Protecting Darfur? Parliamentary accountability in the UK
by Alan Hudson, International Development Committee, UK June 2005

If there is any useful lesson that can be drawn from the events of April 1994, it is surely one about just how personal genocide is: for those who are killed, of course, but also for those who kill, and for those, however far away, who just do nothing. Our governments are no better than we are. The United Nations is no better than its governments. Lt.-Gen. Romeo Dallaire, UN force commander during the Rwandan genocide.

The British parliament is a world away from the sprawling displacement camps in Darfur. But it would be a mistake to dismiss it as irrelevant to the situation there. The UK – as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, as a leading country in the ‘global war on terror’, and as a nation with a long history in Sudan – is a key player as regards Darfur. The actions and inactions of the British government shape the landscape for humanitarian action there, as well as the prospects for progress towards a political resolution. Parliament is an important forum in which humanitarian agencies, NGOs, voters and citizens can hold the British government to account. Select Committees, along with parliamentary debates and questions to Ministers, are an important mechanism of parliamentary accountability.

The role of the International Development Committee (IDC)

The International Development Committee (IDC) was set up in 1997, at the same time as the Department for International Development (DFID) was established as a separate department of government. It consists of 11 Members of Parliament (MPs), drawn from Britain’s three main political parties. Formally, the IDC monitors and scrutinises the policies, practice, expenditure and administration of DFID. In practice, it keeps a close eye on UK development policy and practice across government: when issues and policies dealt with by other departments impact on development (for example on migration, trade and investment, arms exports or agricultural subsidies); and when the UK is working with international partners in the fight against global poverty (for example with the EU, the World Bank and the UN, and at the World Trade Organisation). International development issues do not respect bureaucratic or national borders. Neither, if the aim is effective scrutiny to enhance accountability and to encourage coherent development policy and practice, should parliamentary scrutiny.

The IDC, like all Select Committees, works by conducting inquiries on topics of its own choosing, and then producing reports, which include recommendations to the government. The government does not have to take up these recommendations, but it does have to respond in detail within a two-month deadline. Once it has decided to begin an inquiry, the IDC invites the submission of written evidence, and arranges oral evidence sessions with invited expert witnesses. The invitation to submit written evidence is open to all, with particular efforts made to engage with organisations based in developing countries, as well as with diaspora organisations in the UK. Overseas visits can be made in connection with particular inquiries. The evidence collected provides the basis for the reports that follow, and is published alongside the reports themselves. With its reports based firmly on the evidence collected, the IDC has worked by consensus. In the event of disagreement, reports can be voted on and dissenting opinions published.

In the 2001–2005 parliament, the IDC covered thematic issues (on trade, migration, policy coherence, European aid, arms exports, financing for development, climate change and DFID’s agriculture policy); humanitarian issues in specific places (Afghanistan, Iraq and Southern Africa); and UK policy relating to particular places (India, Kenya, the Occupied Palestinian Territories). Short inquiries were also held on the international financial institutions, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and intellectual property rights and development. The IDC has had a constructive relationship with DFID, with both entities seemingly regarding the existence and effective operation of the other as beneficial in their shared goal of fighting global poverty.

The IDC’s inquiry on Darfur

In July 2004, the IDC decided to conduct an inquiry on Darfur, responding no doubt to media coverage and to concerns expressed to MPs by their constituents. The overall aims of the IDC’s inquiry were to examine the effectiveness of the international community’s response to the crisis in Darfur, to promote a more effective response and to ensure that, once the immediate crisis was over, the international community would remain engaged. Written submissions were received from 20 organisations, including governments, UN agencies, development and humanitarian NGOs, human rights organisations and research institutes. Evidence sessions were held with NGOs and human rights organisations, and with Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for International Development.

In January 2005, the IDC made a week-long visit to Sudan. It spent time in the south (Rumbek and Leer), to provide some context; time in Khartoum, to meet representatives of NGOs, UN agencies, the British embassy and the Sudanese government; and three days in Darfur. Based in Nyala, the IDC visited six camps for internally displaced people (IDPs), as well as El Fasher and Zaleingei. The MPs spoke to IDPs, and held meetings with UN agencies, the African Union (AU), NGOs, human rights organisations and government officials. It was a brief but very intensive visit, which enabled the IDC to learn a great deal. On its return, the IDC held further evidence sessions with Jan Egeland (the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator) and Mukesh Kapila (the UN’s Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan until April 2004). Another session was also held with Hilary Benn.

The IDC’s report was published on 30 March 2005. The report found that the Sudanese government and its allied militias had committed, encouraged and condoned widespread and systematic war crimes and crimes against humanity against the people of Darfur. The report was also heavily critical of the international community for its failure to protect the people of Darfur. Emphasising that the blame for the crisis and for hindering effective humanitarian relief in Darfur rests primarily with the Sudanese government, the report described a catalogue of failings by the international community – by governments including the UK, by the humanitarian system and by the UN Security Council.

The report’s conclusions regarding the humanitarian response were also critical. Early warnings about the emerging crisis were ignored; humanitarian agencies were slow to respond; responsibilities for helping displaced people and managing camps were unclear; and the UN suffered from an avoidable lack of leadership in Sudan at a critical time. On the political side, the IDC’s report described the priority given to the North–South peace process in Sudan by the international community in 2003 and the first half of 2004 as ‘misguided’, saying that it had had predictable and deadly consequences for Darfur. A ‘whole of Sudan’ approach to peace-building was possible, preferable and would have provided a more secure basis for building a sustainable country-wide peace.

The report recommended more concerted pressure on all sides in the conflict to enable a more effective humanitarian response, to protect civilians, to enhance security and to encourage progress towards a political solution. It also called for a stronger mandate and more troops for the AU mission in Darfur, a clear strategy and generous international support. The AU, the report concludes, must not become an excuse for inaction by others. The IDC also recommended that the Darfur situation be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC), and that there should be targeted sanctions and an extension of the UN arms embargo to cover the Sudanese government.

Impact, accountability and the policy process

The IDC’s report received a great deal of national and international media coverage. This is not an indicator of policy impact, but it can have an indirect impact by heightening awareness and leading to public demands for action. Since publishing its report, the IDC has received feedback from the World Health Organisation, which was stung by criticism of its widely-cited, limited and misleading mortality data, and from UNHCR, which was keen to emphasise the role it has played in Darfur and to explain the constraints under which it was working. The British government’s response was due in June 2005, and a parliamentary debate on Darfur may be arranged to discuss the IDC’s report and the government’s reply.

A major theme of the IDC’s report was that shared responsibilities to protect, and for development, will be poorly met unless those responsible – governments, humanitarian agencies and international organisations, including the UN – are accountable for their actions and inactions. If the international humanitarian system had been more accountable, and had learnt more from past responses, then it would surely have responded more effectively to the crisis in Darfur. If the Sudanese government had been more accountable for its actions, to its citizens or, failing that, to the international community, then the crisis in Darfur would not have escalated as it has. And if the international community, in particular the UN Security Council, was more clearly accountable to those governments and people who take seriously their responsibilities to protect, and to the people of Darfur, then it would surely have acted more decisively.

Following a string of toothless resolutions, the UN Security Council took some action in the last week of March 2005. First, it approved the deployment of 10,000 troops to support the peace in the south of Sudan; this mission might in time play a role in Darfur. Second, a process was put in place which will lead to sanctions on individuals in the Sudanese government (asset freezes and travel bans), a no-fly zone was established for Darfur, and the UN arms embargo was extended to include the Sudanese government. Third, a French/UK proposal to refer Darfur to the ICC was approved after the US – which is hostile to the ICC – decided not to block it.

On 1 April, the British newspaper The Guardian contrasted these signs of action by the international community with comments made about Darfur by the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and by the IDC, characterising these as ‘business as usual for the international community … hand-wringing and outrage in various measures, and what seems like a combination of impotence and inquietude’. The international community is failing Darfur, but to characterise the work of the IDC in such terms is either careless, or betrays a serious lack of understanding both of the role and remit of British parliamentary committees, and of the ways in which policies are formulated, at national and international levels. More importantly, such criticism risks undermining parliamentary accountability, and as a result enabling governments to evade their responsibilities to act on behalf of those they represent. A lack of accountability has contributed to the world’s failure on Darfur; to undermine accountability further would not be helpful.

Policies and actions (or inactions) do not come out of the blue. They emerge out of the complexity of relationships within and between organisations with different interests and priorities, through discussions about evidence and options. In the sphere of politics especially, such discussions are mediated by mechanisms of accountability. Enhancing accountability and governance – at sub-national, national, regional and global levels – is central to the fight against global poverty, including the response to crises such as Darfur. The IDC and the British parliament more widely can play an important role in holding the UK government and its partners to account for their policy and practice. The IDC cannot directly intervene in Darfur. Neither can it determine British government policy. What it can do is produce hard-hitting reports, based on evidence provided by practitioners and others, which seek to hold the UK government and others to account in order to ensure that they better fulfil their, and our, responsibilities to protect.

Alan Hudsonhas been a Committee Specialist (researcher) for the International Development Committee since 2001. He led the Committee’s work on Darfur. This article, whilst informed by his work for the IDC, is written in a personal capacity. Dr. Hudson can be contacted at Hudsona@parliament.uk.

The IDC’s report Darfur, Sudan: The Responsibility To Protect is available at: www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200405/cmselect/cmintdev/67/67i.pdf. When it is published, the response of the British government to the IDC’s report will be available at http://www.parliament.uk/indcom.

See also the speech given by Hilary Benn, the UK’s Secretary of State for International Development, at the Overseas Development Institute on 15 December 2004, available at: www.odi.org.uk/speeches/Benn15Dec/meeting_report.html.

References and further reading

The website of the UK-based Protect Darfur Campaign, a coalition of civil society groups concerned with the protection of vulnerable civilians in Darfur, is at http://www.protectdarfur.org.

See http://www.parliament.uk/indcom for access to reports, evidence and background information on the IDC.

For more on the ‘responsibility to protect’, see The Responsibility To Protect, Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, December 2001, see http://www.iciss.ca/pdf/Commission-Report.pdf; and A More Secure World: Our shared responsibility, Report of the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, United Nations, 2004,), especially p. 65, para 200, available at http://www.un.org/secureworld.

For the most authoritative account of what has taken place in Darfur, see Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur (ICID) to the United Nations Secretary-General, Geneva, 25 January 2005, pp. 3-4, available at http://www.un.org/News/dh/sudan/com_inq_darfur.pdf.