HC Deb 29 April 1998 vol 311 cc331-8 3.32 pm
Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for International Development whether she will make a statement on what action Her Majesty's Government are taking in response to the urgent and growing humanitarian crisis in the Sudan.

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short)

The cause of the terrible crisis in Sudan is the civil war. Since 1991, the Government have spent £136 million on humanitarian assistance. In February, I approved a further £4 million in response to a United Nations appeal. We can make more funding available. The problem is not lack of food supplies or money, but delay caused by the Government of Sudan in permitting access, and to get the food to the starving.

In our role as president of the European Union, and on behalf of all EU countries, we are issuing a challenge to both sides—the Government of Sudan and the factions in the south—to agree an immediate ceasefire, so that the necessary supplies can be delivered urgently. The quantities needed cannot be delivered quickly enough by air. We are liaising closely with the UN agencies and all the non-governmental organisations working in the area.

Obviously the immediate priority is to feed the starving, but the long-term answer is a peace settlement. The international community must impose maximum pressure on both sides to reach a peace agreement at the talks beginning in Nairobi on Sunday.

Mr. Savidge

I thank my right hon. Friend for her reply. I am sure that I speak for the whole House in saying that the Government have our total support in every effort they make to alleviate that appalling tragedy.

The House would also agree that we should praise those sections of the news media that have sought to publicise the crisis. I pay particular tribute to BBC television, which has helped to bring home to us the appalling suffering and personal tragedies that underlie the stark statistics—tens of thousands of people facing immediate death, and several hundreds of thousands facing the longer term threat of famine.

Will my right hon. Friend continue and increase her efforts, in conjunction with other appropriate Government Departments and the Governments of other countries, to ensure that increased aid gets through to those in need? Will she put the maximum possible pressure on the Government of Sudan not to obstruct aid transport? Above all, as my right hon. Friend said and as the Prime Minister said in Prime Minister's Questions, in conjunction with the combined world community we must do everything that we can to bring to an end that terrible war, which has lasted for nearly 15 years, and has cost 1.5 million lives through fighting and famine.

Clare Short

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Some 300,000 people are in danger of starving. Food and money are available, but we cannot get the food through. It is absolutely imperative for the media that have brought the crisis to international attention to keep the pressure on the right places: on the factions in the south and the Government of Sudan. We need an immediate ceasefire so that we can get food through; otherwise, the famine will spread and even more people will suffer and die.

There are more refugees and internally displaced people in Sudan than anywhere else in the world. As my hon. Friend said, the war has gone on endlessly. It is causing loss and desperate suffering, and the whole international community must increase its efforts to get a ceasefire and peace, so that the people of Sudan can rebuild their lives.

Sir Alastair Goodlad (Eddisbury)

Does the Minister accept that Opposition Members share the revulsion of people everywhere, expressed by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge), at the inhumanity of those who are blocking emergency food supplies to the starving?

Can the Minister tell us a little more about the discussions that she and her officials have had with the United Nations and its agencies about achieving a peace settlement? What discussions have there been with the Sudanese Government and the leaders of the Sudan People's Liberation Army on delivering aid to the south? Does she think that the Operation Lifeline Sudan agreement is now adequate for the problem? If not, what should replace it? What leverage do the British Government and the European Union have over the Government of Sudan?

Clare Short

This is another issue on which we completely agree, and we must use all our influence and endeavours to exert the maximum pressure in order to get some improvement. I know that that is the right hon. Gentleman's aim.

Our major liaison with the UN agencies is in respect of the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and it always has been. I have met the Secretary-General's envoy from time to time, and we are liaising, although the job is extremely difficult. People are suffering and desperately need peace, but the Government of Sudan and the faction leaders are not suffering and do not want peace.

The surrounding neighbouring countries are leading the endeavour to achieve peace. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development—or IGAD, as it is inelegantly known—has been working hard since 1994. Apart from the tragedy and suffering in Sudan, the war spills over into other countries. The Lord's Resistance Army in northern Uganda is almost unquestionably supported by the Government of Sudan, so the trouble and conflict spread into neighbouring countries and endanger their economic development and their chances of eradicating poverty.

We are backing, in every way we can, the initiative of the neighbouring Governments. The Sudanese Government are extremely difficult to deal with. Limited sanctions have been imposed on them, called for by the Security Council. We are implementing those in terms of visas and travel permits, but we have an embassy in Khartoum, and we apply all the pressure we can.

Operation Lifeline Sudan, the UN umbrella under which all the NGOs and people working in Sudan operate, is the best we have available. It is extremely difficult to deal with a fickle Government and fickle factions fighting in the south, all of whom have blocked the delivery of humanitarian assistance when it suits their purposes. Unfortunately, we do not have enough leverage to achieve more, but no Government can say that they have done enough in this appalling tragedy—we must all try harder.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her immediate action to provide humanitarian relief. I know that she will continue to do so, and to do everything possible to get aid to the children and adults in dire circumstances whom we have seen nightly on our television screens. As she said, a political solution must be achieved. Will she tell us more about the talks in Nairobi? Who will be taking part? Can we put pressure on the United Nations Security Council to consider the matter with great urgency, so that all possible pressure from all over the world can be brought to bear on the Sudanese Government?

Clare Short

I can assure my hon. Friend that we will provide whatever is necessary. The problem is not providing money; it is applying political pressure so that food can get through to people. We shall continue to do everything that we can. I gave the House some figures demonstrating our commitment. Much of that aid was obviously provided under the previous Administration, but more is available. The shortage is not money: we shall ensure that that is provided.

Talks took place last October between the neighbouring Governments—the IGAD group—but no progress was made. Those talks will resume on Sunday. The first priority must be a ceasefire, so that humanitarian aid can get through; then pressure for a settlement must be applied. The war is benefiting no one. Under the Organisation of African Unity, all African Governments agree that countries in post-colonial Africa have to remain within their existing boundaries. A decentralised solution would be right. If that is to be the solution, why, for goodness' sake, cannot we make peace now and end the people's suffering?

I agree with my hon. Friend that every country and political institution must examine how it can increase pressure to achieve peace and allow assistance to get through. None of us can be complacent.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle)

Is the Secretary of State aware that, when I first visited the Sudan, half a century ago, it was one of the best administered countries in what is now called the third world? Sudan was then known colloquially as the country where the blacks were governed by the blues, because, to get into the old Sudan civil service, one needed not only a first-class honours degree from Oxford or Cambridge, but a blue or two blues.

In too many countries in the third world, the problem is political rather than economic, and it is sheer cynicism and cant to think that it can be solved by financial aid and medicines. Unless the civilised world community is prepared once again to take effective political control of those countries, millions of innocent women and children will continue to be massacred.

Clare Short

One hears some strange attitudes expressed. The hon. Gentleman seems to be advocating the recolonisation of Africa, which is so foolish that I do not for a second believe that he means it.

It is notable that, in the post-cold-war world, in which are conflicts no longer played out between the two great blocs, it is in the poorest countries that war is breaking out. The history of this country, of western Europe and of north America shows that, in times of great poverty, it is difficult for countries to deliver fruits to all their people, and if they are not careful, conflict results. That has happened in Rwanda and many other countries.

I do not know enough about Sudan's history to comment on the position 50 years ago, but the Sudanese Government have a major responsibility for the present problems, as do the leaders of the factions in the south. They are pursuing the war at the cost of their people and their country. That is intolerable, and the whole world should disdain them for that and call for peace. However, the recolonisation of Africa is a foolish idea.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

Is there anything that the Government and the international community can do to ensure that aid reaches the starving people in Sudan, and is not, as is reported to have occurred, gobbled up by the soldiers of the warring factions, particularly in the south of Sudan? Are steps being taken to ensure that the surrounding countries, which are also very poor, will not be flooded with refugees from Sudan with whom they may be unable to cope?

Clare Short

In all difficult humanitarian situations, the misuse of aid and humanitarian assistance by fighters is a major problem. It happened in Bosnia, as the hon. Lady will remember. In Rwanda, humanitarian assistance fed those who organised the genocide, strengthened them, and helped them to arm themselves in order to return to Rwanda to kill witnesses to the genocide, as they are doing now, and to destabilise the country. That is a continuing problem, and we shall do everything in our power to prevent it.

There have been similar problems in Sudan, but the present crisis is so great—so many people are in imminent danger of death—that, if we do not achieve a ceasefire and get supplies through, there will be the most terrible tragedy. In comparison, the problem of some fighters receiving resources would be minute. We must all press for a ceasefire.

There is a great refugee problem in surrounding countries, which is another problem for Africa. There is so much war in Africa, in some of the poorest countries in the world, and some of those countries have higher numbers of refugees, with all the associated problems. There is no doubt that surrounding countries are burdened with large numbers of refugees. In this famine, people cannot get out of the war zone, and that is partly why they are hungry. They would prefer to be refugees than to be in their current situation.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, although we welcomed her reply to the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir P. Tapsell), most of us would not like to see Cromwell back in Ireland?

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House to what extent she is prepared to challenge the Khartoum Government's position at the forthcoming IGAD conference? Whether or not we achieve a ceasefire, we should be able to ensure that basic relief will go to starving mothers and children in southern Sudan, and try to ensure, if necessary by a military presence, that flights will arrive, help will be given, and the armed forces of either side will not interfere with it.

Clare Short

The right solution lies in that challenge. I shall not be at the talks, as neither the British Government nor I have a place there. We are supporting the process, but we are not among the negotiators. However, I personally have issued a challenge to the Khartoum Government to let aid through, and, indeed, to leaders of the factions in the south, who are also resisting any suggestion of a ceasefire. The challenge goes out to all of them.

I note my hon. Friend's suggestion that a military presence might be considered. That is a matter for the United Nations, but I do not think that it is the main issue. If we can achieve a ceasefire, there will be no problem. The war is so difficult and remote that I am not sure that, even if there were a willingness to involve a military presence, it would get the food through at the necessary speed.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I appreciate the desire for a peace settlement, but does the Secretary of State recognise that the Khartoum Government are not happy about western interference, as they believe that we have hold of the wrong end of the stick when we accuse them of terrorism and of supporting terrorism? When we speak of food and aid, we should speak not only of the south, but of the north and west. Is it not a fact that the Khartoum Government are not allowing supplies to go through? Is it not time to we consider some other way to get them through—or are we relying on international boundaries?

Clare Short

The first thing I have to say to the hon. Gentleman is that the Government in Khartoum do support terrorism. There is no question about that in the cases of Egypt and of the Lord's Resistance Army in northern Uganda, which kidnaps young girls to make them into sex slaves, and young boys to make them into fighters. That disgraceful behaviour is destabilising Uganda, and is supported by the Khartoum Government. It is a matter of international record that the Government in Khartoum support terrorism, and they should be denounced for that.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there have been shortages in the north and west. Operation Lifeline Sudan does not hold hostage poor people who are suffering simply because they live under bad Governments. Where there is need, we must provide. For now, however, the crisis is in the south. We will fly in all we can, but we need a ceasefire to allow us to take in vast quantities of food. Otherwise, many people will die before it reaches them.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I do not wish to create difficulties for my right hon. Friend by asking her to name countries, but do we know who is supplying the massive quantities of arms that seem to be going to one side, and probably to both? Who is paying for all that? Unless we get to the root of the arms supply problem, there is no chance of aid reaching the people it should reach. is it not absolutely scandalous that highly technological countries are perhaps turning a blind eye to the human tragedy and to the consequences of what they get up to?

Clare Short

My hon. Friend is right. Obviously we must do all we can to deal with the immediate crisis, and we do not have time to deal with arms supplies in the short term when we need to get a ceasefire and get food through. Wars such as this cannot go on unless arms are supplied. In the past week or so the United Nations Secretary-General has issued an impressive report on Africa, stating where it stands and what needs to be done. It calls for a further reduction in arms spending by Africa, and a reduction in the supply of arms to Africa. At the spring meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the bank, Mr. Camdessus in particular said that those targets should be embraced by all the international institutions.

I agree with my hon. Friend that war is breaking out in the poorest countries and is causing suffering, overwhelmingly to civilians, and big refugee movements. The supply of arms must be reduced to help Africa to resolve conflict. Africa must build itself instead of wasting resources and people in war.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

The Minister has spoken about the Lord's Resistance Army in northern Uganda. As she knows, it operates out of Sudan, and is openly supported by the Sudanese Government. She probably also knows that it has kidnapped some 8,000 children, most of them for death or prostitution. Irrespective of whether the ceasefire ends, can the Government take any action to assist the Uganda Government in their struggle against the Lord's Resistance Army, if necessary in conjunction with her colleagues in the Ministry of Defence, or perhaps by the use of a training team?

Clare Short

As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, I do not have the capacity or the knowledge to speak about any form of military assistance. We are providing significant resources to Uganda, whose track record on good governance and economic growth is a model for Africa, as the hon. Gentleman will know. Uganda has shown its capacity to go forward after terrible conflicts, and that brings optimism to Africa, because it suggests that many countries can be optimistic about the future.

We are keen to provide support in the north. I have spoken to President Museveni about whether support can help to stabilise some areas and strengthen the resistance of local people. We can examine development assistance in that way. The hon. Gentleman asks whether any military assistance could stop the evil abduction of children who are used as fighters or as sex slaves for other fighters. That is a monstrous way to conduct a war. I shall pass the hon. Gentleman's question about whether we can give such support to my hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Am I correct in thinking that my right hon. Friend is effectively saying that there is no way to persuade the Government in Khartoum that the supply of food to the starving and the dying does not necessarily succour enemies but may create friends? Am I also right in thinking that there is no hope of the rebels also understanding that succouring the dying and the starving may create friends rather than succour enemies? Perhaps somebody should try to convince both sides that it is the child, the woman, the young man and the not-so-young man who need to be fed if they are to have a place in our world.

Clare Short

My hon. Friend is right. I do not want to say that there is no way to convince people, because that is the opportunity for the international community. If everyone can see the cause of the problem and use world emotion to put pressure on those two groups of people to let the food through and create an imperative to make peace, we could make progress. As the famine grew, the Government of Sudan resisted entry, so that no one from the United Nations could get in to see the problem. Until the beginning of April, they resisted all flights, but now they are allowing some, so international public opinion has made some difference. It is still inadequate, but there has been a change.

We need more pressure on the Government of Sudan, and pressure on the factions that are fighting in the south. They are supposed to be fighting for the freedom of the starving people, but they are resisting a ceasefire that would let food in. Those are the areas in which international public opinion must exert pressure.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

We all recognise that a long winding road must be followed before all the political complexities are resolved, but I suspect that the immediate concern of us all is for the starving people we saw on our television screens. As UNICEF, Christian Aid and other food relief organisations have identified the areas where the population is starving, what reasons internationally are preventing additional air drops of supplies, at the very least?

Clare Short

The problem is not money or food supplies. I say that repeatedly, only so that the world knows what the problem is and applies pressure in the right place—otherwise, everyone will start to collect money, which is not where the answer lies, as it will take too long and too many people will die.

The famine is accumulating in remote settlements over a massive area—the area is as large as Portugal, and is itself within an area the size of a big part of western Europe. To get food to people who are frail and sick is an enormous job, and to do so through air drops is slow and difficult. If there were a ceasefire, lorries could be used to move in much more food much more quickly. In the meantime, we shall do all we can by air and through NGOs, but if we have only those options, many, many people will die.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Is there not is a lesson in this for us parliamentarians? We are discussing this today not because the Rev. Richard Rogers fasted for 40 days outside the Foreign Office last year, or because, over the years, hon. Members from both sides of the House have tabled early-day motions and questions pointing out that more people have died in the Sudan than in Rwanda, or even because of the efforts of my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench; but because television cameras happened to be on the spot—exactly the same happened with Ethiopia.

I rejoice in the fact that we are discussing the matter in detail, and that the emotions and compassion of the country have at last been aroused by this awful tragedy, but does my right hon. Friend-I believe that she and the rest of her team are doing an admirable job—agree that, in the long term, we should be proactive in drawing attention to such tragedies, and not rely on where the cameras happen to be? We should adopt such a long-term policy, so that we, rather than the media, control where attention is focused—on the worst crises.

Clare Short

My hon. Friend is right, but, as he knows, the media are increasingly fickle. As I keep saying, the world has now agreed on an international poverty eradication strategy. Everyone has signed up to halve the proportion of people living in abject poverty, to ensure that all children are in education, and that all people have basic health care by 2015—in most of our lifetimes, abject poverty could no longer be part of the human condition.

Such a stupendous and wonderful aim, which the world could achieve, is of no interest to the media. It is boring and long-term, worthy and noble. It concerns the future stability and sustainability of the planet. It would be the biggest advance in human history, and this generation could achieve it, as we have the agreement and the knowledge—but the media are not interested. We must keep working, but it is very sad that the media like crises, rows and conflict, and are not interested in great historical advances.