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Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, as I hope the Statement makes clear, it is for the Chief Constable to make the security assessment. Perhaps I may repeat, because it is extremely important, that there is no question of trading essential security interests for political progress. The question of what level of security is required is to be made entirely on the basis of the threat. As has been made clear, if the situation changes in terms of the peace process, that might have an effect on security decisions; but ultimately, it is for the Chief Constable, in consultation with the security forces, to determine the level of threat and make appropriate arrangements.

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Perhaps I may take up the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Marsh. I am told that the phrase used in the decommissioning Act is "beyond use", the same as that used in the IRA statement.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, the fact that the statement made by the IRA is one of the clearest that it has made for a number of years has to be seen as a good sign. IRA statements in the past have been criticised for the nature of the semantics used; that is why this statement has to be seen as a good sign.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his comment. There is no doubt that this statement is very significant indeed.

Lord Fitt: My Lords, in the negotiations that took place behind the scenes before the issuing of this statement, was any pressure used on the IRA as an organisation to show its bona fides in this area? From now until June next year, will it stop the knee-capping and the murderous attacks on individuals? The IRA has said in its statement that its arms are silent and secure. Tell that to young people in Northern Ireland among whom there are almost daily knee-cappings. The IRA has said that it wants to build confidence. Will the Minister suggest to it that the best way to build confidence in Northern Ireland is to take steps to prevent such murderous attacks? Will the Minister put a suggestion to the IRA? If it intends finally to decommission by June next year, in the run-up between now and then are we to accept that the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries will be able to carry out such attacks on civilians? Would it be possible after 22nd May, when the institutions are brought back into being, for the IRA to reciprocate by, for example, putting Semtex out of its control? That would build confidence within the unionist community that the IRA means what it says.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, as I said in answer to my noble friend Lord Dubs, we deplore all paramilitary attacks of whatever sort. We very much hope that they will be reduced as a result of what has happened in the past few weeks.

As I have indicated, the commitment made in the IRA statement is unequivocally to put weapons beyond use. How precisely it is to be done is a matter for discussion between the IRA and the decommissioning commission.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, the noble and learned Lord has emphasised two different points over and again: first, the confidence-building measure--namely, the inspections; and secondly, decommissioning. As I understand the timetable announced in the Statement, the date given being 22nd May, it is unlikely, to say the least, that any decommissioning per se will happen before that date.

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Confidence-building measures would have to include inspections over the border in the Irish Republic as well as in the North. Otherwise, I doubt that they will provide the confidence that the noble and learned Lord and indeed I would like.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the commitment in relation to the confidence-building measure is in respect of inspection by the two named people of existing arms dumps. Where that inspection takes place depends on where the dumps are. I should have thought that they are most likely to be in the South.

Lord Laird: My Lords, I am one of those who believe that there has been a limited move forward in the exercise over the weekend. However, I endorse much of what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, and others. I am one of those who, together with a number of other Members of this House, will be making the decision, as part of the Ulster Unionist Council, about Ulster Unionist participation in the Executive. I should like the Minister to be aware that there is not yet sufficient clarification. The answers given today have not clarified much. I should like the Minister to explain what exactly is meant by the word "some"--the phrase "some dumps" is used. We have not received clarification on that extremely important point.

There also seems to be confusion over part of the Statement and the answers given as to whether this is a question of "beyond use" or "decommissioning". The point requires clarification. These are the kinds of issues that we must sort out. Last year the Ulster Unionists bought a second-hand car which did not start. We shall be much more careful next time we buy a second-hand car from the same dealer. I believe that people expect us to do nothing less.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, we understand that the confidence-building measure will involve arms in three dumps which most likely will be in the South. The dumps will contain a substantial amount of weapons, explosives and detonators. There is no suggestion that these are all the dumps, because this is a confidence-building measure. Those dumps will be inspected by the named independent third parties who will then report to the commission on decommissioning.

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, I speak as an unrepentant, unqualified admirer of the Government's initiative in the peace process. I also congratulate Mr Mandelson in particular on this occasion. Does the noble and learned Lord agree it is inconceivable that the IRA will give up all of its arms without any response from the Protestant paramilitaries? What steps are being taken to ensure that there is some response on that side?

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Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I reiterate what has been said on all sides. In the light of what has been said by the IRA, it is important that we now hear in similar terms from the main loyalist organisations. The peace process depends as much on that as anything else.

Sierra Leone

5.1 p.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on Sierra Leone which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

    "Over the past week RUF rebels have broken their commitment to the Lome Peace Agreement and returned to conflict. They have made a number of attacks on the UN forces and on demobilisation camps. At least four Kenyan members of the UN forces have been killed in action. Around 500 UN personnel have been detained, including one British UN military observer.

    "At the weekend the rebels appeared to be moving on Freetown. The situation in Freetown is tense. I spoke at midday to our High Commissioner there who reported that the police had been successful in arresting a number of rebel bands and seizing arms which they had been about to distribute.

    "Tens of thousands of residents of Freetown loyal to President Kabbah have today marched on the residence of the rebel leader, Foday Sankoh, which they have surrounded. From about one o'clock this afternoon the sound of gunfire could be heard from that location. This development has serious implications for the security situation within Freetown and the future actions of rebel forces commanded by Foday Sankoh.

    "Our first duty is to protect the lives of British citizens in Sierra Leone and others to whom we have consular responsibility. We believe that there are up to 500 British nationals in Sierra Leone, mostly in the Freetown area. There is a smaller number of European Union and Commonwealth nationals without diplomatic representation for whom we have consular responsibility.

    "Our immediate advice to British residents in Freetown is to stay indoors. This afternoon the High Commission has activated its evacuation plan and is contacting British residents through the local warden network to give them the necessary instructions.

    "In view of the limited commercial opportunities to leave Sierra Leone and the current insecurity, we have taken the precautionary measure to deploy a number of British military assets to West Africa.

    "The forward elements of the current spearhead battalion, the 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment, arrived in Dakar, Senegal, over the weekend. The battalion is currently moving from Dakar to Freetown. In addition, HMS "Ocean" and support

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    vessels, with 42 Commando and a number of helicopters, are moving towards the region and will be in Sierra Leone early next week. HMS "Illustrious" has been withdrawn from NATO exercises to be used if needed.

    "These measures have been taken to ensure that we are best placed to respond quickly to safeguard the security of British nationals. Our forces will ensure the security of Sierra Leone's international airport. This is not only of immediate utility for the evacuation, but is also valuable in allowing the UN forces to continue to build up.

    "The UN force is currently about 3,000 short of its mandated strength of over 11,000. We are urging the nations contributing to the UN force to expedite the additional numbers. I spoke last night to Madeleine Albright, and I welcome the US offer to consider a strategic airlift to fly in units from the Jordanian and Bangladeshi armies.

    "I have also spoken to Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and offered further logistical support, such as vehicles, for the UN force. I pressed upon him that one of the immediate lessons of the past few days is that nations contributing forces to the UN must also contribute the equipment necessary to fulfil their mandate.

    "My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has just spoken to President Obasanjo of Nigeria, the major regional state, to discuss what immediate assistance Nigeria can contribute to the UN forces.

    "The responsibility for the current outbreak of violence lies squarely with the RUF rebels and their leader Forday Sankoh. A year ago he committed himself to a peace process which offered rehabilitation and retraining to his troops in exchange for demilitarisation. Considerable progress had been made on that process. UN forces had deployed across two-thirds of the country, almost half the armed groups had registered at demobilisation centres and a significant quantity of weapons had been surrendered. Work had begun on training a new defence force for the legitimate Government of Sierra Leone and on preparations for democratic elections next year. All that progress has been put at risk by the RUF reneging on the commitments that it made.

    "One of the triggers of the current conflict appears to have been the attempt by the UN forces to enter the diamond-producing region which is held by the RUF and provides it with weapons and friends. This development underlines the importance of the international debate, in which Britain has been a leading voice, for more transparent regulation of the trade in uncut diamonds. We should not allow diamonds to be sold for weapons or at the cost of lives.

    "I want to make it clear to the House and to the people of Sierra Leone that Britain will not abandon its commitment to that country. Britain has done more than any other country outside the region to restore legitimate government in Sierra Leone. We are the largest national donor to the peace process.

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    We hosted the international donors' conference earlier this year and we are in the lead in training the new army for the Government of Sierra Leone. We shall continue to take the lead at the UN and elsewhere to restore the peace process. We must not allow a few thousand rebels to prevent the end to violence and the peace in which to get on with their lives, for which the 3 million people of Sierra Leone desperately hunger".

My Lords, That concludes the Statement.

5.7 p.m.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement and updating the House on what is clearly a very serious situation. We welcome and support the sensible and appropriate measures that are being taken to prepare for any evacuation of British and other nationals. The force that has been assembled for this purpose--one-and-a-half, or perhaps two, battalions and five ships--appears to be quite a large one. I am mildly surprised that there are still 500 British nationals in Freetown and surrounding areas when everyone, including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, knows what a dangerous place it has become and how the rule of law has evaporated in many parts of that unhappy, and pathetically poor, country. But if that is what is necessary to get people out safely, it has our full support.

I should like to put a number of questions. First, can the Minister reassure the House that this large force is solely for evacuation and rescue? Can the noble Baroness elaborate on the words "further logistical support"? The House needs to be reassured that this is not the beginning of an entanglement, by a side door as it were, in the whole UN operation that is in difficulties. If evacuation is the purpose, could that be made absolutely clear? When does it begin? We gather that some military units have already been ashore for a day or two in Freetown. What is their aim beyond securing the airport? How long does the Minister think that it will all take?

On the broader scene, the UN operation was supposed to be a showpiece. People were saying that if we cannot get it right in Sierra Leone all hope is lost in Africa, and such words. We should now like to know where the UN operation is heading. At the moment the direction appears to be downwards. What line are Her Majesty's Government taking at the United Nations in support of pulling the operation together? At present, the operation looks in extremely bad shape.

Has the Minister a view, first, on the reports of huge illegal arms shipments going in through Burkina Faso to the rebels to the general chaos of the country? Secondly--my question relates to an issue raised many times by my noble friend on another crisis in Africa, Zimbabwe--has the Commonwealth a role? It is a Commonwealth country. It is part of the Commonwealth scene. I should like to believe that the Commonwealth has a positive role but I have heard nothing of that from the Government.

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5.12 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. Perhaps I may also express our strong support for the very bold action taken by the Foreign Office to protect the interests and lives of British citizens and others in Sierra Leone for whom we have consular responsibility. I should be grateful if we could express the sympathy of the House for those UN peacekeepers who have lost their lives, many from Commonwealth countries which responded to the request from the Secretary-General to send troops to Sierra Leone.

It seems clear that the betrayal by Foday Sankoh of the peace agreement reached only a few months ago--he was invited into the government in exchange for co-operating on the restructuring of the security forces and the retraining of the army--has been a betrayal not only of his own people but of all the people of Sierra Leone. I hope that the Minister can assure us that we shall not pursue further any attempt to negotiate with a man of such evident false standing.

Perhaps I may ask three questions. The first concerns where our responsibilities begin and end. In the Statement the noble Baroness mentioned that we have consular responsibilities beyond those to British citizens. Perhaps she can enlighten us a little further. Can she also enlighten us on the position we would take if UN peacekeepers close to British forces, in a situation of danger to themselves, were to plead for our assistance to rescue them from, for example, hostage situations?

The second question concerns the position of the diamond trade in this continuing bitter civil war. It is notable that exactly the same has been true in Angola for an equally long time. Can the Minister tell us--she was able to do so with regard to Angola--what steps the British Government are taking to identify rough diamonds and in particular to strengthen the sanctions with regard to trade in Antwerp and other traditional diamond centres which appear not to be upholding the sanctions as much as they should?

Finally--it is the only critical note I have--should we reconsider the link between armies being made available and equipment? Clearly a country such as Bangladesh has no heavy-lift equipment and can get the troops who are so welcome to support the UN effort in Sierra Leone only if equipment is made available. The Minister will be well aware that one of the major UN members, the United States, is almost invariably reluctant to send troops but happy to offer heavy-lift and other essential equipment.

5.15 p.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I endorse entirely the expressions of sympathy offered in relation to this sad situation. I can reassure the noble Lord that evacuation and rescue is the focus for Her Majesty's Government's intervention--the security of those individuals, the British and those others for whom we are responsible. In reply to the noble Baroness's point, we are responsible for our own British nationals but we

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have also accepted responsibility in consular terms for EU, US and Commonwealth citizens who may also be there. It is not simply our 500 for whom we express real anxiety.

Our first move must be to secure the airport. It is a central point. I believe that the evacuation of certain British nationals may have started as we speak. That situation is developing rapidly on the ground. Our High Commissioner there will be liaising directly with the other authorities to keep a close eye on that dangerous situation.

I was asked where the UN operation was heading. Noble Lords will know well that this UN operation was put in place as perhaps the most helpful effort in the past 10 years finally to bring security and sanity to this area of the world. It is regrettable that the force--it should have been over 11,000--was only 8,000. We are doing all we can to encourage those involved to send the personnel and equipment as quickly as possible.

I endorse what has been said about the behaviour of the leader, Foday Sankoh. Much trust was placed in him--most importantly, the trust of the Sierra Leone people. The new government was to be a positive way forward. All of us hoped that it could and would be achieved.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, says, diamonds are a matter of great importance. I understand that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is today considering further measures that we can take with our EU partners in relation to diamonds and may be making comments in that regard as I speak but which I am unable to voice fully in this House at this moment.

On arms, we shall consider carefully these issues. I hope that noble Lords will understand that security of our Armed Forces and those currently in Sierra Leone is the most important issue at this time. I am unable to disclose to your Lordships the details in relation to those matters.

5.17 p.m.

Lord Shore of Stepney: My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement. It is particularly welcome news that the Prime Minister is in touch with the Prime Minister of Nigeria and that we have taken such apt precautionary measures at the seizure of the Freeport airfield. I welcome all that. I am sure the Government are right in taking action, as all governments must do, to protect their own nationals when they are in danger.

However, I worry whether that is enough. I do not say that we should do more individually as a country, but it is a terrible humiliation of and rebuff for the United Nations. The United Nations is the only, last, best hope for peace at the beginning of this century. Should we not at least bring together the Security Council for immediate and urgent consideration of the further measures needed to restore the authority, status and reputation of the UN?


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