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Volume 730: debated on Thursday 8 September 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the conflict in Southern Kordofan and of the continuing problems in the other marginalised areas of the Abyei and Blue Nile regions of the Republic of Sudan.

My Lords, the conflict in Southern Kordofan continues. Despite the announcement of a two-week ceasefire in Southern Kordofan by President al-Bashir, we have continued to receive reports of fighting and human rights abuses, and humanitarian access remains extremely limited. The outbreak of violence in Blue Nile state on 2 September marks a further deterioration in the ongoing pattern of conflict. We continue to work closely with our international partners to push for an immediate cessation of hostilities. In Abyei, deployment of the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei continues, under UN Resolution 1990. We are concerned that the Sudanese armed forces and Sudan People’s Liberation Movement troops are not withdrawing as agreed, and call for both sides to start the withdrawal process immediately.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, but I fear it seems to imply symmetry in the culpability for aggression between President al-Bashir’s government of Sudan forces and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. Is he aware that in the recent conflict in Blue Nile, civilians have suffered aerial bombardment from government of Sudan forces? At least 50,000 civilians have had to flee, 20,000 into Ethiopia. Al-Bashir has denied access to UN and other aid organisations to civilians in need and dismissed the democratically elected governor, Malik Agar. What specific actions are Her Majesty’s Government taking in response to the sustained aggression that has been initiated and maintained by al-Bashir against the civilians, not only in Blue Nile but in Southern Kordofan and Abyei?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I think that symmetry is the wrong word, because we are under no illusions about the ferocity of the attacks by the Sudan armed forces, ordered apparently by President al-Bashir, and by the Sudan armed air force as well. Nevertheless, the truth is that these are disputed areas outside South Sudan. Many of them wanted to be in that but they have been left out. There is bitterness and both sides blame each other. That is a fact.

What are we doing? We are pushing for a strong line at the United Nations, where the matter is being discussed this very day at the Security Council. Our defence attaché is working hard in Addis Ababa, supporting the African Union implementation panel. We are, of course, putting strong DfID funds into South Sudan. The resources are already in the disputed areas, although it is very hard to get access to them, and we are backing the EU special representative, Rosalind Marsden, who is also very active in pressing Khartoum to halt the violence. Pressure is going on but it is not easy. The access is difficult and not all the parties concerned seem to recognise the awfulness of what is happening, but we are doing our very best.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s earlier Statement condemning the bombardments of civilians in the area. However, is he aware that the reports of Amnesty International and human rights groups on the ground confirm the UN’s concerns over the possibilities of war crimes through the bombing of civilians and villagers in that area? We are the lead member of the troika in the north of Sudan. Will we also take the lead in pursuing the investigations into these alleged war crimes of the bombing of civilians?

The short answer is: yes, we are aware of this. We support the recommendation of the report by Navi Pillay that there should be an independent inquiry into these atrocity allegations. This will be pushed ahead as fast as possible.

My Lords, I was grateful to read the Ministerial Statement earlier in the week. I have just read a Ministerial Statement issued today by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on this very serious area. Does the Minister have a prognosis of the African Union discussions under Thabo Mbeki, and what hopes does he have for that agency to influence for good a very difficult situation?

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is right. We have issued a Written Statement today trying to bring colleagues up to date with the very ugly, and, I am afraid, deteriorating, situation. The official leading the African Union implementation panel has, of course, been Mr Mbeki. However, there is increasing activity as well from President Meles of Ethiopia, who is taking a lead in trying to get the aims of the panel and all the untied-up ends of the comprehensive peace agreement carried forward. There is more involvement locally. The whole process is very much alive.

My Lords, does the Minister recall the letter that I sent him on 22 June about the events in Kadugli, where 7,000 refugees were escorted away by members of the northern Sudan military? They included women and children and they disappeared. There have been reports in the area since then of mass graves. Is this not like an unfolding Jacobean tragedy, as we hear day by day of aerial bombardment, arson attacks on villages, rape and looting and the events that were described by my noble friend? In the discussions at the Security Council today will we be pressing for these crimes against humanity to be referred to the International Criminal Court?

We shall certainly be discussing them. I hope the noble Lord will believe me when I say that I do recall the letter that he sent me. As he knows, he sends me quite a few letters, which are very informative. However, as I say, I recall that particular letter. The atrocities that have apparently happened, which he described, are appalling, as is the general refugee problem of homeless people milling around in all three areas that we are discussing. That is causing enormous suffering, hatred and bitterness, which, I am afraid, will take a long time to eradicate. However, as to the role of the International Criminal Court, it is, of course, independent and will decide, probably on the recommendation or the nature of the debate in the UN, what charges to press further. As the noble Lord knows, it has already pressed some charges. These matters are very much on the table.

My Lords, will the Minister clarify exactly what the United Kingdom is doing to help secure unimpeded access for humanitarian workers? Is not the silence of the UN co-ordinator in Khartoum somewhat baffling? What pressure is the UK putting on the UN to be more vocal and more effective on this issue of humanitarian access? Secondly, what are the Government doing to help facilitate credible mediation efforts between the NCP and the SPLM in the north?

The answer in a very confused and difficult situation is that we are doing our best. As I said earlier, access for humanitarian activity is extremely difficult, particularly in Blue Nile state. The Government, through DfID, have put in resources and supplies almost in grim anticipation of things getting more difficult so that resources and supplies are accessible within Blue Nile state and in Southern Kordofan, but access to find out what is happening is difficult. The Government in Khartoum have been extremely unconstructive, as the noble Baroness knows, and she knows this area very well. They have constantly resisted the renewal of the UNMIS mandate in the north, although just recently I understand that a high Khartoum official did not rule out the idea of an international presence in Blue Nile state. If it is proved to be true, that could be a change from the previous totally unconstructive attitude. However, access is really difficult, so it is very hard to give the precise answers that the noble Baroness rightly seeks.