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Arrest of Sudanese Prime Minister

Volume 702: debated on Monday 25 October 2021

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if she will make a statement on the arrest of the Sudanese Prime Minister.

I am grateful for the opportunity to answer this urgent question. The UK most strongly condemns today’s arrest of civilian members of Sudan’s transitional Government by the military. We are also deeply concerned about reports of shooting at protesters, which must stop.

Over the past two years, Sudan has been on the delicate pathway from oppressive, autocratic rule towards freedom and democracy. The UK has been a consistent and firm advocate for the democratic transition since the 2019 revolution. The acts of the military today represent an unacceptable betrayal of the Sudanese people and their journey to democracy.

I was in Khartoum just last week, when I stressed the need for all parties to support the civilian-led Government’s work to deliver the democratic transition, the process agreed by all sides in the constitutional declaration of August 2019. The military leadership in Khartoum cannot claim to be committed to a democratic future while simultaneously acting unilaterally to dissolve the transitional institutions and to arrest leading civilian politicians.

The Sudanese military agreed to the power-sharing agreement, as outlined in the constitutional declaration. Having arrested the Prime Minister and others today, the military have undermined the trust placed in them by the people of Sudan to deliver democracy.

At this very moment, there is a communications blackout and, therefore, only intermittent contact with my officials in Khartoum, but they are working to establish the full details of the situation. We have updated travel advice to reflect the unrest, and we will keep it under review to ensure the safety of British nationals and our staff, although I understand there are no flights at the moment. We are working with international partners and expect to make a public statement later today. I will also speak to my US counterpart later today.

As we know well in this place, disagreement and debate are essential features of democratic politics. Disagreement and debate are neither a threat to Sudan nor a threat to the Sudanese people, and as such I urge Sudan’s military leadership to change its course, to release detained politicians, including Prime Minister Hamdok, and to ensure Sudanese people can protest without fear of violence. The actions of the Sudanese military today are wholly unacceptable.

Women were a major driver of the 2019 protests that fought so bravely for democracy. Last week in Khartoum I met inspiring women leaders, inspiring women social reformers, inspiring women entrepreneurs and inspiring women community leaders, including the truly awe-inspiring Mama Iqbal, who successfully eradicated female genital mutilation in her 200,000-strong community of Tutti Island. She has undertaken to roll out her work across the country with help from UK aid.

Women and girls have a vital role to play in Sudan’s future, and the UK stands with them. The military’s actions today have betrayed all the people of Sudan, but especially the women and girls.

I thank the Minister for her comments. The last military coup in Sudan resulted in a long and brutal dictatorship that caused extraordinary human rights abuses, including war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. The armed forces in Sudan must remember that the military belongs to Sudan, and Sudan does not belong to the military.

Last week the UK Government relaunched the UK-Sudan strategic dialogue, and the Minister met General al-Burhan on Wednesday 20 October. According to the official communiqué, the discussions involved a productive exchange of views concerning the civilian-led transition to democracy. Can she clarify what those productive discussions included? Have the upcoming meetings of the strategic dialogue been cancelled? Is the additional assistance announced last week still planned?

Will the Minister join me in urging the Sudanese military to ensure that protestors and those engaged in civic action in the coming days are not harmed in the horrific manner that we have seen in recent years? Today, reports of injuries and the use of live ammunition are already reaching us. The communication shutdown must be lifted, and we must be clear that not only will any attempt to cover up attacks on protests fail, but responsibility for the cover-up will be on the shoulders of those currently in power, and we will pursue them. There can be no sustainable peaceful transition unless there is also transitional justice. On taking power today, General al-Burhan suspended the investigation into the 3 June 2019 massacres. Will she join me in condemning that?

Any truly global Britain must be assertive in its support for democracy. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Africa, I know that our reputation has yet to recover from the devastating in-year cut to our global aid budget that the Government announced this year. Our response today and in the coming days will be seen as a template for how the UK supports democratic transitions across Africa. We must not fail.

In last week’s meetings of the dialogue between the UK and Sudan, we worked on a number of issues including the support that we have been giving the Sudanese for their transition towards democracy and support for their constitutional arrangements as well as on economic matters. During that visit, I had the opportunity to meet both Prime Minister Hamdok and General al-Burhan as well as other key Government members. I stressed to all parties the importance of supporting the civilian-led Government and upholding the constitutional declaration and Juba peace agreement as well as continuing to progress the transition. I also reaffirmed our commitment and strong advice for them to continue to work with the International Criminal Court and to respect that process. I also urged the Government to increase their efforts to end the blockade of ports and transport links in eastern Sudan.

The UK has taken a leading role in supporting Sudan to hold to account those responsible for past crimes, including our support for the ICC and for investigations into the 3 June killing of protestors. It is vital that those in Sudan should continue to work with the ICC to hold those responsible to account. Those responsible for today’s action should also be held to account.

I welcome the Minister’s words and the urgent question called by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah). The reality is that this is a situation over which we have little control. What conversations has the Minister had with Governments in the region who have traditionally supported the Sudanese military? What conversations has she had with neighbouring states such as Egypt, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Somalia and Somaliland, and, over the other side of the Red sea, Saudi Arabia, on whom so many people in Sudan rely for economic support and, in many cases, much more than that?

I thank the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee for his questions. As I said in my response, we are working with international partners and expect to make a public statement later. On the African Union’s response to the situation in Sudan, we welcome the statement of dismay at today’s event by the chair of the AU commission, Moussa Faki, and we will work with all of Sudan’s international friends to apply pressure on the military to return Sudan to the path of democracy.

We are actively calling for a briefing at the UN Security Council to ensure that the situation gets the highest levels of international attention that it deserves. The UK welcomes the statement by the UN Secretary General condemning the military’s actions. As I said, I will also speak to my US counterpart later today.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) for securing this urgent question today. I welcome the Minister to her role and thank her for meeting me last week, when we discussed Sudan among other issues. I hope that that constructive approach, also shown by her predecessor, who is with us today, will continue.

Like the Minister and the international community, the Opposition unequivocally condemn the coup and share the strong sentiments that she expressed over the arrest of Prime Minister Hamdok and others. That has put the democratic process in Sudan in peril and risks further instability at an extraordinarily difficult time for ordinary civilians there when it comes to access to food, water, healthcare and many other aspects, let alone the precarious state of the economy—and especially, as she said, for women in the country.

The Minister noted that last week she visited a number of key projects, including with women. She also met the now arrested Prime Minister and the general who led the coup. She described those meetings as positive at the time and wished the Sudanese well with the democratic transition. I do not doubt in any way her sincerity or intent in those meetings—it is important that she went—but what does she think has gone so wrong in the last few days?

Can the Minister say a little more about what we are doing to take immediate action with our allies in the region and, more broadly, at the UN Security Council and in our bilateral relationships? Has the Foreign Secretary tried to speak to General al-Burhan and what of our embassy and special representative? She mentioned the communication difficulties. Are we aware of any contact with the coup leaders, urging them to step back from this absolutely appalling state of affairs?

Does the Minister regret the decision of the Chancellor, Prime Minister and the last Foreign Secretary to slash our support to Sudan, and to much of the rest of Africa, at such a fragile and critical time? Over 50% of our budget was cut in the last year, from £142 million to £62 million; that risks our influence, let alone our ability to help the Sudanese, who will face the consequences of these terrible events.

The Minister announced a number of key projects on her visit, including an InfraCo visit in November, British Council support, humanitarian assistance and safe drinking water projects in Port Sudan. Are those now at risk? What of them? Obviously, as has been said, there are regional implications, both political and humanitarian. There are crises in South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and elsewhere—famine, conflict and instability. What assessment has she made of the risks of huge failure in the region?

The Minister rightly pointed out the need to bring to justice all those responsible for past atrocities, including former President al-Bashir and others responsible for crimes in Darfur and elsewhere. Does she now believe that those processes are at risk? She rightly mentioned the investigation into the 3 June massacres. We understand that that has now been stopped. I join her in urging for that investigation to continue; it is absolutely critical.

There are Sudanese in my constituency in Cardiff and across the UK who will today be deeply fearful for their families and others—especially those women protesting bravely in the streets. There are already reports of gunshots and burning barricades at the protests and fears of a return to civil war. We on the Opposition side join the Minister in urging an urgent return to peace, dialogue and the democratic transition—not this betrayal of the agreements and hopes of the Sudanese people.

As I said earlier, during my meetings last week I stressed to all parties the importance of supporting the civilian-led Government, the constitutional declaration and the Juba peace agreement and of progressing with the transition as well as continuing to co-operate with the International Criminal Court. I repeat those messages today.

On humanitarian aid, the UK stands by the people of Sudan. We have been a leading donor of such aid in Sudan. It is already the fifth largest humanitarian crisis in the world and the actions of the military do not change the urgent need for assistance. The ordinary Sudanese people must not suffer as a result. I saw first hand how UK aid through the World Food Programme is giving school food at a school just outside Khartoum to girls in great need of food support. It is also encouraging them to come to school and be educated. Given the challenges that many Sudanese people face, the UK urgently continues to call for an end to the blockades in east Sudan and for humanitarian aid and vital supplies to be able to flow without hindrance.

On financial support, we have invested £150 million in Sudan since the revolution, including £80 million in the Sudan family support programme, which is helping citizens cope with the necessary economic reforms, and a £148 million bridging loan to help clear Sudan’s arrears with the African Development Bank. We will consider the impact of today’s events on our support, including with key international financial institution partners.

The whole House will want to thank my hon. Friend for what is, I think, her first reply to an urgent question in this role and for the robust nature of it.

This is a dreadful setback for the people of Sudan and a horrific reminder to so many on both sides of the House of the awful days of the genocide—as George Bush described it—in Darfur and the international pariah military regime of General al-Bashir. There will be concern that this could not have taken place without at least the passive acquiescence of the Saudis. Can my hon. Friend reassure the House that all discussion about the forgiveness of £600 million of Sudanese debt under debt relief schemes will now be put on hold until the military return to barracks and a lawful regime is put in place? Will she consider all sanctions, including the Magnitsky sanctions, being deployed against these international criminals who have illegally taken over Sudan?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his very kind words. As ever, he is deeply thoughtful on these matters. I agree that this is a totally unacceptable betrayal of the people of Sudan who have stood up for their democracy and freedom.

Regarding the debt clearance, the UK used our G7 presidency to agree an ambitious financing package to clear Sudan’s arrears with G7 Finance Ministers and other international partners on the IMF board. It was a really important part of that pathway towards democracy and a stronger economy. As I have said, we will consider the impacts of today’s events on our support, including with key international financial institution partners.

I warmly commend the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) for bringing this urgent question forward. I also commend the Minister for her reply, with which I agree entirely. There is a lot of agreement across the House that this is a very serious setback. The SNP stands four square behind international law, which cannot be taken à la carte—that applies as much to Northern Ireland protocols as it does to any other peace agreement anywhere else. Coherence across Government is really important for integrity and credibility internationally. This is a coup; it is a betrayal. The fact that the Minister was in Khartoum last week indicates just how little traction we have over events, as the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee has said, and I regret that. I particularly liked her remarks about holding people collectively and individually responsible for recent events, because that is very important. Can she reassure the House about arms exports to Sudan and what assessment the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has made of the flow of arms into Sudan and how they are being put to use? Furthermore, the UK is presently providing military support to the Sudanese army. That was unsuccessfully challenged in the High Court in July, but can we take it as read that that support is now being suspended?

It is completely clear that the actions of the military are unacceptable. We will reassess our commitment to restart phased defence engagement in the light of the current situation.

What do we know about the ideological make-up of the military coup plotters? In particular, what is the relationship, if any, between them and the quite strong Islamist movement within the Sudan?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. As I have stated, there is a communications black-out at the moment and therefore contact is intermittent. I note that General al-Burhan made a statement today, but I say back to him one more time —I do not think that one can say this enough—all parties should support the civilian-led Government, the constitutional declaration and the Juba peace agreement. The military leadership cannot claim to be committed to a democratic future while simultaneously acting unilaterally to dissolve transitional institutions and to arrest leading civilian politicians.

We are already actively calling for a briefing at the UN Security Council to ensure that the situation gets the attention that it deserves. We welcome the statement by the UN Secretary-General, condemning the actions of the military today.

I welcome the Minister’s response to the urgent question and thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) for bringing it to the House.

The Minister has said that what has happened today is a real setback for the rights of women and girls in Sudan. Will she also join me in saying that it is also a real setback for religious minorities there, because under the previous Government the apostasy laws were removed and there was real improvement for religious minorities, including the Christian community? Will the Minister work with the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, which I co-chaired when I was the British envoy, to ensure that a multilateral approach can be taken with regards to the United Kingdom’s continuing commitment to freedom of religion or belief?

My hon. Friend has a true passion for freedom of religion or belief, and I absolutely share that passion. As I said, the acts of the military today have been an unacceptable betrayal of all the people of Sudan who have stood up for that freedom and democracy. It is vital that Sudanese people should be able to meet to protest and to pray without fear of violence. That is another reason why we are so concerned about the actions today, and why we say that the actions of the military today are wholly unacceptable.

I welcome the Minister’s response to the urgent question. I am sure that the Government, along with others, will make it quite clear to those in control that we expect no harm to come to the Prime Minister and others who have been arrested. Further to the point raised by the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) a moment ago, I am sure that the Minister will be aware that it has been reported that Sudan’s Islamist political movements have, in fact, been calling for such a coup against the civilian members of the transitional Government for several weeks now. In the light of that and the point made by the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, I wonder what effect the Minister thinks these events are going to have on the wider political situation in the region.

I absolutely agree, not only that no harm should happen to those who have been arrested today, but, furthermore, that they should be immediately released. As I said earlier, we will continue to work with all Sudan’s international friends and with the African Union to continue to reapply pressure on the military to return Sudan to that path to democracy. That is incredibly important not only for the people of Sudan, but for stability and democracy across the whole area.

I thank the Minister for her response to the urgent question. The arrest of the Prime Minister of Sudan is the latest act in an increasingly violent situation in Sudan, which is spiralling out of control. Alongside that, and bearing in mind the well reported violations of human rights against Christians and other minority groups within that country, what steps can the Minister take to ensure that additional support and assistance will be offered to those vulnerable minorities on the ground and what form will that support take?

When I was in Khartoum last week, the situation was already extremely tense. The date of 21 October is an important day in Sudan, when people come out on to the streets to celebrate democracy. It was very important that those actions were allowed to happen peacefully; that was a large part of what I was calling for when I was meeting people there. I was extremely pleased to see that Thursday was peaceful—that is, that they were peaceful demonstrations and that there was no action taken against them. As I said earlier and I will say again, it is really important that Sudanese people are able to protest without fear of violence. That includes minority groups, women and girls, and all the people of Sudan. Again, that is why the actions today are so unacceptable.