Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I was pleased to secure this debate as I led a parliamentary delegation to Sudan in April 2018. I would like to declare my interest as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Sudan. The visit was primarily a fact-finding mission. We also wanted to discuss how we can advance relations between the UK and Sudan. We found the Sudanese to be very friendly people. Currently, relations between the UK and Sudan are fairly positive.
Since 2016, the UK has been involved in a policy of phased engagement with the Government of Sudan. There is a biannual UK-Sudan Strategic Dialogue meeting, which is the main mechanism for this engagement. During our visit to Sudan, the delegation met the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who said that the meetings are an effective mechanism for the convergence of views. Following this policy, Sudan has opened additional humanitarian corridors to famine-affected areas of South Sudan, held productive discussions on human rights issues, and looked into co-operation on migration and the promotion of trade and economic reforms. On our side, the UK promotes conflict resolution in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile through our role in the troika. The UK also provides support to the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel to achieve permanent cessation of hostilities. DfID plays a key role in Sudan and provided £58.5 million in aid during 2017-18 for humanitarian assistance. It also has a £50 million portfolio to help with rural and urban water sanitation programmes, and has provided an additional sum of £12 million over five years to deal with issues relating to female genital mutilation.
We were told by the Sudanese that Sudan is perhaps the best state in the region on human rights. With that said, there are issues relating to human rights which do concern us. On human rights, the leadership of Sudan has shown that they are willing to listen to the international community. We need to work positively with the Sudanese to improve their human rights record. In January, opposition activists, leaders and protesters were arrested to curb demonstrations. Members of the APPG for Sudan who were concerned about human rights violations made representations to the Sudanese ambassador in London.
As mentioned previously, the delegation had a meeting with the Sudanese Foreign Minister. Members of the delegation raised the question of people who have been detained, including some who hold dual nationality. The Foreign Minister informed us that he was made aware and had noted our representation to the Sudanese ambassador. He said to us that the detainees would be released within a day or so. Two days after our meeting, the detainees were indeed released. This shows what can be achieved through dialogue instead of confrontation.
On religious freedom, the delegation met the representatives of the Churches in Sudan and enquired about infringements and restrictions on practising their faith. The leader of the Council of Churches told us that there is complete freedom for Christians to practice and that they enjoy peaceful coexistence and religious tolerance. No church or mosque is demolished if it is correctly owned.
It is important to note that Sudan has made progress on counterterrorism and human rights issues. That led to the US Government revoking a number of economic sanctions. As part of our visit, the delegation met the charge d’affaires for the United States of America in Sudan. We were told that the United States would consider the removal of Sudan from the state sponsors of terrorism list if it continues to make progress on certain key issues.
I would now like to talk about peace. As part of the visit to Sudan, the delegates visited South Kordofan state. Its governor emphasised that the insurgency in the area had ceased and there had been peace since 2016. Peace and stability has enabled the state to provide basic services relating to education, health, water and electricity. The example of South Kordofan shows how Sudan is moving forward from war and insurgency to peace.
The Sudanese Government remain committed to enacting their unilateral ceasefire announcement, which was last renewed by a presidential decree on 19 March 2018. They have remained committed to the cessation of hostilities for the last two years, despite the rebel attacks in some pockets of Darfur, particularly in Jebel Marra, where the elements of the rebel Sudan Liberation Army-Abdel Wahid are hiding. Sudan is also making efforts in the region to eradicate terrorism, and this should be admired. It has adopted various methods to fight terrorism and has played a role in combating al-Qaeda and ISIS. As part of that strategy, the Government have created a new and effective deradicalisation and rehabilitation programme for detained extremists.
While Sudan has made progress with regard to countering terrorism, it looks for direct co-operation with the UK on intelligence. During the fifth meeting of the biannual UK-Sudan Strategic Dialogue in April, both sides agreed to continue working together to counter terrorism and violent extremism. I welcome that agreement and hope that in future the British Government will work closely with Sudanese security teams to combat radicalisation.
I would also like to talk about how the UK can help Sudan progress with regard to education. In addition to business, I also have an academic background. The delegation visited three Sudanese universities. The vice-chancellors are keen to set up links with universities in the UK. Particular mention was made of exchange programmes and joint research activities. Setting up a chair for Sudanese studies at a university in the United Kingdom should be considered, as there is an appetite for it.
The economy of Sudan is a subject dear to my heart. The secession of South Sudan and international sanctions have left Sudan’s economy structurally weak. The lifting of sanctions opens the door to restored confidence in the Sudanese economy and increased foreign direct investment. That said, the country desperately needs more trade and an increase in business activity. We are leaving the European Union, which will be a vital opportunity to increase our trade with Sudan. To promote trade between the two countries, we should encourage banks, insurance organisations and legal firms to go and get established in Sudan. We should also arrange trade conferences and delegations to encourage this process. In December last year, a trade conference was held in London for Sudan. It is time to consider whether another conference should take place at a suitable time in future. Furthermore, consideration should be given to sending a trade delegation to Sudan.
With that said, I should like to talk about the culture of Sudan. During the visit, we visited the National Museum, which displays Sudan’s ancient heritage. Efforts should be made to promote this ancient history in the UK. There are also archaeological sites in Sudan, and links should be established with institutions in the United Kingdom for study and excavation. The successful Sudanese diaspora in the UK should perhaps think about setting up a Sudanese centre in this country to promote the history and culture of Sudan.
Perhaps I can still ask some brief questions to the Minister—I have left some bits out. I ask my noble friend for information on the following points. First, can he explain what is being done in Sudan to tackle radicalisation, and is anything more envisaged? Secondly, is there anything more we can do to help Sudan to improve human rights in the country? Thirdly, can we work with Sudan to deal with the dire situation in South Sudan? Finally, what are his views on how we can enhance our relations with Sudan?
My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, on securing this debate and giving your Lordships an opportunity to debate some important issues. On 27 June, precisely two years ago, the All-Party Group on Sudan, for which I am an officer, issued a calling notice for evidence for an inquiry into the future of UK-Sudan relations. Our inquiry was called to look at the changes there had been in the level of UK engagement with the Government of Sudan, the drivers for change and their likely ramifications.
At the time, the Government’s objectives included building on the Khartoum plan, working in a troika with Norway and the US to help curb the migration issues in Sudan, and tackling unresolved issues from the comprehensive peace agreement. The objectives extended to the conflict areas in Darfur, Abyei and eastern Sudan, tackling terrorism and extremism, and the UK Government’s priorities of humanitarian issues and human rights, as set out in the universal periodic review. Since then we have, unfortunately, progressed to a fifth Minister for Africa and a second ambassador to Sudan. All the while, government policy continues to be “phased engagement with Sudan” in the belief that Sudan wishes to repair relationships with the international community and is reaching out to Western nations.
As of three months ago, a considered view was that while the Khartoum process sought to improve people’s conditions in Sudan, there were broad and far-reaching concerns about human rights, migration, terrorism and economic reform. There was little chance of investment in Sudan due to the volatility in the Sudanese economy. There had been no measurable benefit following the lifting of UN sanctions. While Sudan remained on the state sponsors of terrorism list, there could be no UK Government involvement in trade promotion. Can the Minister give us a specific example of positive UK influence on the Sudanese regime’s actions? Can he name one area on which Sudanese officials have acted—as opposed to promising reform—after representations from the UK? The UK-Sudan strategic dialogue makes it clear that any engagement with the Government of Sudan must be bolstered by rigorous, enforceable human rights benchmarks, together with engagement with a young, diverse civil society. Can the Minister provide us with examples of tangible advances in these areas?
The lifting of sanctions must go hand-in-hand with efforts to tackle corruption. Sudan currently ranks 175th out of 180 on the Transparency International corruption index, which I can vouch for as an associate of TI (UK). Sudan is more corrupt than, for example, Libya, North Korea and Eritrea.
Just over a month ago, Jeremiah Mamabolo, head of UNAMID, the African Union-UN peacekeeping mission, reported that fighting between Sudanese Government forces and the Sudan Liberation Army-Abdel Wahid rebels had left villages such as Gobbo, Kawara and Kiminjtong in south Darfur and others in central Darfur burned and the villagers displaced. This is all despite the unilateral ceasefire announced by Khartoum in March, which applies to Darfur, the Blue Nile and South Kordofan states. Washington is reported to have condemned the fighting, which it said has resulted in thousands of new internally displaced people.
Meanwhile, the Sudanese Government’s Central Bureau of Statistics reported that, in May, inflation increased to an annual rate of 61%. The bureau’s economist, Dr Sidgi Kaballo, said that this was leading to starkly diminished purchasing power, increased poverty, worsening health conditions, and growing rates of migration and unemployment. Dr Sidgi noted that the implementation of far-reaching austerity measures in 2018 has led to the price of bread and other basics doubling and to the price of some medicines tripling. Sudanese across the country took to the streets, and police used tear gas and live bullets to disperse the demonstrators. The World Bank has estimated that Sudan’s external debt now stands at $52 billion, or 112% of GDP. That is hardly conducive to investment.
Sudan is in a dire state, with Turkey and Saudi Arabia organising emergency supplies of food, aid and other measures. In his response, will the Minister advise us of the Government’s reaction to Sudan’s perilous situation and what positive assistance they are providing to one of the United Kingdom’s oldest friends on the African continent?
My Lords, I will give a slightly different perspective on this. I first went to the Sudan in the 1950s as the son of a British administrator. An indelible impression was left with me of a very decent people, for whom any British person who worked with them formed a great deal of affection. I recall Islam and Christianity existing side by side, living in peace with no difficulties at all. I recall also being taken to the opening of the first parliament of the Sudan in the early 1950s and watching the excitement of the Sudanese. Looking back over more than five decades, it is impossible not to express great disappointment at some of what has happened in the Sudan.
Among some leaders, there has been contempt for their own people. The country has now divided into two and there have been serious abuses of human rights—notably in Darfur and the Two Areas, as the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, mentioned. The humanitarian situation is bad, with displacement on a big level. There is poverty, with 50% of people earning just $2 a day or less. Corruption has been bad and there has been little respect for the eternal UN universal values.
Having said all that, I think the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, has done us a service by focusing attention on what we can do in a positive way and on what the Government are doing through the strategic dialogue between the United Kingdom and the Sudan. I want to reinforce the arguments for this, because, in an age when we are suffering internationally from immense problems of refugees and migration, we need to go back to the source of where these problems emerge and work with those countries to improve the situation and lesson the tensions. That is true particularly in Africa, where the population is increasing very fast. I suggest that there are an awful lot of countries which we would have no relationship with if we did not talk to leaders whose values and policies we did not always agree with. It makes sense that as we were the country with the most responsibility historically, in an imperial age, we should take responsibility and lead on this internationally through the troika and the African Union.
I support the strategic dialogue and it is right to make it comprehensive. As we have already heard from the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, it covers: human rights; freedom of religion; migration; extremism; how we develop cultural, educational and trade ties, which are very important; and, importantly, how we help them to develop their economy. Getting the balance right, and making a sustained effort to talk and to make progress on a comprehensive scale, is very important. You cannot, of course, talk about human rights if you do not also talk about the participation and consent of the people, and the rule of law. All these things go together. I support, therefore, Government-to-Government dialogue but, alongside that, it is essential that we develop a strong people-to-people dialogue. That is as important as anything. After all, I think that the diaspora here in this country numbers 50,000 and many of those people have great skills, professional knowledge and experience. They can contribute an enormous amount to their country of origin; indeed, I hope that one day conditions will be good enough to enable them to return.
The British Council can do an immense amount. Education and scholarships have been mentioned but I would have thought that when developing trade, helping to teach business skills and other skills is just as important as the bigger scholarships. Then there is civil society. Although it may be difficult in terms of rapport with the Government, that needs to be developed as strongly as we possibly can.
Will the Minister, from time to time, report on the progress of these talks and the benefits they may bring to both the Sudan and our relationship with it? We need to be clear about the benchmarks for measuring progress in this dialogue so, if he could say something about that, it would help. For example, will there be international monitoring of the 2020 elections? That could be treated as a benchmark, which might contribute to more stability in the Sudan. I look forward to the Minister’s response. The people of the Sudan deserve better.
My Lords, it is a real privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Luce. I respectfully agree with much of what he said. I am pleased to take part in this timely review of the current situation in Sudan. In the minutes I have available, I will curtail myself to speaking about the women of Sudan.
All local and international conflict inevitably means that it is women and their families who suffer grave poverty and injustice. They lack access to basic medical needs and they miss out educationally and, not least, on social and economic growth and prosperity. Noble Lords may wish to note that I have visited Sudan on two occasions, with a view to making a specific assessment of the impact on women of the prolonged and unjust sanctions that have crippled Sudan’s basic infrastructure and services, with a severe impact on child and maternal health and education, as well as hampering the well-being of all the people of Sudan.
The Committee should note the presence of women in leading roles in all sections of society—the family has always been firm in Sudan—and the resilience of women in Sudan, even though a difficult period of history has curtailed access to office for some of them. It is worth noting that women were enfranchised in 1953 and that they currently occupy 30% of the seats in the assembly. Constitutionally, Sudanese women’s rights are enshrined in Sudan’s legislation. Sudanese women also occupy numerous positions within the civil services, including in diplomatic missions and the African Union Commission, and they were pioneers in the judiciary on the African continent and the Arab world, setting a precedent with the first female judge in modern history in that region. Alongside numerous senior female judges, 40% of legal counsellors and prosecutors in Sudan’s Ministry of Justice are females.
The Ahfad University for Women, which I am sure my noble friend will talk about later, stands as an example of the pioneering advances in female education in Sudan. Established in 1907, it was elevated to university status in 1966 and currently hosts more than 6,000 female students, who are enrolled from Sudan, the region and the rest of the world. According to UNESCO, the gross enrolment ratio of female students in secondary education in Sudan is 45%, compared to 46% for males. Their presence within the national dialogue is most noteworthy as Sudan emerges from the dark days of sanction and isolation.
I commend the UK’s ongoing strategic dialogue and the British Council’s programme, alongside our joint collaboration to counter regional extremism. Can the Minister say how many women are involved in these programmes and whether any of the expert group of trainers and negotiators who we may be sending are from the diaspora? How many are Sudanese women? I accept that, post conflict, Sudan requires many facets of assistance and aid. No doubt the rules of engagement apply to the exchange of our financial support, training and trade. Can the Minister give an assurance that those rules of engagement have undergone some kind of transformation since the bygone era of our colonial past? The ethos of “We know best” does not stand up to scrutiny in the current world order and I hope that our work will be collaborative, avoiding any relics of the colonial policies of the past.
We must ensure that in all future programmes experts have a stake in developing Sudan, not keeping it under our thumb for the next generation. The expertise must come from the Sudanese and African diaspora and should in particular include women in equal numbers in the leading positions. Given our current international priorities and ongoing development support, I would like to see the needs of women and families addressed in our overall strategic priorities.
I note that many of the complexities that have been mentioned are ongoing and require our continuing collective co-operation to resolve many issues as we forge ahead in our relationship with Sudan. Can the Minister tell us how women’s economic empowerment and leadership can be further strengthened and supported by our Government’s initiatives, both those already in place and those for the future? How many women are benefiting from the Chevening scholarship programme and what, if anything, is already in place as a part of our package of trade, education and other forms of support to ensure that women can freely access health and social care for their families and play their part in civil society? How will the noble Lord ensure that, instead of our usual experts being sent out to meet the perceived needs of Sudan, we rely on internal and diaspora experts to ensure that the future leaders who emerge value and respect one another as well as international standards and common values?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, has been a consistent advocate for Sudan and is to be congratulated on bringing us the results of his recent visits. The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, mentioned that he and I were in Sudan a few years ago as part of a group that visited both the north and the south of the country. I am delighted to learn that the Inter-Parliamentary Union is supporting a visit by the group this September.
Sometimes human rights issues can dominate our debates, so the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, is right to stress some of the more positive aspects of the Sudanese scene. It is good to learn that Sudan is a country that still attracts a lot of attention in the UK. In the all-party group we meet regularly with representatives of the diaspora, besides our own diplomats and other visitors. I know that the Sudanese Government are now much more concerned to be listening and responding to criticism, not least because transparency on human rights has contributed to the lifting of US sanctions. However, the continuing injustice that distorts the political process, fetters the opposition and sustains war in at least three regions can hardly be overlooked.
I intend to focus on the forgotten east of Sudan, where a fragile peace agreement signed in 2006 is coming to an end. The refugee situation has changed since I visited the UNHCR camps for Eritreans and Ethiopians near El-Gadarif and Kassala back in the 1980s, but I know that it is still serious and that some of the same families are still there—rather like the Palestinians. Recently, a large group of donors was able to visit the Shagarab refugee camps and the Gergef reception centre on the border with Eritrea. The donors were able to speak with asylum seekers who had newly arrived and with refugees who have been in Sudan for decades. I am sorry to say that the UK was not represented except through the EU, but representatives from France, Germany and Norway were there.
According to the UNHCR, altogether Sudan hosts 379,000 refugees and asylum seekers, primarily from South Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Syria and Yemen, as well as internally displaced nationals. By May of this year, the UNHCR’s appeal to meet the needs of refugees in Sudan was only 14% funded, which is very low. I hope that the Minister can say that we have given generously to this appeal.
A large proportion of the refugees crossing into Sudan are escaping religious persecution and other human rights violations in Eritrea, many ending up in Europe and in this country. The change of government in Ethiopia has raised some hopes of improvement in Eritrea, but the situation is still bad. I can only summarise what the Mauritian human rights special rapporteur, Sheila Keetharuth, has recently recommended to the UN Human Rights Council. She calls on Eritrea to release all prisoners of conscience, including those in prison for religious beliefs, unconditionally, to put an immediate stop to arbitrary arrests and detention and to release immediately all those arbitrarily detained—more specifically children, the elderly and women.
The EU is hoping to put a brake on migrants crossing the Mediterranean by means of the Khartoum process, a project with which the UK has been closely associated, although we may well withdraw from it because of Brexit. As an all-party group we have already expressed doubts about this project, which sees Sudan, under its emergency law, harnessing one of the most feared government-sponsored militia, the Janjaweed, to back up the police, border guards and others attempting to catch traffickers. The Janjaweed have notoriously struck terror into the people of Darfur and elsewhere through rape, torture and murder. According to the Beja Congress, which has represented the semi-nomadic Beja people for many years, the Janjaweed have immunity granted directly by President Bashir, who is their commander-in-chief. It says:
“Victims who fled from the human trafficking gangs stated that the Janjaweed, after robbing them, deliberately abandoned them to [those] gangs. This means that the Janjaweed, in place of fighting the crime, are involved in it”.
The Beja Congress has its own defence force and receives arms from Eritrea. It also urges EU donors to think about the reasons that drive refugees north in the first place. It says that they,
“should solve the causes of the problems in the countries that export refugees by implementing in them democracy, human rights law and sustainable development, industrial plants and agricultural projects to open opportunities for young people to work in place of dying in the sea”.
In Sudan you can find some of the poorest places on earth and one of them is the region around Port Sudan. The best boast for the Government in Khartoum is development in those areas, which may be the only ultimate cure for migration.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, on securing this debate and thank him for giving me the opportunity to look at the conditions for women and women’s health in the Sudan on our visit.
The situation for women in Sudan has changed little in the 10 years since I was last there despite over 30% of parliamentarians being women, many occupying important positions, as we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin. The maternal mortality rate is around 300 per 100,000 live births. That is very high and has not reduced in the 20 years which have seen the maternal mortality rate in the rest of the world reduced by 40%. This is due to poor healthcare, early marriage and the complications of childbirth, all of which are made worse by the practice of FGM.
The fertility rate—that is, the family size—is above five and contraceptive use is only about 12% of the female population. Abortion is permitted only in cases of rape, incest or to save a woman’s life—that is if they can get anywhere near a hospital, which is unlikely. Many women will die from unsafe abortion as a result. Sudan is a bleak place for women. Only one-third of Sudan’s women access secondary education.
The President, however, produced a maternal health strategy and showed it to us when we were there. The preamble is worth reading. It says:
“Mothers are the source of life/mankind, and our children are the country’s future. No nation will prosper if it does not place their health and welfare at the heart of its development agenda”.
However, as an enthusiast of free choice for women, I found no mention in this strategy of any family planning to be made available, which the World Bank and all development agencies now state is the single most effective way of promoting economic development in a country. I do not apologise for repeating this message: to empower women, they must be given power over their own bodies—and that means access to family planning. If women have free access to contraception they will have fewer children, and they and their children are more likely to access education and eventually contribute to their country’s wealth.
When we met Dr Faisal Hassan Ibrahim, the representative of President Bashir, I broached this subject with him and was rather depressed to be told that: “Sudan is a very big country and needs many more people. Women are needed to have children”. He added that men could have four wives too, and that helped. In other words, women are breeding machines. The Government of Sudan should listen to the World Bank more often.
Finally, I commend the work of the Ahfad University for Women in Khartoum, which my noble friend Lady Uddin spoke about, and especially its work on maternal health. The obstetric hospital there, which we visited, is attached to the university’s faculty of medicine and displayed really excellent modern practices—with protocols such as we have here—but in grossly overcrowded conditions. Women in labour had to share beds; there were at least two to a bed, which must have been quite an experience. The men were in the yard outside and were called in when their women gave birth; there was no room for partners anywhere near the obstetric ward. The training which students receive there is excellent and our NHS benefits hugely from over 6,000 Sudan-trained doctors practising over here. This made me rather ashamed because Sudan needs its doctors desperately—much more than we do.
Therefore, what can our Governmen do to promote maternal health and family planning in Sudan by using the Ahfad University, which is respected all over the world? A new private hospital is planned, but more accessible facilities for women’s health are needed, countrywide. There needs to be a network through which they can get treatment and family planning. I welcome DfID’s emphasis on maternal health and family planning and congratulate it on that. However, could this please be extended and increased to the Sudan as we loosen sanctions and try to encourage that wonderful country?
I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, for securing this debate, for taking a keen interest in Sudan and for helping to establish the APPG on Sudan. His continued work in that country is highly appreciated.
I have visited the country twice in the last few years. The first time that I went, I knew very little about it and was encouraged by some Members of this House to attend a conference at the University of Khartoum. The information available at the time from the Foreign Office was not very encouraging: British citizens were advised not to make trips there unless they were necessary. The only information I could rely on was from Members who spoke about the country in the House of Lords. In many cases, this was very terrifying. From their contributions, I believed that the army ran the country, one would find armoured vehicles and armed men all around the streets, women had absolutely no rights, and so on. I landed in Khartoum about three years ago with a very dark picture. However, from the outset, at the airport, in immigration and at the hotel, I saw men and women working side by side. That was surprising for me, against the backdrop of the information I had gone with.
In the university where the conference was held, I again saw no distinction between men and women working at all levels. Subsequently we met many Ministers. I particularly wanted to visit the downtown market, to see how ordinary people live in Khartoum, and it was a pleasant surprise not to see much difference between it and other Arab or Muslim countries. There were many cultural similarities, and I could have taken it for Cairo, say. Women were working alongside men in all aspects of life.
We went on to learn more about the country—for example, that when South Sudan separated from Sudan it took 70% or more of the oil revenue, leaving Sudan with very little of its major source of income and little to run the country with. It is no wonder that we hear that Sudan is suffering from poverty.
The international community supports the liberation of South Sudan; that is what the people chose in a referendum and it is proper and fine. I wish it had happened in other parts of the world too, particularly where I was born—Kashmir is still waiting for the United Nations to implement its resolutions—but I am of course glad that South Sudan is to get its UN resolutions implemented in the end. In the case of Sudan, not only were the UN resolutions implemented—South Sudan got its independence—but it was clobbered with economic sanctions. Once you have had 70% of your oil revenues taken from you there is nothing much left to run the country, and these sanctions do not help at all.
I am running out of time and need to move on to my next visit, when I accompanied the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, and other parliamentarians on a trip that included Darfur. When we met the UNAMID officers in Darfur—I may have mentioned this previously—I asked them about the aerial bombardment that we often hear about in this House, and the answer was that in the past year two incidents had been reported to the United Nations forces. I asked what had happened. They said that they could not get much information. I asked them to explain further, and they replied that when they went to the first incident that was reported they found a hole in the ground. They could not establish what had made the hole. In the second case, they went down to a road where they had been told that an incident had occurred and were told that no, it was not here, it was a few miles in the other direction, and so on. Eventually, the officers had returned with no evidence of any bombardment.
That raises a big question about what to believe when people tell us things about countries that we have not visited. When you visit a country it makes a great difference, and I suggest that, if they have not already done so, noble Lords should visit Sudan at their earliest opportunity.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, for initiating this debate on Sudan, a country where more than one-third of the population still lives in poverty. As I have no doubt the Minister will remind us, the UK is an important donor, giving £50 million each year that is focused on humanitarian assistance to over 500,000 internally displaced people and South Sudanese refugees.
The Minister said at the end of last year that the Government continue to work with the international community to reform the approach to long-term displaced persons in Darfur. What is the Minister’s assessment of that process in achieving collaboration internationally?
On human rights in Sudan, Amnesty International has said:
“The rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly were arbitrarily restricted”,
and that there are,
“widespread violations of international humanitarian and human rights law”.
The Government have argued—we have heard it in this debate—that the UK-Sudan Strategic Dialogue represents a shift from the stick to the carrot, and that real change in Sudan could come only through engagement, a point reinforced by the noble Lord, Lord Luce. Clearly, the Government of Sudan are gaining a great deal of credibility from these high-level ministerial exchanges. Can the Minister provide us with a specific example of where such engagement from our Government has brought about a positive change from their Sudanese counterpart?
After the fourth session of the strategic dialogue in October last year, agreement was reached on the clear steps that the Government of Sudan would take to address human rights issues. In relation to the five key issues of humanitarian access to conflict-afflicted regions, non-interference in South Sudan and maintaining the Government’s cessation of hostilities in Darfur and the Two Areas, is the Minister satisfied that progress continues to be made? The UK also raised specific issues, including sexual and gender-based violence, freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression and the convention against torture. At the time, the Minister also stated that corruption was discussed. Sudan currently ranks 170th out of 176 on the Transparency International corruption index.
Following April’s fifth meeting of the strategic dialogue, the communiqué stressed trade and investment. Trade promotion in Sudan must be paired with macroeconomic reforms to ensure that any growth dividend is evenly shared, and it must not result in a watering down of human rights concerns. What steps will the Government take to ensure that such reforms are implemented to prevent the benefits of this trade going solely to the narrow elite that has ruled the country for almost 30 years?
I agree totally with the noble Lord, Lord Luce, that it is important that we support civil society. It is critical to sustaining meaningful peace and dialogue for the future, and this should be the focus of UK policy in Sudan. UK aid has funded a £1 million British Council project to strengthen,
“cultural and educational development by building skills and capacity and by creating new opportunities and connections with the UK”.
The UK Government, through the Chevening scholarships,
“enables students to pursue postgraduate study at UK higher education institutions”.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, I would particularly like to know how those students are selected. We have been supporting only 14 students, who are mainly from Khartoum. Will the Government commit to expanding the programme and ensure that the students are drawn from a much wider group of the population, particularly from Darfur and the Two Areas of eastern Sudan?
My Lords, I join all noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Sheikh for tabling this important debate. I pay tribute to him for his continuing support for the development of relations between the United Kingdom and Sudan. I am pleased that he, together with other noble Lords, had a productive and constructive visit to Sudan, and I put on the record the thanks of Her Majesty’s Government to the APPG for its report and recommendations on this matter.
I shall now address the various questions raised by noble Lords in what has been a debate of hope and optimism, as well as one of challenge and realism. I turn, first, to the cultural and educational ties between our countries. Noble Lords have alluded to the population of Sudan. The median age in Sudan is under 20, more than half the population are under the age of 24, and nearly 40% are younger than 15. Therefore, picking up on a point raised by my noble friend Lord Sheik and others, education is vital if the country is to fulfil its full potential. The noble Baronesses, Lady Tonge and Lady Uddin, mentioned the importance of gender equality in education and opportunities for girls in particular. They and all noble Lords will be aware of the priority that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has laid on 12 years of quality education, which we continue to emphasise not just in our bilateral engagement with Sudan but across the world. That is why the British Council also runs projects that now train 4,600 teachers, improving the standards across science, maths and English of 6,500 teachers, and providing English textbooks at all levels in schools across the country.
In higher education, we provide opportunities for Sudan’s brightest young people to stretch themselves at world-class British universities. As was acknowledged by my noble friend Lord Sheikh and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office provides funding for Chevening scholarship programmes. The number of scholarships offered each year has tripled since 2014. The specific issue of numbers was raised, but in recent years the trajectory has been upward, and that will continue. More generally, the British Council encourages educational and scientific co-operation between Sudan and the UK, and promotes cultural ties through projects that include supporting the digitisation of Sudanese historical records, and refurbishing museums. That adds to growing stability in the country.
My noble friend Lord Sheikh raised the important issue of trade. Our bilateral trade is worth in the region of £90 million. I assure him that we are actively considering the best way to support business links between the UK and Sudan, and encouraging Sudan to make improvements to the business and regulatory environment to promote inward investment and improve Sudan’s economy. We welcome active contributions and further ideas from noble Lords, of course.
Let me be clear, however, that the UK is not prioritising trade over human rights, a subject raised by the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Chidgey. As the Human Rights Minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, I can say that improving human rights in Sudan continues to be a key priority of the UK’s bilateral engagement. Our human rights priorities will include respect for the rule of law, which will further people’s rights—especially women’s, as raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge—and encourage investment. We believe strongly that trade can help to open up closed-off political and economic systems, and thereby improve human rights through the creation of wider employment opportunities.
I assure the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that we are very much committed on technical support for economic reforms in Sudan. That was discussed in detail at the fifth round of the UK-Sudan Strategic Dialogue in April, which I know that all noble Lords welcomed. The UK has been working with international partners to galvanise support to help Sudan commit to, and deliver, macroeconomic reforms while simultaneously managing the impact on the poorest in society.
In the immediate term, we are concerned at the increasingly acute economic issues that Sudan faces, including shortages of fuel, which we predict will affect the 2018 harvest. Concern about that was expressed by several noble Lords. We will of course continue to work with the Government of Sudan on the necessary macroeconomic reforms and wider reform programme. Our other main priorities in our engagement with Sudan are helping to resolve its conflict and addressing human rights concerns.
The challenges in Darfur were raised by the noble Lords, Lord Chidgey and Lord Hussain, among others. The security situation there remains fragile despite a recent reduction in fighting between government forces and armed movements. We remain concerned by continuing reports of clashes between the Sudan Liberation Army–Abdel Wahid—and government forces. I assure noble Lords that we continue to raise the matter bilaterally with Sudan, because it is important to recognise—as we all do—that civilians continue to bear the brunt of this appalling violence. Many have been killed, villages have been burned and it is estimated that nearly 9,000 have been internally displaced. The joint UN-African Union mission in Darfur is a key focus for that, and it is unacceptable that its humanitarian actors have been prevented from accessing affected populations.
We all acknowledge that there is no military solution to the conflict. The UK, alongside our troika partners—the United States and Norway—calls on all parties to immediately cease military action. The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, mentioned Jebel Marra in this respect. We believe that all parties should engage meaningfully with the peace process. We are also working with international partners to provide humanitarian assistance to Darfur.
The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, raised the issue of South Sudan and Sudan’s role in the peace process. We welcome Sudan’s role in hosting the latest round of talks in Khartoum and its constructive role within the region. We have taken note of the agreement.
The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, raised the issue of East Sudan. I can assure him that we have not forgotten the people of the east, which remains a major challenge. DfID support is now focused on providing water infrastructure, which will benefit both the local communities and the refugee population that he mentioned, and we continue to provide wider humanitarian assistance.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, also raised the issue of South Sudanese refugees. I acknowledge the support Sudan has provided in this regard, both through the opening of humanitarian corridors and allowing those fleeing from that conflict to seek shelter, in the northern regions in particular.
On the humanitarian situation, in 2018 the number of people in need of humanitarian aid in Sudan has risen to over 7 million, and nearly 2 million are internally displaced in Darfur. Sudan is also providing shelter, as I have said, to many South Sudanese refugees. The UK is an important donor, and last year we provided nearly £60 million to help communities to meet their basic needs and to sustain their livelihoods and resilience to crisis. I shall write to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, on the issue of the UNHCR and how much we have given, but we remain one of the largest contributors to the Sudan humanitarian fund.
The noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, raised the important issue of women’s health. As she may be aware, through DfID the UK continues to provide support to women and their families. We reached over 600,000 women, children and girls last year with nutrition and food interventions. She will be pleased to learn that we also fund projects to end the practice of FGM.
The UN’s peacekeeping mission in Darfur continues to make progress and to support the gradual reconfiguration of its mission. The noble Lords, Lord Sheikh and Lord Chidgey, mentioned extremism. Countering extremism will continue to figure in our strategic dialogue. Human rights will also be primarily focused on, including the issues of freedom of religion, freedom of expression and sexual and gender based violence. This was mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Luce and Lord Collins.
We have seen real progress. For example, the case of Nora Hussein, has been a positive example. Her death sentence has been overturned, which we all welcome. The noble Lords, Lord Chidgey and Lord Collins, referred to positive influences, and that is one of them. We also welcome the release of Dr Ibrahim.
Specific questions of detail were raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, on the issues of equality and ensuring greater support for women and girls. I can assure her that that remains a key priority for the Government.
The noble Lord, Lord Luce, raised the issue of the 2020 elections. We agree that these will be a critical milestone in Sudan’s reform process. Former President Mbeki, who leads the AU’s peace process, is focused on enabling the opposition to participate in a fair way. The UK expects, and will continue to lobby for, monitoring arrangements to be a part of this process.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Tonge and Lady Uddin, rightly focused on many issues around girls’ education and health and on ensuring protection for women under the rule of law. I assure them, as the Prime Minister’s special representative on preventing sexual violence in conflict situations, we will continue to encourage Sudan to ratify the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, and we will continue to employ a greater level of support for equality in all levels of education.
This has been a constructive and positive debate. Too often when we draw attention to different parts of the world there is great negativity and no recognition of the positive steps that have been achieved. All contributions from noble Lords have underlined the importance of progress and the need to be vigilant in ensuring that progress continues to be made. The UK welcomed the US decision last year to permanently lift economic sanctions. However, debt relief can only realistically be expected to come after Sudan demonstrates real evidence of macroeconomic reform. The UK is now assessing whether there is sufficient commitment by the Sudanese Government to make the necessary reforms. We will continue to champion this through dialogue, including an emphasis on women’s rights.
I assure all noble Lords that we will continue to work constructively on progress in Sudan. We will continue to observe constructive engagement in all areas, which can, over time, lead to greater security, stability and prosperity for all Sudanese people.