Government accused of double standards on Sudan

Peer says UK businesses encouraged to trade with regime of a president wanted for war crimes

The Government was accused of "immoral" double standards last night, after it emerged that it is encouraging British businesses to do trade deals with Sudan, which means with the regime of a presid-ent who is wanted for war crimes.

As aid agencies and the UN warned that the humanitarian crisis caused by the Sudanese government was close to breaking point, UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), an agency of the Department for Business, co-operated with a trade mission to Khartoum last week.

UKTI has also produced a brochure for British firms entitled Doing Business in Sudan, a country that "offers profitable business opportunities" in industries including gold and copper mining, oil exploration and construction. The document explicitly promotes the Khartoum government's strategy of economic diversification after the loss of oil revenues – a major blow to President Omar al-Bashir's regime – caused by the breakaway of South Sudan a year ago.

Refugees continue to pour over Sudan's border with South Sudan and Ethiopia, the flood of fleeing people caused by government forces' aerial bombardment of the Blue Nile and South Kordofan states. Some 200,000 refugees have fled in recent months, and last week Oxfam warned that the crisis in refugee camps is rapidly worsening. President Bashir, the only sitting head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court in the Hague, is accused of genocide and war crimes.

While Britain has had a long-standing business relationship with Sudan that has been worth £2bn over the past decade, charities and parliamentarians last night said the continuing persecution by President Bashir of tribes in the south of the country meant the trade links should be cut.

The UK, like the rest of the EU, operates an arms embargo in Sudan, but continues to trade in non-military goods and services. However, the US has imposed full trade sanctions, and even some British banks refuse to do business there because of the humanitarian situation.

Lord Howell, a Foreign Office minister, has claimed in Parliament that the Government cannot help to bring President Bashir to justice because "there are real problems pinning these people down". Yet only last week the Middle East Association, a British business umbrella organisation, organised a trade mission to Khartoum, which the association said was in "close touch with UKTI".

Separately, the UKTI published its 16-page document Doing Business in Sudan on 15 June, which declares: "Interested in entering or expanding your activity in the Sudanese market? Then this guide is for you!" The document says there are incentives for British businesses investing in Sudan, including tax breaks, reduced tariffs on imports and guarantees against confiscation. UKTI promises firms it can "organise events for you to meet contacts". The brochure offers tips, such as having business cards translated into Arabic, yet it barely mentions the humanitarian crisis in Sudan.

Challenged by the cross-bench peer Lord Alton in the Lords recently that the Government's failure to take action against President Bashir showed it was "business as usual", Lord Howell said: "The indictments are out, but there are real problems pinning these people down … The problem of fulfilling an ICC charge against President Bashir is obviously a practical, physical one... He is not in reach unless he were to leave the country."

Lord Alton last night compared the Government's action against Libya and the rhetoric against Syria with "turning a blind eye" to Sudan.

He then asked: "Why is a life in Africa worth less than a life in any other country?" He added that the Government's desire to promote business in Sudan was "immoral", saying: "On the floor of the House, they will say they are aware of what is going on, but then they turn a blind eye and actively collaborate in the promotion of trade with Sudan."

Olivia Warham, director of Waging Peace, a charity campaigning against genocide and human rights abuses in Sudan, said: "The political and human rights situation [there] makes clear that it is not just trade deals that are at risk, it is the lives and livelihood of hundreds of thousands of Sudanese civilians. Surely HMG should be passing on this advice."

A spokesman for UKTI said a Doing Business document was "routine" where there was a UKTI presence, and that officials raised humanitarian concerns on a "very regular basis with the government of Sudan". The spokesman insisted that UKTI did not "actively promote trade with Sudan".

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