Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede: My Lords, my noble friend spoke about a structured democratic dialogue

10 Oct 2000 : Column 168

with the Albanians in Kosovo. I was in Kosovo last week and spent some time visiting a number of installations. One thing that I learnt very clearly is that the Serb communities there feel extremely vulnerable. Many of them will feel more vulnerable now that Milosevic has gone. What can my noble friend say to members of that small community about the protection that they will receive--and, it is to be hoped, continue to receive--from the international community in terms of their commitment to maintaining their minority rights in Albanian Kosovo?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the establishment of democratic government in Belgrade opens the way to the beginning of a dialogue between Serbs and Albanians. We have no illusions that this will be easy, but we are committed to a multi-ethnic future for Kosovo. It is clear that Kosovo should have a high degree of autonomy. However, we are not in favour of independence--although, of course, nothing can be ruled out. If we had not stood up to Milosevic's repression in Kosovo, we should not be inviting President Kostunica to next summer's meeting of the EU heads of state and government. We have an opportunity for creative dialogue. The Serbians currently living in Kosovo will not be neglected and we shall be working with energy to make sure that there is a satisfactory conclusion for all the people of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, following upon the intervention of the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, could the European Union mission not at least have on its agenda the needs of citizens who were the victims of bomb damage? Why should this in any way condone any action by the NATO powers, which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said, was a necessary act?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, in all that Her Majesty's Government are doing to assist the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, we have the needs of its citizens in our sights. The restructuring of that country, the return to good governance and the ability to enjoy freedoms will all directly affect and meet the needs of the people of Yugoslavia. We hope that that will be a real compensation for the people of Yugoslavia, because they will, it is hoped, be able to enjoy the freedoms that we in many European countries enjoy.

Lord Richard: My Lords, I am sorry to weary the House again, but I asked my noble friend about the level of diplomatic representation in Belgrade.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I beg my noble friend's pardon. It is right to say that we are hopeful of being able to restore diplomatic representation in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. A request in relation to the matter either has been made, or will be made in the very short term.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that Mr Kostunica has called for

10 Oct 2000 : Column 169

reconciliation within Yugoslavia. I hope that he will not be put under too much pressure to do too much too soon. He already has an extremely difficult job in bringing all the strands of opinion and all the differences in Yugoslavia together in order to be able to rule effectively. I hope that my noble friend will take that into account and that she will ensure that her colleagues in the European Union also take it into account.

Will my noble friend agree that the marvellous events in Serbia last week had nothing to do with the bombing campaign? To suggest that they did is an insult to the Yugoslav people and to the Serbian people in particular? Will she further agree that what those people did was to ensure that the result of a democratic election was upheld and put into place? I hope that we are not going to suggest that this country and the European Union are intent on bombing people into providing the sort of government that they believe they should have.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: No, my Lords, it is clear that it has never been part of Her Majesty's Government's policy that people should be bombed in order to obtain the sort of government that we should like. However, we must accept the historical fact. The people of Serbia were oppressed and had a limited opportunity to express themselves. Everything we know indicates that they gained courage from the fact that other countries were willing to help and willing to express a view, and that Mr Milosevic would not go unchecked. That message must have given great courage to the people of Serbia: the courage to know that they, too, could stand up and say no--which is exactly what they did. They should be congratulated on doing so. But it would be naive and foolish to think that the bombing that took place in order to force Milosevic into withdrawal did not have a material effect on the events that followed.

Sierra Leone

3.48 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to make a Statement on behalf of the Government on Sierra Leone.

Before I do so, however, I should like to take this opportunity to remember the sacrifice of Bombardier Brad Tinnion, who, sadly, was killed during last month's operation, and pay tribute to the bravery of our Armed Forces, who often operate in very difficult and dangerous circumstances.

As I made clear in answering Questions in your Lordships' House last week, the Government's strategy towards Sierra Leone was set out in a Statement by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary in another place on 6th June. That strategy remains unchanged. Our principal objective is to ensure that the people of Sierra Leone are offered a realistic prospect of stability and peace, and are freed from the violence of a brutal rebel minority. Following

10 Oct 2000 : Column 170

the Summer Recess, the Government now believe that it is appropriate that the House should be updated on our plans. However, the Government are not prepared to reveal details that might in any way undermine the security of our Armed Forces or give assistance to their adversaries.

The key to a long-term solution in Sierra Leone remains the establishment of effective and accountable government armed forces. We have sought to help the Government of Sierra Leone by establishing a series of short term training teams and, in the longer term, the UK-led International Military Advisory and Training Team.

Building on our work so far, we shall be continuing our programme of training, equipping and advising the Sierra Leone army in several areas: a series of three further training teams will be deployed to train fresh troops--a team from 1st Prince of Wales Own Regiment will deploy at the end of October for the first of these; we shall provide continuation and specialist training covering topics such as leadership and logistics; a package of equipment support for the SLA to include personal equipment for the trainees; and we shall adjust our command and control arrangements, through the provision of an operational (one star) level HQ to command the overall UK effort and to provide high level operational advice to the SLA.

The overall number of UK troops on the ground will increase from the current figure of around 300 to somewhat over 400, depending on the training under way at any one time.

A key element of our strategy is to help the Sierra Leone Army develop its ability to undertake effective operations in order to maintain pressure on the RUF. In doing this, the safety of Armed Forces personnel in Sierra Leone remains uppermost in our minds. I can assure the House that their security is, and will be, kept under constant review.

The Government also recognise the role played by UNAMSIL. We support the work of the United Nations to restore peace in Sierra Leone. We remain ready under a Memorandum of Understanding signed with the UN last year to deploy UK-based forces up to brigade level in support of UN peacekeeping operations, including Sierra Leone. This would draw from our Joint Rapid Reaction Forces. Final decisions on any deployment would of course remain with the Government. But the speed and scale of our deployment in May is a clear illustration of what we can do, should we judge it necessary and appropriate.

To speed up our ability to respond, our deployed headquarters would be capable of taking such a force under command. We are also prepared, in response to a request from the UN Secretariat, to offer staff officers to the headquarters of the UN Mission in Sierra Leone, in addition to the 15 military observers that we already have with the mission.

Britain's continued support for the people of Sierra Leone in their search for peace and stability has been recognised around the world and has been highly praised. The measures that I have announced today will build on our effort so far and will support the vital

10 Oct 2000 : Column 171

role that the United Nations is playing to bring an end to the violence and to restore peace. I commend them to the House.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.52 p.m.

Lord Burnham: My Lords, I thank the Minister most sincerely for her Statement to the House this afternoon: everything comes to him who waits. I should also totally and unequivocably underwrite her tribute to Bombardier Tinnion and, indeed, to all those who have given their lives in military operations wherever they may be.

This afternoon's Statement is most opportune because we are now at the end of the rainy season in Sierra Leone and operations may well be expected to escalate. I should further say that I totally accept that the Government should not reveal details that would give assistance to the adversaries of our Armed Forces. I hope that I shall not have to press the noble Baroness on such a point.

However, the Minister named three areas of operation in her Statement. We note that further training teams are to be sent. I hope that there will be a clear distinction between the training role and the role as part of UNAMSIL. I also hope that measures will be taken to ensure that the equipment we are providing will not fall into the wrong hands, as has happened on occasions in the past.

The command structure that was mentioned in the Statement is one thing that it would seem the Sierra Leone army cannot provide for itself. I ask the noble Baroness to tell the House what is the difference between,

    "to command the overall UK effort",


    "to provide high level operational advice to the SLA"?

Indeed, what is the relationship between the British force (now to number 500) and UNAMSIL? What is the effect of the withdrawal of Indian troops? Are the British expected to pick up the tab?

Can the Minister say what United Nations is doing overall? Do not the Koreans, the Poles or the Canadians, as well as various other nations, have brigade structures that would enable them to provide a command structure in Sierra Leone? I ask the noble Baroness to look into her crystal ball, which is never easy to do. However, I hope that she may be able to assist your Lordships.

Will the Government keep control over all decisions to deploy, and over the rules of engagement, as mentioned in a Question tabled last week by my noble friend Lord Cranborne? What is the likelihood of the commitment that has been made being extended? Further--as this comes into the Statement--what constitutes a satisfactory conclusion to operations? All sides of your Lordships' House would wish to see such a conclusion and one that would allow British forces to get out.

10 Oct 2000 : Column 172

This must not be an open-ended commitment to Sierra Leone. There is a distinction between the foreign policy framework and the precise extent of our military commitment. That distinction must be kept clear. I do not blame the Government for adjusting their actions to meet changing circumstances. But I believe that we should object to bland assurances that the circumstances are not changing. I am afraid that this Statement indicates that there is a vestige of a feeling that there may be a likelihood of extending the United Kingdom commitment. When she replies, I should be grateful if the Minister would comment on that possibility.

3.58 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Statement. Even if she looks into her crystal ball, I certainly understand that it may not be wise for her to tell us exactly what she sees in it under current circumstances. I also share the regret and sympathy of the House that we lost Bombardier Tinnion. However, we have to recognise that, in the United Kingdom's commitment to support the UN in reconstructing failed states, we may occasionally have to accept a number of casualties.

From these Benches, I offer strong support for the Government in today's decision. In disagreeing with the Conservative spokesman, perhaps I may point out that the reconstruction of weak and failed states in Africa, south of the Sahara, looks like being one of the necessary commitments that this country, in collaboration with others, will have to undertake over the next few years. We must recognise that this is not necessarily a matter of "quick in, quick out". As in south-eastern Europe, it is a long-term commitment in which we hope that one will be able to move from first-line troops, to training and then to policing. We must also recognise that it is in the United Kingdom's strongest interests to support the reconstruction of effective statehood in these states and that, if we fail to do so, the consequences will, among other things, turn up on the streets of London in the form of refugees and migrants from those states.

As Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, has said on a number of occasions, Sierra Leone is a test case for the United Nations and for Britain's responsibilities as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. It is therefore entirely appropriate that the United Kingdom should provide additional staff officers--as it did for the UN operation--additional training for the army, and, if I understand the Statement correctly, back-up forces to intervene if necessary.

The Statement refers to drawing from our Joint Rapid Reaction Forces. Does this refer purely to the United Kingdom or, in the context of the European defence initiative, are discussions under way with our European partners as to whether countries other than the United Kingdom might be involved? As regards the provision of staff officers to the UN, is that purely a British offer, or are other European states involved?

10 Oct 2000 : Column 173

The lessons of this operation must be taken into account. In the context of the Brahimi report, and other discussions under way in the United Nations, how far is the United Kingdom giving its full support to learning the lessons of Sierra Leone: the absence of decent command and control and, indeed, decent co-operation among UN forces and the weakness of the UN department of peacekeeping operations, about which we have heard a number of extremely savage criticisms over the past few months? Clearly that needs to be substantially strengthened.

4.1 p.m.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Burnham and Lord Wallace of Saltaire, for the tributes they paid to Bombadier Tinnion. It behoves us all to remember that when we deploy our Armed Forces we often ask their members to take considerable risks. There is not an armed conflict in the world that does not involve such risks.

The noble Lord said that he would not ask me to reveal details that would be of assistance to our adversaries, for which I thank him. I remind him and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, that my department's offer remains open to give both noble Lords briefings in confidence, should they so wish. The noble Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, is not present at the moment, but I am happy to extend that offer to him.

The training teams which I mentioned, and to which the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, referred, are the Short Term Training Teams which we discussed in your Lordships' House last week. They are quite distinct from UNAMSIL forces. They are British teams which will be used in the way we discussed last week in order to train some thousand or so personnel from the Sierra Leone armed forces at any one stage. We shall indeed be careful with regard to the distribution of any equipment which we make available to those armed forces.

The noble Lord also asked about the command structure. The changes to the command structure of the United Kingdom forces which I have described are distinct from the advice which may be available to the Sierra Leone armed forces. The noble Lord mentioned a figure of 500 troops. I believe that the figure will be over 400, but I am not sure that we have any confidence that we shall reach the figure of 500. However, we certainly expect to have over 400 troops on the ground at any one time. The noble Lord is right; there will have to be further discussion in the United Nations about what to do to make up the numbers of troops that will be needed under the UNAMSIL banner--if I can put it that way--as a result of the withdrawal of Indian troops.

The noble Lord enjoined me to look into my crystal ball. As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, precisely foretold, I am a little reluctant to do that. As I am sure all noble Lords understand, it is dangerous to speculate on such matters when we have troops on the ground. However, I assure the noble Lord that we shall keep control of our decisions to deploy and, as

10 Oct 2000 : Column 174

the noble Lord would expect, of our rules of engagement. A decision about command structure would be taken at the time of any deployment. That would be a United Kingdom decision. I hope that follows up the point that the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, made at Question Time last week.

This matter is kept under constant review. I believe that the noble Lord said that he had the vestige of a feeling that there would be further deployments. I understand that many people have said that they have vestiges of feelings about further deployments. I hope that my comments have conveyed the fact that there has been no change of policy or anything that could be described as "mission creep", or any of the other journalistic terms that are used in this connection. We are consolidating the policy position which we have established.

The noble Lord asked me what a satisfactory conclusion would comprise. It would be the establishment of peace and stability in Sierra Leone; the establishment of control over the rebels in that unhappy country; and the establishment of proper control over the government forces by a democratically elected government. We are very much working to that end.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, asked some rather broader questions about our interest in supporting proper development in Sierra Leone. I agree very much with what the noble Lord said about the importance to British interests of supporting such matters as good governance in Sierra Leone, and the importance of understanding that humanitarian ideals are also vitally necessary in that unhappy country. The whole question of poverty must be addressed. Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world. Tackling poverty in that country through carefully targeted, long-term programmes to promote economic and social development is an important facet of any international effort.

I believe that the United Kingdom is contributing enormously to that effort in the training that we are providing. We have, after all, dedicated some £70 million thus far to our efforts in Sierra Leone. The package I announced today will add additional money to that sum--a further £27 million approximately. The noble Lord mentioned the JRRF and asked whether it would comprise British personnel. It is a British commitment. We made that clear in our Memorandum of Understanding last year. However, nothing stays static in these matters. As developments in Europe take place, there is no reason why we should not perhaps approach our colleagues elsewhere at a suitable time. As of today the commitment I described in the Statement is a British commitment, as are the staff officers. I believe that we are learning lessons. I believe that there are lessons for the United Nations in the way that the mission has been conducted in Sierra Leone. As has been mentioned, I also believe that there are wider issues with regard to the control of the diamond trade and the way in which that has fuelled so much of this vicious and dreadful conflict in Sierra Leone.

10 Oct 2000 : Column 175

4.8 p.m.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree with me that historically peacekeeping missions and, indeed, training missions of the kind that we are conducting in Sierra Leone tend to last for rather longer than we would like? I refer to the operation in Cyprus which has lasted for about 30 years. We do not know how long our various commitments in the Balkans will continue.

I do not think that the noble Baroness made the next point entirely clear. If we are to have a presumed open- ended interest in putting together, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, suggested, failed countries in sub-Saharan Africa, is the noble Baroness clear that we have sufficient armed forces in terms of sheer numbers of bodies to be able to cope with any commitment that might arise, particularly in the light of the increasingly low morale in the Armed Forces? Those of us who know members of the Armed Forces are aware of that. It is evidenced by the increasingly worrying exit of senior non-commissioned officers and of junior officers of all ranks from all three Armed Forces.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page