Interview: UK Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan Chris Trott

UK Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan Chris Trott and a wide range of Sudanese officials this week discussed illegal migration, bilateral relations, the strategic dialogue between the two countries and peace efforts. Strategic consultations meetings between the two countries had started in March 2016 in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum and considered the first talks of its kind at this level in 25 years. Sudan and Britain agreed to increasing cooperation in the fields of economy, investment and culture. Trott, who is currently visiting Sudan for the fourth time this year sat down with the Salma M. A. Ismail of the Sudanese Media Centre (SMC) to provide more insight.

Q. Let’s begin with a briefing about the Strategic Dialogue and what it has achieved so far?

A. We have a very strong and historical link between our two countries but our relationship had cooled or at least become quite complicated and the Sudan strategic dialogue is an opportunity for us to rebuild our relationship and to identify ways in which we can work together as partners and as a way to address the differences between us. So for me what its achieved so far is that it has enabled us to sit down on three occasions so far and talk about the things that we share in common and the differences between us. And share a common vision of the future of our relations.

Q. How do you find the cooperation with the Sudanese government?

A. I have an excellent relationship with the government. I’m very honored when I come here I get to see the ministers and the undersecretary in the foreign ministry and obviously when I am in London I have a very good relationship with the Sudanese ambassador in London. In fact I travel quite widely and I try to see the Sudanese ambassador in whichever country I go to and they are always receptive. So last week, I was in China and I saw the Sudanese ambassador to China. Three weeks ago, I was in Tokyo and I saw the ambassador to Japan. I’m getting to know a wide range of Sudanese officials around the world and we have an excellent relationship.

Q. It seems there is so much effort being put into providing aid and caring for refugees and people affected by conflict in Sudan and South Sudan, and a lot less effort being put into finding lasting solutions. What do you say to that?

A. I don’t agree with you. Actually I don’t dispute that a lot of effort is being put into delivering aid primarily we are focusing on humanitarian assistance but in the case of Sudan we are trying to look into more than just the humanitarian assistance but trying to help people develop livelihoods and start to look at the issues around development.

And so there is a lot of effort going into that.

But actually there is also a lot of effort being put into the political process.

Particularly my role as TROIKA Envoy involves me very much working hand in hand with President Mbeki of the African Union High Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP).

Perhaps I’ve described that wrong. I actually feel that I a work for him in some way because he has the vision he brought the parties together.

It’s kind of my role to try to hold the parties to the commitments they have undertaken and to try to find ways to overcome blockages in the peace process each time as they appear. So there is absolutely every commitment by the British government, and this is an essential part of our strategic dialogue. We are building this on the basis that the UK is committed to supporting Sudan and the Sudanese people in finding peace and ultimately then finding development.

Q. What are some of the challenges or blockages as you mentioned?

A. The challenges seem to change but I think one of the real difficulties we are finding at the moment is that the political parties in particularly some of the opposition groups are engaged in dispute amongst themselves which makes it far harder to sit down at the negotiating table. So I am a bit concerned about leadership challenges inside the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) and I have reached out to both the leaders of the two parties to try to encourage them if not to put their differences aside, to try to remain engaged in the peace process.

Because he thing I have heard very loud and very clear from every Sudanese that I have met is that we want peace in our country. And that every time I hear it renews my commitment to try to get them engaged seriously in the peace process.

Q. Do you see peace in the near future?

A. I have to say that I remain reasonably optimistic. That Thabo Mbeki’s plan is very good. I think that he has with our assistance been able to get most of the political parties and most of the armed opposition groups to sign up to it.

I think it sets out a clear process by which we can bring about peace with the cessation of hostilities. We can provide support to people all throughout the country through some humanitarian access agreements. And ultimately then the parties can sit down and talk about peace. But as they all say that they do not want to talk about peace while people are hungry or at risk from being killed during conflict. So we need to go through this process. It’s a very logical one and I feel that we are quite close if we can find a way of overcoming the split within the SPLM-N. We are quite close to making some progress on that. And I think all of the international community and all of the friends of Sudan need to work in support of that process.

So actually when I went to China and Japan. I didn’t go to talk to the Sudanese ambassador there although I did so. I actually went to talk to other governments who are partners of the Sudans about the effort of the TROIKA in support of Thabo Mbeki and to encourage in the same way to convey the messages of the peace process.

And to convey the messages of the peace process in the conversations that they are having.

Q. What about the National Dialogue?

A. The National Dialogue was an important part of the discussion. I first came to Sudan just before the National Dialogue was concluded and I was very pleased because our concern was that if he National Dialogue had been completely finished before the other opposition parties who were outside the country and armed movements were able to engage in it.

Our concern was that they would feel excluded and would then feel that there wasn’t a political process that was worth engaging in. But the chair of the Dialogue assured me that this was the start of the discussion about the future of the political process in Sudan and that’s very important.

I have just come from meeting the Secretary General of the Popular Congress Party (PCP) who talked about their approach to the conclusions of the National Dialogue and the fact that they want to build on that in order to ensure that there is agreement about the future of the political shape of Sudan.

Q. So the UK is very much in support of Sudan’s National Dialogue efforts.

A. I am in support of all dialogue efforts because they have to be part of the peace process. And my commitment is to the peace process.

So what I hope is that when Sudan Call and I saw the Imam this morning as well. When Sudan Call sits down with the government and the armed opposition movements they will use that as a basis for discussion but it can’t be the only basis of the discussion.

Q. You travel to Darfur frequently and no doubt you will during your current visit. What is your assessment of both the political and humanitarian situation?

A. Well I think this was something that was debated long and hard in New York recently with the renewal of the UNAMD mandate. What we have to recognize is that the humanitarian and security situation in Darfur is changing but that doesn’t mean that the conflict has been resolved and for as long as there is tension, for as long as people feel unable to go back from their IDP camps to where they originally came from, I think there will be a role for UNAMID in Darfur. But not necessary in the places where it has been over the past 10 years, which is why the UNAMID mandate has been looking to close a number of bases but actually has requested the opening of one base in Jebel Marra. I’m actually hoping to go Jebel Marra this week and to Golo which is where the UNAMID has recommended that a base be opened in order to provide security to the people in the region. The last time I was in Darfur, I went to East Darfur and got to see the huge amount of support that Sudan is providing to its neighbor. I went to visit a refugee camp that had been established very recently near Al Daein, for South Sudanese refugees. And one of the things that I am always conscious of is the warmth f the welcome that the Sudanese government and the Sudanese people have provided as yet again South Sudanese are being forced out of their homes by conflict.

Q. What about the UK-Sudan cooperation in counter smuggling, illegal migration?

A. I think that the UK recognizes that migration in all its forms puts pressure on Sudan just as it does on us. In the UK there are a number of Sudanese who have migrated to the UK. Sudan is a source of migration but is also a transit point for migration. And it’s also a destination for migrants who are coming from the neighboring countries. Obviously the priority is to address the causes of migration and to stop people from moving in the first place. Because ultimately no one of want to leave our ancestral home.

But if we can work in partnership with Sudan to manage the way in which people are moving across this country and moving out if the country, I think its good for Sudan and it’s good for Europe. A partnership is very important. And particularly we have to try to stop criminal elements using migration as a way of making money, exploiting the people who are in their worst hour of need and making money off of that.

Q. Can you be more specific?

A. The partnership involves working in cooperation with law enforcement agencies, it involves sharing information about the way the people are moving.And in fact its an important way in building a multinational cooperation agenda.

This isn’t just about the UK and Sudan but about the EU and Sudan and the EU, of which we are apart. And so there is a process, called the Khartoum Process. Of which I’ sure you have heard about, which is actually not just about Sudan but about migration through East Africa. And like the issue of counter-terrorism and climate change these don’t respect national borders. And this is why going back to your very first question about the strategic dialogue; this is why our relationship is so important and why it is important we are taking to each other. We need to address these issues and we need to address them together.

Q. To what extent does the UK support the lifting of sanctions from Sudan?

A. Very much so. And we have said so publicly and we have said it to the Sudanese government and to the US government. Our message in July to both sides was that we would be very keen for them to continue to work together to ensure that the sanctions are lifted in October.

Obviously we recognize that there is a process behind this because this is the first batch of sanctions. But we feel that the lifting of US sanctions would provide a boost to the Sudanese economy and that would be good for everybody.

We are encouraging our American friends to remain engaged and we are encouraging the Sudanese government to also remain engaged in the process.

I’m sure there was some disappointment when the sanctions were not lifted in July but we have to recognize that the American decision making process is quite complicated at the moment. It was a new administration at the moment and the proposal was made by the previous one and they wanted to be confident and comfortable with the proposal before they lifted the sanctions. I’m hoping with the cooperation between two sides that the sanctions will be lifted in October.

Q. What will the cooperation look like after sanctions are lifted, with the UK banking sector and businesses?

A. There is still a historical link between businesses in our two countries. I think there will be businesses both in the UK and in Sudan that will want to get to know each other again. The gap has been long. Obviously the banking sector is one of Britain’s strongest industries and we would be very keen to see the banking sector engaging and supporting the commercial relationship between our two countries. For us Sudan is not yet in the place it should be in terms of its international position, in terms of its economic position.

You are at a crossroads in a critical region. This gives Sudan opportunities and this gives the UK opportunities for partnership with Sudan. And so we are very much hoping that with the lifting of sanctions there will be renewed interest in both of our countries in commercial relations.

I know that the embassy here and particularly ambassador Michael Aaron have been working very hard in anticipation of the lifting of sanctions.

Q. Can we say that particular arrangements being put in place?

A. Yes we have started that dialogue because you can’t turn it on like that. We have started the dialogue with Sudanese companies and Michael has been to London and talked to British companies. He’s talked to British export associations about renewing their interest.

I fact we have had one small trade mission come here already to look at the opportunities and this was part of his focus on his last couple of visits to London.

Q. What about debt relief efforts? How is the UK helping Sudan, with one of the more important factors which is finding an effective poverty reduction strategy?

A. Exactly. In fact the latter is the key to the former. Yes, of course there is a political element to debt relief but there is also a very complicated technical process for a country that wants to address its debt and we are absolutely-and our offer has been made o the Sudanese government that we will help with that technical process.

It’s not one that happens overnight. But the very first thing that needs to happen is this poverty reduction strategy and we are encouraging the Sudanese government to work quickly to develop a credible poverty reduction strategy. And we are working in partnership with them and that will be the basis for the discussion about the debt relief.

I’m afraid that it’s a slow and complicated process and on that I don’t understand. But Department for International Development (DFID) here in Sudan are already engaged with the Sudanese government in discussions about the technical aspect of that.

Q. You have been to Sudan numerous times. What are some of the experiences that you take with you?

A. I take with me the warmth of the people. I take with me the depth of the history. And I take with me a love of the Nile.

I first came to Africa over 30 years ago to teach English and I was based in Al Mansoora in Egypt. People told me that if I drank from the Nile, that I would always come back.

I was a little reluctant to drink from the Nile in the Delta, I wasn’t convinced that I would survive or ever leave the Nile if I did so.

But I took an opportunity of visiting the Aswan Dam to drink from the Nile. And it took 30 years but the day I flew back over the Nile to land in Khartoum airport, I felt that I had come home.

And the reception I got was very positive and I hope that through my interest and my engagement we can build a brighter future for our two countries.

Thank you so much for joining us and we already look forward to your next visit.