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Conflict in Sudan: El Fasher

Volume 750: debated on Thursday 16 May 2024

(Urgent Question): To ask the Deputy Foreign Secretary if he will make a statement on the Government’s response to atrocity risks in El Fasher, Sudan.

Yesterday we published a written ministerial statement outlining our grave concern about reports of devastating violence in and around El Fasher, with civilians caught in the crossfire. In April, the UK led negotiations, alongside Mozambique, Sierra Leone and Algeria, at the United Nations Security Council to deliver a press statement that urged the warring parties to de-escalate in El Fasher, and to comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law. We also called for a closed UN Security Council consultation on the situation.

On 2 May, the Deputy Foreign Secretary publicly called on the Rapid Support Forces and the Sudanese Armed Forces to protect civilians and

“spare Sudan from their wilful destruction and carnage.”

We continue to pursue all diplomatic avenues to achieve a permanent ceasefire, and we welcome plans to restart talks in Jeddah. We urge the region to refrain from actions that prolong the conflict and to engage positively in peace talks. We have used exchanges with the warring parties to condemn strongly atrocities that they have perpetrated, and to demand that their leadership makes every effort to prevent further atrocities in territories that they have captured or threatened to capture, as well as to press the need for improved humanitarian access.

On 15 April, the Deputy Foreign Secretary announced a package of sanctions designations, freezing the assets of three commercial entities linked to the warring parties, and we will continue to explore other levers that we have to disrupt and constrain the sources of funding that both warring parties are using to sustain themselves. We continue to support the Centre for Information Resilience, which documents, preserves and shares evidence of reported atrocities, so that their perpetrators can in due course be brought to justice. There will be no impunity for human rights abusers.

Finally, we will keep working to ensure that the voices of Sudanese civilians are heard, whether they be survivors and witnesses of human rights abuses, Sudanese non-governmental organisations, women’s rights organisations, activists helping in their communities, or those trying to develop a political vision for Sudan’s future. UK technical and diplomatic support has been instrumental in the establishment of the anti-war, pro-democracy Taqaddum coalition, led by former Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, and we will continue to support Taqaddum’s development.

More than 1 million civilians are under immediate threat of massacre in El Fasher. The Opposition have been calling attention to the risks for several weeks. RSF plans have been slowed, due to pressure from the UN, our diplomats and the United States, but that offensive is happening now at full pelt. We need the international partners with the most influence over the RSF to use their power now and stop the ongoing mass atrocities in El Fasher. Every state must surely recognise that the ongoing collapse of Sudan into anarchy and famine is against its best interests, because the generals’ war against the people of Sudan is a blight on humanity.

The US has set out a red line, promising

“direct and immediate consequences for those responsible for an offensive on El Fasher.”

How will the Government back that position? We need more pressure put on both the warring parties to move towards an immediate ceasefire and granting humanitarian access. We need the Government to consider all serious and rapid options for civilian protection. I genuinely believe that we need to support the resistance committees and emergency rooms.

The Deputy Foreign Secretary is a good man who genuinely understands what is at stake, but the Opposition expect the UK’s collective voice to be heard loud and clear at this time, in the very hours when this atrocity is under way, so how will the Government act to protect civilians and ensure that our horror and anger are properly heard?

I thank the hon. Lady for her questions and for her commitment to keeping this appalling situation firmly on the global radar. In April, the UK led negotiations at the UN Security Council, delivering a press statement that urged the warring parties to de-escalate and to comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law. As I said, we have called for a consultation in private in order to be able to move this forward. On 2 May, the Deputy Foreign Secretary called on the RSF and SAF to protect civilians, and to spare Sudan from their wilful destruction. We will continue to do all we can to bring about a sustainable end.

We continue, of course, to work with a wide range of countries and bodies—including Gulf and African partners, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the African Union and the UN—to achieve a ceasefire, and at the same time and most importantly, we are increasing much-needed humanitarian assistance and access to protect civilians. We will continue to lead on the UN Security Council, where we hold the pen on Sudan. On 8 March, the UNSC adopted a UK-drafted Ramadan ceasefire resolution, which called for an immediate cessation of hostilities.

Thank you and good morning, Madam Deputy Speaker.

We are in a crucial moment of atrocity prevention in Sudan right now. The UK Government must accept that what is happening is genocide. The UK Government have been proactive in the delivery of aid and food to the civilians of Sudan, but how are they reacting to the growing number of Sudanese civilians facing famine and starvation, and what protections are in place to ensure that no more people are driven to catastrophic levels of hunger?

The challenge of food security is at the heart of the most urgent humanitarian work. The recent integrated food security phase classification projection for Sudan indicates that the intense conflict and organised violence has driven nearly 18 million people into high levels of acute food insecurity, so we provided £42.6 million in humanitarian funding in the past financial year. Of that, £12.2 million was destined for UNICEF for life-saving nutrition activities, and approximately £23.5 million was for the Sudan Humanitarian Fund for a multi-sector response, including a high proportion of food security interventions.

The ongoing and developing crisis in Sudan is being fuelled by weapons from foreign supporters who continue to flout the UN arms embargo on Darfur. How are the Government utilising their UN Security Council position as penholder on Sudan to prevent the flow of arms to the Rapid Support Forces?

The hon. Lady asks an incredibly important question. Of course, a long-standing UK arms embargo is in place for the whole of Sudan, as well as a UN arms embargo on Darfur, and we will continue, as I say, to use all our diplomatic tools at the UN Security Council and with international partners to highlight that. As the Deputy Foreign Secretary has said, there are now clear signs of ethnic cleansing in Darfur, and the continued flow of weapons allows that threat to continue for longer than we want, so we will continue to press in that area.

Our heart goes all out to all those who are, tragically, being ethnically cleansed from parts of Sudan. Bearing in mind our historical connections with that part of the world, what direct action will His Majesty’s Government take, working with the United States, the United Nations, the African Union and others, to ensure the safety of Christians, who are being murdered and forced out of their homes? Surely it is time for Britain to show leadership.

The challenge that my hon. Friend has raised is such an important and difficult one. We continue to work closely with a wide range of non-governmental organisations and UN partners on conflict and atrocity prevention, and on these really important questions around losses of religious freedom. We are systematically prioritising atrocity monitoring and reporting, and are continuing to increase our capacity when it comes to human rights and atrocity prevention investment. We want to complete that assessment in-country in order to inform how we can continue to expand the strategy and be very clear that all those who are committing these terrible crimes will be held to account.

The scale of the humanitarian situation in El Fasher is horrific and demands urgent action. At the same time, Sudan is at the centre of a series of interlocking and interdependent humanitarian crises that blight the whole horn of Africa. Last week, the all-party parliamentary group for Africa, which I chair, convened a high-level summit to look at the issues of resilience and conflict in the horn of Africa, and highlighted particular issues around engagement with grassroots groups and increasing ethnic polarisation. The Minister is here on behalf of the Deputy Foreign Secretary, and she is a friend of the APPG; on his behalf, can she commit that he will meet with the APPG to discuss the incredibly important actions that the British Government can take?

I am sure that in the absence of the Deputy Foreign Secretary, I can afford his diary secretaries the opportunity to find a slot. I hope that the APPG, which will be doing incredibly important work scanning across a range of channels, will have the opportunity to meet with Alison Blackburne, who is our UK special envoy for the horn of Africa, Sudan and the Red sea. We ask her to do that incredibly important work from there; it has been impossible to have a special envoy within Sudan, but she is a great and experienced advocate, and I will try to make sure that that meeting takes place as soon as possible.

I thank the Minister very much for her answer. Will she outline what further steps the Government can take when the elderly, the ill, those who are ill-equipped, the disabled and civilians are taking to the streets in an attempt to stand against the paramilitaries and to protect their hospitals and vulnerable people who are without aid? It is not a question of if the city falls, but when, so how can we get medical aid and support to those hospitals and vulnerable people at this very important time?

The hon. Member highlights one of the most difficult aspects of this issue: the challenge of getting relevant humanitarian access where it is needed. Currently, access into Sudan remains highly constrained; Port Sudan is the primary entry point for relief supplies, and onward distribution from there continues to prove challenging. Movement is limited, but the investment has been made, and of course, through our relationships and all the diplomatic tools that we use, we continue to work on finding ways to support those who are most vulnerable.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) on securing this urgent question.

Nearly 100 humanitarian groups in Sudan have warned Elon Musk that he risks collectively punishing millions of Sudanese by shutting down his vital Starlink satellite internet service in that war-ravaged country. Have the Government have raised our concerns about the devastation that that would cause to civilians and humanitarian aid agencies?

We will absolutely be raising the challenge of having those communication lines open. There are real concerns, and I will happily take this up with the Deputy Foreign Secretary when he gets back.

Those of us who have constituents of Sudanese origin can relate to the Minister the distress and concern in that community. There is particular concern about the fact that—I think this is now the estimate—anything between 500,000 and 1 million refugees are going from Darfur into Chad. Could the Minister explain what support we are providing for those who are in Chad, because at the moment it looks as though the agencies that are there are unable to cope?

The right hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. I can update him that the Deputy Foreign Secretary has recently been to the Chad-Sudan border to see for himself exactly the flow that the right hon. Gentleman identifies. He saw the “sheer horror” and “misery”—his words, not mine—that these appalling acts have created, and he is very focused on ensuring that we use our humanitarian aid to think about how we can provide support across every part of this terrible situation.

I intend no disrespect to the Minister, but the Government’s response just does not seem to be as robust as it could be given the severity of the situation in Sudan, which is horrific. She will have read reports in The Guardian about children—alive children—being “piled up and shot” by RSF paramilitaries in El Geneina. What mechanisms are the Government considering to prevent this genocide from spreading to El Fasher?

As the hon. Gentleman highlights, this is an appalling situation. I have just highlighted, in relation to the Deputy Foreign Secretary’s visit, the sheer horror and misery being wrought on these innocent people across the area, which is absolutely beyond words. As I say, there are now very clear signs of ethnic cleansing and appalling humanitarian abuses. We are providing support for the gathering of evidence, and we will continue to try to support those gathering information on the ground —be they NGOs or civilians—to make sure that those who are committing the atrocities will be held to account.

As I understand it, previous regional efforts to agree on the deployment of a peace- keeping force in Sudan were rebuffed last year, but I find it incredibly hard to see how ever-escalating atrocity and indeed catastrophe can be avoided without one. Is that even on the agenda now, because otherwise it seems to me we are talking here not so much about atrocity prevention as about atrocity monitoring?

As I say, we have continued to raise this at recent meetings of the UN Security Council, and decisions on how to move forward to provide protection for innocent people will be taken with international partners.

With thousands of women being killed in this war, the catastrophic humanitarian crisis particularly impacting women and the fact that women comprise over 70% of the internally displaced people in Sudan, what measures are the Government taking to protect women in El Fasher?

The hon. Lady raises a really important point about an incredibly worrying situation. Women and girls are at particular risk of a significant escalation in gender-based violence. In July last year, the UK and 15 of other members of the international alliance on preventing sexual violence in conflict published a statement urging all parties to prevent violence, particularly sexual violence, and to ensure immediate humanitarian access. This issue continues to be at the front of the Deputy Foreign Secretary’s mind and of the minds of all of our team, and we have pivoted our bilateral programme delivery to ensure that women and girls are at the heart of the support we are providing.