Well done Steven Spielberg

Impressed to see in the news today that Steven Spielberg has pulled out from his role in the Beijing Olympics because of the Chinese Government’s failure to do enough to influence the Sudanese Government, which is continuing to oversee horrific atrocities in Darfur.

His willingness to speak out stands in stark contrast with Gordon Brown – who, as on so many other issues, seems afraid of taking a clear stance and leading the way – and hence the failure to put serious extra pressure on China in his recent visit there. As it’s dear old Gordon, perhaps the best we can hope for is for him to set up yet another of his reviews to go away, ponder for a long time and then come back to tell him what to do!

China, Sudan and Darfur

At Chinese EmbassyI went together with Mark Lancaster (Tory No 2 in International Development and a serving soldier) to the Chinese Embassy to have a meeting with Professor Zhao Yongren, Counsellor Political Section and Parliamentary Affairs Officer and Dr. Zhang Lirong, Chief Political Section.

We were presenting a letter signed by 100 MPs asking China to help further with ending the genocide in Darfur.

China has clearly been instrumental in promoting modest progress over Darfur but it must continue to use its considerable influence in Sudan to promote the cause of peace and development. It particular, it could send clearer messages to the Sudanese Government by using its diplomatic, military, humanitarian, and economic ties to greater effect.

So the good news so far: the Chinese Government joined in the unanimous UN Security Council (UNSC) vote to authorise, under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, deployment of 26,000 peacekeeping troops and civilian police to Darfur (the joint African Union-United Nations Peacekeeping force). China’s appointment of a Government Special Representative on the Darfur issue, Liu Guijin, played a key role in gaining the Government of Sudan’s acceptance to the peacekeeping force – breaking a long held deadlock. China has sent some 300 engineers to Darfur to back up the UNAMID peacekeeping mission as part of the heavy support package.

But not everything in the garden is rosy and there are still mixed messages coming out of China. Reports indicate that China worked behind the scenes to significantly weaken the terms of UNSC Resolution 1769 (e.g. removing the ‘ability to disarm militia’ mandate for the peacekeeping force). China hasn’t been pressing properly for those indicted by the International Criminal Court to be handed over. Also, two recently released studies by well-respected organizations have fuelled concerns that weapons from China are being used against the people of Darfur, and that China is not doing enough to prevent such usage. Further, in the spring of 2007, China indicated its desire to further its military relationship with Sudan “in every sphere.”

China has extended some humanitarian aid to the people of Darfur in 2007 but such aid has been far less than the new support it has provided to the government of Sudan. A striking example was provided during President Hu’s February visit to Khartoum, during which he announced several new economic aid packages to Sudan, including an interest-free loan to construct a Presidential Palace. The sums involved were dramatically larger than the modest amount of new humanitarian aid provided.

Trade between the two countries more than doubled in the first half of 2007. China also continues to sign new accords, such as oil development agreements, that strengthen economic ties between the two countries.

The words of Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing in March are rather worrying in fact: “Our assistance is free of any political pressure and helps resolve specific problems, a good demonstration of China’s peaceful development road and constructive role in the world”; in other words, ‘we’re not going to exert as much pressure as we could’. Not good!

The specific asks we put forward at the meeting today were that China should:

  • Use its position as a leading member of both the Security Council and the G-77 to push for the swift recruitment and deployment of the peacekeeping mission authorized by UNSCR 1769.
  • Contribute helicopters and heavy transport vehicles to the UNAMID mission to help fill the gaps in these areas (this applies to whole international community).
  • Review the sale of arms and military cooperation with Sudan until atrocities have stopped, and a stable peace has been built; and encourage the Government of Sudan to disarm militias and hold the perpetrators of war crimes to account.
  • Continue to work harmoniously with other countries to strengthen the political peace process led by the African Union and United Nations envoys, and to pressure all parties to participate fully and unconditionally in peace talks.
  • Provide greater humanitarian assistance to Darfuri civilians.
  • Make clear to Sudan that if it obstructs progress towards peace or peacekeeping, this will damage Chinese-Sudanese relations— possibly including trade and investment ties.

The meeting was a little frosty. The Chinese were unhappy that the media had got hold of the story that we were doing this today. But as I explained – in a democracy this is a positive thing. When one hundred MPs feel strongly enough to take this action and China is willing as at this meeting to enter a dialogue – that is news – and it is good news.

So – a start has been made of engagement. China is so hugely influential with Khartoum and such an important superpower it has to be right to try and form partnerships and engagement. In terms of the meeting – views were exchanged – and that in itself is progress. I am optimistic that at our next meeting – we will make progress. It is important to start the journey – but the destination is still zillions of miles away.

Last stop of the day – 18 Doughty Street TV a good robust debate around Saudi, Scotland and Immigration!

My appearance in The Sun

So – back from the wilds of Brighton and the Liberal Democrat conference. Just a few ‘tidy ups’ as I was basically blogging by video diary.

I didn’t understand the reference at the time that the Chair, Jon Ball, made to me a one of the four Lib Dem Sun ‘lovelies’ when he introduced my keynote speech on Wednesday. Coming home – some kind person (!) has emailed me the link – and there I am with Jo Swinson (27), Julia Goldsworthy (29) and Kirsty Williams (36). Sadly – they do publish my age! Still – whereas I used to just rail against the innate sexism in such articles – now (at my advanced age) I am just grateful!

More seriously, on the last morning, the speaker who summated in the Liberal Democrat Youth and Students Emergency Motion on Darfur, a Darfuri Abdo Abdullah, gave a most powerful speech.

We had had the Global Day of Action on Darfur on the Monday (blogged about by one of the organisers here). But there is nothing more powerful to advocate both the need for speed of deployment of the AU/UN hybrid force and the need for our government to stop sending Darfuris back to torture and murder – then someone standing in front of you who has seen his own family murdered.

I spoke in this debate and of course, made Darfur one of the key issues in my keynote speech the day before – but will the Government act? Brown says he wants troops deployed earlier than next year. Given he is Prime Minister, he has the power to push it – but he seems satisfied with warm words alone. Cold comfort to dying Darfuris.

You can see more of my conference photos over on Flickr.

The three keys to international development

Lynne Featherstone speaking at conference. Photo credit: Alex Folkes/Fishnik.comThis afternoon was my big set-piece speech in the main conference hall – on international development of course!

We need to recognise that one of the big problems with effective foreign aid is that the most effective development projects are the small scale and local – like solar cookers.

But these small scale projects don’t scale up well to making a difference to a whole population, to a whole country or to a whole region.

So what is to be done?

Answers in the full speech on my website.

Darfur

Whist the by-elections play out on the political stage, long before they were called – I had arranged the inaugural meeting of my Haringey Local Darfur Action Group (HLDAG) today. (Read here for my earlier posting on why such a local group is needed).

I had been amazed by the response to my initial email – and to the number of people who wanted to join me in this pressure group. My idea is to set up an organising group to lobby and put pressure on the sensitive political spots that might prompt the Government of Sudan to stop the genocide and let the African Union / United Nations troops be deployed before 2008 – the current best estimate following President Bashir’s promise to finally allow them in.

But there are many other things that need doing – including the extension of the UN arms embargo across the whole of Sudan as weapons are coming into Darfur from there. The difficulty of getting the UN resolution through is I guess because China and Russia have a veto and they both earned well over £20 million each on arms sales to Sudan in 2005. So – an example of what I hope the group will do (and the group will grow in size) is to all send emails to the Chinese Ambassador asking him not to use the veto, for example – as it would be a shame if the Olympics in Beijing were to become a political football, etc etc.

I invited a Darfuri refugee to come and speak to the Group, and Ishmail Jarbo, whose parents were murdered and he himself injured before fleeing to this country, told us his tale. This was very powerful and brought home the reality of the genocide. My Lib Dem councillor colleague, Errol Reid (Hornsey ward), then spoke. Errol has long been involved with Sudan and is also the secretary for the International African Lawyers, fighting on human rights and anti-slavery.

We all then contributed a great range of ideas and a number of those attending stepped forward to take this campaign forward.

I know, I know – how can what we do in Haringey affect Darfur? Well – I totally believe in people power. I also believe, that at this particular juncture, China will be sensitive to world opinion and as China is the most influential foreign power in terms of Sudan – pressure on China is one way forward. And there is divestment – as we pressure groups not to invest in companies who are supporting the genocide. And, this is my pilot, and I will be trying to extend this nationwide in due course.

Being impotent and doing nothing is why dreadful things continue for decades in this world. This is a complex situation and in the end, only a negotiated peace will bring real peace to the area – and both Arabs and Black Darfuris will have to come around the table with all the groups and militias and rebel bands. But that cannot happen until the killing is stopped. So first deployment and stopping arms.

The communication for this group will be primarily by email – and if you live in Haringey and you want to join in what will be a relatively simple exercise in targeted lobbying – then let me know. You can also join the Facebook group.

The group will hopefully have its first organisational meeting to decide the action program in the next two weeks and then we will email out the first proposed action; after all – this is an action group!

Planning and Darfur

Start the day meeting all the lobby groups against the Planning White paper. The paper is a developers’ charter – and not only gets it wrong on many counts – but omits huge areas that do need tackling. For me – I want ordinary people, objectors – to have the same right of appeal as developers or applicants. It’s not fair that if you are refused permission you can appeal – but if it is granted and you are an objector – you cannot. Also – another bugbear – is that Her Majesty’s Inspector who doesn’t live in the local area and doesn’t have the same interests as local people – can overturn a decision made by the local Planning Authority. That could do with an overhaul too! (On which point … you can read more in my newspaper column on the topic from a little while back).

Then meeting with Foreign and Commonwealth officers to discuss all my many and various Parliamentary Questions on Darfur. I have raised Darfur in Parliament many times – and it was riveting to discuss the substantive issues with officers who really know the subject and working with those on the ground. Not going to discuss here as the material is something I want to think about how best to use.