Debate on Darfur


30th January 2007

For the full text of the debate, click here

Lord Alton of Liverpool asked Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking, along with international partners, to secure peace in Darfur.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I make no apology for asking the House to return again to the situation in Darfur. The only thing to have changed since my visit there in October 2004 has been the exponential increase in the number of fatalities. It is estimated that as many as 400,000 people havenow died as a result of the attacks, and more than2.5 million people have been driven from their homes and now require international assistance. There is documented evidence of rape and enforced disappearances, and 90 per cent of the villages in Darfur have been razed to the ground. The genocide has been orchestrated and perpetrated by the Sudanese Government-backed Janjaweed militia.

The All-Party Group on Sudan, of which I am an officer, has documented these atrocities on a daily basis. Many of your Lordships recently attended the excellent briefings provided by the BBC World Service, sponsored by the all-party group. During that briefing, reference was made to the fragile situation in the south and the deteriorating situation in the east. My noble friend Lady Cox, who will speak later, has just returned from Sudan and will talk about the interaction of the situation in Darfur with the unfolding events elsewhere in Sudan. I am grateful to her and to other noble Lords for bringing their considerable expertise to tonight’s debate.

Among the many casualties of this conflict has been the credibility of the international institutions. The Security Council’s authority has been seriously eroded; its impotence was graphically underlined by Jan Pronk, who recently wrote on his website:

“Harassment of the UN Mission in Sudan has intensified during the last two months. Sudanese authorities can easily resort to such harassment, because they have not been challenged by UN Headquarters in New York, nor by the Security Council or by Governments of Member States. Some weeks ago one of our officials went to see the authorities in Darfur in order to raise a number of violations of human rights. The answer was exemplary of the self-confidence of those who have chosen to disregard … criticism: ‘You had better shut up”-

they were told-

“We can always expel you, as we have proven'”.
Those are the words of the former special representative of the United Nations; they are not from a journalist or just a rhetorical flourish. Contempt and defiance characterise the attitude of the Government of Sudan. That they have been allowed to behave with such impunity is a terrible indictment. This abject failure to protect is a parody of the UN’s recently proclaimed doctrine, “The Duty to Protect”. It has had devastating consequences for Darfur’s indigenous people and is now having ramifications for humanitarian operations as well.

Only today, the Associated Press reported on the withdrawal of Médecins du Monde-Doctors of the World. Eric Chevallier, its director, says that it has suspended its activities for an undetermined period. He adds:

“The balance between the help we were able to provide and the risks our staff were taking had reached breaking point”.

The Associated Press also reported today a joint statement by six other groups, including Oxfam and CARE International, in which they say:

“Aid workers are facing violence on a scale not seen before in Darfur, leaving access to people in need at the conflict’s lowest point”.

The scale of the challenges faced by the humanitarian aid workers is graphically outlined in another joint statement, released on 17 January, by the 14 UN agencies operating in Darfur. They said:

“In the last six months, 30 NGO and UN compounds were directly attacked by armed groups. More than 400 humanitarian workers have been forced to relocate 31 times from different locations … Assets have been looted and staff threatened and physically harassed”.

In a plea to Governments around the world, the statement warns:

“The humanitarian community cannot indefinitely assure the survival of the population in Darfur if insecurity continues”.

It calls for “decisive intervention”. Tonight, the House will want to hear from the Minister what decisive action we are going to take to protect the people of Darfur and our aid workers, who are their lifeline.

It is often suggested that one reason why the international community has permitted the Government of Sudan to behave with such impunity has been the gain to be made from what is euphemistically called “intelligence co-operation”. Do we really believe that a country which harboured Osama bin Laden for five years and killed 2 million of its own people in the south is one with which we should be doing business at any level or one that could conceivably share in our values? History may well judge that we placed too much emphasis on erroneous attempts to gain intelligence while losing sight of the genocide, which continues to unfold before the eyes of the world.

Africa’s own assessment of the Government of President Omar al-Bashir was underlined yesterday by the African Union’s very welcome decision to deny him the chairmanship of the AU in favour of President John Kufuor of Ghana-a good man and a good deed in a bleak world. We look forward to hearing from the Minister, who I know has just returned from the African Union meeting.

In addition to strengthened international resolve, I particularly applaud the emergence of grassroots pressure groups and organisations such as Sudan Divestment UK. They are making an impact on the Sudanese Government where it hurts them most-their pockets. The Sudanese Government are dependent on foreign investment to implement their mission to eliminate the non-Arab population of Darfur. Since 2005, six US states have passed divestment legislation, replacing over $2 billion in affected securities. Currently, 25 additional US states are contemplating the enactment of similar laws.

In the UK, there are five companies and a few dozen international companies operating in the Sudan that need to consider their investments and policies. The worst UK offenders are Petrofac and a subsidiary company of Rolls-Royce called Rolls-Royce: Marine. The Weir Group, White Nile Petroleum and AMEC also need to clarify their interests in Sudan. They should emulate the decision of Siemens last week, which announced its decision to divest, as did the London School of Economics students’ union and, last night, the students’ union of London University. New Hall College, Cambridge, has also endorsed divestment, and new campaigns are being started all across the country.

In a letter to be published in the Times tomorrow, leading members of the youth wings of the major political parties-Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat, as well as the Greens and Fabians-say:

“We call on companies that have commercial interests in Sudan to cease their financial support for the Government. Everyone can make a difference. This situation may seem overwhelming but the coalition against apartheid has shown that individual actions can and do make a difference”.

I am struck by the welcome lead that young people are taking. In the US, the Sudan Divestment Task Force, run mainly by student volunteers, has helped countless universities, companies and, more recently, the State of California, with its vast blue-chip industries, to divest billions of dollars from Sudan. Closer to home, I recently wrote to all members of the Parliamentary Contributory Pension Fund asking whether our fund has holdings in companies operating in the Sudan. The chairman, Sir John Butterfill MP, has kindly undertaken to look into this matter at the next meeting.

But there is also room for the Government to take some action. Does the Minister agree with the suggestion of the International Crisis Group that the Government should seek measures,

“specifically targeting revenue flows from the petroleum sector”,

and,

“foreign investment in, and the supply of goods and services to”,

that and associated sectors? Perhaps he will also tell us whether targeted sanctions against the four individuals named in Security Council Resolution 1672 have been taken, and what financial and travel-related sanctions have been taken against assets, security agencies and fraudulent charities identified by the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur.

If sanctions and disinvestment are to be successful, there needs to be universal application. The danger is that the Chinese, who currently hold 40 per cent of the Sudanese oil industry, will fill the gap. In advance of President Hu’s impending visit to China, I hope that Her Majesty’s Government will seek to persuade China to use its substantial leverage and certainly not to seek to profit as a result of US and European companies divesting. Certainly, the signals from Beijing seem hopeful in this regard.

The evidence that genocide is occurring in Darfur is overwhelming. The UK must be prepared to take all possible steps to bring it to an end, and both the Government and their citizens have an important role to play.

There are two other issues which I hope the Minister will also try to address this evening. First, in December last year, the Prime Minister expressed support for a no-fly zone over Darfur. Will the Minister tell us what progress is being made to bring that about? Secondly, will the Minister enlighten us as to the current standing of the peace negotiations and his assessments of last week’s reported attacks in the north and south of Darfur? Three more villages have been obliterated in the north, and 200 people killed in the south.

When I returned from my visit to Darfur in 2004, I asked the Government:

“If this isn’t genocide, what on earth is?”.

That question, along with many others, remains unanswered. The Prime Minister said that Darfur is,

“a scandal; not a problem”.

The UN aid agencies have called for decisive intervention. I hope that tonight’s debate will underline the urgent need to take concerted and decisive action.