HL Deb 14 November 1996 vol 575 cc1032-43

3.33 p.m.

Earl Howe

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on Zaire which is being made in another place. The Statement is as follows:

"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 over 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 amongst 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 (the Interahamwe, who carried out the 1994 genocide in Rwanda) and 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 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 Rwanda says that all its troops which had been supporting the rebels have now withdrawn.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 10,000 to 20,000 per day. Over 800,000 refugees are reported to have left their camps, and a quarter of a million Zaireans have also left their homes.

"The United Nations 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. The Overseas Development Agency which has done an excellent job is in close contact with UN agencies and non-government organisations but, without help, the agencies will not be able to avert the impending crisis.

"On 9th November, the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for nations to plan for a multi-national force to protect humanitarian relief and promote refugee repatriation. Repatriation must feature in any lasting solution to the crisis. Because of the complexity and urgency of the task, the UN 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 USA, France, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Britain, amongst 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 US views on key points relating to the mission. First, there is a need to assess fully the threat before deploying and 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 nor 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 need to be made to support participation by African nations. But non-troop contributing countries who can afford it should help bear the costs.

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

"Sixthly, the US has made clear that it would wish its involvement to be around Goma airfield, in establishing an air bridge to the region, and to provide security along a 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. A senior British military planner is 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 like rules of engagement.

"No British forces will be sent unless the Government are satisfied that the objectives are clear and attainable; the prospects of handing on to a follow-on force are good; 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. Because we are a civilised nation.

"We can see people about to die in their thousands, and we are one of the few nations on earth who have the military capability to help at least some of them. We recognise our humanitarian obligations.

"We take pride in our permanent membership of the UN Security Council, but it carries with it clear obligations. 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 we should respond out of our deep concern for our fellow man, and with a sense of pride that Britain can make a difference."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.41 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Earl for repeating the Statement made in another place. It is a grave situation. The noble Earl is quite right in saying that, we could be facing a huge humanitarian tragedy". Therefore, in these circumstances we support generally the Government's view and we shall not do anything to oppose effective, humanitarian action on behalf of those who are suffering at present in this terrible crisis in Central Africa.

However, perhaps the noble Earl could elaborate on several questions which arise from the Statement. I understand that we are at an early stage and a detailed plan will come out shortly.

First, the White House statement specifically states that US troops in this operation will be under US command, that there will be a Canadian commander-in-chief of the operation, as I understand it, but, to quote the terms of the White House statement, US troops would remain at all times under US command". I put this point to the noble Earl. Would that be the case for British troops? If US troops are to be under US command, would British troops be under British command? If not, I do not see how we can reconcile our participation in this force with a different command structure being imposed by the United States. But, if so, what is the command and control structure to be? How can one negotiate a situation where a Canadian lead, presumably a commander-in-chief, has a US deputy force commander, as specified in the White House statement, and the US deputy force commander is the man who gives instructions to US troops? That is the first point.

Secondly—I do not wish to press the noble Earl too hard because I know it is a difficult and fluid situation—could the noble Earl comment on another point which was picked up in the White House statement? It states that, The force will not separate or disarm militants, conduct forced entry, or police operations in the camps", Nevertheless, it will have robust rules of engagement. If we are sending British troops into a difficult situation, I very much hope that the robust rules of engagement will prevail over any precondition that the United States Government might set on the intervention of the troops. As the noble Earl rightly said in the Statement, if British troops are sent into any situation, it is in all our interests that they should be able to protect themselves against whichever enemy comes from whichever side. In this case we do not know which enemy will come from which side.

Will the noble Earl also comment on the proposed duration of the project? In the fifth condition—it was a condition put by the White House on United States participation—the White House statement says: We envision the humanitarian mission to be of limited duration—about four months. We are discussing with other nations the need for a follow-on presence". As we have learnt on many occasions, it is vitally important that we have an exit strategy. It is no good sending in troops or forces unless one knows how one will get them out. I am not entirely clear that we, the White House or the Canadians, have an exit strategy. If the noble Earl could help us on that, I should be grateful.

The fourth condition in the White House statement says that, The costs of the mission will be borne by participating states". The Statement mentions a number of African states—Senegal, Zimbabwe, Gambia; I shall not repeat the list. How do we ensure that the cost of the operation is borne by states who already seem to be in dire poverty? Could the noble Earl enlighten us further on that?

When saying that we support the Government, I hope it is clear that we support the Government generally that any deployment of British troops must be with the consent of the countries in the region. I hope that the noble Earl will be able to reassure us that that is the case. The force must be a multinational operation. I am slightly unclear—perhaps other noble Lords are slightly unclear—about how an operation can be under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter and not be under the United Nations control: that it would not be a "blue-hatted operation", in the words of the Statement. Are we clear that the multinational force's objective must be to facilitate the distribution of humanitarian relief aid by the relief organisations, and not to disarm the combatants? If that is so, as I hope it is, then we must be prepared to think about the possible scenario that people will come at our troops from all sides, and the troops must be able to defend themselves.

This is, I believe, the third Statement that I have taken for the Opposition involving British troops going into danger and possibly risking their lives. I conclude by wishing them the best of luck and a safe return.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, the Statement is in two clearly different parts. The final part asks why Britain should be engaged so far away in unknown parts. The answer is: Because we are a civilised nation". It goes on to argue that people are about to die in their thousands and we are one of the few nations on earth with the military capability to help at least some of them.

I find the final part of the Statement irresistible. Of course it is right, and of course, although belated, the Government's decision to do their best is to be welcomed. I believe that as the terrible crisis proceeds, British people seeing the results on television will be of that opinion, too, and will not be content for the Government to stand aside.

I find the rest of the Statement thoroughly alarming. It is, I believe, a little more provisional and hypothetical than the Government's previous statements. The conditions laid down in this part of the Statement make the reality of British participation extremely hypothetical. I read that we have no troops on standby, for instance, although that would have been a natural thing to expect in view of earlier government statements. We are told that Washington insists on the need to assess fully the threat before deploying and to have the consent of the governments of the nations in the area. Which nations? And how have they reacted? We are not at all sure that that condition is fulfilled.

We are told that, the humanitarian mission should be of short duration". Yes. The Statement goes on: The exit strategy would be to transfer a more stable situation to other nations". The noble Earl read out a list of the other nations. I am bound to say that, although one or two of them have some military capability, it was not a very reassuring list of African countries which are to take the strain when the international work is over.

The Statement says that these principles provide a good starting point for us to develop a full plan. Again, that is hypothetical and not very reassuring.

The conditions the British insist upon are that: No British forces will be sent unless the Government are satisfied that the objectives are clear and obtainable not absolutely sure to me—and that, command and control is clear". The noble Lord, Lord Williams, dealt with that point. The command proposals are not clear at all and could easily lead to confusion.

In view of the latter part of the Statement, we have no alternative but to do our best. That is what my noble friends would want and that is what, I am sure, the British Government would want as this business proceeds. But the position is unclear. No one knows who is fighting whom. I do not think American satellites are able to distinguish between one fighting group and another in the forests of the area. We do not know what is going on. I am bound to say that although I sincerely welcome the principle that Britain should take part in this international effort, speaking as an old soldier I am truly worried and distressed by the lack of certainty in the military planning.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Williams and Lord Mayhew, for what they said. I understand entirely their disquiet—if I can put it that way—over the lack of certainty in the Statement that I have read out. They will understand, I am sure, that that lack of certainty is a reflection of a very fluid situation. It is also a reflection of some urgent consultations and planning which are moving extremely quickly by the hour. I am sure that at a later date it will be appropriate for the Government to issue a further Statement on what we plan to do as our contribution to the crisis.

It is too soon to define the precise nature of the tasks which the multinational force will be asked to perform and the contribution that British troops will make. We have sent a British team to the United Nations today to discuss the mission for the multinational force. As I indicated in the Statement, we are dispatching reconnaissance teams to the region tomorrow. Those initiatives and further planning in the UK will determine the precise nature of the force and our contribution.

We have to look at the situation on the ground. The messages we are receiving are confused. We need a clearer picture. In particular, we need a clearer picture of what the humanitarian aid operation will require and what the agencies need to do their work. I should stress that it is no part of our objective to be sucked into someone else's war. The imperative here is to save lives and to enable aid to be delivered. There is no shortage of equipment, food and supplies. The difficulty is getting those supplies to those who need them. The purpose of the multinational force is to create the conditions for aid to start being delivered again. That is our overriding aim.

It would also be right for me to stress that we are acutely conscious of the risks to our own troops. The multinational force is being deployed to bring humanitarian relief. We would expect all parties to respect that objective. However, we recognise that there is an extremely uncertain situation on the ground. The force will be mandated and equipped to defend itself appropriately. We have made clear that British troops will take part in the operation only if we are satisfied by the plan that emerges for the multinational force. We must have a clear mandate and a clear concept of operations. We must have achievable objectives and, to answer the noble Lord, Lord Williams, acceptable command and control arrangements. We shall also require a clear exit strategy. The detailed discussions on those issues are taking place today in New York, following which we should be able to take a final decision.

I come back to what the Statement says about the basis for a multinational force. It will be constituted under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which is the chapter that refers to peace enforcement as opposed to peacekeeping. There will of necessity have to be robust rules of engagement if our troops are to feel, and be, secure in the theatre.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, asked how long British troops might be deployed. As I indicated, our forces will not be deployed until there is a clear mission with achievable objectives and with a defined exit strategy. The length of the deployment remains to be determined but we would expect to hand over to a follow-on force after a relatively brief initial period, the objective being to create more stable conditions following which other troops could take the place of our own.

To answer the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, the exact size of the force will flow from the planning activities being undertaken today. It is clear to all that the size of the force in what may very well be appalling conditions in eastern Zaire must be sufficient to do the job and to ensure that the troops can defend themselves against any threat.

I believe that that covers the main points raised by noble Lords although clearly there will be other questions arising over the next few days. I should be more than happy to write to both noble Lords with any further information as it emerges.

4 p.m.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister can clarify a little further the point about Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter. There seems to be some inconsistency in insisting upon the force being humanitarian and speaking in terms of self-defence and Chapter 7, which, as the noble Earl will know, requires the United Nations to judge that the peace and stability of an area is threatened and to use armed force to enforce the peace. That is not precisely what this force seems to be designed to do. It will affect all kinds of things, such as the exit strategy mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, and—the other important point—the command and control arrangements. Can we therefore have a little more clarity about this matter of the force being mounted under Chapter 7 rather than under one of the other chapters of the United Nations Charter?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the noble Lord has put his finger on the essence of the difficulties. The situation in eastern Zaire is changing very rapidly. There is no consistent or reliable picture of the total number in need, nor of their current situation and condition. The UNHCR estimates that about 1 million refugees and displaced people may be in need of assistance. In North Kivu, Mugunga camp now has a population of around 400,000, to which the UNHCR still has limited access. But there are reports that those refugees are moving further west into Zaire. The situation in South Kivu is even more unclear. There are reports of around 300,000 refugees around Bukavu and a further 200,000 around Uvira. There may be others dispersing further west as well.

Against that backdrop and the backdrop of a number of warring factions in the area, it is impossible to say until we get there what the threat is likely to be to our forces. We must err on the side of caution; we must, as I indicated, send sufficient troops to do the job; and we must expect trouble. Given that the objective is to deliver aid, that in itself in normal circumstances would come under the heading of peace-keeping and humanitarian assistance. However, we cannot be certain that there will be no resistance on the ground. There may very well be such resistance and I believe that our troops should have appropriate rules of engagement to meet those circumstances should they arise.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, the Minister has not mentioned the role of the Zairean army and in particular the role of the dictator of Zaire, who, if I am not mistaken, is refusing to return during his convalescence. Can the Minister say something about the wider background in the country of Zaire itself and the role of the army?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the Zaireans have indicated their broad agreement to an operation of the kind that I described. However, it is clear that their grip on power in the eastern part of Zaire is tenuous, if indeed it exists at all. I do not believe that the Zaireans are in a position to guarantee us anything. However, I know that President Mobutu is engaged actively with a number of world leaders in an effort to ensure that the crisis can be addressed in rapid order. Obviously, it is unfortunate that President Mobutu has recently undergone an operation and is therefore not at the peak of physical fitness. But I understand that he is actively engaged in this matter and we shall continue with our own dialogue through the appropriate embassies and other agencies.

Lord Howell

My Lords, most noble Lords will express their appreciation of the way in which the Government are dealing with this matter and the proposals they have put before the House today. However, we are anxious that all the qualifications stated by the Minister, which clearly have to be dealt with, should be dealt with as a matter of the greatest urgency, for the reasons set out in the second part of the Statement; namely, the fact that thousands of people are dying. In a sense, it is regrettable that it has taken even such time to reach this situation. Can the Minister give any indication about the reconnaissance team and how long it might require before it can report back, enabling our forces to be present in Africa to deal with the tasks designed for them?

Secondly, I regard the issue of disarming combatants as a matter of major importance. We have to prevent troops being unnecessarily at risk. On the ground, however, it seems from what we can read that that will be almost inevitable. To protect our troops and the innocent people whom we are designing the operations to assist, it will be necessary to disarm the combatants. So, may we be assured that, if that proves to be the case, there will be no inhibitions so far as our troops are concerned?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. It is impossible for me to tell him precisely the timescale before troops go in, assuming that they do. The United Kingdom has the ability to deploy initial forces within 24 hours and, as I indicated, elements of the Joint Rapid Deployment Force are likely to be the troops that we choose to send in.

The assessment team will, I believe, be able to deliver a reasonable over-view of the situation on the ground within a matter of three or four days. I envisage that, if the United Nations further resolution emerges as we expect it to emerge, authorising sending a multinational force, and assuming that the plans now being drawn up in New York take concrete form in the way that we hope and expect, then the multinational force should be able to leave within six or seven days. But I stress that that is a very tentative estimate at this stage and it could turn out to be over-optimistic.

However, we must press on and I am sure the noble Lord will agree that the overriding aim, particularly in view of the alarming reports that we have received on the danger to civilians from starvation, is a worthy one.

Lord Elton

My Lords, does my noble friend recognise that the rather subdued mood in which the House received his Statement is due to the fact that it is under conflicting emotions at this moment? I think we are all extremely glad and would not wish it otherwise than that we should recognise our duties as members of NATO and, even more, as members of the human race. We could not possibly have stood aside.

Moreover, the situation is necessarily obscure, and a commitment, if it is to be made, has to be made at once for it to be effective; otherwise, it will arrive too late. So it is quite clear that it had to be made before the situation became clear and the provision for a reconnaissance force to be sent out in advance is entirely right and very reassuring. A decision will only be made in the light of that; but it will also be made in the light of the reservations expressed by the United States Government (to which, I understand, other members of the force subscribe) as to the non-intervention in order to disarm combatants or to secure control of the camps.

The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, rightly pointed out that Chapter 7 suggests that the force is there to do precisely that. I take it that it has been put there under Chapter 7 in case the force becomes trapped into a situation which develops into a war. That is something we are all anxious should not develop. Yet how, if the only intervention is to introduce food and medicine, is a more stable situation to be brought about? Will the presence of those resources attract large numbers of people to one place rather than several? If that is not the effect of the intervention in political terms, what is intended?

I understand from what my noble friend said that the absence of the president of the state is not as crucial as might have been thought because the state is not in control of the area in which we are interested. That again reflects on the exit plan. I wonder if I am alone in remembering the days of the League of Nations and the United Nations' mandates that were inherited from the League of Nations and whether, in order to bring this sorry and ghastly chapter to an end, we will have to go further in our duties as members of the human race—not on our own but through the United Nations—and establish some kind of civil authority with military backup in that area that actually works.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I can readily agree with a lot of what my noble friend said. As he will know, we are looking at a part of the world with a long history of ethnic tension between Zairean tribes and various groups who have traditionally fought each other. It is a complex situation aggravated by an influx of refugees from Rwanda and Burundi. The Tutsis have reacted to a campaign against them by Zaireans and Hutu refugees. It is not a situation that will be solved in a hurry. We must be conscious that there are acute risks; that once troops go in, there will be a continuing military requirement for a number of months. I trust that in relation to our own troops we are clear that the exit strategy must involve a rapid withdrawal, once a follow-on force has been assembled.

The mission of the United Nations Special Envoy to the region, Raymond Chrétien, is to try to defuse tensions. We wish him well in his task. I do not underestimate his difficulties. In the meantime, the difficulties of separating the warring factions and disarming the militia should not be underestimated. It may or may not be a task that our troops are called upon to perform; I do not know. At this stage the overriding objective is to facilitate the supply of aid and supplies and it will be a case of first things first.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, we are all glad that something is being done. But there is a great deal of anxiety as to what is being done and how it is being done. The Government advise us that this exercise is to be based on Chapter 7. There will be a multinational force led by one country with rules dictated by another. The force is not even going to wear the United Nations uniform. Furthermore, the operation of that force is designed to carry on providing aid to refugees and do nothing about the underlying problem that has been exacerbated over the past couple of years. Given that scenario, we have every justified reason for being cautious about accepting what the Government are putting in front of us.

Perhaps I can ask two specific questions. First, why will the force not be wearing the United Nations uniform? Secondly, does this unfolding fiasco help to change the Government's mind and attitude to there being a military committee of the United Nations that can do some forward planning and exert command and control in a sensible way over these exercises in the future?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I understand the caution of the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, in these circumstances. I have not tried to hide the uncertainties that exist. It is undeniably true that we are talking about a short-term solution to a problem with long-standing causes. However, a multinational force is an appropriate first response to the immediate humanitarian crisis in the region.

It cannot be a blue-helmeted force because there is no peace on the ground; there is no agreement between the warring factions to cease fighting. In those circumstances it has to be a multinational force under a United Nations mandate; a force that has the means at its disposal to meet not simply the humanitarian objective, but also be able to meet the military objective, if that emerges, of defending itself appropriately in the circumstances and ensuring that the mission is accomplished. However, the response we make to this situation will have to be co-ordinated closely with the humanitarian aid agencies. Once the mission is under way and the situation has stabilised, we would look to a follow-on force to take forward that work. It is far too soon to say how long this situation will take to resolve itself.

Lord St. John of Bletso

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that invariably in crises like these there are no short-term solutions to Africa's problems? Does he agree also that earlier this year there was an initiative by the Americans for an African 10,000-strong reaction force? One of the greatest inhibiting factors to the effectiveness of that force was the lack of training. Can the Minister comment on whether or not Her Majesty's Government have any proposals as to how to assist in the training of such an African reaction force?

At the start of the Statement the Minister commented that The current crisis was precipitated by Zaire's decision to withdraw citizenship from the Banyamulenge". Can he say what initiatives are being taken in order to try to ensure a political resolution to what clearly must be the long-term solution to this crisis?

Earl Howe

My Lords, to answer the last part of the question of the noble Lord, Lord St. John, first, I mentioned that the UN Special Envoy in the area is charged with the job of trying to bring the warring parties together to defuse tensions and to achieve a ceasefire; in other words, to achieve the conditions we would all like to see for a well-ordered humanitarian operation.

The African multinational force is still only a concept, though a useful one. But it remains to be seen which countries in Africa would wish to be a part of such an arrangement; who indeed could afford to be. While I take some encouragement from the fact that a number of African nations have indicated their willingness to take part in the immediate relief operation, it begs a number of questions as to which will be able to deliver real capability on the ground. We for our part believe that only the western nations can deliver the results in the first instance that we would all like to see. A multinational force has the capacity to deploy much more quickly than any UN-organised pan-African force, and that of course is important here, when time is of the essence.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, could the noble Earl tell us which units have been earmarked for this task and, in particular, in view of the nature of the task, what medical units have been earmarked?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I cannot yet tell the noble Lord which units will be deployed, but it is our intention that certain units from the Joint Rapid Deployment Force will be sent. I shall be able to give him more concrete information on that as our plans develop.

As regards medical care, I am quite clear that we shall have adequate medical facilities at our disposal and, of course, as the noble Lord will know, over the next few months we shall be withdrawing quite a number of troops from Bosnia. That will enable us to transfer a good part of the medical facilities from there to where we need them in Africa, should this mission take place.