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Sudan

Volume 732: debated on Tuesday 2 May 2023

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement to update the House on the ongoing situation in Sudan.

The situation on the ground remains extremely dangerous. The Sudanese armed forces and the Rapid Support Forces announced a further extension of the ceasefire on 30 April for an additional 72 hours until midnight local time tomorrow, 3 May. I pay tribute to the significant international efforts that brought that about. However, reports of fighting persist, with a large number of people continuing to flee Khartoum, and movement around the capital remains highly dangerous.

Since 24 April the UK has enabled the supported departure of over 2,300 people, including British nationals, dependants, Sudanese NHS medical staff and other eligible nationals. I pay tribute to our brave and remarkable military and civilian personnel who have delivered that effort.

UK operations at the Wadi Saeedna airbase ended on 30 April. Our efforts are now focused on Port Sudan and helping British nationals there who are seeking to leave Sudan. On 1 May the UK evacuated 144 people on flights from Port Sudan. In addition, we helped British nationals to leave on the US navy ship Brunswick on 30 April. I thank our American friends and countries across the region—in particular Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Cyprus—for their assistance.

HMS Lancaster is supporting evacuation efforts from Port Sudan, and Foreign Office staff who remain are helping British nationals to leave the country, signposting options for departure. British nationals in Port Sudan who require support should visit our team without delay.

However, ending the violence remains essential. The Prime Minister, ministerial colleagues and I continue to co-ordinate urgently with our international partners to support those efforts. I have just returned from Nairobi, where I had productive conversations with the President of Kenya; the chairperson of the African Union, Moussa Faki; and former Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, among others.

We must not allow ourselves to forget that the appalling violence in Sudan, wrought by two generals and their forces, is having a devastating impact on civilians across the country, with an increasing impact for Sudan’s neighbours. The most vulnerable people in Sudan are bearing the brunt of the conflict. Aid operations are now at a standstill, humanitarian supplies have been looted, and hospitals and relief workers have been targeted in attacks—at least five aid workers have been killed, including other health staff. The warring factions must desist from violence so that aid can reach those who desperately need it.

The UK will continue to stand with the United Nations, which is leading the international humanitarian response. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement.

It is welcome that so many Brits have been successfully evacuated. Let me put on the record Labour’s thanks to our dedicated armed services and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office personnel, who have worked around the clock to make that happen. However, we remain concerned for British residents who remain in the country. What assessment has the Minister made of the numbers of nationals and residents still in Sudan, and what steps is he taking to ensure that they can be evacuated safely and quickly?

It is right that, in the coming days and weeks, we look at how decisions have been made during the crisis and ensure that the right lessons are learned. We know that communications with British nationals have been patchy, that our evacuation started later than those of many of our allies, and that the Government were slow to support British residents. My constituent Dr Lina Badr and her children had to make their own way to the border. Can the Minister explain why the beginning of our evacuation was so much slower than those of our allies? Does he feel that it was wise to evacuate our officials before our nationals and residents? I note that the international development head was left behind, not the ambassador. Does the Minister feel that each of the lessons of Afghanistan has been learned?

So far, Ministers have spoken about this crisis largely with regard to Brits stuck in the country, and rightly so. However, we have heard little about UK support for the Sudanese people, whose dreams of a peaceful and democratic future are being shattered by the fighting. Will the Minister please say more about his commitment to support the people of Sudan should the fighting continue? How will the UK retain a meaningful presence in the country? What assessment has been made of aid programmes that have been affected by the security situation and subsequent evacuations of diplomatic personnel? Does the Minister acknowledge the impact of cuts made by his Government to the bilateral support that Sudan receives?

Even before the current crisis began, 15 million in Sudan were reliant on humanitarian assistance. Sadly, that figure will only increase. What conversations is the Minister having with partners to secure the safety of humanitarian workers and their premises and assets so that life-saving aid can continue?

António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, has warned that the power struggle is not only putting Sudan’s future at risk, but

“lighting a fuse that could detonate across borders, causing immense suffering for years”.

Yet official development assistance to the region is set to face further cuts this year, even as Sudanese nationals are fleeing across borders in their tens of thousands. Will the Minister please set out whether the Government plan to allocate additional humanitarian support to address the crisis this year? What assessment have the Government made of risk to the security of Port Sudan, given its crucial role in Sudan’s economy, in the humanitarian response and in providing an evacuation route?

Finally, as the Minister will know, the RSF’s military power is partly sustained through illicit cross-border trade, which has taken hundreds of millions out of Sudan’s formal economy and will continue to bankroll the violence. How will the Government seek to crack down on illicit trade? Does the Minister share my concern that the turn away from Africa in British foreign and development policy has vacated space that malign actors have sought to exploit?

It is right that the British Government’s first priority has been to secure the safety of as many UK nationals as possible, but we must not allow the world’s gaze to turn from Sudan once the airlifts have ended.

I thank the shadow Development Minister very much for her comments at the beginning and recognise that she is asking questions that require an answer. I noted eight of them, but if I miss any I will certainly write to her.

The hon. Lady asked first about the efficacy of the evacuation. We were, along with the Americans, the first to pull our own diplomatic staff out of the country. We did so because the situation was extraordinarily dangerous. As I have mentioned before in the House, the embassy and the residences were caught between the two lines so it was an incredibly dangerous situation. The Prime Minister took the decision—at a Cobra meeting at 3.15 that Saturday morning, which I attended—that it was essential that we took our staff out, which is what we did. It was a difficult and complex operation, successfully conducted, but throughout all the planning we also planned to bring out our citizens, and that operation, I submit to the House, has been accomplished extremely successfully.

The hon. Lady asked me about communications with British citizens. She is right; it is extremely difficult. On one day when we were trying to communicate, there was only 2% internet availability. She asked about the speed of the evacuation. We had more citizens in the country to evacuate than the French and the Germans, who started evacuating their citizens before we did. A crisis centre was set up immediately in the Foreign Office, working across Government. I submit to the House that the evacuation has been extremely successful.

The hon. Lady asked whether lessons had been learned from Afghanistan. They most certainly have, but of course this situation was very different from Afghanistan. We did not control the ground. There was not a permissive environment—we did not have permission, as we had the permission of the Taliban in Afghanistan, to take people out. So the positions are not analogous.

The hon. Lady asked whether we would learn lessons from the evacuation. Of course we will look carefully at every decision that was made and make sure that everything possible is learned from it. She asked about the diplomatic presence. There is a diplomatic presence at the border with Egypt and at the border with Ethiopia. She will know that the excellent British ambassador to Khartoum is now in Addis Ababa.

The hon. Lady asked about the humanitarian spend. I should make it clear that we are able to exercise a bit of flexibility on humanitarian spend, as we always must. For example, I announced last Thursday that next year we will allocate £1,000 million to meet humanitarian difficulties and disasters. She quoted the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres. He is right in what he has said, and one of the encouraging things that we are seeing is that the African Union and the United Nations are working in perfect harmony, delivering precisely the same message that there has to be a ceasefire; that these generals have to lay down their arms and return their troops to barracks.

I welcome the incredible evacuation effort to get so many out and also the effort from so many of our allied countries. I thank the Sudanese Government, who will have played a large role in helping us get people out. I thank ambassador Giles Lever, who has been the subject of a great deal of media attention and attacks in the past few days, but who over the weekend worked tirelessly to help with cases that I raised, particularly of British nationals who had been taken hostage.

I am concerned that the RSF’s actions are a categorical rejection of the peaceful transition towards democratic rule and away from military rule. What can we meaningfully use to get them back within the process, because I am struggling to see why, having taken this action and decided that they do not support peaceful transition, they would now come back into the fold and be interested in any sort of transition to democracy.

I am also concerned that, this morning, MPs across the House will have received into their inboxes a briefing from the RSF press office. This is not some shoddily pulled together briefing, but a highly professional and clearly well-financed operation. Will the Minister kindly advise us who he believes is funding this RSF press office, and can we please make representations to it to make sure that no British firms are involved? If our allies are involved, they must step back and not fund the RSF in this way.

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for her comments. I thank her particularly for the point that she made about our ambassador, who has worked ceaselessly throughout the crisis and with very great effect. In respect of her final point, I will look into the issue of malign public relations and report back to the House.

On the process for ceasefire and peace, I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the statement made this morning by former Prime Minister Hamdok, which we strongly welcome. He made it clear that there will be a global emergency unless this situation is halted immediately. He demanded an immediate, monitorable and permanent ceasefire and said that we needed permanent, reliable and secure humanitarian corridors. He mentioned in particular the requirement for a recommencement of a political process, the transition to democracy and the inclusion of the voice of Sudanese civilians in all forums that aim at securing peace. The international community, the African Union, and the United Nations—everyone—should support the call by former Prime Minister Hamdok of Sudan on all four of those points, because they are essential if we are to stop this growing and dreadful crisis.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. I echo the thanks to the men and women of the armed forces and other staff involved in the evacuations of UK nationals, as well as to those of other countries who immediately stepped up to the plate to evacuate UK citizens along with their own nationals at the start of this escalation of the conflict.

This is developing into a full-blown humanitarian crisis, with hundreds of thousands of people being displaced. There are acute food, water and medicinal shortages and they are likely to get worse. Agencies on the ground that have humanitarian, peacebuilding and development programmes will need to pivot quickly, so what assistance are the UK Government giving to those individual agencies? Can the Minister give us some details? I did not hear a response to the shadow Minister about how many UK nationals are estimated to be still in Sudan. Can he give us that estimate, because I would imagine that the Government have one?

The Minister said that there were more UK citizens in Sudan than citizens from other nations. Does that not mean that the emphasis should have been on our being better prepared and better resourced to move more quickly than those other nations? As violence erupts in Darfur, what actions has he agreed with international partners to protect international civilians?

Finally, the Minister for Africa said on TV last night that there were no safe and legal routes for refugees from Sudan. The Foreign Secretary promised last week that detail would be coming forward shortly. Can the Minister give us that detail now and tell us when those safe and legal routes will be in place?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, particularly his comments about the work of the armed forces, which, as he said, was absolutely outstanding. He asked about how we elevate our humanitarian response to this crisis. I have to tell him that more than 10 humanitarian workers have been murdered during the course of this conflict. I said in my statement that it was five humanitarian workers, but if we include the wider definition of humanitarian workers, the number is more than 10. For the humanitarian work to take place and for the corridors that Prime Minister Hamdok has called for to operate, there must be a ceasefire and therefore all our efforts are addressed to that. We are working closely with all the humanitarian agencies, through the United Nations, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development and the African Union, to secure that.

The hon. Gentleman asked me for an estimate of those who are left, but it is not possible to be precise about that. He will have seen the figures of those who have been evacuated by the Royal Air Force and those who have gone from Port Sudan by sea. However, there is no question that those in Khartoum, which is where the predominant number of people were, will have known about the evacuation and will have been able to go to the airport. We believe that it is inconceivable that people did not know about it, and we think most of them are out.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked me about safe and legal routes. When the Prime Minister made his comprehensive statement to the House about how we would stop the boats and the poor people coming across the busiest sea lane in the world, putting themselves into the hands of the modern-day equivalent of the slave trader, he set out a whole range of measures, including that in due course he would introduce safe and legal routes. That is the answer to that question.

Is there any evidence that the Wagner Group’s links with the Rapid Support Forces had anything to do with the uprising, bearing in mind that the attention of our Government and no doubt others has been taken away from Ukraine by this crisis? Does the Minister agree that, if we do not wish to see a flood of refugees coming into western Europe, such humanitarian aid as we give must be focused on the surrounding countries, nearer to where this crisis is playing out?

My right hon. Friend is entirely right on his final point. I have nothing that I can say about the work of Russia and Wagner in Sudan, but I can assure him that our attention has not been taken off the Wagner Group at any point.

My constituent’s father is stuck in Sudan. He was refused at the airport after spending three days trying to get there, despite his wife and daughter, who have UK passports, getting on the flight. Another constituent’s wife is also trapped there —alone, scared and six months pregnant. Both were in the process of getting their UK citizenship sorted out before the conflict happened. Now they are running out of food and water and they are desperate, as fighting is beginning again. How can that heavily pregnant woman and elderly man make it out safely? Will the Minister commit to doing all that he can to help my constituents’ family members get to a place of safety and reunite their families?

I think I am right in saying that the hon. Lady has raised that specific case with the Foreign Office. I will undertake to ensure that efforts are renewed. The answer to her underlying question is that an international ceasefire is essential.

What actions are the UN and neighbouring states taking to make provision for the refugees? Is there an up-to-date statement on how big a problem we think that is, given the current state?

If there is no ceasefire, the problem will be enormous. I can tell my right hon. Friend that the head of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Martin Griffiths, is in the region and is looking at precisely those issues. I will keep my right hon. Friend and the House informed of the answer to that question as it develops.

Earlier today, the shadow Foreign Secretary received a fairly unsatisfactory answer to his question about getting Sudanese doctors back to the UK. The Minister has just said that this situation is not like Afghanistan. However, in 2020 during the covid pandemic, there was great difficulty in getting pensioners back from the Punjab, many of whom had worked for decades in the UK, had family here and had indefinite leave to remain. Is not the crux of the problem the stubborn refusal of his Department to do anything for British residents with fully legal leave to remain? Is it not time to review that policy, to change it and to get people home?

These questions rest predominantly with the Home Office rather than the Foreign Office. I think that the shadow Foreign Secretary got an outstanding answer from the Foreign Secretary earlier. I should make it clear that the Prime Minister took the decision that the NHS doctors would indeed be brought to Britain. Five eligible Sudanese NHS personnel were evacuated from Port Sudan to Larnaca, and 14 came out with the Royal Air Force from Wadi Saeedna and one by United States vessel from Port Sudan—that is 20. The other two left under their own steam. On the specific issue that was raised with the Foreign Secretary, I think I am able to satisfy the right hon. Gentleman that he has had a very good answer.

I agree with my right hon. Friend that getting a ceasefire is vital. On behalf of the all-party parliamentary group on Sudan and South Sudan, I thank him for coming to the meeting last week—if any colleagues want to join the APPG, we would be grateful for their support. Thousands of people are already heading for the border. I met Save the Children, South Sudan last week. It is expecting hundreds of thousands of people to come into camps in eastern Chad and on the South Sudan-Sudan border. Can the UK work with the UN to encourage more humanitarian aid for those areas, which desperately need extra support?

My right hon. Friend is entirely correct and highly informed in what she says. In the last few moments, the meeting of the African Union has finished in Addis Ababa. The meeting called for a comprehensive ceasefire, underlined the extraordinary humanitarian jeopardy that Sudan is now in, called for a properly co-ordinated political process to be immediately resumed, and underlined the profound humanitarian consequences that exist in Sudan today.

I am sure that the whole House will join the right hon. Gentleman in expressing our thanks to the British forces, civil servants and others who worked so hard to get British nationals out. He is absolutely right that a ceasefire is the single most important step that we need to see happen. It has been reported in the last hour or two that the South Sudan Foreign Ministry says that the two sides have agreed in principle to a seven-day ceasefire starting on Thursday, and to sending people to talks. I do not know whether he can shed any light on that. Clearly, the repeated breaking of existing ceasefires does not give us huge confidence, but this might be a significant step. Does he know why the Government of South Sudan appear to be the body reporting it?

The right hon. Gentleman, who knows a great deal about Sudan and these matters from his time in office, may be even more up to date than I am. I thought that I was pretty up to date in reporting the African Union meeting, which finished in the last few minutes. South Sudan is involved as one of the three parts of IGAD. It is heavily engaged. The President of South Sudan has been working hard to try to effect a ceasefire. That is what South Sudan is doing, and we very much welcome it. I hope that, in due course, the right hon. Gentleman will be proven correct on the additional seven days of ceasefire that he mentions, and that we can build on it to achieve what the African Union has called for in the last few minutes.

I endorse what my right hon. Friend the Minister has said. I supervised ceasefires and organised safe corridors, and there cannot be one without the other. Does he agree that we are incredibly lucky to have such a jewel in our crown as the sovereign base areas in Cyprus, which are strategically and tactically important for operating in the eastern Mediterranean and areas around there?

My right hon. and gallant Friend is absolutely right about the strategic importance of RAF Akrotiri and the sovereign base areas in Cyprus, which I know all too well from my brief and long ago military service with the United Nations forces in Cyprus.

Last week, there were people desperate to return from Sudan who are working here for our NHS. They look after us in our hour of need, and yet in their hour of need, they were initially told that our Foreign Office would not evacuate them, thus losing precious hours in the race to escape. That is shameful and embarrassing. How could that have been allowed to happen? Will the Minister undertake to review the decision-making processes in the Foreign Office and, if necessary, in the Home Office, to ensure that in future such cases are flagged up promptly and offered full support?

I am sure the whole House will welcome the decision the Prime Minister made that those people should be evacuated to the United Kingdom and that they are now safely here.

I am aware of a number of Westminster residents who are still stuck in Sudan, scattered across the country, having not been able to get to Khartoum to secure passage on one of the flights out. Can my right hon. Friend advise on what further steps the Foreign Office can take to evacuate British nationals and UK work permit holders who are still stuck in Sudan and want to leave?

As we speak, British officials are still operating in Port Sudan, helping British citizens to leave. It is very important that the full details of any citizens in Westminster whom my hon. Friend knows about are given to the Foreign Office, and we will give them all the advice we can.

Of course, the Minister is right: focus must remain on ending the horrific violence that continues to see the death of innocent men, women and children, and we must continue to play a leading role in securing international humanitarian aid in one of the poorest countries in the world. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar), many of the cases that I am dealing with involve the immediate family of constituents who hold a valid visa for entry to and residence in the UK and who normally reside in the UK but have not been allocated space on a UK evacuation flight. I have a great deal of respect for the Minister, but he has remained largely silent on that point. What arrangements are in place to allow the safe passage of those residents from Sudan back to the UK, including any agreements with surrounding countries for safe routes of travel back to the UK?

We continue to support people at the border of Sudan with Egypt and also at the border of Sudan with Ethiopia. I have outlined to the House the steps we are taking through Port Sudan. I am not aware of any reason why people would not have been taken if, as the hon. Gentleman says, they were able to get an evacuation point and all their documents were in order, but if he would like to bring any such case to my attention, I will of course look into it straightaway.

I thank and pay tribute to the FCDO and the Ministry of Defence for their successful and expeditious non-combatant evacuation operation from Sudan. As any student of military history will know, no responsible Government can write a blank cheque for the evacuation of civilians from a high-threat environment, particularly somewhere as dangerous as Khartoum, sadly. Will the Minister confirm that a full threat assessment will be conducted before the decision is taken to put British forces back into Khartoum?

There are no such plans, but I can assure my hon. Friend and the House that we are still alert to any help that may be required by British citizens in Sudan, and we will provide all possible support that we are physically able to provide.

May I beg the Minister for help with two constituency cases? One is an 11-month-old boy whose father is a constituent of mine and whose mother is Sudanese. Understandably, they do not want to travel without being guaranteed that they will all get on that flight together, so they have not. Another is a two-year-old child whose mother is British and whose father is Sudanese. They all want to get visas so that they can travel together. Does he understand that separation is not an option for them and that, without the Home Office in particular applying some cool-headed common sense, which we have shown we can do with Ukraine, we risk failing these very small children who should be and are citizens of this country?

I understand the hon. Lady’s eloquent plea. I have to say to her that we are restricted by the art of the possible. If those cases have not been brought to the attention of the Foreign Office, I hope that she will do that immediately, and we will do everything we can.

I want to re-emphasise to the House that what is required is a permanent ceasefire, going back to 11 April, and engagement with the political talks that were going on leading to a civilian transformation. I was struck in Nairobi at the weekend by the unanimity of purpose among former Prime Minister Hamdok; Amina Mohammed, the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations; Moussa Faki, the chairperson of the African Union Commission; and President Ruto. All of them are doing everything they can to address this humanitarian situation through a ceasefire. I also pay a big tribute to the Archbishop of Canterbury in the week of the coronation, who was in east Africa over the weekend playing his part in urging people to agree a ceasefire, give up their guns, go back to barracks and embrace the political process.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the statement. As he says, though, the situation on the ground remains extremely dangerous. I have been contacted by my constituent Dr Hanaa Yahya, who is understandably extremely concerned that her brother—a UK passport holder—and her elderly mother are still stuck in Sudan, her mother having been denied evacuation.

The British embassy’s advice has apparently been that my constituent’s mother, who has a Sudanese passport with a UK visa valid for 10 years, could leave with her brother as a dependant. However, despite that, she was refused evacuation, and as a care-giver, her brother has remained with their mother. My constituent is very worried, particularly as her mother has significant health problems, and she fears for the safety of both family members. Could my right hon. Friend the Minister look into this case urgently and advise on what can be done to support both my constituent in Cheadle and her family stranded in Sudan?

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. I know that she has passed details about these cases to my officials in the past hour, and we will of course look into them.

In terms of support, it may be helpful if I give the House some further details. As I said, the Foreign Office and Home Office officials are resident—there are five of them in Port Sudan. HMS Lancaster is alongside and supporting. There are 23 people helping those who get off the plane in Larnaca; we have three people assisting those who have come out through Port Sudan in Jeddah; and on the Sudanese-Egyptian border, where I said there was a presence, we have 10 officials, in addition to those we have on the Ethiopian-Sudanese border. As my hon. Friend will know, the British ambassador to Khartoum has relocated to Addis Ababa.

Afrah Adam Ahimir Essa, the wife of my constituent Abdeen Mohammed, was issued with her family reunion visa by the Home Office on 2 March, but she has not been able to leave Sudan. I fully understand the importance of a ceasefire, but what advice and assistance can the Minister offer my constituent and his wife at what must be an incredibly frightening time?

It was a different case. Well, for the case the hon. Lady raised in oral questions, we met between oral questions and this statement to try to make sure that officials can take up the issues. If she sees me after this statement, I will make sure that this other case is taken up as well.

I put on record my thanks to all those who helped so much with the humanitarian evacuation from Sudan, because they have obviously performed the best they could, although there are still issues to be resolved. I hear what the Minister says about a ceasefire, and obviously a ceasefire would be very welcome—the longer the ceasefire, the better—but a ceasefire is not peace, and it is not a permanent situation. Is the Minister confident that the intervention of the African Union and the UN will actually address all the underlying issues in Sudan that have brought about this polarised military conflict that has been so devastating for so many desperately poor people, and that we will hopefully see a long-term peace and a completely democratic and civilian Government?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman, the former Leader of the Opposition, for what he has said. He is right that there has been a formidable operation: at 5 o’clock this morning, 2,187 people had been evacuated by the RAF from Wadi Saeedna and 154 from Port Sudan. That total of 2,341 people arrived in Larnaca, and 1,858 are confirmed as back in the UK.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in his comments about the importance of the permanence of a ceasefire to allow both humanitarian efforts and civilian politicians to operate, and I assure him that there is extraordinary unanimity of belief in this across IGAD, the Troika, the Quad, the African Union and the United Nations. I hope that that unanimity of purpose across the international system will prevail.

There have been many reports of rape and sexual violence during the conflict in Sudan. Can the Minister advise the House on what steps the Government are taking to enable proper support for survivors and evidence-gathering by specialists to make accountability possible?

The hon. Lady is right to raise these appalling offences that are committed against women. Obviously we have only limited ability to move the dial at this particular point in Khartoum and Sudan, but I assure her that this Government will never accept a culture of impunity in offences perpetrated against women.

The Rapid Support Forces in Sudan were formed out of the Janjaweed, the militia responsible for many of the atrocities in the 2003 Darfur genocide. As the RSF has many of the same leaders as the Janjaweed, there is a real risk of atrocity crimes, including sexual violence. Does the FCDO have an atrocity and genocide prevention strategy for Sudan, and what steps are being taken to monitor and prevent potential atrocity crimes?

The hon. Lady is right to chart the nature of the RSF, which grew from the Janjaweed, which was active in Darfur. I first visited Darfur in 2006 and again in 2007. As she rightly said, that was a genocide, in the words of President Bush, perpetrated by the Janjaweed and other militias. All I can say is to reiterate the point that I made earlier: we will do everything we can to ensure that there is no impunity for these dreadful crimes.