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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 1 April 2008

[Mr. Eric Martlew in the Chair]


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

9.30 am

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): Despite having worked in Africa for a number of years before entering Parliament and serving as vice-chairman of the parliamentary all-party group on Africa, I have not, to my embarrassment, done more on Sudan, and on Darfur specifically. Indeed, I only engaged in that country’s affairs and those of the region two years ago.

On Holocaust memorial day, I went to sign the book of remembrance—or condolence; I am unsure exactly how to refer to it—and was surprised that I was expected to make a comment as well as signing my name. I wrote, “We must remember, lest we make the same mistakes again.” I said “we” because all members of the human race are culpable in the problems around the world. When I returned to my office, my research assistant, Philippa Buckley, whom I respect very much, asked me what I had written. I told her, and she laughed in my face—not because it was funny, but because my comments were somewhat facile and simplistic. We face such problems around the world, and Darfur is just one of the places where they are happening. Never before in my three years as a Member of Parliament, and never since, have I felt so weak and so unable to make an impact on a situation that needs the world’s attention.

The Aegis Trust recommended to MPs that now was a good time to build on the Westminster Hall debates secured by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), particularly as we have just passed the five-year anniversary of what most people regard as the beginning of the conflict. We are also coming up to 13 April—the day for Darfur—so today is a good time to review the situation in Sudan.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Before my hon. Friend moves too far from his point about facile comments, does he, like me, find it a little bit rich that President Sarkozy and other EU leaders talk about redoubling their efforts when they have failed to meet their promises to provide peacekeepers in Darfur? Perhaps they ought to address their protectionist EU trade policies, which add to instability in that region of Africa.

James Duddridge: I certainly agree that talk has been easy, and that there has been little delivery. I am critical not only of Sarkozy but of the Government, although not in a party political way. Given the mechanisms of British politics, it is the Government and the Minister of the day who are responsible, not Parliament as a whole. It is not a party political matter; the buck simply rests with the Minister in her current role.

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I shall draw heavily on the work of the Aegis Trust and the International Crisis Group, as well as research provided by the all-party group on Sudan. I commend the hon. Member for Stroud, the chair of the all-party group, and his team on their excellent work. The Minister might agree that an hour and a half is not enough time to cover all the pertinent points. If the all-party group collates some of the remaining questions and research from the Aegis Trust, perhaps she could respond fully in something between a letter and a Select Committee reply—clearly, it would not be appropriate for her to go that far—and come back to the group in slightly more substantial detail. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Stroud is nodding assent, so perhaps that is a sensible way forward on the points that are not covered.

Sudan is racked with conflict. In only 11 of the past 50 years or so has there been anything other than a state of civil war. One of the things that compelled me to face the enormity of the situation is the number of people who have died—not the absolute number, but the change in number. The figure of 200,000 was quoted time and again until Jan Egeland pointed out that as it applied two and a half years ago, it was probably out of date, and that 400,000 might be more appropriate. Overnight, everyone has suddenly started using the figure of 400,000, which is double what they were talking about only months ago. That brought home the horrendous nature of what has happened.

The Aegis Trust is good at bringing to the forefront the contemporary nature of the atrocities. I visited the trust in Rwanda as part of a visit with Christian Aid and Oxfam, and one of the things that concerned me was how normal the context is within which genocide and atrocities take place. It is far too easy to think of Sudan and Darfur as faraway places that are somehow different from the United Kingdom. I have not had the opportunity to visit Sudan, but from my extensive travels in other African countries I think that the similarities between our continents and countries are much greater than we realise.

I shall concentrate on five core areas and come on to make some action points. It is important that we consider action rather than words, as we have had far too many words without action. I shall concentrate on the no-fly zone, sanctions—particularly travel sanctions—the logistics of delivering aid within the area, the UN force and China’s role. On the no-fly zone, will the Minister confirm what methods are being considered? Most of the documentation refers to helicopter cover of the no-fly zone, but the Prime Minister stated on 12 March that he had considered the no-fly zone, and that he

He was speaking of aeroplanes, not helicopters, which are more commonly considered.

I appreciate the constraints on our military, but if we accept that they exist to do anything more than simply protect the United Kingdom and defend the realm, surely it is for exactly such a situation, in which relatively little effort could have a massive impact. I realise that there are sensitivities, but I cannot help but think that, given some international focus, a small force—perhaps at the air base in Chad, which I understand is controlled or at least influenced by the French—could quickly
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clear the airspace. If one or two of its aircraft were shot down, the Sudanese army would not want to put further aircraft into the sky for fear of losing them.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this debate, and on quite properly and rightly keeping the focus on Sudan. On no-fly zones, I recall hearing at a meeting of the all-party group—my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) is the main person responsible for keeping that group going—that we should not push the issue too far, because negotiations were under way and we should not upset the Sudanese Government. However, given that they have gone back on everything else that they have said, does the hon. Gentleman agree that that view is not sustainable?

James Duddridge: I totally agree that that view is not sustainable, and I shall come on to draw parallels with the Zimbabwe sanctions. As Back-Bench Members, we must speak up loudly and clearly on those issues and ask our Government to speak with a loud and clear voice, too. It is the only thing that seems to be heard and to work.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in the face of constant denials from the Sudanese Government about their involvement from the air, it is absolutely clear that in the past, only they have had Antonov bombers and helicopter gunships, so a no-fly zone would take out of the game the only people with power from the air—the Sudanese Government?

James Duddridge: I completely agree. It is particularly distressing that the Sudanese Government sometime fly under a United Nations banner to disguise what they are doing. Even if we cannot go the whole way and secure a no-fly zone, the European Union, NATO and the United Kingdom should lead an observation mission to see what is happening with those aircraft and how they are being used. In a previous debate, one of my hon. Friends—I think it may have been my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry)—talked about seeing planes fly off on aid missions at the same time as attack aircraft were heading off to commit atrocities. Clearly, that is a ludicrous situation.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Pursuant to the points made by right hon. and hon. Members, may I say to my hon. Friend that first, absolutely no significance whatever is to be attached to the denials ritually issued by the Sudanese Government, because they are characterised by institutional mendacity? If they are not flying over and engaging in atrocities from the air, they have no reason to fear a no-fly zone. Secondly, is my hon. Friend conscious that the British Government committed to the notion of a no-fly zone as long ago as December 2004? The idea is old news; it is a question of giving effect to it.

James Duddridge: I very much agree, and note the issue about the United Kingdom Government’s position. Resources are stretched with our helicopters in Afghanistan and Iraq, but we can use our technical capability to
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provide pilots rather than aircraft. When other countries provide aircraft, we can use our engineers to keep those aircraft up and working, and we can also use international pressure and persuasion. I understand that as late as last month, Russia was prepared to offer helicopters to the zone, and Lord Malloch-Brown, who has ministerial responsibility for Africa, stated that he was following up that offer. In addition, we can back up our promise not with physical aircraft but with money to pay for aircraft, either via private companies—although I understand that there are concerns about private companies operating helicopters, and particularly about their capability—or by paying for helicopters, possibly from the Chinese and Indian armies, which are prepared to offer the physical resources but not to provide the financial backing.

Bob Spink: My hon. Friend, along with other hon. Members, has talked about attacks from the air by aircraft, but is he aware that there is ample evidence from the people in the refugee camps of the Sudanese army delivering troops to drive them out of their villages? Aircraft are delivering troops on the ground, not just attacking from the air.

James Duddridge: It is clear that there is a great deal of evidence of total complicity between the Sudanese Government and non-governmental organisations to the same end.

I shall turn to sanctions, because on that issue more than any other, the British Government’s words do not match their actions. On 18 July 2007, the Prime Minister said that

On 20 July 2007, he talked about the

On 23 July 2007, he said that

On 30 July 2007, speaking at a press conference with George W. Bush, the Prime Minister said that we will have

In a speech to the UN, he said that

On 30 August, he said that

There has been plenty of talk of the threat of sanctions. I could go on and on with such examples, but we have not seen any action. It is time for the British Government to act, not to talk tough.

In Zimbabwe, through the EU, we eventually imposed a number of travel sanctions. The UK was very timid about Zimbabwe, and I understand the reasons why, but accusations of our being a colonial power do not apply to Darfur and Sudan, so we encourage the Government to bring forward much more detailed sanctions and back up words with action. Having until recently been a member of the Select Committee on International Development, I am more familiar with the subject of aid logistics. There is simply not the peace or space in
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which to operate a strong development programme effectively. In the past three months alone, according to figures from the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, there have been four attacks on convoys and 18 attacks and attempted invasions of premises; three personnel from international organisations have been arrested or detained without good reason; 84 humanitarian personnel have been kidnapped; nine personnel have been physically or sexually assaulted, and three aid workers have been killed. In order for us to help the people of Darfur, the Government of Sudan must do more to help the international community and the aid community gain free movement throughout the country.

Before I talk about the role of the UN force, I shall quote the secretariat of the all-party group on Sudan, which made a telling point:

cannot be sustained when the parties are determined to violate it. The secretariat went on to say that that

We need to establish peace, but I shall leave it to other Members to discuss the internal politics of Sudan, because I do not have time to address that in my speech.

We need to do more to support the delivery of the UN force, and to stop the Sudanese Government blocking certain nations from entering the country and picking and choosing others. The force should be predominantly, but not entirely, African. Examples of basic equipment for the peacekeeping force being stuck in customs for eight to 10 weeks, and sometimes more, are wholly unacceptable. The Sudanese Government are simply trying to interfere and prevent the peacekeepers from arriving and discharging their responsibilities.

I should also like the Minister to address the issue of China. I am heartened that the Chinese have offered to provide helicopters. However, I am concerned about China’s role in Sudan, particularly in the oil industry, and I have been unable to bottom out the degree and impact of that influence. I should like the Minister to deal with five areas in her reply. On the no-fly zone, what are we going to do? On travel sanctions, will we get actions that match words? On the arms embargo, will we enforce it and extend it from Darfur to Sudan more broadly? What are we going to do to put pressure on Sudan more generally? Finally, will the Minister agree to reply more fully to the points that Aegis and the all-party group on Sudan have made?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Meg Munn) indicated assent.

James Duddridge: I shall not go through all the points that Aegis made, but some are worth putting on the record. They include recommendations on the humanitarian situation such as a proposal

internally displaced peoples—

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Aegis goes on to make recommendations about the security situation. It wants to ensure that there is a monitoring regime for the “air assets” of the Sudanese army, to which I referred earlier; it wants to extend the arms embargo—another issue that I touched on earlier—and finally it recommends putting an EU force in Chad to monitor cross-border movements, which is something to which I have not referred.

Regarding the UN, Aegis wants a stop to the bureaucratic delays that prevent troops from being allowed in to contribute towards the UN force. The British Government could examine whether they could underwrite some of the helicopter costs. Finally, we must ensure that the British Government have appropriate high-level contacts with their Russian and Ukrainian counterparts about helicopter funding. I am conscious that there is so very much more to say, but I wish to leave it at that, to allow other colleagues to contribute to this very important debate.

9.50 am

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I would like to thank the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge), who is my friend in this respect, for securing this debate, because it is obviously very important that we discuss Darfur at this time. It is good to see so many friends here in Westminster Hall.

I would like to thank Chris Milner, the co-ordinator of the all-party group on Sudan, who has briefed us very well, and it is good to see representatives from the joint unit from the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development. I will say, on behalf of the Government, that the joint unit continues to invest considerable time and money and I hope that the Minister will take that as a commendation. Michael O’Neill continues to shuffle around as the special representative to Sudan and we were also fortunate to get a confidential briefing from the Minister’s friend, Lord Malloch-Brown, on some of the issues that continue to dominate any discussion of Darfur.

The background is all too awful. If anything, the current estimate of the number of people killed in Darfur is rising from the 200,000 that was talked about as a matter of course to somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000. So that is the context in which we are working.

I have two observations about general security issues. I would like to talk about the security situation and then talk about how we can hopefully pursue peace. The sad thing now is that the conflict in Darfur is increasingly a regional and proxy conflict. Certainly, we cannot talk about Darfur without including Chad as part of the conflict, so porous are the boundaries between them. We have clearly seen the antagonism between President al-Bashir and President Deby. Of course, we also have the increasingly internal complexities, which move from banditry through to localised and communal violence. That progression has made what was already an awful situation an even more difficult one to try to solve.

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