Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord. I am sure he is not suggesting that I in any way interfered with the record of the House. I am sure that I misunderstood his remark.

Lord McNair: My Lords, I am expressing my puzzlement and that of other noble Lords. I thought that that was the gist of the remarks that the noble Baroness made.

Last week my noble friend Lord Avebury sent me a copy of a letter to the Minister. I have discussed with him my intention to refer to it in this debate. In that letter he correctly raised the issue of a demonstration about the school leavers who had been conscripted into the Sudanese Army. There is a perfectly legitimate and important debate, from a human rights and civil liberties point of view, about conscription. In the United Kingdom we ended National Service in only the early 1960s. Several western European countries still retain conscription.

My noble friend wrote of "forcible conscriptions". Apart from the fact that the word "conscription" is not commonly used in the plural, even in discussions about the present Government of the Sudan, is not conscription, in every country where it is used, by definition backed by the force of law? The human rights concern about that incident should be about whether the executive interfered with the judiciary on that occasion or whether the judiciary exceeded acceptable norms in meting out punishment to the women who demonstrated. Several points have been raised this evening which I know are misguided or misdirected, but I do not have time to counter them.

I notice about the debate over human rights violations in the Sudan what my father used to call selective moral indignation. That is what I object to about this debate. My noble friend, the noble Baroness, the Minister, and all noble Lords who have spoken out against human rights abuse in the Sudan must be aware of the many thousands of Sudanese boys, some as young as six years old, who have been abducted by the SPLA in a manner that can only be described as systematic and cold-blooded; but it is an issue on which this House has been virtually silent.

On 18th December 1996 the Interpress Service quoted Farouk Saleh Mohamed Abdellah--I doubt if he is a Christian--a former SPLA member who used to train child soldiers at Dima camp in Ethiopia:

11 Dec 1997 : Column 367

That practice is clearly defined as slavery or a slavery-like practice by the slavery convention of 1956. It has helped to dislocate southern society. It has removed generations of children from their communities, their society and their way of life. They do not know the names of their parents or grandparents or even the clan to which they belong. They have forgotten, or been denied, the wonderfully rich tradition of oral history that forms the backbone of southern tribal life. Some of those children were returned to the Sudan from Cuba, where they had been sent for ideological training, speaking only Spanish.

The living conditions of those boys are mentioned by John Prendergast, an internationally recognised expert on development, in his book Crisis Response: Humanitarian Band-Aids in Sudan and Somalia. He also described Sudanese children in a UNHCR refugee camp in Uganda. He said that they drew harrowing pictures of pre-rape scenes, killings and lootings, with "SPLA" written on top of many of the pictures. Are not some of those children Christians? Are not the overwhelming majority "black African" southern children?

Reports suggest that there used to be an estimated 10,000 of those boys. By 1995 Human Rights Watch/Africa estimated that the number was down to 4,500. The rest have died as under-age conscripts forced into battle or from illness or malnutrition in the appalling conditions in which they are kept. It is a dreadful situation. And, as Human Rights Watch/Africa made clear, it is a practice which continues to this day.

We must persuade the SPLA to release the children who are still alive into the care of the International Red Cross, UNICEF or other international organisations which care for children. That is something that they have so far refused to do. We should also press Mr. John Garang to account for those who are missing. I hope that the noble Baroness who initiated this debate will press him to do that and to deliver the surviving children from what is a form of slavery.

I also ask the Minister to convey to Mr. Garang, as a matter of urgency, the concern of this House about this matter as it affects children on both sides of the civil war, when the FCO is next in contact with the SPLA. John Prendergast also wrote scathingly in the book I mentioned earlier about the SPLA's behaviour towards the people of southern Sudan. He wrote that they had

    "terrorized the southern population into passive compliance",

and that,

    "the predominant instruments ... have been and still are coercion and corruption. It [the SPLA] has not managed to integrate society around any positive values".

And also,

    "Institutionalisation of the top-down arrangements by the socialist group who initially established the SPLM/A has led to a permanent oppression of those persons in the area under the control of the movement".


    "The human rights abuses of the SPLA are by now well documented ... What is less understood is the abuse and manipulation of humanitarian assistance, the undermining of

11 Dec 1997 : Column 368

    commerce and the authoritarian political structures which have stifled any efforts at local organising or capacity building in the south".

That describes nothing so much as a gangster state, or part of a state. Does the Minister and do the British Government really want to lend their authority to such people?

On 1st December the Minister referred to the large mailbag which the department receives about human rights in the Sudan,

    "despite limited media coverage on the subject".--[Official Report, 1/12/97; col. 1235.]

Media coverage on Sudan is most definitely limited; it is limited to what is at times a grotesquely one-sided account. Bernard Levin is a particular culprit. He has written about himself,

    "hyperbole is my middle name".

He has admitted that he exaggerates awfulness just for fun.

Despite assurances by the Minister last week that the Islamic nature of the government is not a problem and that it is not just a north-south issue, I know that the popular belief in this country reflects the one-sided media coverage of these issues. If we fail to publicise the plight of these children, if we fail to press hard for their early release so that they can be reunited with their families, we will have closed our ears, our minds and our hearts.

12.3 a.m.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for bringing us news of the persecuted minorities in Burma and Sudan. On Burma, I once had the honour of meeting a Karen war hero who served under Bernard Fergusson. He gave me a tin of tea to carry back from Burma to your Lordship's House for his former commander. It carried the message:

    "To dear Lord Ballantrae, from sunshine--Mandalay".

We owe a great debt to the Karen people and the other minorities who are now living in appalling conditions, many caught between the Scylla of the SLORC and the Charybdis of the Thai Government, as other noble Lords described. I urge the Government to further the cause of the Karen through the European Union and Thailand in particular, while continuing to support the refugee work of our NGOs through the Burmese Border Consortium.

On Sudan, the noble Lord, Lord McNair, said last week that we must all beware of distortions. Moral outrage is not a scarce commodity in this House; reliable facts sometimes are. The noble Lord said that there was no evidence whatever of the CSI allegations of slavery in Kordofan or Nuba Mountains. We have now heard an unequivocal reply. He also quoted other sources, including Anti-Slavery International, saying that there was no evidence of government involvement in slave trading or raiding.

I would specifically like to answer for Anti Slavery International, the oldest organisation in this field, founded in 1839, with much experience in Sudan. Slavery is a problem which has perplexed this House

11 Dec 1997 : Column 369

ever since. General Gordon, with all his influence, was unable to solve it 100 years ago, and in some areas few have been able or willing to alter the way of life of slave traders ever since. In a sense slavery symbolises the struggle of the south for liberation from the north and cannot be separated form the political, ethnic and religious struggle which we simplify into the term "civil war".

It is a highly complex problem. But it is important that we pool our resources and our information and respect the well documented evidence of ASI, CSI and others that slavery does exist in many areas of Sudan, and that it is wrong and a serious abuse of human rights which must, in time, be removed.

The noble Lord, Lord McNair, quoted ASI and Sudan Update's joint 1997 report in support of his response to CSI, stating that there was no evidence for government raids in Sudan. ASI's position is that, while it may be inaccurate to accuse the Government of direct involvement in slavery, there is certainly evidence that slavery is a by-product of the Government of Sudan's arming of the local Baggara militia in Kordofan and Dharfur.

Age-old competition for pasture between the Baggara nomads in south Kordofan and the Dinka herders of northern Bahr al Ghazal worsened because of drought and civil war in the mid-1980s when the then defence minister channelled modern weapons to the Baggara raiders as a means of holding off the SPLA. These weapons have since given the Baggara the upper hand in their violent attacks on Dinka cattle and villages. There is evidence that children as well as adults have been captured during these raids and either enslaved or conscripted.

The Government of Sudan have made a number of statements denying the existence of slavery which has officially been illegal for over a century. Slaves, they argue, are merely captives or hostages. But by using those who practise slavery as part of their military campaign, whether or not as a deliberate policy of condoning slavery, they are allowing this major abuse of human rights to persist, at least by default. As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, mentioned last week, the special rapporteur has criticised the "manifest passivity" of the Government of Sudan, leading him to the conclusion that abductions and slavery,

    "are carried out by persons acting under the authority and with the tacit approval of the Government of Sudan".

There are clear measures at the government level recommended by ASI and other agencies which could, in the long run, lead to the elimination of slavery. They include ending the practice of arming local militias, encouraging reconciliation between the Dinka and the Baggara, requiring police to help families in the location of slaves, and working closely with international agencies with experience of tracing and human rights monitoring. Purchase or redemption is a controversial subject because it could create or encourage a slave market.

There is now considerable experience inside Sudan among the Churches and human rights agencies of tracing missing persons and of monitoring human rights

11 Dec 1997 : Column 370

abuse. Dinka retrieval groups have had some success, especially in tracing children. But in a sense it is only a determined government campaign at the highest level, gradually backing up the recommendations of the United Nations special rapporteur and of local human rights arbitrators and monitors, coupled with a long-term public education policy, which will have an impact on slavery. I sincerely hope that our own Government will be able to endorse that through the United Nations.

I was grateful to hear from the Minister that Britain is indeed supporting the Sudanese refugees in other countries through the United Nations agencies. I would like to ask in particular whether she has any news of the Kakuma camp in Kenya, where there are reports of dire malnutrition coming through the Church Mission Society and other sources. Can she say--perhaps she will be able to do so by letter--whether aid is getting through?

I was reassured by her, following last week's debate, that humanitarian aid will not be affected by sanctions. That is very encouraging for the NGOs involved. I am sure that she will agree that there is some confusion between ECHO and DG8 over food aid which, while understandable, should be kept to a minimum. I would only ask for clarification on one further point, which is food-for-work programmes. Is there any reason why this useful, localised form of humanitarian aid in Sudan, which often takes the form of small dykes for water catchment, essentially for crop growing in areas of shortage, should be refused support on the grounds of sanctions?

12.10 a.m.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, I offer sincere apologies for my oversight in not confirming my name was on the speakers' list. I offer additional apologies to those who work so assiduously in the Government Whips' Office for adding to their workload this evening. Your Lordships and the Officers of the House have been most considerate in allowing me to contribute to this debate.

I, too, would like to take this opportunity to thank my noble friend Lady Cox for securing this important debate. It seems to me ironic that we should have this debate on the anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and on the eve of Human Rights Year, the end of which will mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of that seminal document. For tonight we are discussing two countries whose governments have violated almost every international standard of human rights addressed in that declaration.

Despite their respective locations on two continents separated by thousands of miles and no obvious geographical, historical or cultural connections, these two countries still have marked and tragic similarities. The authoritarian, totalitarian, military regimes in both countries hold power without the consent of the people whose elected representatives were either overthrown or denied their rightful mandate to rule. The international community, particularly Britain, who has close historical ties to both these countries, has an obligation incumbent on it to keep faith with the people of Burma and with the people of Sudan. They have made clear

11 Dec 1997 : Column 371

their support for human rights and democracy and it is their will that the ruling regimes have chosen to disregard.

Democracy, political pluralism and opposition have no place in Burma or Sudan. Those who are brave enough to stand up for their beliefs risk arrest and detention. Both regimes terrorise many of the ethnic and religious minorities who live within their borders, who by the very nature of their minority status should most merit the protection of the government

In Sudan, there are reports of attempts of forced conversions to Islam of the country's African non-Moslem people, while in Burma the Christian Chin children of the Chin ethnic minority are forced to convert to Buddhism and Christian crosses are burned.

Both regimes are characterised by the contempt they show for the opinion of the international community. Each seems to revel in its status as a pariah of the late 20th century and each ignores the opprobrium, condemnation and censure heaped upon it by the rest of the world. Thus Sudan has become a haven for terrorists and Burma turns a blind eye to its status as a world centre for opium and heroin, from which its government profits, while the international community seeks to counter and eradicate the evil scourge of the drugs trade.

It is government by the government for the government. Hope is starved and desperation is fed, while corruption and nepotism prosper. While the people of Burma and of the Sudan are denied their rights, these countries will never fulfil their potential.

In Sudan, wracked by one of Africa's most bitter and protracted civil wars, in which 1.2 million people are estimated to have been killed since 1983, the north is ravaged by soaring inflation and commodity shortages, while the economic infrastructure of the south is in ruins and the villagers are starving, their livestock is stolen and crops destroyed. All of this in a country capable of food surpluses.

In Burma, image and rhetoric have played a greater part in the renaming of the regime than substance or new policies. The military junta has shown no credible signs of willingness to cede its power or to negotiate with pro-democracy forces and ethnic groups for a genuine political settlement, to allow a return to the rule of law and respect for basic human rights as demanded by the international community.

Despite an announcement last month that they wished to:

    "create conditions in which political parties, especially the NLD, can play a constructive role in moving Burma to democracy",

in the same week four members of the NLD were arrested in the "interests of maintaining stability" and Aung San Suu Kyi's car was blocked by barbed wire barricades to prevent her attending an NLD meeting in case it created an "unnecessary disturbance of the peace".

These potentially prosperous nations have failed their own people. Sudan, the ninth largest country in the world, a land of extraordinary diversity and potential, has contributed negatively to the region's welfare as a

11 Dec 1997 : Column 372

whole, while the economic miracle of the South East Asian tigers has bypassed Burma entirely. Its economy weak and seriously short of foreign reserves, its political institutions moribund, its bureaucracy bloated, its governance arbitrary, facing social crisis, soaring drug addiction and a related AIDs epidemic, Burma is a stark and isolated contrast to the open, integrated and prospering economies of the region.

The 1996 parliamentary and presidential elections in Sudan were neither free nor fair. With any political opposition banned, the people of Sudan were yet again denied a real choice. In Burma, the SLORC regime continues to reinforce its rule via a pervasive security apparatus led by military intelligence and to restrict sharply basic rights to free speech.

At this point, I would like to pay tribute to the work of the BBC World Service. Aung San Suu Kyi has said that during the six years of her house arrest the World Service provided one of her few links to the outside world. Without the BBC World Service she would not have heard about the historic events of those years, which saw the domino topple of Communism in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union; the release of Nelson Mandela and the ending of apartheid in South Africa; and the extraordinary revolution in global communications and information technology. I pay tribute to the work of the World Service and the many languages in which it broadcasts and I would like the Minister's reassurance that its future is secure.

There is consensus in your Lordships' House that Britain must use its influence to promote real democracy in these countries, to promote the rule of law and respect for human rights, which will follow in its wake. There are two models that the international community can follow in order to put pressure to reform on a regime which abuses the rights of its people: that of critical dialogue and constructive engagement, combined with strong combined international pressure for reform, and that of isolation.

I do not think there is such a gulf of difference between the Opposition and the Government as the Foreign Secretary's rhetoric would have the world believe. I must ask the Minister if she sees a difference between our policies and, if so, in which countries do Government consider the abuse of human rights to be sufficiently serious to merit the imposition of trade sanctions? Given that human rights are now at the centre of the Government's foreign policy, how much further would the level of human rights atrocities in any country with which we trade have to deteriorate before the Government impose sanctions, if not in Burma and the Sudan? If the Government are not considering the imposition of trade sanctions in either of these countries, how will they reconcile the inherent tension between the policy of constructive dialogue and non-isolation on the one hand with the expectations raised by an ethical foreign policy?

The international community looks forward to the day when it can send messages of congratulation to peaceful and stable governments in both Sudan and Burma, which reflect, not reject, the will of their citizens. During its presidency of the EU, Britain has an

11 Dec 1997 : Column 373

opportunity to use its influence to lead the world community in helping to fashion an African and an ASEAN solution to the problems of the Sudan and of Burma respectively. We hope that it will rise to that challenge.

12.18 a.m.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, as on many previous occasions I have the honour to pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for her outstanding work on human rights in the many very dangerous parts of the world which she visits with great frequency--none less than Sudan and Burma, to which she has assiduously drawn your Lordships' attention with regard to the many and gross violations of human rights in both countries.

This evening I shall concentrate on Burma as we had a debate on Sudan last week and this evening my noble friend Lord Goodhart dealt extensively with the devastating report of the UN Human Rights Committee which is absolutely unanswerable. It is no adequate reply to say, as my noble friend Lord McNair has this evening, that if Mr. John Garang, commits human rights abuses as well, that forms some kind of excuse for the government.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page