by James Watkins
The arid, sun drenched lands of southern Sudan may seem a long way from the corridors of Whitehall. But the actions of British ministers are raising eyebrows – and have led to real differences in the “special relationship” between the United States and Britain.
Right now, the count in a key referendum is taking place that is likely to lead to the world’s newest nation in southern Sudan being created this summer. Interim results are already out that shows there is, to date, 99% support for a new state. The referendum is going forward largely peacefully – with the exception of deadly violence in a key border area between northern and southern Sudan. The African Union is playing a critical role in this largely peaceful process with these efforts being hailed by former South African president, Thabo Mbeki, as a step forward for the continent.
But this referendum is taking place against a background where horrific violence between Sudanese forces and southern Sudanese militias had led to the deaths of 2 million people. Sudan is already scarred by the tragedy in the eastern Sudanese province of Darfur where the actions of the Sudanese government-backed militias have, according to the united nations, played a major role in the deaths of 300,000 people. As a consequence, the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, has been indicted by the international criminal court on charges of genocide.
Against this traumatic and tragic background, Britain’s minister for Africa, Henry Bellingham, is taking a different tack to Sudan compared to the last Labour government. While Labour ministers did not impose sanctions on Sudan, it did not go out of its way to have a “trade first” policy before emphasising human rights. But Mr Bellingham seems to see things rather differently – having embarked on a vigorous Sudan trade mission within a few months of the new British government being formed.
Referring to American sanctions on Sudan because of fears the country was supporting terrorism (Osama bin Laden had operations in Sudan before moving on to Afghanistan), the foreign office minister said:
“There are no UK sanctions. There are US sanctions. We want to see more UK banks taking a positive view toward Sudan”.
And the minister gave an ambiguous response to journalists when he visited Khartoum last summer, concerning the Sudanese president being indicted:
“We are supporters of the international criminal court process. We feel the government of Sudan should collaborate with the court over the existing arrest warrants, but on the other hand we don’t have an argument with the Sudanese people”.
So, what may have led to this shift in Britain’s stance now there has been a change of British government? It seems the answer may be down to oil. Sudan is the sixth biggest oil exporter to China and the oil resources has already led the Chinese government to play its own role in ensuring the break-up of Sudan takes place as peacefully as possible.
Supporters of the foreign office may say there is nothing wrong with what the British government is doing. After all, it is a desperately poor country, it is not the Sudanese peoples’ fault that they are governed by a president accused of genocide and the oil resources are good for jobs in Sudan and for Britain’s own economy.
But the more Britain focuses on trade before human rights, then the greater the danger that the “honest broker” reputation that Britain has engendered over recent years could be at risk – because of suspicions of ulterior commercial motives. Britain is one of the leading international guarantors of the “comprehensive peace agreement” reached within Sudan – with the United States and Norway being the other two international guarantors.
And the potential compromised stance of Britain does not end there. In November, international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, declared that Britain would play a role in helping to decide the final border if there is a “yes” vote for separation:
“Britain is engaged in giving advice and support and some expert guidance at the request of both parties”.
But with the British government continuing its unrelenting focus on trade – with UK trade and investment (UKTI) having organised an event in London centring on trade “opportunities in Sudan” – how long can the honest broker role of the British government continue before potential difficulties on border demarcation are linked to suspicions of Britain’s commercial role?
This is not to say that the last Labour government handled Sudan policy in an ideal way. But this sea change in tone and approach may not be helpful to meeting the hopes and dreams of the Sudanese people to have a peaceful and prosperous future. For instance, in April, Britain issued a statement alongside Norway and the United States. It highlighted the irregularities in the Sudanese presidential election and called on “the Sudanese authorities to draw lessons from these elections and from independent assessments of them, to ensure that future elections and the forthcoming referenda do not suffer from the same flaws”. Would the current Conservative-led government have allowed such a statement to be issued if it conflicted with its “trade first” policy?
Britain already has a bad reputation in Sudan. The colonial campaigns of British forces – made legendary by the breathless accounts of Churchill praising Lord Kitchener’s military endeavours – are clearly seen with abhorrence by the Sudanese people. Now – in 2011 – if commercial interests are seen to trump Britain’s honest broker role, this could only compound the negative view of the UK in Sudan.
Labour has a key role to hold the government to account on its actions in Sudan. While the announcement from Andrew Mitchell in January for the UK to stand ready to help the Sudanese people on a range of measures – such as helping to ensure there is safe water and sanitation facilities to around 1.5 million people – should be welcomed, the questions over broader UK policy towards Sudan are clear:
- Did the government undertake a risk assessment of its role as a guarantor of the comprehensive peace agreement with its new focus on trade?
- What assessment has been made by the government to separate its commercial work from its assistance on border demarcation?
- How will the government reconcile its trade focus to its obligations to theionternational criminal court that warrants of arrest are followed through?
- How has the government reconciled its “trade first” approach towards Sudan with the continuing US sanctions?
Ultimately, the British government has to show that its stance on Sudan will always put human rights above trade deals – and that it has clear procedures in place if it continues down this path – to show that trade is not at the expense of gaining peace for the Sudanese people.
By Labour holding ministers to account, Sudan could even become the test case of this government’s foreign policy. For if the government went down the “trade first” policy in other countries, what would be the implications for democracy campaigners in resource rich countries like Burma? The government must make it clear that it will not throw away the pressure for democratic change across the world for short term commercial gain.
It was the foreign secretary, William Hague, who said:
“We should never turn a blind eye to countries which display trappings of democracy while violating basic human rights, or that lay claim to rule of law while lacking the independent courts and proper systems of accountability and transparency to prevent abuses of power”.
These are wise words. The time for their implementation is now.
James Watkins is a member of the Unite national political committee and the Labour housing group executive. He writes in a personal capacity.