HC Deb 12 May 2004 vol 421 cc339-42
3. Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab)

What contribution his Department is making to achieving peace and resolving the humanitarian crisis in Sudan. [172237]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn)

The peace talks in Naivasha seem to be reaching their final stages and I hope that the parties will reach a framework agreement soon. I am gravely concerned about the situation in Darfur, western Sudan, where there have been killings, rape and the destruction of villages. More than 1 million people have been displaced, and 130,000 people have fled to Chad to escape the fighting. We must act now to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. The UK has committed more than £16.5 million to humanitarian agencies and is the second largest donor to Darfur, after the United States of America. Yesterday, I met the Sudanese Foreign Minister and impressed on him the urgent need to ensure security for the population and humanitarian access.

Rob Marris

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. The UK Government have made sterling efforts in Sudan, and particularly in Darfur. At the end of this month, the seasonal rains will come to Darfur, which is an area in the west of Sudan that is a similar size to Britain. Can my right hon. Friend hold out any hope of increased aid, because those seasonal rains will create delivery difficulties?

Hilary Benn

My hon. Friend is right that the situation is urgent because of the imminent onset of the rains. Last week, I announced an additional £10 million for humanitarian aid, and I pay tribute to my officials, who have been working extremely hard over the past 24 hours to agree further funding. We are providing extra funding to the World Food Programme for emergency food assistance and logistical support. In addition, £1.5 million is going to the World Health Organisation for emergency primary health care and for measles vaccination, and £1.5 million is going to UNICEF for feeding, health care and child protection, particularly for those children who are displaced. It is vital that that assistance gets in, and that non-governmental organisations and other UN agencies access the area to make sure that the aid—the UK contribution is important—gets to the people who need it.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con)

What undertakings on the maintenance of the ceasefire, respect for human rights and access for humanitarian aid were sought and received from the Government of Sudan before the British Government accepted the re-election of Sudan as a member of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights?

Hilary Benn

I raised the points that the hon. Gentleman mentions in my meeting yesterday with Foreign Minister Ismail. It appears that the ceasefire is holding in part, but not completely. For the Government of Sudan, the first priority is to ensure that they rein in the Janjaweed, who have caused a lot of the suffering that has been taking place. Secondly, they should ensure that African Union monitors are able to get into the area to ensure that the ceasefire is maintained. A reconnaissance team from the African Union is in Darfur as we speak. Thirdly—I raised this point specifically with the Foreign Minister▀×they should significantly speed up the time that it takes to issue travel visas and travel permits to enable the humanitarian agencies to gain access to Darfur so that they can do their job.

Mr. Bercow

I am extremely grateful to the Secretary of State for that comprehensive and helpful reply. Given that mass murder, rape, pillage and the destruction of crops have already taken place in Darfur; that food, water, medicine and shelter are desperately needed there; and that the UN co-ordinator on humanitarian affairs for Sudan has described the situation as the worst humanitarian and human rights catastrophe in the world, when does the right hon. Gentleman expect to see in place the international monitoring of the ceasefire that is an indispensable prerequisite of the effective distribution of humanitarian aid?

Hilary Benn

The answer to the last part of the hon. Gentleman's question is: as quickly as possible. The day before yesterday, I spoke to Said Djinnit, the peace and security commissioner of the African Union, who is very exercised about the current situation. It was he who told me that the team is already in place As soon as they can get the support and logistical arrangements that they need, the African Union is ready to deploy the monitors who, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, are needed in order to satisfy the African Union and the international community, including Members of this House, that the ceasefire is being upheld. That is the essential first step towards securing access to all areas of Darfur so that humanitarian aid can get in.

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

I thank my right hon. Friend for his immense involvement in a very difficult problem. Does he agree that one of the difficulties in respect of Rwanda more than a decade ago was that the necessary amount of intelligence was unavailable to the international community? In the context of what the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) rightly said about the necessity of international involvement and scrutiny, is my right hon. Friend satisfied that we have enough intelligence about what is going on, and will he continue to influence the United Nations and its agencies to make their contribution?

Hilary Benn

In direct answer to my right hon. Friend, no, I am not satisfied that we know the full picture. That is partly because not all parts of Darfur are accessible, hence the importance of the ceasefire being maintained, the monitors getting in, humanitarian aid arriving, and NGOs and other UN bodies being able to access all areas. As we await the report from the UN human rights team that is investigating the situation, we fear that it may be even worse than current indications suggest. That is why not a moment can be lost in ensuring that the world community responds by giving the practical assistance that is required to ensure that these people, who have already suffered a great deal, do not suffer any more.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD)

The Secretary of State will be aware that at the end of April a UN team was nearly blocked from going to Darfur; that the Sudanese Government contrived to ensure that a discussion about their human rights abuses did not take place at the UN Human Rights Committee; and that the ceasefire ends in 13 days. Given that the UK Government have decided that a resolution under chapter VII of the United Nations charter, which could ultimately lead to military action, is inappropriate does the Secretary of State agree with the idea proposed by the UN that a UN human rights commission should go to Sudan to investigate whether human rights abuses, war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed? If so, what does he think the UK Government can do to assist that process and to ensure that that commission gains access to Darfur?[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Before the Secretary of State answers, I emphasise that those on the Front Bench have a privilege that they should not abuse. I have the right not to call Front-Bench Members; calling them is a favour that I do them.

Hilary Benn

In the spirit of your strictures, Mr. Speaker, I refer the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) to my earlier answer about the human rights team from the United Nations that is currently investigating. We look forward to its report, which will help to answer his question. The most important contribution that can be made is maintaining the ceasefire. At least there is a ceasefire agreement; we now need to ensure that it is enforced. The greatest contribution to that is getting the monitors in, because the world can then be told whether it is holding.