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It is clear that Bosnia-Herzegovina is becoming increasingly safe. In recent years, there have been growing indications of a security situation approaching normality. Parliamentary and presidential elections took place last year and were judged to be free and fair. Significant steps in defence reform have been taken, resulting in the establishment of a single, multi-ethnic military force compatible with NATO. As a result, Bosnia-Herzegovina has been able to contribute a small number of troops to operations in Iraq.

Perhaps most importantly, the majority of people displaced from their homes during the war have chosen to return—many of them to areas where they do not belong to the majority ethnic group. In recognition of progress in these areas, Bosnia-Herzegovina was invited to join NATO’s “Partnership for Peace” programme last autumn, on the condition that there will continue to be full co-operation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. NATO will closely monitor these efforts.

The time is right, therefore, to reassess the role of the international military presence. In December, EU Ministers agreed in principle to transition EUFOR from a large dispersed force structure to a smaller, centralised one. At a meeting of the Political and Security Committee on Tuesday, EU member states gave the final approval, in light of the continually improving security situation, to this change. The resulting reduction in force levels—from approximately 6,000 troops to 2,500—will allow Bosnia-Herzegovina to take more control of its own affairs.

The EU decision to move to transition is in accordance with clear military advice that the security situation is stable, and that the local authorities are able to cope with all but the most serious incidents. The Welsh Guards, who are currently deployed, will therefore not need to be replaced by any further manoeuvre troops. More than 600 troops, principally from the Welsh Guards, will return to the UK. That means that the UK’s future in-theatre commitment for the next phase of EUFOR will be a small number of staff officers in the Sarajevo headquarters, although we will continue to contribute to the pan-Balkans operational reserve force. A small number of troops will also be needed to ensure a smooth transition to the new EUFOR structure, and to dismantle the base at Banja Luka.

As we come to the end of UK military operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, we can look back and see the contribution that our armed forces have made to the rebuilding of a country destroyed by conflict. As with other theatres of operation, they have been central in establishing a secure environment in which political solutions and reconstruction can be pursued. However, while the UK has achieved much, our efforts have not been without significant losses. We must remember those UK servicemen and women who were injured, or who laid down their lives trying to protect the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina. I pay tribute to them. A series of commemorative events, in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in the UK, is being planned in order to honour the 55 personnel who lost their lives and the many thousands who were deployed. I will provide further detail of these events in due course.

We must look forward as well as back. There is still progress to be made, particularly in pushing forward key
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political reforms, ensuring less nationalism in political discourse, and developing state-level institutions. The UK must, and will, remain engaged as Bosnia-Herzegovina strengthens her position within Europe and beyond.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): I thank the Minister for his statement and for advance sight of it. May I fully associate the Conservative party with his remarks about the death of Rifleman Coffey? The whole House applauds his courage and sends condolences to his family and friends.

Fifteen years after the initial deployment of our troops in Bosnia, British troops are being withdrawn. Bosnia is indeed a different place today and the Balkans are calmer, although not calm. I pay tribute to the contribution of our armed forces. However, I have two reservations. The first concerns the foreign policy assumptions underpinning this statement, and the second is the specific military impact.

Those who have hoped to see a smooth transition for Kosovo and the end of the international community’s governor-like role in Bosnia in 2007 may yet be disappointed. On all fronts, 2007 will be extremely challenging for the region. Serbia remains an unstable country. The most popular political party, the Serbian Radical party, is led by a man—Vojislav Seselj—who is in The Hague facing charges of genocide. Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica presides over a fractious coalition and rejects any notion of independence for Kosovo. The recent unrest in Kosovo and Belgrade’s unwillingness constructively to engage in the final status talks have cast a shadow over President Ahtisaari’s proposals for supervised independence for Kosovo. In Bosnia itself, separatist forces in the entity of Republika Srpska continue to hamper Bosnia’s progress. Given all these problems, how can the Minister talk about the “normality” of the security situation? Where is the normality?

In June 2006, the international community declared that it wanted a transition from an Office of the High Representative-led presence to a European Union-led presence headed by an EU special representative. However, the uncertainties in the region have caused the peace implementation council to reverse its earlier decision. The Office of the High Representative mandate has been extended for another year. On several fronts, it believes that Bosnia is failing to make progress. Mostar remains un-unified and the governance of the canton of Brcko remains un-regularised. At the same time, the decision has been made to cut EUFOR numbers from 7,500 to 2,500. Where is the consistency? Perhaps most importantly, the alleged war criminals, General Mladic and Radovan Karadzic remain at large. What role, if any, will the remaining British contingent play in trying to bring those individuals to justice?

As I said, the High Representative’s mandate has been extended for another year, as announced only yesterday, but the current representative, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, has accused Bosnian politicians of squandering the opportunity to make progress. The politicians are failing to make progress, but the troop numbers are being cut. Can the Minister clarify the discrepancy between those two different assessments of Bosnia’s stability? If Bosnians are incapable of taking
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more control of their own affairs at the political level, how can he be confident that they can do that at a military level?

Unfortunately, there are still some Serbs who believe that all the Serbs should live in a Greater Serbia. That kind of regressive force, which was so destructive for Yugoslavia, cannot be allowed to return to the region. Is the Minister satisfied that those who harbour such ambitions will not find themselves emboldened by the lack of an international military presence in Banja Luka, which has so far served as a deterrent to those aspirations?

No part of Europe has such a complex ethnic patchwork, such a recent history of instability, or such a strategic importance in the “Great Power” politics of all eras. Can the Minister give his commitment that the withdrawals do not represent a change in policy towards the wider region?

Let me turn to the military implications. British troops make the primary contribution to mine clearance operations. How will those be conducted in the future, and by whom? What are the implications for the safety of the civilian population?

More than anything else, there is widespread suspicion that this decision is predicated on the need to free up more troops for the mission in Afghanistan. Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister talked about our troops coming home from Iraq with no mention of future deployments to Afghanistan. But within 48 hours, we learned, through a series of leaks, that 1,400 more troops were being sent. On Monday, I specifically asked the Secretary of State for Defence for a commitment that this represented the peak number of British troops to be deployed there. I received no such assurance. I ask the Minister to answer that question specifically today.

We all want peace in the Balkans, but our faith in the competence of the Government’s foreign and defence policy is being sorely tested. We need much better assurances than we have had to date. Yet again, the assessments are too rosy and the assumptions too optimistic, as they have been so often in recent years.

Mr. Ingram: I would have thought that we would hear at least some recognition of the success that has been achieved, but I was seriously disappointed by the hon. Gentleman. Let us go back 15 years to when the deployment was first agreed. The commitment given by the then Secretary of State for Defence—the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind)—was for 12 months. As we know when we enter areas of conflict, we may have to attend to situations that deteriorate, but sometimes they make progress. That is exactly what we have been doing.

I have been dealing with this issue and hoping to get to this point for almost three years. The assessment in terms of the political dimension must be that a time has to be determined when we have confidence that progress has been made. If I understand the hon. Gentleman’s message correctly, he suggests that we need a continuing commitment in Bosnia. At the same time, he says that we should cut commitments elsewhere. We repeatedly ask him which commitments we should not fulfil, and he repeatedly fails to answer the question. Now he is saying that we should continue
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our commitment when the full international community that has responsibility for that country says that we can move to a new military and security posture to encourage normality to develop.

I have visited the country and the region on several occasions and I have seen the marked progress. I mentioned the opening of the destruction facility that I attended in November and it is clear that change is happening. There are still issues to be attended to in collecting the ammunition and other equipment that needs to be destroyed, and efforts are being made to achieve that.

I do not understand what the hon. Gentleman seeks from us. We have made a major military contribution. We have measures of success and an international community that is now supportive of those efforts. All countries involved are making reductions. The hon. Gentleman asks about bringing the war criminals Mladic and Karadzic to justice, and that remains the determined intent of the international community. Pressure will continue to be applied to countries in the region to deliver that intent, and it is one of the preconditions for EU membership and full scale NATO membership.

The hon. Gentleman also asked how we ensure a response if the situation descends into some form of violence. There will still be 2,500 troops there and we will still have the pan-Balkans operational reserve force ready to act, as we did in 2004 and 2005 in Kosovo, which is a much more volatile environment in many ways. We responded to and dealt with the civil unrest on the streets.

The hon. Gentleman asked about military implications and future effort. One of the things that we are doing in the country is building the capacity of their defence forces to deal with their own needs. That is why we will keep 50 or so military personnel in the country, several of whom are engaged in training the trainers. We make a tremendous contribution in mine clearance training, and many other areas of training, in countries that are moving from periods of conflict into stability.

The hon. Gentleman’s charge that the withdrawal is just an attempt to free up troops for Afghanistan does not add up. Every country has come to this conclusion. If the conclusion of the international community had been that we should remain there—because his scenario was prevailing—we would have maintained our presence. As in Iraq and Afghanistan, and wherever else we serve, we will not cut and run: we will continue until the job is done.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): Contrary to the more than grudging comments from the Opposition, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a tremendous success. The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina are the ones who say that, not simply foreign politicians. In particular, the people are grateful that the British commitment over the years has meant that the area has moved from active war—not simply insecurity—to a point at which it is possible to say that Bosnia is secure in military terms, whatever the political challenges that undoubtedly still remain.

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Will my right hon. Friend join me in applauding the actions of our troops over the years? It was the British troops at Prijedor who were the first to arrest war crime indictees, and the British arrested more than did all the other troops in Bosnia and Herzegovina put together. Our contribution has been really significant in changing the face of Bosnia and Herzegovina and we should be proud of what the British troops have done.

Mr. Ingram: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has a great deal of knowledge of the issue. He makes a substantial point—we have a proud record of achievement and we can hold our head up high. We have led the way in so many ways, in that area and elsewhere, in trying to establish the right standards for countries coming out of conflict into a new future. The whole issue of war criminals is one that still has to be addressed. We have made a contribution in the past, and if we have to make a contribution to achieve that objective in the future, we will do so. I thank my hon. Friend for his comments.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I thank the Minister for his statement and join him in paying tribute to those who have made a contribution over the past 15 years in Bosnia. In particular, I pay tribute to those who paid with their lives or came back injured.

Should not the House be celebrating the statement today as a sign of success and a job well done, and congratulating the Minister on being able to make a statement in these terms? He made the point in his statement that at different points in that time UK forces have been part of a UN mission, a NATO mission and, in the last few years, an EU mission. While NATO remains our key strategic alliance, will the Minister join me in noting the success of the EU mission in recent years, and in celebrating the fact that EU nations can act successfully when they see eye to eye on things? If the situation in Kosovo deteriorates, will he reassure the House that there will be a similar readiness among EU countries to work together?

Mr. Ingram: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has hit the right note. There is no question but that we should celebrate the success of the EU mission, and we should never forget the work done by its members. Some of them paid the ultimate sacrifice or were injured in their efforts to create the increasingly peaceful environment in the country. The mission started out as a NATO enterprise, then transformed into an EU mission—the first of its kind. I am sure that it will prove to be a model for the future. It demonstrates that the EU nations are increasingly able to deliver in such circumstances, although what the approach to Kosovo will be in the longer term remains to be seen. I hope that we can finish the work with NATO and that we do not have to undertake another extended mission, and I know that the hon. Gentleman shares that objective. Much remains to be done in some parts of the Balkans. We have made a contribution and, when asked, will do so again.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement. The news is very welcome, especially for the families of the brave men and women serving in Bosnia. What lessons for other conflict zones can be learned from the
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reconstruction effort in Bosnia and Herzegovina? Does he agree that success will be measured in terms of what happens over years and decades, rather than weeks and months?

Mr. Ingram: Again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and he makes a very important point about the lessons to be learned. There is a continuum about the way that conflict zones move into reconstruction, but he will know that each area and country has its own key and individual characteristics. In all the regions where British forces are deployed, our aim is to ensure that the momentum of the security profile is maintained, and that efforts to improve governance are begun as early as possible. In that way, confidence is given to the people who take over the instruments of civil power and who drive change forward. The civil community must have the confidence to take on defence and security reform, and to move on from the prevailing hostilities.

None of that is easy. We must remember that we have been in Northern Ireland for nearly 40 years and that, although we are very close, we still have not quite reached the final stage of the process. All the lessons that we learn from our experiences in such situations make our armed forces personnel even better at dealing with troubles around the world.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): How enthusiastic are the Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina about the withdrawal announced today?

Mr. Ingram: That is an interesting question. I have met Ministers in a variety of countries, one of whom said, “As long as you’re here, people see you as an occupying force. We don’t see you that way, but you deny us the opportunity to take on the governance of the country, even though we have the instruments to do so.”

That remark struck home. Today’s announcement will receive a mixed response, because some people in Bosnia and Herzegovina depend on our presence: the statistics show that our forces are very much part of the local economy. If people there fear that they might lose out, we must use our EU connections to offer assistance and create a strong economy to fill the gap.

Earlier, I described how we are working with the 6,000 or so soldiers moving into civilian life. We have a major commitment to making sure that they have jobs and a future, and that they understand that their society has changed. That is a big contribution on our part. Will some local politicians oppose our withdrawal? Yes: we have heard today that not all good news is welcome.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Is this not an appropriate time to remind ourselves of the terrible massacre of Muslim men at Srebrenica in July 1995, which happened while the international community looked on? Should we not be pleased at least that the present Government acted in respect of Kosovo—something that their predecessors did not do in response to what occurred in Bosnia, Srebrenica and elsewhere? However, I am not alone in being deeply disappointed that the two notorious mass murderers responsible for what happened at Srebrenica have not
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been apprehended. It is absolutely vital that those arch-criminals should be brought to justice.

Mr. Ingram: I agree entirely with that final point, and that is why so much effort is still being made in that regard. It is also why conditions are placed on the country’s progression towards full EU and NATO membership. We are talking about brutal war criminals who must be brought to justice. In recent weeks, NATO has attempted to apply more pressure to achieve that objective, although I do not suppose that that was much reported in the media here.

My hon. Friend is also right about the timely action that we took in Kosovo. Some hon. Members criticised it, but it has proved to be the right thing to do. It is a matter for regret that this country did not act earlier in the 1990s. We paid a price for that, but more importantly, the people of Srebrenica and elsewhere paid a much heavier one.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): May I echo the Minister’s concluding remarks? I was sometimes a lone voice on the then Government Benches when I argued for intervention—something that the official Opposition of the day did not support. I welcome much of what the Minister has said, and want to record my thanks to the brave troops who have done so much to help to restore a degree of normality. However, will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge the force of some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), and by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), who has been consistent on this matter? We do not know where in the Balkans those two arch-criminals may be hiding, but until they have been brought to justice, we cannot begin to consider writing the final chapter.

Mr. Ingram: I thank the hon. Gentleman for those remarks. Even today, when we see things happening, all of us must ask ourselves, “Is it right to intervene? How do we intervene? If we do go in, do we intervene as part of a UN, NATO or EU force, or as part of a coalition of the willing?”

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the war criminals. I repeat that an intense effort is being made to achieve the objective that he set out. If we knew where they were, they would be apprehended and brought to justice.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The House will be aware that today is St. David’s day, and that a time-limited debate on Welsh affairs follows this statement. Therefore if I am to call all those who wish to speak on the statement, it would be extremely helpful to have brief questions and concise answers.

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