HC Deb 29 July 1998 vol 317 cc361-3
6. Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)

What representations she has made to the international community on hardship in the Sudan; and if she will make a statement. [51325]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short)

On 18 May, I chaired a discussion held by EU Development Ministers on Sudan. Since then, I have discussed Sudan with the executive director of the UN World Food Programme, the United Nations Children's Fund and others. I am particularly concerned that the international community should take full advantage of the recently announced temporary ceasefire in the Bahr el Ghazal region of southern Sudan, and that we should seek to build on that to reach a negotiated settlement in Sudan, which is the real answer; otherwise, the war will cause a continuing threat of humanitarian crisis.

I wrote to my EU Development Minister colleagues on 14 July, urging them to make additional resources available, but the situation remains very worrying and it looks as though the famine will continue through this year into next.

Mr. O'Brien

I thank my right hon. Friend for her reply. Like her, I, other hon. Members and people throughout the UK share the concern over the suffering of women and children in Sudan, particularly southern Sudan. What response has she received from other EU Governments to her appeal for more resources for Sudan and what advantage are EU Governments taking of the ceasefire in Sudan to help those people who are suffering, through no fault of their own? Will she give us some indication of what the future is for the people of Sudan?

Clare Short

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The World Food Programme has said that, for the next couple of months, it has enough resources to deliver the food that is needed in southern Sudan, but let me repeat that 90 per cent. of the spend is going on air drops. That is terrible. People are hungry, and the international community is spending masses of money on aeroplanes. That is why the ceasefire, for which Britain has worked so hard, is so important. It means that we can move in trainloads of food. We are anxious to take advantage of the ceasefire. I have not yet received responses from my EU colleagues, but I stress again that food that is getting in for hungry people is being diverted by fighters. We have to extend the ceasefire. There needs to be a negotiated settlement in Sudan, or we will go from crisis to crisis.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

The Secretary of State and I agree that peace is the key to solving the famine in Sudan and I pay tribute to her Foreign Office colleague who I believe was instrumental in achieving the ceasefire recently. Does she agree that famine is being used as a weapon of war in Sudan by both sides, particularly by the Government of Sudan? Their ambassador stated at the International Development Committee recently that Sudan had sufficient food and was even exporting it, but was unwilling to provide food to its own people in the south of the country.

Clare Short

I agree very much with the hon. Gentleman that peace is the answer. The real problem is that the international community has almost given up on Sudan and that humanitarian aid just props up the terrible war economy in which the conditions of the people get ever worse. I also agree that the Government of Sudan and the leadership of factions in the south care little for the welfare of the people and continue prosecuting this endless war. Both should be criticised, but we should all use our influence to extend the ceasefire and achieve a negotiated settlement, as that is the only way forward.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

Does the Secretary of State accept that her opposition to humanitarian emergency appeals to help the starving people of southern Sudan may—and I emphasise that word—have led some people to think that the British Government are allowing the Government of Sudan to get away with using starvation as a weapon of war? Does she accept that the USA is reported by some sources to be backing the rebels in southern Sudan, where there are oil deposits? In view of that perception, what discussions have taken place with the USA about its potential role in the peace process? [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. Before the Secretary of State replies, the House must come to order as one can very seldom hear the Members who are speaking. I want to hear the response of the Secretary of State. [Interruption.] Order. The House must come to order. Conversations are much too noisy.

Clare Short

Thank you, Madam Speaker.

No. I do not accept that my suggesting that there needs to be international pressure on both sides to gain access rather than telling the public that the problem was lack of resources was in any way an error. The pressure of international public opinion made the Government of Sudan change their mind on flights and access and led the Sudan People's Liberation Army to agree to the ceasefire which, as the hon. Lady knows, it was unwilling to do at first.

It is true that the USA is providing support for capacity building to the factions in the south. I have spoken to Brian Attwood, the head of USAID, about the need to back the ceasefire. Others worry that some elements in the Administration take the position that the hon. Lady put forward. It is absolutely crucial that countries do not line up on the war because of their criticism of the Government of Sudan and allow the people of Sudan to continue to suffer. We must do better to get everyone to work seriously for a negotiated settlement in Sudan.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon)

While I understand entirely what the Secretary of State is saying about the need for peace, and wish her well in her pursuit of a long-term political settlement, will she take the opportunity this afternoon to give a clear and unequivocal message to the British people that she now accepts that in the south of Sudan at least, more money, food and medical supplies are urgently needed to keep people alive? Will she whole-heartedly endorse the public appeals now being made by UK aid agencies?

Clare Short

No. As I said to the hon. Gentleman, no one should play games with the crisis in Sudan. Millions of people are in danger of dying while 90 per cent. of the money that is provided goes on air drops. We are spending money on aeroplanes while people starve. Much of the food that is getting in is being diverted by fighters from the people in need. We need international concern about Sudan to keep pressure on both sides, first to get in massively more food—and we need the ceasefire for that—and secondly, to press for a negotiated settlement. That is what is needed and that is what I ask British public opinion to seek.