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Sudan: Atrocities

Volume 734: debated on Thursday 22 June 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement regarding the rapid acceleration of atrocities in Sudan.

The UK strongly condemns the heinous attacks on civilians across Sudan, including, in particular, in Darfur. All parties involved are accountable for the crimes they commit. Our immediate objective is to stop the violence, ensure that civilians are protected, and bring about immediate safe and unfettered humanitarian access. Civilians and critical infrastructure must be protected in line with international humanitarian law, and communities must have access to critical care and basic services.

On 16 June, the Minister for Development and Africa called publicly for atrocities to stop and for humanitarian access to be granted. The UK is stepping up enhanced observation of human rights in Sudan through a remote risk-monitoring capability. We have provided funding to organisations that are, with input from local partners, collecting, verifying and preserving digital content from the conflict, including instances of significant abuses. That will play a vital role in amplifying the voices of those who are being targeted, and will be permissible in future accountability mechanisms, should they be established.

The UK is pursuing all diplomatic avenues, including ministerial engagement with regional counterparts, to end the violence and de-escalate tensions in Sudan. The UK-drafted resolution, passed at the United Nations Human Rights Council on 11 May, condemns the human rights violations and abuses taking place in Sudan. It is the strongest resolution that the council has passed on Sudan in over a decade.

We continue to be hugely invested in Sudan. Over the past five years, we have invested £250 million-worth of humanitarian aid, and that, combined with our diplomacy, will continue, we hope, moving Sudan towards the path of peace.

A systemic ethnic cleansing is happening in Darfur right now. Last Sunday, 100 members of the Darfur diaspora in the UK met. Every person had lost several members of their family in the last few weeks owing to a campaign by the Rapid Support Forces/Janjaweed to change the DNA in Darfur. That means targeting non-Arabs. Boys over 10 are being murdered; girls over 12 are being raped. Civil leaders are being targeted and murdered, including the Governor of West Darfur.

A quarter of a million people live in El Geneina, which has been under siege for two months. The RSF/Janjaweed has destroyed the water sources, hospitals, pharmacies and food stores. We have no idea of the true scale of the casualties, but an eyewitness has estimated that the number is already in the thousands. The Sudanese armed forces are doing nothing to protect people. The city is just 28 km from the border with Chad at Adré, where French troops have been seen recently and UK aid is waiting, but people are being shot when they try to flee the violence. El Geneina is a strategic gateway for arms and mercenaries entering Sudan. Furthermore, the RSF has a vast gold smuggling network in Darfur and is connected with Russia’s Wagner Group.

Given that the UK is the penholder at the UN, what action are we taking to stop the violence? What pressure is being put on the warring generals to end the conflict? Has the UK called for an urgent debate at the UN Security Council? Could the nearby French troops, backed by the international community, work to provide a safe corridor for those in El Geneina? Why has the UK not sanctioned the commercial wings of the RSF and the SAF, as the US has? Why has the UK still not proscribed the Wagner Group as terrorists? What pressure is being put on the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia given that many RSF and SAF commercial entities are registered there?

Lastly, will the Minister meet urgently with representatives of the Darfur diaspora here? Will he ensure that the voices of civil society and marginalised ethnic groups are heard so that a comprehensive solution to the problems at the heart of the terrible Sudan conflict can be delivered?

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) for her sustained personal interest in this issue. She comes at this with a great deal of relevant experience, as the most recent UK Minister to have done travelled in the region. The House is grateful for her sustained personal interest and her questions today.

What action is being taken to prevent the violence? We are exerting all diplomatic effort, in concert with the USA and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. We hope that the warring generals will see sense. Our diplomatic effort is steered through our membership of the UK core group and will promote the efforts of the African Union. We hope that, through diplomacy, we can progress this measure. We have called for a debate in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and I am pleased to say that we will have closed consultations in the Security Council in New York in the coming days.

My right hon. Friend asked an interesting question about the potential role of French troops. I cannot comment on that specifically, but I know that our diplomats and officials will be liaising with our allies to see what humanitarian work might be expedited by the significant French presence in the region.

Of course, I cannot comment from the Dispatch Box about future UK sanctions. All options continue to be on the table, and we will keep these issues under review. Through our diplomacy and our strong relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, we hope that we might influence both sides in this terrible conflict, and we think that our diplomacy with our Gulf partners has huge possibility.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Development and Africa will engage with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford and any civil society members she thinks are relevant to meet. We do care about Sudanese civil society. Our ambassador, Giles Lever, continues to meet where he can with members of Sudanese civil society, including youth, women and Darfuris. That reflects the scale of our long-term investment in civil society in Sudan, with humanitarian investment of some quarter of a billion pounds in the last five years.

I thank the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) for securing this urgent question. She is an effective and committed chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Sudan and South Sudan.

The reports from Darfur are horrifying. The Sudan Doctors Union says that 1,100 people have already been killed just in the small city of El Geneina. Unarmed men and boys are being murdered because of their ethnicity. Women and girls are being mass raped. One rapist was reported as saying that they want to

“change the DNA of this place”.

The provincial governor was assassinated after stating that this was a genocide. Hundreds of thousands possibly remain trapped in El Geneina, shot as they tried to flee.

We knew long before April that racist mass violence and groups armed along ethnic lines were common in Darfur. We knew that the RSF grew out of the Janjaweed, which bears heavy responsibility for acts of genocide 20 years ago. The risk of atrocity crimes was clear. We are the penholder for Sudan on the Security Council. Why did we not better anticipate and prepare? What does it say about our atrocity prevention strategy and the priority that we place on raising the alarm early?

What assessment have we made of the Wagner Group’s role in supplying weapons, and what are we doing now? Why have the Government not even mirrored the United States’ sanctions on economic entities funding the conflict? What can we do at the UN and the African Union to ensure rapid civilian protection now in Darfur? We know that some are determined to block action, regardless of human cost. Can we not expose their role in enabling this horror? Surely we need to bring our partners together now and act.

The hon. Lady raises a number of pertinent questions. When it comes to anticipating the upsurge in violence, we have confidence in our diplomats. It has long been a volatile situation, and I want to clearly express confidence in our diplomatic representatives, our diplomacy and our deep understanding of the region. Of course, they are not able to predict every last event, but we do have a deep reserve of regional expertise built up over many years, and we should be proud of that.

The hon. Lady asked a question about the Wagner Group. Clearly, we keep all options under review, but I agree with her assessment of the hugely damaging, detrimental and pernicious effect of the Wagner Group. That is a regional trend—it reflects the profound diminishing of Russian influence on the European continent—and we keep its activities under close watch. She also made a very good point about protection of civilians. Clearly, all our efforts are focused on pushing for a diplomatic path towards peace, because it is peace that will allow civilians to be protected and the humanitarian aid to flow.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), who has been a steadfast advocate for the people of Sudan, for securing this urgent question. There is no question that crimes against humanity are being perpetrated in El Geneina and across Darfur. At the Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday, we held a session specifically on the crisis, and we heard that the fear is that diplomats are putting their trust in the men with guns rather than civilians. Given that we are the UN Security Council penholder, why are we not leading work to secure a commission of inquiry on Sudan by the Human Rights Council? That is something meaningful we could do that would make a real difference.

Secondly, please can we get a grip on our chaotic approach to dealing with the Wagner Group? We need to bring in sanctions. Can we also look at putting up balloons with allies that would provide internet access to Darfur, so that the voices that are being silenced and massacred can get out and the true scale of what is happening can be known around the world?

I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee, for her pertinent questions. She made a very good point about alleged war crimes. We entirely agree that accountability is hugely important—it is an instrument of deterrence. That is why a lot of our work on a daily basis is about ensuring that there is institutional capacity for recording atrocities so that those responsible can be held to account.

My hon. Friend made a good point about civil society, although we have engaged and will continue to engage. On the UN route to further expedite our interest in human rights, the next step is the closed session of the Security Council, but all options are on the table with regard to the Human Rights Council. She referred to the Wagner Group, and I agree with her assessment of the threat, although not her characterisation of our policy. Of course, we keep its activities under review, and that is reflected in robust and deep institutional thinking and policymaking.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford): she is absolutely right to bring this matter before the House today while this violence, which we all condemn, escalates. It would be the understatement of the century to say that Sudan is no stranger to identity-based violence. The Minister said that the UK Government have a deep understanding and regional expertise. It is therefore deeply concerning to hear from academics, policy experts and non-governmental organisations on the ground in Sudan that time and time again, the UK has failed to listen to the advice, the warnings and the pleading to follow an atrocity prevention approach to Sudan.

This week, as we have heard, the Foreign Affairs Committee heard from witnesses across Sudanese and western agencies that the UK Government have ignored repeated warnings. Indeed, a letter from the UK Civil Society Atrocity Prevention Working Group says that

“As violence broke out in April, the Sudan team had in place no expertise on the dynamics of atrocity violence; no system of urgent alarm raising”

and no guidance, and had undertaken no training to address these issues. The SNP has called for an atrocity prevention strategy for years. The 2021 integrated review should have included one, so why has all of this been ignored? When will the UK Government change their strategy to accommodate such an approach, and will they bring to the House details of how they are going to take that forward, along with all of the other answers that should be heard today?

I join the hon. Gentleman in thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford for her deep expertise and experience, and for tabling this urgent question today.

We did not ignore warnings. We have absolute confidence in our diplomats, our civil servants, and those members of our institution who have deep expertise in Sudan. They do not have a crystal ball; they cannot predict every last machination in a conflict that is highly complex and extremely volatile. Diplomacy is the art of the possible, as is peacebuilding, and that is where our diplomacy, considerable humanitarian investment and expertise will be focused.

On the Wagner Group, my hon. Friend said that he keeps matters under constant review and close watch. When will it be time to stop watching and do something?

I am really grateful to the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) for shining a spotlight on this, because for too long the international community has not directed its attention to it. Civil society groups reported to my Committee a month ago, and said that they are going unheard when they have been trying for years to raise concerns. Despite rising conflict and reports of atrocities across the region, the Government have continued to make cuts in UK aid in east and central Africa. FCDO bilateral aid to Sudan dropped sharply, from £220 million in 2021-22 to just £25 million the following financial year. Against a backdrop of ongoing conflict and severe humanitarian suffering, what assessment has the Minister made of reversing these cuts, especially in relation to preventing conflict, stopping the atrocities and building peace?

We do engage and we have engaged with civil society groups, so we do care about their perspective. Our ambassador and his team have a long track record of engaging with civil society, youth, women and Darfuris in Sudan, and that will continue, notwithstanding the security constraints they currently face, so we do have a good track record of engagement with civil society. The hon. Member mentioned the scale of our investment. Despite the fiscal reality with which we live and our responsible approach, we should be proud of the fact that, over the past five years, we have invested a quarter of a billion pounds in Sudan in humanitarian aid. We should therefore be confident that our significant investment, twinned with our diplomacy, can have a significant effect.

The Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha is due to take place—that is the prediction—next Wednesday. This should be a time of great joy for Muslims across the world, but clearly it is not going to be in Sudan. Could the Minister advise the House on what action he is taking to at least try to negotiate a ceasefire during the festival, so that people can celebrate even if in terrible circumstances?

I thank my hon. Friend for making that good point. The festival of Eid al-Adha should provide an opportunity and an opening for peace. We will continue to make that point, and push it with our Gulf partners particularly, in our diplomatic efforts, in concert with members of the African Union.

In normal times and peaceful times in Sudan, large quantities of food crops such as sorghum and millet—and corn, barley and others—are grown. If in this planting season we do not see these crops being sown, we could have a massive widespread regional catastrophe on our hands. Can I take it that the Minister understands this issue and that maximum effort will be made via diplomatic channels to see that these crops are planted this year?

The hon. Member raises an extremely pertinent point. The food crisis in the region is acute. It has been exacerbated by constraints in global supply, and the catastrophic impact of Putin’s war in Ukraine, in cutting off the global supply, has had a very significant impact, especially across the African continent. We will of course do all we can to improve not just conditions in the east African region, but the global supply of grain, which is where things such as the Black sea grain initiative are important on a geostrategic scale.

Africa, which will have a quarter of the world’s population by 2050, has many great and powerful economies with which we trade. So what representations have the Government made with the African Union, to which we have an ambassador based in Addis Ababa, about the role the African Union is going to play to remedy this absolutely horrendous situation?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I think the African Union is a very valuable partner, and we have an important role to play. At its core, this is about reform, the promotion of enterprise and societal development, and institutional capacity building. That is the route towards more sustainable and long-term economic development, which means countries will be more resilient when it comes to climate change.

Important humanitarian initiatives in Sudan have been closed down by the authorities in Darfur, including those of the UK charity Tearfund, which is referred to in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Does the Minister see any prospect of those initiatives being able to reopen in the foreseeable future?

We must be realistic: it is hard to see an opportunity in the near future, but that does not stop us being very energetic in our diplomacy. Peace will be the gateway to such organisations returning to their work, so we will exert all efforts possible.

I have received many pieces of correspondence from constituents deeply concerned about the horrendous situation in Sudan. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to support Sudan’s neighbouring countries as civilians flee the ongoing violence in Sudan?

That is a good question because the regional impacts are very significant. All countries in the region are a focus of our humanitarian efforts and investment by the UK international development fund. We hope that that, twinned with our diplomacy and the very active diplomatic efforts of our Minister for Africa and Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell)—he has recently been in Ethiopia and Egypt, for example—can bear fruit.

We stand here many times to remember and commemorate genocides, and we say, “Never again,” but genocides are not inevitable. Twenty years after the Darfur genocide, unthinkable crimes are taking place. The Government were warned repeatedly about the atrocity risks in Sudan. Will the Minister pledge today to ensure that atrocity prevention training is given and informs all of our work in all of our country teams?

The hon. Lady makes a good point and I am sure the Minister for Africa will look at exactly that.

Is the Minister aware of concerning reports that Eritrean refugees in Sudanese camps, who have already fled violence and oppression in their own country, are now facing targeting, violence, oppression and deportation from Sudan? When he is taking part in the various diplomatic initiatives he has outlined, will he make sure this is investigated and support provided where needed?

I thank the Minister for his response to this urgent question, and the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) for her assiduous commitment to highlighting all these issues across the House. It is estimated that since 15 April fighting in the city of El Geneina in Darfur has taken the lives of 1,100 people, and it is increasingly coming to light that many of them are not soldiers in combat but civilians fleeing the city in fear of their lives. Will the Minister outline what discussions have taken place with our allies to enable women and children to get to safety, and what steps can we take to stop this carnage?

The protection of women and children is at the heart of our diplomatic efforts and we discuss that with our allies in all fora, including the African Union and the UN. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point.