Africa debate: Darfur

John Bercow calls on the international community to address the shortfall in the number of peacekeeping troops in Darfur and improve logistical support to prevent the humanitarian situation worsening - especially since the recent expulsion of aid agencies. He also calls for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and UN humanitarian boss John Holmes to visit the region.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It is a pleasure for me to follow the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), who has vast experience of international affairs stretching back a number of decades, and which experience he deploys to full effect in chairing the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs.

A little earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) lamented the lack of contributions on the subject of Darfur, though I can safely say that he virtually single-handedly atoned for that error of omission. However, if I needed any encouragement and exhortation to speak on the subject, my hon. Friend generously provided it, and I would like to focus narrowly my remarks on the subject of Darfur, which I regard as one of the greatest humanitarian crises continuing to unfold in the world today.

Reference was made earlier in the debate to the issue of the International Criminal Court warrant against President al-Bashir, and to the immediate and wholly unjustified consequence that 13 international aid agencies were expelled from the country, together with a number of others whose work was curtailed. Inevitably, that has had a deleterious consequence, which was entirely predictable and will not cause the slightest loss of sleep to one of the worst tyrants and thugs on the face of the planet—namely, Bashir himself.

It is important to note, however, something that is factually established, with the signature of the Government of Sudan, and which is therefore clear beyond doubt or argument. There was a joint United Nations-Government of Sudan humanitarian assessment of the situation in Darfur between 11 and 19 March this year, culminating in the issue of a joint report on 25 March. It makes sobering, and perhaps harrowing, reading. What that assessment found was significant: approximately 650,000 in the region were judged not to have access to full health care; feeding programmes for pregnant women and for malnourished children continue to be disrupted; and 1.1 million people who are currently receiving food rations as a result of the emergency two-month programme under the auspices of the World Food Programme stand to cease to receive those rations unless alternative sources of supply are urgently identified and delivered.

As if all that were not sufficiently grievous, we have to reckon with the UN warning of imminent and major water shortages, which are on the way as sure as night follows day. The implication of that, of course, is that we face a double whammy of humanitarian crisis. Not merely is the ugly phenomenon of thirst and hunger likely soon to be exacerbated, we face in addition the prospect of an exponential increase in diarrhoea, cholera and a plethora of water-borne diseases. If we reflect on the significance of those water shortages—the damage to sanitation, the impact upon hygiene, the detrimental effect on waste management—and of the withdrawal of a vast repository of professional expertise in international NGOs, the consequences for some of the most vulnerable people on the face of the earth scarcely bear contemplation. Yet we have a duty to contemplate them and decide within the international community what action is to be taken.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury rued the inadequate reference to the subject, and one might add that, in addition to our not having said much about the humanitarian crisis that is continuing to engulf the people of Darfur, we have said next to nothing about the security situation and particularly its interrelationship with the humanitarian aid effort. The truth can be starkly stated. Aid workers go about their business not in a congenial or even moderately benign climate but, to their enduring credit, in a climate of fear, suspicion and apprehension about what will happen to them or to those whom they are seeking to help.

There are recent examples that underline that point. Very recently, three Médecins sans Frontières workers were kidnapped by a pro-Bashir militia and taken away from the line of duty and the people whom they wanted to help. As if that were not bad enough, as recently as two weeks ago on 16 March a local employee of a Canadian aid agency was shot dead. It behoves the House, the Government and the international community to decide what is to be its response to the wholly unacceptable situation in which a thuggish and tyrannical regime is cocking a snook at the international community and entertaining, apparently without any concern at all, the prospect of an even worse humanitarian plight in weeks to come than has obtained to date. We must have a response to that.

I look forward to the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), offering the House the Government’s assessment of the scale of identifiable need both now and in a couple of months’ time when the wet season comes. I should appreciate it if he could give some indication of how the Government and the international community intend to plug the gaps in aid delivery, and how they intend to finalise that planning now so that deliveries can come on stream when the World Food Programme withdraws.

Mr. Tom Clarke: As we would expect, the hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. I hope that he will forgive my saying that I did refer to Darfur earlier. He is making serious and relevant points, and I know that he has paid great attention to these matters over the years. If there is one issue that transcends others and stands in the way of our getting a solution, what does he think it is?

John Bercow: I wish I knew for certain, but I suppose that I feel, in concert with my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury, that if the responsibility to protect as a doctrine were accorded the status in the international community that it properly warrants, there might follow a diminution in the number and severity of egregious domestic human rights abuses that take place. Now, I do not say that that would broker a lasting peace agreement and its retention for years to come, but the way in which the bestial oppressors in Khartoum treat with abject contempt the doctrine that the international community sombrely proclaimed only four years ago shakes and horrifies me.

Even on a small scale, it would be useful if we could up the ante multilaterally, perhaps through a joint visit by the humanitarian boss John Holmes and Ban Ki-moon to the region to see for themselves the scale of the difficulties. That would at least send a message to Khartoum that the issue will not go off the radar, that it is not being relegated and that we do not intend the regime to be able to continue to act with impunity.

The right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), who did indeed refer to Darfur, and dazzled me with his usual display of knowledge and eloquence, causes me now to want to focus on the violence in Darfur because that is the background to the issue.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): As someone who shares the hon. Gentleman’s interest, I appreciate all he says about the Sudan. However, there is a problem with the International Criminal Court citation inasmuch as some of the politics—for example, a visit by the Secretary-General—could never happen because the Secretary-General could not meet President Bashir. That is one of the problems of the legal route going alongside the political route. Like him or loathe him, one has to deal with Bashir.

John Bercow: I accept that that appears to be the case in the short term. I still maintain that the ICC decision was right. I appreciate that there can be a balance between doing what is just and what is immediately convenient and expedient. Nevertheless, I would rather not be drawn too far down that track because I would like to say something about the background to the issue.

The House should be reminded—and we should remind those attending to our debate—of what spawned the terrible humanitarian crisis. It is the six-year catalogue of horrific human rights abuses: aerial bombing, mass shooting, widespread rape, the disruption of crops, the theft of livestock, the calculated poisoning of water supplies and the chaining together of human beings and burning them alive. Those are all part and parcel of the story of savagery that has shamed and disfigured the Government of Sudan in the eyes of the world.

There was a response from the international community —on my reckoning, there have been no fewer than 12 United Nations Security Council resolutions, which specifically refer to the need, among other things, to deploy troops and logistical support. My mind turns immediately to UN resolution 1769, which was passed on 31 July 2007, the terms of which—calling for a total deployment of 26,000 joint, hybrid UN-African Union troops—were supposed to be completed by the beginning of 2008. We are now 14 months on. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, who informed me by written reply last Thursday that the Government estimate that 18,300 people are currently deployed in the region. We are therefore still way short of the figure that should have been reached a long time ago.

However, as other hon. Members have said, the problem is not only the inadequacy of the size of the force, but the lack of anything like the logistical back-up to effect the limited but important mandate that has been conferred on it. We have not yet been able to get a single helicopter. Despite the formation of friends of the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur, with several countries rhetorically speaking in support of the importance and urgency of the mission, few have contributed much by way of practical assistance. Although in many ways I admire the contribution of the Department for International Development, and the Foreign Office is doing its best, it is not particularly impressive that we as a country have, as I understand it, to date provided only four—I repeat: four—military personnel to the region. There are big problems, and it seems to me that a step change is needed if we are to achieve something.

Moreover, there has been a flagrant infraction of the status of forces agreement between the Government of Sudan and the United Nations, when recently the deputy commander of the UNAMID mission wanted to go to Darfur to conduct an assessment of the security situation and was prevented from doing so—would you believe it, Madam Deputy Speaker?—by Sudanese security officials on security grounds, despite the fact that part of the raison d’être of that deputy force commander is to make such assessments himself.

I simply make the prosaic but valid point that the longer we wait and the less we do, the greater the burden and the bigger the cost will be when the day of reckoning comes and the challenge of reconstruction confronts the international community. I cannot but feel that we must invest the debate with a degree of urgency, because sometimes, quite understandably, we can all become numbed by the seeming inevitability of it all, to the extent that things do not shock us quite as much now as they did when first the cocktail of barbarity was unleashed, principally—although not exclusively—by the Government of Sudan, in concert with the Janjaweed militias. A more mendacious bunch of mass murderers it would be difficult to find anywhere, but they continue their work to this day. We should use the good offices of the Foreign Office and DFID, acting multilaterally, to try to achieve a step change in the speed with which the necessary deployment of personnel and munitions is delivered.

I want to finish on a point that I know the Under-Secretary of State for International Development could very properly say was a matter not for him but for the Home Office. He might be tempted to do that—I have almost given him his get-out clause—but I implore him to take the point a bit more seriously than that, because we are supposed to believe in the attempt at joined-up government. I am not trying to make a partisan point, as he knows me well enough to recognise, but a humanitarian point.

I am very concerned about asylum policy in respect of people coming to this country from Darfur. In about the middle of 2008, the Government decided not to return failed Darfurian asylum seekers to Sudan, pending a judgment from the courts and the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal that it would be prudent to resume such returns. My understanding is that the Government are looking to the tribunal next month for a ruling, but I exhort them not to undertake such returns.

In 2007, Sadiq Adam Osman was returned to Sudan. In March 2007, he was savagely beaten up—people do not visit upon themselves disgusting weals; that was done to him. The case was covered in The Guardian on 29 March 2007 and, if I remember correctly, in a Channel 4 programme at about the same time. That was a dangerous return. More recently, there was a case of a man called Adam Osman Mohammed from south Darfur, who came in pursuit of asylum in this country, did not get it and returned in August 2008. Subsequently, when initially—and perhaps unwisely—he ventured to move from Khartoum to Darfur, he was followed by Sudanese agents and shot dead in front of his wife and small child.

I put it to the Minister that we have a legal obligation, as well as, I would argue, a moral duty, to adhere to the principle of non-refoulement. That is to say that we should not return people to countries where they are at risk of imprisonment, torture, death or a grisly combination of all three. It is my submission to the Minister that that is what we would be doing if we returned Darfurian asylum seekers to Sudan. It is frankly not acceptable for the Home Office to say, “Well, they can’t go back to Darfur, but it’s all right if they go to Khartoum.” The place is crawling with state agents. Darfurians bear tribal scars that make their allegiance explicitly obvious to the Sudanese Government. It is a highly risky process to send them back and then simply to hope that they will be all right.

The truth of the matter is that, in this conflict, too many people have suffered too much for too long, with too little being done to help them. It is an inescapable fact that the numbers of dead, dying and destitute are rising daily, and we cannot simply look the other way. I feel passionately that the responsibility to protect has to be embraced and that acceptance of the doctrine and its practical implications for conflict resolution must be vigorously pursued by our Government in international forums. Where necessary, we must talk not of peacekeeping but of peace enforcement. It is the enforcement of peace that is now necessary in Darfur.

I have probably rather bored the House over the years by emphasising that we have to decide what we mean by the responsibility to protect. Is it to involve a serious attempt to avert war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, or is it simply to be a rather futile exercise in vacuous moral posturing that has no implications for policy? I want it to be the former, not the latter. The Government cannot do this all on their own, but I appeal to Ministers to catapult the subject of Darfur from the back of their minds to the front, and to seek the improvement in the condition of the long-suffering people of that benighted region that they need and deserve.

8.56 pm

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JOHN'S PREVIOUS INTERVENTIONS IN THE SAME DEBATE

John Bercow: I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for giving way and I welcome his comments. Given that Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad depend for somewhere between 30 and 40 per cent. of their export earnings on cotton, but that the United States spends somewhere between $3 billion and $4 billion a year on subsidising 25,000 high cost, inefficient but politically influential cotton producers, is not it about time we tried to persuade President Obama to take a more progressive view of the matter than his predecessor, in the interests of west and central African development?

David Miliband: I, in turn, am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question. However, to say, “It’s about time” in respect of President Obama on day 70 or 71 of his tenure suggests an impatience that I do not associate with the hon. Gentleman’s approach. He knows as well as I do why the Doha talks broke down. It is important at a time of economic crisis to reassert the fundamental importance of open trade. I know that that will be discussed with President Obama.

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John Bercow: I understand the significance of the hon. Gentleman’s point, but in referring to what is taking place in Iraq and its diversionary impact, he used the past tense. Does he agree that it is not too late for us to repent and significantly upscale our actions in seeking the sort of alleviation that is still required in Darfur?

Mr. Mullin: It is too early to say that for sure. We have heavy commitments in Afghanistan—a different issue from that of Iraq and I do not seek to suggest that the two are the same—but I hope that eventually we will be able to play directly a more positive role in some of the major peacekeeping forces in Africa, particularly those in the Congo and Darfur. Perhaps too, if they want it, we may give the Ugandans help in dealing with the Lord’s Resistance Army.

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John Bercow: I heartily endorse the point that my right hon. Friend has just made. I probably was being slightly impatient earlier. I am a keen supporter of President Obama, but it does no harm to underline the urgency of the matter. In making the suggestion for the withdrawal of export subsidies that he has just made, will my right hon. Friend confirm that that, too, should be unconditional?

Mr. Lilley: I am sure that President Obama is as relieved as I am to know that he has my hon. Friend’s support. Those subsidies should of course just go. Their removal is ultimately in the interests of taxpayers in the rich countries and would enable us both to enjoy products better produced abroad and to focus on those things that we are best at producing.

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John Bercow: Has not one of the weaknesses of the African peer review mechanism been that a country can be peer-reviewed only if it agrees to be?

Tony Baldry: Yes, that has been a substantial weakness. A further weakness is that African leaders are very wary of criticising each other. There just is not the collective discipline to enhance governance and, until that happens, there is a danger that such money as is invested is being squandered. We have to ensure some coherence about how money is invested in Africa, and we have to do something about the deal to improve governance in Africa.