HC Deb 09 June 2004 vol 422 cc275-89 12.31 pm
The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the humanitarian emergency in Darfur.

I returned this morning from a Visit to Sudan, where I saw at first hand the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding in Darfur, western Sudan. This is the most serious humanitarian emergency in the world today. The UN estimates that more than 1 million people have had to flee their homes and that a further 130,000 refugees have crossed into eastern Chad. I visited the Kalma camp in south Darfur and the el-Meshtel and Abu Shouk camps in north Darfur, where tens of thousands of people are facing a precarious existence. I spoke to men and women whose homes have been destroyed, villages burned, and whose communities have been the victims of killings, looting and rape.

The humanitarian needs are enormous. Traditionally, Darfur has a hungry season between May and September, during the rains and before the harvest. Because of the conflict, there will be no harvest this year. Added to the long years of drought, communities are unable to cope. The rains have already started in Darfur. They will bring flash goods, make roads impassable, increase the risk of disease and render the delivery of assistance more difficult.

This is a severe crisis, which will last well into next year. Dealing with it will require action by everyone, including the Government of Sudan. The changes made to visas and travel permits for UN and other relief agency staff are now having an effect. Yesterday, the Government gave me a firm commitment that they would fast-track both the delivery of assistance, so that relief agencies can bring in food, medicine, vehicles and other supplies quickly, and the registration of new relief agencies that want to come and help. I will maintain a close interest in the implementation of these arrangements.

The number of humanitarian agencies on the ground is limited. We need more. I have also been concerned about the adequacy and speed of the UN's response, although this should now change. The UK has been supporting the people of Darfur since the autumn of last year. We have already provided £19.5 million to UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and operational non-governmental organisations. We have seconded staff to the Office f m- the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the UN Joint Logistics Centre to help co-ordination of the relief effort. During my visit, I announced a further commitment of £15 million, which will take the total humanitarian assistance contribution by the U k to more than £34 million. That includes the airlifting of blankets and shelter materials. The UK, the US and the European Commission have to date provided three quarters of the international response and there is an urgent need for other donors to do more.

The main cause of the crisis is insecurity. Despite the 8 April ceasefire, fighting has continued and villages have been attacked by armed militias. Yesterday, I raised with First Vice-President Taha the urgent need for the Government of Sudan to rein in the janjaweed and other militias, condemn the acts of violence and provide adequate protection for displaced people. Equally, rebel groups must observe the ceasefire.

The deployment of the African Union ceasefire monitoring team is therefore urgent. When I met military observers from the team in el-Fasher, they told me that they planned to deploy their team of 120 observers as quickly as possible. The UK will contribute one of the six observers requested from the European Union and I hope that other contributing nations will get their observers there soon. The Government of Sudan have promised full support for the monitors and the UK has provided £2 million to help the African Union team to set itself up. In addition, the United Nations will deploy human rights monitors throughout Darfur with British financial support.

The resolution of this crisis requires a political solution. The protocols signed in Naivasha on 26 May are a significant and welcome step towards a comprehensive peace agreement for Sudan. I call on all the parties involved in the conflict in Darfur now to engage in discussions to find a peaceful way forward.

We are in a race against time in Darfur. The United Kingdom remains committed to doing all that it can to help those affected and to work for a just and lasting peace for its people.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, for the respect for Parliament that he has shown in coming to deliver it immediately on his return from the Sudan and for his characteristic courtesy in providing advance sight of it. I also welcome both his financial commitment and his energetic diplomacy.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is clear about the fact that the janjaweed militia is responsible for massive violence, that a climate of impunity prevails in Darfur and that the Government of Sudan permit the janjaweed to exercise a reign of terror over the people of Darfur. His report last month, and those of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group, have all painted a consistent and unmistakable picture. The victims of the crisis in Darfur have suffered grievously. They need help—help on a huge scale, and help now.

When does the right hon. Gentleman expect the ceasefire monitors to be deployed? Can he confirm that they will cover el-Geneina in the west, el-Fasher in the north and Nyala in the south? Does he agree that when the Sudanese Government are urged to provide immediate and full access for aid operations in Darfur, pressure could usefully be applied for the opening of the rail line so that the United Nations can make massive deliveries of food and medicine from Port Sudan?

The right hon. Gentleman spoke of assurances about fast-track delivery. Given that the UN emergency coordinator noted earlier this week the Sudanese Government's imposition of new obstacles to aid—including an insistence that all medical supplies be tested in Sudanese laboratories and that all supplies, including food, be carried in Sudanese trucks and distributed by Sudanese charities or Government agencies—will he satisfy himself that those obstacles have been removed, or will be as a matter of urgency?

Will the right hon. Gentleman underline the important point that the rebel forces, notwithstanding their deep sense of grievance, should themselves admit all humanitarian aid facilities into territory that they control, including from Government-controlled areas, provided only that those deliveries are not accompanied by Government military forces?

What assurances can the right hon. Gentleman offer that forcible repatriation of refugees will not take place, given the palpable lack of security that they would face? In a letter to me dated 25 May, he said—and he reiterated it today—that the United Kingdom expected the Sudanese Government to "rein in" the janjaweed militias. Does he accept that reports that the Sudanese Government are simply incorporating the janjaweed into the country's formal police and security structures offer scant reassurance to those who are only too well aware of their wanton savagery?

Given that it is vital that the impotence and passivity of the United Nations in the face of genocide in Rwanda are not repeated in Sudan, does the Secretary of State accept that he needs to press for a robust United Nations Security Council resolution that explicitly condemns the Government of Sudan for the ethnic cleansing in Darfur? Does he further accept that the Security Council should appoint a high-level panel to investigate possible war crimes in Darfur, hold the culprits to account and deter the commission of further atrocities?

The UN rapporteur on extra-judicial, summary and arbitrary executions, Asma Jehangir, is reported on the BBC website as saying of Darfur that

Numbers are staggering, the situation is terrible…There is no accountability and in some areas the Government are in complete denial. Again, the rights of innocent African people have been violated upon a scale so grotesque as to defy all but the most lurid imaginations. The Secretary of State knows that the world has a chance to ensure that Darfur does not descend into genocide. More lives are lost as each day passes. There is not a moment to lose. Our duty in terms of humanitarian aid, diplomatic contact and unrelenting moral and political pressure is clear. In standing up to evil, rescuing its victims and ensuring the guilty are brought to book, the Secretary of State will receive stalwart and unflinching support from those on the Conservative Benches.

Hilary Benn

I thank the hon. Gentleman both for his kind words and for his searching questions. I will do my best to answer each of them.

I can confirm that the African Union monitors will be located in el-Geneina, Nyala and el-Fasher, where they are planning to set up their base, and three other places in Darfur. They told me the night before last that they were hoping to deploy within four to six weeks.

My understanding is that the World Food Programme is currently using the rail line to deliver some supplies, but I accept the hon. Gentleman's point that all possible means should be used to ensure that the supplies that are required get to those who need them.

I specifically raised the question of obstacles to the delivery of relief supplies and medical supplies. The answer that I was given was that testing is not required for drugs that are already on the formulary list and it is required only for new medicines. I sought clarification on that point. The Government of Sudan announced that, from now on, customs clearance would be achieved within seven days and that non-governmental organisations importing humanitarian supplies for Darfur could do so by sending the documentation direct to the department for humanitarian affairs, rather than through the custom department, which represents a step forward. The Government also assured me in respect of new NGOs seeking to go to help to deal with the crisis in Darfur that, whereas currently it can take six to nine months to register a new NGO in Sudan, upon receipt of an application, a response saying yea or nay will be given within 10 days. As long as that is followed through, that will represent a big step forward.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's point about the importance of rebel forces in ensuring that access is permitted to all areas As for assurances on repatriation, from my conversations is with the refugees, the displaced people in the camps, it is clear that they will not go. Time after time, when I asked who was responsible for the attacks, they said, "The Government." It was a feature of their stories that assault by air was followed by militias turning up on camels or horses attacking their villages.

On the hon. Gentleman's point about policing and security, one person said to me that putting a badge on the janjaweed would not give people a sense of security. In the Abu Shouk camp, the Government have deployed additional police. The people I spoke to there said that there was a greater sense of security. It is important that the Government of Sudan deploy police forces to provide security, because, as I think we both recognise, that is the fundamental cause of the problem.

Do we need a Security Council resolution? As the hon. Gentleman will know, one is planned in relation to the signing of the Na vasha protocols and it is essential in the Government's view that that should include a reference to the crisis in Darfur.

The protocols pro side a framework for the start of political discussions, which are needed to solve the problems.

I, too, have read what Bertrand Ramcharan had to say about human rights abuses, and that certainly reflects what I saw with my own eyes, including a number of burned-out villages as we flew into el-Fasher, standing out starkly from the brown of the desert, pitch black and destroyed.

Three actions have been determined on. First, there has been agreement that an independent expert, approved by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, should be appointed to investigate human rights abuses throughout Sudan, including Darfur. Secondly, the Office of the UNHCR has recommended the appointment of an international commission of inquiry, but that needs to be implemented. Thirdly, the monitors are to be deployed, and I took the decision that the UK would fund those, because that seems to me a very practical contribution that we can make.

On the hon. Gentleman's last point, there is no doubt whatever that the Government of Sudan have been in denial about the scale of the crisis. That is certainly what I found when I was Khartoum last December. I do not think that they are still in denial, but time is not on their side—or ours.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD)

I, too, thank the Secretary of State for coming to the House so soon after his return and for his courtesy in providing an advance copy of the statement. There is clearly a humanitarian crisis of biblical proportions emerging in Darfur and I congratulate him on the role that he has played in drawing it to the attention of the international community. What additional measures can the UK Government take to encourage the Sudanese Government to issue forthright statements condemning the murders in Darfur and to issue the military orders that are needed to bring those killings to an end? Can we also perhaps provide some training for the police who will have to be deployed in the area to ensure that they are properly representative of the communities and therefore not seen as a threat to the displaced people when they return?

What action can the UK Government and the international community take if the Sudanese Government do not respond to those requests? Does the Secretary of State agree with the definition of ethnic cleansing deployed by the Sudanese Foreign Minister, who believes that it is not currently happening in Darfur?

Hilary Benn

The hon. Gentleman asked what more the Government could do. They can do what they have tried to do up to now, which is to say to the Government of Sudan that they bear the primary responsibility. To be frank about the current problem, we know that there was a rebellion, which started th s whole process off, that the Sudanese Government had some difficulty in dealing with and therefore invoked forces that they now have some difficulty in controlling. It is their primary responsibility to use all their influence and power to rein in the militia, provide security and deploy police.

I must say that I do not think that it would not be the best use of our resources currently to train the police. The responsibility for effective security rests with the Government of Sudan and there are enormous humanitarian needs that will still need to be met, which is why I announced the further substantial commitment of money from the UK when I was in Khartoum yesterday.

I have read with great care, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman has, what Bertrand Ramcharan said about "massive human rights violations"—largely ethnically based—

perpetrated by the Government of Sudan and its proxy militia, many of which may constitute war crimes and/or crimes against humanity. In some senses, this is a conflict that has got out of hand. The Sudanese Government have come to realise that a military solution will not work, which is why I found in my discussions yesterday a greater willingness to consider the need for political talks, building on what was achieved in Naivasha. One of the tragedies is that the real and substantial political achievement, which the whole House will recognise, of negotiating the framework agreement, bringing the hope of an end to the longest running civil war in Africa—that negotiation took great courage and commitment on both sides—has now been overshadowed by the crisis in Darfur.

Yet if the same spirit of partnership, of give and take and of discussion that has characterised that agreement can be shown by the parties to the conflict in Darfur, there is hope of trying to deal with the agony that the people of that part of the country face.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the action that he has taken, which is extremely important and will make a real difference to the lives of many people. I spent a week in southern Sudan last month looking at some of the problems and I was strongly lobbied about actions in the Shilluk kingdom that have been similar to those in Darfur, but on a smaller scale.

Based partly on that experience, and partly on information that my right hon. Friend has provided, I urge three things on him. First, will he continue to put maximum pressure on the Sudan Government, who have at worst fomented, and at best permitted, some of the devastation? Secondly, will he look urgently at the UN's capacity to deal with the crisis? From what I saw, it does not have the kind of resources needed to deal with the scale of the problem. Thirdly, I urge him to ensure that we consistently fund the rebuilding of Sudan, both to deal with the humanitarian problems and to enable local capacity building for the transition to peace. In the long term, what is happening in Darfur and the rest of Sudan will be resolved only if there is a lasting peace so that people can start to rebuild their lives, and some of the awful wrongs and sufferings can be put right.

Hilary Benn

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the visit that she undertook and I look forward to having the opportunity to discuss with her further the details of what she saw in Sudan. I undertake to continue to put as much pressure as I can on the Government of Sudan to fulfil their responsibilities. As I expressed in my opening statement, I share the concern at the lack of speed and urgency with which the UN has responded to this crisis. I think that that is beginning to change, however, and I met Kevin Kennedy, who is in Sudan in an acting capacity and will be replaced during the next two or three weeks by Eric de Mul. There is now a much stronger sense of urgency on the part of the UN, and we must build on that and make sure that it turns into action on the ground.

On my hon. Friend's third point, I could not agree with her more. One of the tragedies of Darfur is that we are having to spend money—although rightly—on dealing with the humanitarian crisis when, if there were peace and stability in Sudan on the basis of the Naivasha agreement, we could use those resources to help the development of this desperately poor country. She is right to draw attention to the problems in other regions of the country. As well as the historic north-south conflict, there is a problem between the centre and the periphery of Sudan. That is why a solution has to be based on the principles that have been so carefully negotiated in Naivasha.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con)

I, too, pay tribute to the Secretary of State for the interest that he, like his predecessor, has shown in Sudan. That is to their credit. Does he agree that the Government of Sudan have form? At the very time when they were discussing peace at Naivasha, they were employing exactly the same tactics in Darfur as those that they have employed over a number of years in the south and in the upper Nile, including using helicopter gunships and armed mounted militia trained or sponsored by the Government. Can anyone have faith in the Sudanese Government and can the people of Darfur trust them ever to provide security there after the way in which they have behaved?

Hilary Benn

I apologise for being unable to attend the Westminster Hall debate this morning. I had been very much hoping to participate, but a sandstorm delayed my arrival back in the United Kingdom. As excuses go, that takes some beating.

The hon. Gentleman is right about what one might describe as the instinctive reaction of the Government of Sudan to difficulties that they have faced. However, the fact that the Naivasha protocols have been negotiated, in recognition that it was not possible in the end to find a military solution to the conflict between the north and the south, shows that there is sufficient political recognition in the system that another way forward must be found. I simply express the hope—although I will understand if the hon. Gentleman is sceptical—that exactly that same spirit can be applied to resolving the conflict in Darfur. If it can be done in relation to the north and the south, then I believe that it can be done in Darfur.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (Lab/Co-op)

I commend both Opposition spokesmen for their recognition of the work that the Secretary of State has done. I hope that the Secretary of State will ignore the ill-informed criticism from people who ought to know better that he is supposedly preoccupied with Iraq and ignoring Sudan. The evidence is quite to the contrary.

Does the Secretary of State accept that it is not the responsibility of the United Kingdom Government to solve every problem around the world on their own? The first responsibility is that of the parties to the conflict in Sudan, and the Government must tell us what more can be done to try to find some peace agreement or accord. Further, will there be a donor conference to bring together those countries that are not yet participating? It is not just Britain and America that should provide the resources for dealing with all these conflicts. Other countries have equal responsibility.

Hilary Benn

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. As he knows, the two largest bilateral donors in response to the crisis in Darfur are first, the United States of America and secondly, the United Kingdom. That point bears some reflection. On the action that I now propose to take, I discussed the situation in Darfur with my EU Development Minister colleagues when we met in Dublin on 1 June, and I promised them that I would report back to them following my visit. I shall do so as quickly as possible, to make the point that the needs there are enormous and that we must all do more in response to the humanitarian crisis.

My right hon. Friend will also be aware of the meeting in Geneva last week. The UN appealed overall for $288 million for its 90-day plan. The UN in Khartoum told me that it estimates that it is still short of between $80 million and $100 million, although since then the UK has announced a further pledge of £15 million—about $27 million—which will make a contribution. However, I take on board my right hon. Friend's point about the need for others to contribute to solving the problem.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con)

The Secretary of State is building an outstanding reputation for himself in the way in which he is dealing with the responsibilities of his portfolio. I commend him fully on the prompt emergency action that he is taking.

May I press the right hon. Gentleman on the questions put by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan)? Are the Government of Sudan not responsible for much of the displacement and crisis in Darfur, through the janjaweed militias, which are closely associated with the Government? What further action can be taken b v this country, the United Nations and surrounding countries to bring pressure to bear on the Government of Sudan?

Hilary Benn

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. The Government of Sudan do bear the primary responsibility; there is no question about that. As for the best thing that we can do, we must show the Government of Sudan that the world is taking an interest, and that the world—not just some countries, but as many countries as possible—intends to put pressure on the Government of Sudan to live up to those responsibilities, as I sought to do during my visit. Another point that we must make forcefully is that the Government of Sudan have understandably been looking forward, in the light of the negotiation of the Naivasha protocols, to the possibility that they could now unlock support from the international community for the development -f their desperately poor country. That is something that we all want, because the people of Sudan have suffered too much, for far too long. However, I said clearly to those whom I met in Khartoum that while the situation in Darfur remains unresolved, the prospects of that happening are remote. There is now a powerful incentive for the Government of Sudan to live up to their responsibilities, because that is the key not only to solving the problem in Darfur but to opening up the possibility of a better future for the people of their country.

Mr. David Drew ( Stroud) (Lab/Co-op)

I sincerely thank my right hon. Friend for going to Sudan and drawing attention to this scandalous crisis. His analysis of the UN is appropriate. We have been disappointed at how long it has taken for the UN to become fully engaged in the situation.

I am pleased that we are willing to pay for monitors, but does my right hon. Friend accept that we may need to go further, and that there are dangers inherent in providing insufficient resources, as we have seen to some extent in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? We must learn from whet has happened in the past, and provide not only funds but the people to bring peace on the ground, because that is the only future that Sudan really looks forward to.

Hilary Benn

I take my hon. Friend's point entirely. One of the most difficult aspects of this crisis is the things that we do not know. How many people have been displaced from their villages but have not made their way to the refugee camps or the settlement areas? What is their condition? Do they have access to food, shelter and medical supplies? That sense of uncertainty, which I felt very profoundly when I was there, should urge us to ensure that we do all we possibly can. When we pull back the covers and see the full picture, none of us wants to discover that there are people who have been in desperate need. That requires an end to the attacks, because with security comes improved access, and more money from the international system; but it also requires more people on the ground to make things happen. The non-governmental organisations that I met made that very powerful plea, and all those things need to happen if we are going to resolve this crisis.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) (UUP)

I join in the tributes that have been paid to the Secretary of State for the work that he has done. In his last response, there was a lack of a real assurance that things are going to move as fast as he would like. Does he agree with me that this House is taking an interest in this issue not, as some cynics say, because we are looking after white interests or particular religious viewpoints, but because the struggle in Darfur is not one th at we ourselves have had a close association with? In that context, is it not about time that the United Nations began to mark the cards of Governments and countries such as Sudan? We need to show that we have learned the lessons of Iraq and Bosnia, and to deal with those at the top, who have given the orders to commit acts of savagery on the ground. Nobody can say that planes were launched without the understanding of their Government, and if their air force and army minions can opt out, it is about time that we tracked down the Ministers who are guilty of grievous crimes against humanity, for that is what is really happening in Darfur.

Hilary Benn

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that those who have committed these atrocities should be called to account for what they hay e done. On action by the United Nations, I hope to speak to the Secretary-General when I have finished answering questions. The UN has an important role to play in ensuring that the attention of the international community remains focused on the situation in Darfur. The UN's voice needs to be heard, adding to the pressure from the UK and other countries on the Government of Sudan, to ensure that they honour their obligations and do what needs to be done.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston) (Lab)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that during this morning's excellent debate, initiated by the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), unanimous appreciation was offered for the role that my right hon. Friend has played not just in the past week—important though that has been—but since the first signals of this terrible carnage were given? In the light of what he said about the need for pressure on the Government of Sudan, a view that was widely shared in this morning's debate, will he continue to use his influence not only with the United Nations and its agencies—important though that is—but with the influential United States and the European Union?

We note that my right hon. Friend mentioned the European Union's contribution. In the light of political enlargement and of the need for the EU to play the political role that it is now capable of playing, does my right hon. Friend accept that he will have the full support of the House if he continues to do the very forceful job that he is currently doing, if only because, as the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) rightly said, none of us wants to repeat the terrible mistakes that were made in respect of Rwanda a decade ago?

Hilary Benn

I will endeavour to do all the things that my right hon. Friend has asked me to do. One practical thing that the EU is doing is contributing, through the new peace support facility, to the funding of the African Union's ceasefire monitoring mission. In fact, this will be the first use of that facility, and I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the EU commissioner Poul Nielsen, whose idea it was. It is an intensely practical policy that uses resources from the European development fund to back an African initiative. The other organisation that deserves enormous credit is the African Union, which came up with the idea of the monitoring mission and is putting it together. That is a really good example of Africa beginning to build its own capacity to deal with problems of conflict on that continent. The House should unreservedly welcome that because it means more capacity in the system, and who better to take first responsibility for dealing with conflict in Africa than the other nations of Africa?

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con)

This crisis and disaster has been known about for months and widely reported for weeks. The Secretary of State says that he is looking for a political solution, but the problem is caused by armed militias, supported by the Sudanese Government. Does he think that the doctrine of humanitarian intervention justifies military intervention in these circumstances, either with or without a United Nations Security Council resolution? I should point out that if the UN fails this test as it failed in Rwanda—whether military intervention is required or not—any faith that anybody has in its ability to deal with crises in which hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people die will be damaged for a very long time to come.

Hilary Benn

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point about this crisis being a test for the international community and for the United Nations, but the latter's ability to respond, as he well knows, is a function of the willingness of its member states to will or support such intervention. That is the dilemma that has been wrestled with for a very long time. We look forward with great interest to the report of the high level panel, established by Kofi Annan last autumn, which is grappling with these issues as we speak.

I should also point out to the hon. Gentleman that there is a negotiated ceasefire as of 8 April. It is difficult to say that it is largely being observed, but it is clearly being observed in places; however, attacks are continuing. We have evidence from Sudan itself of the effectiveness of ceasefire monitoring missions. For example, in terms of the ceasefire that began the Naivasha process, monitors have been doing an outstanding job in the Nuba mountains. There is one person from either side, with transport, including helicopters, and if an allegation is made that something is happening, they go there quickly and sort it out. The process has been very effective, and given that the African Union monitoring mechanism is now being deployed, the most effective thing that we can do is to give it total support, so that it can do its job of ensuring that the ceasefire actually applies. If the ceasefire applies, circumstances can begin to change.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab)

The whole House will want to congratulate the Secretary of State on the lead that he has taken in respect of a tragedy that has unfolded largely as the eyes of the world were on the middle east. The question of military intervention has been raised, and he is quoted in the newspapers today as ruling it out. Does he accept that many of us support him in ruling out military intervention at this point, and that we support the emphasis that he has correctly placed on the responsibility of the Sudanese Government, the role of the UN and the potential role of the African Union? I believe that, in the long run, the only sustainable solution to the problems of that continent lies in the hands of Africans themselves.

Hilary Benn

I can only agree with every single word that my hon. Friend has said. I agree in particular with her last point, which is why I am such a strong supporter of the African Union's initiative on peace and security, the development of its standby force, its current force in Burundi, and the regional initiative taken by the Economic Community of West African States, which first sent troops into Liberia when the fighting and carnage were going on Monrovia. That is exactly the direction in which we need to go, not least because in the past, when the world wanted something to be done, it has traditionally looked to a very small number of countries to do it. One reason why it has been difficult to respond is that that burden has fallen in particular on a small number of countries. Increasing the world community's capacity to take effective action is something that we should welcome, and that is exactly what the African Union is doing.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park) (LD)

I wonder whether the Secretary of State has managed to read the International Development Committee report on the Sudan, which was produced during the 1997–98 Session? If so, does he share my concern that that report described circumstances very similar to Sudan's in the lead-up to the humanitarian crisis in Bahr el Ghazal in 1998? Does he agree that the only way to prevent conflict and bring about truly lasting peace in the Sudan, which is a huge country and very difficult to control, is to have long-term development and, above all, control over the spread of arms in the country?

Hilary Benn

I have not read the report to which the hon. Lady refers, but I should and I will, and I would like time to reflect on the points that she made. As I said in response to an earlier question, I share her desire for long-term development in this poor country. In order for that to happen, certain other things have to happen earlier. That means turning the Naivasha protocols into a comprehensive peace agreement. In my discussions with First Vice-President Taha yesterday, he expressed his commitment to that, working through the partnership that he has developed with John Garang. That was one of the products of the long period that the two spent together in Naivasha: they have built a relationship of trust hat has enabled the negotiations to succeed. That should be taken forward, but the principles set out in the Naivasha protocol should be applied to the other regional difficulties within Sudan. I genuinely believe that those are the essential preconditions, together with support from the international community, to bringing about longer-term development.

Alan Howarth (Newport, East) (Lab)

Having myself visited Sudan and been horrified by the seemingly interminable history of the legacy of racial and cultural conflict in that vast area, I add my congratulations to the Secretary of State on his moral and practical energy in dealing with the prevent tragedy in Darfur. Will he tell the House whether there are features of international law that create obstacles to other countries and agencies entering sovereign territory to help with palpable humanitarian crises where the existing authorities in that territory are clearly complicit in the creation of the circumstances of the disaster? What is our Government's policy to ensure that international law is reformed so that, whatever the administrative and political problems within the UN, at least there are no legal excuses for failure to act early and effectively?

Hilary Benn

This is exactly the issue that Kofi Annan's high-level panel is currently considering. The plain truth is that it is one of the biggest challenges that the world faces. V% hat do we do about states and countries that oppress their own people and threaten people in other countries? In a sense, dealing with that problem is what the UN was established to seek to do. There is a record—the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) alluded to it earlier—of some successes and some failures. The world must reflect particularly on those failures, because people look at the principles of the UN, find themselves in the circumstances that we are facing today in Darfur and other countries, and ask themselves what those principles mean for them. They ask when those principles will apply to them, and I believe that that is a very pertinent question for people in those circumstances to ask. It is our responsibility to answer them.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con)

Can the Secretary of State reassure the House—and raise it with Kofi Annan when he speaks to him later today—that there is appropriate satellite cover of Darfur in order to enhance proper surveillance of military activity, the movement of people, better management of agriculture, hydrology and infrastructure and, of course, better communications? That, surely, would be a contribution that the richer countries of the world could and should make.

Hilary Benn

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point, which, to be honest, I had not thought about before; but I undertake to reflect on the point.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North) (Lab)

I add my congratulations to those expressed on both sides of the House to my right hon. Friend and the Government on their commitment to dealing with this crisis. I urge that we should continue to seek to focus the international community on this tragic situation, not least to pressurise the Sudan Government to give active co-operation to attempts to bring peace and relief to the area.

Hilary Benn

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his words. What has characterised all the questions asked by Members in response to my statement has been the common view that pressure mast be put on the Government of Sudan to honour their obligations. In the end, the Sudan Government bear the primary responsibility for the state of the country and the welfare of its people. It is their responsibility to do the right things. Given the difficulties in the past about gaining access for humanitarian supplies, it is important to recognise that I noticed some change during the course of my discussions. I believe that that was the result of international pressure and it shows that we can have some impact.

We should acknowledge that the Government of Sudan have recognised the need to deal with difficulties surrounding registration, the clearance of goods, travel visas and so on. Those difficulties were simply unsustainable in the face of the crisis, and the Government have moved on that matter. As I said, it shows that international pressure works and it shows that the Government of Sudan are beginning to recognise the scale of the crisis on their hands.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con)

I too pay tribute to the Secretary of State's work. Eighteen months ago, a number of us visited Rwanda—a country that has already been mentioned—and we were horrified by what we saw. I am sure that the three hon. Members in their places now who visited that country will have been chilled by the Secretary of State's words when he said that there was not much time left to deal with the crisis. We know that in Rwanda a massive genocide took place in a relatively short time. I therefore ask the Secretary of State what lessons the Government—and, indeed, the international community—have learned from the genocide in Rwanda. How can we ensure that the same outcome is avoided in these similar circumstances?

Hilary Benn

The circumstances are not, of course, exactly the same. As the hon. Gentleman knows, in the genocide in Rwanda, 800,000 to 900,000 people lost their lives in the course of 100 days. One of the difficulties in Sudan has been the problem of access. In the early part of the year, it was very difficult for anyone in the outside world to know what was going on, because it was difficult to get in. When I visited Khartoum in December, one of the issues that I raised with the Government of Sudan was the need to allow access for humanitarian agencies. At that time, it was very restrictive. That is part of the reason why the world did not see the scale of what was going on earlier. As I have reported to the House, that has begun to change.

Another aspect of the crisis in Darfur is that it is a process that unfolds rather than a particular event. We need to reflect on what has happened and to ask ourselves—the international community, the UN, relief agencies and others—how we can be more effective in intervening earlier.

Finally, it is the degree of uncertainty that causes me the greatest concern. We do not know the full picture, which is why we must strive might and main to ensure that we do all that we can to prevent a catastrophe from occurring.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre) (Lab)

When my right hon. Friend speaks to Kofi Annan this afternoon, will he emphasise that a concerted, committed push from a united international community would be enormously helpful in bringing the Naivasha peace process to a successful conclusion after a very long period of negotiation? The African Union, the surrounding African countries and African people living in Sudan and Chad desperately need the support of a united international community to enable them to deal with this crisis. Above all, will he emphasise the utter urgency of the situation? The United States Agency for International Development reports that 330,000 people are facing death within the next three months of the rainy season and it has highlighted the absolute test that that presents to the UN to face up to the problem and bring all its resources to bear on it, brooking no obstacle from the Sudan Government, factors of geography or whatever.

Hilary Benn

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's role as chairman of the all-party group. I know of his close interest in the Sudan and its people. It is a test that we cannot afford to fail. I can put it no more simply than that. There are two things that we have to do. One is to ensure that we do not fail; the second is to ensure that the momentum created by the Naivasha negotiations is continued.

The Sudanese Government have shown that they are able to reach agreement to end a long-running conflict that has hugely affected the country's people. We are trying to achieve both goals at the same time, but I made it clear in all my meetings with Ministers that the problem of Darfur must be dealt with now; otherwise, Sudan will not be able to enjoy the fruits of the Naivasha agreement.

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr) (PC)

The Secretary of State is right to describe Darfur as the most serious emergency in the world today, but the picture that he paints—of conflict and humanitarian catastrophe—is all too familiar from contemporary experience in other African countries. The specific characteristics of each crisis are unique, but does the right hon. Gentleman think that common underlying reasons exist that are part of a wider pattern of instability in Africa as a whole? We hope that the measures that he has announced will prevent another Rwanda, but how can we prevent another Darfur in the future?

Hilary Benn

I do not think that the continent of Africa has characteristics that mean that it is, of necessity, more susceptible to such conflicts. After all, there have been conflicts throughout the history of our country and the continent of Europe. The question is, what do we do about the conflicts in Africa? How can they be effectively resolved? The essential elements are reasonably clear. International attention and pressure are important, and Governments in the region should take primary responsibility for the welfare of their people. Thirdly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), who is no longer in her place, noted, the continent of Africa should develop its capacity to deal with these matters.

That is undoubtedly changing. One of the great things to come out of the AU is a strong determination to use the instruments of the peace and security protocol. I commend Said Djinnit, the AU's peace and security commissioner, for the energetic and visionary way that he is taking forward work that really opens up a new possibility for resolving the many long-running conflicts in the continent of Africa.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con)

Does the Secretary of State share my concern that there is a danger that the violence in Darfur may be read across to Chad? It is reported that the Government there is already suffering from some instability because of a divergence of opinion about the amount of support to be offered to the Sudanese Government and the janjaweed. What is the right hon. Gentleman's sense of the likelihood of instability in Chad? Does he feel that humanitarian agencies and Governments are prepared for the potential consequences of that instability?

Hilary Benn

The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point, but my discussions in Sudan focused on the consequences of the conflict for that country. However, I can tell him that the UK Government have given £3 million in humanitarian assistance to Chad to assist with the very heavy burden that it now faces in dealing with an estimated 130,000 refugees, and that I am aware of the concerns about instability. Much has been said, and rightly so, about the people who have had to flee their homes, but the House should appreciate that the conflict affects other people too, such as those who find that their settled community now plays host to a large number of people from elsewhere. As we know, that creates tensions and difficulties that have to be managed as much as possible. We need to provide support to all those dealing with the consequences of the crisis.