Article from ‘The House’ – Parliament’s magazine posted on December 20th 2018
Our understanding of South Sudan is greatly enhanced by the expertise of civil society, academic institutions, the civil service and the private sector. They help parliamentarians keep alive the critical issue of peace in the country, writes the Earl of Sandwich.
Why is South Sudan such a preoccupation of the UK Parliament – a faraway country in perpetual conflict, with apparently little chance since its independence in 2011 of returning to normality?
There are several answers. First, the simple humanitarian case that South Sudan ranks with Syria and Yemen as one of the few nations that have lost many thousands of lives and suffer acute shortages – and developed nations simply have to help.
Second, the UK has a residual responsibility due to its colonial involvement in both Sudan and South Sudan. In more recent years the UK was a guarantor of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement for Sudan, which ended decades of civil war and paved the way for South Sudan’s independence. The FCO has senior embassies in both Khartoum and Juba and there is a long-established joint FCO-DfID Sudan Unit in Whitehall which follows events very carefully.
In Westminster there is a handful of MPs and peers – Baroness Cox and David Drew MP among them – who have been following both countries for many years and know them well. They are members of one of the oldest and most active all-party groups, the APPG on Sudan and South Sudan, currently chaired by former Africa minister Sir Henry Bellingham. This group meets regularly, has been well served by researchers, and besides briefings from diplomats and experts deliberately involves the Sudanese diaspora in its discussions. Its secretariat is supported by leading aid agencies such as Christian Aid, Tearfund, Oxfam, CARE and CAFOD.
More broadly, the British public has been engaged with the situation in these countries for many years, as evidenced by letters to MPs, active participation in campaigns, and generous donations to humanitarian appeals.
There are a large number of aid workers, as well as professionals and analysts, who come and go with a variety of skills and share their experience. It is true that some are transient and move to other crises elsewhere. But the result has been an accumulated body of expertise across civil society, academic institutions, the civil service and the private sector.
Our understanding of South Sudan is greatly enhanced by this expertise. A good example is Christian Aid, which is the partner of the South Sudan Council of Churches. Its researchers have recently published an outstanding report entitled ‘In it for the Long Haul: Lessons on Peacebuilding in South Sudan’. Its significance lies partly in the factual accounts and case studies showing how local efforts in conflict prevention can pay off. But it is more than that. It is also testimony to a vast network of church members, chiefs, local leaders and aid workers who are daily engaged in the struggle to build peace.
Underlying the report is a determination not only to understand the situation on the ground but to accept the limitations of external knowledge and of the assumptions behind the delivery of aid. There is remarkable insight into the ability of South Sudanese communities to fend for themselves and if necessary ward off attacks from outside, whether in the case of local vendettas over cattle and pasture or the more serious rival militia vying for power. Peace-building, of course, has to work from within and below and local actors such as the SSCC and its ecumenical member churches are now engaged multiple levels, connecting grass roots peacebuilding with national mediation.
Evidence-based reports like this will encourage the supporters of the aid agencies. They will also bring confidence to parliamentarians trying to find gaps between a mass of UK legislation and Brexit instruments to put down questions and debates to keep alive the critical issue of peace in South Sudan.
The Earl of Sandwich is a cross-bench peer and treasurer of the APG on Sudan and South Sudan.