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South Sudan

Volume 755: debated on Tuesday 8 July 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the concerns expressed by the Disasters Emergency Committee over the prospect of famine in South Sudan.

My Lords, the humanitarian situation in South Sudan is extremely critical and could get dramatically worse due to existing vulnerabilities and the unpredictability of the current conflict: 4 million people are at immediate risk of food insecurity and up to 7.3 million people are estimated to be at some risk. Should harvests fail, famine in late 2014 is a very real possibility in conflict-affected areas.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for a very comprehensive and encouraging analysis of where we are in South Sudan. However, in view of the grim predictions made by the Disasters Emergency Committee, does she agree that the international community has to do more, provide more funding to ensure that we can make a difference and act very quickly to avert a catastrophic famine? She will know that humanitarian access is a major obstacle facing relief agencies working in South Sudan. What are the Government doing to press for greater humanitarian access to be granted by all parties in the conflict in South Sudan, including cross-border access?

The noble Baroness shows great understanding of the situation in South Sudan. As she rightly points out, the key to this is the conflict there. That is at the heart of why there is a problem—and why there is a problem with access. She rightly highlights the difficulty of getting aid in. We are working very hard on logistics with the UN, the ICRC and international NGOs to try to get assistance in through air transport and other means but it is proving extremely difficult. Clearly, the cessation of hostilities would be the key to sorting this out.

My Lords, considering that fewer than half the pledges made at the Oslo conference in May have been honoured, should not the Disasters Emergency Committee write to the defaulters pointing out that, if they paid up, the shortfall of $1 billion needed to avert famine in Sudan would be cut by a third? Why are the BRIC countries and the oil-rich Gulf states missing from the list of 26 contributors to the crisis response plan?

First, I am immensely glad to see my noble friend back in his place and, as ever, fighting for the rights of the vulnerable.

The Oslo conference, at which my honourable friend Lynne Featherstone worked very hard to secure contributions, did indeed produce firm commitments from international donors. We entirely agree that the pledges should be honoured and we welcome any steps taken in that regard. As regards the one my noble friend has just suggested in relation to the DEC, we would certainly welcome it taking such a move. On his second point, he is right: we constantly seek to expand the number of contributor countries.

My Lords, given that the whole of South Sudan is mired in violence and, indeed, corruption, what confidence does the noble Baroness have that the aid will reach the people it is meant to reach and will not be subverted for other purposes? Will she also comment on the reports published yesterday that the situation in the north is also deteriorating, with 5 million people there now suspected of being at risk of famine?

The noble Lord is quite right to point to these challenges. He will probably also know that the EU should be bringing forward a sanctions regime shortly, which we support. The United Nations is also looking at that because it is extremely important that problems such as looting are dealt with and that anyone who is getting in the way of the delivery of humanitarian aid is properly challenged and tackled.

My Lords, the situation is dire. As well as the 4 million people in need of humanitarian aid, more than 10,000 people have already been killed and 1.4 million people have been displaced. When we are facing such terrible problems it is important not to underestimate the role played by various agencies already on the ground, including many Anglican and ecumenical agencies working with the Anglican Alliance. Indeed, Archbishop Daniel Deng has been a leader in the efforts to bring peace. How can Her Majesty’s Government support the churches working on the ground in their humanitarian and peace efforts and in delivering aid?

I too pay tribute to those who are working in these extremely difficult circumstances. The right reverend Prelate will know that the United Kingdom is a leading donor. We are meeting about 7.5% of the total appeal at the moment and working to support all the agencies that are managing to get in. We do not underestimate the difficulties.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a trustee of the Disasters Emergency Committee. Does the noble Baroness agree that it is essential to flag up and respond to these complex and developing crises, which can be just as devastating if not as instantly newsworthy as the sudden catastrophic natural disaster?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right. Of course it is the fact that this is a very fragile state which leads to the problems that we are indentifying here. It is one of the reasons too why it is important to act early and to plan ahead, which the United Kingdom is seeking to do.

Does the noble Baroness agree that the key players in this future operation will be Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia, which is receiving hundreds of thousands of refugees already? What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to back up those resources on the border?

We are concerned about not only those in South Sudan but obviously those who have been displaced into the neighbouring countries, who indeed have a destabilising influence. We are supporting both those within South Sudan and those in the neighbouring countries, and are very concerned about the instability caused by that.

My Lords, I pick up a theme that has already been partly covered. People in this country respond generously to disasters when they happen. Here we know that a disaster is going to happen and that millions may die; they have not died yet. Can we have an assurance from the Government that they will act now rather than wait for a disaster to happen?

I assure the noble Lord that not only are we acting now but we were one of the leaders in putting into place plans in anticipation of what might happen. We took very seriously the advice that was put forward a year or two ago about being early responders, and are implementing that.