I beg to move,
That this House has considered human rights and religious minorities in Sudan.
I think the last time we discussed this matter was a debate in 2020. There was some optimism then, some two and a half or three years ago. This time round, I have done my research—Members have all done research on the issue—and the facts indicate a level of persecution and human rights abuse that is very disappointing. I am pleased that Members have been able to attend, and I look forward to the contributions of the shadow spokespeople—the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) for the SNP and the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) for Labour. It is nice to see the hon. Lady in her place and I know that the contribution that she and others make will be significant.
I am especially pleased to see the Minister in her place. We have had a good working relationship over the years on many things. I understand that this issue is not her direct responsibility, but I am sure she will convey our requests to the appropriate Minister. I have about five or six requests, which I will make at the end.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for the opportunity to highlight human rights abuses and the state of freedom of religion or belief in Sudan. Sudan has not received much parliamentary attention in recent years. In the previous debate in 2020, I expressed cautious optimism in the positive direction of the country at that time. The regime of Omar al-Bashir had just been overthrown, and a transitional Government had a mandate to establish democratic elections. The country’s new constitution enshrined freedom of religion or belief, the apostasy law was repealed and many closed churches were allowed to open. It looked like we had turned a corner and things were going to get better. In fact, the changes were significant enough for the country to be removed from the United States’ special watchlist. Countries on that list are a focus of attention; in countries that are not, things are better.
Sudan made important strides in upholding human rights and freedom of religion in the aftermath of the 2019 revolution. That progress is now at high risk following the military coup. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office notes that the Sudanese people’s freedoms are already severely limited. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the UK Government and our international partners must continue to urge the authorities to protect the rights of the Sudanese people as a priority?
As always, the hon. Lady makes a salient and important intervention, and I wholeheartedly applaud what she says. My contribution will explain what she said in her intervention in more detail.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Darfur—an important reminder that we have a duty to prevent mass atrocities, not just to punish the perpetrators after a genocide has occurred. The last few years have not been very kind to Sudan. A military coup in October 2021 has damaged the progress achieved by the transitional Government, and has led to increased human rights abuses and a resurgence of discrimination and violence against religious or belief minorities. The country rose to number nine in the Open Doors 2023 world watch list. Countries in the top 10 are not there for good reasons: if they are the top 10, they have done things wrong. The freedoms that communities had experienced were cruelly stripped away.
The coup returned effective control to the military and fundamentalist Islamic groups that made up Omar al-Bashir’s Government. Some of the bad guys that were there before are back in charge again; many former members of the regime have returned to power. As a result, a fundamentalist ideology once again forms a central part of the military junta. A military Government led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan imposed a state of emergency, which allowed the army to consolidate its rule—in other words, to use strong-arm methods. That gave them sweeping powers, which have been used to roll back much of the progress achieved by the transitional Government. Al-Bashir scrapped Sudan’s new constitution, which had enshrined protections for religious minorities, including freedom of worship and freedom to change one’s religion.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, I am pleased to speak on behalf of my Christian brothers and sisters in Sudan. I may never meet them in this world, but I can still speak for them. I speak for other religious minorities as well—Sudan’s Shi’a, Jewish and Baha’i communities are also suffering under a cruel regime that wants to properly impose sharia law in the judicial system.
Shi’a Muslims currently experience widespread discrimination. There have been several high-profile attacks on Shi’a mosques, which has led to many Shi’as self-censoring and avoiding voicing their beliefs or religious practices that differ from the Sunni practice. Under the transitional Government, Sudan invited its Jewish diaspora to return, as many had fled persecution under al-Bashir’s regime. That attitude has changed, and the country’s tiny Jewish community now faces violent attacks and hate speech. The state TV channel, under control of the military junta, has broadcast antisemitic conspiracies, with one programme stating that “Jews epitomise all trickery”. The Baha’i community is not recognised by the country, and can operate only in secret.
I will use the remainder of my time to talk about Sudan’s Christian community, partly because, as a Christian, the issue is close to my heart, but also for practical reasons. It has been easier to document attacks and discrimination against Sudan’s Christians, not only because they are a larger minority than the Jews and the Baha’is but because they are unable to operate under the radar by self-censoring. They have chosen not to do that. The crimes committed against them could be considered a case study of how Sudan treats religious minorities.
The coup led to a near-instant escalation of violence and intimidation directed at Sudan’s Christians. Overnight, the community faced severe restrictions on its religious practices and freedom of worship. Two broad issues have had a significant effect on the lives of Christians in Sudan: the change in the role of the police—directed by the military junta and the imposed Government—and increased pressure from society and extremist groups. Following the coup, the country’s senior police officers were replaced with individuals aligned to the al-Bashir regime. They got rid of them and then they brought them back to enforce the regime, only this time they are supported entirely by the Government. The groups most affected by that move are the church leaders and women.
In October, Sudan was re-elected to the UN Human Rights Council despite ongoing concerns about abuses in the country, and particularly those perpetrated by the security services. Does the hon. Gentleman share the worry that this could risk affecting the perception of the UNHRC’s credibility?
I will refer to that near the end of my contribution. I do share that worry. It seems unreal to me that any country would be elected to that position when they have a totally different attitude to what the UNHRC wants to achieve. I thank the hon. Lady for highlighting that.
Under the transitional Government, police were ordered to protect places of worship, but there are now worrying reports that they are being used to silence minorities. Church leaders have been harassed, arrested and even tortured by the police. Security forces have destroyed churches and stolen church assets. In one instance, a pastor in Darfur and his three children died in “mysterious circumstances” after a visit from—guess who?—the armed security police. The human rights group Waging Peace said that Christians are
“once more being persecuted by the Khartoum military junta.”
That has to be concerning.
As is often the case, women from religious minorities face a double level of persecution. In August 2022, the police introduced a new “community squad”. Its remit is nearly identical to the remit of al-Bashir’s morality police, which used to patrol the streets, targeting religious minorities and women to enforce how people acted and dressed in public. The community squad has started taking women to court and prosecuting them for violating the dress code or drinking alcohol. That forces Christian women to adopt a disguise in public and prevents the sacrament of holy communion—a basic part of our right to worship and have a religious belief.
Since the introduction of the community squad, its remit seems to have been expanded. Historically, the morality police were confined to what happened in public, but the community squad apparently intervenes in private life. Let me provide some examples. Days after the squad was established, it raided a private house in Khartoum in a high-profile operation and arrested 18 people for allegedly drinking alcohol. People are not free anywhere, even within the walls of their own houses.
Alarmingly, there has been a spike in adultery convictions. In July last year, 20-year-old Maryam Alsyed Tiyrab was arrested and charged with adultery. A state court found her guilty and sentenced her to death by stoning. In another case, a married couple are currently on trial for adultery after the husband, who did not do anything physically wrong, converted to Christianity. The law prohibits a Muslim woman being married to a non-Muslim man. In that case, the adultery did not involve anyone else, but was because the couple had different religions, the husband having left one religion to join another.
This is a time when violence against women and girls has soared. Such violence happens around the world and it depresses me to read stories about it. Since the coup, there has been a climate of impunity for those attacking women and girls, and a prominent message that women should not challenge traditional roles by leaving their homes to go to school or work. Women are second-class citizens.
There has been a resurgence in the use of apostasy laws. Despite the transitional Government having repealed Sudan’s apostasy laws, they are now being used to target Christians who have converted from Islam. For example, in July 2022 police raided a Baptist church in Zalingei, Darfur, and four Christians were detained, all of whom had converted from Islam. I am a Baptist; that is my chosen denomination within my faith. They were beaten by the police and questioned about their faith. All four were charged with apostasy under the penal code article 126, even though that article was abolished by the transitional Government. The police used a law that no longer exists for their own ends. The four people were taken to Zalingei prison and eventually released on bail. While on bail, they faced intimidation from the police and the local community. The Baptist church and the Christian homes in the area have also been attacked and there has been violence against all those people.
Besides increased pressure from the police and armed forces, Christians have seen a huge increase in hostilities from wider society. Under the transitional Government, places of worship received increased protection from the police and the number of attacks decreased, but following the coup that trend has reversed. Since the coup there have been dozens of attacks on churches and Shi’a mosques, and they started just days after the military junta took power. I want to give an idea of the scale of the attacks. I will not give an exhaustive list—far from it; a one-and-a-half hour debate is not enough time to give justice to all the cases—but I will give four or five examples.
The Sudanese Church of Christ in Jabarona was attacked on four separate occasions in the first three months after the coup. Church leaders received threats from extremists living in the area. One threat stated:
“If the government gives you permission to build a church here they better be prepared to collect your dead bodies.”
That was an instant, physical, violent and direct threat.
In Bout, on 28 December 2019, the Sudan Internal Church, the Catholic Church, and the Orthodox Church were all set on fire. They were rebuilt using local materials and on the night of 16 January 2020, some 19 days later, all three were burned down again. The churches reported both attacks, but the police did not investigate or put in place protective measures. Will the Minister take note of this example in particular? It is an example of case in which the police did not act. It is important that the Minister asks questions about that directly to the Sudanese authorities.
On 14 February 2022, a church elder was killed and several religious buildings were destroyed in Aneet market, in Abyei region.
On 10 April 2022, a Church of Christ pastor and members of the congregation were attacked in Gezira state. The church was damaged and Bibles were torn up. The victims attempted to submit a criminal complaint to the police, as we would do in this country, but instead the attacker and the pastor have since been charged with disturbing the peace, even though all they were doing was reporting a crime against their church and people.
On 16 December 2022, a Sudanese Church of Christ church was burned down by a soldier in Doka. Despite the soldier being identified by many witnesses, his connection to the military protected him from prosecution. In this country, if a soldier does something wrong, he does not have protection: if he does wrong, he is held accountable.
We have a clear pattern of behaviour: the rolling back of minority rights by the junta, the withdrawal of police protection, and the return of fundamentalist rhetoric has led to these attacks and others. Attackers are able to act with impunity. The police rarely investigate such attacks, and they intimidate or even arrest the victims. If someone makes a complaint, they are seen almost as a perpetrator by the police, which is one of the issues I want the Minister to address. After the coup, members of the security forces implicated in human rights violations have immunity. It seems that they can do whatever they want—a situation that must end. Those who carry out crimes in uniform or on behalf of the junta must be held to account.
In addition to the pressures from the security forces, Christians are facing increased pressure from other groups in society. This has led to an increase in killings and attacks on religious and ethnic minority villages. Gill Lusk from the Sudan Studies Society says that
“at local level, tribes identifying as Arab and Muslim are incited to take land from groups they see as black and/or Christian.”
In other words, if you are a Christian or an ethnic minority, what you have is not yours and they can take it. That cannot be allowed.
Groups that held power under al-Bashir’s regime have been emboldened to seize land from religious and ethnic minorities. More than 900 people have been killed in these land seizures, echoing the conditions that led to the Darfur genocide some 20 years ago. It is worth noting that the attacks on freedom of religion or belief are part of the wider context of human rights abuses in Sudan. Since the coup, the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly and association have been severely restricted by the junta. There has been reports of numerous violations of human rights on a massive scale, including arbitrary detention, torture and extrajudicial killings. Although the state of emergency was lifted in May 2022, these abuses continue.
The Sudanese Government have also been implicated in the ongoing conflict in the Darfur region, which has resulted in the displacement of millions of people and hundreds of thousands of deaths. Again, this is on a scale that is hard to talk about, and it is hard to visualise it as well. Recent protests have seen the deaths of 99 people and left more than 5,000 injured. The security forces have switched to using live bullets and driving their armoured vehicles at speed into crowds of demonstrators. Following the end of a protest, the security forces have taken to raiding nearby hospitals—again, clear criminal acts—and to using teargas and grenades to hunt down injured protesters. This has resulted in the deaths of patients who were not involved in protests, and of at least two doctors in those hospitals. The Guardian reports that patients had to hide under beds as security forces raided the hospitals.
Despite all this Sudan was, as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) said, re-elected to the UN Human Rights Council last October. We should not put a country into that group if it is responsible for a genocide, a murder campaign, and discrimination and human rights abuses against religious minorities. The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) said that he hopes Sudan will use its presence
“as an opportunity to demonstrate to the international community its commitment to international human rights law and to bringing those responsible for human rights violations to justice.”
It will be some time before they do that, because Sudan’s representatives are giving their own people, their own junta, their own military and their own Government officials the right to carry out abuses. Does the Minister think that Sudan has demonstrated its commitment to international human rights law during its tenure on the UNHRC? In other words, why was Sudan ever put on the UNHRC?
Exacerbating all this is the fact that Sudan is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis fuelled by conflict, floods, food shortages, epidemics and the collapse of the economy following the coup. The British ambassador to Sudan, Giles Lever, recently told parliamentarians that 15.8 million people—one third of the population—will need humanitarian assistance this year. He described insufficient supplies of bread and wheat and how what was available was priced out of the range of the majority of the population.
I put on record my thanks to our Government, the Minister and officials. The UK Government stated that UK aid will not inadvertently exclude religious minority communities who are often unable to access distribution points. Will the Minister tell me of any specific steps taken in Sudan to mitigate against that? The reports that we are getting back indicate that religious minorities are not getting the UK aid that they should. I know that is never the intention of the Government, but if we give it we must make sure that it is conditional and minority groups get it.
The situation for religious minorities in Sudan is part of a broader human rights crisis in the country. The conditions in parts of Sudan are worryingly similar to those that preceded the genocide in Darfur. It is hard to believe that anyone could hate anybody so much. The International Development Committee’s report “From Srebrenica to a safer tomorrow”, the Truro review and the genocide convention all highlight the need to prevent mass atrocities and genocide when there are credible warning signs. Does the Minister agree that what we see in Sudan could be a warning sign of future atrocities? If so, will the UK and our Minister raise the issue at the UN, through our membership of the Human Rights Council and the Security Council?
Will the Minister tell me whether the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has undertaken a joint analysis of conflict and stability assessment of the situation in Sudan? If so, can that be made available in the Library for everyone present and for those who wish to know more? What is the Government’s view of the legitimacy of Sudan’s membership of the UN Human Rights Council, given current abuses? How can any country be a part of that if they are carrying out abuse? What practical steps has the FCDO taken to ensure that minority communities have fair access to humanitarian aid in Sudan?
Does the Minister agree that there is a similarity with the conditions that preceded the genocide in Darfur? If we look at what is happening now, we cannot but see the similarities, so we need to do something now to make sure it does not get to that stage. Will the UK raise the issue at the UN Security Council and Human Rights Council? When will a JACS assessment on Sudan be completed and made available for Members?
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate. We are here to represent people who have nobody to speak for them. Westminster Hall debates give us that opportunity and the chance to speak for our brothers, sisters and Christians around the world, and also for the Shi’as and other ethnic minorities, including the Jews and the Baha’is, and for many others who try to keep their heads down, but there is a concerted and planned strategy by the Sudanese Government against them. This debate gives us a chance to highlight that and to ask our Minister and our Government, who are extremely responsive, to ensure that UK aid gets to the people it needs to get to.
I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this debate and for speaking with characteristically heartfelt concern for the vulnerable—on this occasion, the vulnerable in Sudan. I thank him, too, for his dogged persistence, day in, day out, in championing the vulnerable across the world in his role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. I cannot commend him highly enough for his leadership in that role.
If the Minister will accept this, I see this debate principally as an opportunity for the UK Government to update not only this House, but those in the wider national and international community who are concerned about human rights in Sudan, on the action that the Government have taken to address those concerns. We have not had a debate on the subject for some three years, although there was a flurry of parliamentary activity in late 2021 after the coup in Sudan, including several statements to which I will refer. I accept that as parliamentarians we have a responsibility to challenge and ask questions, and we have perhaps not called for as much information on the Government’s work since then as we should have. This debate provides that opportunity.
I have the privilege of being the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, but in this debate I speak as a parliamentarian, as I always do in this House, and as vice-chair of the APPG for international FORB. Members will appreciate that my human rights focus will be on freedom of religion or belief. Much of my speech will consist of questions. The Minister is very assiduous and conscientious and is experienced in these areas; I know that she will not be able to answer all my questions this afternoon, but perhaps she might be good enough to write to me after the debate.
After the coup in late 2021, the then Minister for Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), spoke of the importance of Sudanese people being able
“to protest and to pray without fear of violence.”—[Official Report, 25 October 2021; Vol. 702, c. 56.]
In response to a written parliamentary question in November 2021, she stated:
“Over the past two years, the UK has taken a leading role to support Sudan on their delicate path from oppressive autocratic rule to freedom and democracy. We welcome the progress made by the civilian-led government on the freedom of religion or belief since 2019, which included decriminalising apostasy, declaring Christmas a national holiday and lifting public order laws that disproportionately affected Christian women. The acts of the military puts this progress at risk.”
The Minister was, of course, referring to the coup that had taken place a few days earlier.
The then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), made a statement calling for the release of those who were unlawfully detained during the coup, and for the restoration of the civilian-led transitional Government in Sudan. She stated:
“We continue to maintain public international pressure on the military to return to the democratic transition in order to deliver the freedom, peace and justice called for by the Sudanese people, and ensure that the gains of the last two years are not lost.”
I turn to my first key questions. What follow-up steps have been taken by our UK Government since those very important statements were made, to ensure that they have been acted on? With what results? Has the UK continued our leading role, notwithstanding the in-country challenges in engaging in Sudan that followed the coup in late 2021? Those challenges make engagement even more important, bearing in mind what the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom states in its latest report:
“Sudan’s religious minority communities fear that returning the military to power and banishing civilian leaders who led national advancements in religious freedom and broader human rights may presage a reversal of those changes and improvements.”
The hon. Member for Strangford has already expressed concerns that that may well be the direction of travel.
It is right to point out that in November 2021 the UK took immediate action. It secured unanimous support for a resolution on the situation in Sudan at a special session of the UN Human Rights Council that made it clear that Sudan’s civilian-led Government must be restored, detainees must be freed and human rights must be respected. I believe that it is very important to make statements—I have the privilege of chairing the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, which comprises 42 countries, and it makes a number of statements during the course of a year—but I always say that we need to follow up with action. Words are fine, but action can make a difference.
Sudan is a human rights priority country for the UK, as the 2021 FCDO annual human rights report, which was published in December 2022, confirms. It refers to the UK Government securing the special session of the Human Rights Council and says that that session
“mandated a designated expert to ensure human rights monitoring in Sudan.”
My questions are about action. Can the Minister tell us about the appointment, designation and mandate of that expert? What work have they undertaken in the 15 months since that session? What action have UK Government representatives on the ground in Sudan taken since late 2021 to connect Sudanese people with non-governmental organisations working in the region and with faith and community leaders and others concerned about the situation in Sudan, in their own country? Have any meetings with civil society representatives been arranged? If so, with what results?
I know from my work as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for FORB how effective it can be to work collaboratively with civil society organisations. In fact, those of us who champion freedom of religion or belief can do very little unless we work with civil society organisations and NGOs, including international NGOs, which are often the ones that draw our attention to the abuses of human rights that we speak about in this place.
It is also important for Governments to work with representatives of other Governments in-country on such issues; I have seen that being very effective. What collaborative work is being undertaken on human rights concerns in Sudan with other countries that are as concerned as the UK—particularly the US, whose State Department reports highlight its concerned engagement on these issues? What steps have been taken to maintain the public international pressure, which Ministers said was so important at the time of the coup in late 2021, to ensure that there is an improvement, not a deterioration, in human rights in Sudan?
Intercommunal clashes have flared up several times over the past year or so, and the UN special adviser has expressed concerns that violence is being incited by hate speech on social media. Does the hon. Member agree that social media platforms must do more to monitor and remove hateful content that seeks to fuel violence in Sudan and elsewhere?
Yes. The hon. Member makes a very important point: social media is being used, particularly by mobs, non-state actors and others, as an incendiary tool to whip people up—young people in particular—to commit FORB abuses. Many Governments could do more to address that.
I turn again to the work of the UK Government. Has it been possible, during this challenging period when the Government have not been as settled in Sudan, to undertake any work to provide technical support for legal and constitutional reforms in Sudan? Progress was being made up to 2021. Has it stalled? Is there anything we can hear that would be encouraging for us?
Have any steps been taken by the UK post in Khartoum to consider the training programme Religion for International Engagement, which was a year or more in the preparation? I was privileged to be involved in work on the programme for some considerable time, particularly during 2021. It was designed to help in-country diplomatic representatives in particular to engage wisely with their counterparts on freedom of religion or belief. I would really appreciate feedback on whether the post in Sudan and our representatives there have actually found that helpful. Have they been able to change their approach towards connecting with civil society and faith and belief leaders as a result, or is there more that ought to be done to help our diplomatic representatives in that regard?
A further, connected question is what use has been made of the funds available from the Magna Carta fund or the John Bunyan fund to address concerns about human rights issues, and specifically about freedom of religion or belief in Sudan. I know that Sudan is a human rights priority country and that funding to such countries has been prioritised, certainly in the case of the John Bunyan fund. It would be interesting to know whether it has been possible to make constructive use of such funds over the past two years or so.
According to the most recent FCDO annual report and accounts, bilateral UK aid to Sudan was £62.2 million in 2021-22 and £142.6 million in 2020-21. Can the Minister detail how that money has been spent? Has any of it been spent specifically on addressing the human rights concerns that have been highlighted in this debate? In March 2021, the then Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (Sir James Duddridge), stated:
“The UK also continues to work with the Government of Sudan, civil society and the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission Sudan (UNITAMS), to deliver further progress as part of our wider work to support human rights improvements.”
I appreciate that that was some six months prior to the coup, but aid programmes have a long tailback and a long projection. I would be grateful to hear from the Minister about how the funding has been spent and whether there has been any alteration in or reprioritisation of the use of such funds following the coup.
What assurances can the Minister give the UK taxpayer that steps have been taken, particularly since the coup, to ensure that where funds are used to support the provision of education in Sudan, such programmes enhance freedom of religion or belief and pluralism? Is any work currently taking place by way of technical assistance to support the Government in Sudan with regard to the provision of education materials and accompanying teacher training to support religious freedom, the need for which has been highlighted?
I turn to a matter of grave concern—and not just in Sudan—for many in this House. It has already been highlighted by the hon. Member for Strangford. It is the treatment of women and girls. In the case of Sudan, concern about that is combined with concern about penalties for converting from one faith to another. The latest Open Doors world watch list report, which was published just last month, states:
“Christian women and girls in Sudan, particularly converts, are vulnerable to rape, forced marriage and domestic violence for their faith. On a broader level, Islamic extremists have reportedly kidnapped Sudanese girls for marriage and/or sexual slavery. Inside the home, converts may also be isolated to reduce the embarrassment and shame of the conversion on the family, as well as to ensure they cannot meet with other Christians. Converts will also be denied inheritance and, if they’re already married, divorced from their husbands…In August 2022, the government established a community police which resembles the disbanded morality police.”
That underlines many people’s concerns that the advancements in freedom and broader human rights before the coup may now be reversed.
Concerns about the penalty for conversion do not relate just to women. Open Doors reports are updated annually, so its most recent report was published after the coup. It states that Christians, who are a very small minority in Sudan, are
“vulnerable to extreme persecution in public and private life, particularly if they have converted from Islam, and the government hasn’t put real protections in place for Christians and other religious minorities. For example…confiscated churches and lands have yet to be returned to their Christian owners, and trying to build new churches is still extremely difficult.”
What consideration have the Government given to such statements about Sudan, which has moved up the Open Doors world watch list this year? Might the Minister consider the suggestion of convening a roundtable meeting in the FCDO with Sudan representatives, who I know have a lot of expertise in the field, and with non-governmental organisations such as Open Doors, CSW and Aid to the Church in Need, which are all extremely concerned? That might be a way of working together to see what more can be done to address these really important and concerning issues. International Women’s Day on 7 March, which is fast approaching, is a good day for us all to consider highlighting the plight of women and girls in Sudan.
Like many people across the international community, I warmly welcome the appointment of Dr Nazila Ghanea, a professor at Oxford University, as the new UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. She commands huge respect, not just in this country but across the international community of people concerned about freedom of religion or belief. I hope that during her mandate she will be able to address concerns relating to FORB in Sudan, which was last visited by a UN special rapporteur on FORB as long ago as 1996. It would be perhaps be helpful if the Minister considered drawing to her attention the concerns raised in this debate and, equally importantly, the Minister’s response.
The special rapporteur on FORB is an independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council and has great international gravitas. Her task is to
“identify existing and emerging obstacles to the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief and present recommendations on ways and means to overcome such obstacles.”
Having recently read her report on two prisoners of conscience detained in Somaliland for their beliefs, I know how assertive and authoritative Dr Ghanea can be when she tackles individual cases as part of her mandate. It might be very productive if Members present could think about individual cases to which we might wish to draw her attention.
I am particularly looking forward to hearing about “Landscape of freedom of religion or belief”, the first report of the special rapporteur on FORB in her few months in the role, when she speaks at the UNHRC in Geneva in two weeks’ time. Her immediate predecessor, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, made mention of concerns relating to Sudan in some of his reports. Interestingly, he highlighted concerns about forced conversions and penalties for conversion; I am aware that this was pre-coup, but I do not think that it is inconsistent to refer to it. He noted:
“In 2018, twelve Christian men in Sudan were reportedly accused of apostasy, arrested, severely tortured, and pressured to recant their Christian faith.”
The ability to convert freely without fear of repercussion remains a continuing concern in Sudan that I believe deserves particular attention. As the Minister mulls over our debate, which I am sure she will have a great deal of time to do—my tongue is firmly in my cheek; I know how busy FCDO Ministers are with so many challenges—I hope she will particularly attend to that very concerning issue.
Sudan is signed up to the 1948 declaration of human rights, which includes article 18, under which everyone has the right to freedom of religion or belief, to manifest that right in private or in public, and, critically, to change their faith. Sudan is also signed up to the international covenant on civil and political rights, which states that no one should be subject to coercion regarding their faith. Too many countries sign up to such international declarations without taking steps to ensure that they are honoured in practice.
I hope that the Minister will concur that, however challenging the situation in Sudan, and whatever the capacity of countries to meaningfully address it, the UK should do all it can to encourage and support the people of Sudan to enjoy the freedoms its Government have signed up to. We should continue to urge Sudan to uphold its wider international human rights obligations. We must, as the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk, said at the time of the 2021 coup,
“continue to support the Sudanese people in their demands for freedom, peace and justice.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Robert. I am grateful to the previous contributors to this debate on an important topic. I am glad to be a member of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, because it helps to break things down into the fundamentals. People’s right to worship as they see fit, and to participate in religion, or no religion, as they wish, are fundamental human rights, so it is important that we shine a light on what is happening in Sudan. I appreciate the briefing information that has winged its way to me, and, I am sure, to other colleagues, from groups such as Open Doors, which does extremely important work to ensure continued awareness of the plight of Christians and other religious minorities worldwide. It is worth putting on record the work that Open Doors and others do.
The situation in Sudan is complex, and has arisen from the complex history of freedom of religion or belief, and violations of it, in that area of the world. There is a history of tensions and challenges between different groups, and this situation clearly demonstrates that those tensions have not gone away. Between April 2019 and October 2021, the transitional Government took significant steps to improve freedom of religion or belief in Sudan, but a lot of that progress has been rolled back and has dissipated since the military coup in October 2021. We might see some small positives, but we must be realistic: the overall picture is not positive, and we should focus on that. For instance, it is understood that by September 2022, at least 117 people had been killed and nearly 6,000 injured by state security forces. We therefore need to monitor things closely. It is important to be aware, so that we can try to take steps to prevent future atrocities.
There is no doubt that in the past two years, there have been significant increases in attacks targeting religious minorities. Let me go into that in a little detail, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) did so eloquently. The dominant religion in Sudan is Sunni Islam. All other religious groups face significant restrictions on the practice of their faith. The largest minority religions are Christianity and Shi’a Islam. There is widespread discrimination against both those groups, and it has escalated over the past couple of years. People find it challenging to practise their faith, including people in the very small Jewish community, which has faced serious challenges, as we have heard, and hate speech. That includes hate speech broadcast on state television, which is deeply concerning. The Baha’i community is not recognised at all. As a small, minority religion, it is put in a difficult position. There are also challenges to do with security forces unlawfully detaining or forcibly disappearing people, and committing violence against those who are perceived to be active in any protest on the issue.
Obviously, we can consider the situation pre and post- coup. The hon. Member for Strangford set out pretty clearly that post-coup, about a third of the population needs humanitarian assistance; that is a pretty stark. It is absolutely vital that we think carefully about UK aid. What is the situation with UK aid? Is it doing what it needs to? Plainly, the answer is no.
The state of emergency was lifted in May 2022, but that does not mean that problems have been fixed. We must be clear about that. Regrettably, the abuses that justified the state of emergency continue. That includes the arbitrary arrest of protesters.
The situation of women and girls is of deep concern to me. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) spoke about that, as I was sure she would. It should be of deep and significant concern to us all. Some groups are doubly marginalised. Women and girls in Sudan fall into that category, particularly Christian women and girls and those who are converts. They are vulnerable to rape, forced marriage and domestic violence. There are reports of extremists kidnapping Sudanese girls for marriage or sexual slavery. Inside the home, converts have been isolated to reduce the family’s embarrassment and worry about the consequences. The hon. Member for Strangford spoke forcefully about the fact that women are second-class citizens. That should be of deep concern to us all.
Church leaders are particularly targeted and endangered. There are reports of drugs being falsely planted on them. Christian men and boys are vulnerable to beatings or worse. People may be shunned or face intense persecution in the workplace. Whatever angle one looks at it from, the situation is of grave concern. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) hit the nail on the head when she pointed out that the problem is not just on the ground; it is being encouraged and driven by online and social media activity as well. It is not a straightforward situation, which makes it all the more important that we make ourselves as aware of it as possible, so that we can act.
Plainly, things are moving in the wrong direction. On the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Darfur, the situation in that area of the world is still deeply concerning. The hon. Member for Congleton was sensible in her focus on the work that should and can be done with civil society and NGOs. I am keen to hear from the Minister on that. It would be helpful to hear what more the UK Government intend to do to engage with others in the international community on freedom of religion and belief in Sudan. There is a responsibility to play a full part in promoting inter-community peace and establishing a more stable situation. The UK aid situation should be focused on. Aid to Sudan in 2021 was cut by 74%. We have talked about the profoundly difficult situation on the ground. It is very difficult to justify that statistic in the context of what is happening there.
The final thing I want to hear from the Minister on is atrocity prevention. All this comes back to our worries about people’s wellbeing and continued ability to live freely in Sudan. An atrocity prevention strategy becomes all the more pressing in the light of that. I am keen to hear what the Minister has to say.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Robert. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing the debate. That is a phrase heard quite frequently in Westminster Hall these days. It is a pity that there is not more interest in Westminster Hall. I am not entirely sure what is going on; perhaps some colleagues who were elected in 2019, from all parts of the House, do not realise the value of these debates and the opportunity that they present to hold Ministers to account and raise issues that are of importance to constituents. I certainly regularly hear from constituents in Glasgow North about the importance of freedom of religion and belief, and protection of human rights around the world. The hon. Gentleman has given us a very important opportunity to shine a light on the situation in Sudan.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), I thank the many organisations that provided briefings and background information for the debate, both for that and for their ongoing work protecting and defending human rights, particularly the rights of those persecuted for their religion or belief in Sudan and around the world. Those organisations include Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Waging Peace and Open Doors. We should acknowledge the excellent work that the Library has done for us on this topic. I also thank our teams, and the team that supports the APPG; the hon. Member for Strangford deserves recognition, too.
As others have said, in 2011, when South Sudan gained its independence, there was much hope that in Sudan and South Sudan there would be a new era of peace, perhaps even leading to prosperity, but instead the cycle of violence and instability continues. South Sudan now ranks 191st out of the 191 countries that the UN is able to rank in its Human Development Index. The Republic of the Sudan is only slightly further up, at 172. As all Members have said, the situation continues to deteriorate.
The coup in 2021 was followed by the detention of several civilian Government officials, including the then Prime Minister. It was met with large-scale, pro-democracy, anti-military demonstrations, but they were repressed on a scale that led to scores of deaths and thousands of injuries among civilians. It is not dissimilar to what we are seeing play out right now in Iran and even, to some extent, Afghanistan. The Sudanese security forces are accused of unlawfully detaining, forcibly disappearing, and committing sexual and gender-based violence against individuals who are perceived to have been active in that protest movement.
Although the state of emergency that followed the coup was lifted in May 2022, abuses that had been justified under it have continued, including regular arbitrary arrests of protesters. In December, an agreement was entered into by the pro-democracy side and the country’s top miliary leaders, but progress still needs to be made. Even though the general principles for the formation of a transitional institution and the promotion of freedom and rights have been outlined, there is no clear timeframe and no benchmarks for reform of the justice and security sector.
Amidst that appalling array of human rights violations and political division, the religious minorities, and indeed minorities that do not subscribe to a religious faith, have continued to suffer from discrimination. My hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire spoke powerfully about the experience of the very small Jewish minority, and she is absolutely right: all religious minorities are feeling persecution. The Christian minority is one of the largest of the minorities, at 2 million people. That is a substantial number, but they make up only 4.3% of the country’s population.
All Members have said that the impact of all this repression is that Open Doors has now relisted Sudan in the top 10 of its world watch list, after it had dropped out and progress had been made, as the hon. Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) rightly said. Regrettably, it has gone backwards. Sudan now sits alongside Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran, Libya, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen in that list. Interestingly, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Libya and Yemen are all countries for which the Home Office will now apparently allow refugees to fast-track their applications through the use of a questionnaire. I think that is quite telling, and I may come back to that point towards the end.
As we have heard, the persecution that religious minorities and particularly Christians are experiencing comes in many forms. Sometimes it is brutal and violent beatings and gender-based and sexual violence, as Open Doors has reported; sometimes it is what we might call oppressive or repressive—the disappearances and arbitrary detentions and imprisonment. Waging Peace gave an example of the head of a Christian youth organisation in the Gezira state who was abducted and tortured by the country’s general intelligence service, then simply dumped in an open area of land.
Sometimes it is insidious, such as the confiscation of Church properties or selling off of Church land; CSW has reported that that is something that has happened to the Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Even in the home, we hear that converts to Christianity are being shunned or ostracised by their family members—and that is to say nothing of the examples we heard from the hon. Members for Strangford and for Congleton about the state oppression of people who have chosen to convert from Islam to Christianity or another religion. Freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental human right, as everyone in this room recognises. We must resolve to do more to ensure that that right can be exercised by everyone, including those being persecuted in Sudan.
There is much that the Government of Sudan themselves could start doing to demonstrate willingness to respect those fundamental human rights as some of their predecessor regimes have done. As the hon. Member for Strangford said, there are legitimate questions about their role and position on the UN Human Rights Council but, as the hon. Member for Congleton said, they are actually accountable through the UN Human Rights Council as well, through the universal periodic review process. Member states and parties to that process, including the UK Government, should ensure that it is effectively holding international Governments to account—just, indeed, as the UK Government are held to account through that process.
The UK Government could be doing more on their own initiative. There is widespread support, even among their own Back Benchers—not least from the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), when she was Foreign Secretary, and the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns)—for the Government to fully commit to and properly resource an atrocity prevention strategy. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire said, that could focus support among embassies to be able to report and monitor the risk of atrocities in their countries, and prioritise preventative efforts that support stability and good governance in those difficult parts of the world.
Of course, all that must be resourced properly. The reality is that the impact of cuts to the aid budget is now being seen and felt in many different areas, such as this. I do not think it is good enough for the Minister to roll her eyes—that is the reality of the situation. The Conflict, Stability and Security Fund has been cut by hundreds of millions of pounds in recent years. It was supposed to be a flagship programme of the UK Government; it was going to share cross-departmental expertise and make aid work smarter and harder to prevent violence and the abuse of human rights around the world, but if the money is not there, it is all just talk and posturing. Meanwhile, it is the people in the poorest and most vulnerable parts of the world that are hit the hardest.
If the Government do not want people to come here on small boats, and if they do not want to spend money on asylum seekers in hotels, maybe they should spend money helping to build peace and stability in otherwise oppressive regimes, so that people do not feel the need to flee war and conflict. If Christians and other persecuted minorities in Sudan and elsewhere in the world could freely practice their religion and go about their daily lives in safety, perhaps fewer of them would find themselves so desperate that they need to seek a new life beyond those borders.
It is a point worth making that we have these debates about freedom of religion and belief in various countries across the world, and they are always very consensual. That is a really good thing; it is a really important subject, and I am glad that we tend to agree largely, but we cannot get away from some of the factors that have an influence on that. It is right and proper that my hon. Friend raises that, and I hope the Minister is able to see the connection between what he is saying and some of the difficulties that people face.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Last Tuesday, I met refugees and asylum seekers in Glasgow as part of the Maryhill Integration Network. None of them were Albanians, and none of them were economic migrants; they were people who had come from difficult situations in Syria, Turkey and Iran, where they were in fear for their lives. They came here because there were established communities or because they respected the UK and understood that it could be a place of sanctuary for them, and the experience that they have had since coming to the United Kingdom makes them wonder whether it was worth while. Imagine thinking it would be better to go back to Iran and live in fear, rather than having to stay crammed into a hotel room with four other people in Glasgow city centre.
That takes us slightly away from the subject, but it speaks to the wider point that we all have a role to play. These debates are important as accountability mechanisms for the Government, so the Government need to show that they are committed to supporting persecuted Christians and other people of minority faiths and beliefs, or none, in Sudan and around the world.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Robert. I am truly grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing the debate, because a debate about democracy and human rights in Sudan has been a long time coming, as the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) rightly said. There has been genuine but limited progress on these issues following the Sudanese revolution in 2019, but the 2021 military coup put many of the advances on hold and into sharp reverse, and serious abuses continue. Like the hon. Member for Strangford, I will start by focusing on freedom of religion and belief.
The law against conversion from Islam was repealed in 2020, and many guarantees made in the draft transitional constitution before the coup are repeated in the recent political framework agreement, which is a very positive sign. The fifth of the proposed general principles specifically guarantees freedom of belief and religious practices. However, as we have heard, abuses continue—some are very recent indeed.
On 16 December, a church that reportedly had been standing since 1991 was burned to the ground. The community has very little confidence that justice will be done, particularly because the person suspected of the arson is a soldier. As we have heard, that is not the only incident. I have been really fortunate to hear directly from Sudanese people with expert knowledge of the situation since 2019. I am told that the official estimate of the number of Christians in Sudan is 5 million, but the true figure could be more than double that. Only 150 churches are officially recognised, although there are possibly around 2,000. Of those 150, just 30 new churches have been recognised over the past 67 years, and attempts to rectify that before the coup were thwarted. The fact that the vast majority of churches are regarded as illegal makes it more likely that they can be subjected to arson or violence with impunity.
I have also been told that inequality before the law is widespread. That applies to many communities, including Christians, Baha’is, Jews and Muslim minority groups such as Shi’a Muslims and the Republican Islamic Movement. Mosques are offered services, such as electricity and water, for free; churches are not. The Koran is exempted from import taxes; Bibles are not. Blasphemy laws are used solely to prevent criticism of Sunni Islamic figures and beliefs.
We know that widespread discrimination nurtures a culture of inequality: it gives extremists and those who seek to benefit from increased division the cover that they crave. However positive the guarantees in constitutional declarations, obtaining genuine protection for religious minorities will require sustained action. We know the issue of human rights in Sudan goes far wider than freedom of religion and belief, and Sudanese people from the Sunni Muslim majority are regularly targeted. Since the miliary coup in 2021, more than 100 protestors have been killed, and deaths continue with no accountability. On 9 February, a 15-year-old boy was killed while taking part in a protest. Terrible intercommunal violence continues across parts of Sudan, including in Darfur. The UN estimates that 991 people were killed in that violence during 2022 alone.
Meanwhile, over the full year, the UN’s humanitarian response received just 43% of the funding it needed and it called for. That unmet need, in and of itself, creates circumstances for continued conflict between communities, but progress on the humanitarian needs of the people of Sudan will not happen without the advancement of human rights, justice and democracy.
Rape and sexual assault, in common with many other forms of violence, have been constantly used as a political weapon to intimidate activists and officials. Just last month, on 6 January, I understand a 15-year-old girl was kidnapped, raped and thrown under a bridge in Khartoum. Sudanese women’s groups believe she was targeted because her father had worked on the committee to dismantle the corruption of the former al-Bashir regime. That is just one of the many horrifying cases of targeted sexual violence to shut down women’s voices and participation. It must not succeed and we must not under-estimate how determined some in Sudan are to hold on to their unaccountable, corrupt wealth and power at all costs.
Equally, there are some on the international stage that see obstructing the transition to democracy as being in their interests. We know Russia is actively seeking concessions, including a Red sea port, and there are credible reports that the Wagner Group is operating within the country. We see a pattern in other countries: Putin backs Wagner to offer a brutal form of internal security, and in return they plunder the gold and other natural resources in the country in secret.
Despite all the threats they face, the courage and resilience demonstrated by Sudanese people over recent years gives me so much hope that justice will eventually prevail. I believe we must continue to set out a clear position to all political forces in Sudan and in the wider region, because we are UN Security Council penholder on Sudan, which gives the UK a core diplomatic role. The UK must not support the unlocking of international finance and co-operation to the authorities until concrete progress is made on democracy and accountability, led by a civilian Government.
It is important to preserve unity with our international partners, which is why engagement and co-ordinated work with the African Union and our fellow members of the Troika, Quad and wider friends of Sudan group must be preserved. Sustainable peace and development in Sudan will not occur without action to make stated commitments to human rights a reality for all. Political prisoners need to be released, and the rights of Sudanese people who continue to protest against military rule need to be respected.
Finally, as I said in my speech this Holocaust Memorial Day, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the start of acts of genocide in Darfur. The work of the International Criminal Court continues to be obstructed; that must end. Impunity in Sudan has persisted for decades, which only underlines the importance of securing justice within the current transition. Supporting accountability requires focus and resources. In practice the only international capacity for monitoring abuses has been the UN in Sudan, but, like much of the international community, it has understandably been focused on securing transition rather than pressing for day to day progress on human rights.
I hope the Minister can tell us what is being done to support human rights monitoring with resources. Where progress is not being made and the perpetrators of human rights abuses are being protected by those in power, the Labour party believes that targeted sanctions should be used to prevent impunity. When it comes to the leadership of the central reserve police, that has not happened, so I hope the Minister will be able to set out how we are backing our support for the transition to peace, democracy and justice in Sudan with action. Will she take back to the Foreign Secretary our call for the targeted sanctions by the United States to be mirrored?
I remind the Minister that Jim Shannon will need a minute or so to wind up at the end of the debate.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing this debate and for bringing attention to the human rights situation in Sudan. I commend him for his long-standing commitment to freedom of religion or belief. I also thank the all-party parliamentary group, which continues to raise awareness of this particular human right among parliamentarians and the public. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), our Minister for Africa and development, is currently away on ministerial duties, but I am pleased to be able to respond on his behalf.
Under the 30 years of al-Bashir’s regime, human rights in Sudan were atrocious. The state restricted freedom of religion and belief and political space for any alternative voices. The state committed and failed to act against sexual and gender-based violence and committed grave human rights violations. Citizens were subjected to arbitrary detention, torture and state-sponsored violence. After al-Bashir was toppled in the 2019 revolution, the civilian-led transitional Government made significant progress on human rights.
In July 2020, the Office of the UN Commissioner for Human Rights opened a country office, demonstrating Sudan’s commitment to allowing independent scrutiny of its human rights situation. The transitional Government made key reforms, improving the situation across the country. Criminal laws were reformed to abolish flogging and strengthen legal protections against torture. In August 2021, the transitional Government ratified the UN convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment—known as UNCAT—and they ratified the international convention for the protection of all persons from enforced disappearances.
Sudan joined the Media Freedom Coalition, signing the global pledge on media freedom. That is a written commitment to improve the domestic environment for journalists to work safely and to work with partners to improve international media freedoms. Measures were introduced to protect freedom of religion or belief. Christmas was declared a national holiday for the first time in a decade, and in 2020 the transitional Government abolished apostasy laws, a crime that previously carried the death penalty.
Women’s voices were key to the 2019 revolution, and significant reforms to women’s rights were made under the transitional Government. In 2019, the public order 1997 law that limited women’s dress and movements was repealed, meaning women could now wear trousers, or could leave Sudan without the permission of a male guardian, without fear of arrest or capital punishment. Progress was also made on sexual-based violence, including the criminalisation of female genital mutilation, making the offence punishable by a fine and three years in prison.
Sadly, as colleagues have laid out today, the situation has backtracked since the coup in October 2021, an event that threatened to derail the progress that Sudan had made from oppressive autocratic rule towards freedom and democracy. In response, the international community, including the UK, withdrew all development and technical support to the military leadership so as not to legitimatise the coup authorities. Only humanitarian assistance continues. I will ensure that the Minister updates my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and other colleagues about the ways in which official development assistance is being spent at the moment. Various colleagues raised that. I do not have that information to hand, but I will ensure that that is shared.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton mentioned our special representative for Sudan and South Sudan. She will be pleased to know that Robert Fairweather joined other envoys last month in Khartoum and they pressed Sudanese interlocuters to show pragmatism in trying to reach an agreement to appoint a civilian-led Government. Alongside international partners, we are encouraging a political settlement that will see the military step back from politics and allow a civilian-led Government to be reinstated. Once in place, that will allow international assistance to restart, and some of those key reforms to continue.
In the aftermath of the coup, millions of Sudanese demonstrators took to the streets in protest. They were met with violence from Sudan’s security forces. Between 25 October 2021 and 7 June 2022, more than 100 protestors were killed. Powers of arrest, search and immunity were returned to intelligence officers. Civilians and political activists were subjected to arbitrary detention and unlawful arrests under emergency laws, as Sudan’s military and security forces attempted to suppress opposition and dissent. Media outlets seen to be critical of the military were shut down, and journalists faced unlawful detention.
As the hon. Member for Strangford set out, women and girls experienced serious violence and rape during demonstrations and arbitrary detention. In July 2022, a court in Sudan sentenced a woman to death by stoning for alleged adultery, the first in more than a decade. I am pleased to see that that sentence was later overturned at appeal, but she remains in detention. There have been incidents of religious prosecution, including four Christians detained on apostasy charges and a pastor assaulted during a service and convicted of disturbing the peace. These are all unacceptable acts of violence and breaches of human rights.
In recent months, we have started to see some small progress towards a return to the democratic transition we are all hoping to see. On 5 December, an initial framework political agreement was signed, an essential first step towards establishing a civilian-led transitional Government. Since then, political parties, youth and women’s groups and resistance committees have come together for a series of dialogues to address the remaining barriers to Sudan’s return to democracy.
While the human rights situation remains concerning, there have been some limited improvements in response to international pressure. The UK has continued to lobby the de facto authorities to end all sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls, to protect religious and media freedoms, and to end violence against people exercising their right to protest.
Members raised the point that the Sudanese police are not acting to protect those persecuted for their Christian beliefs. I will ask the relevant Minister to write to Members on that matter, on which I do not have any more information at the moment. We are aware of the creation of a new community police department last year, which has caused some concerns—my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton raised that point. Our embassy in Khartoum reports that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has seen no signs that this new unit is behaving as a morality police, but I will seek further information and assurances.
[Sir Graham Brady in the Chair]
I believe everyone has mentioned the community police and the morality police. There is quite clear evidence on the ground that they are being used in that fashion; we are quite happy to furnish the Department with that evidence, if it helps the Minister.
My ministerial colleagues are always grateful to receive any such evidence to consider. We have obviously sought assurances recently from the OHCHR, but we should always feed in and continue to do all that we can to make sure that we speak with absolute certainty on what the realities are on the ground.
How nice to see you, Sir Graham.
A successful political deal returning a civilian-led transitional Government to Sudan is absolutely essential for the country to continue making progress on human rights challenges. The UK will continue to work closely with people in Sudan, and with international and regional partners together to support the Sudanese dialogue towards an agreement.
The UK will continue to use its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to raise concerns about the fragile security situation, as the penholder on the resolution to renew the mandate for the UN integrated transition assistance mission in Sudan—UNITAMS—adopted last June. We continue to be at the forefront of those voices at the UN. At the same time, we will continue to press the authorities to protect human rights and hold those responsible for violations to account.
Can the Minister say a little more about the UN and where she sees the situation with Sudan and enforcement in the UN, given the challenges on the ground?
There are many moving parts. I will ask the relevant Minister to write to the hon. Lady with more up-to-date details so that she is appraised of the latest situation from the UN.
As I said, we will continue to press the authorities to protect human rights and, importantly, to hold those responsible for violations to account.
I asked the Minister whether she would take back to the Foreign Secretary the idea of mirroring the sanctions against the central reserve police. Will she undertake to do that?
As the sanctions Minister, I absolutely hear the hon. Lady’s question, and we have indeed been using our sanctions tools to a degree, but I will take that back and discuss it with the Foreign Secretary. We obviously do not discuss how we might sanction in future, so as not to reduce the impact of sanctions, but I hear her question and will discuss it more fully with the Foreign Secretary in due course.
You were not here, Sir Graham, but my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton was kind enough to point out that FCDO Ministers are very busy with many challenges as we are out and about across the world. Indeed, that is why my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield is not in the Chamber today, but I assure my hon. Friend that FORB is a central part of all civil society discussions, wherever in the world, for all FCDO Ministers, whatever our brief. We consistently want to challenge and raise the issue, so that everyone knows that the UK’s position on it is absolutely clear. We will always stand up for freedom of religion or belief. We all very much take it with us in our pockets with our passports as we champion the UK’s values.
We hope that once we see signs that a civilian Government is back in place, we will be able to continue our support for a Sudan that protects the freedom, justice and peace that the Sudanese people are once again having to call for. I will ensure that the team replies to all the questions that I have not been able to answer today.
On one final point, we held our last freedom of religion or belief conference in July last year, and we had over 800 faith and belief leaders with us. I note the request from my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton for a roundtable on the Sudanese question. I will take that back to the Foreign Secretary to see whether we can draw that together, so that Members are fully apprised of this moving situation. The UK will continue to lead on championing FORB around the world and holding to account all those who do not.
I thank all hon. and right hon. Members who have contributed. I thank my dear friend, the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for taking the stand; she is the special envoy and does her job extremely well. I am pleased that she contributed. She referred to a meeting, which the Minister also mentioned in her last point, and I would love to have that meeting with the Department and civil society. The hon. Member for Congleton also referred to UK aid. Where does that £62 million go? Does it make its way to Christian groups? She also referred to the conversion of women and girls and to the morality police. There is a clear evidential base to back that up, and we need to be on top of the issue.
The two interventions by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier)—she made three, but two on me—were very important. She referred to the UN, which the Minister also mentioned in replying to the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald). There is a collective of ideas here. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West also referred to social media driving hate, and she is right.
I am pleased to have had everybody’s contributions, but particularly pleased by that of the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire. She is a vice-chair of the APPG, to which she makes a valuable contribution—she never misses a debate, to be fair. We are pleased to have had her contribution. She referred to hate speech on state TV, security forces actively attacking and victimising women and girls, which is a massive concern, sexual abuse and church pastors being arrested. She also referred to an atrocity prevention strategy. It was, again, a valuable contribution.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), who is also a dear friend, always brings knowledge and passion to these debates. He referred to Sudan being in the top 10, and to the attacks on non-governmental organisations. He referred to church property being destroyed and believers attacked.
I genuinely always look forward to the contributions of the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), because she knows the subject and does it well. She referred to intercommunal violence, and to the fact that international partners must work together. She also referred, in her final comment, to targeting sanctions. I am coming to the end, Sir Graham; I know that you are looking at me—I am racing here.
I thank the Minister. I genuinely look forward to her contributions. I believe she wants to help; I believe she can help. This is somebody else’s responsibility, not hers, but I know she will pass on everything we have asked to the relevant Minister, and she will ensure that the issue is addressed at the very top.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered human rights and religious minorities in Sudan.