“…the local Christian diocese has to shoulder most of the burden of caring for people who are in desperate need, and of attempting to feed them when its own resources are pitifully small. Have Her Majesty’s Government given any consideration to providing aid, and so helping to meet people’s basic human rights to food and drink, through the church in that part of Sudan? Heroic efforts are being made to alleviate desperate need, but funding is urgently required” – Bishop of Carlisle, 14.7.14
On 14th July 2014, Baroness Cox led a short debate in the House of Lords to ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of human rights in the Republic of Sudan. The Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, took part in the debate. He spoke about the dire humanitarian situation in the country and the increasing role being played by the church; and also highlighted a number of instances of persecution on the grounds of religious beliefs, urging the Government to put pressure on the Republic of Sudan to respect and promote Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
The Lord Bishop of Carlisle: My Lords, I, too, am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. Unlike her, I cannot claim to be an expert on Sudan, but some of my colleagues who would normally speak on this issue have been unavoidably detained today in another debate of some importance to the church at the General Synod in York. I am very grateful for this opportunity to contribute to this debate because the human rights issues it raises are of such enormous significance, not only for the individuals directly concerned but for the way in which we direct our foreign aid and conduct our foreign policy.
With regard to foreign aid, there is clearly a real humanitarian crisis in Darfur, as we have heard, especially in the mountainous northern part of Sudan which borders Egypt. We have already heard about the thousands of refugees, but famine is also endemic there. One colleague who visited recently talked to people who were reduced to eating leaves off the trees. The population of that bit of the country is still predominantly Christian, and government help or support is virtually non-existent. What is more, aid agencies are able to offer little assistance due to the dangerous conditions, the poor infrastructure and, as we heard earlier, the periodic refusal of the Government to let them in. This means that the local Christian diocese has to shoulder most of the burden of caring for people who are in desperate need, and of attempting to feed them when its own resources are pitifully small. Have Her Majesty’s Government given any consideration to providing aid, and so helping to meet people’s basic human rights to food and drink, through the church in that part of Sudan? Heroic efforts are being made to alleviate desperate need, but funding is urgently required.
Where foreign policy is concerned, that leads on to the way in which human rights, and religious freedoms in particular, are being flouted in Sudan. The recent case involving Meriam Ibrahim, which has already been mentioned, and the closure of the Salmmah Women’s Resource Centre, illustrate this all too graphically. In theory, Sudan has ratified the optional protocols of the UN human rights conventions but, in practice, increasingly Sharia interpretations of the 1991 criminal code are having a devastating effect on many lives.
For instance, Lubna Hussein was sentenced to a lashing for allegedly dressing indecently in public by wearing trousers. Intisar Sharif was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery. Indeed, offences such as adultery, apostasy and armed robbery all have fixed sentences that include death by hanging, stoning, crucifixion or whipping. These penalties are clearly at odds with the basic freedom from physical harm which the Human Rights Act entails.
I would therefore be most grateful for some indication from the Minister as to any pressure that is being or could be applied to the Government of Sudan to ensure that they begin to respect their religious and cultural minority groups. In particular, I wonder what we are doing at and through the United Nations to press the Sudanese Government to honour the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including and especially Article 18, which relates to religious observance.
The Senior Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Warsi): …Let me respond to the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, and other noble Lords on how we tackle these challenging circumstances. First, we lobby the Government of Sudan on human rights abuses and demand greater transparency and accountability. We also provide tangible support to specific projects. This year, for example, our embassy is offering support to the establishment of a human rights law centre in Khartoum. Our support will also help strengthen human rights monitoring within the country and develop the capability of civil society organisations within Sudan, a point to which the right reverend Prelate referred. In so doing, we are able not only to make a difference on the ground but to maintain contact with a wide network of human rights defenders, who are essential to our work. We also speak out on issues of concern through both ministerial and ambassadorial statements and through social media. We have become involved in cases of huge concern such as that of Meriam Ibrahim, the woman who was recently sentenced to death for apostasy…
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle and other noble Lords raised the truly appalling case of Meriam Ibrahim, which has quite rightly inspired worldwide condemnation. I am proud that the UK led the way in calling for her release through statements by the Prime Minister and other senior Ministers. It is a great relief that Meriam Ibrahim has now been released, but we are concerned that she is still unable to travel. As the right reverend Prelate will know, the issue of freedom of religion or belief is one of the six key priorities in my human rights brief and is a personal priority for me. I have been at pains to detail what we mean by freedom of religion or belief, which includes the freedom to have a belief, to manifest that belief, to change that belief and not to have a belief. It is important that we make sure that that is detailed in that way when we have those discussions. The right reverend Prelate will also be aware that we now have a sub-group on freedom of religion or belief as an advisory group within the Foreign Office. The work of that group will also inform our responses to cases such as that of Meriam Ibrahim…
The right reverend Prelate spoke specifically about delivering aid through churches. Aid is given directly to NGOs in Sudan. However, access is limited by the Government of Sudan to certain areas and it may well be that using faith communities could be a way forward. I know that those matters were raised directly with the Foreign Minister of Sudan on 20 May this year.