HL Deb 08 December 1998 vol 595 cc901-26

9.8 p.m.

Baroness Cox rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is their policy towards recent developments in Sudan.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am most grateful to noble Lords who are contributing to this debate because I know that there is widespread concern in your Lordships' House which will, I hope, encourage the Government to strive for yet more robust and effective efforts to achieve solutions to the long-running catastrophe besetting Sudan, which has suffered from civil war for most of the time since independence. But the situation deteriorated sharply when the National Islamic Front (NIF) regime ousted the democratically elected government by military coup in 1989.

I work with Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), which is a human rights organisation working for victims of oppression regardless of creed. We always endeavour to hear the viewpoints of different parties to a conflict before undertaking advocacy. Therefore, in the early days of our work in Sudan I visited Khartoum. I met many of the NIF leaders and was present at the celebrations of the fourth anniversary of the NIF' s coup. I and my colleagues submitted our report to our NIF hosts to ensure that they thought it was a fair representation of their views.

It was clear from that visit that the NIF is committed to a jihad. Although that word has diverse meanings, the evidence we have subsequently obtained on repeated visits to many different regions in Sudan has demonstrated that the NIF jihad is the most brutal kind. The regime has the blood of countless numbers of its own people on its hands. In recent years of this civil war, over 1.5 million Sudanese have perished, over 5 million have been displaced and the numbers grow daily.

The policies of the NIF regime include military offensives against, and cold-blooded massacres of, innocent civilians; the politics of hunger to drive people from their land—either to perish from starvation or to have to migrate to NIF-controlled territories where those who are African and/or Christian will be subjected to forced Arabisation or Islamisation; the use of slavery on a widespread, systematic scale; and, for those living in the north who oppose the regime, arrest, imprisonment, torture (often in "ghost" houses) and extra-judicial killings.

Those gross systematic violations of human rights have been well documented and widely reported and are incontrovertible. They form part of the indictment of the NIF in UN Security Council resolutions. The regime also stands condemned for supporting international terrorism and there is disturbing evidence of close alliances between the NIF and other terrorist regimes and personnel such as Saddam Hussein, Colonel Gaddafi and Bin Ladin. There are credible reports that Saddam Hussein may have transferred some of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction to Sudan, as well as experts and materials for the manufacture of those weapons inside Sudan. Many experts, such as the US Congressional Task Force against Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, have raised questions which need to be taken very seriously, as there is widespread concern that the NIF may be developing a terrorist regime in the heart of Africa similar to the regime that Saddam Hussein has imposed on the people of Iraq. The Sudanese people are suffering in ways very similar to the Iraqi people, and the NIF has supported international terrorism, harbouring and training terrorists, and been associated with terrorist activities abroad.

It is against this disturbing background that I highlight some recent events, based on evidence obtained from visits to areas designated by the NIF as no-go areas by United Nations Operation Lifeline Sudan and other aid organisations—areas in Bahr-El-Ghazal in southern Sudan; in southern Blue Nile; in the Nuba mountains; and in eastern Sudan from Kassala province to the southern Red Sea region. Earlier this year, the media exposed the suffering in parts of Bahr-El-Ghazal, with heart-rending pictures of famine caused by draught and/or floods. The NIF regime then opened up previously designated no-go areas to UN OLS and was praised for so doing. This was undeserved because they should not have been no-go areas in the first place.

However, while the NIF was enjoying those accolades, CSW visited areas still designated as no-go and we saw events that the world was not meant to see. We flew over large areas of Bahr-El-Ghazal and saw smoke rising from numerous villages, set alight in massive raids undertaken by NIF government soldiers, the popular defence force mujahadeen and murahaleen. At Wonruk, we found evidence of massacres on a scale that we had never seen before. The nearby market of Aweng Dau had recently been subjected to one of these raids: civilians were attacked by hundreds of soldiers with kalashnikovs, jeeps, fast horses and camels from three sides and were driven into a cul-de-sac where they were slaughtered. We saw those who had tried to escape. We saw that they had been followed into the bush and mown down. We saw hundreds of bodies crudely buried under branches of thorn trees, or bloated corpses lying in the river Lol or scattered through the bush as they tried to flee. They were civilians wearing beads and necklaces.

We followed the swathe of destruction left by the raiders as they spread their carnage from Wonruk to Mayen Abun 20 kilometres away: everywhere burned homes, burned crops, and the cattle which would not go with the raiders were slaughtered their carcasses intermingled with human corpses.

Civilians who had fled to the swamps, where they could not be followed, were living with no mosquito nets and only roots from water lilies for food. It is estimated that between 30,000 and 40,000 were living in those swamps. Others were hiding in the bush with no food and no protection from mosquitoes. They told us that many of their women and children had been taken as slaves. It is too early to obtain accurate figures but credible sources estimated that many thousands were enslaved.

Our pilots told us that they saw similar destruction covering hundreds of miles. The populations of four counties in these Dinka homelands had been subjected to entirely government-made famine and to massacres. The scale and scope of these attacks merit, we believe, the term "genocide"—a term I do not use lightly.

We returned in July with medical supplies and heard that further raids had taken place. We also met many women and children who had been enslaved in recent and previous raids and who had been brought back by peaceable Arab traders. We saw evidence of their maltreatment: African women sexually exploited, with half-Arab babies; scars and beatings; children who had been enslaved for two or three years, only able to talk Arabic and unable to speak their native language. Slavery is widely practised by the NIF regime. How much longer will the international community tolerate this?

I move briefly to a visit a few weeks ago to southern Blue Nile. Our previous visit was in January 1997, when the NIF had just been driven out. It had inflicted a scorched earth policy. Now the situation has greatly improved under SPLM administration. The people can grow crops and their nutritional status is much better. The area is predominantly Moslem, with a Christian minority. There is religious freedom for everyone and both Moslems and Christians live in harmony. The local Imam told us that he is very happy that the NIF regime was driven out. He and his people now enjoy a new freedom. I quote a few words: Now, we can pray in peace with no repression. The NIF regime was not pure Islam; it was highly politicised. The regime talked about a jihad. But that is not true Islam. Their jihad was to take freedom away. I would myself be ready to fight against them because as an Imam I do not believe this is a true jihad". This encounter with the Imam is a reminder that the war in Sudan is not a Christian-Moslem conflict but that Christians, Moslems and traditional believers are united in opposition against a totalitarian regime, which they see violating human rights and ruthless in its determination to exterminate all who oppose it.

This situation is mirrored in the Nuba mountains, where NIF offensives try to force civilians off to peace camps which are little better than concentration camps. Also it is mirrored in eastern Sudan, where the Beja Moslem people also suffer at the hands of the NIF. We have seen many of them driven off their lands into the desert, where they have to scavenge for a living in harsh conditions, with little or no water, food or medicines. We saw evidence of aerial bombardment of civilians with cluster bombs.

The NIF has continued its aerial bombardment of civilians, even during the ceasefire which the Foreign Minister, Derek Fatchett, helped to broker in good faith. The hospital at Yei has been bombed six times this year, on some occasions during the ceasefire. The Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Torit, Bishop Paride, addressing the Eighth Assembly of the World Council of Churches on December 5th, said: I witnessed two bitter bombing raids carried out by the Khartoum Government … There was no military presence in either of the centres where I witnessed the bombs fall. The recipients are simple. struggling, uninvolved civilians … they plant food. They want to eat; they do not want to depend on relief food. Yet … the devilish bombs from above continually rip their ambitions apart. The planes from Khartoum come almost daily". The Bishop continued with questions which form part of my concluding questions, so I will ask them in his words as a Sudanese Bishop speaking on behalf of his own people. First: The suffering people of Sudan hear that great nations have imposed a no-fly zone on the Iraqi Government of Saddam Hussein to protect the Kurds in Northern Iraq. Our people ask: are we not worth human life to be protected from the Sudanese airforce by imposition of a no-fly zone?". Secondly: Recently, we heard that the President of Yugoslavia was forced by Europeans and Americans to stop the massacre of the people of Kosovo, and to pull out his troops or face the wrath of NATO … What about us in Sudan?". These are the questions that the people of Sudan are asking through their Bishop.

May I add one or two more. First, while supporting the principles embodied in the IGAD initiative and encouraging continuation of peace talks, will the Government ensure that these talks are not being used by the NIF to play for time while it continues to violate the ceasefire and to bomb innocent civilians? Secondly, will they press the international community to redouble its efforts to prevail upon the NIF to open all of Sudan to humanitarian aid organisations and to human rights monitors? Thirdly, while the NIF persists with its policy of no-go areas for UN OLS and other aid organisations, will the Government step up their support for organisations that are willing to work in these places? Fourthly, will the Government strive to maintain and even increase sanctions against the NIF regime if it continues its policies of gross violations of human rights? Concern has been expressed over the Government's apparent willingness sometimes to violate the spirit of existing sanctions—for example, by granting visas to representatives of the NIF. Finally, will the Government pursue more vigorously a commitment to encourage the representatives of the democratically elected Government of Sudan, now in exile, in ways similar to those adopted for the Iraqi opposition?

I conclude by pointing out that there are many similarities between the regimes in Khartoum and Baghdad. Both represent serious threats to international peace and stability; both have inflicted incalculable suffering on their own people and continue to do so. Their people are crying out for peace with justice. Will this Government, committed to the eradication of global poverty and the promotion of human rights, step up their efforts to relieve the suffering of the peoples of Sudan and Iraq? Will the Government see it as in the interests, not only of the people of those countries but of other countries including our own, to increase their efforts to curtail the threats of national and international terrorism posed by those regimes? Until those regimes are brought to account, there can be no peace for their own people, except the peace of the dead; and no peace for the rest of the world, except the deluded peace of the ostrich.

9.20 p.m.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

My Lords, I am glad once again to be able to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for bringing this subject to our attention and enabling us to talk about it. Perhaps I may say how very much we all appreciate her courage and persistence in bringing us absolutely invaluable first hand evidence of just what is going on.

I have spoken on the Sudan in the past. In July I was elected to be a joint vice-chairman of the All-Party British Sudanese Parliamentary Group. At that meeting there was mention of the British-Sudanese Public Affairs Council, which has an address in London. I asked about the council because it was new to me and I asked how it was being funded. I was told that it was being funded by the Sudanese Government. If that means that the Sudanese Government are becoming increasingly interested in what is said about the situation there, I welcome that. If at least they want to know what is being said here, we may be beginning to have some possible effect in making them think again.

If a report is going back to Khartoum I hope it might mention that there is widespread development of the whole question of devolution. In this country we have had a great deal of it lately, in Scotland and in Wales, and preparations are in hand in Northern Ireland. There are also signs of increasing awareness in England itself about breaking down into smaller units. We know, too, how the independent countries of the former Soviet Union have been established. There seems to be a worldwide trend towards recognising the diversity of religious and ethnic groups. Let us hope that that message goes to Khartoum saying that it is a worldwide trend and that it is not helpful to stand out against it.

We know that the area of Sudan is some 10 times that of the United Kingdom, although the population is only about half of our own. It is an enormous country. The frontiers are to a large extent a relic of the colonial times when some of our colonial administrators were drawing boundaries for fairly arbitrary reasons. I think that the Government in Khartoum should remember that and not necessarily regard their country as one homogenous entity but recognise its increasing diversity. They should recognise in particular that because of the different religious groups it is folly to try to enforce a uniform regime. The specific problems of the Christian and the animists in the southern part of the country should be recognised. It must be said that they are entitled to have their human rights respected.

There is a need for a rethink. The increasing awareness of diversity will not go away because, as the almost exponential growth of communications technology develops, more and more people in that country will become aware of conditions elsewhere. They will become aware of the increasing emphasis on human rights. Therefore a great pressure will build up which the Government really should face up to.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury intended to participate in this debate, but unfortunately is indisposed. We regret that because we have had a contribution from the Bishops' Bench in these debates. We all recall the value of the visit of the most reverend Primate to the Sudan and the influence of that visit which gave great encouragement to the Christians there and did much to draw attention not only in this country but also in other parts of the world to the situation there.

I wish to mention the persecution of Christians. A report was published in the spring of 1997 by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Issue No. 1426–1693, Volume 5, No. 2 which states, Though religious persecution is being experienced by people of different faiths (Moslems, Hindus, Jews, Christians, Bahais and others) the overwhelming majority of cases worldwide have to do with Christians. This situation reflects the fact that Christians are today the single most persecuted religious group in the world". As we have heard, nowhere is this truer than in the Sudan.

I urge the Government to concentrate their efforts to try to get across to the Sudanese that the situation in their country will become increasingly the focus of world attention, not only in the United Nations but also in other fora. Whilst we welcome the efforts of the aid agencies which have borne some fruit, nevertheless the underlying situation must be tackled.

I hope that what we hear about possible executions of Christian ministers and priests, possible crucifixions, and, of course, the slavery which has been mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, will be assiduously pursued by our Foreign Office Ministers and that they will make the most urgent and strenuous representations to prevent any further such barbaric acts in the Sudan.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for introducing this debate and for enabling us once more to draw attention to this dreadful situation.

9.27 p.m.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I was interested to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Cocks, said about the Sudanese foundation appearing at the annual meeting of the British group, as I wrote to Mr. Hoile, the director of that foundation, on a couple of occasions, to ask him to let me have a copy of the report and accounts of his outfit. I never received a reply. It is good to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Cocks, that Mr. Hoile receives all his money from the Sudanese Government. I hope that those who receive his literature will take careful note of that.

I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Cocks, has said about the fantastic work undertaken by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and her immense energy and courage in pursuing the cause of the oppressed in many areas of the world, not only in Sudan but also in Burma and Armenia. We know of her courage under fire in such places. The work that she does in Sudan is only one of the many examples of her courage. Therefore it is a great privilege to take part in this debate and to discuss once again the important matters that the noble Baroness has raised.

Although I hold no brief for the NIF regime, I contend that the US attack on the alleged chemical weapons factory in Khartoum was not justified by international law and was a political error. I said that to the Foreign Secretary at the time. The Americans produced only the flimsiest evidence for their claim and did not agree to a Sudanese proposal that an independent investigation should be commissioned to which they would have given facilities for conducting tests on the spot. The UN Charter prohibits the use of force by one state against another except for action taken collectively with the authority of the Security Council under Article 42, or in the exercise of self-defence under Article 51, when an armed attack occurs on a member state. In the latter case, the use of force is expressly limited to a period before the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. That means that the circumstances must be such that if the Security Council had had the time, it would have taken measures broadly in line with those taken by the state claiming to act in self-defence. In the case of the bombings of the US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, the UN would not have authorised military action on the lines of that taken by the United States, and the American action was therefore unlawful.

The NIF regime has an appalling record of human rights violations, of which the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, reminded us again. She mentioned the policy of deliberately causing mass starvation by excluding the UN's Operation Lifeline Sudan or any other relief operations from Bahr El Ghazal at the beginning of this year, affecting a quarter of a million people in that area as well as 400,000 people in the Nuba mountains. That issue is highlighted in the annual report of Human Rights Watch, just published. The report states that in the Nuba mountains, the government continued its efforts to starve civilians out of rebel-held areas into government 'peace villages'. Army troops and Nuba collaborators captured and relocated or killed civilians. They looted and burned villages, animals and grain. A permanent government blockade, in place since the beginning of the war, barred all UN relief operations and even traders from the rebel areas of the Nuba mountains. A private assessment in March estimated 20,000 civilians there were at risk of starvation". As a result of the world's expressions of horror at the pictures of emaciated people in rural Bahr El Ghazal on the TV, the government of Sudan were compelled to allow relief operations in that part of the country, and the most recent report from Mr. Mohammed Saleheen, the Khartoum representative of the World Food Programme, says that the area is now out of intensive care but still in need of treatment. However, he says that a new humanitarian crisis was developing in Juba, the largest town in the south, as a result of clashes between government troops and the SPLA in eastern Equatoria. Barges are on the way down the Nile carrying 1,000 tonnes of food, which was formerly enough to feed the inhabitants of Juba for some two months, but may not be enough for a population swelled by internally displaced villagers fleeing the conflict areas and dependent entirely on aid. Mr. Saleheen also says that the rainfall was late this year and floods damaged the crops, impairing the region's ability to contribute to its people's sustenance.

Mr. Saleheen does not even mention the Nuba mountains. Perhaps the Minister could say whether that is because the World Food Programme does not have access to the region and thus no information is available to it. What efforts are we, and the European Union as a whole, making to persuade the NIF to open up that region and allow international agencies to save the people from starvation and massacre?

The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, mentioned the case of Kosovo, where we were prepared to use force if Milosevic had continued with a policy similar to that being conducted in the Nuba mountains. The Minister said during a discussion on Kosovo that in a situation of extreme humanitarian disaster we should have been justified in using force there if Milosevic had continued with his policies, in order to prevent extreme humanitarian disaster occurring in that territory. But we cannot depend on such statements, even when they are as authoritative as those of the Minister.

There is an urgent need to define a "right of intervention", a term that authorities sometimes use following Resolution 688 on Iraq. At that time I asked the then Secretary of State, now the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, whether he thought we should seek to amend the Charter to clarify the circumstances in which the international community should have the power to intervene to prevent megadeaths. He thought it would be virtually impossible to get agreement on this issue because states had acceded to the Charter readily for the protection it gave them against international intervention. But, if we do not make the effort, there will be collective action in only a very limited number of cases where the interests of the great powers are not affected. Are the Government prepared to give some thought to this problem in the light of the difficulties that have arisen in Sudan?

It is not only in the south that human rights are violated by the regime in Khartoum. There were many detentions following a series of bomb explosions in Khartoum in June and a high-profile trial of 20 detainees and another six in absentia started on 5th October. The ringleader of the plot was alleged to be Father Hillary Boma, Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Khartoum, and there was another priest among the accused, Father Lino Sebit. It was reported that Father Boma was made to confess in order to stop the torture of his priestly colleague. None of the defendants was allowed to speak to counsel before the opening of the trial, which was before a military tribunal, even though all but one of the defendants were civilians. Eighteen of the 20 were Christian. According to the Washington Post of 3rd December, the two priests could face crucifixion if they are convicted, and this trial is seen as part of the general policy of persecuting Christians, to which the noble Lord, Lord Cocks, referred.

Since 1983 nearly 2 million people have died from war and war-related causes in Sudan. Four and a half million have been displaced or have fled the country and 2.5 million are threatened by starvation and disease, largely created by the government and its warlords. This situation cannot be tolerated on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I urge the Government to do everything in their power to bring about a settlement of the conflict which will allow the people of the south to rule themselves and to spread to the whole of Sudan, in the words of the FCO mission statement, the human rights, civil liberties and democracy which we demand for ourselves.

9.37 p.m.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, it is remarkable that in a country with one of the worst records for human rights and civil liberties the ordinary civilian people are so patient and long-suffering. It is also remarkable that humanitarian aid is getting through and that the NGOs and UN agencies are able to sustain life, perhaps more constantly and cost-effectively than has ever been the case in Bosnia or Iraq. There is a desperate war going on. Most Europeans are unaware of it. The world has failed to resolve it. But contact between the Sudanese and outsiders is as warm as it has ever been. It is a tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and others who visit Sudan that friendship and hospitality are so often highlighted. I should like to mention here the courage of the noble Lord, Lord Deedes, who still makes a habit of visiting war-torn areas of Africa.

We need to preserve this other, positive image of Sudan. To quote briefly from two young teachers from the Sudan Volunteer Programme: The Sudanese are the most friendly people I've ever met … they are so warm and welcoming despite the hard conditions"; and, Sudan left me feeling privileged to have access to a country which has so much to offer me which beforehand had been so unknown". I visited Sudan in the 1980s on behalf of Christian Aid to see the work of the Churches in the north and the south. There is something unusual about a country devastated by years of war which still allows aid workers to travel and diplomats to search for solutions at every level. I too am sorry that the right reverend Prelate is unable to be here to describe his recent visit to the Episcopal Church. Many NGOs and Churches are actively working for a peace agreement. It is primarily for the Sudanese to find their own way, but it is not impossible, as it sometimes seems, for outsiders to make a contribution.

With 1.5 million deaths, 4 million to 5 million displaced inside and outside the country, 2.6 million still at risk of starvation, of whom 1.2 million are out of reach in war zones, and the war spilling further into neighbouring states, it is surely time for the outside world to take a more active interest.

There are many parties to the Sudan war beyond the advertised struggle between the GOS and the SPLM/A. There are factions on both sides that are hopelessly split into warring divisions. In the south and east both the Dinka and the Nuer peoples are tragically divided by their sponsors and are now fighting their own brothers. The GOS was recently so frustrated by its militia in Juba that it disarmed it. The maverick former SPLA commander, Kerubino Bol, has managed to change sides at least three times. It is said that when both sides of a conflict are weary and torn apart that is the moment for reconciliation. Yet so long as outsiders, including major powers, provide military support there will always be someone somewhere with enough arms to carry on.

There are some amazing stories of rescue operations, and I shall mention just one. Some noble Lords may have seen a BBC2 programme last month made by Sudanese film-makers about the de-mining work of OSIL (Operation Save Innocent Lives) to provide a safe passage for both local people and relief aid on its way to Bahr-al-Ghazal. In the past year the OSIL team has removed and destroyed 110 anti-tank mines, 1,421 APMs, 609 unexploded cluster bomblets and over 12,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance. One night in September a cluster bomblet dropped by a GOS Antonov entered the leg of a woman who was holding her baby in Yei hospital. It did not explode. A Sudanese engineer from OSIL removed it, without the help of any anaesthetic, so that the mother and child survived. This is a story of Sudanese courage that is repeated many times by the NGOs who work there.

The Sudan war is not confined to Sudan. I was recently in Uganda and again heard stories of atrocities by the Sudan-based Lord's Resistance Army. As part of its grisly war with the Ugandan Army it abducts teenage Ugandan children on the Gulu-Kitgum road, forces them into conscription and brutalises them into compliance. The army must now escort buses and taxis to ensure that the children get to school or take their examinations. Stories about the LRA are well documented. A couple of aid agencies are involved in helping to rehabilitate the children, but no one is trying to prevent it happening. There are many stark cases of human rights abuses in central Africa, but surely this is one to be followed more closely.

Aid has continued to reach the people of Bahr-al-Ghazal through the UN and larger aid agencies despite the civil war. However, as the Secretary of State often says, the problem is one of access. At this moment a convoy of seven barges, organised by WFP as part of Operation Lifelife Sudan, is carrying 2,500 tonnes up the Nile from Kosti to Juba. On the way it will deliver food across battlelines and distribute it to some 400,000 people on both sides of the war. These operations recall the Sarajevo convoys. They are among the most courageous being attempted in any war zone. Apart from occasional breakdowns, as occurred in January, they have been remarkably successful. Thanks may be due to the GOS and the SPLM for co-operating with OLS. Yet there are many areas outside the extended ceasefire lines like the Nuba mountains where there is no co-operation, where fighting continues and where over 1 million people are at risk from starvation because they are unable to go back and plant in time for the harvest.

The Minister will set out the UK's record, which will speak for itself. It is a good record. On the humanitarian side, the Government have supported the NGOs throughout, in spite of the Secretary of State's well-publicised intervention during the emergency which may have even helped the appeal. The pro-US position of Her Majesty's Government following the bombing of the Shifa pharmaceutical factory in August has been an embarrassment, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, implied, especially as no one has seen any of the US intelligence reports about the alleged involvement of bin Ladin. However, if the Government can even now make a clean breast of it, surely the way ahead is open for a resumption of normal diplomatic relations.

The humanitarian agencies have a strong interest in the return of our embassy staff to Sudan. I have heard nothing but praise for the way in which Ambassador Alan Goulty and his staff took the side of aid workers and found ways through labyrinthine bureaucracy to secure permissions and safe transit through Sudan. Although I acknowledge that they can still do much, even at a distance, I am sure that the Minister will do everything that she can to ensure that they return to the Sudan soon.

We read a lot about the IGAD process, but years have elapsed and, useful as it has been, many believe that it is time to look at alternatives. Both the GOS and the southern forces have a strong respect and affection for Britain. It may be possible for us to take a more independent line in the Security Council. The Government's response to the report of the International Development Committee urging a new initiative was perhaps, with hindsight, too cautious.

As a result of a powerful recent briefing by four leading aid agencies calling for a more effective peace process and a new humanitarian initiative, the United Nations may finally be notching up Sudan at least above its lost cause status. In some ways only countries like Britain, directly involved and working through the Security Council, can persuade the US to revise its confrontational stance.

In conclusion, there are signs that the parties would like a new way out, which may be possible for outsiders to help to negotiate. Every effort must be made to extend the ceasefire from Bahr-al-Ghazal to other areas to allow aid through and to restart the peace process with greater political will demonstrated at the highest level.

9.45 p.m.

Viscount Brentford

My Lords, I, too, would like to thank my noble friend very much for introducing this debate once again to your Lordships' House. Again, I would like to express my immense admiration for the courage and energy which she shows in bringing this matter before us after her trips made in great danger through that country.

As in the debate a year ago, I would like to concentrate primarily on the peace process. To pick up two points which the noble Earl has just made and endorse them to the Minister, I, too, have received requests that surely the ambassador can return to Khartoum. As I understand it, only Sudanese are currently manning our embassy there. Are we not yet ready to take that step and send the ambassador back, which would be a positive move in the peace process?

Following on what the noble Earl said about the four international NGOs meeting representatives of the Secretary General's office, I would like to say what an encouragement it has been that the UN has sent Sir Kieran Prendergast to visit that region of the Sudan. He has great experience throughout eastern and southern Africa. His going there seems to have been of encouragement to the Sudanese, even if only because it symbolises that the UN is now paying attention to the Sudan.

There is also great encouragement from the fact that the ceasefire in Bahr-al-Ghazal is holding, allowing food to be distributed for relief in that area. In any event, there would be a serious food shortage in that part of the Sudan because of the weather conditions. But the shortage has been made catastrophic and approaching mass starvation because of military action in destroying villages and crops and forcing people out of the areas, as has been said.

I ask the noble Baroness what proposals the Government have for the IGAD meeting in February. I was helped by a letter I had from her right honourable friend the Minister of State about the Government's proposals in the summer, but I wonder how that is moving at the moment.

Previous ceasefires in the Sudan have broken down. I am wondering—and other people have mentioned this—whether there should be an international monitoring team to monitor the ceasefire in the Sudan. I do not know whether many of your Lordships watched the "Panorama" programme on Rwanda last night showing the disaster of Unimar there. I certainly have doubts. It came over to me during that programme that as long as Unimar was in Rwanda many thousands of lives were being saved. The genocide in Rwanda accelerated enormously from the time that Unimar was called out. Therefore I believe that there is a serious case for having an international monitoring team at the right moment in the Sudan.

My second point is for IGAD to extend the ceasefire to all other contested areas. I hope that the Minister will be able to say that that is government policy.

One proposal mooted by the Sudanese Churches is to bring the southern troops south of the 1956 boundary line and to keep the northern troops on the north side. That is a possible historical boundary for a ceasefire. It might also have the advantage of clarifying which group of fighters is on whose side. As the noble Earl said, people change sides and it is not always clear who is fighting for whom. A fixed boundary line could clarify the issue.

Thirdly, I hope that in February IGAD will settle the process towards self-determination for the south. All parties in the process have agreed it in principle. Monitors would be needed to assess the process. However, I hope that in February concrete steps can be taken towards the self-determination process. If so, the grassroots peacemaking and reconciliation that are taking place could lead towards development and reconstruction.

I ask the Government three questions on their policy. I appreciate that on Thursday in Vienna they aim to bolster human rights. I warmly welcome that aim and hope that the result will be positive for all those nations which suffer so drastically. First, will the Government consider supporting NGOs where Operation Lifeline Sudan is not working? I believe that to be the case in the southern Blue Nile region. Food, medicine and education are badly needed in those areas. I know that at one stage the Government were limiting their support to OLS. I hope that they are now moving more widely afield.

Secondly, there is a great need to help civil administrations in those countries which have been set free from the NIF. I hope that the Government can give support in the setting up of the administration and in training people to administer those areas of the country.

Thirdly, I warmly welcome the recent meeting between the Government and various agencies, Churches and societies working in Sudan. I hope that it will be an ongoing programme. I am grateful to the Government for asking for co-operation and partnership between government and the Churches, and warmly welcome the help that I received on a number of issues. I hope that it will be an ongoing relationship, because the Churches can achieve a great deal. The economic and social infrastructure is damaged almost but not entirely beyond repair in many areas and the support of the Government would be helpful.

From its historic as well as current position, the UK must play a leading and positive role. Two million lives have been lost in the past 40 years in the Sudan and it is important that once and for all we put a stop to that. I very much hope that when the noble Baroness winds up she will be able to give encouraging news on the Government's policies in the Sudan.

9.55 p.m.

Lord Birkett

My Lords, I join noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on introducing this short debate and on her continuing courage and determination over the issue of Sudan. I cannot add to her graphic description of the misery and plight of the Sudan. However, one thing in particular appals me. It is that the atrocities she described and the tyrannies which prevail should be in the name of religion. The idea that a holy war should have anything to do with this appals me. I have always thought religion to be a matter of private conviction, private conscience and private philosophy. Once it becomes a tool of government policy, or is urged as a form of patriotism, tyranny is the invariable result. Religious wars and religious persecutions throughout history have produced as much slaughter and human misery as territorial greed, dynastic vengeance or ethnic hatred. And not just ancient history. The last decades of the 20th century have been as bloodstained and ignoble in that direction as any in the chronicles of man's inhumanity to man.

I urge on the Government everything that the noble Baroness urged. I can only echo her plea to them to do whatever they can. But I ask myself, how is one government to persuade another of their inhumanity when that other government are armoured with all the paraphernalia of fundamentalist righteousness? I side with the noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, in believing that the government of the Sudan must somehow be persuaded that the rest of the world, not merely your Lordships' House, regard their behaviour as intolerable in any modern society. Something must be done to stop it. If they cannot stop it themselves something else must be done. But until they realise that the world regards them as anathema to ordinary decent behaviour nothing much will happen. I wish the Government in that endeavour every possible success. I hope that they will be able to pursue the matter with all the diligence at their command.

9.57 p.m.

Viscount Torrington

My Lords, some 30 years ago I had the privilege of flying a small single-engined aeroplane from Uganda to Cairo. In the course of that trip, I flew up the Nile, visiting most of the towns in the Sudan from Juba in the south to Atbara in the north. The thing that most impressed me about the country, in particular in the south, was how lush and green it seemed to be. It was probably the rainy season at the time. One saw a land with enormous potential for agriculture, tourism and wildlife. It is with a terrible sense of sadness that for the past 30 years one has watched an almost continuous civil war and its appalling escalation since the arrival of the NIF government.

My noble friend Lady Cox has adequately described the terrible events which are taking place and there is nothing much I can add. However, I wish to touch on an issue which, in the face of all the human suffering, is perhaps rather minor. It relates to the effects of the Sudan conflict on the neighbouring countries. I am a trustee of several wildlife charities, in particular of Save the Rhino International. That charity has given considerable funding to the last population of northern white rhino which live in the Garamba National Park in the north eastern corner of what used to be Zaïre, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Unfortunately, the recent events and civil war there caused the administrative personnel in the park to have to be withdrawn. During that time, the rhino and the elephants—the last rideable elephants were the remnants of King Leopold's elephant corps—have largely vanished, disappeared. That is due largely to poaching from starving people coming across from the Sudan.

As the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, mentioned, the effects on Uganda have been appalling. I had first-hand experience of that in June, in that I am a director of an oil company which was undertaking a seismic survey in the Western Rift Valley. Just outside Fort Portal there is a school where 80 children were herded by the Lord's Resistance Army into a dormitory. The dormitory was then set on fire and all the children died. That is an extremely evil terrorist group which tries to give itself an air of Christian respectability but is reputed to be financially and logistically supported by the NIF Government as a way of deflecting Ugandan Government support away from assistance to the SPLA. Whether or not that is true, the cost to Uganda in providing a measure of security in the north-eastern part of the country is a very heavy burden indeed.

I believe that it was the noble Lord, Lord Cocks, who said that the fundamental problem in the Sudan is that we have a Moslem north tied to a Christian and animist south by the stroke of a 19th century bureaucrat's pen. So many of Africa's international boundaries are merely the result of administrative convenience. Little account was taken of ethnic identities. I found it extraordinary that so few African countries have fallen apart. I can really only think of Ethiopia and Eritrea and that was perhaps not a colonial accident. One remembers the Biafran civil war and the Katanga secession attempt. But all of those seem to have been sat on by centrist governments wanting to hold on to resources quite regardless of the ethnic discontent.

Elsewhere in the world, the break-up of Czechoslovakia and the separation from Russia of the Caspian republics, although sadly not the break-up of Yugoslavia, show that separation, devolution, can be achieved without unacceptable strife, often to the benefit of all parties. Even in this country, I fear that we may have a fault line for a future break-up.

However, there must be a strong case for loosening the formal links north and south in the Sudan—devolution, as the noble Lord, Lord Cocks, called it. Clearly, the Sharia legal system is anathema to the southerners. It is possible—we know it in this country—to have two separate legal systems operating together. We have English and Scottish law. There is a splendid example in China now with the basic law operating in Hong Kong separate from the People's Republic of China. Therefore, it can be done. Surely some sort of federal arrangement which recognises those ethnic realities must be the answer for the Sudan.

We all have a few doubts about whether a fair solution to the country's problems is possible under the present NIF government. Their occasional charm offensives do nothing to suggest that they have any commitment to real democracy and, if my noble friend Lady Cox is right, they surely do not. I hope that Her Majesty's Government, with their commitment to an ethical foreign policy and a fresh approach, can bring real weight to bear on that problem and a solution for that unhappy country. I look forward to hearing whether the noble Baroness has any thoughts on new initiatives in that regard.

10.2 p.m.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, I too take this opportunity to thank my noble friend Lady Cox for securing this important debate this evening. I pay tribute to her for her timeless work for victims of oppressive regimes with the organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

It is almost exactly a year since your Lordships last had an opportunity to debate events in the Sudan and government policy towards it. In the year that has passed, the brutal policies and practices of the NIF regime continue to put at risk the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people both in Sudan and abroad. In the past 12 months, the regime's vicious war strategy, which continues to bankrupt the country financially and spiritually, and its support of international terrorism have both delivered deadly consequences.

On the one hand, the famine has locked southern Sudan in its fatal grip while on the other, the United States was provoked into launching an air strike against a suspected chemical weapons facility in Khartoum. There have been some small sparks of hope in the past year and I pay tribute in particular to the work done by the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in his efforts to secure the extension of the limited ceasefire in Bahr al Ghazal. In the short term that has without doubt alleviated a humanitarian catastrophe of unthinkable proportions.

In his absence the noble Lord, Lord McNair, asked me to place on record his personal hope for closer links between the British and Sudanese Governments, and I do so. However, in June the United Nations officially declared the situation in Sudan to be one of famine, as almost one-tenth of the entire Sudanese population face the prospect of starving to death. The famine has been no arbitrary act of nature; of that there can be no doubt. It is true that southern Sudan is at risk of chronic humanitarian problems every year when droughts devastate crops and displace populations. But the primary cause of this year's famine was war and the tactics of war in which the men, women and children of southern Sudan were used as human pawns as access to vulnerable populations was denied by the Sudanese Government earlier this year.

It is also true that the situation in Sudan raises important questions as to the effectiveness of the current international response to humanitarian disasters. Nevertheless, whatever the cause of the disaster, when people are starving to death they must be fed. They must not be forced to pay the price for the follies of their leaders.

The humanitarian aid operation in the ceasefire-for-famine zones has begun to pay dividends. But we are only too well aware of the potentially transient nature of this improved situation. In this House we are all agreed that the only long-term solution to the cycle of humanitarian disasters in Sudan is lasting peace agreed through a negotiated political settlement. A long-term solution to this conflict which, as noble Lords pointed out, has killed over 1.5 million people and devastated the Sudanese economy, remains regrettably as elusive as ever.

Reports have been received that fighting has intensified in recent weeks and that aerial bombardments have been resumed in the south. Given that the Foreign Secretary said that the Government will make it a priority for diplomacy in Africa to build peace and prevent conflict, since without peace nothing else is possible, can the Minister say what action the Government intend to take in the future to instil in both parties—that is, the government of Sudan and the factions in the south—the confidence to pursue peace negotiations within the IGAD framework? What efforts are the Government making to persuade both sides to extend the ceasefire beyond January?

I turn briefly to Sudan's status as a rogue state and a refuge for foreign terrorists. It is a matter of record that the government in Sudan actively sponsored international terrorism and continue to do so. We give our full support to the Government's position that terrorism must be fought in all its forms wherever it may occur and whatever its motivation. However, given the questions raised over the use of the facility following the attack both before and during this debate, is the Minister in a position to confirm the belief of the US Government that the Al-Shifa factory site in Khartoum was indeed a chemical factory, capable of producing a deadly series of chemical weapons and not a pharmaceutical plant as claimed by the Sudanese Government?

Furthermore, can the Minister tell the House what reply the Government have given to the invitation from the Sudanese Government for a United Kingdom verification mission to examine the Al-Shifa factory site? What assessment have the Government made of the reports of dispatches of the German Ambassador to the Sudan, Walter Daum, that the Al-Shifa factory made only medicines and that it was neither protected nor kept secret? What action are the Government taking to investigate the grave concerns that the NIF is working closely with both Saddam Hussein to develop both chemical and biological weapons and with the terrorist Osama bin Laden to launch new terrorist attacks in the future? Does the Minister now have independent substantiated evidence to back the United States' view that, first, Iraq helped Sudan to develop chemical warfare capabilities, given that in March the Foreign Office was unable to confirm that? Secondly, do the Government have evidence that the export of veterinary drugs from the Shifa factory to Iraq may have been used to help cover the export of agents of chemical weapons?

In conclusion, I pay tribute to the work of the British Council which this year celebrated 50 years of operating in the Sudan. I mention also the work of the Malik Society through its project to bring back the last of Lord Kitchener's famous gunboats—the "Malik"—for preservation and restoration in this country. In its way the society does much to foster a spirit of co-operation and understanding between the United Kingdom and the Sudanese people. I hope that the Minister will agree.

10.10 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I too pay tribute to the work and witness of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. I am delighted to take part in the debate which she has instigated. It is a further tribute to her that at this late hour so many of her noble colleagues have stayed to contribute. I believe that is primarily because of the inspiration she has given them and because of their desire to support her in every way that they can. She is an outstanding example of that famous quotation from the great Burke that it is enough for injustice to triumph that good men remain silent. The noble Baroness is a good woman who does not remain silent and she encourages others not to remain silent either.

It would not be appropriate for me to repeat what has been said so eloquently by so many noble Lords on the terrible record of what is happening in Sudan in terms of lives lost; refugees who number, we are told, between 4.5 million and 5 million, and the number of people now registered as facing starvation. It is perhaps one of the worst records of any country in the world in a deeply blood-stained and in many ways profoundly disturbing century which is now reaching its end.

Having said that, I echo what was said most eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan: this is not, as some people pretend it to be, an act of God. This year's Economic Nobel Prizewinner, Professor Amartya Sen, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, has pointed out that there are no known records of serious famines in any democracy in the world. Famine is, in many ways, an outcome of a brutal government, combined with natural problems and natural disasters. However, in a democracy, the attention of the whole society is drawn to the problems of those confronting hunger and starvation. Virtually any decent state attempts to deal with that situation. Even India, for all its poverty, has not suffered the systematic famine and starvation of a potentially richer country, such as Sudan. Therefore, one cannot allow the government of Sudan to escape substantial responsibility for what is happening. That government know very well that the opportunities to deal with the suffering of their people lie before them and that many members of the international community would be more than happy to try to take part in alleviating such suffering.

There has already been much description of the destruction of farmland, crops and animals and what one can only describe as something close to genocide. The noble Viscount, Lord Torrington, referred to the destruction of the environment and nature in what was once a relatively rich and plentiful country.

We need not rely on only our own evidence; there have been consistent and continuing reports by the former United Nations special rapporteur, Mr. Gaspar Biro, about what has happened over many years in Sudan. It is perhaps worth mentioning that only today an article appeared in the New York Times written by that distinguished leading academic lawyer, Mary Glendon, in which she described Sudan as, the worst human rights violator in the world today". I believe there is a serious problem which perhaps has not yet been addressed in the debate. I refer to the willingness of the government of Sudan to manipulate the goodwill and charity of many non-governmental organisations. I would not be critical of the Secretary of State for International Development for drawing attention to the fact that in her view it was not so much yet more charitable funds that were needed, as willingness and political intent on the part of that government to facilitate access to the poorest parts of the country, to enable transport to be provided, and to direct to their citizens the results of the charitable reaction of much of the world.

Looking back, there is little doubt about the way in which the government of Sudan have literally manipulated Operation Lifeline Sudan by, in effect, blackmailing non-governmental organisations with a terrible choice: either allowing people to starve because of an unwillingness to accept the conditions laid down by the government of Sudan; or, alternatively, accepting those conditions and, therefore, becoming unwillingly in part complicit to the very policies that that government have conducted. I believe this to be one of the most difficult moral questions that anyone has ever had to confront. Indeed, I do not blame the Secretary of State for drawing attention so bluntly to this particular and terrible dilemma.

Perhaps I may repeat the question that was so eloquently asked by the noble Lord, Lord Birkett. Something must be done: but what can be done? I believe that many bodies are involved and I should like to say a few words about each of them. First, the United Nations is involved but, in my view, it has not given as much support over the years to the Special Rapporteur it has sent to the Sudan as it should have done. I hope that the present Secretary-General of the UN, Mr. Kofi Annan, will make every possible attempt to indicate that he cares very much and takes most seriously the reports coming out of Sudan.

Secondly, and still in the context of the UN, we need to look very sharply at the massive exports of small arms—bluntly, some of it from both the US and Europe—which are swamping the Sudan. Indeed, I understand that over 90 per cent. of its budget now goes for the purchase of weapons. The Sudan is as good an example as any in the world of those who put kalashnikovs ahead of bread and those who put warriors ahead of children. It is time we drew attention to that fact and attempted to stop the source of arms supplies to that country.

Thirdly, there is the responsibility of the regional body; namely, the Organisation of African States. Over the weekend I had the privilege of attending a conference on human rights in Valencia, which was attended by, among others, the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Chief Anyaoku. He made the point that it is important that regional organisations take responsibility increasingly for breaches of human rights within their own region. Frankly, it is important that those who are parts of a region, whether it be in Africa, Asia or Latin America, recognise their responsibility for ensuring that the rule of law in their region is upheld. Therefore, because I think like a politician, I ask: what can we actually do? I hope that the Government and others will draw the attention of the regional body—the Organisation of Africa States—to the need to ensure that standards are maintained in the Sudan. That will eventually reflect favourably on Africa.

Fourthly, there is the United States. I believe it has a large responsibility in the matter, not least because in 1994 the administration of President Clinton went along with the attachment of conditions by the then government of the Sudan—indeed, the current government—to the operation of the NGOs through the Sudanese lifeline. That administration accepted the idea of access and, for that matter, of provision of aid being essentially conditional upon the will of the government of Sudan. If we draw the attention of Congress to the outrages in the Sudan, not least against Christians, I believe that we could get a response that might surprise us. In any event, the United States has a major responsibility not just to punish what it may regard as events in Sudan about which there is perhaps not quite enough proof but also, more precisely, what is happening internally to Sudanese citizens.

Finally, there are the NGOs themselves and the question about how far they can indicate that, at the very least, the International Red Cross and other bodies should have access to the so-called "peace camps"—that ironic phrase—which house the peoples of the south in what can only be described as something like modern concentration camps.

I conclude by asking the Minister a question. We are told by some, including, among others, my noble friend Lord McNair, that there is now some light dawning in Sudan; that the ceasefire may last beyond the end of the year; that the government have announced their intention to adopt a new constitution which allows multi-party politics; and that, in addition, seven factions of the opposition have now signed the Khartoum peace agreement. I must express some scepticism. Will the Minister say something about these more recent developments in Sudan in her reply? Will she say whether, in her view, they mean anything very solid? Finally, will she say whether Her Majesty's Government will seek the support of the United Nations, the OAS and others in trying to bring about the resumption of civilised and humane behaviour in a country which was held up as a model of what could be the case in Africa, and has now perhaps the lowest standards achieved in that troubled continent.

10.20 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, I too am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for bringing the recent developments in Sudan to the attention of this House. I thank her for the advice that she continues to offer to the Government. As the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, said, the House knows that the plight of the Sudanese people is a subject close to the heart of the noble Baroness. I applaud her for continuing her efforts to improve their situation and indeed for her great courage in doing so.

It is also a subject to which the Government attach great importance and one to which we have devoted a great deal of effort in recent months. This year has indeed seen appalling levels of human suffering in Sudan. Humanitarian agencies assessed that famine threatened some 2.6 million people with starvation, and fighting continues in a war that has gone on, with only one significant break, for more than 40 years.

The Government were quick to respond to the humanitarian crisis. In February, we pledged an initial £4 million in response to the United Nations 1998 Consolidated Appeal for Sudan. At that time, we made it clear that we stood ready to provide further assistance. We have since allocated a further £24 million. The UK is one of the largest bilateral donors. We have committed, both bilaterally and through the EU, over £180 million to the Sudan and Sudanese refugees since 1991, and we stand ready to provide more assistance as the need arises.

But money is only one part of the answer and is only one part of the Government's response. Pictures of starving children in the press and on television are extremely moving—I am sure that we all respond to them—but they do not explain the context of such tragedies, nor do they approach the real roots of the problem, as many of your Lordships have pointed out.

The only long-term solution to this ghastly catalogue of humanitarian disaster detailed by the noble Baroness is the solution advocated by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan—a peace settlement that respects the rights of all the people of Sudan and allows them to rebuild their lives. There will be no end to the horrors of starvation, displacement and other innocents suffering until there is an end to the civil war, as the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, wisely told us.

The Government have therefore been active in promoting the peace process in Sudan with the international community and in the region. Only if Sudan is moved up the international agenda so that interests and efforts are focused on the war and not only on the humanitarian situation will consistent pressure be brought to bear on all sides to the conflict to convince them that a peaceful settlement is the only solution. That was a point made forcefully by the noble Lord, Lord Birkett.

Her Majesty's Government have therefore raised the issue within the EU on a number of occasions. As presidency, on 1st May we issued a statement calling on all parties to implement an immediate ceasefire and urging them to make every effort to come to a comprehensive peace agreement. At the end of June my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary chaired a discussion in the GAC on proposals for a mission that was about to take place. A number of member states are now, as a result, taking a more active interest in the Sudan.

In addition, at our instigation, Sudan was discussed at the UN Security Council in May and we have taken part in briefings in July, October and November. The Secretary General now has an excellent Special Envoy for Humanitarian Affairs in Ambassador Vraalsen and, following a visit to the region in November by the Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs—in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams—the UN is now actively considering what further role it might play.

However, such international interest needs a focus. The UK has long supported the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development—IGAD—peace process as the best chance to bring to an end the civil war in Sudan through a negotiated settlement. As well as encouraging IGAD directly, we have also played an active role this year as members of the IGAD Partners Forum—the IPF—of western donors.

My right honourable friend the Minister of State, Derek Fatchett, attended a meeting of the IPF in June in The Hague at which he put forward a proposal for a mission to the region to explore the possibilities of securing a break in the fighting in the areas most affected by the humanitarian crisis. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, for his generous words about my right honourable friend which I shall be very happy to convey to him. Following that meeting, my right honourable friend visited Nairobi and Khartoum in July. During his visit both sides agreed to a three-month ceasefire in Bahr-al-Ghazal which, following further representations, has been extended for a further three months.

This agreement has allowed much needed food and medicine into the areas badly affected by famine. In answer to the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, about humanitarian aid, the United Nations agencies now tell us that the situation has stabilised in most of that region. But it will be some time before people are able to feed themselves and there will be a substantial and continuing need for humanitarian assistance in 1999. We shall continue to work with the United Nations to ensure that this is delivered effectively and efficiently. I can specifically assure the noble Baroness that we shall also continue to press for access to all areas where there is such a need for humanitarian assistance. In answer to the important point raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, it is essential that the ceasefire remains in place and that it covers as large an area as possible.

We hope also that the ceasefire will give confidence to the two parties to pursue broader humanitarian and peace agreements within the IGAD framework. The noble Baroness is of course right. We must not see a delay. That is why Her Majesty's Government have been pressing hard for this to happen now, seizing on what we see as a real window of opportunity created by this initial progress and the focus that is now being brought to bear by the international community.

In answer to some of the specific and important points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, perhaps I may go into some of the detail of what has happened most recently and cover, too, some of the important points raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford. Only two weeks ago, two important meetings took place in Rome. First, the IGAD Technical Committee on Humanitarian Affairs met. Out of that meeting came two tripartite agreements—between the Government of Sudan, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement—the SPLM—and the UN. One a security protocol; the other an agreement on means to operate road and rail corridors—the key to tackling the issue of land delivery of relief and an issue raised during the visit of my right honourable friend to which I referred earlier. Again, these not only addressed vital humanitarian issues but should also give further confidence to the parties to tackle more difficult issues.

The second Rome meeting of the IPF, which includes the United States, Canada and Japan as well as the western European countries, sent a clear, strong and, I hope, united message from the international community to the parties and to the mediators. Recognising the current weaknesses of the IGAD regional grouping, we welcomed Kenya's intention to resume "shuttle diplomacy" and urged IGAD to enter into an accelerated and sustained negotiating process.

In answer to the points raised about the IGAD in February, we believe this is an urgent matter. It is a matter that needs addressing now. That is what Her Majesty's Government are intent on doing. We also offered financial and technical support to strengthen the IGAD structures and we shall follow this up with considerable vigour.

Questions have been raised during your Lordships' debate, notably by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, about access. While there is some NGO presence in the most vulnerable parts of the Sudan we remain concerned that there are some areas, notably in the Nuba Mountains, as the noble Lord pointed out, where the Government of Sudan refuse access to OLS and where there are clear humanitarian needs. To answer the specific point of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, Her Majesty's Government continue to press the Government of Sudan to allow access to all vulnerable areas in the Sudan and are working closely with the United Nations towards an improved OLS operation to strengthen the UN's hand in dealing with the Sudanese authorities.

In answer to the point raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, we are willing to support agencies outside of OLS where there are unmet priority needs, but we shall work only with those international organisations that are experienced in working in an effective and impartial way with the complex political emergencies that have emerged.

In answer to the points raised by my noble friend Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe—I am sure we all join with him in regretting the absence of the right reverend Prelate, who I am sure would have brought much wisdom to bear this evening—the British staff from the embassy in Khartoum keep in close touch with the Churches. They have done so in the past and are now doing so in the rather attenuated circumstances which prevail. HMA Khartoum raised the subject of the destruction of the Churches with a National Islamic Front leader. Certainly there is discrimination, but the case for persecution is, I think, less clear.

The noble Lord also referred to the difficult case of the two Catholic priests who may face crucifixion. The two priests are among 26 defendants currently being tried for plotting and carrying out the Khartoum bombings in late June and the trial is still continuing. The law in the Sudan provides for corpses to be crucified after hanging, although I should point out to the noble Lord that in recent trials the President has commuted the death sentence to a sentence of imprisonment. I assure my noble friend that we are watching this difficult, unpleasant issue as closely as he would wish.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, before the noble Baroness leaves that point, I hope I may ask her one other question. Does she know whether there are any non-governmental organisations or others observing that trial in view of the fact that a new group of people was substituted for those first apprehended with quite different charges being brought for the same crime? That seems, to say the least, a little troubling.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I do not know what NGO access there is to the trial. As I am sure the noble Baroness will appreciate, NGO access to trials is often a difficult issue. However, I shall make inquiries among officials and write to the noble Baroness on that specific point.

I turn to the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, on the attack on Al-Shifa. The Americans told us at the time that they had compelling evidence proving that the plant was involved in the production of chemical weapons. They said that they had physical evidence of key chemical weapons precursors. We believed that the United States would not have taken the action it did unless it had evidence that it believed was compelling. I am sure the noble Lord does not expect me to go into the details of intergovernment communications and intelligence reports. As the noble Lord is aware, no governments ever do that. But that is what we believed to be the case at the time.

We have raised these issues of the use and manufacture of chemical weapons with the Sudanese Government in the past. Her Majesty's Government strongly believe that the solution is to encourage the Sudan to become a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Given that, we could circumvent the endless cycle of allegations and denials as to whether weapons of mass destruction are being made in the Sudan, because a proper verification regime would be put in place.

In that connection, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said, the United States is a key component in making significant progress in the Sudan. We work closely with the United States in all our initiatives. It, too, believes that the solution to this issue is a peace process that actually works. We are keeping our lines open to the opposition. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, asked specifically what we are doing in that regard. My right honourable friend the Minister of State has met the former Prime Minister. We respect the integrity of governments abroad. We have been through these issues before in relation to other countries, but we keep our lines open in a way that I hope the noble Baroness finds helpful.

The noble Viscount, Lord Torrington, raised the issue of Sudan's neighbours. We are aware of reports of involvement of the Sudan with neighbour states, and vice versa. Again, we return to the central point that a resolution of the civil war would facilitate peace in the region as a whole, and that is the key to the Government's policy.

I therefore hope that our objectives are clear to your Lordships: an end to starvation and suffering in the Sudan and hence an end to the fighting. At the same time as continuing to press for improvements in the way relief is delivered, we shall pursue the peace agenda with the IGAD and with international partners. We shall also maintain a dialogue with all parties, including pressing them to respect human rights. I recognise that we shall be in a better position to pursue these objectives when we have British staff back in Khartoum. I assure the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, that we are working towards that end. We are looking to the future and the benefits of dialogue.

To answer the final specific point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, I suspect that I have been rather more upbeat this evening in giving the Government's assessment of what is happening. I do not apologise for that. Her Majesty's Government believe that we have given peace in the Sudan a new priority in our thinking, efforts and policies, and we shall continue to do so.

House adjourned at twenty-three minutes before eleven o'clock.