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Westminster Hall

Thursday 18 May 2006

[Mrs. Janet Dean in the Chair]

Darfur Crisis

[Relevant documents: Second Report from the International Development Committee, Session 2005—06, Darfur: The killing continues, HC 657, and the Government’s response thereto, HC 1017; Fifth Report from the International Development Committee, Session 2004—05, Darfur, Sudan: The responsibility to protect, HC 67; and the Government’s response thereto, Cm 6576.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Michael Foster.]

2.30 pm

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): It is good to see so many Members here, despite business elsewhere in the House having finished. That reflects the deep interest that Members on both sides of the Chamber have in the tragedy that has affected the people of Darfur, particularly over the past three years. I should say frankly, at the outset, that the crisis is a test of the international community’s willingness to act when crimes against humanity are committed. I hope that our debate is very much set in that context. I commend the Select Committee for both of its inquiries into Darfur in the past 15 months; I also commend the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who is here and who ably chairs the all-party group on Sudan, and all other hon. Members for their continued interest in what has been going on.

In three years of war, millions of innocent Darfuris have lost their homes, their livelihoods and, frankly, their dignity. As hon. Members will be aware, conflict has been rife in Darfur since the 1980s, but in the beginning of 2003 it reached new heights, with the rebel attack and the overt involvement of Government forces and the Janjaweed militia, following the formation of the Sudan Liberation Movement. The crisis has been littered with agreements signed and not honoured. I refer in particular to the humanitarian ceasefire agreement signed on 8 April 2004 by the Government of Sudan, the SLM, and the Justice and Equality Movement. I also refer to the security and humanitarian protocol signed on 9 November 2004 in Abuja. The truth is, however, that none of the parties that signed those agreements has abided by any of them, and insecurity has continued to hamper the huge humanitarian relief effort.

As Members will be aware, in May 2004, the African Union Mission in Sudan—AMIS—was deployed, and it has been in the region ever since. Another thing to which it is important to refer, if just in passing, has taken place since then: the signing of the comprehensive peace agreement in January 2005 in Nairobi. That finally brought to an end the north-south conflict that had lasted about a generation in Sudan, claiming more than 2 million lives. That agreement has given Sudan a more representative Government than it has had for a very long time. The
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UK played an honourable part, both in supporting the negotiations and in the agreement’s implementation, including by providing political and financial support.

The UK Government have also played an important role in the UN Security Council in pressing for action to be taken on the crisis in Darfur. Members will be aware that we co-sponsored Security Council resolution 1556, which called for the disarmament of the Janjaweed. We supported Security Council resolution 1591, which provides for travel bans and asset freezes on individuals involved in the Darfur crisis who have committed violations of international law or other atrocities, or who have in other ways impeded the peace process. We co-sponsored resolution 1672, which was adopted on 25 April this year, and which finally—I underline “finally”—imposed targeted sanctions on four individuals from all sides of the conflict. The fact that it took so long was certainly not for want of effort on the part of the British Government; there was, of course, a process to be gone through.

I, for one, unreservedly welcome the imposition of those sanctions, because it is at least a sign that the international community is serious about calling to account those who, by their actions, prolong the suffering of the people of Darfur. We have made it clear that we think that more names ought to follow. We are also pushing for an extension of the arms embargo to the whole of Sudan. If only every country represented on the Security Council had been as determined as the British Government to hold people to account for what they had done.

The UK also sponsored UN Security Council resolution 1593, which referred the situation in Darfur to the International Criminal Court following the report by the UN International Commission of Inquiry. That was an historic moment, not only in the context of the crisis in Darfur, but more generally, because it was the first time that the UN Security Council had referred a matter to the ICC. That, too, was not achieved without a struggle. That moment will come to be remembered because it showed that although we fought hard for the principle of the ICC, with support from Members on both sides of the House, it is no good having the thing if it is not actually used to investigate people and call them to account for what they have done. I am glad to say that the ICC has already begun work on identifying the individuals who were responsible for the crimes against humanity and the war crimes that the International Commission of Inquiry said had been committed in Darfur.

I now want to deal in slightly more detail with the challenge that we face.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I welcome what the Secretary of State said about UN Security Council resolution 1593. In the context of his remarks about the investigations that are under way into individuals who are suspected of involvement in war crimes, crimes against humanity and, possibly, attempted genocide, will he tell us whether any decisions have been made about an initial list of people who will be prosecuted?

Hilary Benn: I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken a close and passionate interest in the crisis in Darfur, and I applaud him for that. I can tell him that,
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in his most recent briefing to the UN Security Council on 13 December 2005, the ICC prosecutor stated that

in the investigation’s first phase and that the next phase would

We have certainly made it clear to the Government of Sudan that we expect nothing less than full co-operation. I can also tell the hon. Gentleman that, as far as I am aware, the ICC has raised no concerns about co-operation since that last briefing. If there is any further information, beyond that which is available to me, that I can make available to the hon. Gentleman in response to his question, I will write to him with it, if that is all right.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State may or may not know that the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) and I met Musa Hilal in Khartoum. Obviously, that predated his being cited as one of the individuals in question, but, with the best will in the world, he was clearly under no constraints whatever at that time. It would be good to hear that we are talking to the Government in Sudan about what they intend to do to bring such people to justice.

Hilary Benn: Our ambassador in Khartoum is in regular contact with the Government of Sudan. However, I should tell my hon. Friend, who has also achieved great distinction, because of the way in which he chairs and leads the all-party group and keeps the House well informed about what is happening, that several of us talk to a considerable number of people as we seek to support those who are trying to resolve the crisis. That is the sad truth, and I will therefore need to check whether particular representations have been made about the individual to whom my hon. Friend referred.

Once people have been put on the sanctions list or otherwise identified by the organisations that are investigating these events, however, all hon. Members would clearly expect those bodies to take the appropriate action against them. It is too late to undo the terrible crimes that have been committed, but if the international community is to achieve justice for those who suffered and lost their lives and, indeed, more widely—that is why I referred to the crisis as a test—we must send a message to those who are thinking of committing such actions in other places that they will eventually be caught if they do.

Elsewhere, we have seen the indictment of Charles Taylor and those who have been brought before courts in Arusha in connection with the Rwandan genocide. What is being done is important because bit by bit, inconsistently and sometimes hesitantly, the international community has the power to demonstrate that we will not sit back and let such things happen. Have we got things right? No. Have we got a long way to go? Certainly, but those steps forward really matter in showing that we are serious about trying to put into effect the fine words that have been passed in declarations and agreements over many years. We find them in the UN’s
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universal declaration of human rights, in the text on the founding of the UN and in the agreement on the responsibility to protect, agreed by the millennium summit last September. However, someone on the receiving end of the trauma in Darfur might be inclined to say, “Those are fine words and I am glad to read them, but when will someone apply them to me?” That is the real test.

Darfur is the most complex humanitarian operation in the world today. Nearly 14,000 people are working there in extremely difficult circumstances. In the past three years, thousands of innocent people have been killed. The figures range from 80,000 to 400,000. The truth is that no one knows, and frankly no one is ever likely to know, how many people have lost their lives in the conflict, but we do know that about 2 million people have been forced to flee their homes and a further 1.5 million have been affected by the conflict. Reports continue of sexual violence, in particular against women and children.

I, along with other hon. Members here today, have visited some of the camps: Kalma, near Nyala, and el-Meshtel and Abu Shouq, which are near el-Fasher. There, we saw with our own eyes the conditions in which people are forced to live, and we heard testimony from women, men and children about what had happened to them to make them flee their homes, and about the continuing insecurity that they face, in particular when they venture out of the camp. That burden is felt particularly by women, because the task of looking for firewood falls on them. Sadly, they are from time to time attacked as they go beyond the confines of the camp.

I pay tribute to the UN, the non-governmental organisations and the 14,000 individuals on the ground—some are international, but the vast bulk are Sudanese—who have worked tirelessly in very difficult circumstances to try to provide for the needs of the people forced to flee their homes. Their efforts mean that today we can recognise that, compared with two years ago, malnutrition and mortality rates have fallen. Last year, they fell below the emergency threshold. That was entirely due to the international relief effort in terms of money, and the skill, dedication and commitment of those staff.

However, because of the increase in insecurity since last autumn, those improvements have begun to be reversed. There has been further displacement of people. Since the beginning of the year, just under 200,000 more people have had to flee their homes because of fighting, a significant proportion of which is down to the rebel movements. In some areas, the UN and the NGOs have had to reduce their presence and operations because of insecurity. That is the first point.

Secondly, banditry and harassment on all sides have got worse and more brazen, and are getting in the way of the ability of humanitarian agencies to gain regular access to the worst affected areas. Sadly, humanitarian workers have to deal with such situations in a number of countries, as I saw for myself in Somalia yesterday. I shall digress slightly, if you will allow me, Mrs. Dean, to pay tribute to the people working in southern Somalia, who frankly, in some circumstances, are putting their lives on the line—the same is true of people in Darfur—to ensure that others get the help that they need. We all owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.

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We have continued throughout to lobby, press and urge the Government of Sudan to ensure that they place no obstacles in the way of those trying to carry out the relief effort. That is the only country in the world in which as Secretary of State for International Development I have had to raise—I have done so willingly—individual cases of consignments of goods that have been held up. I remember one case in particular from a couple of years ago: 30 tonnes of medical supplies brought into the country by Médecins sans Frontières had been sitting in a container in Port Sudan for three months. Those supplies were desperately needed by the people of Darfur, but the necessary permit had not been obtained. Experience has shown that one has to keep up the pressure to ensure that the Government of Sudan support and help those humanitarian agencies.

The third, and sad, fact is that those humanitarian workers have now been affected by a funding crisis as some donors, frankly, get a bit weary. UN agencies responsible for some of the most important needs in Darfur are being forced to make major cuts to their programme; most significant of all is the decision of the World Food Programme to halve the rations provided in Darfur. That means that malnutrition will worsen. I am pleased that the United States Government have decided to speed up the delivery of their substantial contribution, which had, I think, been undergoing the congressional process. I hope that that will mean that full rations can be restored as soon as possible.

Hon. Members will be aware of the leading role that the United Kingdom Government have played in providing humanitarian relief. We are the second largest bilateral donor after the United States of America. Since September 2003 we have allocated more than £93 million to UN agencies and NGOs. We have provided a further £45 million in support of the UN’s 2006 Sudan work plan and its eastern Chad appeal. We are pressing other donors to do more. Two weeks ago I announced that the UK is to provide a further £9 million to the common humanitarian fund, which will help the UN to react more quickly and flexibly to the crisis in Darfur and to meet humanitarian needs in other parts of Sudan. It is a desperately poor country, in large measure because of the conflict that its people have had to endure over the past generation and more.

That means that our total contribution to the UN work plan this years stands at £54 million—more than we provided last year. I wish that that was true of all the other donors, but it is not. We are also providing £18 million to NGO operations, £5 million to the Red Cross for both Darfur and the south of the country and £4 million for the relief effort in Chad. I shall continue to urge other donors to respond as generously as they can. The people of Darfur need that.

The second thing that we have been doing is backing the African Union Mission in Sudan, which has deployed ceasefire monitors and a protection force and police since the middle of 2004. Until last summer, the last but one time I went to Darfur, there was no doubt that in the previous 12 months the presence of that force had improved security. That was what I was told not just by the AMIS force itself and its commander at the time, but by the UN agencies to whose representatives I spoke in both north and south Darfur. However, since the autumn the situation has deteriorated, not for want
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of effort on the part of AMIS but because of the increasing failure of parties to various ceasefires and humanitarian agreements to honour the obligations that they have entered into. The result has been a new wave of people who must flee their homes.

The situation has become very difficult. When in February I met Major-General Ihekire, who took over, as I remember, about four weeks previously, he was very frank and said, “I haven’t got enough troops on the ground.” That was the first time that the AMIS force commander had said that. He said he needed more. As hon. Members will be aware, AMIS does not even have the 7,700 troops and civilian police that were envisaged for phase 2 of the operation, because it was hard to find an additional battalion from Africa. We should recognise, also, that the force faces an enormously complex and challenging task.

We should pay tribute to the African Union, despite the difficulties: if it had not taken the initiative and put in that force, who else would have gone to do that work? Its presence is a demonstration in deed by Africa that it is prepared to begin to take responsibility for solving conflict on that continent. It has added to the sum total of forces that are capable of doing that work, and in doing so has made it easier to decide to act. We face two problems when such situations occur in the world. First, is there the will to do something? Secondly, if there is the will, are there people who are prepared to do the work?

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): Given that the 7,000 or so African Union forces are obviously not able to deal with a crisis on the scale of the one that is under way, what size of force does my right hon. Friend anticipate would be needed? Is it realistic to imagine that such a force could come, if not from the AU, even from the UN, given the large number of other UN commitments around the world?

Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend, who also does a great deal of work on the issue and did so when he was the Minister with responsibility for Africa in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, raises an important question. The straight answer is that the purpose of the UN planning mission, which I was about to mention, is to find an answer to that. Self-evidently, judging by what the major-general told me, 7,700 is not enough in a vast region of Sudan, which is an enormous country. I think that the Secretary-General of the United Nations talked at one point about 20,000; I stand to be corrected but I recall the figure.

The planning mission’s job is to determine things. Blue-hatting will solve the financial problem, because assessed contributions will bring the money, but it will create a big challenge. We will need to ensure that there are sufficient troop-contributing countries so that the force has the resources that it needs.

Mr. Drew: The hon. Member for Buckingham might refer to this, but when we were last there we had the opportunity to meet the peacekeepers who were responsible for the ceasefire in the Nuba mountains. The one message that I took from that was that it was not numbers that made the difference, but organisation, logistics, a clear knowledge of what people were doing
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and earning the respect of the people among whom they were trying to keep the peace. I hope that the Nuba mountains are still at the back of the minds of those who are considering how this situation can be made to work.

Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Those circumstances were slightly different, in that the security situation was not anything like as difficult. I received a briefing on how those missions worked; independent monitors, one from either side, were involved and could deploy quickly. It was an effective operation, but it was operating in circumstances where the parties were not slugging it out in the way that has continued to occur in Darfur.

There needs to be a combination of things. The first is sufficient physical presence, in particular we need to provide protection for people—the current primary need of those in the camps—and to prevent more people from being forced to flee from their homes. There also needs to be an effective mechanism for when things go wrong and there are incidents, that will allow us to get in there, investigate quickly, publish reports, call people to account for what they have done, and refer it to the mechanisms that have been created. Such mechanisms would include the sanctions committee—if evidence becomes available, that committee can examine it and take action against the individual—and the International Criminal Court in those circumstances.

John Bercow: I am not an expert in military planning, strategy or logistics, but I ought to be able legitimately to look to those who are for advice. If the right hon. Gentleman agrees that sufficient troop numbers are, if not a sufficient condition of progress, at any rate a necessary one, can he advise at what point the judgment will be reached about the appropriate number? My anxiety—this is the alarm bell ringing in my head—is that even once a judgment is reached about the appropriate number, there is every danger that it will be phased, that it will take a long time, and that the deployment will not happen all at once. So, 1 October is the start date for the UN, not the finish, is it not?

Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman raises another important point. That is why the UK has for quite some time been considering the capacity of the AU mission, while recognising the difficulty of the situation in which it found itself. It is important that as we have this discussion we do not appear to criticise the AU mission, because without it we would have been in a much worse position. However, we acknowledge the complexity of the task. This is the first big operation that the AU has done, apart from deploying the small number of troops that it put into Burundi, which was successful, and that is why we have given a lot of practical support. I was about to discuss that.

It is for the UN planning mission to ask precisely the question that the hon. Gentleman put in order to get an answer as quickly as possible. Depending on how fast troop-contributing countries can be found, the UN mission can then get in. One or two things have happened, not least the meeting of the peace and security council of the AU, that helped to move things on.

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