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Volume 661: debated on Thursday 13 June 2019

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the crisis in Sudan and ongoing human rights abuses.

The people of Sudan have shown incredible bravery and perseverance in their demands for an end to a brutal and unaccountable regime. We stand with them. The Transitional Military Council must listen to the Sudanese people and respect their legitimate demand for civilian rule.

Since the removal of Bashir on 11 April, the UK has made clear statements alongside our troika partners, the United States and Norway, as well as via the Foreign Secretary, calling for all sides to engage in an inclusive dialogue that leads to a swift and peaceful transition to civilian rule. The UK will continue to engage closely with the full spectrum of Sudanese actors, including civil society, in both Khartoum and London, to support a better future for Sudan.

We continue our call for Sudanese authorities to refrain from all violence, and for constructive dialogue that delivers a credible response to protest demands to resume. We welcome the work of the African Union in mediating, and the early progress reported towards the resumption of talks with the Forces of Freedom and Change. Following the sickening and brutal acts committed by Sudanese security forces on 3 June, I summoned the Sudanese ambassador to the Foreign Office last week, and told him in the strongest terms that these violent acts against civilians must stop.

I am very grateful to the Minister for her response. When Omar al-Bashir stood down and the Transitional Military Council took over—the Minister alluded to that—there was a huge amount of optimism. There were peaceful protests and there was space for opposition groups. Since last weekend, however, the situation has become horrendous. We have seen the Rapid Support Forces—the former Janjaweed militia—play a part in killing over 100 people. A number of women have been arrested, as have various opposition politicians, including Mohamed Esmat, and three key people from the SPLM-N—the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North.

The Minister mentioned the help she is giving to Sudanese diaspora groups here. What conversations are we having with them, and what additional assistance can we give the alliance? Will she provide more details on that? Its leaders are being arrested, and many key personnel who are abroad want to come back and need help. What efforts are the troika and Her Majesty’s Government making to put pressure on countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which are apparently giving support to the Transitional Military Council?

Finally, the Minister rightly mentioned the African Union, which has a key role to play. Does she think it sensible for the AU to have suspended Sudan’s membership at a time when there should be dialogue, discussion and pressure applied, and what will she and the Secretary of State do to work with the AU, which is absolutely the key player in this, to make sure that common sense prevails, that space is given for democracy and that the will of the people triumphs in a country that has so much potential, but which is suffering so much at the moment?

I start by putting on the record my gratitude to my hon. Friend for his tireless advocacy on behalf of the people of Sudan, for his involvement in the all-party group on Sudan and South Sudan, and for the way he posed his question. He is absolutely right that we should also pay tribute to the tireless work of Her Majesty’s Ambassador Irfan Siddiq and his team in the embassy in Khartoum. They have been working relentlessly in very difficult conditions to put forward the view of Her Majesty’s Government, which is that we need to find a way of taking the inspiring activism that led to the removal of former President Bashir a few months ago, and moving forward in line with the aspirations of the Sudanese people towards civilian-led government.

My hon. Friend rightly pointed out the importance of a range of external actors and of our work with US and Norway in the troika. We are one of a group of countries that consider themselves friends of Sudan and want to play a constructive role in moving forward in this transition, which even the Forces of Freedom and Change recognise will have to be a protracted one, given that the country is coming out of a long period of direct rule by Bashir, and that the institutions and structures that we take for granted in our country take time to form in the transition to democracy. It is important therefore that there be an overall agreement, and that the sovereign council, which includes both the Transitional Military Council and civilians, be able to take things forward.

The US, Norway and the UK will work together constructively. We welcome the stance that the African Union has taken, and we fully support its envoy and the work that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed from Ethiopia has done to find a way forward. My hon. Friend also rightly points out the importance of engaging with our friends in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to ensure a smooth transition to civilian rule. The international community has been clear about the completely unacceptable behaviour of the Rapid Support Forces; we deplore the terrible atrocities committed. We will set out the potential rewards of moving to civilian rule and make sure that people understand the tools we have to sanction those who do not play a constructive role in that transition.

The constant protest in Sudan since last December resulted in President Bashir being removed from power by the military on 11 April and the council of generals assuming power. The Transitional Military Council has since been in negotiations with protesters about establishing a civilian-led Government. On 15 May, it agreed to a three-year transition period to civilian rule, but that changed on 3 June, when, fearing they had ceded too much power to the protesters, Sudanese paramilitary forces launched a violent crackdown. Since then, much of the country has been shut down by a three-day strike.

The African Union has rightly suspended Sudan from its membership until a civilian-led transitional authority has been established, but we need further pressure placed on the Transitional Military Council to continue the political transition. To that end, the Government should encourage our allies in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to persuade Sudanese paramilitary forces to pull out of Khartoum and resume negotiations with protesters.

In December 2017, the former Foreign Secretary thought it wise to hold a trade forum with Sudan. We warned the Government at the time about striking trade deals with Sudan while ignoring the country’s human rights abuses, but they did not listen. The Government really need to get their priorities in order. Instead of constantly searching for new trade deals, we need to be prioritising human rights. I therefore ask the Minister to ensure that her Government call for an outside-led investigation into the killing of protesters, halt all deportations and removals to Sudan, support real regime change and ultimately use their diplomatic clout to ensure a peaceful transition to civilian rule in Sudan.

I assure the hon. Lady that we are using every diplomatic avenue that we can to seek to ensure that the uprising leads to a smooth transition to civilian rule. We are certainly not holding back on condemning the behaviour that we have seen from the Rapid Support Forces.

The hon. Lady mentions the important role that we can play in other forums. I can confirm that on Monday I will be in Luxembourg with other European Union Foreign Ministers to talk about the situation in Sudan, and to see what we can do on the strategy that I outlined, which is to show the clear upside for the economy of a smooth transition to civilian rule. I am sure that she would recognise that part of the clear upside has to be economic reform and the ability to start doing more business with Sudanese businesses, and that that is an important part of the transition.

In addition, we welcome the fact that the US has appointed a special envoy. We have our special envoy, Bob Fairweather, and the US has just announced that its special envoy is Ambassador Donald Booth, who is in Sudan today with American Assistant Secretary Tibor Nagy. Again, this is about reiterating our points about the importance of the smooth transition to civilian rule, and how that can unlock economic reforms and Sudan’s economic potential.

The hon. Lady rightly welcomes the constructive role being played by the African Union, which has sent very clear messages. She rightly says that these kinds of human rights violations and abuses absolutely need to be clearly documented. We have heard very disturbing reports, not only in Khartoum, but in Darfur. They are as yet unconfirmed, but through our diplomatic channels at the United Nations, we have again urged the UNAMID —United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur—peacekeeping mission to fully investigate them. She is absolutely right to say that these kinds of atrocities are not things that the world will forget, and that it will look to hold accountable those who have committed them.

I welcome the appointment of the US special envoy; that role has been left unfilled for too long. In September I was in Sudan, and I noticed a certain contempt—which continues—from the ruling elite towards more distant organisations, whether that was the US, Norway, the UK, the UN or, to a lesser degree, the AU. However, I did notice that the ruling elite took note of what was said by their near neighbours in particular. What leverage do we have, particularly through our foreign aid relationships with those near neighbours, that we can use to put pressure on for a peaceful solution? As part of our international aid programme, we are providing some £85 million of support to enable people to feed their families. As always with our humanitarian assistance, it needs to be predicated on need, rather than tied to any specific political act.

Separately, on the political track, we need to keep making clear statements about the potential upside for the Sudanese economy of following a path for reform—the upside that could exist if Sudan were to move out of being classified by the United States as effectively a state sponsor of terrorism. So there is a clear path that can be followed to a much better future for the Sudanese people. We encourage all actors, neighbours and the international community to work with the Sudanese people to achieve that.

In the past 10 days, at least 124 people have been killed by the regime forces and more than 700 have been injured, as protests have steadily engulfed Khartoum. We have also had widespread reports of sexual violence, mass arrests, gunfire in medical facilities and bodies floating in the River Nile.

The SNP follows the EU in calling on the Sudanese Government to release all journalists, members of the Opposition, human rights defenders and other protesters arbitrarily detained, and to conduct a thorough investigation into recent deaths and human rights abuses. I welcome the Minister’s statement and I note that she is going to Luxembourg on Monday to meet EU partners. Does she agree that a multilateral approach through such institutions as the EU is the most effective way to exert international pressure and to ensure that human rights are respected? If so, what conversations has she had with her European counterparts about the most effective means to do so?

Does the Minister agree that we are watching Sudanese society teeter on the brink of large-scale violence and potential civil war? What lessons has she learned in her Department from Myanmar that will help to avoid a similar situation?

The hon. Gentleman will have heard about the way in which we are engaging with our EU counterparts on this. We talked about near neighbours, but of course Sudan is very close to all of us, so it is important that we find a way to facilitate the smooth transition to civilian government.

The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about the terrible atrocities on 3 June that led to my summoning the Sudanese ambassador. This morning’s reports from our post on the ground state that there has been a continued reduction in the Rapid Support Forces present on the streets of Khartoum; that talks are continuing to take place, facilitated by mediators; and that African Union envoy Labat and Ethiopian envoy Dirir are playing a constructive role in moving those forward. So I think that we can welcome the international engagement, but we can also welcome the fact that, through this mediation by the African Union, there has been a de-escalation of the totally unacceptable behaviour of 3 June by the Rapid Support Forces.

Thank you for granting this important urgent question this morning, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Britain, as the Minister so rightly says, has a pivotal role to play as a member of the Troika, along with Norway and the United States, as it has for many years. And this House too—Jo Cox, our late colleague, and I worked on the atrocities in Darfur for many years, both when I was in opposition and when I was Secretary of State.

The critical point that Britain can make at this time is that there will be no impunity for the human rights abusers in the regime in Sudan who are conducting the most appalling events in Sudan—in Khartoum and elsewhere—in respect of civil society, which is trying to move Sudan to a better place. I refer not just to the appalling events that have taken place through militias such as the Janjaweed in Darfur; President George Bush referred to events there as a genocide and General Bashir must be held to account by the International Criminal Court. There is also the fact that the human rights abusers in the forces in Khartoum can be held to account today through mobile phone technology. There are many pictures of individuals who have been abusing the human rights of citizens in Khartoum and Britain should make the point that they will all be held to account in due course, no matter how long it takes.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his work at the time of the last Darfur crisis, and, of course, to our late lamented colleague Jo Cox, who made such an impact on the world’s attention to this situation.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: we must not lose track of accountability, particularly that of state security forces when there are documented human rights violations. As I said, we are hearing that there are a number of unconfirmed reports and that there is also evidence on mobile phones. We think that that is one of the reasons the internet has been shut down, and has continued to be shut down. As he will appreciate, that makes it difficult to confirm what has happened. That is why we have taken steps to go via the United Nations peacekeeping mission and called on that mission to get to the bottom of what has happened and of who has been responsible, so that they can be held accountable for these atrocities.

The announcement by special envoy Mahmoud Dirir that talks may resume is of course welcome, but I want to focus on the point raised by the former International Development Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell). The terrible violence has an awfully familiar ring to those of us who had to deal with the tragedy in Darfur, because the traditional response of the Sudanese state is to deploy forces to crack down on those whom they wish to oppose.

There has been such a considerable difference between assessments of the number of people killed. I think the authorities claim that it is about 61, but, as we have heard, according to reports from other sources, including doctors, it is double that. There have also been reports of rape, and of bodies being thrown into the Nile. Did I understand the Minister to say that she thought that UNAMID could play a role in investigating all these atrocities, including those in Khartoum? If that is the case, and if there is support from both the African Union —which plays a very important role—and the United Nations, I think the whole House would support it as well, because we need the evidence to hold people to account. The tragedy in Sudan and Darfur is that far too many people have got away with far too much.

Let me clarify what I said. We believe that in Darfur, where the reports have been hard to confirm, UNAMID can have an important role in trying to get to the bottom of what has happened and ensuring that justice is served. In Khartoum itself there is also work to be done in terms of documentation, but my understanding is that no forces from UNAMID have been deployed there. Part of the evidentiary process relating to these atrocities will require us to try to get to the bottom of some of the documentation on people’s mobile phones. However, it is on the agenda of all the players, including international players, to find the best way of ensuring that we do not lose sight of the fact that these abuses must be met with justice, whether they are violations by the security forces or abuses by others,

Along with other Members who are present today, I visited Sudan last year. It was my fourth visit. The plea of the ordinary Sudanese is “Please do not forget us and please hear our cries when we really do need help.” They need help at the moment.

Our ambassador has been called in for a dressing down. Can the Minister assure me that our staff in Sudan are given maximum protection, because that is a worrying development?

I ask for two things. I share what my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) said. May we have an absolute assurance that the Minister will talk to the Home Office to make sure there are no deportations back to Sudan at the moment? That is the one thing the large diaspora here will want to hear.

The most worrying thing we found out from our visit last year was the rapid rundown of UNAMID. Can we stop that? Can we make sure we invest in UNAMID and get people back on the ground? That is the only way we will stop a dangerous escalation of all sorts of conflict in Darfur.

First, I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s strong interest in this area. I answer a lot of the written parliamentary questions that he tables. I want to put on record for the people of Sudan that of course Her Majesty’s Government will not lose sight of the issues and what is happening and they will remain at the forefront of our minds. The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the bravery of our ambassador and the team. This is the second time that we have drawn down our embassy staff to the minimum. I assure colleagues that of course we make sure that they are protected in the way that they need to be, but we have asked non-essential staff and families to leave and we have updated our travel advice for any British citizens thinking of travelling to Khartoum or Sudan more widely.

In terms of Darfur and UNAMID, I can say to the House that the decision last year to draw down troops has been implemented. That has been a fairly modest drawdown. There will be no further drawdown. Under the current circumstances it is important that that presence remain in place and we remain committed to being a partner supporting that deployment at this time.

Order. The Minister has been giving very thorough answers to the questions. That is my polite way of saying it would be helpful if she could perhaps be a little briefer as we proceed.

May I press the Minister on what she said in relation to UNAMID? There is significant evidence of continuing human rights abuses in Darfur. There is emerging evidence that the RSF has occupied bases that the African Union and the UN have left. There is a vote at the end of this month at the AU and the UN about a further significant diminishing of the UNAMID operation. Will the UK absolutely oppose any further withdrawal or drawdown because it is the last remaining safeguard for the civilian population there and if it is drawn down further we will hand complete control to the human rights abusers?

In the interests of brevity, Madam Deputy Speaker, I confirm that the UK position is that there should be no further drawdown.

Sudan finds itself sixth in the Open Doors world watch list for persecution of Christians and we know that the 2 million Christians there are subjected to extreme persecution, in particular in the Nuba mountains where thousands of Christians have been slaughtered and displaced, so this is a serious issue. Will the Minister consider the calls from Christian Solidarity Worldwide to convene a special session of the UN Human Rights Council on that issue?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the Foreign Secretary’s prioritisation of freedom of religion and belief in his work, and my colleague from the other place, Lord Tariq Ahmad, was in Khartoum last year making precisely this point.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very sensible point about the Human Rights Council. He will be aware that we tried to raise this at the Security Council last week but it was blocked by Russia and China. However, we will of course explore all international avenues to make sure that we keep this issue on the agenda.

Cardiff has a strong and long-standing Sudanese community and many concerns have been raised with me by constituents who are also deeply worried about friends and relatives whom they are unable to contact because of the cutting off of the internet and communications. As the two former International Development Secretaries have said, unfortunately, cutting off information and using brutal tactics against civilians are par for the course for the Sudanese military and security forces. Given what the Minister said about UNAMID, what other methods can be used to verify what on earth has gone on, because I have heard horrific stories from individuals? Are we talking about the involvement of the International Committee of the Red Cross or other independent human rights monitors if UNAMID and other forces are not going to be in Khartoum and elsewhere? What message does she have for countries that continue to provide the Sudanese military and security forces with direct assistance, given their horrific record of abuse of civilians?

To the hon. Gentleman’s latter point, we believe it is important to raise those concerns with the relevant countries at the earliest possible opportunity, and I can assure him that we will be doing that. With regard to the documentation and the closing down of the internet, he makes some sensible suggestions on the ways in which we must try to ensure that we continue to be able to hold people to account for their actions, and I look forward to updating the House about the actions we have taken in that area.

Despite the telecommunications blackout, we have heard that the UN has had reports that 19 children have been murdered and that 49 or so are believed to have been injured, some of whom have been sexually assaulted. On that specific point, will the Minister tell us what the Government can do to press for the protection of the most vulnerable, including children, during the horrific violence that they are seeing in their country?

As far as Darfur is concerned, the crucial organisation there is UNAMID. With regard to Khartoum, the important way forward there is to ensure that the Transitional Military Council and the Forces of Freedom and Change are able to continue with the current dialogue and that they recognise that peaceful protest needs to be part of this transition. We will try to ensure that all abuses and violations are documented and that people are held to account.

The last I heard, the brave men and women working in international aid agencies such as the International Rescue Committee were still operating on the ground. Are we in contact with those organisations, and what are they reporting back? It is encouraging to hear that European Ministers are meeting to talk, so would not a new delegation be timely if that could be arranged at this time?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. A few days ago, I met some of the leading non-governmental organisations that are delivering humanitarian assistance, and access is continuing to allow them to do that. Obviously one has to put on record one’s admiration for the bravery of the people involved. As far as a delegation is concerned, I understand that commercial flights from both Ethiopian Airlines and Turkish Airlines have now restarted. We hope that the situation will remain peaceful enough on the ground to enable us to update our travel advice, but at the moment the travel advice for British citizens is for essential travel only.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is always a pleasure to speak in this House, whatever time it may be—either first or last, it doesn’t matter.

Could the Minister outline the practical steps that she has been taking, as well as the statements that have been issued, to help to provide safety and security for those who are peacefully protesting? What discussions has her office had recently to attempt to lever diplomatic pressure—to prevent the killings, the abuse of protesters and the horrific sexual abuse of some women—on a Government who are downright refusing to meet the basic human rights of their people?

I would like to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman but, in the interest of brevity, I must tell him that many of those points were covered in my earlier answers. Our travel advice for British citizens is kept constantly updated, and at the moment our travel advice is for essential travel only.