The following is an edited transcript of Fergal Keane's interview with Hilary Benn, Secretary Of State For International Development, recorded as part of Panorama's "'Never Again'", first broadcast 3 July 2005 on BBC One.
FERGAL KEANE: Can I just start by asking you what was the central problem that became apparent to you in trying to get a unified and swift response to the problem in Darfur?
HILARY BENN: I think first of all the difficulty that the government of Sudan created for everybody in trying to prevent people seeing what was going on, so the problems of access that were particularly from December 2003 onwards, that's when I first went to Khartoum to talk to the government about the humanitarian crisis and raised it with them. We started giving humanitarian aid in October of that year. I think secondly the problem of capacity. Who's going to do the work, and thirdly and perhaps most important of all the difficulty in getting agreement on the security council that something ought to be done because different people had different views and some didn't want to discuss this.
FERGAL KEANE: When you stand back and look at this, how great an impediment was the fact that the world was so preoccupied with the conflict in Iraq?
HILARY BENN: Well that clearly meant in the case of Britain and the United States we had troops committed there but I can say hand on heart that I don't think that that got in the way of the role that Britain and the United States and some others played in trying to get the government of Sudan to give access in putting pressure on the government of Sudan to stop what was going on and to get the Security Council to begin to discuss this. I think the obstacles were not to do with Iraq, I think they lay elsewhere.
FERGAL KEANE: Why do you think it took Jan Egeland so long to be allowed to brief the Security Council ? Why did it take the Security Council until April? You were raising this in December in Khartoum, why did it take until April for the Security Council to discuss this?
HILARY BENN: I don't know why it took so long. It was at the time when, as we now know, the worst atrocities... the worst killing was taking place. All I can say is I'd first raised it in December and I came back from that visit and talked to my colleagues in the humanitarian community about the importance of getting access because we were finding it very difficult even to get in there.
If the question is, and it is, were we slow as an international community to respond? Then the answer has to be yes. There's no doubt about that whatsoever and it's one of the lessons that we need to learn. We were slow and looking back with hindsight given what we now know, I think lots of people which that they'd acted quicker.
FERGAL KEANE: Jan Egeland does say that had he been given access to the Security Council quicker and critically had they come out with a stronger statement he could have saved many lives.
HILARY BENN: Well clearly if we had been able as an international community to act quicker that may well have been the case. But you had the problem even when you got to the Security Council of those who didn't really want to discuss it, didn't want to agree resolutions that would call for example the government of Sudan to account, and the Janjaweed militia for what they were doing. And then there was the second question of the capacity to do something about it. Now in time the African Union came forward and I very much welcomed that. Britain was the first country in the world to offer support to the AU mission. I think the other thing to remember is there had been two ceasefires during this process. The problem was they were ceasefires that nobody was observing and the killing was going on.
FERGAL KEANE: When the United Nations Security Council does eventually come out with a resolution on July 30th it has no teeth. It merely says well come back every 30 days and we might look at sanctions.
HILARY BENN: It at least showed that the Security Council was concerned about what's happening, was beginning to send a message. At the same time the African Union force had begun to deploy, and there's no doubt... I mean that was a big operation for the AU. It took them time to get the troops on the ground to build the capacity, to get the transport, the helicopters to fly around, and I think that was a source of frustration to everybody including the African Union. But there's no doubt in my mind having come back very recently from a visit to Darfur and seeing the difference that they've now been able to make, that was the right thing to have done. Without the African Union having taken this initiative then we wouldn't have had that presence on the ground.
FERGAL KEANE: I mean you, as somebody who believed in the idea of the African Union and who was clearly raising the level of human rights abuse very early with Khartoum, it must have been frustrating for you to watch the incredible slowness of that operation.
HILARY BENN: Well I think one has to recognise apart from the force that they sent in to Burundi this was... this has been the first big operation for the African Union and for them it's new. This is a large scale deployment they're talking about. I think we work very hard as an international community to try and make sure that they had the means.
FERGAL KEANE: You went to Khartoum with Tony Blair and you met with President Bashir and his vice president. What was the atmosphere like at that meeting?
HILARY BENN: Well we said... the Prime Minister said very clearly to President Bashir: "Look, there are things that you need to do. You can see the concern there is on the part of the international community. You've got to stop bombing and using the helicopter gunships. You've got to notify the ceasefire commission of the location of your troops. Both of those things have now eventually been done.
FERGAL KEANE: And you've got to protect refugees.
HILARY BENN: And you've got to protect refugees, and I think what history has shown us is that the government of Sudan really hasn't had the capacity, some would say hasn't had the will to do that, and that's why the African Union force has increasingly taken on responsibility for providing protection. They've now got a permanent base for example in Kalma camp where there have been difficulties, they've begun patrolling to support women when they're going out to get firewood because women have been attacked, and that's why we need more Africa Union troops on the ground. But I think the history shows that without continual and very, very strong pressure the government of Sudan wouldn't have moved. In the end we got humanitarian access because the international community did put a great deal of pressure and that's why we're able increasingly to get help to those who've been forced to flee their homes.
FERGAL KEANE: When the Sudanese at that meeting promised not to launch aerial attacks and launch the Janjaweed against people, and when they promised not to attack the displaced, did you believe them?
HILARY BENN: Well one can only judge them by what they do and not by what they promise. Now we know¿
FERGAL KEANE: And of course the following month they attacked¿
HILARY BENN: I know... we know subsequently that they continued to carry on with those attacks, but eventually they stopped because the international pressure built up and there was the discussion and eventually the adoption of the resolution on sanctions and finally I think very significantly the decision of the Security Council in Resolution 1593 to refer what had happened, the dreadful killings, to the International Criminal Court, and I think that sent a very, very powerful message that those who have committed these crimes are going to be called to account.
FERGAL KEANE: When you watched them attacking El Geer Camp what was your personal reaction, given the promises they'd made to you?
HILARY BENN: Well given the history¿ I mean the fact is the government of Sudan has not told the truth on a large number of occasions. The personal experience that I've had has been that it takes constant and continual pressure in order to make progress but I think as the international community became more involved, more aware, it went to the Security Council. We have seen the result of that pressure resulting in change. We've seen it in humanitarian acts as we were able to get to more people as result of sustained effort including getting rid of the obstacles that were in the way of the humanitarian community getting vehicles, supplies and so on in, and in time, and it took time, that international pressure did result and the government of Sudan stopping the bombing, stopping the aerial bombardment, notifying the ceasefire commission of the location of its troops which it has now done and the rebel commanders that I met in Darfur recently confirmed that that is the case, but it's taken a long time, of course it has.
FERGAL KEANE: When Jan Egeland said in relation to the North/South peace agreement, that there was too much of preoccupation, that when people like he, and Mukesh Kapila, were trying to raise and... and... raise awareness on Darfur and get action, they were being told, 'not now, the North/South is the priority and... and we will get to Darfur'. He... he says to us, 'the lesson... one of the lessons of Darfur is that you should never ignore massacres in one place in the hope of ending them somewhere else', what do you feel about that?
HILARY BENN: Well I'd agree with that and I don't accept, actually, the criticism that the North/South peace process was prioritised at the expense of what we were seeking to do in Darfur. What we were trying to do was to do these two things in parallel, and do not forget about the North/South peace process and the comprehensive peace agreement that brought to an end, eventually, the longest running civil war in Africa that killed over... about 2 ½ million people. And that's very important for those who have suffered in that conflict. It also provides the opportunity for southern Sudan in particular - this is one of the poorest places on earth - now at least to have the chance of some development. And I think most important of all for Darfur, it provides a framework within which the conflict in Darfur could be brought to an end by political means - if the parties to the conflict were prepared to use the framework that's been agreed in the comprehensive peace agreement. And I think for all of those reasons it was absolutely right and proper to have pursued that in the way that we did, while at the same time trying to tackle the terrible crisis in Darfur.
FERGAL KEANE: What did Jack Straw say to persuade the Americans to abstain on the vote for the ICC?
HILARY BENN: Well Britain, one of the first country's in the world to come out in support of the International Criminal Court. Secondly, we and the Americans strongly backed the International Commission of Inquiry, which the UN Security Council set up, to find out what had happened. And thirdly, to say, 'look, we've created this instrument internationally, this provides the best way forward for calling to account those who've been responsible for the crimes against humanity, the ethnic cleansing that's taken place in Darfur'. And I'm... I'm glad that in end the Americans decided to allow that resolution to pass, because I think it sent a very powerful message to those who are responsible for the terrible crimes that have been committed in Darfur, 'you can't run, you can't hide and eventually the international community is going to catch up with you'.
FERGAL KEANE: You say, and many people would agree with you, that it had a profound salutary effect on the... on the Sudanese government, in terms of stopping the overt violence that they were carrying out, if that's the case why wasn't it done earlier, couldn't you have saved tens of thousands of lives if this was done a year before?
HILARY BENN: Because I think, looking back on it, it was a process that people had to go through; one, to get it to the Security Council in the first place, two, for people actually to see what was going on to pass a resolution to indicate the... the concern there was on the part of the international community, in the end to agree sanctions. And I think... don't forget the International Commission of Inquiry had to be set-up because there was a lot of argument and debate about exactly what the nature of the killing was. In the end, to me, it matters less what you call it and more what you do about it, but having had the International Commission of Enquiry, given its report, that then opened the way for the reference to the International Criminal Court, which has had the effect that you describe, and rightly so.
FERGAL KEANE: In 1994 Rwanda happened and later at the Labour Party Conference in a landmark speech Tony Blair talked about having a moral duty to act. Now Rwanda's never going to happen again in quite the same way but I think you would agree that the kind of ethnic violence, the crimes against humanity that took place in Darfur were the kind of thing he was referring to when he made that speech. If you look at the situation now, a million, 2 million, driven from their homes, hundreds of thousands dead, the Sudanese government have effectively got away with an appalling crime.
HILARY BENN: Well I think there's no doubt that this is an... is an appalling tragedy, what has happened, in the end the issues are twofold, one is, is there the political will to act? There wasn't the united political will on the Security Council, some countries were in favour of doing a lot more and moving a lot faster, others tried to block the progress. The second issue is capacity, who is going to do the work? Now there are particular sensitivities in a Muslim country, of course, and that's why we were the first country in the world, in the UK, to provide support to the AU Mission, because this was Africa demonstrating no longer would they be indifferent to what was happening in a country in Africa, they were prepared to put troops on the ground. Of course we would wish that that had happened quicker, but there's no doubt having seen for myself, just over 2 ½ weeks ago, the difference that the AU is making on the ground, they're building the capacity and they now are beginning to make a difference. And one of the lessons we have to learn is; how can we build more capacity to do this kind of work? Because that to me will be the key, alongside political will, to avoiding these... these things happening again in the future.
FERGAL KEANE: Kofi Anan says that the judgement of history is likely to be damning on our reaction to Darfur, we were slow, hesitant, uncaring, and we've learned nothing from the lessons of Rwanda. Can you address specifically what he has said?
HILARY BENN: I think, yes, we were slow, I think there was hesitancy. I don't think we were uncaring, and we have to continue to learn the lessons. It's a complex crisis with long history, difficult origins - the circumstances that we've discussed that made it hard. I think the international community has tried to do the right thing in the right circumstances but you have problems where there isn't a settled and united will to act, and you have problems when you haven't got the capacity to act. So I think the lesson we really need to learn is; how can we build that capacity and how can we find a better way of deciding when things like this are going on - that we are going to act and we are going to act quickly? And I think that this is the biggest challenge which the world faces because when one country invades another we have a very clear view, but when these terrible things happen within one country we're feeling our way forward, as a world, hesitantly, sometimes ineffectively, to try to find a solution to do something about it. And I hope we will reflect on what happened in Darfur.
FERGAL KEANE: We were supposed to learn that lesson after Rwanda.
HILARY BENN: I know and it shows that... that progress is difficult, but I think, looking back on what's happened now, it's taken too long, but we have in the end found the means, and the African Union, the resolutions of the United Nations, and the referral to the International Criminal Court, to call people to account. And I think one of the lessons will be with the referral to the International Criminal Court, anyone who's thinking of doing this again, I hope, will think twice because they will know that the international community will in the end catch up with them, and in the end that might be the best deterrent of all.
FERGAL KEANE: Even if takes 2 million uprooted and hundreds of thousands of lives?
HILARY BENN: It's a terrible tragedy what has happened and I wish we could have done more and I wish we had done more earlier, but it's important that we should learn the lessons, this is a process, we haven't got it right in this instance but if we can draw on that experience, build capacity and develop greater political will, then hopefully we can be more effective in future.
FERGAL KEANE: Thank you very much.