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Volume 727: debated on Wednesday 25 May 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the implications of the occupation of Abyei by Northern Sudanese forces.

My Lords, we condemn the recent attack on Abyei town by the Sudanese armed forces on 21 May and the attack by the SPLA on a joint Sudanese armed forces and UN convoy on 19 May. These incidents violate the comprehensive peace agreement and cannot be justified. We urge the parties to make good use of the good offices of President Mbeki’s African Union High-Level Implementation Panel and to negotiate a peaceful and durable resolution of all outstanding issues.

My Lords, has the noble Baroness had a chance to study today’s BBC reports, which quote the United States ambassador to the United Nations talking about horrific reports of looting and burning in Abyei? Does this not point to the need to use Chapter VII powers in order to get UNMIS to put a peacekeeping force into Abyei in the short term, but also in the long term to deal with the up to 60 outstanding questions in the comprehensive peace agreement? Thinking back both to the civil war over border disputes between Eritrea and Ethiopia and to the civil war in Sudan itself, which led to the deaths of some 2 million people, as we look forward to the independence of Southern Sudan on 9 July, is there not a real danger that what is happening in Abyei, in Southern Kordofan and indeed on the Blue Nile could lead to a repetition of history?

My Lords, the noble Lord raises some very serious concerns about yesterday’s incident, which, of course, was not helpful to the process of independence on 9 July, but we want to ensure that we do not lose sight of those negotiations. We will continue to urge both sides towards peaceful means. We have Chapter VII already in place and the noble Lord will be reassured that we are looking at the situation very carefully. It is on the Richter scale of the entire international community.

Can my noble friend say when the referendum on Abyei joining the south, which has been postponed since January, is now expected to take place? In that regard, what steps have been taken to resolve the disputes between the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriya on voter registration?

My noble friend raises the important point of Abyei being able to hold the referendum. We are urging both sides to come back to the negotiating table. It is crucial that the people of Abyei have a say. Unfortunately, the current circumstances make that incredibly difficult, but we will, through the international community and the UN and UNMIS, continue to urge both sides to come to the table.

Is the noble Baroness aware that when I visited Southern Kordofan last year the people there were so terrified of their future under Khartoum—they are in a very similar situation to Abyei—that they believed that they might have to take a pre-emptive strike? Does she agree that any further conflict will further undermine the stability of Southern Sudan as it prepares for its independence? What reassurance can be given to the people of all these marginalised areas—Southern Kordofan, Blue Nile and Abyei—that their future rights and their security and protection will be provided?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right that the people of those regions have to feel that they are part and parcel of the negotiations and that currently they feel marginalised. We urge, through President Mbeki’s AU High-Level Implementation Panel and the United Nations and UNMIS, that these issues are resolved peacefully, but we realise that it is a difficult area. We are going back to the international community time and again to ensure that the concerns that the noble Baroness and others raise are always at the table.

My Lords, will the Government take the opportunity of President Obama’s visit to discuss with him how we can best reinforce the demand made by the Security Council that the troops of north and south Sudan withdraw immediately from the town of Abyei? What has been the response of the northern Sudan Government to the Secretary-General’s call for an investigation into the attack on UN troops in Goli, the raid on a UN-escorted convoy a week ago today and the shelling of the UN compound in Abyei?

I am sure that my noble friend will urge both the President of the United States and our Prime Minister to ensure that Sudan is part of the talks that they will have. I am aware that United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon is also concerned. He made a strong statement yesterday urging leaders from both sides to demonstrate the political will not just to resolve the situation in Abyei but also to talk about the communities that feel marginalised and out of the discussions at the moment.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that it is very dangerous at this time to take our eye off the situation in South Kordofan? There have just been deeply flawed elections in that province, which, with its oil field, sits on the still undefined north-south border. What exactly is the troika doing beyond just urging the two sides to work together? Surely on Abyei and South Kordofan this is a very faint hope.

The noble Baroness is of course aware, as the former Minister for Africa, that these situations are incredibly complex, difficult and delicate. While we are urging all the organisations to work together constructively in negotiations to bring peace, these are difficult times. We can only do what we can through diplomatic processes and that is what we will urge the leaders of both south and north Sudan to do as well.

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm the information that I have received that there has been a build-up of northern troops on the borders of Upper Nile province as well? Do we see this as a future conflict point?

My noble friend raises the issue of the mounting number of troops, but I reassure him that we are all mindful of this and are urging the African Union and the United Nations and UNMIS to take strong steps to ensure that people on the ground are safe. Through its aid budget, DfID is also ensuring that humanitarian supplies are in place to help all those people who find themselves in difficulty.

The Minister says that she is urging the United Nations. Surely the danger that the CPA will unravel because of the large number of unresolved issues is such that this issue should be put back to the Security Council at the earliest possible stage. Will she take such an initiative?

My Lords, I will take the noble Lord’s suggestion back to the department. In fact, my noble friend is here and I am sure that he has heard exactly what the noble Lord has said.