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However hard I try to focus on the present and the future, I get ambushed by the past – sometimes when I least expect it. Over the holiday period, my family called on the head of a distinguished family in Dongola, whose niece works in our Embassy. Other than the overwhelming hospitality, it was also a crash course in UK-Sudanese relations. My host’s father, grand-father and great-grandfather had attended the last three coronations of British monarchs in London. Our country and family histories had been intertwined since the 19th century.
2012 will be historic for the UK: we celebrate HM the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee (sixty years on the throne) and we host the Olympic Games. At a press conference last week I launched the British Embassy and British Council’s special programme to mark 2012: for each of the twelve months of the year around the twelfth day of the month we shall be holding an event to celebrate UK and Sudan relations.
On 12 January our first 2012 event was the opening of a three-month British Council English course for 150 Sudanese journalists, which will culminate in March with a two week course in modern media for the twenty top students. Freedom of speech, and responsible and free media are cornerstones of any democracy. As 2012 begins in Sudan, it is regrettable that pressures on journalists and on those exercising their right to speak are again making the news.
I wrote in my last blog of the lively political debate filling the cloisters and halls of the University of Khartoum. Two weeks later silence reigns. I am told classes have been suspended indefinitely and there have been some arrests. At the same time President Bashir has just appointed a new Human Rights Commission. I wish the Commission well and share the hope of many Sudanese that it will help to embed a culture of respect for all the freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which the UK and Sudan are both committed since 1948.
I am no expert in Sudanese history, but 1948 was a landmark year for what happened here (as well as in New York). The first partially elected Legislative Assembly was created – charting the path to independence eight years later. And in 1948 the Trade Union Ordinance gave legal recognition to trade unions, which grew in strength over the years and played a key role in the overthrow of military rule in 1964.
Sometimes the issues we consider to be contemporary have striking parallels in the past. Over the holiday period I was reading Sir Winston Churchill’s the River War first published in 1899. I would not subscribe by any means to all his views, but even as a young military officer, he showed some of the acuteness of judgement and moral conviction which were to prove so valuable later in life. If you have time, his commentary on the shortcomings of military rule (Chapter III) provides some food for thought even in 2012. http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=1457629&pageno=41