Darfur Speech


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2.56 pm
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Sandwich has shown a remarkable sense of good timing in tabling this important Motion for debate today. It is good that we have been reminded of the considerable achievements in many parts of Africa, from South Africa to Ghana to Uganda. It is also true, as noble Lords have reflected, that considerable challenges remain.

On Tuesday, Raimundo Pereira, the Speaker of the Parliament in Guinea-Bissau, was sworn in as the country’s interim head of state following the assassination on Monday of President Joae Bernardo Vierira. In addition to assessing the fallout from this killing, the African Union’s Peace and Security Council had no shortage of other issues to discuss when it met in Addis Ababa later the same day. They could have included the civil war in Somalia and the piracy to which the noble Lord Sheikh and others have referred; cholera and instability in Zimbabwe; sectarian violence in Nigeria; and the security situation in eastern Congo. Lawless militias such as the Janjaweed, the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Interahamwe have become synonymous with bloodshed and horrific atrocities.

My noble friends Lord Luce and Lord Hannay were right to remind us that it was yesterday’s decision by the International Criminal Court to issue a warrant for the arrest of Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, that gives an even more topical edge to our proceedings today.

Some 2 million people died in Khartoum’s assault on Southern Sudan and between 200,000 and 300,000 people have died in Darfur. That region has seen 2.7 million people displaced, and 90 per cent of the homes there razed to the ground. These millions of lost lives represent a human catastrophe, and it is an indictment of our failure to protect rather than the duty to protect that my noble friend Lord Hannay was right to remind us about.

Darfur is the first genocide of the 21st century-a conclusion I came to when I travelled there in 2004 with Rebecca Tinsley who subsequently founded Waging Peace and provided some of the evidence placed before the International Criminal Court. I took evidence from some of those who had been the victims of the Janjaweed militia, the Government of Khartoum, the regional war lords and their agents. I also visited Southern Sudan four years earlier during the civil war.

I was reminded of some of the horrific personal accounts that I heard when listening this morning to Colonel Samir Jaja, a deserter from the Sudanese army. He described how he had abandoned the army after taking part in an attack on the villages of Korma, Ber Tawila and Sanj Koro in Southern Darfur in April 2003. They were ordered to,

“rape the women, kill the children, leave nothing”.

They killed the villagers as well their livestock and the wells were poisoned. Oumba Daoud Abdelrasoul is one of 17,000 refugees in Djabal refugee camp in eastern Chad, which is 90 miles from the village in Darfur from which he fled. He said:

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“My younger brother and my two uncles had their throats slit in front of me. I had to watch as others were thrown alive into fires”.

He is one of the quarter of a million Darfuri refugees in eastern Chad, along with a further 18,000 displaced Chadians.

It is in this context that we must view the decision in July 2008 by Louis Morino Ocampo, the ICC prosecutor, to indict Omar al-Bashir and consider yesterday’s momentous decision of the ICC judges in the Hague to issue a warrant for his arrest-the first against a sitting head of state.

The court spokeswoman, Laurence Blairon, said that Bashir was suspected of being criminally responsible for,

“intentionally directing attacks against an important part of the civilian population of Darfur, murdering … raping, torturing and forcibly transferring large numbers of civilians and pillaging their property”.

She said that the violence in Darfur was the result of a common plan organised at the highest levels of the Sudanese Government. In the 108 countries that recognise the ICC, Bashir is now a wanted man. Although the ICC did not, at this stage, issue a warrant for genocide, no-one should underestimate the importance of this sombre, considered and courageous decision.

A few weeks ago, as an officer of the Associate Parliamentary Group for Sudan, I chaired a meeting to which I had invited Mr Ocampo. We discussed the indictment of Omar al-Bashir and the role of the ICC. Mr Ocampo made it clear that his mandate was to examine the evidence and act accordingly, not to make calculations about politics or diplomacy. Some of those present at the meeting, and others commenting on yesterday’s decision, have criticised the prosecutor and the court because of potential political repercussions, particularly on the 2005 comprehensive peace agreement. However, either we have a court that is capable of holding those who kill, plunder and rape to account, or we do not. Despots cannot be permitted to offer the pretext of state sovereignty or immunity to cover up the extermination of their actions against their own citizens.

Bashir’s response to the court is also instructive. He contemptuously told the court it could eat its arrest warrant; and Salah Abdallah “Gosh”, head of Sudanese security and intelligence, said that he will amputate the arms and cut of the heads of anyone co-operating with the ICC. It is people like this whom we are told we should accommodate. Bahsir’s other response has been to demonise and expel humanitarian and aid agencies, which are a lifeline to his beleaguered people. For years, the daily reality for humanitarian aid workers in Darfur has been intimidation from the Government of Sudan, combined with open threats, interference, and randomly imposed restrictions.

Penny Lawrence, Oxfam’s international development director, says that yesterday’s decision,

“will affect more than 600,000 Sudanese people whom we provide with vital humanitarian and development aid, including clean water and sanitation on a daily basis”.

She added that it will also affect 200,000 in eastern Sudan and Khartoum state. This morning, Ken Caldwell of Save the Children pointed out the implications for the 50,000 children it supports.

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Bashir is a man who has to answer charges of war crimes, who vindictively retaliates against children and refugees, who threatens aid workers and charities, and who seeks to intimidate and blackmail the international community. Remember also that Khartoum has broken every peace deal it has signed in the past six years of violence in Darfur, often within 24 hours of making commitments to honour its pledges and responsibilities under international law. It is an absurd argument to suggest that you should not act against war criminals for fear of upsetting them. The ICC’s actions offer long-overdue leverage against a regime that has defiantly persisted with the ethnic cleansing of Darfur, and we should strongly support the court.

I have not heard anyone who has actually suffered at the hands of the Khartoum regime suggest there is a conflict between pursuing both peace and justice. The response in the refugee camps is simply one of disbelief and incredulity that it has taken the West so long to recognise what has been happening in western Sudan since 2003. The Justice and Equality Movement in Darfur has supported the issuing of the indictments, even though it is well aware that some of its members are also being investigated by Mr Ocampo. Justice must be applied without fear or favour.

The exiled Sudanese bishop, Macram Max Gassis once said:
“Peace without justice is like building a house without foundations; it is a pseudo-peace doomed to collapse at the very first storm”.

Leaders the world over, from Slobodan Milosevic to Charles Taylor, and now Omar al-Bashir, must understand clearly that if they order or collaborate in the killing of their own citizens it will not be met with appeasement or impunity.

Her Majesty’s Government should consider how, with their international partners we can ensure that Bashir is actually brought before the courts. Although the Foreign Secretary, has welcomed the ICC ruling I am surprised that his statement made no mention of what practical steps will arise from it. We need to work with the United Nations Security Council to support targeted sanctions against those most responsible for the violence in Sudan and ensure that there is a concerted and sustained international response, including a comprehensive arms embargo against the Government of Sudan.

I hope that we will hear something from the Minister today about whether we can co-ordinate our actions with those of China. I recently met its special envoy on Darfur and was very impressed by his attitude.

What is being done to ensure that the UNAMID force will become an effective presence on the ground with a competent lead nation and clear command-and-control structures?

There is so much to do in Sudan, and our efforts thus far have not been extraordinarily successful. Millions have died in Africa’s various conflicts. Even the Minister is entitled to feel occasionally daunted by the scale and complexity of situations like that in Sudan, but when he does he should take comfort from the words of Thomas Paine, who said:

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“Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph”.

I hope that that will be the case for the noble Lord. I thank my noble friend for introducing this important debate.

3.06 pm