HL Deb 16 June 1993 vol 546 cc1560-4

2.41 p.m.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in view of the renewed political uncertainty in Guatemala, they will reconsider their decision to withdraw the British presence in Belize.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey)

My Lords, we have no plans to alter our decision gradually to reduce the British military presence in Belize. We are glad that constitutional rule has been restored in neighbouring Guatemala.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the decision to withdraw from Belize was based on the fact that President Serrano of Guatemala recognised Belize for the first time in a history of over 100 years? Since then he has escaped to Mexico or Panama and there have been three presidents in one week in Guatemala. Does not that indicate a degree of instability? In that volatile situation, should not the people of Belize—total population 180,000—have some protection from the possible invasion by Guatemala with a population of 9 million?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I understand the noble Lord's anxieties but I would refer him to the statement made by the Belizean Prime Minister, George Price, on 17th May, which in full—I can put it in the Library or send it to the noble Lord—expresses very clearly Belizean acceptance of our decision and the way in which it is being done. The Belizean Government have accepted our plans. George Price described them as inevitable. But we can take heart from the resolution of the crisis in Guatemala with the election of the former Human Rights Ombudsman, Ramiro de Leon Carpio, as president. That seems to us to be a very stabilising matter for Guatemala and will help relations between Guatemala and Belize.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House how easy it would be to send troops to support Belize if necessary; and would those troops be fully jungle trained, which I think would be necessary?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, it would depend entirely on when it would be necessary to send troops. We hope that it will not be. Certainly the 100 or so British troops who remain in Belize would be jungle trained and those who go there on rotation would have similar training. We plan to continue the programme of assistance to the Belize defence force. I do not believe that the changes that we announced last month in this House and in another place in any way lessen our support for Belize or our ability, should it be necessary, to take troops in there speedily. But I do not believe that it will necessarily be necessary.

Lord Bottomley

My Lords, is the Minister aware that recently a delegation from the United Kingdom branch of the CPA went to Belize and met representatives of the army? In view of the present disturbed situation in Guatemala, which is likely to continue, would it not be in the best interests of the United Kingdom for British troops to remain there?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I believe that stage has now passed. We recognise that there was the territorial dispute between Belize and Guatemala, but I believe that that will be brought to a full and final settlement in due course. I see no reason why the decision which we took should affect the continuing improvement of relations. I hope, too, that, though the military threat may be said to remain, the new government in Guatemala under the new president will honour the commitment to a peaceful settlement of differences. They show every sign of doing so at the present time.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that it is not just jungle training that is of great value to our troops but stability in that area? Any instability could accentuate the dangers from the drugs trade which travels up the isthmus into the United States and from there all over the world. We are making a very valuable contribution, but does this not show that we have already cut our forces too far? Could not the Government negotiate with the United States which has a great interest in stopping the drugs trade? Perhaps the United States could make a financial contribution or some other contribution so that we can remain and help steady and stabilise the area.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, with due respect to my noble friend, I do not see that there is a need to go back on our decision. We have the closest possible liaison with the United States Drug Enforcement Agency. We work with it not only on the mainland, through Belize and Guatemala; we also work with it on the Caribbean islands and in the north of South America itself. We shall continue to take every opportunity that we can to interdict drug traders and bring them before the law in co-operation with all the other powers working in the area.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that there are some on this side who warmly welcome the new constitutional president and the new hope that this will bring to the stability of the area? Is she further aware that if she had announced a different decision about Belize it might have been gravely misunderstood in Guatemala which has for so many years suffered a very disturbed and insecure situation?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

For once, my Lords, the noble Lord and I are in very great agreement on this matter. When the Belizean Prime Minister, George Price, was in London a week ago he met the Prime Minister, the Defence Secretary and my colleague in another place, Mr. Heathcoat-Amory. He was given reassurance of our continued support. He will get that. But it is not necessary to continue to garrison so many men in Belize in order that Belize has the support which it already has and which it will continue to have.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in the straitened circumstances in which the Ministry of Defence, and, for that matter, Her Majesty's Government generally, now find themselves, it really is important that we do not deploy our forces, as we do in Belize, except to those places where there is a significant United Kingdom interest, which, to say the least, is somewhat slender in Belize, despite the important and relevant points which have been made this afternoon? Will she therefore understand that the decision to withdraw, or at least to slim down, our garrison in Belize is to some of us very welcome?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. But I do ask your Lordships to remember that we are not abandoning Belize in any sense. We are making a sensible and fitting response to the changed circumstances that now exist.

Lord Annan

My Lords, does the noble Baroness realise that there is considerable support for the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne? At a time when we are running a deficit of £50 billion and our Army is desperately overstretched, should we not be grateful that we can withdraw troops from Belize knowing that under the Monroe Doctrine the United States would, if there was great trouble, no doubt intervene?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Annan. He is absolutely right in what he says. But we seek to continue to work closely with the United States, not only as regards defence issues, but also in the all-important drug enforcement area of which we spoke a little earlier.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Ennals, I was delighted to hear the Minister welcoming the presidential appointment of the former Human Rights Ombudsman in Guatemala to the presidency. Can she tell the House what plans the Government have for contact with the new regime there? Can she say how the UK Government might support the new president in his transparent aims to establish a stable democracy in Guatemala, particularly as regards an aid and development programme?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, perhaps I may first point out to the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, that Ramiro de Leon Carpio was elected and not appointed. That is very important as we go around trying to encourage democratic processes in the world. Secondly, given that he was elected only on 5th June it is a little early for me to describe any distinct plans to assist. Given that the political crisis seems to be finally resolved by constitutional means, we shall be able to look at what we can most appropriately do, but always remembering that in Guatemala it is for that government, together with its neighbours, to tackle its own problems and to be assisted by us in whatever small ways we can. As my noble friends said earlier, it is not an area of main concern for this country.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, in view of the contribution which British forces make to the economy of Belize, does the Minister agree that withdrawal will have serious effects on its economy? Can I have an assurance from the Minister that her ODA budget will provide some kind of compensation for that withdrawal? While we all welcome the election of the new president of Guatemala, does the Minister agree that that country has presidents who come and go and that the army is the element in Guatemala which will probably determine what direction that country takes?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I cannot speculate on what may or may not happen in future. I simply say to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, that there have been wildly varying estimates about the effect of the running down of the garrison in Belize. I do not believe that the effects will be as significant as they have been written up. We shall continue to take into account the economic impact of the changes when we consider the level of our bilateral aid to Belize.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, can the noble Baroness confirm that the withdrawal of our troops from Belize is supported by the United States Government?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, at this moment I cannot. I shall look into what the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, has asked and I shall write to him.