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South Sudan

Volume 755: debated on Monday 28 July 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that any future peace settlement in South Sudan is inclusive.

My Lords, we have made clear to all parties in South Sudan the need to support an inclusive peace settlement, through high-level messaging from UK Ministers and through the close engagement of the UK’s special envoy to the South Sudan peace talks. We have also directly supported efforts to ensure that South Sudanese civil society is engaged, notably through our backing for the IGAD-led symposium in June. We welcome the announcement that peace talks are planned to restart on 30 July. The UK will continue to press for an inclusive outcome.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. I gather that the situation in South Sudan is absolutely dire at the moment. There is acute food insecurity, about 1.4 million people have fled their homes and there are around 4 million who need acute humanitarian assistance. Many of them are women who have fled with their children. I gather that there are very high levels of sexual violence and that women and girl children are particularly vulnerable. Can the Minister please assure me that particular attention will be paid to the women’s concerns and that their voices will be heard at the peace talks?

My Lords, the situation is dreadful. Many of those who have fled their homes have therefore missed the planting season, which means that there is a real possibility of very substantial famine in six to nine months’ time. We should in no sense underestimate how serious the situation is. Of course, it is not simply one conflict; there are all sorts of overlapping local and trans-border conflicts that affect South Sudan. The Government are fully engaged. We are glad to see that UNMISS, in its assistance to refugee camps, is paying special attention to the need to protect women and children, but we are conscious that many are at risk.

My Lords, very often in that part of Africa the church is the sole common point of reference between the different tribal and ethnic groups. Will the noble Lord please ensure that both the FCO and DfID make use of the good offices of the ecumenical representative of the World Council of Churches and of the councils of bishops and evangelical churches in order to ensure that there is proper resourcing for peace and reconciliation work? It does not come cheap but it is effective.

I entirely agree that the churches are among the strongest and most widespread civil organisations in that deeply embattled country. Of course, many of the civil society organisations are now in refugee camps outside Sudan. I pay a particular compliment to those aid workers who are helping in South Sudan, in conditions of very considerable insecurity. Many of them come from British NGOs. We all recognise how difficult the situation is and we are certainly working with the churches as far as we can.

Does the Minister agree that too much time in South Sudan has been focused on state building rather than nation building, and that that is reflected in the 38% of revenue that has been spent on armaments in South Sudan compared with the 7% spent on education? As we approach the peace process, will he ensure, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, argued, and as the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, has just said, that the representative nature of the peace process becomes more apparent, including not only warlords but many of those who have suffered, not least the women in South Sudan?

My Lords, this is, of course, a very new country and there has not been very much time for either state or nation building so far. We are certainly working through IGAD to pull in as many civil society organisations as we can in order to ensure that we do not have warlord-dominated negotiations of the sort the noble Lord suggested.

My Lords, it is evident that the long-term process of finding an inclusive Sudanese-led reconciliation can begin only once hostilities cease and a political settlement and resolution is reached. This is why international diplomacy is so vital. Will the noble Lord tell the House what plans the Government have to address the current understaffing of the UK Sudan unit, which has a role in this?

My Lords, the number of staff in the UK Sudan unit has fluctuated over the past few months; my understanding is that it is now rather larger than it was two or three months ago. I do not think that we can wait until the fighting stops to begin negotiations; local fighting is likely to continue for some considerable time and we have to start to move to construct at least the basis of some form of government now.

My Lords, I very much welcome the comments of the noble Lord, but he just mentioned the number of refugees outside South Sudan. In fact, 180,000 refugees have arrived in Ethiopia and the number is expected to grow to 350,000 by the end of the year. What further steps will the Government take to ensure that Ethiopia and other neighbouring countries do not themselves collapse under the weight of this terrible tragedy?

My Lords, that is a problem not only for this conflict but for the Syrian conflict and the neighbours of Syria as well. The United Kingdom is the second-largest donor to South Sudan and those donations include assistance to refugees in surrounding countries. IGAD, the international action group, operates as a means through which all the neighbouring countries get together. I emphasise how serious the conflict is. It is estimated that perhaps 7 million out of the 10 million people in South Sudan may be short of food or under famine conditions by this time next year.

My Lords, I welcome the agreement between the parties that representatives of the people displaced by the conflict will take part in the peace talks. Will the representatives be selected by IGAD or by some other means, and if so, what will be the process? Will the talks to be started on Wednesday cover the details of how the transitional Government of national unity is to be established?

IGAD is currently consulting outside the country with potential civil society representatives who will be included in these discussions. This will in no way be a beautiful or perfect set of arrangements. If we manage to achieve some sort of transitional Government of national unity, we will have done extremely well.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a trustee of the Disasters Emergency Committee and echo the Minister’s comments about the courage and commitment of the workers for those aid agencies who are out in South Sudan. They all report a desperate humanitarian situation in which it is not just the lack of resources—I pay tribute to what the UK Government have done in this—but ongoing fighting that is a barrier to those most in need receiving aid. Does the Minister agree that with more than 50% of farmers not able to plant in this year’s rainy season, unless a long-term enduring agreement is reached, this crisis will not only continue but deepen?

My Lords, there has never been an effective and functioning state in South Sudan. It is a new country born out of civil war. It is going to take a long time to construct an effective state administration with the ability to provide education and order within the 10 provinces with a large number of tribal groups and some 200 different languages. This is a major preoccupation with which all the states around South Sudan are engaged. Britain, the United States and Norway represent the troika of outside Governments who are most concerned. Of course we want other Governments to be concerned. It is good news that China has now recognised that it also has interests at stake and is considering providing additional troops to the UN peacekeeping forces.

My Lords, of the Governments who are most concerned, Uganda and Kenya are members of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth has substantial experience in the field of internal reconciliation. Do the Government see any role for the Commonwealth and for members of the Commonwealth in this sad situation?

It is also important to ensure that we have Ethiopia and—as far as there is a Government in Somalia—Somalia on board. There are problems with allegations that Ugandan troops are too close to the side of President Kiir and biased against Mr Machar, so there are a number of delicacies that would raise questions about a Commonwealth role.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that efforts to eradicate the guinea worm continue in this region? It is a terrible parasite that is on its last legs. Through the excellent work of this Government supporting the Carter Center, it is down to its last handful of cases in South Sudan. It would be a terrible pity if the parasite were to escape again.

My Lords, in conditions where it is extremely dangerous for aid workers to be outside towns and where there are now severe problems in making sure that polio vaccination continues, I doubt that we have the capacity at present to ensure that the guinea worm eradication programme continues, but I will write to the noble Viscount.