I beg to move,
That this House has considered the political situation in Sudan.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I have put in for a debate on this subject on a number of occasions. I was getting a bit despondent that I had not secured one, given the depth of the crisis in Sudan, so I was pleased that the unusual channels managed to find space for one. I hope everyone present contributes. I do not intend to say much; rather, I intend to ask a series of questions of the Government, and I hope we can move forward on what we should be doing.
I went to Sudan in September with the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes). We had some inkling that problems may be afoot, but I do not think any of us anticipated how bad things would become. That is why I am pleased that we can at the very least debate the issue today. It is such a tragic situation.
My interest in Sudan goes back a long time. I have visited the country four times. I was always interested in the religious aspect of the conflict before the country split. We now have two elements to Sudan: the situation in South Sudan does not quite mirror what has happened in the north, but that country has its own problems. Perhaps we will discuss them on another occasion.
The Library produced an excellent briefing for the debate, for hon. Members who do not know, those briefings are always published online, that gives as good a summary of the background as is possible in three pages. I will not go through it, except to say that when Bashir was removed in April, some of us feared that there would at the very least be a vacuum, which would be filled by someone else, who would not necessarily be any better.
I welcome the Minister, and I look forward to hearing what she has to say. I also welcome the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham), who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on Sudan and South Sudan with great alacrity. We are here to ensure that we do what I have always pledged to do when I have met the Sudanese: not to forget the situation in Sudan. They often feel that their crises, while not belittled, are given a secondary level of interest because of all the other things going on in our world.
Sadly, following the removal of Bashir, violence broke out on the streets of Khartoum at the start of June, and what is happening in other parts of the country will be as bad as, if not worse than, whatever is going on in Khartoum. I will mention later what my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton and I found on our visit to Darfur.
We will keep our eyes very much on what is happening. We will not let the atrocities escape our notice. I hope that, in due course, we will have got a bit more stability into the country and that the Government will take appropriate action with international colleagues to deal with those responsible for the worst aspects of those atrocities. I will talk later about my discussions with the diaspora. I hope the Minister is able to respond to the things they have to say—I am only their mouthpiece—and to the things I ask of the Government.
The EU has taken a strong stance on what has been happening in Sudan, but we must understand that the situation will not be sorted out quickly. The African Union has made its own representations to try to bring about peace. Egypt, because of its relationship with Sudan, has expressed concern, and it was good that the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, visited in an attempt to mediate between the Transitional Military Council and the Forces of Freedom and Change, which seem to be the two sides most engaged in what is going on. Sadly, as a result of that, some FFC people were arrested, and at least one has been thrown out of the country. That is not exactly helping the dialogue.
I am concerned about the relationship between Sudan and the United Arab Emirates and particularly Saudi Arabia. For those who do not know, most of the fighting in Yemen is being done by Sudanese Rapid Support Forces, which we would call Janjaweed. That has added to the escalation of the troubles on the streets of Khartoum. At a time when the UK Government are being called to account for their own arms shipment arrangements with the Saudis, it is apposite that we recognise that we must put pressure on the Saudis, who hold the ring with respect to the arrangements by which the Transitional Military Council—the Government, if we can call it a Government—currently holds power. I hope the Minister says a little about that.
I will ask a series of questions of the Minister and then finish with what the diaspora have to say, which is very important. We have many thousands of Sudanese in this country, who are at the very least intensely worried about what is happening to their families and friends and who want, for reasons we know, a new Sudan to come out of the current situation.
The UK Government have made clear public statements condemning the way events have evolved. Our brave ambassador has been called in at least once to be dressed down by the Sudanese regime. Having known that regime for many years, I know that is not a good experience, so I pass on my thanks to him. It is important that we put it on the record that the Government believe the Transitional Military Council, and in particular Hemeti, who seems to have taken control, is responsible for what is happening and will pay the price. We should use all diplomatic means to ensure that, in due course, there is a proper transfer of power from the Transitional Military Council.
I take the word “transitional” to mean that this is not another Bashir regime in the making, but something that will genuinely begin to govern Sudan in the way it should be governed. The new Government have to recognise the diversity of the people of Sudan, including women and younger people. I have hope for Sudan because I know from talking to younger people that they believe there is a different world out there. They believe something could be done to bring the country forward into the 21st century. Sadly, too often, they are disappointed.
We should lead efforts at the United Nations Human Rights Council, and we must ensure, as a member of the Security Council, that Sudan is properly held to account through international mechanisms. I would say that even if it were not for the current difficulties in Sudan. I have said before to the Minister—she will not be surprised to hear this—that I hope she talks to the Home Office to ensure there are no deportations to anywhere in Sudan. There should have been no deportations anyway to Darfur, because of the ongoing problems there. It is important that people here and people there know that we recognise that the situation is so dire that we cannot send anyone back to that bedevilled country at the moment.
Because of the UK’s relationship with the other members of the troika—the US and Norway—it has a key role to play in making sure that the diplomatic effort is stepped up and that we bring the different parties together, which must include a real effort to de-escalate what is happening on the streets. We must condemn all state and pseudo-state armed actors, particularly the paramilitary groups—whether we call them Janjaweed or RSF—and individual militias, which have sadly always played a part in Sudan.
The eyes of the world are on Khartoum, but I fear that problems may break out again in Darfur. The Minister kindly said that the British Government are against any further draw down in the numbers of military and police there, but we must keep our eyes on the situation, because if it explodes again, that would be catastrophic. I would be grateful if the Minister said that we were categorically committed to that, and that we welcomed the others that provide the numbers—mainly African Union players now—keeping to their side of the bargain to make sure we do not reduce the numbers anymore.
We must also make sure that no one can escape here. One aspect of trying to control how certain people have behaved and of holding them to account is freezing their assets and dealing with them through unexplained wealth orders and repatriation. We have a history of certain people visiting for health treatment, which does not go down well with people who know enough about what they have done in the past. That takes me to the International Criminal Court. Bashir is cited, but it is no good just citing these people; we have to follow that with action, which must include other people who have perpetrated violence in Sudan.
The British Government have to explain to the Government of Sudan, as far as they exist, that they have to keep their obligations under international law and that any transgression will be punished. I am not in favour of disengagement—it is important that we keep our ambassador there—but they have to understand that they are accountable for what they have done, including the way they are imprisoning people, the aspects of completely out-of-control behaviour by some militias on the streets, and the torture. Sudan is notorious for ghost houses. We need to know that people are not being tortured as a matter of course. I hope that we will follow that up and deal with it subsequently.
We must uphold international law on all the conventions on torture and any other inhuman or degrading treatment. That dovetails with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which should hold a rule 112 hearing on the implementation of cases that have been brought to light at the 65th ordinary session in Banjul, Gambia.
I will finish with a few comments from the diaspora, who are clearly desperately worried. There are thousands of Sudanese people in this country. We have to remember that, at one time, one in five refugees was Sudanese—that is what comes from 50 years of civil war. Clearly, refugee numbers from other parts of the world have grown, but there are still an awful lot of Sudanese people trying to get out of that country or already here.
The diaspora are adamant that they want a full international investigation into what happened on 3 June and subsequently. They want to make sure that the Government are not in any way fuelling the problem by finding ways to get money through to the regime. I made a Channel 4 programme—it has not yet been broadcast, so I do not want to spike its news—that discovered that the EU moneys that have been going into force protection and border controls have found their way to Janjaweed, because it has been doing some of that work. We need an investigation to make sure that those moneys have stopped.
I have an interest in Sudan, in so far as when I was a young boy living in Aden, my nurse came from there, and I have a great deal of affection for her still. In my experience, the problem with aid is that it needs to be supervised all the way down. When we give money or goods to somewhere such as Sudan, the only way to guarantee its effectiveness is to have someone on the ground watching it being distributed at the point of delivery. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
I do, and that is the allegation about some of the EU money. We wanted to stop the flow of migration, but this is a case of out of sight, out of mind, so we have not taken much notice of how these things have been done. If that money has found its way to the RSF, we should do something about that immediately. It is shameful, because that is not what the money was for.
The diaspora have also made it clear that they do not want any further cuts to the money going to UNAMID—the United Nations-African Union hybrid operation in Darfur. They would like access to the potential international mediation talks on 25 June in Berlin for the Sudanese Professionals Association, which has been a leading body in the Forces of Freedom and Change and has been instrumental in holding the Government to account. They also think it is important not to cut diplomatic ties, but they want to make it clear through our condemnations that people who have perpetrated the violence, and worse, will be held to account. That means that the RSF should be disarmed and removed from the streets of Sudan immediately.
It is important that we play our part. Britain is a key player in Sudan. We cannot ignore our past—it was a British colony. More than anything, however, because of our relationship with the troika—with the Americans and the Norwegians—the Sudanese people look to us to provide leadership to make sure that what is happening is not ignored and is given the correct priority, and that peace is brought to that bedevilled country. That will not be done easily—we have taken 50 years so far, unsuccessfully—but there is hope. We have to make sure that we put pressure on the transgressors and that we follow it through. We have done that in the past, but we must be even keener now to ensure that our obligations are fulfilled.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew), who, as the vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group, has been indefatigable in his support of Sudan and South Sudan. I declare my interests, particularly as the chair of the APPG.
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman has said, because when General Omar al-Bashir finally departed on 11 April, there was a great deal of hope and rejoicing. That was a remarkable event, because it marked the end of 30 years of brutal dictatorship. During that time, huge misery was heaped on Sudan; appalling crimes against humanity were committed in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile; and there was the secession of South Sudan.
Incidentally, we should not forget the plight of South Sudan, where little progress has been made on the peace process. Some 60% of the population does not have food security. Of a population of 12 million, 2.2 million are refugees and 1.9 million are internally displaced people. Since 2013, 100 humanitarian aid workers have been killed there.
The removal of President General Omar al-Bashir was an extraordinary event. As the hon. Member for Stroud said, there were high hopes for the future at the time, and there have been a number of positive developments and trends. In some ways, the uprising was one of the most progressive in the region. The Forces of Freedom and Change, which some people call the alliance, and the Sudanese Professionals Association combined management organisations, workers’ organisations and trade unions—not that there are trade unions in that country as we know them here—and also managed to bring in a number of the more liberal Muslim groups. Crucially, unlike in Syria, Libya and Yemen, Sudan’s Islamic fundamentalists were kept out of it.
One of the key characteristics of the demonstration was that the demonstrators were determined to keep them as peaceful as possible at all times. After seeing the General deposed, they rightly did not want to leave the squares and areas around public buildings empty; they wanted to continue occupying them. That appeared to be working, and there was ongoing dialogue with the Transitional Military Council under Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. A lot of us at the time were quietly optimistic that progress would be made, but then the appalling events of 3 June happened, when the Transitional Military Council used total brutality and force on unarmed, innocent protesters who were sitting in and doing nothing but peacefully protesting for the future. Well over 100 were killed, and a number of key people were arrested, including SPLM-N leaders Ismail Jalab, Yasir Arman and Mubarak Ardol.
I share the concern of the hon. Member for Stroud about the role of the Rapid Support Forces. The former Janjaweed militia, under Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who is now the deputy head of the Transitional Military Council, has brutalised people on the streets, and we understand that it has used rape as a method of putting down demonstrations. Reprehensibly, some soldiers are preventing medical staff from going into hospitals.
All that is very depressing and, in some ways, unexpected. We must look at the international response, as the hon. Member for Stroud has done. I agree that the EU has been very strong and powerful in its condemnation. I would like to see more coming out of the UN. One of the problems is that if a more robust and direct resolution is drafted, the danger is that it will be vetoed by either China or Russia. I ask the Minister to tell us what more can be done within the UN. One of the strongest messages that the UK can send is that there can be absolutely no impunity or any form of amnesty for the people in the Transitional Military Council who have committed crimes against humanity and crimes against innocent people. Any indication that those wretched crimes will be swept under the carpet will only encourage the TMC to carry on with its current attitude, which is improving somewhat but there is still a long way to go.
I thank my hon. Friend for letting me intervene. It is crucial that the International Criminal Court now takes more of an interest in what is happening in Sudan and South Sudan. It has the capability to investigate, and we should put the Government of Sudan on notice that if they do not take action, which is their first duty when war crimes have been committed, the International Criminal Court will come knocking at some stage—albeit in 10 or 20 years’ time.
Exactly. Of course, General Omar al-Bashir has committed crimes in the past in Darfur and elsewhere. The crimes committed by the Rapid Support Forces and the TMC very recently must be fully investigated. I would be grateful if the Minister commented on that point, but it seems that UK has significant influence over it, particularly through our position in the UN.
As far as the regional players are concerned, I was—like the hon. Member for Stroud—encouraged that the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, recently visited Khartoum and had discussions with the TMC. There is quite a lot of evidence that the pressure from the international community is changing the attitude of the Gulf states that were fairly equivocal towards Sudan. The latest news is actually fairly encouraging. The protesters have agreed to end their campaign of civil disobedience and resume talks, so we are at a pivotal point. That is why it is absolutely essential that the troika put maximum pressure on the TMC and use the threats that my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) referred to. This is an absolutely vital moment for states in the region, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to put pressure on the Transitional Military Council to ensure that if the protesters end their campaign of civil disobedience, as appears to be happening, talks take place immediately. The protesters should end the campaign only if the TMC acts in good faith and enters into dialogue.
There is a great deal at stake for the people of Sudan, who have suffered so much for so long, for the region, given the strategic importance of Sudan in the horn of Africa: and for the UK. We have a historical duty to Sudan, and we must ensure that, if the country can move forward in a democratic direction, its huge potential is exploited and made the most of. The prospects for enhanced trade and building ever greater links between the UK, the diaspora here and Sudan, are limitless. Furthermore, we are obviously very involved in the Khartoum process, which is looking at the refugee crisis in the Sahel and the Maghreb. If this tragedy and disaster is not solved quickly, the refugee crisis will get worse.
Given the country’s tumultuous history and the tragedy since independence from Anglo-Egyptian rule 60 years ago, it is easy to be cautious and pessimistic, but I have always been a glass-half-full person. In my visits to Sudan, I have always been impressed by the optimism and the sense of aspiration among the Sudanese people. That has always struck me as being one of the great features of that country. As we waited patiently for the dictatorial rule of General Bashir to come to an end, that optimism increased.
I will end with a quote from someone many of us know quite well—Alex de Waal, who is a long-time Africa expert. He said that Sudan
“is poised between an inspirational transformation and dangerous disorder.”
Let us hope that, with the Minister’s help and the help of all the other agencies and organisations involved, it will indeed be the former—above all, for the sake of the Sudanese people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl, and to follow the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham), who chairs the all-party group for Sudan and South Sudan so well. He has demonstrated his great knowledge of that part of the world and his staunch commitment to continuing to shine a light on what is going on in Sudan. We must make it clear, through our voice in this place, that we support the Minister and the shadow Minister in their work to bring about improvements through the leadership that the United Kingdom has always been able to provide in the world. Sudan needs the United Kingdom’s leadership at this time, in this matter.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Dr Drew); his great knowledge of that part of the world shone through his remarks. He cares deeply, and his concerns about what is happening in Sudan, how the situation affects the diaspora living here, and the threats it is creating for neighbouring countries, are important.
I am afraid I do not have the knowledge or expertise of the hon. Members who have already spoken and said so much. The hon. Member for North West Norfolk was right when he said that when these disturbances began in December, around bread and grain shortages, and gathered pace to become a more general expression of dissatisfaction as to the need for this regime to come to an end and to move on to a new chapter, there was a sense of optimism in the world, and among friends of Sudan who saw what was going on. Sadly, on 3 June, when peaceful protesters were killed in Khartoum and the images broadcast across the world, that initial hope was dashed.
We have continued to receive reports of the military killing unarmed people in hospitals and elsewhere, and shocking reports of other dreadful things taking place. It was right for the African Union to cut off all activities with Sudan following the extreme bloodshed, demonstrating its clear position. It is good that the pressure from the United Kingdom, the United States and others, and the clear voice of the EU have led some Gulf states to soften their behaviours since their initial reaction.
It is a very difficult situation at the moment. As both my colleagues have said, everyone who knows Sudan well remains hopeful about what is going on with civic society, and about what is going on with younger people, but there is a need to provide the opportunity for that hope to thrive. As has been said, it is important that it is made very clear that the people responsible for what is happening at the moment will be held to account by the international community, and that the temporary Transitional Military Council should be exactly that—transitional—as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud said. There should be a clear path to proper democracy and order in government, in which the people of Sudan can have confidence.
It is a troubled region. Darfur is synonymous with awful historical events and we do not want that awfulness to return. Leadership from all of us, working together, is needed to support the UK Government to provide leadership through the troika, the United Nations and the EU. The United Kingdom has a pivotal position. I look forward to what the Minister and the shadow Minister have to say about how we move forward, building on the strong, unified messages that have already been coming across the political landscape in the UK. I hope those messages are being well heard in Sudan, and that we can take the necessary steps forward to help that troubled country to a better future—the future it deserves.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) for securing this important debate.
The SNP would like to see a multilateral approach to this issue, where we can work with colleagues in the European Union and the African Union. This is an exceptionally distressing conflict situation, as other Members have rightly highlighted. There are incredibly worrying reports of civilians being killed, and, as the chair of the APPG, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham), highlighted, there are also reports of sexual violence being used as a tool of war.
Those responsible must be held to account; that includes the militias. As the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) pointed out, even if they are not held accountable tomorrow, the day after or even the month after, they need to know that they will be held accountable. He was right to say that; I recognise the work that he has done and his track record in helping to ensure that people are brought to justice for heinous crimes, even years afterwards. The international community does not, and should not, go away just because these things have disappeared from the front pages of the newspapers or are no longer being debated in Parliament.
I intervene on my friend because if 100 civilians had been killed in a European country there would be one hell of a row about it. Although people here, such as my good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham), and the Opposition speakers are raising this issue, there are not many people here today. That is sad, because what has happened is something approaching genocide. We have not even touched on some of the other issues, such as the persecution of Christians.
I thank the hon. Gentleman; as usual he raises an incredibly important point that, given his experiences and his track record, has particular resonance. I pay credit to him. As I have said to him, I was a great admirer of his before I came to Parliament because of his work on this. I acknowledge that we may disagree on an issue or two, but I pay credit to the work he has done, and continues to do, in pursuing these issues.
Years from now, we will continue that work and accountability will be key. I know that the Minister will reaffirm our utter steadfastness in defending human rights, along with our partners in the African Union and the European Union. I add my words to those expressing thanks to the UK ambassador to Sudan and members of staff in the embassy in Khartoum, who have an extraordinarily difficult job and who are carrying out their duties in a brave and dignified fashion. I hope the Minister will pass on that message from me and other Members.
On the UK Government’s own powers, I hope the Minister will continue to make clear statements of condemnation about militias like the Janjaweed and make it clear that although militias appear to be involved in the Transitional Military Council, the council will bear full responsibility for the actions of the militias, as well as their own army. That is a lesson taken from other conflict situations.
I am not sure whether the Minister is able to touch on issues about misinformation; there are concerns about it and we have seen it deployed as a tactic elsewhere in the world. Will she and her Department look at instances of misinformation and how we can counter them? Ensuring that there is a true and accurate reflection of what is going on is important for accountability, but also for our own policy making and making sure that we respond in an appropriate manner. Misinformation is appearing increasingly often throughout the world.
I add my support for the argument that inclusion must be at the heart of any transfer of powers, and I hope that the UK will pursue it, but I also add my voice to those saying that we must halt the deportations to Sudan. I know that is a Home Office issue, but will the Minister pass on that message from this debate? The deportations must be halted; they are not appropriate, and especially now, on World Refugee Day of all days, it is fitting to stress that again. Can we also learn from mistakes elsewhere—as we have learned in Myanmar, for example—that sufficient time and capacity must be given to any transfer to a democracy, along with de-escalation work? That takes investment and it takes more time.
I thank the chair of the APPG, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk, for his reference to the situation in South Sudan, which is also incredibly important. I pay tribute to non-governmental organisations from across the United Kingdom that are working in both South Sudan and Sudan in very difficult circumstances. I know that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development try to support them, but I wonder whether there is any additional support or capacity building with those NGOs. I hope that colleagues will not mind if I thank in particular Ian Macaulay and the Church of Scotland for their fantastic work across Sudan and South Sudan.
Finally, what interventions does the Foreign Office plan to make with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over their links with and influence over the militias and the Transitional Military Council? What conversations have been had with those countries? If they have the influence that has been reported, we need to have some pretty tough conversations with them, to say that we are paying attention and that what is happening is unacceptable. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions, and I particularly thank the hon. Member for Stroud for bringing this debate to Parliament.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairwomanship, Dame Cheryl.
I thank everybody who has made a contribution to the debate, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Dr Drew). He spoke about the delegation to Sudan that he and I took part in last year, and he is right to say that we had an idea of the problems that were brewing at the time. President Bashir had been selected as the candidate for the next elections; there was a feeling that, while there were issues, he had brought stability to the country. There was a strong feeling that he was the candidate—but with serious reservations. We had many meetings with politicians in Sudan, and that thread ran through all our discussions. But as my hon. Friend said in his opening remarks, none of us quite anticipated the scale of the current crisis. I think of the relative calm we encountered in September last year, and the protests and killings that have taken place since in Khartoum and elsewhere in Sudan. Everybody has talked about the difficulties of accessing information from Sudan. The news we have had does not cover the whole story, and I will go on to talk about press freedom.
I thank all hon. Members who have spoken—the chair of the APPG, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham), who is a fount of knowledge on Sudan and South Sudan, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins), who made some pertinent points. He put one question to the Minister that I would also like to ask, about calling a halt to deportations to Sudan in the midst of the current crisis. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether she has had any discussions with the Home Office on that issue. It is vital that we do not send people back to a conflict zone.
Many MPs with Sudanese diasporas in their constituencies have approached me in the past few weeks, bringing messages from their constituents and asking me why we are not talking more about Sudan. I am therefore grateful that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud secured this important debate, and there was also an urgent question last week. However, although it is important that we have these debates, talking on its own is not enough. What we need is action, and with that in mind I have several asks of the Minister, which I hope she will be able to address.
The first thing I want to ask the Minister is what we can do to put pressure on the internet providers in Sudan. I have already mentioned the difficulties we have in getting information out of Sudan, and one problem is that the internet providers have shut down the internet, or have been shut down by the Sudanese authorities. The major providers are the South African company MTN and a Kuwaiti company. It is unlikely that the UK can do much about them, but, nevertheless, I would be interested to hear what action the Foreign Office is taking to try at least to restore internet access to the people of Sudan.
There is also the important issue of press freedom—I know it is an issue dear to the Foreign Secretary’s heart, because he is holding a conference on it next month. Sudanese journalists have been targeted since the public protests began. Their media accreditations have been revoked, and many journalists have been detained. The International Federation of Journalists has joined its affiliate, the Sudanese Journalists Union, in condemning any attempts to intimidate the press. The IFJ is urging the authorities to end the clampdown and respect journalists’ rights to report in a safe working environment.
In May, the Sudanese authorities closed al-Jazeera’s offices in Khartoum and withdrew the work permits of all its staff. Again, the IFJ and the Federation of African Journalists have condemned the move as an attack on freedom of information and called for an immediate end to the clampdown on the media. Given the Foreign Secretary’s major and important work on press freedom, I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on how the UK intends to support press freedom in Sudan, which is vital.
It has been noted already that the Ethiopian Prime Minister has tried to mediate; sadly, one result was that some of the opposition politicians he spoke to were then imprisoned. It is important to note that, while the Ethiopian position is that Sudan should move to any civilian Government, many people, including many members of the Sudanese diaspora, would prefer groups that are already in the Forces of Freedom and Change and not Islamist or unheard-of groups. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on that and on whether it should be UK foreign policy to support groups from the Forces of Freedom and Change.
The African Union has quite rightly suspended Sudan’s membership until a civilian-led transitional authority has been established. We need to place further pressure on the Transitional Military Council to continue the political transition. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud is right to raise the UK’s important role as part of the troika, and it is vital that we use our influence there.
We need an internationally led independent investigation into the recent events. We need an investigation into the killings, the rapes and the injuries inflicted on innocent, peaceful protestors. Britain must recognise its historical duty to Sudan and play a key part in enabling that.
I want to make a few remarks about UK aid. My hon. Friend also raised the issue of EU moneys finding their way to the RSF, but I will concentrate on DFID moneys. We will provide £65 million of aid in 2018-19 and £50 million in 2019-20, the majority of which will go on humanitarian assistance and development work. However, given the current crisis, has the Minister given any thought to increasing or redirecting UK aid, and will she make aid conditional on achieving a peaceful transition to a civilian Government?
My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for North East Fife both talked about the bravery of the UK ambassador, and I support those remarks. He provides people with support, and it is vital that we keep up that vital diplomatic role in Sudan.
On bravery, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham) raised the issue of the number of casualties among non-governmental organisation workers. My wife was a delegate in South Sudan and was actually taken hostage for three weeks, so I am speaking out of self-interest here. The people who operate for non-governmental organisations in Sudan and South Sudan put their lives at risk all the time; they are incredibly brave. We should mark that point. I am in awe of some of those I have met.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to comment on the bravery of people who work for our NGOs, including his wife, whom I have had the pleasure of meeting. She is an indomitable woman. We had a debate here a while ago on South Sudan, and my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe talked about South Sudan being the most dangerous place in the world for aid workers—in our discussion on Sudan, we must not forget the work that goes on in South Sudan as well. I thank the hon. Gentleman for that timely intervention.
I agree with the chair of the all-party parliamentary group, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk, that we need more action and a strong resolution from the UN. We are grateful to the UN for halting the drawdown of UNAMID. When my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud and I were in Sudan, we visited Darfur and spoke to people involved in UNAMID, the police and the military, who told us their concerns about the drawdown, but this crisis has necessitated the UN’s keeping UNAMID as it is. Rather than a policy of no further drawdown, does the Minister think we should engage in talks about increasing UNAMID’s presence? I am interested to hear her thoughts on that.
The two final points I want to make are on the involvement of the ICC and the investigation of war crimes, which I think have been mentioned by everybody who has spoken. We absolutely have to hold the TMC to account for what has happened in recent months. There are also the outstanding ICC charges against President Bashir for war crimes and human rights abuses. All these issues need to be investigated, and we in the UK should put pressure on Sudan to ensure that those investigations take place.
For the last, I think, 10 years, General Omar al-Bashir has avoided travel to countries where he might be arrested, having been indicted for war crimes by the ICC. Now is surely the time when he must be taken to The Hague to face those serious charges regarding crimes against humanity.
Finally, I want to press the Minister on UK attempts to strike trade deals with Sudan, which I raised with her last week. I would also be grateful if she commented on our approach to trade with Sudan. Given the political crisis, I am really interested to hear her view on potential trading relationships and on whether we will see a change of view from the current Foreign Secretary, given that his predecessor was very keen to hold UK-Sudan trade and investment forum talks in December 2017.
It is an absolute honour to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl, particularly while you are having such a busy and prominent role on national television. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) on securing the debate and on showing the importance of persistence when applying for these things.
What has come through loud and clear, through the participation of so many members of the all-party parliamentary group, is that the British people and the British Parliament have certainly not in any way forgotten this crisis. We will continue to play close attention, both through our diplomatic networks but also as parliamentarians, to the situation in Sudan. We stand with the Sudanese people and their desire to move from 30 years under the military rule of President Bashir to a brighter future under civilian-led government.
It is been an historic year for that transition. If someone had said to me when the shadow Minister and I visited that there would be a popular uprising and that Bashir would be gone at this point, I think we would all have found it very difficult to believe, but it has happened. As a number of Members noted, the situation in Sudan is incredibly fragile. It does not have the strength of the democratic institutions that we have here. Clearly, the talks between the Transitional Military Council and the protestors represented by the Forces of Freedom and Change have been fraught and require a certain amount of external pressure and mediation to make sure that they continue to progress.
The quality of the debate raised a range of important points, which I will try to tackle. A number of them were common points. There was common acknowledgement that we value the strength of the diaspora here in the UK and those people-to-people links. We all send our great respect to our ambassador in Khartoum and his team, who have twice had to draw down to essential staff only and are working in difficult circumstances. I certainly have great pleasure in passing that on from parliamentarians. There was also a request that the UK continue, in all the different international forums in which we participate, to use our diplomatic connections to make sure that we not only keep this at the forefront of international forums but that we try to unite the international messaging around a common position. That is important.
We have been playing that role, whether on Monday, when I was at the EU Foreign Affairs Council, or in our ongoing discussions with representatives from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, or with other friends of Sudan. Importantly, we row in behind our friends in the African Union and the initiative shown by the Ethiopian Prime Minister, always remembering how important it is that we send a unified and coherent message at every diplomatic opportunity. That has been more challenging in the context of the United Nations Security Council, where we have been able to get a statement issued, but probably not as strong as the one that we would have wanted to put out on our own. We will also, at next week’s United Nations Human Rights Council, be able to lead a discussion; we are giving leadership on that as well. The UK has in a range of ways been trying to ensure that the diplomatic community and the international community are sending a common message, and I can assure colleagues that we will continue to use every single one of those opportunities.
A number of different points were raised by hon. Members. On the important point about returns, we have been in contact with colleagues at the Home Office. I can tell the House that the Government’s published statistics for the year up to the end of March 2019 show six returns in total, for non-asylum cases and asylum cases. The Home Office recognises that the human rights situation is very difficult in Sudan. In the first quarter of 2019, three quarters of the people claiming to be Sudanese asylum seekers were granted protection. All asylum claims made by Sudanese nationals in the UK are considered on their individual merits against relevant case law and up-to-date country information.
A number of colleagues raised the important question of overseas development assistance and whether any of that is inadvertently supporting the Government or Transitional Military Council, or finding its way to the Rapid Support Forces. I can assure colleagues that last December I took the decision to suspend some of the work that we were doing, after a full look at some of the economic support work that we were proposing to take forward in terms of the Government. On the EU’s work specifically in relation to the regional operations centre in Khartoum, which is funded by EU funds and obviously therefore has a 15% contribution from the UK, I can inform colleagues that as a consequence of recent events, EU-funded work on the regional operations centre is suspended. That suspension lasts until the end of this week. There will be a decision tomorrow on a resumption of activities; that will take place after tomorrow’s management board, but I cannot see that anyone will argue for a resumption in the current situation. There are often reports that the UK, via the EU, funds the Rapid Support Forces, but I can assure colleagues that that is not the case. The question of misinformation came up, and I think it is always important to be factual on these things.
I think that accountability was mentioned by everyone in the debate—by the hon. Member for Stroud, by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham), by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) in his intervention and by the hon. Members for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins) and for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes). We would encourage the Sudanese people to retain and preserve evidence to enable future investigations to take place. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is looking to draw on recent experience in other countries—for example, Syria and Myanmar—to see whether it applies in this instance, so I would encourage people to retain evidence for future investigations.
The latest UN reporting on violence in Darfur is the statement made on 17 June by the humanitarian co-ordinator in Sudan. The main points are reports of intercommunal violence in various Darfur states, including recent clashes in Deleij, which left 17 people dead and 100 dwellings destroyed; and calls for the Transitional Military Council to ensure access for humanitarian supplies and timely facilitation of administrative procedures for entry of aid workers into Sudan and internal travel within it. That statement was published. There is also, should people wish to download it, an emergency flash update, dated 12 June, from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. That is helpful information. I want to reassure colleagues that the UK’s humanitarian assistance is delivered through organisations such as the World Food Programme and other UN bodies.
A range of colleagues asked about current UNAMID troop numbers. After the technical roll-over, which we hope will be adopted on 27 June, there will be 4,375 troops in UNAMID. That is 325 above the mandated ceiling, as the mission has been unable to undertake some planned team site closures because of the issue with the Rapid Support Forces. It is important for colleagues to understand that although I have set out the UK’s position very clearly on a number of occasions, that roll-over has not yet been agreed.
On the question about media freedom and the bravery of journalists—bravery that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is rightly putting at the forefront of next month’s conference—I can update colleagues. Since President Bashir’s removal on 11 April, the BBC has had access to Khartoum and has been able to broadcast its morning programme from there. BBC Arabic TV and radio are quite widely available via satellite, but since 2010 the BBC has been banned from broadcasting on FM radio. Our ambassador has for some time been lobbying the information Ministry for restored access. I concur with the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton, that there is a long way to go to a free media in Sudan.
On the point made by the hon. Member for Scunthorpe, a clear path is what is needed. This will clearly be a long road; it is not something that can be switched on overnight. Donor countries such as ours, working with like-minded countries, can set out a path, which will have conditions attached in relation to progress. There is huge potential for the Sudanese economy should that transition path be followed and should things evolve. There is enormous potential for us as a member of the international community, working with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, other like-minded countries, EU development assistance and some of our own bilateral funding, not only to step up the humanitarian assistance—bearing in mind how widespread food insecurity is in Sudan—but to make the long-term inward investments that will be needed for that economy to prosper. Although we are not currently able to move forward on trade deals—clearly, there is no trade deal with the EU because the Cotonou conditions were never met—I think the sincere hope of everyone here is that the transition to a civilian-led Government will include our being able to engage more deeply at an economic level.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister is already on this one, but in Sudan and South Sudan, there is quite a lot of religious persecution. I hope that the Foreign Office is keeping an eye on that as well as, of course, racism between tribes. We think racism is just in Europe, but there is a heck of a lot of racism between tribes in Africa. But I am particularly concerned about Christians; there is quite a lot of persecution of Christians, still, in Sudan and in South Sudan.
My hon. and gallant Friend is right to raise that matter. He will be aware that the Foreign Secretary has put freedom of religion and belief at the heart of our work, which is led by the Bishop of Truro, who has visited recently, as has Lord Ahmad, who leads the ministerial team on this work. My hon. and gallant Friend is absolutely right that we benefit from a tolerant, multi-faith and multi-ethnic society in the UK, and we encourage other countries to move forward on that agenda.
The shadow Minister asked some sensible questions on internet access. There has been an 80% drop in connectivity—it has not been completely obliterated. There is some food for thought there about what we can do through the International Telecommunication Union. I will take that away and see whether we can do something internationally on that.
In conclusion, the political situation in Sudan is very difficult. We know it is extremely fragile. The transition from authoritarian rule to a civilian-led Government will be difficult. The UK will row in behind the legitimate demands of the Sudanese people for a better future for Sudan. Ensuring a swift, orderly and peaceful transition to civilian-led Government is an important priority. The UK will continue, as part of the troika, to work with our international partners, including the African Union-led initiatives and our friends in the European Union. We will use our seat at the United Nations Security Council and the UN Human Rights Council, and work with regional allies, to continue to further those objectives.
Although we have not had great numbers, we have had a very thoughtful and comprehensive debate on Sudan. No doubt, we will have to revisit this matter. In conclusion, the role of the Americans cannot be underestimated. When we were there, we were always told that the Americans sent their heavy battalions to talk to the Sudanese when President Bashir was out of the country. Now that Bashir is no longer the key player, it is important that we directly address the new special envoy, Donald Booth, as well as Tibor Nagy, the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.
That is good news from the horse’s mouth. It is important that we understand that the Americans may not have played the role of removing Bashir, but the impacts of the sanctions—remember that the country is still seen as a potential threat for terrorism—have brought the country to where it is. We need to lift the country to ensure that we, with the Americans and Norwegians, can bring some sort of ceasefire to the streets, and then we can move forward to a proper peace settlement.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the political situation in Sudan.