John Bercow: Ministers are on holiday. Murderers are not

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The Independent Online

The former United Nations co-ordinator on humanitarian affairs for Sudan described the situation in Darfur as the "worst humanitarian and human rights catastrophe in the world". From the mass of television pictures and newspaper column inches over the past few weeks, people can now see why.

Visiting the refugee camps last month was one of the most miserable experiences of my adult life. Over one million people, forced out of their homes, struggle to exist in conditions that range from grim to desperate. A feeble hut, held together by pieces of string, or plastic sheets, was typically home to eight or more people. Aid from the World Food Programme, when it gets through, is the lifeline for the destitute people of Darfur. Yet I met many people who had been in their camp for a fortnight, but had not yet been registered. As a result, they had received no food. Part of the problem was the sheer demand created by the doubling of camp numbers in only four weeks. Primary healthcare was at best patchy and at worst next to non-existent. With the onset of the rainy season, there is a danger that cholera, typhoid and other diseases will spread like wildfire, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians.

This human tragedy is not an accident. It is the result of a systematic and evil campaign cooked up by the government of Sudan and the Janjaweed militia. Aerial bombing, mass shooting, widespread rape, theft of livestock, destruction of crops and poisoning of water supplies are all part of the cocktail of barbarity that has stunned the world. Perhaps most sickening of all are reports of people being chained together and burned alive. So despicable and horrifying have been the atrocities, that they have provoked the ire of the African Union - a body that saw no evil during the last elections in Zimbabwe.

Among Conservatives, I have been more outspoken than most in paying tribute to the courage and statesmanship that Tony Blair displayed over Iraq. I admire his doctrine of humanitarian intervention. What is more, I had every reason to hope that he would apply it to Darfur. After all, he said in 2001 that if ever a repeat of Rwanda was threatened, Britain would have a moral duty to react. It is, and we have. Yet what has happened?

On 21 July the Prime Minister told the House of Commons that the situation in Darfur had his full attention and that he was "in contact with other ministers on it literally every day". Yet earlier this week The Independent quoted the Prime Minister's spokesman say-ing that Darfur "is an issue which is being discussed, but I am not aware of any meetings". As opposition spokesman on international development, I wrote to the Prime Minister about this crisis on 22 July and I was promised a reply from the Foreign Office. Three weeks later, none has arrived. The silence is deafening. Ministers are entitled to their holidays, but the victims of wanton savagery in Darfur cannot wait for them to return. It is time that the Government got a grip and set out what it thinks should happen if the situation does not dramatically improve in Darfur in days.

After months of shameful procrastination and dithering, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1556 on 30 July. Despite the squeals of protest from the Sudanese government, the text was hardly a ringing declaration of robust intent. It left many representatives of non-governmental organisations who have witnessed the unspeakable barbarity on the ground and the intensifying crisis from shortages of food, medicine and shelter, less than sanguine. They saw it as the lowest common denominator between countries wanting to do a lot, others little and many nothing at all to stop the death toll. The resolution urges the Khartoum government to disarm the Janjaweed within 30 days, allow an independent investigation into human rights violations and establish peace with rebel forces in Darfur. It does not specify sanctions if these conditions are not met, but coyly expresses the intention of the Security Council "to consider further actions". Moreover, it does not deliver a 30-day ultimatum to the regime but merely mandates the Secretary-General to report back on progress, or the lack of it, on a monthly basis.

How many people will perish while this diplomatic rain dance takes place is any-body's guess. With up to a thousand people a day dying at present, every month without effective action means that the descent into genocide will be as rapid as it is disgraceful.

I do not have the slightest expectation that the situation in Darfur will be better on 29 August than it was on 30 July. After all, the Sudanese government is in denial about the fact of the atrocities, the scale of the atrocities and its collaboration with the Janjaweed in the commission of the atrocities. Its claim to be restoring normality, and merely needing a little more time to do so, is nonsense on stilts and a cynical delaying tactic by those content to see ethnic cleansing well advanced before an international finger is lifted to stop it.

What is to be done? If my worst fears are confirmed, the UN should agree to send an international peace-keeping force. If it is to be an African Union operation, Western nations must provide funding, logistics and electronic communications. The alternative would be to send either an EU or a UN force. Its purpose? To allow unimpeded access to humanitarian aid, provide security for those in refugee camps and to enforce a ceasefire.

It would be the most shaming scandal in modern times if controversy about the basis of war in Iraq stopped the free world doing its humanitarian duty to protect the people of Darfur. They need our protection. There is not a moment to lose.

John Bercow is international development spokesman for the Conservatives

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