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12.31 pm

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the humanitarian emergency in Darfur.

I returned this morning from a visit to Sudan, where I saw at first hand the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding in Darfur, western Sudan. This is the most serious humanitarian emergency in the world today. The UN estimates that more than 1 million people have had to flee their homes and that a further 130,000 refugees have crossed into eastern Chad. I visited the Kalma camp in south Darfur and the el-Meshtel and Abu Shouk camps in north Darfur, where tens of thousands of people are facing a precarious existence. I spoke to men and women whose homes have been destroyed, villages burned, and whose communities have been the victims of killings, looting and rape.

The humanitarian needs are enormous. Traditionally, Darfur has a hungry season between May and September, during the rains and before the harvest. Because of the conflict, there will be no harvest this year. Added to the long years of drought, communities are unable to cope. The rains have already started in Darfur. They will bring flash floods, make roads impassable, increase the risk of disease and render the delivery of assistance more difficult.

This is a severe crisis, which will last well into next year. Dealing with it will require action by everyone, including the Government of Sudan. The changes made to visas and travel permits for UN and other relief agency staff are now having an effect. Yesterday, the Government gave me a firm commitment that they would fast-track both the delivery of assistance, so that relief agencies can bring in food, medicine, vehicles and other supplies quickly, and the registration of new relief agencies that want to come and help. I will maintain a close interest in the implementation of these arrangements.

The number of humanitarian agencies on the ground is limited. We need more. I have also been concerned about the adequacy and speed of the UN's response, although this should now change. The UK has been supporting the people of Darfur since the autumn of last year. We have already provided £19.5 million to UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and operational non-governmental organisations. We have seconded staff to the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the UN Joint Logistics Centre to help co-ordination of the relief effort. During my visit, I announced a further commitment of £15 million, which will take the total humanitarian assistance contribution by the UK to more than £34 million. That includes the airlifting of blankets and shelter materials. The UK, the US and the European Commission have to date provided three quarters of the international response and there is an urgent need for other donors to do more.

The main cause of the crisis is insecurity. Despite the 8 April ceasefire, fighting has continued and villages have been attacked by armed militias. Yesterday, I raised with First Vice-President Taha the urgent need for the Government of Sudan to rein in the janjaweed and other
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militias, condemn the acts of violence and provide adequate protection for displaced people. Equally, rebel groups must observe the ceasefire.

The deployment of the African Union ceasefire monitoring team is therefore urgent. When I met military observers from the team in el-Fasher, they told me that they planned to deploy their team of 120 observers as quickly as possible. The UK will contribute one of the six observers requested from the European Union and I hope that other contributing nations will get their observers there soon. The Government of Sudan have promised full support for the monitors and the UK has provided £2 million to help the African Union team to set itself up. In addition, the United Nations will deploy human rights monitors throughout Darfur with British financial support.

The resolution of this crisis requires a political solution. The protocols signed in Naivasha on 26 May are a significant and welcome step towards a comprehensive peace agreement for Sudan. I call on all the parties involved in the conflict in Darfur now to engage in discussions to find a peaceful way forward.

We are in a race against time in Darfur. The United Kingdom remains committed to doing all that it can to help those affected and to work for a just and lasting peace for its people.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, for the respect for Parliament that he has shown in coming to deliver it immediately on his return from the Sudan and for his characteristic courtesy in providing advance sight of it. I also welcome both his financial commitment and his energetic diplomacy.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is clear about the fact that the janjaweed militia is responsible for massive violence, that a climate of impunity prevails in Darfur and that the Government of Sudan permit the janjaweed to exercise a reign of terror over the people of Darfur. His report last month, and those of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group, have all painted a consistent and unmistakable picture. The victims of the crisis in Darfur have suffered grievously. They need help—help on a huge scale, and help now.

When does the right hon. Gentleman expect the ceasefire monitors to be deployed? Can he confirm that they will cover el-Geneina in the west, el-Fasher in the north and Nyala in the south? Does he agree that when the Sudanese Government are urged to provide immediate and full access for aid operations in Darfur, pressure could usefully be applied for the opening of the rail line so that the United Nations can make massive deliveries of food and medicine from Port Sudan?

The right hon. Gentleman spoke of assurances about fast-track delivery. Given that the UN emergency co-ordinator noted earlier this week the Sudanese Government's imposition of new obstacles to aid—including an insistence that all medical supplies be tested in Sudanese laboratories and that all supplies, including food, be carried in Sudanese trucks and distributed by Sudanese charities or Government agencies—will he satisfy himself that those obstacles have been removed, or will be as a matter of urgency?
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Will the right hon. Gentleman underline the important point that the rebel forces, notwithstanding their deep sense of grievance, should themselves admit all humanitarian aid facilities into territory that they control, including from Government-controlled areas, provided only that those deliveries are not accompanied by Government military forces?

What assurances can the right hon. Gentleman offer that forcible repatriation of refugees will not take place, given the palpable lack of security that they would face? In a letter to me dated 25 May, he said—and he reiterated it today—that the United Kingdom expected the Sudanese Government to "rein in" the janjaweed militias. Does he accept that reports that the Sudanese Government are simply incorporating the janjaweed into the country's formal police and security structures offer scant reassurance to those who are only too well aware of their wanton savagery?

Given that it is vital that the impotence and passivity of the United Nations in the face of genocide in Rwanda are not repeated in Sudan, does the Secretary of State accept that he needs to press for a robust United Nations Security Council resolution that explicitly condemns the Government of Sudan for the ethnic cleansing in Darfur? Does he further accept that the Security Council should appoint a high-level panel to investigate possible war crimes in Darfur, hold the culprits to account and deter the commission of further atrocities?

The UN rapporteur on extra-judicial, summary and arbitrary executions, Asma Jehangir, is reported on the BBC website as saying of Darfur that

Again, the rights of innocent African people have been violated upon a scale so grotesque as to defy all but the most lurid imaginations. The Secretary of State knows that the world has a chance to ensure that Darfur does not descend into genocide. More lives are lost as each day passes. There is not a moment to lose. Our duty in terms of humanitarian aid, diplomatic contact and unrelenting moral and political pressure is clear. In standing up to evil, rescuing its victims and ensuring the guilty are brought to book, the Secretary of State will receive stalwart and unflinching support from those on the Conservative Benches.

Hilary Benn: I thank the hon. Gentleman both for his kind words and for his searching questions. I will do my best to answer each of them.

I can confirm that the African Union monitors will be located in el-Geneina, Nyala and el-Fasher, where they are planning to set up their base, and three other places in Darfur. They told me the night before last that they were hoping to deploy within four to six weeks.

My understanding is that the World Food Programme is currently using the rail line to deliver some supplies, but I accept the hon. Gentleman's point that all possible means should be used to ensure that the supplies that are required get to those who need them.

I specifically raised the question of obstacles to the delivery of relief supplies and medical supplies. The answer that I was given was that testing is not required
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for drugs that are already on the formulary list and it is required only for new medicines. I sought clarification on that point. The Government of Sudan announced that, from now on, customs clearance would be achieved within seven days and that non-governmental organisations importing humanitarian supplies for Darfur could do so by sending the documentation direct to the department for humanitarian affairs, rather than through the customs department, which represents a step forward. The Government also assured me in respect of new NGOs seeking to go to help to deal with the crisis in Darfur that, whereas currently it can take six to nine months to register a new NGO in Sudan, upon receipt of an application, a response saying yea or nay will be given within 10 days. As long as that is followed through, that will represent a big step forward.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's point about the importance of rebel forces in ensuring that access is permitted to all areas. As for assurances on repatriation, from my conversations with the refugees, the displaced people in the camps, it is clear that they will not go. Time after time, when I asked who was responsible for the attacks, they said, "The Government." It was a feature of their stories that assault by air was followed by militias turning up on camels or horses attacking their villages.

On the hon. Gentleman's point about policing and security, one person said to me that putting a badge on the janjaweed would not give people a sense of security. In the Abu Shouk camp, the Government have deployed additional police. The people I spoke to there said that there was a greater sense of security. It is important that the Government of Sudan deploy police forces to provide security, because, as I think we both recognise, that is the fundamental cause of the problem.

Do we need a Security Council resolution? As the hon. Gentleman will know, one is planned in relation to the signing of the Naivasha protocols and it is essential in the Government's view that that should include a reference to the crisis in Darfur.

The protocols provide a framework for the start of political discussions, which are needed to solve the problems.

I, too, have read what Bertrand Ramcharan had to say about human rights abuses, and that certainly reflects what I saw with my own eyes, including a number of burned-out villages as we flew into el-Fasher, standing out starkly from the brown of the desert, pitch black and destroyed.

Three actions have been determined on. First, there has been agreement that an independent expert, approved by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, should be appointed to investigate human rights abuses throughout Sudan, including Darfur. Secondly, the Office of the UNHCR has recommended the appointment of an international commission of inquiry, but that needs to be implemented. Thirdly, the monitors are to be deployed, and I took the decision that the UK would fund those, because that seems to me a very practical contribution that we can make.

On the hon. Gentleman's last point, there is no doubt whatever that the Government of Sudan have been in denial about the scale of the crisis. That is certainly what
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I found when I was Khartoum last December. I do not think that they are still in denial, but time is not on their side—or ours.

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