Peter Tibber

Ambassador to Colombia

Part of UK in Sudan

5th June 2014

Human Rights in Peace and Conflict

It’s not been a good couple of weeks for Sudan. The conviction of Meriam Ibrahim on charges of apostasy and adultery has caused outrage internationally. In Sudan everybody I’ve spoken to is thoroughly embarrassed by the case, expects it to be overturned on appeal and fervently hopes that happens sooner rather than later.

They may not be representative of Sudan as a whole. But several senior Sudanese figures, including in Government, have told me that the legal basis for the conviction is unsound and that the law is in clear contradiction with the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion (a view shared by the UK). So too, according to one religious leader I spoke to, does the Koran.

The UK quickly took the very serious (in diplomatic parlance) step of formally summoning the Sudanese Charge to make clear our deep concern about the verdict and view that it constitutes a clear breach of Meriam’s fundamental human rights. We continue to reiterate this message both publicly and privately. Let’s fervently hope she is released soon.   We will continue to press the Sudanese authorities until that happens.

Another high-profile prisoner is opposition leader Sadiq Al Mahdi. His arrest has brought the National Dialogue to a shuddering halt. In truth, it had barely got out of first gear. We have incurred some criticism for being outspoken in our support for a National Dialogue process that is genuinely inclusive of Sudanese views and groups beyond the formal political Parties and that tackles the fundamental issues set out by the President when he launched the process. That remains our view.

Many doubted the Government was sincere. But it’s clear that there can be no hope of such a National Dialogue while a principal Opposition figure is in prison and the modest relaxation of restrictions on the press has been firmly reversed. One senior Government minister, who supports National Dialogue, told me it was running a high temperature. Well, it needs rapid and drastic medical intervention to avoid the disease becoming terminal.

The arrest has also put paid for the time being to the slender hopes of progress in talks to resolve the conflicts in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Meanwhile, the bombings not only continue but appear to have escalated, with innocent civilians continuing to suffer. They have to stop.

One reason Meriam’s plight has struck a chord is that it has come at a time of a series of outrages against women. I worked in Pakistan before coming to Sudan. I know that country well and have a great affection for it. The stoning to death of a woman there was a shocking and terrible act. So too the kidnapping of some 300 girls in Northern Nigeria (the UK has provided resources to the Nigerian Government to help secure their release) and the killing spree- motivated it seems by rabid misogyny-of Elliot Rodger in the US. Of course the contexts of each of those terrible incidents, and the reactions and responses of the local authorities, have been very different.

But there is a common thread. It is one that links them to the British Government’s initiative to Prevent Sexual Violence in conflict. This comes to a head next week in a huge conference-come-party in London. It will be a mixture of formal meetings, fringe events, music and theatre designed both to raise awareness of the widespread and terrible use of sexual violence in conflict and to agree practical measures to help stop it. I will be hosting a local event in Khartoum to help promote the campaign locally.

Some 150 countries have endorsed a Declaration, initiated by the British Government, pledging opposition to sexual violence in conflict and support for measures to stamp it out. These are the countries that will be taking part in the conference. Several Sudanese ministers have told us that Sudan has no difficulty in principle with the Declaration. And it has obvious relevance here. But so far they have not signed up.

If they don’t soon they will not be able to attend the conference, although a number of Sudanese NGOs will be there. That would be a sad irony, because it was a visit by Foreign Secretary William Hague to Darfur in 2006 (when he was in opposition) that first sparked his concern about this issue.

So I sincerely hope Sudan does sign and commits to help to end this practice. That would be one piece of good news to lift the gloom.

About Peter Tibber

Dr Tibber joined the FCO in 1984 after completing a doctorate in medieval history at Oxford University. He has been posted to France, Turkey, Mexico, Germany and Pakistan. He was…

Dr Tibber joined the FCO in 1984 after completing a doctorate in medieval history at Oxford University. He has been posted to France, Turkey, Mexico, Germany and Pakistan. He was a member of the Senior Management Team of UKTI. He was ambassador to Sudan August 2011 to August 2015.

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