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1 April 2008

Speech on the Situation in Darfur

This April, many children in Darfur will reach their 5th birthday never having known peace in their lifetime. This is a human tragedy in a region where tragedy is all-too common and where progress has been all-too rare. Since its independence in 1956, Sudan has known just 11 years without conflict. It is difficult to make a convincing argument today that the situation in Darfur has improved since our last debate - Indeed, in many ways the circumstances have deteriorated.

Today we are faced with a conflict that has become so rationalised and habitual that even the top-level peace agreements we have worked so hard to secure are looking less and less likely to translate into an end to bloodshed on the ground. Since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) stalled, not only has the prospect of securing a meaningful top-level peace agreement receded, but also the likelihood that any agreement would end fighting on the ground is in real doubt.

Since then, many rebel groups have splintered into smaller factions often fighting each other as well as the Sudanese Government, while recently we have watched as even the Janjaweed militia have started turning on the Government in disputes over pay and compensation. Conflict has become such a part of life in the region that we risk raising a generation in Darfur who have known only war.

The scale of the suffering has been well documented today and in previous debates in this place and there is no need to repeat the figures. However, when two and a half million have been displaced and over a quarter of a million have lost their lives it is imperative that we do not look the other way. Today’s debate is a timely opportunity for the Government (HMG) to outline its position in a number of increasingly important areas.

First of all I would appreciate an update from the Minister on progress towards implementation of the ill-fated Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). No-one here today will be expecting particularly encouraging news but it is important to ensure that it remains a priority for the international community. Clearly, the deadline diplomacy that brokered the last agreement has not achieved as much as we would have liked, it is important that we recognise why this was the case.

One of the changes since last we debated Darfur is the increasing role of Chad in the conflict. What was once a side issue is increasing taking a central role and it is now clear that there will be no realistic hope of a peace settlement in the region without tackling the worsening relationship between Sudan and Chad. Each is accusing the other of supporting the rebels of the neighbour while the overt attempts to bring down the government of Chad cannot be allowed to continue. There has even been a suggestion that the crisis in Darfur now seems to resemble just one part of a wider regional war between Chad and Sudan. We need to hear today what HMG’s assessment is and what we are doing to involve the Government of had.

The international community has been rightly criticised for its slow response to violence against civilians in Darfur. On this point, I believe it is worth making the observation that, as we pass the 5 year anniversary of the Iraq invasion, we must recognise that one of the key tragedies of Iraq is that it has made it almost impossible to countenance even the idea of humanitarian intervention in conflict zones like Darfur. Make no mistake, the Sudanese government are well aware of this and subsequently any threats of military intervention ring hollow even if they were to be backed by UN resolutions.

Peacekeeping in Darfur now depends very much on the success of the UNAMID hybrid force. Since UN Security Council Resolution 1769 was passed in July of last year there is understandably great concern that so much of the 26,000 force has yet to be identified yet alone deployed (It is currently 15,500 personnel short and has only half of the tactical helicopters required). There can be no doubt that the Sudanese Government are wilfully blocking progress wherever possible, imposing bureaucratic barriers while other countries have been less than forthcoming in response to requests for additional personal and equipment, most notably helicopters. I appreciate that there is only so much we can do to speed the process up, but I would appreciate an update from the Minister today on what exactly we are doing to bring matters to a head.

In this respect, we in the UK have a responsibility to ensure that we are not inadvertently fuelling this conflict with arms that we export elsewhere. I would appreciate a comment from the Minister today on what action we are taking to ensure that arms exported from our shores are not finding their way to the Sudan or to neighbouring Chad.

However, as important as securing the deployment of the hybrid force is, it ought not to disguise the fact that, in the long-term, there must be a political solution to the conflict. Even if fully deployed, there are legitimate doubts that the hybrid force would be able to enforce any real degree of stability across the region. It is imperative that we do not focus all of our energies on securing full funding for the hybrid force in the mistaken belief that this will provide some kind of silver bullet.

Re-igniting the peace process is therefore vital and the only credible long-term solution for the crises. It is in no way controversial to say that there has been a general lack of leadership when it comes to the mediation of the peace process. I would like to hear from the Minister today on what role we are playing to ensure that the peace process exists in more than name only. We have to not only secure a dedicated chief mediator (and I would welcome the Ministers thoughts on who this will be) but we have to make absolutely sure that the peace process is inclusive where the CPA was not. For example, talks must include representatives of civil society, the Arab tribes, and women and children.

China had for a long time been the Elephant in the room in Darfur, a key political power in the region but, until recently, unwilling to engage diplomatically in any positive way. Recent weeks have seen some definite progress in this respect and I would be grateful for any insight the Minister can give into the talks held with the Chinese Envoy for Africa and Darfur when he visited the UK last month, and in particular, what representations were made to him regarding China’s consistent moves to block more forceful action by the UN Security Council in Darfur.

Just as progress towards a peace agreement has been stalled, the humanitarian situation has deteriorated since the turn of the year (according to the latest UN report). In West Darfur many NGO’s have been forced to pull out after increased banditry has made it impossible to operate safely or effectively. Of course I am sure that everyone here today would pay tribute to the brave staff, both Sudanese and others, who work for charities and NGOs under the most challenging of circumstances. What has the Governments role been in trying to ensure not only that Aid workers can operate safely, but also that humanitarian aid that has been pledged by donor countries is actually delivered.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the humanitarian situation is the one to which I alluded in my opening remarks; namely the impact of the conflict on the children of Darfur. 1.8 million children have so far been affected by the conflict in Darfur while 1 million have been displaced and 800 remain unaccounted for. Those who have been displaced are now spending their formative years in camps and are understandably traumatised by what they have seen. The lasting impact of this will only be apparent in the difficult years ahead. The threat of kidnapping and forced servitude as a child soldier is never far away while the dearth of educational opportunity is clearly jeopardising the future prospects of millions. A generation is growing up who have known only war – unless we act now, it may prove a difficult habit to break. I am sure that the Minister will agree that one of the most keenly learnt lessons from Sierra Leone is that any successful move towards post-conflict peace building must have the needs and aspirations of the next generation at its core or it will risk being hamstrung from the start. I would welcome the Ministers thoughts on what we can do to help the children of Darfur and to give them a key role in any peace process.

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This website was established while I was a Member of Parliament. The site content is being kept online as a source of information, but all forms / email have been disabled.