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House of Lords Discussion on Conflict in South Kordofan

Below is a discussion in the House of Lords regarding the conflict in South Kordofan…

Asked by Baroness Cox

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the conflict in Southern Kordofan and of the continuing problems in the other marginalised areas of the Abyei and Blue Nile regions of the Republic of Sudan.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): My Lords, the conflict in Southern Kordofan continues. Despite the announcement of a two-week ceasefire in Southern Kordofan by President al-Bashir, we have continued to receive reports of fighting and human rights abuses, and humanitarian access remains extremely limited. The outbreak of violence in Blue Nile state on 2 September marks a further deterioration in the ongoing pattern of conflict. We continue to work closely with our international partners to push for an immediate cessation of hostilities. In Abyei, deployment of the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei continues, under UN Resolution 1990. We are concerned that the Sudanese armed forces and Sudan People’s Liberation Movement troops are not withdrawing as agreed, and call for both sides to start the withdrawal process immediately.

Baroness Cox: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, but I fear it seems to imply symmetry in the culpability for aggression between President al-Bashir’s government of Sudan forces and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. Is he aware that in the recent conflict in Blue Nile, civilians have suffered aerial bombardment from government of Sudan forces? At least 50,000 civilians have had to flee, 20,000 into Ethiopia. Al-Bashir has denied access to UN and other aid organisations to civilians in need and dismissed the democratically elected governor, Malik Agar. What specific actions are Her Majesty’s Government taking in response to the sustained aggression that has been initiated and maintained by al-Bashir against the civilians, not only in Blue Nile but in Southern Kordofan and Abyei?

Lord Howell of Guildford: I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I think that symmetry is the wrong word, because we are under no illusions about the ferocity of the attacks by the Sudan armed forces, ordered apparently by President al-Bashir, and by the Sudan armed air force as well. Nevertheless, the truth is that these are disputed areas outside South Sudan. Many of them wanted to be in that but they have been left out. There is bitterness and both sides blame each other. That is a fact.

What are we doing? We are pushing for a strong line at the United Nations, where the matter is being discussed this very day at the Security Council. Our defence attaché is working hard in Addis Ababa, supporting the African Union implementation panel. We are, of course, putting strong DfID funds into South Sudan. The resources are already in the disputed areas, although it is very hard to get access to them, and we are backing the EU special representative, Rosalind Marsden, who is also very active in pressing Khartoum to halt the violence. Pressure is going on but it is not easy. The access is difficult and not all the parties concerned seem to recognise the awfulness of what is happening, but we are doing our very best.

Lord Chidgey: My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s earlier Statement condemning the bombardments of civilians in the area. However, is he aware that the reports of Amnesty International and human rights groups on the ground confirm the UN’s concerns over the possibilities of war crimes through the bombing of civilians and villagers in that area? We are the lead member of the troika in the north of Sudan. Will we also take the lead in pursuing the investigations into these alleged war crimes of the bombing of civilians?

Lord Howell of Guildford: The short answer is: yes, we are aware of this. We support the recommendation of the report by Navi Pillay that there should be an independent inquiry into these atrocity allegations. This will be pushed ahead as fast as possible.

The Lord Bishop of Guildford: My Lords, I was grateful to read the Ministerial Statement earlier in the week. I have just read a Ministerial Statement issued today by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on this very serious area. Does the Minister have a prognosis of the African Union discussions under Thabo Mbeki, and what hopes does he have for that agency to influence for good a very difficult situation?

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is right. We have issued a Written Statement today trying to bring colleagues up to date with the very ugly, and, I am afraid, deteriorating, situation. The official leading the African Union implementation panel has, of course, been Mr Mbeki. However, there is increasing activity as well from President Meles of Ethiopia, who is taking a lead in trying to get the aims of the panel and all the untied-up ends of the comprehensive peace agreement carried forward. There is more involvement locally. The whole process is very much alive.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, does the Minister recall the letter that I sent him on 22 June about the events in Kadugli, where 7,000 refugees were escorted away by members of the northern Sudan military? They included women and children and they disappeared. There have been reports in the area since then of mass graves. Is this not like an unfolding Jacobean tragedy, as we hear day by day of aerial bombardment, arson attacks on villages, rape and looting and the events that were described by my noble friend? In the discussions at the Security Council today will we be pressing for these crimes against humanity to be referred to the International Criminal Court?

Lord Howell of Guildford: We shall certainly be discussing them. I hope the noble Lord will believe me when I say that I do recall the letter that he sent me. As he knows, he sends me quite a few letters, which are very informative. However, as I say, I recall that particular letter. The atrocities that have apparently happened, which he described, are appalling, as is the general refugee problem of homeless people milling around in all three areas that we are discussing. That is causing enormous suffering, hatred and bitterness, which, I am afraid, will take a long time to eradicate. However, as to the role of the International Criminal Court, it is, of course, independent and will decide, probably on the recommendation or the nature of the debate in the UN, what charges to press further. As the noble Lord knows, it has already pressed some charges. These matters are very much on the table.

Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead: My Lords, will the Minister clarify exactly what the United Kingdom is doing to help secure unimpeded access for humanitarian workers? Is not the silence of the UN co-ordinator in Khartoum somewhat baffling? What pressure is the UK putting on the UN to be more vocal and more effective on this issue of humanitarian access? Secondly, what are the Government doing to help facilitate credible mediation efforts between the NCP and the SPLM in the north?

Lord Howell of Guildford: The answer in a very confused and difficult situation is that we are doing our best. As I said earlier, access for humanitarian activity is extremely difficult, particularly in Blue Nile state. The Government, through DfID, have put in resources and supplies almost in grim anticipation of things getting more difficult so that resources and supplies are accessible within Blue Nile state and in Southern Kordofan, but access to find out what is happening is difficult. The Government in Khartoum have been extremely unconstructive, as the noble Baroness knows, and she knows this area very well. They have constantly resisted the renewal of the UNMIS mandate in the north, although just recently I understand that a high Khartoum official did not rule out the idea of an international presence in Blue Nile state. If it is proved to be true, that could be a change from the previous totally unconstructive attitude. However, access is really difficult, so it is very hard to give the precise answers that the noble Baroness rightly seeks.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, my long-standing and firm friendship with the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, began when she served with great distinction as a Member of the European Parliament for the city of Liverpool, where at the time I was a local constituency Member of Parliament. I cannot think of anyone better to have opened today’s debate. She set the scene with great clarity and we are all grateful to her.

My association with the Commonwealth began when I was a Member of another place. I served as chairman of the Council for Education in the Commonwealth. There is an old proverb that states: if you plant a seed, you plant for a season; if you plant a tree, you plant for 10 years; but if you plant education, you plant for a lifetime. I echo some of the things that my noble friend Lady Boothroyd said earlier, and others have said in the debate about education; it is clear that the role of the Commonwealth in future in promoting education must continue to be one of its central tasks.

There is a debate between ecclesiastical and secular Latin scholars about when to use a hard C and when to use a soft C. Many of us would say that in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for far too long we have used a soft C. However, in the Minister who will reply to today’s debate-the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford-we have someone who has a long and distinguished record in promoting the Commonwealth, and who I am sure will insist that it is the hard C which is used rather than the soft.

I will make one substantive point in my remarks. To some extent I echo what was said by my noble friend Lord Luce and by the noble and learned Lord, Lord

Howe of Aberavon, about membership of the Commonwealth and new members. I support in particular what they said about British Somaliland but my remarks will return to a subject that I raised with my noble friend Lady Cox earlier today at Question Time: the position of South Sudan.

10 years ago I had the opportunity to visit Rwanda. I visited the genocide sites. In that country, the genocide that took place against the Tutsi minority by the Hutu majority led to the deaths of 1 million people. Visiting those sites was one of the most emotional and disturbing experiences of my life – seeing some of the mass graves and the places where people’s bodies had been left. Ialso had the opportunity to speak to President Paul Kagame. I was particularly struck that, in 2009, Rwanda applied and was given permission to join the Commonwealth. After all, this was a Francophone nation without the historic connections that many existing Commonwealth nations had. Their admission was the right decision, not least because, in the Harare Declaration of 1991, the Comonwealth set out the principles of democracy and human rights that are not always observed even now in Rwanda. However, a country that seeks admission must surely have some belief in those principles: otherwise, why would it apply to join? At least when a country becomes a member of the Commonwealth and accepts the principles in the Harare Declaration, we are then able to hold it to account and also to enter into proper dialogue in order to strengthen those principles.

This morning, with the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, I met two senior officials of the new Government of Southern Sudan. It has become the world’s newest nation, having achieved outright independence on 9 July. I visited Southern Sudan during the civil war, in which 2 million people died. I went to Darfur, where more than 300,000 people died. As the House heard earlier today, in Southern Kordofan and Abyei a campaign of aerial bombardment continues. I was last in Southern Sudan with my second son last year. We visited some areas there and in southern Ethiopia and Turkana where major challenges continue to face those nations. Again and again, I heard of the great warmth that people had for the United Kingdom and for the Commonwealth. Therefore, I was not surprised when the Juba Government, led by President Salva Kiir, lodged an application to bring the world’s newest fledgling nation into the Commonwealth.

This is a dangerous time. I heard from the officials we met this morning that they are fearful that Khartoum will embark on a new outright war against the South. I heard from them about some of the many challenges that the South faces. Half of the South’s population is below 18 years of age; 72 per cent are below the age of 30; 83 per cent are rural; only 27 per cent of the adult population are literate; 51 per cent live below the poverty line; 78 per cent of households depend on crop farming or animal husbandry as their primary source of livelihood; 80 per cent of the population have no access to toilet facilities; infant mortality is 102 per 1,000 births; under-five mortality rates are 135 per 1,000 births; the maternal mortality rate is 2054 per 100,000 live births; just 17 per cent of children are fully immunised; 38 per cent of the population have to walk for more than 30 minutes one way to collect drinking water; 50 per cent use firewood or grass as the primary source of lighting; 27 per cent have no lighting; 96 per cent use firewood or charcoal as their primary fuel for cooking; and a mere 1 per cent of households in Southern Sudan have a bank account. These are pretty daunting odds for any Government, but at least the Africans of the South now have the liberty and freedom that they have craved, and for which they fought and spilt blood, for so long.

Despite the phenomenal challenges, the taste of freedom is sweet. What better candidate could there be for admission to the Commonwealth? I hope that Her Majesty’s Government will do all that they can in these urgent circumstances to accelerate that application for admission.

Lord Howell of Guildford (Government Minister): South Sudan, yes, we support its membership. It is of course up to the whole Commonwealth, all 54 members, but we think it is a good idea and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has said so in terms.

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