HC Deb 14 November 1996 vol 285 cc487-502 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Michael Portillo)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I would like to make a statement about Zaire.

The Great Lakes region of Africa is facing a complex emergency and a potential humanitarian catastrophe. Throughout this century, violent clashes have occurred periodically between local tribes and Tutsis of Rwandan origin who have lived in Zaire for generations, who are known as Banyamulenge. Those tensions have been aggravated by the arrival in Zaire of more than 1.2 million refugees fleeing conflicts in Rwanda and Burundi.

Despite efforts by the international community, and the Government of Zaire, those refugees have been unwilling to return to Rwanda. The presence among them of up to 50,000 armed militia has been a destabilising factor in the region. Violence flared earlier this year, when Tutsi and other groups were attacked by armed Hutu militia, who are known as Interahamwe and who carried out the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and also by elements of the Zairean army.

The current crisis was precipitated by Zaire's decision to withdraw citizenship from the Banyamulenge, and its threat to expel them from Zaire. The Banyamulenge retaliated by counter-attacking in areas close to the borders with Rwanda and Burundi, and they captured the main towns in Kivu province. Zaire has portrayed the conflict as an invasion by Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. Rwanda says that all its troops that had been supporting the rebels have now withdrawn.

During the past 24 hours, fighting in the region is reported to have intensified. One thing at least is clear: if no action is taken, we could be facing a huge humanitarian tragedy. The United Nations has estimated that the death toll could rise in the next week to between 10,000 and 20,000 a day.

More than 800,000 refugees are reported to have left their camps, and 250,000 Zaireans have also left their homes. The UN Secretary-General's humanitarian co-ordinator is leading the humanitarian effort, and the UN Secretary-General is drawing up urgent plans for a humanitarian task force and planning an international conference to address the political causes of the conflict. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees organisation is struggling to distribute what aid it can. Our own Overseas Development Agency has done an excellent job and is in close contact with UN agencies and non-governmental organisations but, without help, the agencies will not be able to avert the impending disaster.

On 9 November, the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for nations to plan for a multinational force to protect humanitarian relief and to promote refugee repatriation. Repatriation must feature in any lasting solution to the crisis. Because of the complexity and urgency of the task, the United Nations is looking to western nations to provide forces in the first instance.

Britain has been actively involved in contingency planning since last Friday. Canada has now emerged as the lead nation for a multinational force, and the United States, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Britain among western nations have indicated a willingness to participate. We understand that a number of African countries are also potential troop contributors: South Africa, Senegal, Zimbabwe, Gambia, Tunisia, Kenya, Botswana, Ethiopia, Mali and Chad.

A statement from Washington last night made clear the United States' views on the key points relating to the mission. First, there is a need to assess fully the threat before deploying, and also a need to have the consent of the Governments of the nations in the area.

Secondly, the mission should be to facilitate the delivery of aid by civilian relief agencies and to allow the voluntary repatriation of refugees by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The mission would not include disarming the militias or policing the refugee camps.

Thirdly, the force will operate under chapter 7 rules of the UN charter, which permit an active enforcement role. It would not be a blue-hatted operation.

Fourthly, the participants would bear their own costs, and additional arrangements would need to be made to support participation by African nations, but non-troop-contributing countries which can afford it should also help to bear the costs.

Fifthly, the humanitarian mission should be of short duration—about four months. The exit strategy would then be to transfer responsibility for a more stable situation to other nations, whose task would be to ensure that the conditions of today did not recur.

Sixthly, the United States has made it clear that it would wish its involvement to be around Goma airfield, in establishing an air bridge to the region and providing a security corridor from Goma to the Rwandan border.

Those principles provide a good starting point for us to develop a full plan before the time our forces could deploy. Senior British military planners are in New York today working to develop joint thinking between the allies.

There are important additional questions to be settled. First, of course, is what level of force might be required were our entry into Zaire to be opposed, and how many would be needed to enable relief to reach those furthest scattered refugees. We need to settle detailed objectives flowing from the broad principles spelled out in Washington. In particular, we will need to agree critical matters such as the rules of engagement.

No British forces will be sent unless the Government are satisfied that the objectives are clear and attainable; that the prospects of handing on to a follow-on force are good; that command and control is clear; and that British forces are sufficient and well enough armed to protect themselves and to save lives.

Complex as those issues are, we must prepare ourselves now for action, since the urgency is great. I have authorised a small number of reconnaissance troops to travel to the area to assess the conditions that British forces would face. I have shortened the notice to move of certain units centred on the joint rapid deployment force.

The House will rightly ask why Britain should become involved in a place far from our country and where no vital national interest is engaged. It is because we are a civilised nation. We can that see people are about to die in their thousands, and we are one of the few nations on earth that has the military capability to help at least some of them. We recognise our humanitarian obligations. We take pride in our permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council, but it carries with it clear duties. Some of our leading allies in NATO are willing to assist, and our place is with them.

Britain often faces such calls to action. I believe that we should respond out of our deep concern for our fellow man and with a sense of pride that Britain's armed forces can make a difference.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

The whole House is shocked by the extent and the horror of the humanitarian suffering in the Great Lakes region of Africa, which we have seen on our television screens. The international community simply could not stand idly by; rightly, it has been moved to act to alleviate that suffering. When the United Nations proposed the use of military force to try to facilitate the aid effort, it was appropriate that Britain should offer to play her part. Our troops are well trained and highly respected and they will acquit themselves very professionally. I know that all hon. Members wish them well in their very difficult task. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

It is a very risky venture, and we must ensure that we minimise the risk to our armed forces. Can the Secretary of State assure the House not only that will there be a clear mission objective but that there will be no mission drift such as we saw in Somalia? Will he assure the House also that contingency plans for an exit strategy are being worked upon in case that is needed? Is the Secretary of State certain that we have learnt the lessons of Bosnia and that sufficient troops will be made available and sent, with robust rules of engagement and the equipment to defend themselves?

Can the Secretary of State give the House a rough idea of how many British troops may be sent collectively to the region and what type of troops they will be? Is he thinking of front-line troops, paratroopers, the Marines or mainly support services?

The Secretary of State listed some very sensible proposals outlined by the United States Administration, and I press him for the Government's views on them. Do we basically endorse the American notion of the mission? In particular, the Americans' first point is that the operation can be undertaken only if it has the consent of the Governments in the region. Do we have any idea about the current position as to gaining that consent?

Can the Secretary of State be more forthcoming about the command and control of the British troops? I understand that United States troops will be under overall Canadian command but tactically under United States command. Will that be the case with the British troops also?

Although it is early days, can the Secretary of State comment on the length of our commitment? Do we broadly endorse the United States position that it should last about four months? Does he further accept that the mission should be solely twofold: for the delivery of humanitarian aid and to assist the voluntary repatriation of refugees? If so, what is the Government's strategy for dealing with the armed militia, because it holds the key to the return of the refugees? The House expects the Secretary of State to give some idea of the Government's position.

Finally, will the Secretary of State assure the House that, while the military action is being prepared, every effort is being expended on the diplomatic front to reach a political solution? As we all know, the military action can be only the means to the end. I hope that the Government, with our allies in the UN, are working towards that end.

Mr. Portillo

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the support that he has given to the Government and to our armed forces which may be involved in the operation. I thank him also for his constructive questions. I will not necessarily have complete answers to all of them, but I confirm that the mission must have clear objectives. I said that the exit strategy would be to hand over to other nations. I am encouraged that a number of other nations have come forward, particularly from the African continent. We do not yet have a commitment from them to a follow-on force, but their expression of interest is encouraging.

We have all learnt lessons from Bosnia. The talks going on at present in New York involving British military planners are intended to ensure that all the objectives, the rules of engagement and the command and control systems are fully worked out before any British soldiers are committed to the area.

The hon. Gentleman pressed me on numbers. The present indication from each of the other contributing nations from the west is that they will put in the equivalent of about a battalion, with whatever supporting troops are necessary in each case. I therefore imagine that our commitment might be of a similar order, but the most important determinant of the numbers that we would send would be to ensure that they were sufficiently well equipped and armed, and there in sufficient numbers to take care of themselves and to do a good job of saving human life. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and the House will forgive me if I cannot yet deduce an exact figure from all that.

Do we share the United States' notions? By and large we do. Certainly the idea of deploying for about four months before finding a follow-on force fits in closely with us. Canada is to be the lead nation, but the Canadians would be the first to recognise, I think, that, although it is extremely helpful in the troubled circumstances of Africa for Canada to be our lead nation, to provide the command and control it will need a great deal of back-up from the United States, particularly for the equipment and communications that are necessary for such an operation.

The hon. Gentleman touches on a critical factor which needs to be discussed further—I must be frank with him and with the House. The critical factor is that the US wishes to limit the mission to the delivery of humanitarian aid. The hon. Gentleman has identified a broader ambition to disarm the militias, which would help with the repatriation of refugees.

I believe that we would be wise to think carefully about this issue before taking a position. Clearly, the nations must take a collective position. To say that we will disarm the militias is to undertake a much more complex and dangerous military operation. While I stand by what I said in my statement—that repatriation of the refugees must form part of the long-term process—it is highly debatable whether we should include that now in the short-term mission. The US has indicated its view that the short-term mission should be limited to humanitarian aid.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

Does my right hon. Friend sense, as I do, a general recognition in the House [Mr. Tom King] that the scale of the impending possible catastrophe is such as to justify the announcement that he has made today? Does he agree that the announcement is a grave one, and that it has fallen to him, as Secretary of State for Defence, to commit our forces to an extremely dangerous situation? The operation could not be undertaken in such dangerous circumstances unless it was done in an extremely professional way, and the only organisation capable of undertaking it effectively is NATO. On that basis, it can be supported.

The operation will have to be of sufficient size to meet an extremely uncertain situation. Clearly, there will be concerns about the time frame that my right hon. Friend has outlined, and about whether the withdrawal date will be achievable—we were disappointed in the case of Bosnia.

My right hon. Friend read out very fast the names of all the countries that will support us. Does he not draw comfort when he recalls how many of those countries we have worked and trained with in Africa? I hope that the forces from Africa that were trained by British training teams will be able to make their contribution to this vital humanitarian task.

Mr. Portillo

My right hon. Friend makes a number of very important points, including our very strong links with some of the countries that we would like to be part of the force taking on the burden of the operation as a follow-on force. I repeat that I have been encouraged by their expressions of interest so far.

I very much welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend supports this decision, with all the dangers that it entails, and that he recognises that the scale of the impending catastrophe justifies it.

Let me make one thing clear. Although we will be deploying with NATO allies, which is an important factor in all of this, this is not envisaged as a NATO operation. Were it to be a NATO operation, first, that would inject delay as we move towards consensus within the North Atlantic Council—there obviously is not room for delay in the situation; secondly, I am not sure whether NATO would have available a deployable headquarters for this operation.

We have clearly identified that a Canadian headquarters could be available. We would wish to have a brigade headquarters in order to provide the immediate command and control over our own troops.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

May I offer my support to the right hon. Gentleman for the measured terms of his statement, and for the principles enunciated in it? I believe that I am right in saying that there was no express reference in his statement to the risks that will be run by United Kingdom forces that may be deployed to the area.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not regard this as sounding an unduly sombre note, but does he accept that it would be wrong for the House to endorse the deployment of British forces without a recognition of the risks to life and limb that British service men and women may face? Are not those risks justified in this case only because of the acute nature of the humanitarian considerations involved?

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that much of the difficulty experienced in the former Yugoslavia lay in the fact that the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council were often ambiguous and difficult to implement. Does he agree that the success of the operation will rest primarily on the United Nations producing a resolution that is clear, unambiguous and capable of implementation?

Mr. Portillo

I am most grateful for the hon. and learned Gentleman's support. He is right to say that there are risks involved. I will, of course, devote great efforts, as will all the planning staff, to minimising those risks, and particularly to ensuring that we have the rules of engagement, the equipment, and a deployment that will match the threats as we see them and enable our forces to respond accordingly.

I agree that the resolution has to be clear and sufficiently permissive. The hon. and learned Gentleman will know better than me, because of his longer experience, that in Bosnia one thing that was particularly hampering was the need to refer command decisions to New York. Nothing envisaged in this chapter 7 operation—it is not a blue-hatted operation—would require us to go back to New York for command decisions, which should properly lie in the field.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

The whole country will applaud Her Majesty's Government's decision to send our forces to join the task force. We all know that no troops are capable of doing the job better, as we have seen from experience. I am also pleased that the lessons of Bosnia have been learned—the proper chain of command, with one country in charge, which in Bosnia is the United Kingdom, with brown helmets being worn instead of blue United Nations helmets—and also the lessons of Somalia, where delivering humanitarian aid is one thing, but getting involved in trying to separate the belligerents in the civil war is something else, which we do not want to become engaged in.

How soon does my right hon. Friend think that African countries will be capable of taking over from the British commitment, which I gather will be temporary? Secondly, how can we ensure that the aid that gets through feeds the innocent and not the guilty men?

Thirdly, will he confirm that the cost of the operation will fall on the contingency fund and not on his own, heavily overstretched, defence budget?

Mr. Portillo

On the last point, I shall make that argument at least as vigorously as my hon. Friend. Seriously, however, I have been encouraged by the way in which the Bosnian operation has been financed largely from the contingency fund. Fresh statements will be made on that subject before long.

The issue of how we will stop aid getting through to the guilty takes me back to one of the major issues I mentioned a moment ago: what should be the balance in the operation between getting through humanitarian aid and disarming the militias? At the moment, I believe that the emphasis is on humanitarian aid, but the matter needs to be discussed further.

On the question of when we will be relieved, I can only repeat that I endorse the American principle that the operation should be for four months. I am pleased to see African countries stepping forward, even at this stage, which gives me hope that they will be ready to take over at that time.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I should say that I was asked by the then Speaker to lead the first Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Zaire, in 1990. Do the Government realise that the writ of Kinshasa may not in operate in eastern Zaire, and that they will have to talk to the warlords or the governors of different provinces, especially if there is to be any type of opposed entry?

Where on earth are all those rocket launchers and other arms coming from? If British troops are to be sent, we had better find out who the arms suppliers are, because that sophisticated weaponry was certainly not made in Africa. It may be right or it may be wrong to go in, but I fear that the commitment will still be there long after I cease to be a Member of Parliament and—although he is a much younger man—long after the Secretary of State ceases to be a Member of Parliament. Once we are in, how do we get out of that place?

Mr. Portillo

First, I respect very much the hon. Gentleman's experience of Zaire. He is absolutely right to say that the writ of Kinshasa does not apply in eastern Zaire; we understand that perfectly. In my statement, I said rather carefully that we would seek the acquiescence of the Governments of the area, although I realise that there are warring factions. Our intention, however, is to enable food to reach people who are starving, which may very well involve us in having to stand up to some of those bandits and militias, some of whom are well armed.

I understand the fears expressed by the hon. Gentleman, and the fears expressed generally in the House. I could add another hundred reasons for thinking long and hard about the situation, and a hundred reasons for not taking any action. Finally, however, we must face the situation that confronts us. I do not believe that we have time to continue debating those issues. There are dangers, difficulties and uncertainties, but the begging need to do what we can to help those people is what must now guide us.

Mr. David Howell (Guildford)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that it must be right to do everything we can, as swiftly as we can, to deal with the tragedies in that very dangerous and complex area of central Africa? Will he accept my congratulations on the fact that he has applied already a very strict series of questions to himself and to his proposals? I hope that he will continue applying them, because they are based on our very hard-won experience in other areas. Moreover, as he knows, things can go disastrously wrong, as the American operation in Somalia went wrong.

It is very early for the Secretary of State to answer all the questions he has been bombarded with, but will he undertake, before the final deployment begins, to inform the House whether we are sending troops on a peacekeeping mission, a peace-enforcing mission, or a mission that begins by protecting aid workers and ends up enforcing peace? We must have those absolutely basic concepts clear in our minds before the troops depart, and I am sure that he will give the House that information before they do.

Mr. Portillo

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that things can go wrong, and I am pleased that he agrees with the list of questions that we are applying to the matter. Further information would, of course, have to be given to the House before British troops deployed, other than the reconnaissance troops whom I have already mentioned.

Let me make one thing clear: I said in my statement that this would be a chapter 7 operation, and chapter 7 of the UN charter enables participating troops to follow the rules of engagement that are necessary not just for peacekeeping but for enforcement. They are more robust rules, which allow forces to do more to protect themselves and to secure the mission. I think that chapter 7 rules are absolutely appropriate.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

I agree with the Secretary of State that an aid mission is essential, and I support the purposes to which he has subscribed. However, I have one serious doubt; he touched on it, but I would like him, if he could, to say a little more about the central question of disarming the militias.

As the right hon. Gentleman rightly said, it will be impossible to get the refugees back into Rwanda unless the militias are dealt with, but that is a task for the slightly longer term. The immediate problem will be if the militias prevent the humanitarian aid from being delivered. I recall that that was the problem in Bosnia, which drove us from a UN action to a NATO enforcement action. Will the Secretary of State take full account of that in his forward planning for this operation?

Mr. Portillo

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support. The outline of the answer to his question is at least clear. We are deploying under chapter 7, which gives us the more robust rules of engagement; our objective is to enable aid to reach the people who are starving; and if some people stand in our way, they must be prepared to face the consequences of their action.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)

I, too, agree with my right hon. Friend, and appreciate especially his careful assurances that there will be no hasty deployment. However, he will be aware that some people will probably put him under pressure to ensure that deployment takes place rather more quickly than those who give him military advice might like, on the ground that every day or week of delay means that thousands of people are dying. Will he assure the House that, whatever the date of deployment, we shall not embark on the exercise unless we have the full and wholehearted co-operation of the United States forces' logistic command?

Mr. Portillo

I thank my right hon. Friend warmly for his support. It is, of course, of great importance to me and to the success of the mission that the United States is fully involved. It is involved as a participant country, but I want to make it clear that the Canadians accept that strong United States support for their headquarters and command elements will be necessary for the mission to be a success. We have the assurance of the United States' involvement, which also distinguishes this operation from Bosnia in the days of the United Nations' UNPROFOR mission.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

I think most of us would endorse the action taken so far, but does the Secretary of State accept, first, that the way in which the discussions have taken place at the United Nations and elsewhere proves once again the need for a long-term strategy to reform the way in which the UN deals with such crises? It is no good having to go through this process every time something happens; there needs to be continual earmarking and planning so that we can move more quickly, rather than having to delay while people are suffering or starving.

Secondly, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there might be a problem in trying to feed the millions of people affected by this conflict while at the same time attempting to move them from where they are now back to Rwanda and Burundi? In those circumstances, is he considering air drops or other means of getting the food through, rather than waiting for the militias to be disarmed to enable the food to be got through?

Mr. Portillo

We shall consider any measure that will help to get food to the starving people, but we must be guided by the agencies, United Nations and civilian, that will have the task of supplying the food. Air dropping into an area with a large number of people in an insalubrious camp could cause a riot and deaths. One has to be extremely careful when planning such operations. We shall do whatever seems best in the circumstances.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's comments on the workings of the United Nations from an idealistic point of view, but, because the operations are so complicated, they are bound to rest on the leading nations of the world. Those nations are bound to want command and control to be under a recognised nation with the capability to carry it out.

It pains me to say so, but, for the time being, the United States is clearly not willing to put its troops under United Nations command. It is willing for them to be put under United States command or under the command of a friendly nation with which it can participate fully, giving it a good say in the rules of engagement and the command and control procedures.

Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

Looking to the future, what conversations has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had with his counterparts in southern Africa? It will be for those countries and their neighbours to take over part of the burden. In particular, what conversations has he had on the cost of their taking over part of that burden? Those countries, unfortunately, are not blessed with a Consolidated Fund such as that which we can draw from.

Mr. Portillo

I have had no conversations with my opposite numbers, but there have been discussions between the military that have produced the results that I have mentioned. There has been an encouraging response from the countries of southern Africa.

As for the cost, the formula should be that those that can afford it should contribute. Some rich nations do not yet feature on the list of troop contributors. There are certain big names among them—we can all think of some. I very much hope that they will be major contributors, and will, in particular, help the African countries to participate and to follow on.

Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)

I welcome the Secretary of State's statement. I am sure that the whole House recognises the human tragedy being enacted in Zaire and Rwanda. Although this is a chapter 7 operation, I am concerned that the rules of engagement should be sufficiently robust to ensure that those of our troops that are committed can properly defend themselves, can properly get the aid through and can properly fulfil other functions, such as disarming some of the militias that are preventing local families from going back home. Will the Secretary of State give us an assurance on that?

Mr. Portillo

I would not allow British troops to go under rules of engagement that did not enable them to defend themselves sufficiently. The United States would also not allow its forces to go unless the rules of engagement were clear on that point.

The disarming of the militias is a matter not for the rules of engagement but for the objectives. As I have explained, thus far the United States has taken the clear view that the operation should be humanitarian only, and should not extend to the disarming of the militias. There is room for more debate on that, but that is the situation at the moment.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would not deploy British troops lightly, and I am confident that the Government are right in that difficult decision. Will he bear it in mind, however, that we are inviting our troops to leave home over the Christmas and new year period? Will he therefore ensure that there is adequate communication between the troops and their families over that period? That will be of great importance to their morale and to their families at a time of great overstretch.

Will my right hon. Friend also ensure that the civilian force that he employs all over the country—a force on which the troops will depend—has all the resources necessary now and in the future, beyond the Budget?

Mr. Portillo

On the last point, my hon. Friend will have to wait for the Budget. I remind him that I am committed to stability in the resourcing of our armed forces and I intend to keep my promises. I am particularly grateful for my hon. Friend's support, because I know how much he has thought about the problem and how much he understands the difficulties of such an operation. He has made some typically excellent points about the welfare of the armed forces, and they will receive my urgent attention.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Even as the Secretary of State responds to this appalling humanitarian crisis, will he look beyond that crisis, which was predictable and predicted, and take up again the proposal by the former Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary of State to the General Assembly, and again by Warren Christopher during his recent African tour? That proposal was for the creation of an African crisis force, trained, supplied and perhaps even financed by the world community, and ready to intervene at such times of crisis.

Mr. Portillo

I think that an excellent idea; it is the only long-term way forward. Indeed, I would have loved to think that this situation could be handled now by African forces. But it is the correct view of the United Nations that the complexity of what is being faced now is too much for most African forces at their present level of training. That can be improved in the future, and we must bend our efforts to achieving it.

Sir Jim Lester (Broxtowe)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, and that of the Prime Minister. Let us not forget the non-governmental organisations and the brave people working in them: Save the Children, Oxfam, Concern Worldwide, and CAFOD—the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development. They have been on the borders but have had to withdraw. Unlike in other desperate crises, they already have the food and medicine available, and as soon as they are given protection, they can move quickly back in to do the work which I am sure we would all want them to do. We can all remember the original Rwandan tragedy, and the fact that the United Nations was unable to operate then. That sowed the seeds of this disaster, which is worse than the original Rwandan one.

I greatly welcome this prompt and decisive action. Having seen our troops in action in other parts of the world, I take enormous pride in their professionalism and the speed with which they can move in and bring the stability that enables a humanitarian effort to work.

Mr. Portillo

The whole House will applaud what my hon. Friend has said. He is right to pay tribute not just to our armed forces but to the many brave people who work for the civilian agencies and who have done splendid work trying to save lives—at considerable risk to themselves. A great ordeal lies ahead of them; I know that they will want to rejoin those efforts when the troops arrive to make sure that food supplies get through.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

I am sure I speak for many when I express my concern about the tremendous need for speed to get the food there—1 million people are on the verge of death by starvation, so something must be done to take them food as quickly as possible.

If the Secretary of State intends to use British troops and others to carry out the forcible repatriation of refugees from Zaire to Rwanda and Burundi, that could give rise to enormous complications, and could bring the troops directly into conflict. That is clearly not the purpose of the mission.

Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman recognise the importance, during and after this tragedy, of examining the failure of the United Nations to deal with the Rwandan crisis; and of examining the constant support offered by a number of western Governments to the dictatorship in Zaire, which has helped to foment this desperate crisis?

Mr. Portillo

I am sure that there will be an opportunity for a post mortem on all these issues. I am not qualified to speak about them, but I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman's point about forcible repatriation. Yesterday's statement from Washington distinctly mentioned facilitating voluntary repatriation—an element of the statement with which I strongly associate myself.

Mr. John Townend (Bridlington)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that a number of Conservative Members are worried and have great reservations about this project? If the Hutu militia are not to be disarmed, does he agree that the chances of achieving our objectives are much less; and that, although we may save thousands of people from starving over the next four months, if we then leave and the militias are still armed, people will starve next year, too?

What proportion of the cost will be met by the British taxpayer? If the money is not to come from my right hon. Friend's budget, I would expect it to come out of the ODA budget, not the contingency fund.

Mr. Portillo

My hon. Friend says that he is worried and has reservations. There is not a person in the House who is not worried and who does not have reservations. If there is, there should not be; it is a worrying situation. One must have reservations about what we are getting into, but we are quite rightly being guided by the compelling case for getting assistance to the people who are about to starve. My hon. Friend again raises the question whether we should be disarming the militias. That needs to be considered very carefully, but it is not part of the mission that has yet been described to us by the Americans in their statement yesterday.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

I think that all of us in the House, and, indeed, outside it, will recognise the very forthright way in which the Secretary of State has addressed a very complex and grave situation. Will he expand slightly on the nature of the reconnaissance force that is being sent? How will it link back to the House, himself, the United Nations, Canada and all others involved? Will its reports be the ones that decide whether we deploy troops directly? That is obviously of concern to myself and other hon. Members who have raised the matter, who represent constituencies that have substantial numbers of personnel who might be involved.

Mr. Portillo

The reconnaissance force that we are sending might number about 40, so it is very small; but it is full of specialists who understand the needs of terrain, airfields, water supplies and sewerage, as well as those who can make assessments about the military position on the ground. I believe that they will take their own communications with them and communicate back to the permanent joint headquarters that was established earlier this year.

The force will be particularly useful not only in giving us general intelligence about the situation but in informing us about what sort of British deployment we would need to design, and what difficulties we might face. At this stage, I have altered the notice to move only of those elements at the centre of the joint rapid deployment force: 1 Para, 45 Commando and 5 Airborne headquarters.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford)

It is very easy for all of us in this House, in the comfort of these green Benches, to beat our breasts and talk about assisting people, and make ourselves feel better. Having served in Africa in 1979 and 1980, during the deployment to Zimbabwe, I should like to put a key point to my right hon. Friend.

When the troops get to that continent, they will find on the ground something considerably more difficult than has possibly been imagined by those sitting in Whitehall. I was quite close to the planning stage, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will take that up again with the chiefs of staff when he sees them. I recall most specifically—my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, sitting next to my right hon. Friend on the Front Bench, will also recall this—that most of the plans had to be redrawn completely when we arrived on the ground, given the nature of poor communications. Those communications were infinitely better than those that exist in Zaire.

Mr. Portillo

I very much respect the experience of my hon. and gallant Friend. Fortunately, the British armed forces have substantial experience of Africa, although relatively less of this region. We shall draw on what expertise we have.

I am afraid that, even when working within clear objectives, one quite often has to rewrite many of one's plans when one arrives in the place where the operations take place. I agree with my right hon. Friend, though, that it is particularly complicated in Africa. That has been taken into account. I really do not believe that anybody in Whitehall, whether in uniform or in a suit, is approaching the matter lightly with any misconceptions about the complexity of what we are involved in.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

I share the Secretary of State's sentiment that there is a compelling case for moving in such a way. May I press him a little further on command and control issues, especially given his comments on the Canadian lead role?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman's comments about the positive nature of the Canadians, but they are clearly lacking in the communications necessary to perform such a role. Does he envisage our forces providing any of that communications skill, and if so, how does he square that with his earlier stated position about ensuring that our battalions will be covered by a means of withdrawal that will totally protect the entire British force? Might not some of our forces be under withdrawal plans that are controlled by the Canadians or others?

Mr. Portillo

I repeat that I think that the Canadian headquarters would need to be supplemented by United States forces. I have not yet received any request to supplement the Canadian headquarters with British forces, but it is conceivable that that will happen. We will be involved in setting up our headquarters and communications. If we were asked to supply communications to another headquarters, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we would work in a multinational environment, and we would have the protection not only of the Canadian withdrawal plan but of the United States withdrawal plan. That emphasises the reasons to ensure that command and control across the whole operation is clear, and that the rules of engagement are common from one end of the operation to the other.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement to the House so early in the contingency planning for that dire humanitarian emergency. I also wish to express my appreciation of his prescience in the establishment of the permanent joint headquarters at Northwood for the contingency planning, but I must say that the insertion of British troops into tribal warfare in Francophone black Africa is something that we have never undertaken before.

Will my right hon. Friend consult the Belgians and the French who have experience in that theatre and who have found that their efforts of pacification have to be repeated time and again, because massacre and brutality, famine and bloodshed, have characterised central Africa for many a long year, and are likely to do so for some time ahead? We never involved ourselves in the civil wars in Mozambique, Angola, Ethiopia or Biafra.

Can my right hon. Friend assure me that Zaire will not become a precedent for Her Majesty's forces? If the Government decide, on the advice of the reconnaissance party, to send a humanitarian aid mission because it is deemed militarily to be feasible, my right hon. Friend will have my full support, but can he reassure me that, in those circumstances, the Government will make no further reductions in the defence budget?

Mr. Portillo

I cannot say anything more about the defence budget than I have already said. I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments about the permanent joint headquarters; the same is true, if I may say so, of the joint rapid deployment force. It is true that we are well positioned to make a rapid response to a crisis wherever it may occur in the world. We have been training people, both in headquarters and in units, so that they can leave the United Kingdom at short notice to undertake a task that they may not have known much about a few hours or days before.

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the dangers implicit in the mission, but I remind him that we have had recent successes in Rwanda and Angola. We have had British forces in those areas undertaking time-limited operations that were successes. That does not lead me to be complacent, but fortunately we have a wider base of knowledge than my hon. Friend implied.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central)

If the militia are not disarmed, what assurances can the Secretary of State give the House that our troops will not, in effect, be protecting those Hutu militia that have carried out the most awful genocide of 800,000 of their people? Would he care to comment on reports that one of our close allies, the French, have been involved in supplying those militia? Certainly somebody is.

Mr. Portillo

I certainly would not wish to comment on the second point. I have no basis for believing any such thing. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the situation will be complicated. That is why I said that it was worth giving careful thought to the issue, given its complexity. To go to feed people is one thing, and will be risky enough and manpower-intensive enough; but to go to take arms away from people who are determined to hold on to those arms is a different sort of military operation, with much greater risks for the forces involved. I do not have a closed mind on the issue, but the hon. Gentleman will understand why I am reluctant to leap at one go into a mission of such complexity and danger.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

As one who visited Zaire with the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) in 1990, I underline what he said about the total non-existence of political and other administration even then—and we know that the present position is even worse. Will the mission being sent to Zaire take some part in seeking to establish some order in terms of administration, including groups that will ensure fair and proper distribution of food aid, so that we do not see mothers with babies on their backs being beaten about as they scramble for food, and often not succeeding in getting any?

Mr. Portillo

Again, I am struck by my hon. Friend's experience of the area. He draws attention to important issues. We are taking on a humanitarian responsibility very far from home, but we do not have a responsibility for the government of the area. My opposite number, the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), urged me earlier not to allow mission drift, yet, in the course of these questions, I am being invited to drift into a subject far from humanitarian aid—the establishment of order across Zaire, which would be very difficult.

None the less, my hon. Friend is right to raise the question, because, if we are feeding people, we need to ensure that the aid is evenly distributed and that crime does not affect the process. Again, that will take much thinking through. We shall have to come back to the issue later.

Mr. Hugh Bayley (York)

To what extent have the Government had encouragement, or otherwise, for the mission from the Commonwealth states in east Africa, and from the Organisation of African Unity? May I take the Secretary of State back to what my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) said about the sources of supply of arms for the militia? If we as an international community do not stop those sources of supply, there is a terrible prospect that the mission, which I too support, will simply provide a four-month feeding break for the needy, only to be replaced when we have to withdraw by further atrocities.

Mr. Portillo

I remind the hon. Gentleman that, in my statement, I covered the United Nations Secretary-General's proposal for an international political initiative—an international conference by which the political causes of the conflict could be addressed. Such a conference would be bound to deal with the arming of the factions, the source of the arms and whether a disarmament programme could be put into effect.

As for support from African nations, I have nothing to add to the list that I read out earlier, but as I read it rather quickly, I shall mention the names again. The African countries in which we believe there is interest are South Africa, Senegal, Zimbabwe, Gambia, Tunisia, Kenya, Botswana, Ethiopia, Mali and Chad.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

Will my right hon. Friend accept my congratulations on the measured, thoughtful and thorough way in which he is proceeding? In view of the great danger, will he consider carefully one small pragmatic point—the possibility of providing armoured protected mobility for our troops?

Mr. Portillo

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's kind remarks. He leads me into something specific—the nature of the vehicles in which our troops will travel—but let me make a broader point. As we learned in Bosnia, to deploy small numbers of men, lightly armed, in what is known in the jargon as thin skins—thin-skinned vehicles—places them in danger. I am sure that our military planners will make a full assessment of the threat, and will ensure that the equipment with which the troops go—in terms of weaponry and vehicles, as well as clothing and helmets—is appropriate.

Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)

I support the humanitarian measures that my right hon. Friend proposed. I have no doubt that the British forces could deal with the Hutu militia—or any other militia—if that is what we decided to do; but surely the humanitarian measures are a palliative. We would seek to bind wounds that would reopen as soon as we had left.

Does my right hon. Friend believe that the position in Africa today is what the de-colonisers of 30 years ago had in mind, when they said that the ordinary people of Africa should be given control over their own destiny?

Mr. Portillo

I recognise the truth of what my hon. and gallant Friend says about the British forces. Obviously, they would be superior to any forces that they could encounter, but none the less, the risks that they face could be considerable. I have no illusions that any number of troops from western countries on the ground in any part of Africa will settle political issues. Political issues will have to be settled between Governments—nay, between tribes—being brought together in international forums. Those issues cannot be settled by our soldiers on the ground.