My Lords, I have had the opportunity of visiting Sudan and South Sudan a couple of times in the last few years. During my visits to Khartoum, Darfur, Merowe, Juba and Rumbek, I had an insight into Sudan’s environment and culture. It is a vibrant, open culture with males and females working side by side in schools, colleges, universities, the media, politics and all other aspects of life. A visit to the Republic of Sudan completely changes the perception held by many in Europe and other western countries. I was particularly impressed by the large female representation in the parliament and the education from diverse cultures. The role of the arts and music in Sudan’s culture shows a moderate face of contemporary Islamic society that is unique to Sudan.
However, Sudan has long been beset by conflict. Two rounds of the north-south civil war cost the lives of 1.5 million people, while the continuing conflict in the western region of Darfur has driven 2 million people from their homes and killed more than 200,000. Sudan is taking significant steps to improve its relations with the breakaway state of South Sudan. The presidents of both countries are talking to each other more often. Both countries are co-operating with African Union efforts to resolve the outstanding disputes between them. The Government of Sudan are engaged in a process of national dialogue with more than 100 political parties and rebel groups and are committed to developing understanding and consensus among all the parties on national issues. We learned that armed confrontation between the rebels and government forces has reduced significantly.
African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur representatives in Al-Fasher were not able to verify any aerial bombardments by the Sudanese air force taking place in the six months prior to our visit to Darfur. That does not mean that they did not take place, but UNAMID could not confirm any. In an answer to a specific question about getting access to reports of aerial bombings, the UNAMID representative said after a careful calculation that approximately 2% of the time, access is denied by government forces.
Decades of civil war have resulted in the breakaway of South Sudan into a separate country and the loss of 75% of oil revenue to Sudan. Oil was the main source of income for the country. Despite huge potential in the exploration and production of oil, gas and minerals including copper, silver and gold, the people of Sudan have suffered enormously under sanctions imposed by the United States which effectively barred Sudan from carrying out any trade with most European countries. The effects of those sanctions are visible in health, education and many other sectors.
On the question of extremists and the terrorist threat, one of the challenges Sudan currently faces is how to interrupt the networks and cells of groups which operate across the region and prevent them using the country as a transit area or destination for their operations. The Horn of Africa is one of the most unstable regions in the world because of war and civil conflict. Somalia suffered from a long and devastating civil war that left the country very underdeveloped. Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a bitter war over their border which resulted in tens of thousands of casualties on both sides and the situation yet to be resolved. South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, is in a real crisis with a bloody ethnic conflict still going on.
A number of terrorist groups are quite visible and active in the countries around Sudan. To the west, Boko Haram’s activities are increasing in Nigeria and other west African countries; Daesh has a highly visible presence in Libya; al-Qaeda is active in the Maghreb region, and Daesh and other extremists operate in the Sinai peninsula in Egypt. The Somali Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen movement is roaming the Horn of Africa, although Kenya and Uganda witnessed the deadliest attacks by al-Shabaab several years ago. Conflicts and political instability produce an atmosphere conducive to the growth of extremism, but factors such as underdevelopment, lack of access to education and employment, and marginalisation can all fuel the tendency towards violent extremism.
Sudan has been the victim of terrorist attacks in the past. An extremist group attacked and killed two US embassy staff in Khartoum in January 2008, and several Sudanese police officers were killed in a raid on a terrorist training camp in eastern Sudan in December 2012. Sudan was one of the initiators and founders of a very important regional structure comprised of security agencies on the continent known as the Committee of Intelligence and Security Services of Africa. Among other things, CISSA is tasked with strengthening co-operation in countering terrorism and extremism by providing information and analyses on the security threats posed by extremist groups and suggesting possible courses of action.
Since 2000, Sudan has engaged in close co-operation with the United States in countering terrorism. This co-operation has been acknowledged and appreciated by the US itself in an annual report issued by the Department of State on international efforts to counter terrorist activity. Sudan has constantly featured in these reports as working closely with the United States in combating terror. More recently, the executive order issued on 13 January by the then President Barack Obama, in which he announced the easing of US economic sanctions on Sudan, referred to the actions taken by the Government of Sudan in addressing regional conflicts and jointly countering the threat of terrorism as one of the main factors behind the decision. Sudan’s experience in combating religious radicalisation through rehabilitating and reintegrating extremists into the mainstream has attracted much attention as being effective in addressing some of these issues.
Christopher Shays, a former Member of Congress who chaired the National Security Committee of the Government Oversight Committee, and Richard Swett, who is also a former Member of Congress and former US ambassador, attested to this fact in their article “Enough already on Sudan sanctions”, published on The Hill website on 23 January 2017. They stated:
“Sudan has been among the most stable and consistent partners of the U.S. intelligence community in the war against terror in this century as the State Department has annually reported”.
One of the factors Sudan counts on in its counter-radicalisation efforts and in fighting extremism is to invoke the Sufi background from which Islam in Sudan derives its moderation and tolerance.
I am glad that in recent months the British Government have taken some positive steps towards a policy of engagement with the Government of Sudan. We have seen senior-level exchange visits, most recently by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development led by FCO Permanent Under-Secretary Sir Simon McDonald and DfID Permanent Secretary Sir Mark Lowcock. I was pleased to hear Sir Simon say:
“Relations between the peoples of Sudan and the UK are deep and historic, and our meetings over the last two days reflected that breadth. In addition to Sudan-UK bilateral interests, we also discussed human rights, conflict, migration, humanitarian and development assistance, economic matters, and the situation in the region. I am confident that our bilateral relations have a positive future”.
On that note, I have two questions for the Minister. First, in the light of the positive engagement by the Government of Sudan with regional countries and the USA in relation to deradicalisation and rehabilitation of extremists, will our Government use their good relations with the new American Administration to lift permanently the remaining sanctions imposed on Sudan? Secondly, what are the Government doing to establish stronger economic ties with Sudan?
I will be the first to extend thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Hussain. I also declare an interest as a long-standing member of the All-Party Group for Sudan and South Sudan. I have come to respect the Sudanese people over many years, since working with NGOs back in the 1970s, mainly visiting refugee camps and health projects. I have also been on formal parliamentary visits.
Sadly, the country has been torn into pieces by three civil wars for most of its independent life. As a group, we get regular information from intrepid travellers, including our own noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and many other contacts in Sudan, on the tragic effects of aerial bombing and attacks on civilians. We are currently preparing a report on the UK’s relations with Sudan, and I propose to touch on one aspect of this relationship.
Although I am a critic of some of the policies of the Government of Sudan—the GOS—I am also encouraged that the GOS can take criticism, and on occasion even listen to it. We should not judge other nations too much, because they too have to follow their own traditions. I recognise that Sudan has to defend itself from enemies, but at the same time there are international rules prohibiting human rights abuses and violence against people who correctly choose to follow those rules. Clergy, students, journalists, activists and individuals who speak out are always at risk of imprisonment and even torture.
I have long worked with NGOs, and I feel it almost personally when Sudanese or any other NGOs are persecuted. They are part of the fabric of civil society, and to me they belong to the future of any nation, working to promote the rights of women, the role of students and improved conditions for the poor and the oppressed. Every religion understands this as charitable work, and in Sudan there are many voluntary agencies and faith organisations.
To their credit, in the last three years the GOS have made a new attempt—for the benefit of the outside world as much as that of Sudan—to set up a national dialogue, theoretically to draw in the many groups that might be termed the opposition. Even four neighbouring heads of state, with varying experiences of democracy, were invited to a recent conference. But the dialogue has consistently failed to attract key opposition parties such as the National Umma Party, which, along with the international community, insists that any dialogue must depend on a peace settlement in Darfur and the Two States.
The Government of Sudan’s disregard for the work of the United Nations over many years is astonishing—witness the most recent report from the UN panel of experts, which conducted 10 missions but was unable to obtain visas to enter Sudan. The panel complained about aerial bombardment in Jebel Marra, which is primarily against the Abdul Wahid branch of the SLA, but it was unable to investigate allegations of crimes against civilians and displaced persons.
Washington may be softening its approach to Sudan, but it still maintains economic sanctions and insists on progress with peace negotiations. The EU takes a similar stand, and the UK can hardly do less. In their own strategic dialogue with the GOS, we all expect Her Majesty’s Government to ensure that standards of human rights are maintained, and the views of civil society are fully taken into account. I am sure we will hear about that in the reply to the debate.
The Khartoum process, on which we intend to report fully in two weeks’ time, is a labyrinthine EU exercise, which the Brexiting UK may ultimately prefer to avoid. Intended to rein in so-called terrorism and migration towards the Mediterranean, it may have the unexpected consequence that our country will be more closely identified with police, border guards and soldiers than with the Sudanese people, or the migrants.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, for securing this timely debate. Undoubtedly some noble Lords will address the threats posed by Islamic militants in the countries that surround Sudan. Its physical location places it at the heart of Africa.
The importance of an ally such as Sudan in the war on terrorism has always been clear. It was Sudan that identified, arrested and extradited Ilich Ramírez Sánchez—Carlos the Jackal—to France in 1994. It is also a matter of record that Sudan offered to arrest and extradite Osama bin Laden to Washington—an offer refused by the Clinton Administration, with disastrous consequences. Sudan has signed and enforced all relevant international anti-terrorist protocols. Sudan has co-operated on counterterrorism issues for two decades. As early as November 2001, US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage stated that Sudanese co-operation on counterterrorism was “really terrific”. Sudan’s importance in the war against terrorism has intensified in the past few years. In 2012, Jean-Claude Cousseran, the former head of the French equivalent of MI6, said:
“Africa will be our neighbourhood Afghanistan”.
It is right that we look at the threat posed to Sudan by extremists in the surrounding countries, but we must also address the elephant in the room. We must look at the role played by British foreign policy in enabling the terrorist threat faced by Sudan and other African countries. British foreign policy in this respect has been nothing short of disastrous.
In 2011, the new coalition Government chose to unpick one of the few foreign policy successes of the Blair years—the containment of the Gaddafi Government in Libya, the abandonment of their nuclear programme and Tripoli’s wholehearted co-operation on counter- terrorism. Her Majesty’s Government chose to wage war against the Libyan Government in support of several anti-government Islamist militias with al-Qaeda affiliations.
In an article in the Guardian, I warned at the time that it was a dangerous assumption to believe that the Libyan rebels were all Facebook idealists. In their more candid moments, Western political and military leaders admitted at the time that they knew next to nothing about the gunmen for whom NATO was acting as a de facto air force and whom they were militarily equipping.
As clearly documented in Paul Moorcraft’s 2015 study, The Jihadist Threat, Her Majesty’s Government’s Libya policy demonstrated another clear contradiction. The United Kingdom has some of the most draconian anti-terrorist legislation in the world. While it is illegal for a young Briton of Pakistani descent to as much as look at a jihadist website in his bedroom, the British authorities turned a blind eye to the hundreds of young Britons of Libyan descent travelling from Britain to undergo jihadist military training and political indoctrination in training camps in Libya, Egypt and eastern Tunisia that were no different from those in Afghanistan. Many of those British citizens then went to fight with al-Qaeda-aligned militias against Gaddafi forces. The Daily Mail ran an article with the headline:
“Why do so many Libyan rebels seen on TV speak with British accents?”.
When I asked in a Written Question in mid-2015 whether Her Majesty’s Government were aware of any British Libyans who took part in overthrowing Colonel Gaddafi, and whether any of them had since returned to the United Kingdom, the Government stated that,
“we do not hold any information on this matter”.
The reality is that British foreign policy continues to create and enable not just our enemies but extremist forces that Governments such as that of Sudan will have to confront.
My Lords, Sudan lies at the heart of a troubled region. A number of terrorist groups are visible and active in the region, including Daesh, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda. It is of course imperative that we do all we can to support the Sudanese in this respect. However, we must also build our relationship with Sudan more widely. Issues such as poverty, lack of education, lack of employment opportunities and wider community underdevelopment can fuel the marginalisation and frustration of young people, which can lead to the formation of extremist ideology. It is therefore only right that we seek to help Sudan improve its stability and provide opportunities for its people.
Last year, I led a delegation from your Lordships’ House to Sudan. Following our visit, we have established the APPG for Sudan, and I am the co-chairman of the group. The APPG has met Tobias Ellwood and formed an excellent connection with the FCO and our ambassador in Sudan. As someone who regularly promotes bilateral trade, I believe that much can be gained by both sides from increasing trade links with Sudan. I am pleased that a trade mission from the Middle East Association visited Sudan in December, and that a further mission, organised with the co-operation of our ambassador to Sudan, is scheduled for April. However, our Government should now send a trade mission to Sudan. There is also a keen interest in Sudan in establishing educational links between academic institutions. Following our delegation, Sudanese links are already being established with two major universities in England.
I welcome the fact that the United States has now agreed to lift the economic sanctions previously applied to Sudan. This is due to Sudan’s progress in improving humanitarian access, ceasing hostilities and enhancing co-operation on counter-terrorism. On that note, we must bear in mind the steps that Sudan has taken, and continues to take, towards combating the extremist threat. Sudan has developed an effective re-education and rehabilitation programme to reintegrate former extremists into mainstream society.
We should also acknowledge some of the good work already taking place between the United Kingdom and Sudan. We are the second-largest humanitarian donor to that country. We support health and medical programmes, many of which help children and displaced persons. Our APPG is sending a delegation of women parliamentarians to Sudan to look at issues relating to the health of women in Sudan.
Sudan still faces a number of challenges to do with extremism and other matters. We must, however, acknowledge the progress already made and help Sudan advance further. Adopting a hostile and isolationist policy towards Sudan will only make the country more vulnerable, threatening its people and the wider region. We should engage with Sudan and establish greater links, to the benefit of both countries and to help establish peace and stability in the region. Finally, I ask the Minister: what progress is being made on trade links with Sudan?
My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Sandwich I am an officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Sudan and South Sudan, and a former chairman of that group.
The implication of the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, is that Sudan is an island of moderation surrounded by Islamists. In reality, the reverse is true. In 2015 the report by the United Nations Panel of Experts on Sudan warned that the regime was providing “fertile ground” for Islamist extremists in neighbouring nations. For 30 years the regime has waged war on its own people. That is why the International Criminal Court has indicted Field Marshal Bashir on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is a scandal that he can travel with impunity and without fear of arrest to face those charges.
When I first visited South Sudan 20 years ago during the civil war, I saw schools, clinics, homes and churches that the regime had bombed, where between 1.5 million and 2 million people perished. That is why the country was torn in two. Later I travelled to Geneina in Darfur, where I saw a fraction of the 2 million who have been displaced and met the loved ones of some of the 200,000, mainly Muslim, people murdered. This is not history: last year there were more than 100,000 newly displaced people in Darfur and 3.2 million long-term displaced nationwide. Meanwhile, the aerial bombardment continues in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, and humanitarian access is still denied. Furthermore, I have sent the Minister Amnesty International’s report on the alleged use of chemical weapons in Darfur. I hope that the noble Baroness will address both issues in her response.
Consider also the life sentence and other lengthy sentences given to three Christians only last month. Will the Minister tell us what we are doing about this travesty of justice? What have the Government of Sudan done to implement the recommendations in the 2016 universal periodic review? What have we done to urge the Government of Sudan to implement the religious freedom protections codified in their interim national constitution, especially in the light of the 2016 USCIRF report listing Sudan as a “country of particular concern” for engaging in systematic and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief? In this context, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, I am appalled. However, according to the noble Lord, Lord Price, in answer to a Written Question from me earlier this week,
“the UK will consider opportunities to promote trade with Sudan”.
He should recall Churchill’s warning that it is dangerous to feed crocodiles if you hope that they will eat you last.
There are two faces of the Government of Sudan. They claim to have disavowed the worst forms of extremist ideology but, as academician Suliman Baldo said, the Sudanese Government have become adept at engaging in intelligence sharing with important international partners while tolerating Salafist groups internally. The International Crisis Group says that Sudan tolerates radical Islamists and, most recently, supporters of IS when it is politically advantageous to do so. Extremism comes from within Sudan and from the highest levels: Field-Marshal Bashir has said it is his ambition to turn the entire country into a sharia state. Extremist groups operate with the approval of Sudan’s religious scholars committee, while the journalist Gill Lusk says the regime uses,
“the Salafist … and other splinter groups both as deniable policy instruments and as bargaining chips”.
In the long term, the fight against extremism in Sudan will depend on an inclusive, democratic transformation that is sustained by a free and active civil society. It is that development we should be supporting, rather than propping up an indicted regime. Sudan is playing a dangerous double game, to which the international community should be wary of falling victim. Beware the crocodiles.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, on securing this debate and declare an interest as a founder of the All-Party Group for Sudan and South Sudan, along with Hilton Dawson MP. I am now a member of the All-Party Group for Sudan.
My first experience of Sudan—indeed, my first experience of a developing country—was as a very new MP in 1998. In south Sudan, I lay on the floor of a tent in a village compound at night and listened to the sound of drums, which I was told were warning of another attack from the north by militia who travelled down on the train to Wau to terrorise the south, sent by the Sudanese Government. They were the “baddies”, I was told. The message I got was that it was a simple fight for independence. I think not. I have since learned that the Sudanese Government were right in their scepticism that the south could form a stable government —I shared that view, and the Nuer and the Dinka have demonstrated that in recent years.
That is not the only problem for the Sudanese Government, with rebel tribes and individuals trying to wrest power from the Government all the time. It is a huge and diverse country. Sudan has problems to face both within its own country and from neighbouring countries and the terrorism they export—others have pointed that out during the debate, so I will not repeat it. I add only that there are other counties that deserve our censure, far more than Sudan perhaps. These are countries we happily trade with and enjoy friendly relations with—Saudi Arabia heads my list at the moment, currently causing famine in Yemen and hundreds of thousands of deaths. Why is the Foreign Office not speaking out about this?
I want now to say something completely different, as a tribute to Professor Hans Rosling, the Swedish statistician who made statistics fun and bearable. He died two days ago. It was he who first explained to me, with his wonderful graphics and bubblegrams, the clear link between maternal health, family planning, smaller families, and more girls accessing education and being able to contribute to their country’s economy, which then grows. The clear link has been made between women’s reproductive rights and economic progress. Sudan has indeed listened to Han Rosling’s message and, for this reason, should be encouraged. According to the World Health Organization, maternal mortality has more than halved in 10 years, and the under-five mortality rate and neonatal deaths have also declined. All these rates are, of course, still very high—they started from that high level—but the plan to further reduce them was devised by the Sudanese Government in 2013 and it is to be encouraged and commended. Despite laws in the Sudan banning both FGM and child marriage, they still contribute to maternal deaths and morbidity but the Sudanese Government are trying hard on these issues. Led by the wonderful Ahfad University for Women, which is near Khartoum, and many women parliamentarians—I think their percentage is in fact higher than we have here—a lot of progress is being made for women in the Sudan but, as I say, there is a long way to go. We should be helping Sudan in every way we can, not condemning the Government.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord for this opportunity to discuss issues related to Sudan and the relation of Islamist extremist nations with Sudan, and vice versa. Given that it is widely believed that neighbouring Islamist regimes support President Bashir because of his commitment to make Sudan a unified Arabic, Islamic nation, it is not irrelevant to focus on his Islamist extremist policies of the ethnic and religious cleansing of indigenous African peoples and Christians, traditional believers and Muslims who do not support his Islamist ideology. I would also mention that in Nigeria, it is widely believed that Sudan supports the Islamist Boko Haram.
I have recently returned from a visit to Sudan, and obtained first-hand evidence of the implementation of its genocidal policies. The Government of Sudan are blatantly violating conditions required by the United States for the lifting of sanctions by their total disregard of the ceasefire with continued fighting in Darfur, including the attack in Nertiti by the Sudanese Army under the command of Colonel Mohamed El Tayeb. The best estimate is that in that attack, 16 civilians were killed and some 72 to 75 civilians were wounded.
This is an intentional policy. On 22 December 2016, President Bashir delivered a speech at the military Merowe archery festival, in which he vowed to continue seeking a military solution for the internal conflicts and bragged that the unilateral cessation of hostilities would terminate within a week, irrespective of Khartoum’s declaratory policies. That has been proven true in Blue Nile, with the fighting in January 2017 a direct continuation of clashes started in early December 2016. There was no pause or reorganisation of Sudanese armed forces—that is, the ceasefire did not exist for them operationally. On 9 January, while we were in the region, the Sudanese army launched a major offensive on the SPLA-North forces in Arum, Blue Nile state, and villages were bombed sporadically.
In the Nuba mountains, there are numerous reports of continuing missile attacks on civilians, creating such terror that families have been forced to flee their homes and live in snake-infested caves with no medical care and acute shortages of food. Three weeks ago, I climbed one of those Nuba mountains to meet families hiding in those caves. I met a girl who had been bitten by a cobra; a woman dying of malaria with no treatment; and a man whose five children had been burnt alive when a shell hit the place where they were sheltering. People would not be living and dying in these appalling conditions in Sudan unless forced to do so because of continuing military offensives by Khartoum.
This highlights the crisis of humanitarian need: UN officials acknowledge that because of the ongoing disagreements over humanitarian access points,
“the civilians in the war-affected areas continue to suffer”.
The UN now estimates that over 600,000 people are in dire need of humanitarian assistance in the southern and western parts of the Nuba mountains and in Blue Nile state. This raises the issue of the continuing, urgent need for cross-border aid, an issue I have raised repeatedly with Her Majesty’s Government. But nothing has happened so far and people continue to die because of a lack of food and healthcare.
The international community has the responsibility to protect and to provide. It is manifestly failing on both counts by allowing the Government of Sudan to continue to slaughter their own civilians with impunity and by failing to ensure the provision of life-saving medicines and food for hundreds of thousands of civilians. Will Her Majesty’s Government at last take urgent action to ensure cross-border aid, and to end the impunity with which the Government of Sudan are continuing military offensives despite their alleged commitment to the ceasefire?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Hussain for initiating this debate at a time when our own Government are rephrasing their relationship with Sudan. I express my gratitude to my noble friend Lord Ahmed for his remarkable and long-standing commitment to the people of Sudan and for introducing me to that beautiful country with immeasurable potential. We have a long history with the Sudanese people that they have not forgotten. During our visits, we met a number of women parliamentarians and, together with the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, who is not able to take part today, through the wonderful team at IPU we were able to organise a successful visit of six powerful women parliamentarians to our Parliament. I do not need to labour the importance of such exchanges to noble Lords but both these visits provided a great insight into women’s presence in the political, business and education sectors. While we cannot overstate the impact of international sanctions as barriers to women’s equality and well-being, women across Sudan are successfully working within those constraints to advance women’s rights. The impressive work of the British Council should also be noted here.
On our last visit we were able to see staff and students at the University of Khartoum, meet families in Darfur itself, witness an architectural excavation in Jebel Marra and meet UNIMID peacekeepers. On neither of these visits did we witness an Islamic state; clearly the President of Sudan has failed for 20 years to Islamise the whole country. What I was not prepared for was the effect of the crippling sanctions on the Sudanese people themselves, with basic healthcare not available, from maternity provision and eye drops to diabetes drugs and asthma pumps. I visited a hospital unannounced, having chosen it out of three or four, and I was utterly shocked—I was almost in tears— at how empty the building was. It did not lack patients, thousands of whom lined its corridors, but the medicine cupboards in the treatment rooms were bare. I therefore welcome the latest pathways to lifting international sanctions. The people of Sudan deserve to be free of these constraints and suffering that are not their fault. After two decades, it is time.
Britain should take a lead in this new era of co-operation as China and Saudi Arabia are already present in the region with investment. Crucially, the increasing threat of terrorism in Africa and the Middle East, with the presence of Daesh, al-Qaeda and Boko Haram among others on Sudan’s border, have rendered compelling the need for international actors to encourage Sudan in its anti-extremism drive and its threat against its neighbours. Sudan is now at the forefront of countering irregular migration and human trafficking, and we can achieve peace and reconciliation and the protection of human rights only if we assist Sudan post-sanctions with the necessary skills and resources.
Given the current theatre of conflict and wars, which as we have witnessed have brought nothing but death, destruction and enmities, I no longer believe or accept that continually and complacently adding further to these conflicts does any justice to the people of Sudan or our own regional presence and interest. Sudan is an important strategic partner in fighting terrorism and radicalisation, and is managing significant numbers of incoming families from South Sudan, Libya and elsewhere. It does not call them refugees. Let us not be self-righteous about individual countries when we so often suffer from selective amnesia about the impact of our own history. Today we know what has happened to minorities in many Gulf and Middle East conflicts.
As negotiations progress, I wish to see us work with the Sudanese Government to ensure that they embody human rights and the rights of minorities at their core. We can do that only if we are at the forefront of the partnership to rebuild Sudan. We should do so alongside the impressive Sudanese diaspora, many of whom see this as a glimpse of hope. I am glad that through the APPG on Sudan we aim to continue to strengthen our ties with the many professionals who are willing to utilise their talents and skills for a safe and secure Sudan.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for initiating this debate. Sudan is a country that has a more or less constant history of civil wars, military coups and human rights abuses. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, pointed out, President Bashir has been indicted under the International Criminal Court. We all hope that Sudan is on a road map, and we have of course heard about the African Union’s road map. Can the Minister tell us more about how that road map might lead to greater peace and security in a country that deserves far better?
We have heard in the debate about the recent visit to Sudan—just a few weeks ago—by Sir Simon McDonald from the FCO, who was accompanied by the DfID Permanent Secretary, Sir Mark Lowcock. In their exchanges with the Government of Sudan, and also with opposition leaders whom they had the opportunity to meet, we are told that they raised the question of human rights and migration, and humanitarian and development assistance. What is the Government’s assessment of those discussions in relation to human rights abuses? What assurances did they get on how these might be addressed?
We have also heard in the debate about bringing Sudan back more formally into the international community. We heard recently that President Trump had included Sudan in his ban on visitors to the US; what is the Government’s assessment of the impact that the ban might have in terms of giving succour to the terrorists? The Home Secretary described the ban as a “propaganda opportunity” for ISIS. As we have also heard, DfID spends nearly £50 million a year in Sudan. I hope that the Minister can tell us what the Government’s assessment is of the impact of that aid in transforming the country economically and, more importantly, in terms of civil society and defending human rights.
My Lords, I also join in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, on securing this debate. As he made clear, extremism is a global problem. In all its forms it attacks the fundamental values that bind us together as a global community and undermines our efforts to build a better, more tolerant world. The UK Government are committed to working with our international partners to tackle the threat posed by extremism both here in the UK and overseas. Today I will therefore reflect on the current situation in Sudan and the region, which has been set out by noble Lords—I would say set out clearly, but there is disagreement among noble Lords about some of the major parts of the detail, but hearing these differences is part of the importance of debates such as this. I will also reflect on the work of the UK Government as we try to help that country tackle extremism.
Sudan forms part of the fragile Sahel region, which is blighted by internal conflict, weak governance, violent extremism, and the spillover of conflicts outside its borders—most notably, as we were reminded, from Libya and Nigeria. Continued instability there poses a threat to security in the wider north and west Africa region. Currently, the main terrorist threat in the Sahel is from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. A number of other terrorist groups also operate in neighbouring Egypt, primarily targeting Egyptian state and security officials, and in Libya. In particular, of course, we have to mention Daesh.
In Sudan itself, the long-running conflicts in Darfur and the Two Areas have created a dire humanitarian situation across the country, with approximately 5.8 million Sudanese in need of humanitarian assistance. I pay tribute to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, in this respect. She has been consistent in the assistance she is trying to give to the country. It is important for the Government of Sudan to be committed to the international proposal for improving humanitarian access to the Two Areas. They most recently expressed support for that when the Foreign Minister, Ghandour, spoke in a meeting with the UK special representative to Sudan on 24 January. We continue to urge the SPLM-North to agree to these proposals to guarantee medical supplies brought directly to the areas under its control as a way to unblock the whole system and obtain a broader agreement for long-term access. As I have mentioned recently in the House, there was an opportunity for an agreement whereby USAID would have delivered humanitarian support, but it was SPLM-North that walked out of the talks, which was disappointing.
There has recently been a reduction in the level of armed conflict between the Government of Sudan and armed movements. That is encouraging, but I understand the concerns of noble Lords. We fully support the peace process led by the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel. It is vital that all sides reach agreements on the permanent cessation of hostilities and unrestricted humanitarian access to the conflict areas. Sudan’s national dialogue has the potential to solve this matter. We were pleased to hear that the next stage will remain open and inclusive for all Sudanese political parties, and we urge all sides to commit to it fully.
We are concerned, however, by the arbitrary arrest and detention of human rights defenders and opposition party members in Sudan. We have raised our concerns with the Government of Sudan and will continue to do so. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, rightly raised concerns about the three Christian men who were sentenced on 29 January. We continue to work closely with human rights lawyers working on cases relating to freedom of religion or belief, and we will continue to raise cases of concern directly with the Government of Sudan as part of our ongoing human rights dialogue. It will not surprise the noble Lord to hear that we are in contact with the Czech Republic, because of course it is one of its nationals who has been sentenced. Clearly, we are extremely concerned by the results of those trials.
Sudan’s central position between east and west Africa means that it has historically been a crossroads between these two regions, as well as Libya to the north. It is not just a crossroads for ordinary traders; it is a key facilitation hub for organised criminality, such as smuggling and trafficking in people. These routes are highly susceptible to exploitation by terrorist groups. We have been working with our international partners and other regional Governments to help to defeat terrorism and bring stability to the Sahel. In the past, the Sudanese Government have failed adequately to co-operate or confront the problem of Islamic extremism and human trafficking. That is why it is crucial that the UK engages with the Sudanese Government to encourage them to work more closely with the international community. I believe that progress is being made.
Questions were asked about the lifting of US sanctions. It is clear that progress has been made—national dialogue is an important development and no one should ignore it, and the ceasefire is holding to the main part. There is an issue about Nertiti—I understand that—but there is a problem with getting evidence on it. In the Two Areas, we are hearing from the SPLM-North that there is no breach of ceasefire. So let us recognise the progress made by the Government of Sudan when we can. The fact is, however, where the Government of Sudan have begun to show that they are willing to co-operate with the international community to counter violent extremism, the international community has to re-evaluate its position. The previous US Administration did that and made progress with temporarily lifting some of its more damaging economic sanctions. If made permanent, the lifting of US sanctions is considerably likely to strengthen Sudan’s economy, which in turn could increase the resilience of the country to violent extremism.
I am advised that yesterday, the United Nations Security Council unanimously extended the mandate of the UN sanctions regime on Sudan, including the panel of experts. I say again that there is some sign of progress. While the panel has faced obstacles from the Sudanese Government, it has now received visas to travel to Sudan to monitor the implementation adherence with sanctions. We will continue to urge the Government of Sudan to co-operate fully with the panel of experts and to adhere with the UN sanctions regime. I feel that it will not only be the Government watching that—noble Lords here will monitor it very carefully with some of their excellent contacts.
We can also play our part, but we have made it clear to the Government of Sudan that the current conflicts, human rights abuses and business environment remain obstacles to a sizeable increase in interest from British companies. We continue to urge the Government of Sudan to make progress on all the issues raised by noble Lords today around threats to the human rights and security of all people in Sudan. It should not be some ethnic groups that have the ability to prosper—it is for all.
I assure my noble friend Lord Sheikh that we are working towards promoting and protecting good governance, the rule of law and human rights as the best way to ensure our collective security. Our work is focused on two areas. First, on ending conflict and, secondly, on improving resilience. In that way, there must be room for us at some stage to work further with the Government of Sudan to make sure that the national dialogue works, is open to all and that we see an improvement in human rights. It is only that improvement that will enable further engagement. Our strategic dialogue provides an important platform for us to discuss areas where we would like to increase co-operation with the Sudanese Government, such as countering violent extremism and migration. We will continue our conversation on these issues at the next dialogue in Khartoum in March.
Radicalisation within Sudan is another issue of concern. Extremist groups could seek to exploit vulnerable communities in order to incite political unrest and anti-western sentiment. Here too we are taking practical action. We are working with staff, students and graduates at the University of Medical Sciences and Technology in Khartoum to raise awareness of the issue and suggest options for tackling the risks. As part of our engagement with the university and its alumni, we have also continued to provide outreach material on countering violent extremism to students, staff and parents, and supported the visits of expert speakers to Sudan from the UK, including the imam to the British Armed Forces.
In conclusion, violent extremism is a growing concern in many parts of the world. That includes the Sahel and extremist groups operating in the region which continue to pose a threat to Sudan. It is important that the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, worded his Question for Short Debate to put Sudan within the wider context of threats around the region, so that instead of focusing only on Sudan, we consider the Question against the background of threats that Sudan faces and how we need to build resilience across the region. We are encouraged by the new willingness of the Sudanese Government to co-operate with international partners on these vital issues. Through our strategic dialogue with the Government of Sudan we will continue to promote further co-operation. By working together, we will overcome intolerance and build peaceful and prosperous societies for all our citizens. It takes all of our energies in government to do it; I know we can count on the energies of noble Lords here to join in that work.