HL Deb 06 November 2003 vol 654 cc951-4

Baroness Cox asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their response to recent developments in Sudan.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, Sudan remains a priority for our diplomacy. We are committed to helping the Sudanese parties reach a comprehensive peace agreement. We are encouraged by the recent progress achieved in the meetings between the Sudanese first vice-president and the chairman of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement and Army. We are also considering ways in which the United Kingdom and the international community can assist in the implementation of a peace agreement and in the long-term development of Sudan.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, it is with great delight that, for the first time in all the years I have been asking Questions on Sudan in your Lordships' House, I unreservedly thank the Minister for her very encouraging reply. It seems as though, at long last, there may be hope for a genuine peace agreement for the peoples of Sudan.

In that spirit, does the Minister agree that many problems persist, particularly, for example, reports of renewed aerial bombardment and the arrest, torture and inhumane treatment of Muslim civilians in Darfur, such as the sentence of a hand/foot amputation of a 16 year-old boy? Will the Minister therefore undertake to encourage, through Her Majesty's Government, the National Islamic Front Government to accept international observers at the Darfur peace talks and also on the ground in conflict areas?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Baroness believes, as we do, that there is a real chance for peace. I thank her for her extraordinary endeavours in this respect over many years.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I also thank the Foreign Office officials who have put a tremendous amount of effort into this issue. Of course, many problems remain. We are aware of reports of renewed aerial bombardments. At the moment, I am not in a position to verify those reports, but we call on parties to respect the ceasefire.

Our ambassador in Khartoum has raised the question of the teenage boy which the noble Baroness has drawn to your Lordships' attention. That was pursued at an EU/Sudan dialogue meeting on 29th October.

We are following the talks in Abeche with close interest, and we are keeping in contact with all the parties to them. We believe that the best outcome will be one owned by the people of Darfur themselves and we stand ready to offer support and advice if the parties seek it.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, at the risk of introducing a discouraging note will my noble friend agree that there is little point in holding a referendum on self-determination for the South unless the people are in a position to make an informed choice? Will she confirm that education has been systematically withheld from the South; that information has been censored; and that whole areas have been terrorised into submission? Can the international community provide the resources for a proper information campaign before the referendum is held and before the settlement terms are irreversible?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we recognise that this is an enormously difficult problem. As I said to the noble Baroness, there is still some way to go before we reach a peace settlement. Having done so, we must recognise that the implementation of any agreement will need a concerted international response. As I have indicated to your Lordships, we stand ready to play our part and we are considering what other support can be given. I take the point that my noble and learned friend makes. It is hugely important that those who are asked to make decisions are asked to do so on as informed a basis as possible. There is still a great deal of violence in the country, and we shall need to ensure that everything possible is done to obtain the kind of information which empowers people to make the choices they need to make as quickly as possible.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I join in the congratulations expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, to the Minister and to Foreign Office staff on the work they have done as friends of IGAD in helping towards the peace agreement which we hope will be signed towards the end of this year. Does the Minister agree that the conflict in Darfur, which according to the UN has led to the internal displacement of as many as 0.5 million people and 70,000 refugees over the border in Chad, needs the attention of the international community? Do the international humanitarian agencies consider that the corridors to the delivery of aid, which have recently been announced by the Sudan, are adequate to meet the problem? Furthermore, does she agree that, if the African Union would look at the wider implications of the conflict, it would help towards the security of people in Darfur as well as in Sudan as a whole?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree that as much support as possible is needed for this effort, whether it comes from the neighbours of Sudan or from further afield. In that context, I pay tribute to the work done by my colleagues in DfID. This country has committed more than £220 million-worth of aid to the Sudan since 1991.

Let us turn to the question of the corridors. The fact is that there is still a great deal of violence, and there is a problem around Darfur. We believe that aid is getting through to the South, but in the West, around Darfur, great problems remain. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that those problems notwithstanding we shall continue to lobby for the regular and unfettered access to aid which is vital to the people in Darfur and elsewhere if the situation arises.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, do not the figures given by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, underline the urgency of the peace agreement? In addition to the 0.5 million people who have been displaced since February this year, some 7,000 in Dafur have died and 300 villages have been razed to the ground. What discussions has the Minister had with her counterparts in the US Administration about the lifting of sanctions if the peace agreement is settled? What transitional aid will then be provided by the US and ourselves in those circumstances?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, obviously, we have a great deal of contact with the United States. There is no specific US peace initiative as such, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Alton, is aware. However, our allies in the United States want to complement the arrangements that are already in place. There is obviously a UN role, and, as the noble Lord will know, there is also an EU role in looking at what is happening on the ground.

The United States has taken a close interest in what has happened. The noble Lord may know that Secretary of State Powell demonstrated United States support by visiting the peace talks on 22nd October. The points I raise about implementation and reviewing the position once a peace has been settled and what can then be done in terms of aid will be pertinent to raise early in the new year.