HC Deb 10 March 1998 vol 308 cc458-64

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Betts.]

12.11 am
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I welcome the opportunity to raise the subject of Sudan. For many years, I have been concerned by the fact that that country has largely been ignored by the media and the world at large. More than 1.5 million Sudanese have died, and more than 4 million, in a population estimated at about 27.5 million, have been displaced. As the conflict appears to be black versus black, Arab versus black, or Muslim versus Christian, it has not caught the imagination or interest of the world.

As a guest of the National Assembly, with two others from the United Kingdom, I visited Sudan for a week in January. Our hosts treated us with great kindness and courtesy, and I met a variety of people, formally and informally.

A German who had formerly lived in Sudan and was visiting from another African country, told me that the international sanctions had forced the National Islamic Front regime to develop its own economy, with some success. In his opinion, that was in contrast to the earlier Mandi Administration, which received lavish international aid but did little to improve the lot of the ordinary people in the Sudan.

I know that the Government support, as I do, the Intergovernmental Authority for Development process—but has the Minister found, as I did, that, as ever in a situation of conflict, the first casualty is truth? Propaganda takes over, with a bias one way or another.

Many issues could be raised. I recognise some other problems that could be examined in depth—problems that any Administration, in the Sudan or anywhere else, would have to face. The devastation of the south and the resulting shift of population means that the percentage of southerners in the Khartoum area has risen from 1 per cent. to 30 per cent.

Those displaced persons live in what is virtually a dust bowl, in shanty accommodation. Charges have been levelled that the authorities—mainly, I suspect, minor functionaries—have followed plans under which unregistered churches are demolished to make way for roads.

People have been removed to other areas and left to build their own houses. No real sanitation is provided on those estates. Schools also have been affected. The human rights committee of the National Assembly has a virtually impossible task in attempting to adjudicate on any charges.

Islamic activists have been moved into areas that are occupied by Christians who have already been displaced. Islamic activists are advised of community meetings, so that they might vote on local issues. The consequence is that the authorities can claim that they are acting at the behest of local people.

I ask the Minister whether the United Nations rapporteur for the United Nations Commission on Human Rights has updated his October 1997 report, and whether he has been free to move unrestricted in Sudan.

On a brief visit to Juba, we heard from Muslim and Christian leaders that their people had co-existed in friendly relationships, and mixed at different levels. Nevertheless, there was evidence of appalling need in that area. The National Islamic Front said that it would rebuild when the war was over. However, the decay and lack of proper infrastructure was reflected in the people's low morale and poor condition.

Is the Minister confident that all possible action is being taken to ensure that humanitarian aid is available in all areas? Is he aware, for example, that the Sudanese Administration have regularly siphoned off aid, and diverted it to soldiers or to Muslim groups that they claim are as much in need as others?

While we were in Khartoum, a Catholic Fund for Overseas Development delegation that was accompanied by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool advised us that tools and seed that had been destined for the south had been so delayed that they could not be used when they arrived, as the time for planting and the rainy season had passed. Consequently, there was no development of the harvest. Moreover, food that was sent where it was needed had not been distributed, but was held in Government stores.

What representations have been made on the imprisonment and torture of citizens in Sudan? I discovered that the Presbyterian minister in Juba had been arrested by security police, and beaten without trial or sentence. Although allegations of illegal conduct by him were given as the reason for his arrest with others, no one was able to provide a witness. He was therefore released. I did not meet him during my visit, because he had moved out of the country, to Nairobi, to recuperate from his beatings. Such incidents are typical in Sudan.

Has there been any response to the Government's representations on the abduction of young people, who are forced into service in the defence forces? When I raised that matter with the authorities, they attempted to compare the practice with national conscription in the United Kingdom. I was happy to remind them not only that conscription in the United Kingdom no longer exists, but that, even in wartime, there is an opportunity for conscientious objectors to perform first aid or other civilian activities rather than in military operations.

I certainly do not believe that such conscription should be sustained as a way of treating fellow citizens, carrying them off into slavery. Does the Minister accept that there is evidence that such a practice continues in Sudan? Does he give any credence to the National Islamic Front Government's line that that practice is not really slavery, but a tradition among the people—that it is how they live? Such a line seemed rather far-fetched.

Conversely, I could not accept the criticism of those within and outwith Sudan who condemned groups—from Switzerland and other countries—that were concerned about the problem, and provided money to ransom slaves. How long will such practices be supported by those who do nothing either to stop them or to redeem slaves?

I found evidence of duplicity when it was claimed that the south could vote in four years for independence or for a federal Sudan. While some Christian leaders were hopeful, I formed the opinion that most Muslim leaders were determined to keep Sudan as a whole, no matter what happened, and to advance the concept of Arabisation and Islamisation.

There was certainly a pattern historically, according to some Christian leaders I met who were arguing for an independent south. A few had served in the Mandi regime. It was the old policy of "divide and conquer", which has ever been a powerful and persuasive policy of Governments of one sort or another.

The Muslim view of an Arabisation/Islamisation of the Sudan was patent. As a result, disillusion has crept in. Hence the split between the former southern commander Kerubino Bol—a signatory to the 21 April 1997 peace agreement—and the Government. He appears now to have allied himself to the leader of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, John Garang.

This surfaced while we were there. News broke of rebel troops surrendering in Wau, the third main city. For my benefit, Muslim leaders assured me that—unlike those in Northern Ireland, where we were arguing for the handing over of weapons and decommissioning—they were kind-hearted, and were allowing people who were coming over to their side to maintain their weapons as a sign of good faith.

A few weeks ago, I discovered here in Westminster, from other sources, that some old weapons had apparently been handed over for new. Sudanese representatives, however, advise me now that this was a Trojan horse group. At least, several hundred of them—armed with modern, in the Sudanese view, largely Soviet-block assault weapons—co-operated with an SPLA attack. They alleged that they had been led by Commander Kerubino, who is currently missing. He was a Dinka, who had had a disagreement with Riek Machar, a Nuer. Machar, as the Minister will know, is the appointed chairman of the southern executive, not elected by the people but appointed by the regime.

After initial success in the centre of the city of Wau—having taken over some strategic places—the rebels were ultimately repulsed, but still hold the outskirts of the town. Because of the link with the Dinka leader, the Dinka civilian population were attacked savagely by Government forces. Has the Minister any recent news of developments in that regard?

Significantly, Wau was the centre where, according to a United States report, Iraq helped Sudan to develop chamical warfare capabilities in the mid-1990s. I know that, in a Question Time relating to Iraq, the Foreign Secretary had no evidence of that. Will the Minister now say whether there is any fresh evidence? On that occasion, the Foreign Secretary said that he would inquire into it.

What representation has been made concerning attacks on civilian targets? Will the United Nations, which seems divided on many matters, now seek to implement UN resolutions? Sometimes, as in the House, resolutions are made without much resolution. In particular, will the UN implement a no-fly zone, as in southern Iraq, to diminish NIF capacity to wage war against its own people by bombing them?

In the regrettable plane crash in which Lieutenant-General El Zubei Mohammed Salih lost his life with six others, one of those killed was Arok Thon Arok, a southern leader who had signed the agreement with Riek Machar. At the public mourning, Dr. Hassan al Turabi, the ideological leader of the Islamic regime, announced, according to The Guardian of 19 February, that Arok Thon Arok was a last-minute convert to Islam. The news was greeted with triumphant shouts from several thousand mourners: Islamisation even in death.

The reality was different. Six bodies were laid out in white winding sheets, each covered by the national flag. Arok Thon Arok's corpse, in a coffin, was finally released to his family, after some debate, for a Christian burial. In our modern world, with its emphasis on pluralism, people must be given true liberty within the law—we understand that Sharia law was not to be extended to the Christian and Animist communities—to follow their religious and political convictions. I believe that that is Her Majesty's Government's position. Should not Sudan share that policy with the free world?

I express my appreciation and gratitude to our ambassador and the embassy staff in Khartoum, who were very helpful in arranging meetings.

12.26 am
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr.Tony Lloyd)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) on securing this debate. I know that he has been a Sudan watcher over many years, and I place on the record my appreciation of the measured way in which he introduced the debate. I will try to answer his specific questions, but there are one or two matters on which I will not comment tonight, simply because I cannot give an answer. I will reflect on the debate in the cool light of day—which will be sooner than we had expected—and write to him.

Sudan is a troubled country, racked by civil war, divided against itself. Much of the south has taken up arms against the Government in Khartoum and the north. In the 14 years of bitter fighting, the conflict has become more than simply north against south, if indeed that was ever a realistic description.

The conflict has been complicated by tribal and other divisions among the southerners, some of whom, as the hon. Gentleman said, are Christian, while some are Muslim and others Animist. The Sudanese People's Liberation Army has been active for many years in the south, but it has now joined the parties of the democratically elected Government who were overthrown in the 1989 coup to form the National Democratic Alliance, under which umbrella the conflict has spread to the east of the country.

As the hon. Gentleman said, Britain is one of a number of countries seeking to help to bring this sad state of affairs to an end. While those efforts continue, our policy towards Sudan reflects our concerns about human rights abuses in both the north and the south of the country, with the Sudanese Government's refusal to countenance multi-party democracy.

We are also concerned about the aggressive way in which the Sudanese Government have pursued the civil war, and about their involvement with terrorist groups and regional insurgencies that threaten Sudan's neighbours—in particular, their support for the Lord's Resistance Army, a brutal organisation that is responsible for killings, abductions, lootings and even, almost certainly, the sexual exploitation of children in northern and western Uganda.

The Government and civil society in this country have in no sense abandoned Sudan. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we maintain the embassy in Khartoum, and I was delighted to hear his congratulatory remarks about the role of the ambassador. A senior official from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office visited Sudan in July 1997 for discussions with representatives both of and against the Sudanese Government.

We keep open links with the Sudanese opposition. During the last seven months of 1997, the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett), met the former Prime Minister, Sadiq al Mandi and the NDA leader, Muhammed Osman al Mirghani, as well as the Sudanese ambassador.

A series of meetings in 1994 and 1995 appeared to be making progress. In May 1994, IGAD adopted a declaration of principles, which includes the right of self-determination for all Sudanese people, and the separation, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, of religion and state for the settlement of the conflict. We supported that process, but it ground to a halt in May 1995 in the face of the Sudanese Government's rejection of the declaration. The Friends of IGAD and, more recently, the IGAD partners forum that replaced it, continued to encourage the IGAD process.

Military pressure from rebel groups and diplomatic pressure from outside persuaded the Sudanese Government to resume the IGAD process on the basis of the declaration of principles. The first round was held in Kenya in October and November last year. The next round will be in April, with further contacts after that.

We believe that the regional approach offers the best chance of the comprehensive settlement to the conflict that the people of Sudan need and deserve so much. I say "comprehensive settlement" because the conflict in Sudan is more than a question of north versus south. A number of Sudan's ethnic groups have joined the struggle against Khartoum. The plight of the Nuba people was recently highlighted by Africa Rights, a non-governmental organisation. Many of the Beja in the east have joined the opposition through the Beja Congress. A settlement that did not take account of their interests would not be acceptable. We therefore continue actively to support the IGAD process.

We support the process both in public and in private. My hon. Friend the Minister of State made clear our welcome for the renewed talks on 30 September. We were a party to the EU statement of welcome and encouragement at the start of the talks. We have been in touch with all parties, urging them to approach the talks constructively and in good faith.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the recent fighting in the south of Sudan, and asked whether I had any recent news of it. As he said, it has reportedly been taking place in several areas. We know of reports of it in the Wau area. It is unclear who is winning, but it is clear that the cost of fighting has been further human suffering. As always, the innocent bear as much of the brunt as those directly involved.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Sudanese chemical warfare capabilities, and drew attention to his exchange with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and to the recent United States report claiming that Iraq had helped Sudan to develop such capabilities. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office cannot validate those reports, and is not aware of any fresh or substantiated evidence on the matter.

The hon. Gentleman raised the important question of human rights. I, too, have been a Sudan watcher over many years, and the human rights situation in Sudan continues to give serious concern. Increased respect for human rights in Sudan is a centrepiece of our policy. We want a peaceful, democratic Sudan, where the human rights of all citizens are equally respected. I endorse the hon. Gentleman's demand for pluralism in Sudan. We recognise pluralism in our country, and support it in all countries.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Does the Minister agree that people purporting to be Christian rebels have also been guilty of some violations of human rights?

Mr. Lloyd

With the hon. Gentleman, we deplore the abuse of human rights from whatever quarter. Human rights are indivisible: they cannot be partial or arbitrarily based.

In that context, the UK was active in securing the passage of resolutions highly critical of Sudan at the UN General Assembly in each year between 1992 and 1997, and in getting agreement at the UN Commission on Human Rights to the appointment of the special rapporteur. The rapporteur's most recent report—October 1997—expresses deep concern about the serious, widespread and continuing human rights violations in Sudan. The update of that report has yet to be issued, but we believe that it is due any day now. As far as we are aware, there has been no change in respect of the special rapporteur's freedom of movement.

One of the hon. Gentleman's specific human rights concerns involved the practice of the Government of Sudan of conscripting secondary school children. Her Majesty's Government have expressed their deep concern about that practice to the Government of Sudan, who defended themselves, claiming that every country in the world has conscription, and that defence of one's country is a national duty. We shall continue to monitor the situation, and will raise the matter again if evidence of its continuation emerges.

Human rights work constitutes a major part of the work of the embassy in Khartoum. Staff there raise specific cases with the Sudanese authorities, and make use of their contacts to urge greater respect for human rights. For example, our ambassador has raised recent church destructions with the National Islamic Front leader, Dr. Hassan al Turabi.

With regard to the hon. Gentleman's points about abductions, we unconditionally condemn all forms of slavery. Even if that is not Government policy, as the Government of Sudan claim, they are at least morally responsible, and we hold them accountable to suppress the practice.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the ability of aid to reach all quarters. There are difficulties in getting aid throughout the length and breadth of Sudan—that is a matter of practical fact. However, we continue to put pressure on the Sudanese Government to ensure that it gets through as widely as possible. Since January 1991, we have committed more than £137 million to Sudan, including our share of EU assistance for humanitarian aid. Last year, we gave more than £3 million in food aid to various parts of Sudan, and we recently announced a pledge of £4 million for emergency food and non-food aid in support of the UN consolidated appeal.

The issue of sanctions and embargoes against Sudan allowed the hon. Gentleman to propose an interesting alternative to existing measures. We will look at any proposal for further UN sanctions on its own merits and in the light of non-compliance by the Government of Sudan.

I have been unable to respond to several of the hon. Gentlemen's points, but I should like to conclude by saying that we are with him in our concern that the people of Sudan are the ones who have suffered during the long years of the civil war. We and all the friends of Sudan are doing all we can to bring the suffering of those proud and decent people to an end. That must be the resolve of the House, the Government and the world community. However, the responsibility now lies with the Government of Sudan, and we all hold them accountable to ensure that they play a part in that task.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes to One o'clock.