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18 May 2006 : Column 346WH

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): Could the Secretary of State clarify whether the Sudanese Government have formally agreed to the UN troops moving in? I read in Sudan Tribune this morning—not my normal read—that Sudan was ready to accept the deployment of UN peacekeepers, but the detail said that Sudan was ready only to negotiate.

Hilary Benn: General Bashir had said that in the absence of a peace agreement he was not prepared to consider a UN mission coming in. The best information that I have currently is that the Sudanese Government have indicated that they are thinking about that, but I have not seen a definitive answer. The issue is relevant to a point that I intend to make about the UN Security Council’s decision on Tuesday. If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall come to that.

The third thing that we have done is provide support for a peace agreement. As we all recognise, the only answer is for people to stop fighting and to use politics, debate, argument and elections to determine what will happen in Darfur, rather than killing each other and innocent citizens of that region. That is why we have offered a lot of support to the African Union. It is important that we should recognise that the process has been led by the African Union. In the same way as security and the work of AMIS have been an African-led process, so too have the peace talks in Abuja.

We have kept a presence there, and the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), now the Leader of the House of Commons, travelled there in February—to be a bit unparliamentary about it—to read the Riot Act to those who had been negotiating and say that, frankly, our patience was running out, not least because the international community was paying for the consequences of the war. We are all paying to keep people in the camps because of the failure of the parties to the conflict to do what they did—in the north and the south—when they finally fought themselves to a standstill and realised that Sudan would never progress while people continued to fight. They can do exactly the same thing again if they want.

That is why the African Union set a deadline of 30 April for the next phase of the negotiation. The AU tabled an agreement. The Sudanese Government said that they were prepared to sign, but the three rebel movements said that they were not. It became clear over the weekend just before the local elections—that is how I remember the date—that the negotiations were in difficulty. That is when I and Bob Zoellick, the US Deputy Secretary of State, along with one or two others, went to Abuja to see whether we could help out, with the extremely skilful support and assistance of President Obasanjo of Nigeria—he was brilliant, if I may say so.

In trying to get the parties to focus on what needed to be done in that four-day period, during the final stages of the negotiations, we proposed some further changes to the agreement, to try to bring the rebel movements on board. On 5 May there was a signing, at which the Government of Sudan and the largest rebel movement, led by Minni Minnawi, put their signatures to the agreement.

That was a significant moment, but challenges remain. I hope that it will still be possible for the two other rebel movements—the faction of the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement, led by Abdel Wahed, and
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the Justice And Equality Movement, led by Khalil Ibrahim—to sign. Those two need to be on board, particularly Abdel Wahed’s group, because although the Justice And Equality Movement has a national political objective, it has a small number of fighters in Darfur, whereas the other two groups are concerned particularly about Darfur.

The agreement provides for power sharing, with a guaranteed significant role for the rebels in Darfur, in the Government in Khartoum. It provides for wealth sharing, including arrangements for compensation for individuals who have lost their homes. The agreement provides for peace and security with a ceasefire, disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration, and would deal with the Janjaweed, moving a large number of the rebel forces into the Sudanese army.

Above all, the agreement would provide what the rebels have been fighting for; namely, regional government for Darfur. The agreement says that, within a maximum of three years, subject to a referendum and the will of the people of Darfur, if they vote for regional government, they will get regional government. In those circumstances, what is the justification for carrying on fighting? Or, are the rebels so impatient that they are not prepared to allow people to express a view and to wait a maximum of three years? By the way, in-between there will be elections to all state legislative councils and national elections in Sudan, which the comprehensive peace agreement provides. In my view, there is no justification whatever.

I want to make progress because I know that many hon. Members want to speak. What is the immediate task? The first is for the people of Darfur to know what is in the agreement. That is urgent. The African Union is working on that as we speak, with help from the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy. We have also been in conversation with the BBC World Service, which has tried to publicise the agreement.

The second task is to work with the parties—the Government in Sudan and Minni Minnawi’s group—to ensure that they get on with it. At a practical level, we have offered English language training to Minni Minnawi who requested that for 100 members of his group. We are also looking at ways to support him in setting up an office. Those are practical matters for anyone who wants to take the post provided for in the transition and who will be the senior assistant to the President and the fourth person in the presidency with significant influence over the composition of the transitional regional authority. Where that person will be based, when they will get to work and when they will go to Khartoum are practical issues in implementing the agreement. Frankly, there are ways in which we could make life difficult for those who stand in the way of peace.

Above all, the agreement provides for the people of Darfur to participate in what is known as the Darfur-Darfur dialogue, but there is an issue about the extent to which the movements represent all the people of Darfur. The crisis is complex and the Darfur-Darfur dialogue is a convocation of people—the final agreement refers to 800 to 1,000 representatives. It would be one way of testing how people feel about the way forward and ensuring that there is an inclusive process to bring together all the tribes, interests and other views to ensure that progress can be made.

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On Monday, the AU Peace and Security Council welcomed the agreement, called for its implementation and confirmed—I refer to the point made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett)—that transfer to the United Nations mission should go ahead. The AU Peace and Security Council previously said that that is what it wanted in principle and that preparations should take place, but it has now confirmed that that is what should now occur. The following day, UN Security Council resolution 1679, which the UK co-sponsored, was passed unanimously and called on the parties to implement the agreement, urged the other rebel groups to sign it, and called for the strengthening of AMIS, an acceleration of the transition to a UN force and an immediate end to violence and atrocities.

Now that we have a peace agreement signed by at least one of the rebel movements we must go ahead with the practical tasks in hand, particularly the rapid deployment of a UN force. International pressure must be maintained on the Government of Sudan—the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West referred to this—because just as there is no justification for carrying on fighting now that there is an agreement, there is no justification in my view for the Government of Sudan to resist or obstruct in any way the preparations for a UN handover. After all, there is already a UN force in south Sudan—UNMIS—which is helping to oversee the implementation of the north-south peace agreement. There cannot be any objection in principle to having UN forces in Darfur.

The immediate test is to give visas to the planning mission so that they can go to Darfur and start asking the questions that the hon. Member for Buckingham and others asked.

John Bercow: In the event that the Government of Sudan objected to the transfer to a UN force or sought to slow down the process, what would the Secretary of State deduce from that behaviour?

Hilary Benn: I hope very much that that will not be the case, but if it were I would deduce that there was no willingness on the part of the Government of Sudan to enable the process to succeed. I would anticipate and hope that both the AU Peace and Security Council and the UN Security Council would take a dim view of that. The truth is that this conflict, trauma and tragedy have gone on long enough. The agreement is significant, but it is not a solution unless it is implemented. That is the truth, and we must make that happen. In the end, the responsibility falls on the parties to the conflict to make it happen, with the support, encouragement and help of the international community.

I hope that Members believe, as I do, that the UK has played an honourable role in trying to bring the crisis to an end. However, the international community as a whole will have cause to reflect on how things got to the current situation. I praise the African Union for what it has done but above all, today as always, our thoughts are with the people of Darfur, who have the greatest interest in the trauma now being brought to an end. They have suffered far too much, and what they want more than anything else is the chance to go home and live their lives in peace and tranquillity.

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3.5 pm

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): I am grateful to have an opportunity to contribute to the debate. I echo the opening remarks of the Secretary of State when he said that the fact that so many Members are here to discuss this important subject reflects the concern that is felt throughout the House about events in Sudan. At the outset, I praise the Government’s contribution to the processes that are in play in Sudan, and the Select Committee, which produced an excellent report earlier this year, and the all-party group on Sudan, which the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) leads so well.

I also want to echo the Secretary of State’s final words. He said that the British Government had played a useful—indeed, I would say pivotal—part in the processes that have taken place in recent weeks. He then made the extraordinary understatement that when this very unhappy situation has been resolved, as we all hope it will be, the international community will have cause to reflect on what has happened in recent months and years. He is certainly right about that, as I hope to demonstrate.

Kofi Annan’s comments on Monday put the matter into the correct perspective. He stated:

I also pay tribute to the Secretary of State for his efforts. I believe he has been in Darfur on five occasions recently, and the genuine anger that he clearly feels came across when he was last on the “Today” programme to comment on recent events.

At the heart of the debate are two key factors on which the international community will want to reflect. The first is that it is far from clear that it has learned the lessons of Rwanda. The appalling events that took place there from early April 1994 and over the ensuing 90 days, the paralysis of the international community, and the failure of the organs that are part of the international community and which we expected to react to what was taking place, must have given everyone profound pause for reflection.

It is all too obvious that many of those lessons were not learned. They certainly have not been applied to the situation that developed in Darfur. During the past three years, I have been struck not by the progress that has been made, but by how little progress has been made.

Mr. Mullin: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the case of Rwanda is not entirely analogous? It was much more obvious what was happening there and the lines were clear, whereas in Darfur one of the confusing factors has been the number of different rebel movements, which do not all get on with each other, sometimes attack the very aid convoys that have gone to help people, and appeared at one time to have an
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agenda for causing a great deal more disruption rather than less. Peace was not on their agenda either, and that has made the situation much more complicated.

Mr. Mitchell: What the hon. Gentleman says is true, but the international organs and institutions to which all of us in the civilised world look to take action appeared to be just as paralysed in the circumstances in Darfur as they were in Rwanda. Although I agree that the situations are not analogous, nevertheless the paralysis in the United Nations that pertained then has also pertained in Darfur.

I visited Darfur last month with my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary. We went to el-Fasher where, thanks to Oxfam, which does such brilliant work in the camps in Darfur, we could see for ourselves what was happening on the ground. We also visited Khartoum to talk to Government officials about what was happening. My abiding memory of that visit was the sight on the tarmac at el-Fasher airport of a Sudanese attack helicopter—almost as a direct insult to the international community and a symbol of Sudanese indifference to world opinion. We were informed that that attack helicopter flew frequently and, as we heard from direct evidence in the camps, was used against the people of Darfur. There is still a huge amount to do, and a huge amount on which the international community needs to reflect.

Will the Secretary of State comment on several points made in the main conclusions to the excellent Select Committee report published earlier this year? Conclusion 2 reflects the Committee’s concern about the ability of the aid agencies to deliver assistance. In view of the representations that I, the shadow Foreign Secretary and others made to the Sudanese Government, is the Secretary of State happy that the actions taken by the Khartoum Government to make life more difficult for the aid agencies, and in particular personnel trying to get into Darfur, have been resolved? Will he update us?

In conclusion 3, at paragraph 9 of the report, the Committee was concerned that

the Government of Sudan—

Notwithstanding the events of recent weeks, will the Secretary of State update us on that?

Mr. Drew: Later, the report describes the reality of the problem with trying to impose sanctions, because the one country that could put the squeeze on Khartoum is China. Given the hon. Gentleman’s knowledge of Zimbabwe, I am sure he will agree that it is no good the west saying, “All these things we must do”, if the Chinese continue to undermine any influence the UN has.

Mr. Mitchell: The hon. Gentleman is right. He brings me on to my next point, which relates to conclusions 5 and 8. The Select Committee makes it clear that it is important that, in support of an African solution to an African problem, the surrounding countries put pressure on the Sudanese Government.

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The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. If the surrounding countries are willing and able to put pressure on those countries that are not behaving as they should, that is the most powerful way to influence a situation. There is nothing more clear than the situation in Zimbabwe to demonstrate that. The fact that Britain complains about the behaviour of President Mugabe has far less effect—in fact, it arguably bolsters the President—than when South Africa or the other surrounding countries take exception to what is being done.

If we are to put more pressure on the Sudanese Government to ensure that they stand by the agreements that they have signed and implement the changes that they have agreed, will the Secretary of State update us on the support that other countries are giving to the process?

John Bercow: In talking about sanctions and the other punitive measures that we envisage as necessary, it is perhaps as well to be clear in our minds about the scale of the abuse of human rights that has taken place and, to a significant measure, continues to take place. In that context, is my hon. Friend aware of article 2(c) of the UN convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, under which

constitutes a form of genocide? My impression on my two visits was that what was taking place was genocide. Is that also the view of my hon. Friend and our right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary?

Mr. Mitchell: That is my view. My hon. Friend makes the point extremely clearly.

The 10th recommendation of the report talks about the importance of African solutions to African problems. Can the Secretary of State update us on the pledge made by the Prime Minister, which was referred to yesterday in Prime Minister’s questions, to train 20,000 peacekeepers by the end of this year? In response to a question from the Leader of the Opposition yesterday, the Prime Minister specifically mentioned how important that would be to Sudan.

I want to turn briefly to a point mentioned in passing by the Secretary of State, which is the decision last year at the millennium development goals review summit to embrace a duty to protect. The Secretary of State rightly said that people hear those fine words but wonder what they actually mean. For the people the shadow Foreign Secretary and I met in the camps, those words are truly meaningless.

My substantive point is that in implementing the agreement and ensuring that the parties to the agreement, as well as those who have not yet signed but will, stand by what they have agreed and said, we will see whether the international community can summon up the political will and sense of urgency to ensure that peace comes to Darfur and that the people in the camps can return in safety to their homes and villages. When we met them, they were quite clear that they would not return unless there was a more substantial force in Darfur. What plans have been developed to translate the African Union force into a blue-hatted force? The timetable is very tight.

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