while some said that once the south got freedom, peace would ensue, what happened was, of course, anything but that. Those who did not help by outside intervention ought to hold their heads in shame. It is about time the world community focused back on this bedevilled nation.

My hon. Friend has had a strong, passionate commitment over many years to the situation in South Sudan, speaks with great perception and is to be listened to.

Humanitarian statistics rarely tell the whole story of a conflict, but the latest figures coming out of South Sudan are truly staggering. Some 1.8 million people are internally displaced, with a further 2.4 million seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. That is over a third of the country’s population forced to flee their homes, with 85% of those fleeing being women and children. South Sudanese refugees can be found in Uganda, Kenya, Sudan and Ethiopia. It is testament to the horrors of the conflict in South Sudan that refugees are also seeking safety in countries ravaged by their own civil wars, such as the DRC and Central African Republic. At various points in the conflict, the Bidi Bidi camp in Uganda was receiving more than 1,000 refugees every single day. Now covering an area bigger than Birmingham, it is the largest refugee camp in the world.

We all remember the famine that spread through east Africa last year and the remarkable response from local NGOs, aid agencies and ordinary people in the UK who gave money to the fundraising appeal. This year the UN predicts that famine will return and food insecurity will be greater than last year, with starvation being used as a weapon of war.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this issue to Westminster Hall. I have the good fortune to have in my constituency the headquarters of The Leprosy Mission Scotland. With other partners in The Leprosy Mission International, it is doing tremendous work in South Sudan in incredibly difficult circumstances, which the hon. Gentleman is highlighting in his powerful speech. One aspect of its work is that the relief workers and aid workers are now themselves targeted for extortion and violence. What more can our Government do to protect these people and their good work, so that their influence can help in a very difficult situation?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, which I will pick up later in my speech. I am sure the Minister will want to come to it when she responds.

In statistical terms, more than half the population in South Sudan is facing severe hunger right now. The conflict has devastated educational infrastructure in South Sudan. Almost 1.2 million children aged between three and 18 have lost access to education because of conflict and displacement. Almost a third of schools have suffered attacks. The destruction of educational opportunities is trapping South Sudanese kids in inescapable cycles of poverty. An adolescent girl in South Sudan right now is three times more likely to die in childbirth than to complete primary school.

As ever in stories of conflict, women and children pay the highest price. A recent study from the International Rescue Committee and the Global Women’s Institute at Georgetown University revealed that more than 65% of women and girls have experienced some form of gender-based violence. That is double the global average. The UN has found

“massive use of rape as an instrument of terror”.

Amnesty International has reported sexual violence as “rampant”. Those abuses are perpetrated not solely by fighters from the army or rebel groups, but by UN peacekeepers and sadly, on some occasions, by aid workers too. For women in places such as South Sudan, there are few safe places left. It is no surprise that a report from Plan International last week revealed that one in four South Sudanese women has considered suicide.

South Sudan also holds the grim title of the most dangerous place in the world to be an aid worker, as the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) pointed out. While delivering life-saving assistance to 5.4 million people in South Sudan in 2017, 30 aid workers were killed. Their work is routinely obstructed by both Government and opposition. Aid workers are intimidated, supplies are looted and arbitrary fines are applied to those seeking to travel around the country.

Through those statistics, we glimpse the horrors facing South Sudanese people, but I want to tell the story of a woman who lived in Malow village in the north-west of the country, as reported by the UN Human Rights Commission earlier this year. When the army of the Government of South Sudan arrived in Malow in July 2017 it destroyed the schools, the water points, the local hospital and even the local church. It abducted local aid workers and destroyed humanitarian compounds. The village had seen women with their eyes gouged out by soldiers as they sought to protect their children and mutilated men lying in the mud. This woman watched as her husband was castrated in front of her, trying to shield her new-born child from the violence. Three Government soldiers then raped her 70-year-old mother and forced her 12-year-old son to have sex with his grandmother at gunpoint. This is a truly horrific, true tale. The soldiers later shot her mother, and the new-born child and her husband would later die from their injuries. The report makes for very grim reading as it details countless tales of brutal violence from all parties to this conflict, inflicted on innocent civilians.

The violence led the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan to draw some stark conclusions, of which two stood out for me. The first stated:

“Rape, mutilations of sexual organs and other forms of sexual violence, targeting girls, boys, women and men, are often committed in front of children”.

The second stated that all parties to the conflict are

“deliberately targeting civilians on the basis of their ethnic identity…Those acts constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

The South Sudanese people know better than anyone that the only sustainable route to preventing human rights abuses and providing security and prosperity is through peace.

I will now turn to the ongoing peace process, which the hon. Member for Henley gave us some encouragement about earlier, before asking the Minister a few questions about where we go from here. I acknowledge the commitment and skill of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s South Sudan unit, which is ably led by the UK special envoy Chris Trott. It faces an incredibly difficult task, but the UK is rightly at the forefront of the international effort to promote an inclusive peace in South Sudan. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development, which is made up of regional Government representatives, has convened the high-level revitalisation forum in Addis Ababa since June 2017. Last month, the last round of those peace talks achieved little, with no sign of an agreement.

The cessation of hostilities agreement, which was signed in December 2017, has been repeatedly violated by all sides, and the monitoring mechanism that was set up to find and punish spoilers has failed to do so. As it stands, leaders on all sides of the conflict have refused to make the compromises necessary to make peace in South Sudan, but hopefully, if they say they will make it different, they will follow through with those promises, otherwise those promises have no value to the South Sudanese people.

Faced with this truly desperate situation, I would be grateful if the Minister would respond to the following questions. First, following the breakdown of peace talks in Addis Ababa last week, what concrete steps will the UK Government take to punish the spoilers through sanctions, arms embargoes and other measures?

As well as imprisoning his own parliamentarians, President Museveni of Uganda has promised to supply the South Sudanese regime with arms, in spite of the arms embargo imposed by the EU, including us, the US and other countries. Does my hon. Friend think that the Government also need to act on Uganda?

I am sure that the Minister will have heard my hon. Friend’s intervention and will quite appropriately want to pick up on that in her response.

Specifically, how will the UK Government use the powers in the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 to increase pressure on key individuals to encourage them to participate seriously in the peace process talks?

Secondly, how will the UK Government leverage their political capital in the region, which is not insignificant, to bring about decisive change in the conflict? In particular, will the Minister outline how the UK intends to escalate its diplomacy with President Museveni, including through direct discussions with the Foreign Secretary?

Thirdly, how is the UK supporting the Church’s peace-building work in South Sudan? The South Sudan Council of Churches has been invited to lead a new peace initiative in South Sudan. How can the UK best support those efforts?

Fourthly, what support are the UK Government providing to the ceasefire and transitional security arrangements monitoring mechanism? It is vital that that body is responsive to violations to ensure that perpetrators are held to account.

Fifthly, what steps are the UK Government taking to ensure that the hybrid court is set up as soon as possible in South Sudan? Tackling the culture of impunity for South Sudanese leaders will be crucial in preventing future atrocities.

Finally, what is the UK’s view on the current plan of the Government of South Sudan to hold elections in the near future? It is impossible to imagine free and fair elections taking place in South Sudan, and the result risks conferring credibility on the Government of South Sudan while they continue to commit human rights abuses.

In closing, I pay tribute to all the activists and campaigners in South Sudan who are rising above the dreadful violence to fight for peace in their country. After decades of conflict, their resilience is truly inspirational. They risk their lives on a daily basis to speak out against the horrors that they have sadly witnessed. They have been let down by their leaders for far too long and have paid too high a price for a conflict they do not deserve to be caught in the middle of. I look forward to the Minister’s response, and to working with her to help to bring about a long overdue peace in South Sudan.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) for the eloquent way in which he described the situation in South Sudan and for the work that he does as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Sudan and South Sudan. I add my appreciation for the work done by Chris Trott and the team on the UK’s role in the peace process.

Last summer, the Prime Minister decided to combine the role of Minister for Africa with the role of Minister in the Department for International Development, which makes enormous sense when we are discussing matters such as this. We completely agree that the grim situation in South Sudan, as outlined by the hon. Gentleman, is an entirely man-made crisis.

As always in such situations, however, the UK is at the leading edge in terms of the humanitarian response. We have consistently been one of the top three donors in South Sudan. Our drinking water package alone reached almost 700,000 people. More than 400,000 people received food, and almost 400,000 received nutrition support. More than 6.5 million health consultations were delivered in South Sudan, of which 2.5 million were for children under five. We have funded almost 4,000 schools to deliver basic education. At a time when the population of South Sudan is suffering from this terrible man-made violence, UK aid is providing that life-saving support.

Clearly, however, the question that we need to discuss is what more the UK can do to try to ensure peace in South Sudan. It is only through peace that we will be able to move beyond providing aid to trying to build a stronger economy in South Sudan. I will outline some of the events of that peace process, which is timely because there have been recent developments, as reported during the debate.

Clearly, the only way we can move forward without the escalation of suffering and without consequences for generations to come is through putting as much effort as we can into the peace process. Since my appointment in January, one of my top priorities has been to see what more we can do in South Sudan and in the Intergovernmental Authority on Development peace process.

In terms of UK support, we welcome the work that IGAD has done so far to deliver the peace talks, but the failure to impose consequences for violations of the ceasefire has been a major blocker of progress. We strongly urge IGAD to take action against those who have violated the cessation of hostilities agreement before the final round of discussions. Spoilers of the peace process must be left in no doubt about the region’s commitment to peace.

The UK has been committed to tackling impunity, and we continue to explore all avenues for action against those who undermine peace. So we have been pushing hard for action by the EU. We announced some sanctions in February, through the EU, and we have also been pushing in the United Nations Security Council. That is why we much very welcome last week’s Security Council resolution, which commits to consider sanctions and an arms embargo if violations continue; that is a welcome development.

I also pay tribute in this debate to our armed forces, because the UK deploys nearly 400 troops in South Sudan as part of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, or UNMISS. And may I pass on the praise of David Shearer, the UN’s Special Representative for the Secretary-General, who recently visited the troops in South Sudan and praised them for their achievements?

I can reassure the hon. Member for Scunthorpe that the UK will also continue to support the important work of the South Sudan Council of Churches. We regularly discuss that work with the Archbishop of Canterbury. We believe that the council has a vital role to play in fostering open and honest dialogue.

Hon. Members asked specific questions about Uganda. I can confirm that we have regularly raised the issue of South Sudan in our discussions with President Museveni of Uganda. For example, the Foreign Secretary discussed South Sudan with the President at the UN General Assembly in September last year and followed up by writing to him in December, encouraging Uganda’s positive engagement with the peace process in South Sudan. Also, during the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, I met Uganda’s Foreign Minister and was able to discuss the situation in South Sudan, as I have done on all the occasions when I have met Ministers from neighbouring countries. There is a consistent theme that regional players are keen to see a resolution of this conflict.

The hon. Member for Scunthorpe specifically asked whether there was the opportunity for elections in South Sudan. We do not believe that elections are the answer to South Sudan’s political problems. The conditions in South Sudan are not conducive to elections. Can you imagine, Sir Graham, holding elections in the country when over a third of its population—some 4 million people—have been forced to flee their homes? In fact, it is likely that elections would only serve as a catalyst for further violence, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis. Clearly, South Sudan must first focus on achieving a sustainable negotiated political settlement before the conditions necessary for credible elections can be created.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the role of the new powers that the UK has as a result of the recently enacted sanctions legislation. Of course, that legislation will give us more flexibility in the future, but it is also incredibly important that we try to work alongside other partners for peace as much as possible and that we send a consistent message in terms of our actions.

Regarding the ceasefire and transitional security arrangements monitoring mechanism—that is not a phrase that readily trips off the tongue, but the mechanism is very important—we strongly condemn all the appalling violence in South Sudan. The hon. Gentleman read out some examples from the UN’s report on the violence against civilians. The information in the report reflects the ongoing and widespread violence and human rights abuses, and the ongoing and appalling levels of gender-based violence in South Sudan. The people of South Sudan are bearing the brunt of this terrible conflict, so the UK continues to support the ceasefire and transitional security arrangements monitoring mechanism, to ensure that it can report on ongoing violations in a timely manner.

I believe there is an African Union summit meeting coming up. Will the Minister ensure that these points are reflected in that meeting in some way?

Well, as my hon. Friend knows, the UK is obviously not a member of the African Union, but I do know from my discussions with countries that are members of the African Union how many of them share our concerns and how keen they are to support the peace process in South Sudan. So I would very much welcome it if the African Union was able to discuss South Sudan at its forthcoming meetings.

Will the Government also commit themselves to doing what they can to bring to justice those who have perpetrated these terrible crimes?

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. As he will know, because the work continues to this day, Lord Hague of Richmond, the former Foreign Secretary, was very much at the forefront of the UK’s leadership in making sure that we are able to gather and retain the evidence of such crimes, so that those who perpetrate these kinds of outrageous examples of violence know that justice will follow; even if justice is delayed, it will be inevitable. So I pay tribute to Lord Hague’s work to keep this issue at the forefront of the international agenda.

The UK Government are fully committed to working towards peace and security for the people of South Sudan. We will not stand idly by while the South Sudanese suffer in these appalling conditions. UK aid continues in an environment where, as has rightly been pointed out, in the last year alone 30 aid workers have lost their lives. It has been incredibly difficult for the teams delivering aid on the ground, so I pay tribute to those brave aid workers who are able to get life-saving assistance into communities. We will continue with our commitment on that front, as well; we will continue to address the most acute needs of the people; and we will continue to do all that we can to support the region as it pushes for peace.

Question put and agreed to.