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Sudan: Darfur

Volume 688: debated on Tuesday 23 January 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What is their response to the United Nations humanitarian agencies’ statement of 17 January on the current prospects for the survival and protection of refugees in Darfur.

My Lords, the UN statement reflects the acute security situation in Darfur. I utterly condemn the rising violence in recent weeks against aid workers by all sides. Humanitarian agencies are struggling to deliver vital assistance to nearly 4 million people in Darfur in increasingly difficult circumstances and at great personal risk. The United Kingdom calls on all sides to provide safe and unhindered access throughout Darfur.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply and for the work of the United Kingdom in this area. Does she agree with the United Nations agencies when they warn that they are having difficulty holding the line? That was not clear from her Answer. I note that the Government are supporting moves to increase the number of African Union troops in Sudan. Therefore, what is the Government’s view about the Sudanese President becoming the president of the AU, and what effect might that have on the situation in Darfur?

My Lords, we are extremely worried about the humanitarian situation. Of course, we have to use political mechanisms to try to bring about a ceasefire, and that is what we are seeking to do. In addition, the talks last year in Addis Ababa resulted in the international community mapping out a way forward, including the need not only for a ceasefire but for a renewed political process and a hybrid AU/UN peacekeeping force. That is now being put in place but movement on it is slow. The issue of President Bashir and the African Union is a matter for the African Union. However, we have drawn to the AU’s attention—we went through the same debate last year—the importance of ensuring that whoever leads the African Union can command the respect of the international community.

My Lords, I welcome what the Leader of the House has just told us, but can I draw her back to the statement of the UN aid agencies? They say that, without decisive intervention, the humanitarian situation will be irreversibly jeopardised. They point out that access has already been compromised and is worse than at any time since April 2004, and that in the past six months 400 aid workers have been forced to relocate 31 times. Does the Leader of the House not agree that, along with the 4 million people who are now being denied access and the 400,000 who have died in Darfur, a principal casualty has been the Security Council, as its credibility and authority have been eroded by our failure to take decisive action?

My Lords, the noble Lord’s last point demonstrates the difficulty experienced by the international community, including the Security Council, in implementing the whole Responsibility to Protect agenda, which was such an important part of the UN decision-making process. I think that we all recognise that.

Access is difficult. In July last year, half a million people did not have access to humanitarian supplies because of the difficult situation, whereas the number of people affected in January this year has so far been some 70,000, although we think that that figure will rise. I can say to the House that nutrition and health indicators have remained relatively stable so far, but we have to watch this situation because it will become critical if the inaccessibility continues.

My Lords, on that last point, has the Lord President noted that some of the thousands of refugees being pushed into Chad are reported to have hideous diseases, including leprosy and many other appalling conditions? Does she accept, when she talks about calling on all sides, that the roots of the constant murdering by Arab nomads of the people of the Darfur region lie in quarrels over resources, particularly over oil and the Chinese investment in and development of oil, which it is taking out of Sudan? Will she be sure that “all sides” includes a sensible and close discussion with the Chinese so that they take some responsibility for the impact and consequences of their moves right over Africa, particularly in Sudan, in developing oil and local resources? Those actions are having repercussions, which are leading to murder on a massive scale.

My Lords, I agree that many of the conflicts, in particular the conflict in Darfur and more widely in Sudan, are to do with access to resources, but they are also to do with inter-ethnic fighting and other issues. The noble Lord will know that we are talking to the Chinese not only in the context of their role on the Security Council but more generally on the role that they are playing across the African continent as a whole. We are aiming to work with the Chinese to ensure that there is sustainable development on the continent, and they have a responsibility in ensuring that that happens.

My Lords, considering the gross obstruction of the UN humanitarian agencies as well as the resumption of bombing attacks on civilians and the refusal of Khartoum to co-operate in the delivery of the life support package, does the noble Baroness agree that it is time to refer the matter again to the United Nations so that it can revisit Resolution 1706 and ensure that we do not face an overwhelming humanitarian disaster in Darfur?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, will know that the new UN Special Representative for Darfur is visiting the region at the moment. Once that report has been received, that will be the opportunity for the Security Council to look at the issue again.

My Lords, we give enormous sums of money through the British Government and the United Nations to relieve suffering such as that in Darfur, yet we are never aware of the danger that faces the humanitarian workers themselves. I take this as an appeal from those workers as much as from the people who are suffering. The Government could pay more attention to our own humanitarian workers.

My Lords, I agree that the situation facing humanitarian workers in Darfur is extraordinarily difficult. The only reason why the health and nutrition indicators that I mentioned are not much worse is precisely that those humanitarian workers have been doing such a good job in incredibly difficult circumstances. Where I take issue with the noble Earl is about the fact that the safety and security of our humanitarian workers, including those in NGOs, is extremely important to us. DfID funds some of those who give training with respect to their security and we will continue to put this at the top of our agenda.