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Shadow International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell MP reviews the recent visit to Darfur that he made with David Cameron.

"We saw the helicopters bring the soldiers to our village. They killed many people – my father, two of my aunts, my sister and all her little children. We want to go home but how can we when there is no peace?"

These were the chilling words I heard from Zakaria, a father of five, when I accompanied David Cameron this week on our visit to Darfur, the conflict-ridden region in the west of Sudan. Mr Cameron was widely quoted as admitting that nothing had prepared him for the stories he heard or the sights he witnessed in the two camps he visited, which are home to over 100,000 internally displaced people who have fled the government-sponsored violence in Darfur. I cannot imagine how anyone could ever fail to be shocked by the horrifying scenes that we were faced with, but having visited Sudan just six months ago with William Hague, I thought that I would at the very least know what to expect. It therefore came as an even greater shock for me that despite the best efforts of the humanitarian agencies working there, the situation had deteriorated.

For a start, the violence has escalated. Mounted militias, known as the Janjaweed, armed and equipped by the government in Khartoum, have stepped up their campaign of ravaging the countryside. They slaughter civilians indiscriminately, they loot and pillage the villages and rape the women, before burning the remains and moving on to the next target. Estimates vary, but whereas we used to talk of 200,000 deaths during my last visit in April, now the accepted figure is closer to 300,000, and some people have put the number as high as 450,000. The beleaguered African Union force of 7,000 soldiers is chronically overstretched, and without a proper ability to intervene, it is largely powerless to stop the ethnic cleansing.

As a result, the humanitarian situation is bleak. We witnessed the wonderful work being carried out by non-governmental organisations such as Oxfam, who deliver one million litres of water each day to the people in the camps. But the underground reservoirs that they are pumping from are running out. More worryingly, the aid agencies working in the region are woefully vulnerable to attack from the same militias that are slaughtering the local people, and the Government of Sudan is doing very little to help protect them. Just this month, the Norwegian Refugee Council has been forced to close its Darfur operation, which provided humanitarian relief to 300,000 IDPs, due to obstruction by the Sudanese government agencies. This is clearly unacceptable, in a country facing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

No-one is suggesting that there is a quick and easy solution to this conflict. But there are four key measures which must be taken now to force the Government of Sudan to put an end to the violence, to allow the aid agencies to go about their work unhindered, and to allow people like Zakaria and his family to return home and rebuild their lives.

Firstly, we need a robust peacekeeping force in the region with a mandate to use force if necessary to protect civilians. We should find the means to bolster the African Union force in Darfur with expertise, equipment and supplies from UN, NATO and individual governments. We should then provide the African Union force with more secure funding. They are currently operating on 3 – 6 month funding parcels – this severely restricts their ability to plan ahead. And we should push for an indefinite extension of the AU mandate beyond 31st Dec 2006.

Secondly, the peace process must be brought back on track. The Addis summit organised last week by Kofi Annan was a step in the right direction, but it by no means solved the conflict. We must pressure the Government of Sudan and rebel groups that did not sign the Darfur Peace Agreement to get back to the negotiating table and hammer out a deal that has the ability to end the conflict. This requires the diplomatic assistance of Egypt and the Arab League and we must enlist their full support.

Thirdly, in order to solve the humanitarian crisis, the Government of Sudan and all combatants must stop impeding and harassing NGOs. Long-term funding for the relief effort should be agreed. Humanitarian workers and convoys should receive greater protection from peacekeeping forces. There are now areas of Darfur, open when I was last there, which today are too dangerous for humanitarian relief to enter.

Fourthly, we must make Khartoum realise that they could be a stable, oil-rich country once the conflict ceases and the Government fulfils its international obligations. And we should also make it clear to them that we are not afraid to take strong action if they do not comply. We should threaten targeted sanctions, including asset freezes and travel bans, on those corrupt members of the Government of Sudan who have been identified by UN-sponsored investigations as responsible for atrocities in Darfur. Additionally, we could investigate, and if necessary press for economic sanctions against, the offshore and international network of businesses owned by and linked to the Government of Sudan. Finally, we should assist the International Criminal Court in its pursuit of all 51 of those accused under the current UN closed list.

The international community agrees that it has the “Responsibility to Protect”, as unanimously agreed in New York last year. We shall see over the coming weeks and months how much this is to mean to those two million men, women and children, and more, who tonight will be huddling together for warmth in the camps in Darfur.

Related links: Andrew Mitchell MP – Britain must lead the international community in getting tough with Khartoum

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