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28 Nov 2006 : Column 40WH—continued

I want to ask the Government whether in hindsight they think that it was right to allow Salah Abdallah Ghosh a visa to visit the United Kingdom for urgent medical treatment twice this year. He is the head of Sudanese intelligence, and his name appears on the list of 51 individuals accused of war crimes in Darfur. He was denied an entry visa to the United States and is said to be on the list of the international commission of inquiry and on the list compiled by the panel of experts of people who are obstructing the peace process and who require targeted sanctions. Whichever Government Minister agreed to let him have a visa is, at best, guilty of a serious error of judgment. It is inconceivable that the Secretary of State would have done that. Will he give an undertaking that Her Majesty’s Government will not again entertain the head of Sudanese intelligence in the UK in the current circumstances? Allowing him a visa to visit Britain is
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an insult to the hundreds of thousands who have died in Darfur and to their families, and it sends an impression to Khartoum that we are not serious in what we say. I can do no better than quote the words of James Smith of the Aegis Trust, who stated:

I agree with those words.

We can all try to sum up in rhetoric and in the strongest possible terms our condemnation of what is happening in Darfur, but in my remaining time I shall ask the Secretary of State some specific questions, as I know that the House will want to hear in detail from him. First, on the military situation, can he update us on what Sudan has said about the Addis framework? What is the timetable for reinforcing the existing African Union force? What progress was made at the peace and security meeting, which I believe started on 24 November?

What do the Government believe should happen to the AU mandate, which will expire on 30 December? We need to know that everyone is clear that the mandate will be extended. What progress is being made towards securing a chapter 8 assignment for a hybrid force? A chapter 8 assignment means that the UN will pay for a force even if it does not control it in its entirety. I believe that this is the first time that such an assignment has been contemplated. Given the circumstances, I am sure that it would be the best way forward.

Whatever force is agreed, will helicopters be made available as soon as possible to transport troops, as the AU commander has repeatedly requested? What is the Secretary of State’s judgment on the number of troops that are required? The UN has suggested that there should be 17,000 troops and 3,000 police, but the AU commander made it clear that a much smaller force would enable him to dominate the ground. What is the Secretary of State’s judgment on that? Which countries have offered troops, and, as of today, have enough of them been offered for the hybrid force?

Can the Secretary of State give the House the latest information on soldiers’ pay? We have heard that there have been many months in which AU soldiers have not been paid. It is not a good idea not to pay soldiers who are engaged on active service. Will he say what the UK is doing to help with basics such as the command and control structures of the AU and what steps the Crown agents who are assisting with the payment problems have so far taken?

Will the Secretary of State tell us what steps Sudan is taking towards the disarmament of the Janjaweed, which has been repeatedly suggested and promised? As far as I am aware, nothing at all has happened in that respect.

Secondly, on the political situation, will the Secretary of State say a bit more about the role of the Arab League and the Chinese in the Addis framework and beyond? A senior UN official told me that the Chinese had been far more helpful than was anticipated at
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Addis, but not yet helpful enough. What is the Secretary of State’s judgment on that? What steps does he think should be taken now to re-energise the Darfur peace agreement? What steps are being taken in respect of revising the wealth and power-sharing provision, and does he believe that they are adequate?

What is being done to help establish the transitional Darfur regional authority? As far as I am aware, all parties have agreed to it, and it is an area where some thinking could be done and some action could be taken on the ground. What does the Secretary of State believe can be done to re-engage in the political process the many groups in Darfur such as the rebel groups, which have splintered and fractured as a result of their response to the DPA? What can Britain do, alone or with others, to help the political process along?

What is being done to stop the escalating crisis engulfing Chad and even the Central African Republic? My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold referred to that. What discussions has the Secretary of State or his Government colleagues had with his French opposite number about the use of French bases in Chad for humanitarian relief and, indeed, for potential military assistance to the AU-UN hybrid force?

Thirdly, on the humanitarian relief situation, I have four questions for the Secretary of State. What is his information on the parts of Darfur that are as of now closed to humanitarian relief? Will he confirm that there is no shortage of money or food available from the international community and that the difficulties are in getting resources into those areas? What protection is the AU giving for the movement of food and essential supplies? What steps are being taken to emphasise to Khartoum the critical necessity for humanitarian organisations to be allowed free and unfettered access to civilians in need throughout Darfur?

I end where I started, with the Archbishop of York’s proverb. After Rwanda, the international community said, “Never again.” We have heard today of between 300,000 and 400,000 deaths in Darfur. We have heard about the bombing, murder and rape of innocent civilians, the looting of villages, the spreading of the conflict across international borders and the 2 million who are living in camps. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) set out in his usual forceful way the key question: does the Government of Sudan have, in effect, a veto? Last year, the international community embraced with much back-slapping and self-congratulation the responsibility to protect. We will see over the coming weeks whether that is any more than the self-serving mumbo jumbo so accurately described by my hon. Friend.

12.10 pm

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): I begin by expressing my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) for giving us all the opportunity to debate the terrible situation in Darfur once again. Trying to achieve a resolution is something that I care passionately about. I have probably spent more time on this issue than any other in my three and a bit years as Secretary of State; Sudan is certainly the country that I have visited more
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than any other and it is a high priority for the Government. The number of hon. Members who have attended the debate and who have spoken shows that the passion is shared across the House.

I am pleased that the Leader of the Opposition and the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) were able to visit Sudan last week. There is always a balance to be struck. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) made a point about the camps, but it is not camp tourism, because if one does not see it for oneself or hear from people directly, one does not quite understand what is going on. I know that the UN in particular has been concerned about the impact that foreign visitors have on the camps because of the trouble that sometimes ensues after we have gone. In one tragic case, when Jan Egeland was in Darfur in the summer, someone who was with him interpreting was subsequently murdered.

I also want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud for the role that he plays as chair of the all-party group on Sudan and to take this opportunity to tell the House that Christopher Prentice has been appointed as the new United Kingdom special representative to Sudan. He is the former ambassador to Amman, and prior to that he dealt with Sudan as head of the near east and north Africa department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He will contribute, alongside a lot of other people, to our attempts to make progress.

I do not need to repeat what has been said by many people about the appalling situation. I am increasingly concerned about the humanitarian situation. In Jan Egeland’s recent briefing to the UN Security Council, he said that the total number of people in need of humanitarian assistance and food aid could be as high as 4 million. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) asked directly about the World Food Programme. This year it has appealed for $909 million for the wonderful work that it does. That appeal is currently 89 per cent. funded, so we are doing okay.

The number of people who are inaccessible is rising. The last figure that I saw was 323,000. There is no doubt that when, as the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield did, we look at the maps and see the red bits that, as I recollect, show the areas that cannot be accessed, we see how the recent upsurge in fighting since May has made it more difficult for the UN and non-governmental organisation operations to get to people.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Secretary of State cited Jan Egeland’s estimate of 4 million people, but I believe that Jan Egeland also said that access was only likely to be available to 3 million and that there would be a further 1 million to whom access would not be available at all. Anywhere else in the world, to have 1 million people in desperate need of humanitarian assistance without being able to get it to them would be totally unacceptable. What further measures can the British Government and the Secretary of State take to ensure that those people get some assistance?

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Hilary Benn: I shall come directly on to the two things that I think we need to do, first in the form of a more effective peacekeeping operation and secondly as a political settlement. Those two things combined will overcome the crisis.

Like others, I want to pay tribute to the courage, bravery and selfless commitment of all the people—the UN staff, those who work for NGOs and the many Sudanese who support them in that effort—because this is the largest and most complex humanitarian operation in the world, and although it is not much comfort, the situation in the camps and for the people would be much worse without their work. The most recent mortality survey shows that for those who are in the camps, circumstances are better than was the case two years ago.

My hon. Friend made an important point about the endemic rape and sexual violence. The crisis has had an impact on the whole community, but particularly on women. One reason why we need more troops on the ground is so that that force is able more effectively to provide protection to people in the camps, including the women who go out in search of firewood to keep body and soul together.

The truth is that, since the summer, violence has increased; banditry remains an endemic problem; there have been inter-ethnic clashes, which have been particularly acute in west Darfur; and there has been fighting in north Darfur, and the Chadian rebels, who the Government of Chad accuse the Government of Sudan of backing, have clashed with the local population. Violence has been most intense in the north, and since August the Government of Sudan have been waging an on/off offensive there against the National Redemption Front, which is, as hon. Members will be aware, an alliance of rebel groups who oppose the Darfur peace agreement. I shall come back to that. It has received military backing from Chad, but the NRF bears a responsibility, alongside others, for the violence. It is important if we are condemning violence—and we should—that we tell the truth about all those who are responsible.

Particularly worrying since the end of last month has been the renewed co-operation between the Government of Sudan and the Janjaweed—the Arab militias. There are reports that they are being used to mount attacks against civilians and that there is aerial bombing in support of them. One of the consequences of the fighting, of course, is that it makes it more difficult to get humanitarian relief to those who need it. It is unacceptable that the rebels and the Government of Sudan have been involved in escalating the violence. It was particularly outrageous that they did so at the very moment when we were meeting in Addis Ababa the week before last to try to find a way forward.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell: The right hon. Gentleman pre-empts my point that Sudanese Government forces were in action at the same time as the international community, including him, were sitting down in Addis Ababa. I completely agree with his point that anyone who is guilty of violence in Darfur should be condemned, but we should be clear about where the main responsibility lies—it lies absolutely with the Government of Sudan and their proxies in the militias.
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He will have seen the authoritative study carried out by a respected organisation in Denmark that lays 97 per cent. of the blame for the deaths in Darfur with the Government and 3 per cent. with the other rebels.

Hilary Benn: I share the hon. Gentleman’s view. The Government and I have said throughout that the primary responsibility for what has gone on rests with the Government of Sudan. Indeed, the primary responsibility for protecting the people of Sudan rests—or should rest—with the Government of Sudan, because it is their job to ensure that their civilians are looked after; it is not their job to have played a part in those civilians being attacked. The truth is that we are never likely to know the total death toll, although many estimates have been made. There is no doubt that when the International Commission of Inquiry, which we worked hard to set up along with others in the UN, went, studied, came back and reported, it talked, rightly, about crimes against humanity and war crimes.

A number of hon. Members mentioned Chad. There were reports yesterday of columns marching on N’djamena, but I understand that those columns have halted overnight, for whatever reason. They are principally, we think, made up of forces from the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development—the UFDD. There is a UN team there now, trying to assess the situation. I have discussed it with the UN Secretary-General, and it is his intention to report back to the Security Council on what we can do, in addition to dealing with the problems in Darfur, to see whether some kind of UN presence along the borders with Chad and the Central African Republic would help to deal with the impact of violence across the border. The United Kingdom Government are providing £4 million in humanitarian aid to Chad this year.

I will come at the end of my speech to the point that the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) raised about the broader implications of all this. The African Union intervened, with our support—we were the first country in the world to provide financial backing—in 2004. I pay tribute to the work that it has done in exceptionally difficult circumstances, but Alpha Konare, the president of the African Union Commission in Addis, was blunt and direct in the negotiations. He said, “Look, the truth is that we cannot quite manage the operation that we have; there is no way that we could manage.” He was being honest about the difficulty and challenge for an institution that has only recently taken on the mantle of trying to contribute in practical ways to peace and security in Africa. I welcome that. We should support the African Union in its endeavours because it helps to address the question of capacity, which is, in part, behind the point that the hon. Gentleman made. However, the problem is that it cannot handle that role, which is why it came to the view some time ago that there needed to be a transfer to a UN mission.

As the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield will have heard, the truth is what General Aprezi, the new force commander, set out when he said to me, “Look at the map, look at the size. This is the number of troops we’ve got and we haven’t got enough to do the job in hand.” Everybody knows that that is the case. It is an issue of capacity, and that is why we supported UN resolution 1706 so strongly.

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Andrew George: I accept that the situation is as complex and probably more complex than the Secretary of State has painted. Bearing in mind the chapter VII resolutions, on which the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) provided information, and given the complexity of the lack of resources that the Secretary of State has identified, does he believe, in terms of interpretation of the resolutions and sanctions that currently apply, that it can be said that there is a sufficient mandate for the international community to intervene? Clearly, there are issues of resources to be resolved as well, but is there not already sufficient mandate irrespective of Sudan’s perceived veto?

Hilary Benn: I will come directly to that question if the hon. Gentleman bears with me. The hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) also put that point most sharply and bluntly in his characteristic fashion. It is a very, very important issue.

The fact is that resolution 1706 was passed because we needed to find an answer to the problem that the AU could not cope any more. That is what it was about. We tried hard to persuade the Government of Sudan to accept resolution 1706 in the form that it took. I spoke to President Bashir in October, as did many others. In the end, he said that he was not prepared to accept the resolution. In those circumstances, my view—I make no apology for it—was that it was most important to get a strong and effective peacekeeping force that can protect civilians. Therefore, we tried to find another way of achieving the same objective. That is what the meeting in Addis was about. There is no disgrace in that. The Addis meeting was important because we achieved a preliminary agreement on a different approach: a three-phase approach.

Phase one has been agreed and involves the UN providing additional support to the African Union mission. To be absolutely practical, that will include: 105 staff officers; 33 police advisers; 25 civilian staff to build some of that capacity; 36 global positioning systems; 360 night-vision goggles; 36 armoured personnel carriers; medical supplies; and expertise in procurement logistics, communications, IT, air ops, supply, planning, finance, budget and human resources. That is what phase one is about.

Phase two is what is known as the “UN-heavy package”. The precise details have still to be worked out, but it should involve about 1,000 UN personnel providing enabling capacity, camp construction, communications, and transport, including aircraft.

Phase three is the AU/UN hybrid force with a strong mandate. As agreed in paragraph 29, entitled “conclusions”, of the Addis communiqué, it should have as its mandate the restoration of security and the protection of civilians, as well as ensuring full humanitarian access. Questions have been asked about how that force would be made up and everyone has agreed it should have an African force commander.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell: The critical point is whether the Sudanese Government have accepted that. The Sudanese officials said that they would go away and consult. As far as I am aware—it is clear from the rest of the debate that everyone else is in the same
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position—the Sudanese Government have not specifically said that they will accept a AU/UN hybrid force. Does the Secretary of State have any further information on that?

Hilary Benn: I am about to come to that very point. I was trying to help hon. Members by outlining the nature of the agreement.

There will be an African force commander and the force will come from Africa in the first instance, but it was recognised in the meeting that if all the forces could not come from Africa, they would have to come from elsewhere. On the numbers, everyone in the room except the Government of Sudan accepted the assessment that the AU and the UN had jointly made, which the Secretary-General reported to the Security Council back in July, of there being a need for 17,000-plus troops and 3,000 police. What the Government of Sudan said at the meeting was that they recognise the need for more troops. They were not persuaded by the figure of 17,000, and went away to think about that and two other points. The first was the appointment of the force commander, because the Secretary-General has suggested that the force commander should be jointly appointed by the AU and the UN. The second was whether there should be a special representative to whom the force commander would report politically, also appointed by the AU and the UN. Those are the issues that President Lam Akol said he would go away and talk to the President of Sudan about. As we meet this morning, we are waiting for the response of the Government of Sudan. The AU Peace and Security Council meeting was delayed from last Friday, 24 November, and is due to take place tomorrow in Abuja. We are currently waiting to hear what the Government have to say.

John Bercow: The Government of Sudan cannot be granted an unlimited right to ponderous contemplation of whether they will allow the international community to protect people from slaughter. Although we do not know the precise level of fatalities, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that what we do know is that cumulatively the numbers of dead, dying and destitute are rising every day and that Bashir is substantially responsible?

Hilary Benn: I accept that the number of people who have been killed continues to rise because when I went to the Abu Shouk camp I met a group of people who had come from a place called Korma. Those people formed part of the 20,000 who had arrived in the Abu Shouk and the As-Salaam camp, which is the larger neighbouring camp, because of the renewed fighting.

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