HL Deb 09 February 2004 vol 656 cc923-6

3.1 p.m.

Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking, through the United Nations Security Council, to halt the conflict in Darfur, western Sudan.

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

My Lords, the situation in Darfur has not been raised in the United Nations Security Council. However, we are working with others, including our European partners, to explore the possible ways in which we could help to end the conflict. We are in close touch with Sudanese Government Ministers, and the various Darfur movements. We are urging them to re-establish a ceasefire, preferably with international monitoring, to allow humanitarian access and to seek a solution through dialogue.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, would the Minister agree that with 650,000 people internally displaced, 115,000 refugees in Chad, and over 3,000 killed so far, this phenomenon is an overwhelming humanitarian disaster? Where is the integrated response by African states and the international community, to use the UN Secretary-General's phrase, to the machine-gunning and bombing of a civilian population?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the figures are very much as the noble Lord has given them, and we have discussed this twice in the past couple of weeks: on 15 and 28 January. It is not always easy to persuade others to see the problem as we see it. The noble Lord will recall that we were very disappointed that despite our hard work, and that of our EU partners, the EU-sponsored resolution on the Sudan in the UN Commission on Human Rights was lost on 16 April last year. We, and others, continue to work hard through the Secretary-General's special representative for humanitarian affairs in Sudan, Mr Tom Vraalsen, and the EU presidency, and we will continue to work hard to try to find a peaceful solution to this appalling conflict.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, would the Minister care to comment on the relationship between the conflict in Darfur and a peace settlement between north and south Sudan?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I find it difficult to go into that detail at the moment. Clearly, we are looking for a number of different solutions. As the right reverend Prelate will know, the peace discussions on the full problem in the Sudan are due to resume on 17 February. The Darfur problem has always been a separate issue because it involves different groups who are in a state of rebellion against the Government of Sudan.

At the moment, we are concentrating on the resumption of those peace talks on 17 February. We recognise that the situation in Darfur is also very serious. That is why, in relation to the Department for International Development and Mr Alan Goulty of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, special representatives are in discussions on an almost daily basis about how to take this issue forward. I am sorry that I cannot give the right reverend Prelate a direct read-across from one set of discussions to another. I assure him that we are very heavily engaged in trying to resolve this appalling conflict.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, is the Minister aware that since December, some 48,000 refugees have fled from Darfur into Chad, adding to those who were already there; and that last year, the UNHCR asked for 10.3 million dollars for 2004 to deal with this very serious situation, and has so far received nothing? Could the Minister raise this as a matter of acute urgency? As she knows, the suffering in Chad as a result of the fighting in Darfur is severe.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am aware that since we discussed this on 15 January in the debate proposed by the noble Baroness, the situation in Darfur has deteriorated very badly. As she said, there are currently thought to be about 600,000 people internally displaced, with a further 100,000 having lied to Chad. The problem, as we have discussed in this House, is that of trying to get a realistic picture of what is happening on the ground. The violence in Darfur is such that it is difficult to get access to, and therefore an understanding of, the full extent of the seriousness of the humanitarian crisis.

We are trying to assess all the requirements, and civilian protection is a major concern. The DflD's humanitarian adviser for Africa, Mr Simon Mansfield, was in the region a short while ago making such an assessment, and I understand that he is visiting the Chad region today to ensure that he gets a fully rounded picture.

Lord Judd

My Lords, while recognising that the Government are working immensely hard, together with their European partners, in trying to find a way forward in this appalling situation, does my noble friend agree that it is terribly important to sponsor a sense of responsibility for an African issue within the African continent? Does she therefore agree that the wider forum of the United Nations has an important role to play in promoting a solution backed and supported by those nearer the crisis than we in Europe?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I fully recognise that but, as I hope my answer to the supplementary question of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, made clear, while we have tried to pursue this issue under the auspices of the United Nations with our European partners, as we did last year, we were not successful in doing so. One can go back over these issues, and one can perhaps readdress this issue in the United Nations in due course. I do not rule that out.

However, this is an urgent situation, as the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, has reminded us on a number of occasions. It simply is not good enough to say that we must rely on a mechanism that, sadly, transparently has not worked. We must look for some other solutions. We are doing that bilaterally, through what we are able to do from this country, and with our EU partners.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, does the Minister agree that while it is difficult to get accurate information from the region, the stories that are coming out are really quite horrific? There are stories of whole villages being massacred and of refugees fleeing into Chad being systematically bombed by the government forces. Has the Minister noticed that the often-vilified American Administration, led by Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, have taken enormous time and trouble—including personal intervention by Colin Powell—with the Sudanese authorities, both sides and all parties, in an attempt to halt this horrific massacre? Would she agree that in addition to whatever can be done by the UN or our partners in the EU, the support of our American allies and colleagues, who are doing so much in this area, should be one of our priorities in helping to get a better situation?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree that there are many well intentioned partners in trying to find some resolution to this issue. The noble Lord has rightly paid tribute to the role played by our American friends. We are also working very hard—as I have indicated to your Lordships, although not with any great detail—on what we are trying to do through the European Union. The fact is that, to some extent, I am unable to go into the full details of all the different ongoing discussions. I am advised that that would not be particularly helpful given the current state of negotiations. I hope that the noble Lord will understand why I say that.

If there is any light to be shed on the situation, perhaps I may make just one point. On 7 February, the Sudanese Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs issued a statement asserting that safe corridors for the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Darfur have been opened. I hope that the fact that those safe corridors will be respected is at least a little good news and that humanitarian access will be a real priority to all those involved in this terrible conflict.