My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Chidgey for initiating this short but important debate. I was born and brought up in Africa and still have many connections throughout the continent, so I feel particular resonance with this debate. I have visited Juba, as my family undertook business in that part of the world. I also declare that I am the chairman and a funder of a charity which has undertaken humanitarian work in Sudan.
There was a long struggle for independence for South Sudan, with decades of conflict, but since it was granted independence in July 2011 its problems have not been erased. In Sudan, there has been a history of problems relating to cultural differences, poverty, tribal intolerance, violence and ethnic religious prejudice. After South Sudan gained its independence, differences arose within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. It started as a political dispute between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar, but has escalated into a full-scale conflict, with some of the fighting along ethnic lines. The President has accused Mr Machar of launching a coup, which Mr Machar denies strongly. Following the ceasefire of 23 January there was hope that a long-term peaceful solution could be found. However, the brutality witnessed less than a month later in the city of Malakal shattered all our hopes and disturbed even the most seasoned of aid workers on the ground.
Two months on and I am now very disappointed that the second round of peace talks have been delayed. The two sides are unable to even agree on who is to attend such talks. This is extremely frustrating and illustrates the scale of the challenge ahead. The international community must be swift and assertive in condemning any obstruction to progress on negotiations. I support the threat of sanctions by the European Union and the United States in the event that progress is not forthcoming. Most importantly, it is the humanitarian situation and human rights violations that are threatening innocent people’s livelihoods. I commend the work of the United Nations and the World Food Programme to assist with this, but it is not and cannot be enough.
The UN mission in South Sudan has been clear to both sides that its premises and facilities must not be violated. I welcome the temporary strategic shift towards the protection of civilians and the facilitation of humanitarian assistance. I also welcome the establishment of a commission of inquiry so that human rights abuses are properly investigated and perpetrators held accountable. Any eventual solution must be thorough and comprehensive enough to prevent such a catastrophe from recurring. I believe that the participation of all sides and relevant parties is crucial if this is to be achieved. The decisions of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development must be respected in its role as mediator in the region.
It is also paramount that we see the withdrawal of all allied forces and armed groups, as originally drafted in the cessation of hostilities agreement. The people of South Sudan are enduring suffering every day. Twenty thousand people have died and nearly a million people have been displaced in the space of just three months.
There are now also warnings of a potential famine if farmers do not feel safe enough to return to their homes and plant their fields. It is depressing that the world’s youngest country has descended into such chaos. The people of South Sudan had already encountered far too much suffering prior to independence. Ultimately, these divisions must be healed and governance must be strengthened for the sake of the South Sudanese people.
This will happen only through mutual compliance with the cessation of hostilities and mature political dialogue. During the January ceasefire, our Foreign Secretary was clear that the UK was ready to lend its full support to efforts for a process of national reconciliation. I hope that we will do so and respect this commitment, and I would be grateful for clarification on this point from my noble friend the Minister. I am, however, encouraged by our Government’s commitment to working closely with the Republic of South Sudan towards international peace and stability. I ask my noble friend to update the House on the representations that the UK has received from the African Union on the assistance the UK can provide.
I also call on the Government to further press South Sudan to implement the agreements from September 2012 to resolve outstanding areas of disagreement with Sudan and uphold the ceasefire. We need to continue to work towards resolving the political, tribal and humanitarian problems to achieve peace and prosperity not only in South Sudan but in Africa as a whole. I look forward to the Minister’s remarks at the close of the debate.