On 19th April 2023, The Bishop of Leeds asked a question on the possibility of utilising connections in the religious community to aid in diplomatic channels in Sudan, following outbreaks of violence in Sudan and the city of Khartoum:
The Lord Bishop of Leeds: My Lords, the question of threats is one that I am slightly bemused about. I want to pay tribute to the work of UK diplomats in Sudan. I have been going there since 2011; my diocese has a link with the whole of Sudan going back over 40 years and I am in daily contact with the Archbishop of Sudan. In his cathedral the other day, he managed to get all the families—42 of them including children—secured in an internal building. They then had to watch their homes and elements of the cathedral being shot up, all their vehicles destroyed, offices ransacked and so on.
It leads me to this question about threats. If we are dealing with people who simply cannot be threatened, then frankly sanctions are meaningless for many of them—maybe I am being naive. What other tools do we have at our disposal that make threats reasonable and viable? There is no point threatening things that cannot be delivered. We have talked about diplomatic routes; I wonder whether there are other back channels that can be used.
My fear, if I am honest about this, is that this violence is the trigger, with the breakdown of order, for other fractures to open up—for example, ethnic religious fractures. The Christian community is largely African. The Arabic population sneers at the Christians because they are African. They talk about their language being twitter language—they do not mean social media. My fear is that this will spill over and create other fractures that then become more complicated. Are there other back channels, or other civil society actors such as religious leaders and so on, that could be used by diplomatic services to open up conversations that might not be doable by the political actors?
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con): My Lords, I too recognise the importance of religious communities. Again, reflecting on my last visit to Sudan, and as the right reverend Prelate will know, I regard inviting in religious leaders as an essential part of how we build sustainable peace. I remember there was great hope at that time. There were discussions about the suspension of Sunday as a holiday for Christians. I was delighted that, through our interventions, the then governor in Khartoum issued a decree that provided for the reinstatement of Sunday as a holiday rather than imposing Friday as a universal holiday for everyone across the country. That showed the importance of faith leaders as well as civil society leaders in finding sensible, practical and workable solutions. I agree with the right reverend Prelate that the current situation does not allow an effective assessment of which civil society actors can play a part and where, because of the vulnerability of and the front-line attacks on diplomats and humanitarian workers. The right reverend Prelate talked about back channels. Of course, they are important in conflict resolution—be they long-standing or new conflicts—and should remain open. We are working through our very senior officials, who know the parties and the personalities, including our special envoy, who has engaged extensively. As someone who has been Minister for a while, I know that those relationships matter to be able to unlock some of the more difficult issues.
However, we have made our own assessment with key partners. As I said to the noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Collins, in my earlier response, we are working with Gulf partners and recognise their important role and influence—and Egypt’s role—in bringing about an immediate ceasefire for the short term, and then bringing parties together.
Of course, there are many levers open to us, not just diplomacy but strengthening, for example, some of our key messaging. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, there can be no winners. If one or the other of the two sides is thinking that they can prevail because they have air power, or because they have control of the airport and so forth, we are making things clear in all our engagements, and consistently through the troika and quad and engagements with our Gulf partners. That is done in a very structured way. So, whether it is one of our Gulf partners having those conversations, through back channels or directly, or it is us or one of our other key allies such as the United States, the message received by all sides is a consistent one: put your arms down now, cease fire immediately and then let us talk peace and negotiate a truce on the ground.
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