§ 3 p.m.
§ Lord Chesham rose to call attention to the relations between the United Kingdom and Sierra Leone; and to move for Papers.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am appreciative of the opportunity to have this debate in the House today. Eighteen months after the military coup of 1997 which saw the ousting and exile of Sierra Leone's democratically elected government and nine months after the restoration of President Kabbah to power, today's debate is a timely opportunity to examine the present situation in Sierra Leone.
Since independence in 1961 Sierra Leone's path to democracy has been beset by hurdles. The country's political landscape for the past 27 years has been marked by a series of coups and counter-coups. Africa watchers and human rights groups alike hoped that the election of President Kabbah in February 1996, in the first multi-party elections to be held in Sierra Leone for almost 30 years, would mark a turning point in the 1351 country's political history. Indeed, about 60 per cent. of the electorate voted in elections that international observers deemed to be largely free and fair.
However, Major General Johnny Koroma of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council deposed President Kabbah in a coup on 25th May 1997. In February 1998 the Nigerian-led West African Intervention Force, Ecomog, stormed Freetown and occupied it until President Kabbah's triumphant return on 10th March 1998.
The atrocities perpetrated by this military junta, both during and after its period of rule, are a matter of grim record. Not only did the AFRC suspend Sierra Leone's constitution, it also banned political parties, prohibited demonstrations and assumed extensive powers of detention without safeguards against arbitrary arrest and indefinite detention without trial or charge.
The Amnesty International annual report for 1998 makes horrifying reading. It says:
As the AFRC and RUF retreated from Freetown, they killed, raped and mutilated hundreds of civilians. Horrific abuses were carried out in the east and the north of the country … Some 250,000 Sierra Leonian refugees have arrived in neighbouring Guinea and Liberia since April 1998, many with amputated limbs, severe lacerations and suffering from disease, starvation and exhaustion after weeks in the Bush".
The report also makes clear the extent of the atrocities perpetrated and states:
Hundreds of suspected opponents of the military coup were arbitrarily detained. They included supporters of the ousted government, journalists, students and human rights activists. Most, if not all, were prisoners of conscience. Many were tortured or ill-treated. Dozens of extrajudicial executions of political opponents were reported … The arbitrary detention, torture and killing which characterised the period of rule by the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), joined by the armed opposition Revolutionary United Front (RUF), after it came to power in May 1997 continued unabated in 1998".
However, despite the subsequent restoration of the elected government in March of this year, the country remains in turbulence, racked by a conflict bordering on out-and-out civil war, as rebel forces of the Revolutionary United Front loyal to the junta clash with Ecomog-led forces and Kamajor armed militias loyal to the government. Only a week ago the West African Intervention Force, Ecomog, reported that it had been involved in fierce fighting against rebel soldiers in northern Sierra Leone. In the past two weeks the Kamajors have been deployed along one of the main roads leading to the capital, Freetown.
In August, Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary General, expressed concern about the civilians caught up in the continued fighting. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says that Sierra Leonians now make up Africa's biggest refugee population; 215,000 people are estimated to have fled Sierra Leone this year alone, mostly to Guinea and Liberia. The Foreign Secretary said that the Government will make it a priority of their diplomacy in Africa to build peace and prevent conflict since,
without peace, nothing else is possible".
Can the Minister say how that is being put into practice in Sierra Leone?
1352 There is international consensus that Sierra Leone needs to embark on a process of reconciliation following the damage done to the country after the months of butchery. That butchery is continuing today for many in Sierra Leone. Stability and security will only become a reality when the country is at peace with itself. However, the "judicial process" which has taken place in Sierra Leone following the reinstatement of President Kabbah continues to cause concern in the international community and among human rights groups.
In August the high court of Sierra Leone sentenced 16 civilians to death for their part in the military coup. One of those is a broadcaster who gave birth in prison a month before the sentence was passed; another is a former presenter with BBC Radio's Africa Service. Can the Minister update the House on the appeals process for those condemned? And what representations have the Government made to President Kabbah and his government to show clemency in the case of those civilians in the name of peace and reconciliation? It would be interesting to hear whether there has been any response to any such representations.
In October there was widespread international condemnation when 24 soldiers convicted of treason were executed without recourse to a formal appeals process. Will the Minister join the UN Secretary General in condemning those executions in Sierra Leone earlier this year? They are a clear breach of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.
I should now like to turn to the subject of aid. When the Department of International Development pledged £6.5 million to help resolve the conflict by supporting the disarmament and reintegration of ex-combatants, were there any conditions laid down? If so, have those conditions been met? I understand that this Government have committed over £20 million since March this year towards reconstruction and rehabilitation of Sierra Leone. If the government of Sierra Leone fail to ensure fair trials and a proper appeals process for all those accused of treason for their role in the junta, what action will the Government take if due legal process is not followed in further trials?
I should further like the Minister to say whether she agrees that such dispensing of rough justice will not help to bring Sierra Leone the peace and reconciliation that the country so desperately needs. As an aside, does the Minister now accept that it was a misjudgment on the part of this Government in May to seek to justify a breach of international law by describing President Kabbah's government as "the good guys"?
I had not intended to refer to the Sandline affair. However, reports in the press today of evidence given to the Intelligence and Security Committee yesterday that the Foreign Office was warned about the activities of Sandline by GCHQ impel me to ask the Minister for a comment. I beg to move for Papers.1353
§ 3.9 p.m.
§ Lord Avebury
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, most warmly on having the foresight to raise this question on the very day when the Select Committee in another place is completing the evidence-taking on the question of the role of the Foreign Office in the Sandline affair. The committee took evidence this morning from the Foreign Secretary and the Minister of State, Mr. Tony Lloyd, and the question that the noble Lord has just raised was put to the Foreign Secretary. The Foreign Secretary said that he had only just had notice of it, that he was looking into the report which was published in, I think, the Financial Times this morning, and that he would make an announcement on the findings later.
The extent to which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was aware of the conspiracy to breach Security Council Resolution 1132 and the Order in Council, which made it an offence to supply arms and other material into Sierra Leone during the period of the military junta has been examined by the Legg inquiry and by the Select Committee fairly exhaustively. I do not want to go into it in any detail in this debate, except in one or two respects.
First, it was clear that the Foreign Office had originally been alerted to the conspiracy to supply weapons immediately after the article appeared in the Global Mail, describing the deal between President Kabbah's representative, Mr. Spicer, and a businessman from Thailand by the name of Rakesh Saxena in Vancouver B.C. That report was sent by our post in Ottawa to the Foreign Office, which issued a press notice stating how the matter was to be dealt with by any of our posts in response to inquiries about the report.
It does not seem that Sir Thomas Legg dealt with that matter during his inquiry. It would be interesting to know why the matter was not within the current knowledge of officials in the FCO at a much later date than when the Sandline inquiry first surfaced. One would have thought that, having been alerted to Sandline's intention to supply 10 million dollars-worth of weapons during the period of the embargo—at the time of the Global Mail report, the Security Council resolution had not yet been passed—that report would have been drawn to the attention of those concerned when the renewed reports of Sandline's activities came to their notice on about 29th January when, according to the evidence given by Mr. Craig Murray to the Select Committee, he heard about the transaction direct from Colonel Spicer. At that stage, he immediately informed his superior. Action began at that point.
At the end of January, the African Department (Equatorial) was aware of the intention to supply arms illegally. I wonder why that was not connected with the reports that the FCO had received from Ottawa at a much earlier date, and deductions drawn therefrom.
It seems that our intelligence was not that good, although I find it hard to believe that Mr. Rupert Bowen, a former MI6 asset himself and an employee of Sandline at the material times, did not keep his former colleagues informed while involved in the Sandline operation. 1354 According to the Legg Report, only one of the numerous briefings by the security services referred to military operations against the junta and because that apparently referred to a plan for Sandline alone to mount an invasion from Liberia, without Nigerian participation, it was discounted by the FCO. Will the Government inquire into why the security services failed to alert the FCO about what was happening, not solely in regard to the sale of weapons, but also in regard to the impending invasion by the Nigerians on 6th February, contrary to Security Council Resolution 1132?
It was said, when the Sandline affair first blew up, that too much fuss was being made because the "good guys" had won, as the noble Lord reminded us. The Prime Minister described the concerns that were being expressed as "hoo ha". The Foreign Secretary, however, accepted then, and has done all along, that violation of a Security Council resolution was a serious matter. That applied not only to Sandline, but also to the Nigerians. No state or group of states is entitled to use military force across an international boundary, under the UN charter, except in pursuance of a decision by the Security Council under Article 42 of the charter, or in self-defence. Does the Minister agree that every time a state uses force, other than under one of those headings, the rule of international law is undermined, and others are encouraged to believe that they can engage in foreign military adventures with impunity?
Clearly, the military junta was unlawful, having usurped power from the democratically elected government of President Kabbah. However, it must be recognised that the democratic legitimacy of the Kabbah government was deeply flawed. Although, as the noble Lord reminded us, the government were given a clean bill of health from the international observers, about 150,000 voters were disenfranchised because they were living as exiles in neighbouring Guinea and Liberia. There was also an arbitrary adjustment of the totals polled in the election in four districts where the votes cast exceeded 100 per cent. of the recorded electorate. Although the opposition decided to overlook that in the interests of national unity, I hardly think it can be said that the elections in Sierra Leone were a model of democratic performance.
The noble Lord is also right that the military junta committed widespread and flagrant abuses of human rights while in office, as their forces have continued to do since they returned to the bush. I agree that the atrocities committed against civilians are utterly unspeakable. They include amputations, rape, disembowelling and beheading. Unfortunately, the militias of the state also commit acts of violence and extra-judicial executions. Although not on the same scale as the rebels', their crimes are viewed as particularly serious because they are supposed to be restoring law and order.
Restoration of the elected government did not bring peace and order to the country, but in expelling from power the combined forces of the AFRC and the rebel RUF, it triggered even more vicious fighting in many parts of the country. As the Foreign Secretary put it in his evidence to the Select Committee this morning, "The war is not over". Although it is reported daily that the 1355 forces of the RUF are suffering crushing military defeats, they seem to be no closer to throwing in the towel after eight months of bitter fighting.
One of the most appalling features of this conflict is the use of child soldiers. UNICEF's Director-General, Carol Bellamy, said at the beginning of October that recruitment of child soldiers was still continuing, despite the government's commitment to end the practice. UNICEF estimates that there are some 4,000 child soldiers at present involved in the conflict: 2,500 recruited by the RUF and the rest serving with the Kamajor militia. Other observers have put the number of children in the conflict at a far higher figure. Deputy Defence Minister, Sam Hinga Norman, cited "difficulties" in discharging teenage soldiers, including lack of resources and the fact that the fighting was continuing. What are we doing to press the Sierra Leone Government to discharge all child soldiers immediately and to cease recruitment of children? Could an appeal be addressed to the armed opposition to stop using children in their forces?
Rifts in the social fabric of the country, of which the struggle is evidence, have been intensified by some of the actions of the Kabbah government. Instead of promoting reconciliation, as urged by the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, and as promoted by the UN and Britain, the authorities have upgraded the ethnic Mende Kamajors, a paramilitary force that was supposed to have been disarmed under the Conakry Agreement into a "civil defence force", which is now the only indigenous armed force, pending the re-creation of the national army.
Trials and executions of people associated with the former regime have been continuing. As the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, reminded us, 24 soldiers were executed in public after a trial from which there was no right of appeal. On the same day, death sentences were imposed in the High Court on 11 civilians including a 75 year-old woman, Nancy Steele, on charges of treason. On 23rd October Corporal Foday Sankoh, leader of the RUF, was sentenced to death. Another 15 civilians were sentenced to death on 5th November. According to the AFP yesterday, the total number of people under sentence of death now in custody for treason and other charges is 43. Those include four journalists, four medical doctors, four university professors, four lawyers, a former member of parliament and a businessman. No date has been set for the appeals about which the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, asked. The judicial system is clogged up. Only last Friday, a further 22 civilians accused of collaborating with the former junta were charged in the magistrates' court in Freetown. They were accused on a number of counts ranging from treason to aiding and abetting and conspiracy to overthrow the Government of Sierra Leone by unlawful means.
Have we any idea how many more of the 1,200 people in Pademba Road Prison have still to be charged with serious offences arising out of the military interregnum? Cannot we suggest to President Kabbah that there should be a truth and reconciliation commission rather than hunting down and prosecuting 1356 everybody associated with the military regime? Should it not be remembered that some of the people in power today were involved in previous coups? In some neighbouring states, several governments came to power by military coups and are being run by the people who originally perpetrated them.
Journalism is becoming a dangerous profession in Sierra Leone. BBC corespondent, Winston Ojukutu-Macaulay, appeared in court last Thursday charged with publishing false news likely to cause public alarm in connection with his coverage of the armed struggle. It was reported yesterday that he had been granted bail and fined 3,750 dollars, apparently extrajudicially. Two other journalists were reported to be detained on similar charges: BBC correspondent Sylvester Rogers and Concord Times journalist, Sulaiman Momodu. Now it is said that only Mr. Rogers is in custody, and that Mr. Momodu is wanted and on the run. The Minister of Information, Dr. Julius Spencer, had already decreed that all copy about the fighting had to be submitted to the ECOMOG force commander for prior vetting. That seems to be the main reason why those journalists are being detained.
Macaulay's arrest was said to have been ordered by President Kabbah himself, following a report filed by the journalist on 8th December that 8,000 refugees, fleeing heavy fighting, were heading towards Freetown on the highway from the north. Sylvester Rogers was said to have been arrested because he reported that an ECOMOG soldier had been killed by rebels. Another BBC correspondent, Lance Fofie, went into hiding after being told that he too was being sought by the police. What are we doing to persuade the authorities to free the journalists who have been arrested and to ensure that freedom of expression is upheld in Sierra Leone?
Another aspect of the human rights scene in Sierra Leone was highlighted in a report published last month by the UNHCR. Women are severely disadvantaged, having inferior access to education, health, economic opportunities and social freedoms. Violence against women is endemic. Female genital mutilation is widely practised. According to the US State Department, 90 per cent. of the female population are victims of this horrible custom. What specific assistance can we give to the Sierra Leone Government and NGOs on raising the status of women and combatting FGM? I remind the House that according to the FIDH newsletter published recently, other states in the region including Guinea, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Côte d'Ivoire have been ready to adopt laws banning FGM. I imagine that Sierra Leone could do the same.
The UNHCR report reminded me that when the Home Office originally published its country assessments, it undertook to update them every six months. It is particularly important that that should be adhered to in a situation as rapidly changing as that in Sierra Leone. Yet the assessment of Sierra Leone on the Home Office website dates from January, before the restoration of President Kabbah. Can we have an assurance that that assessment will be updated in the near future?
Sierra Leone is a long way from peace and order and will need help for some time to come. In particular, it will need the external military help that only ECOMOG 1357 can provide, whatever the irregularity of ECOMOG's past actions. Yesterday, at an excellent briefing by the BBC World Service on the transition to democracy in Nigeria, Elizabeth Ohene said that when the elections have taken place there, it is unlikely that the new government will continue to sustain the major role in regional peace-keeping which the military have played, first in Liberia and now in Sierra Leone. It is all the more essential that Sierra Leone accelerates the formation and training of its own national army. A great deal of help will be needed from Britain and others if that is to be achieved. We should give that assistance, but we should seek assurances that the new force reflects the diversity of peoples in Sierra Leone and that soldiers are led and trained to operate within the law.
§ 3.25 p.m.
§ Viscount Waverley
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, should he applauded for giving us the opportunity to help encourage and boost international support for this difficult period in Sierra Leone's affairs. The debate underlines the fact that Britain has aspects of an effective foreign policy serving not only our national interest but allowing us to reinforce a caring and concerned relationship with friends.
The people of Sierra Leone are at a loss to understand why Britain's contribution, which they express with euphoria, is seen so negatively. Some say that our actions were the finest thing Britain has done for Sierra Leone since independence, with other observers noting that if there was so much criticism of our role, why has there been no UN resolution condemning Britain.
As is well known, the military junta inflicted on Sierra Leone eight months of horror in such a way that no civilised nation could idly sit back without being sickened and driven to action. The psychological, economic and humanitarian suffering of that period will require painstaking confidence-building to reintegrate that country.
I commend President Kabbah for bringing together, for example, different political groups into his cabinet—a move that other African states should be encouraged to emulate. The criticism that a high level of terror is being inflicted by paramilitary civil defence units and soldiers of ECOMOG is, I believe, wide of the mark. That said, any retaliatory action, even in limited form, must of course be condemned but understood in the context of the atrocities of the rebels. Any criticism reinforces the need for President Kabbah to create internal security arrangements with new armed forces and police units under effective civilian management and constitutional control.
On the positive side, President Kabbah is again to be commended, in my view, for ensuring that the trials process of the rebels has been deemed open, transparent and fair. I recognise that this Government do not condone capital punishment, and Tony Lloyd has taken every opportunity to express concern. It must be remembered, however, that that was the law throughout the colonial era. Sierra Leone should, on the other hand, be reminded that the Privy Council ruled that it is wrong to delay execution after conviction and has set five years 1358 as the limit after which there should be no execution. Executions should only be as soon as is reasonable after due process, including the exhausting of all lawful appeals.
There are a number of ongoing initiatives underlining the dual-track approach agreed at the ECOWAS conference in October which stated the desire,to combine the strengthening of ECOMOG with efforts at dialogue to achieve lasting peace and national reconciliation in Sierra Leone".That must be right.
I understand that there was a contact group meeting in London on 5th November. I should be grateful if the Minister could give some of the detail and tell us, for example, whether a follow-up meeting is anticipated. In addition to the contact group initiative, the RUF contacted the Commonwealth Secretariat on 25th September last to ask if it could help facilitate talks with the government. The secretariat, on behalf of the United Nations and the Organisation for African Unity, constituting the three moral guarantors of the 1996 Abidjan Peace Agreement, rightly responded with three clear conditions: first, that there would have to be a clear statement from the RUF on recognition of the legitimacy of the elected government; secondly, that there should be an immediate, unconditional and indefinite cessation of hostilities; and, thirdly, that there should be a willingness on the part of the RUF to enter talks to end the fighting. Although some dialogue ensued, no statement, one regrets to say, has been forthcoming—in other words, little substance to a commitment to engage in serious talks.
It is conceivable that the RUF cannot agree internally or believes that it has a chance on the battlefield to beat the government. A condition of the RUF is that its leader, Foday Sankoh, who has been tried and sentenced and who has an appeal pending, should be flown to a neutral country for negotiations. But here is the quandary. No one wishes to be taken for a ride or to be seen to interfere with the judicial process. What guarantee is there even that the RUF would enter into serious talks if release was granted? The RUF offer amounts to conditionality, which, on the face of it, should be taken as unacceptable but maybe, as there is no tried and tested formula for success in negotiations—flexibility being key—compromise will be necessary to achieve a lasting peace.
In my mind, there are five key areas where Britain can contribute further in a practical way. First, it is considered essential that ECOMOG forces are strengthened by an additional 5,000 to a total of 15,000 servicemen on the ground. I understand that there is a sense of urgency about additional deployments which, ideally, should be completed by the end of this year. There is also a concern about the newly-elected democratic government in Nigeria. For example, should the latter decide—and this point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury—principally through addressing public opinion, to scale down their participation from their current levels of 90 per cent. of manpower, how will the shortfall be met? This will put ECOMOG in a difficult position. What is the United Kingdom able to do to help in this regard?
1359 Secondly, Sierra Leone is to be removed from CMAG's remit because a democratically-elected government has been restored and is not in violation of the Harare principles. Technically speaking that is right, but in reality the situation on the ground is not normal. Will the Minister undertake to keep the situation under close observation and not consider Sierra Leone as off the list, because the situation is far from normal?
Thirdly, while recognising that Her Majesty's Government have no influence with the RUF, they, together with the United States, should make it abundantly clear that, in the unlikely event of fighting reaching Freetown, the RUF would be subjected to severe sanctions. That would certainly help to concentrate minds.
Fourthly, there is continuing concern about the RUF having received training and weapons in the past from Liberia. The confusion in Liberia exacerbates the situation. The United States should use its best influence with Charles Taylor to ensure that the RUF receives no more training, and should generally help police the porous border. Fifthly, as I have already mentioned, President Kabbah has determined the need for recruitment and training for new democratically-controlled security forces—both police and army. That is fundamental. What can the Minister do to help in that regard, possibly in the area of training?
Finally, the economy must be giving great cause for concern with the government presumably needing to know where revenues are to come from for the exchequer. Can the Minister say what specific measures would help rebuild the economy?
The wish list of the Government of Sierra Leone, briefly stated, consists of a desperate need for crutches and artificial limbs together with programmes to reintegrate amputees—women and child soldiers—into society. There is also an immediate requirement for medical equipment, medical transport and beds; and, beyond medical supplies, educational infrastructure to include materials for programmes and teaching aids.
I conclude on an emotive issue to this country in the matter of High Commissioner Penfold and, by extension, his colleague in King Charles Street, Ann Grant. Clearly lessons have been learnt and new directions obtained. I believe that it is time to move on. As to the two officials, I believe that they acted with nothing other than integrity and in this country's and Sierra Leone's best interest.
§ 3.35 p.m.
§ Viscount Brentford
My Lords, I too, thank my noble friend Lord Chesham for introducing today's debate on Sierra Leone. I have never visited Sierra Leone as such, but I met refugees from that country at the beginning of this year when visiting refugee camps in that part of west Africa. Like other speakers, I had not intended to touch on the question of Sandline, but I should like to quote a recent statement from President Kabbah in which he said:It's sad that we are in the headlines now, not because the world cares about the terrible things that have happened here, but because of an internal political row in Britain".1360 Certainly, High Commissioner Penfold is the hero on the streets of Freetown, I am told. That stems from the impact of getting rid of the outrageous coup forces. However, even now, peace is only guaranteed for 25 miles around Freetown. I reiterate what the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, said about Liberia. I am told that allegations have been made that Liberia is harbouring and supporting the rebels for political reasons. I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm whether or not that is so. If it is, can she say what steps the Government and the United States are taking to stop this work of the Liberian Government?
As we have heard, the coup junta was in power for only nine months. But the rebels are still active. In their mindless viciousness they maim and kill indiscriminately. We really need to appreciate the horror of what is still continuing up-country in Sierra Leone. I am told that the rebels have been pursued eastward but are still engaged in bitter fighting. Witnesses speak of the seemingly mindless viciousness they perpetrate. Fathers have their arms cut off for refusing to rape their daughters; and women and children are being herded into houses and then burned alive. People caught by the rebels are treated violently, and a particularly malevolent game of rebel roulette takes place in which the victims choose their own fate: to lose an eye, a limb or their life by selecting a piece of paper with the grisly option written on it. The extent of these atrocities is, as yet, known only to the protagonists and their victims. We are talking about a very serious situation in Sierra Leone.
As far as concerns the fighting, there is really no Sierra Leone army at present. There is the involvement of the Kamajors but, as the former army was very heavily involved in the coup, I understand that there is no real army at the moment. Indeed, there is just a weak police force. ECOMOG alone is keeping the peace. I endorse what has been said about rumours in Freetown suggesting that its presence there is to be reduced even though the fighting continues unabated. Can the Minister confirm that and, in particular, say what Nigeria's plans are in that respect? Do the Government have any prognosis for the cessation of fighting up-country in Sierra Leone? Should the UN, the Commonwealth and the Government be doing more to support ECOMOG? It is sad that hope is less high in Sierra Leone now than it was in April. That is a great pity.
The horrific injuries to people constitute a problem which will be a burden for a generation. It is not short-term. It is not like paying a sum of money for a year and then seeing the problem go away. A whole generation has been traumatised. My wife is the president of the Church Mission Society; it plans to build and resource a trauma counselling centre. A great deal of this type of work is needed in an area far wider than Freetown as soon as there is stability. Physical, mental and emotional needs are appalling and increasing as the rebels continue to operate. The Bishop of Freetown, Julius Lynch, says that,there is need for physical and spiritual healing: to house and feed people: to tend their wounds and support them in their grief. Reconciliation: reconciliation. What is it? What does it mean? A 1361 dictionary definition says that to reconcile means to become friendly again after a quarrel; to make yourself accept something unpleasant. Now that the junta has been ousted, this is what is demanded of us, reconciliation. We are called to reconcile with our killers, our looters, our rapists and their collaborators. We arc called to be friendly again after, what I can term, an unprovoked war".So many buildings have been destroyed or looted—to the extent of the electric wiring and plumbing being taken out—and tin roofs have been punctured. This is a major problem, not only because of the gaps made but because of the rain. The coastal area of Sierra Leone has 150 inches of rain a year; inland areas have 80 inches of rain a year. Sometimes we think we have a problem with rain here. We have only 30 inches of rain in a year, one-fifth that of the coastal area of Sierra Leone. If you have 30 or 40 big holes in your tin roof, you have a problem in the rainy season. The rain will soon complete the destruction of a property if it is not repaired. We have heard that the Government are providing funds to help. I would be grateful if the noble Baroness can update us on what help the Government are giving and what Sierra Leone is receiving for repairing and reconstructing buildings? Freetown is in poor shape, but up-country things are totally desperate.
I wish to ask a few questions about the future. What steps are being taken to train and provide resources for building up Sierra Leone's internal law-keeping forces? I have already mentioned that there is no army and only a weak police presence. There is a desperate need for help to rebuild the army. As I understand it, Sierra Leone had a good officer corps, but when the army had to expand it took on desperate troops and the whole army became vitiated. There is a need to re-establish the Sierra Leone army. I would be grateful if the noble Baroness can help us about what is planned in relation to that.
I wish to talk about business confidence. There is a tremendous lack of confidence—obviously because the war is continuing—but there is safety in the Freetown area. There is great need for encouragement and the building up of confidence so that business can be resumed and refugees encouraged to return. There has been a brain drain; so many of the best brains have been lost. There is a need to encourage those brains to come back.
Are the Government planning to help equip Sierra Leone for political, legal and administrative progress? We have heard in the debate about the many failings of the present Sierra Leone Government. Are they willing to accept help from us and other parts of the Commonwealth in order to establish their political position? Failures between parliament and government before the coup may have been a factor in bringing it about. Sierra Leone needs to build up its legal resources—questions have been asked about the appeal process this afternoon—its national and local administration.
There is an enormous need. Sierra Leone requires people who can help as much as money; it needs both. I hope that the noble Baroness can help on these points.
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ The Earl of Sandwich
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, very warmly for providing this timely opportunity. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for providing such an authoritative statement, as he always does, and has done consistently on this subject.
Anyone living in Sierra Leone who cared to study the British political scene in the first half of this year must have been amazed, after years of relative neglect of their country, at the amount of time apparently devoted to Sierra Leone by these two Houses of Parliament. The famous Starred Question—or perhaps, for the Government, ill-starred question—by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, tabled in February, and a simultaneous article in the Observer, started a war of words in the Commons which continued throughout the parliamentary Session, right up to the publication of the Legg Report.
What has been gained from this debate? I do not want to minimise the skills of the various advocates and witnesses involved, but I contend, after reading through most of the 164 pages of the report, that from Sierra Leone's point of view, we have achieved almost nothing. The report shows up the weakness of the human condition better than any of the scripts of "Yes, Minister". I say this despite the sympathy I, and the whole House, have felt for our own noble Baroness, Lady Symons, throughout this matter. It shows the frailty of administration and the desperate scramble of civil servants and Ministers, both protagonists and bit parts, to get to the front of stage. It is possible that we have learned a little humility from the conclusions of the Legg Report, but I doubt it. It has shown up politicians at their worst, like Shakespeare's "strutting players", attempting to speak their lines before they hurry off the stage in darkness and confusion.
The tragedy is not here in Westminster, it is in Sierra Leone, and yet somehow the plight of Sierra Leone has been overlooked or ignored. I am not denying that there is a political question as to whether or not we ignored a United Nations arms embargo—or, more pertinently, whether we even understood what a United Nations embargo or an Order in Council was about and to whom it applied. As far as concerns Sierra Leone, we ignored at least half of it, and our High Commissioner became a hero, as has been said by the noble Viscount. This is the reality. It is shameful that, in washing our hands of the embargo, we had to let down our representative, who was working alone, in the best tradition of the FCO, in what he believed was our interest. I hope that the Minister can say something personal about the honour which has been denied to him here, even if not in West Africa.
More to the point, whatever we did not do for Sierra Leone then, what are we doing now? That is the real subject of this debate. Peace is still the overriding objective. It does not seem to me—but I hope that the Minister will correct me—that we are taking the fullest advantage of the Commonwealth in finding a peaceful solution to Sierra Leone's problems.
1363 I would hope that after the brouhaha some new initiatives might now be expected from a chastened FCO. The Legg Report (paragraphs 9.8 to 12 on page 84) reveals the somewhat casual social conversations at the Edinburgh Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in October 1997 between senior Ministers and Mr. Kabbah. The results look rather lukewarm. At least Britain and three other countries are supporting a small Commonwealth taskforce of police officers to help reorganise the Sierra Leone police. I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, on that matter and on the strengthening of the Sierra Leone army. I know that the Commonwealth has pledged its support to reconstruction, but it would be helpful to know what progress has been made both with this and with peace-keeping since last summer when the United Nations resolved to send an observer mission. If the UN and the Commonwealth together are unable to bring greater stability to Sierra Leone, one wonders whether they are able to bring peace anywhere.
Nigeria has played a valuable peace-keeping role and that must be acknowledged despite our diplomatic difficulties. The Nigerians should not be left in isolation with perhaps 10 per cent. Guineans and others. It may be that Commonwealth troops from Ghana and other countries could continue to back up Nigeria, though I appreciate the difficulty of strengthening ECOMOG until some form of democracy is, as everyone hopes, restored in Nigeria next May.
Since President Kabbah was restored last March, the people of Sierra Leone have been waiting for peace and the rehabilitation of their country after the trail of destruction, vandalism and looting left by the previous junta. Sadly, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and others have said, the news is not good. Outside Freetown there is still a climate of fear and insecurity. There are regular attacks by RUF and AFRC groups on ECOMOG soldiers and civilian targets on the roads. Authority in some areas is only maintained with the help of the Karamajors and other traditional fighters and armed gangs. Kidnapping, murder and atrocities such as mutilation of innocent villagers are still a daily threat not far from the capital. The effect of interminable civil war on the economy and on the people's morale is almost at the level it was before.
Yet there are many areas, inside and outside the capital, where aid programmes can have an effect. We must look positively at the situation in Sierra Leone because it is so easy to be depressed by it. Parts of Freetown are being rebuilt, its institutions restored, with the help of international agencies including the EU's ECHO programme, which has been a constant source of support through previous governments and, more recently, through the DfID. A lot has already been achieved in emergency assistance, rehabilitation, capacity-building and mediation, much of it through the non-governmental organisations and the Churches. Oxfam, Care International, Action Aid and Christian Aid are among the active agencies involved.
Seeds and tools are being distributed in many parts of the country and displaced people are returning even to areas like Moyamba which were formerly the site of 1364 fighting. This is reconstruction in action and it can be seen, and is being seen, by our own voluntary organisations and others. The Christian Council of Sierra Leone, which has 14 member Churches and 28 affiliates, has been active and successful in promoting a national dialogue through the setting up of public meetings, radio programmes and direct discussions with the president on the nature of good governance and advocacy. This approach has already yielded tangible results such as the adoption by the police in Freetown of a code of conduct.
In a small country, once a lasting peace is secured and guaranteed, it need not take long to restore confidence. The seeds of that confidence are there. But a lot, of course, depends, as others have pointed out, on the ability of President Kabbah's government to renounce their appalling present policy of executing their enemies without the due process of law, to give their opponents a fair trial, to extend the amnesty and to reach a genuine settlement with the various rebels.
Sierra Leone is undervalued by any international yardstick. It is listed as the very poorest country in the world in the UNDP human rights index. In the charts of highly indebted countries, it has one of the highest debt-to-export ratios. We know that it is not exporting anything like enough to pay off the interest on the debt, let alone the debt itself. On any scale its people are among the most deserving of development assistance. It is a potentially wealthy country to which we have a historic obligation and which holds our own culture in high regard. That is very important in the work we are doing overseas. We cannot blame its people for difficulties which were only postponed while we were the colonial power. In many cases, they are endemic difficulties. We must not shrug off an African responsibility because of our own problems or on the fashionable grounds of finding regional African solutions. It is, furthermore, a restored "democracy"—democracy in inverted commas, I admit—in which we have invested a good deal of misdirected political energy in the past year. In my view we should concentrate our resources on solving its current economic problems and give it the highest priority for our humanitarian assistance.
§ 3.56 p.m.
§ Lord Steel of Aikwood
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, on introducing the debate. As one who spent 32 years in the other Chamber of this Parliament, perhaps I may say that one of the attractions of this Chamber is that it can find time to debate issues such as the problems of Sierra Leone which perhaps receive only fleeting attention in the other place. It has been a useful and worthwhile debate.
When the coup took place last year and there was the determined and successful effort to reverse it and reinstate the democratically elected government, one of the outcomes was the argument which led to the Legg Report and to the whole question of who said what to whom about the Sandline operation. I remember saying at the time—the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, rather doubted me—that one of the problems lay in the fact 1365 that the Security Council resolution was somewhat ambiguous and sweeping in its wording whereas the British Order in Council was absolutely specific and much more tightly drawn. That was only a suspicion from my own reading of the two texts but I was very interested to note subsequently that Mr. Penfold, our High Commissioner, in his evidence to the Select Committee in another place, reinforced my suspicion when he acknowledged that he was aware of the Security Council resolution but was not aware of the terms of our own Order in Council. I hope that lessons will be learnt from that.
The noble Lord, Lord Chesham, and my noble friend Lord Avebury raised questions about the precise role of our intelligence services in this matter. I understand that the Intelligence Committee in the other place is to take further evidence on that. I am in no doubt that, whether it be nods and winks or whatever, there must have been some involvement in and approval given to the Sandline operation. I very much agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, that to go on arguing about this is fairly pointless. Indeed, I very much welcome the speech made by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, who introduced a proper sense of perspective in pointing out that, while the rest of the world looked on in astonishment as we continued to argue about dancing on the point of a pin, the situation in Sierra Leone was not perhaps receiving the attention it should have received. I thought that his speech gave us a proper perspective.
I understand that since the restoration of the government—perhaps the noble Baroness can confirm this—around 200 million dollars of international aid has gone to Sierra Leone from the European Union, from the IMF, from ourselves and from the United States, and that it has greatly helped the economic situation in the country and has helped to stabilise prices. But the real crisis in Sierra Leone at the moment, as others have said, lies not with the economy but in the lack of peace, of law and order and of stability. The rebellion, sadly, continues. The official line from Freetown is that ECOMOG has the situation under control. Only yesterday General Maxwell Colby was reported as saying that the rebels will never enter Freetown because they do not have the ability to do so. While that may be the case, he is also reported as saying that ECOMOG needs more manpower and logistics to clear the rebels with minimum force. There have been reports from Reuters in the past few days of considerable battles with loss of life on both sides in the countryside outside Freetown. My information is that there are some doubts as to whether ECOMOG is able to contain the situation.
However, whatever the detailed rights and wrongs of this argument, there is no doubt at all that an unhappy rebellion is still continuing in the country. Peace and stability have not returned, even though the democratic government have returned. Therefore the question we all press the Foreign Office to answer is, what help can we give, and what help is being given by other outside agencies, to try to bring the country back to some kind of normality?
1366 As regards the conduct of trials by the present government, I share much of the anxiety expressed by my noble friend Lord Avebury and others about the extensive use of capital punishment. We may deplore this—I certainly deplore it—but, unhappily, capital punishment is still part of the law of the land there, as in so many other countries around the world, including the United States. It is important to recognise that at least in the country we are discussing, unlike some others in Africa, the due processes of law have been properly carried out. Dr. Banya, the Foreign Minister, telephoned my office yesterday. He sent me an extract from a letter of just two months ago which was addressed to the Attorney General and Minister of Justice of Sierra Leone. It was written by the president of the International Bar Association, Klaus Bohlhoff. We have to bear in mind that in the early days of the restoration of the government there was a constant public demand for retribution against the rebels. Indeed some people took the law into their own hands. It was the ECOMOG forces and the government who stopped the lawlessness there. The president of the International Bar Association states,I have been struck by the evident professionalism and determination by yourself, judges of Sierra Leone and the legal profession to conduct fair trials in the difficult and emotionally charged circumstances in which you find yourself at this point in the history of your country".I believe we can take some comfort from that, but I hope that we can speak with one voice in this House in making clear to President Kabbah and his government that they are in danger of losing much of the sympathy which they have had if they continue with the scale of executions which is threatened.
On the matter of press freedom, I understand that in the past few days military censorship has been introduced with regard to the reports of journalists. Any government can, of course, do that in times of war, but there is a clear difference—which I hope we would all accept—between censorship of war stories and persecution of individual journalists, such as my noble friend Lord Avebury outlined. I hope that we can speak forthrightly to the Government of Sierra Leone on that matter.
The important point is to see whether there are any means through the Commonwealth, the UN and through our own efforts to try to secure some new reconciliation of the kind which existed back in 1996 between the two forces which, sadly, did not last. Unhappily there are too many parts of Africa where there are conflicts of this kind still raging at the present time. We cannot assert that our Foreign Office should be able to solve all of them at a stroke. That is a totally unreasonable attitude. However, we need to devote more time and energy to trying to get at the source of these conflicts and getting the warring partners to meet together and to recognise that to continue to inflict suffering on the civilian population of their country is not a solution. In the end we should all use our external efforts to the best possible advantage to get them round the table and to come to some kind of political settlement which will enable that country to resume its normal life.
1367 I say in conclusion that Sierra Leone is one of the few countries in Africa which I have never visited. I have always wanted to do so, if for no other reason than that my late father-in-law was awarded the CBE for his services to forestry in the colonial period. I understand that his handiwork is there for all to see. However, I would hope to visit it in times of peace and the restoration of calm and prosperity in the country.
§ 4.5 p.m.
§ Lord Moynihan
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Chesham for securing today's debate on Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone's turbulent post-colonial political history—a history of mercenaries, of diamond dealers, of arms dealers, and of coups and counter-coups—has long meant that it is a country which generates news reports disproportionate to its size and 1998 has been no exception with the restoration of President Kabbah's legitimate government, ousted from power in May 1997 by a military coup masterminded by the AFRC (Armed Forces Revolutionary Council).
However, noble Lords are well aware that Sierra Leone has come to particular prominence this year. Many column inches were generated as a result of claims by the private military company, Sandline, that it had Foreign Office approval for a shipment of arms to assist in the restoration of President Kabbah in Sierra Leone—a shipment which in fact breached both the UN arms embargo and the Order in Council enshrining that embargo in UK law. The exact nature of the Foreign Office's relationship to President Kabbah's exiled government and the role played by the Foreign Office and its Ministers in that restoration were the subjects of especial scrutiny, as Africa watchers, human rights groups, journalists and parliamentarians alike struggled to fit the pieces together in the jigsaw that is the arms-to-Africa affair.
In the light of the Foreign Secretary's evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee this morning, I wish to return briefly to the Foreign Office's role in the arms-to-Africa affair. I shall do so in the context of the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich. Can the Minister confirm whether the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has received any representations from private military companies, including Sandline International, regarding the supply of arms to either Iran, Sudan or the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia?
First, however, and most important today, nine months after the restoration of President Kabbah, the situation in Sierra Leone—a country to which we have long-standing ties of friendship—bears some examination. The months since March of this year have seen repeated clashes between rebels of the AFRC and the Revolutionary United Front, who together embarked on a campaign they called "Operation No Living Thing", on one side, and the ECOMOG Nigerian-led West African peace-keeping groups and the Kamajor militia loyal to President Kabbah on the other.
There is seemingly no end to the cycle of violence and the trail of tears. Outside of the main cities, President Kabbah's control of the situation looks 1368 increasingly shaky. Last month there was a rebel attack on Pendembu. The victims of that attack, beheaded by machetes, were left as a grim message with which to challenge the government. Only days later there were reports of 50 people abducted and 16 murdered in the northern village of Kamporoto. Members of the Kamajor militia are now reported to be deployed along main roads leading to the capital, while it has been reported that Freetown is under its greatest threat since ECOMOG troops ousted the junta in February. I should be grateful if the Minister could give the House the benefit of any intelligence on the rebels' advance on Freetown and the safety of the capital.
Most recently there has been heavy fighting around the town of Masiaka with ECOMOG troops inflicting heavy casualties on the rebel forces. Thousands of civilians have once again been forced to flee this land of violence and fear. Some 215,000 have fled this year alone, mostly to Guinea and Liberia. There are now some 530,000 Sierra Leonean refugees in neighbouring countries and the UNHCR said that Sierra Leoneans make up Africa's biggest refugee problem.
During the months of the junta's rule, the people of Sierra Leone suffered appalling brutality, mutilations and systematic rape. The US, the European Union and the UNHCR all have evidence of the outrageous violations of human rights and grave breaches of international humanitarian law which took place. As my noble friend Lord Chesham mentioned, Amnesty International's 1998 annual report on Sierra Leone catalogues the evidence of widespread slaughter, rape and injury of civilians by rebel forces, including the many cases of limbs hacked off and facial mutilation with machetes.
But President Kabbah's return to power has not stopped the butchery. In eastern and northern Sierra Leone, the rebels of the RUF and the rump of the deposed military junta continue to visit unspeakable cruelty on the civilian population of Sierra Leone in an undeclared war of guerrilla tactics waged on the innocent.
The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, put his finger on the pulse. This is a war where children fight children. It was described by Anthony Bloomberg of UNICEF as "a quiet emergency". Young boys are used as fighting material by both sides. Abducted from their villages, sent into battle as soon as they are old enough to carry a gun, doped with a potent cocktail of drugs to make them "fearless", child soldiers are the most tragic and traumatised victims of the violence in Sierra Leone, all the more so because they are perpetrators of it. What priority are the Government giving to the demobilisation of the estimated 4,000 or more child soldiers, particularly in the light of the fact that although the Sierra Leone Government are committed to their disarmament, Defence Minister Hinga Norman has said that it cannot be done while the fighting continues?
From these Benches we welcomed the British Government's commitment of over £25 million to help the re-building and rehabilitation of Sierra Leone, including support for disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of former combatants; and for parliament, 1369 the judiciary and the media, in accordance with the Foreign Secretary's pledge to make it a priority of the Government's diplomacy in Africa to build peace and prevent conflict.
However, does the Minister consider that it is possible to realise the wholly commendable ambitions of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration when Sierra Leone is still in a state of virtual civil war; when there is still no cease-fire; when thousands of child soldiers have been forced into the fight; and when battles are still raging for control over the country's diamond producing areas? How far is reconciliation possible in these circumstances without a peace agreement?
Questions are also being asked in Sierra Leone about why it is taking ECOMOG so long to defeat the die-hard junta loyalists and their guerrilla allies in the interior, despite their repeated promises and deadlines. Does the Minister consider that that may be at least in part because the conventional ECOMOG troops are not trained to fight against guerrilla tactics? But if ECOMOG cannot contain the rebels, what other prescriptions does the Minister have for how peace can be achieved?
Will the Minister update the House on the progress of the United Nations Observer Mission in Sierra Leone, which was established to monitor the military and security situation in the country for an initial six-month period up until 13th January next year? Back in August, the UN Secretary-General reported his concern to the UN Security Council about civilians caught up in the continuing fighting in Sierra Leone and urged that every effort should be made to end the threat that they face.
In the light of the Government of Nigeria's ongoing transition to civilian democratic rule, what assessment have the Government made of the view that it will be extremely difficult for an elected government in Nigeria to justify the expense of maintaining ECOMOG troops in Sierra Leone given the unpopularity of financing the regional peace-keeping force among the deprived and impoverished Nigerian population?
Given that the UN Special Conference on Sierra Leone emphasised in particular the critical need to support ECOMOG's efforts in carrying out its peace-keeping role and ending rebel atrocities against innocent civilians and children, have the Government drawn up contingency plans with our partners—for example, in the European Union and the UN—should Nigeria reduce, if not withdraw, its level of participation in ECOMOG. Here is a fundamental point which is central to this debate.
Does the Minister agree that unless Nigeria is working, west Africa will not work? While Nigeria's political future hangs in the balance and there are 100 million poverty-stricken Nigerians not far from Sierra Leone's back doorstep, with the potential to destabilise the whole region, what assessment has the Minister made of the view that until Nigeria is working the chances are that Sierra Leone will not work either? I commend the comments made by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, on this important issue. Nigeria's role has been, and will continue to be, vitally important to the future of Sierra Leone.
1370 We are all agreed that what Sierra Leone needs above all is peace. Reconciliation, the lasting restoration of democracy and respect for human rights are vital commodities which are scarce in Sierra Leone at present. The country presently finds itself caught in a vicious circle. There can be no lasting peace without national reconciliation and, it seems, there can be no national reconciliation without lasting peace.
President Kabbah has certainly paid lip service to those needs, calling for national reconciliation at the UN Special Conference in July. Britain welcomed the return of Sierra Leone's democratically elected government and the concomitant rule of law. Yet the actions of that government, in particular with respect to the judicial process for those suspected of complicity in the coup, have caused concern, as in this House today, in the wider international community and have somewhat tarnished President Kabbah's apparent good intentions.
In October, 16 more civilians were found guilty of the same crime, 11 of whom were sentenced to death for allegedly collaborating with the military junta. In November, a further 15 civilians were convicted of treason and, likewise, sentenced to death. Will the Minister confirm that over 40 civilians have to date been sentenced to death in trials connected with the overthrow of President Kabbah? Furthermore, Justice Minister, Solomon Berewa, has said that a further 50 civilians await trial on similar charges. I should be grateful to hear whatever details the Minister has on the progress that has been made on the appeals lodged with the Court of Appeal for those civilians convicted of treason.
International calls for clemency, including those of the UN Secretary-General, were again ignored on 19th October, when 24 soldiers, sentenced to death for their involvement in last year's coup, were executed by firing squad. That decision was widely condemned, both by the international community—and this afternoon by the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley—and by human rights groups including Amnesty International, which released a statement saying that,the use of the death penalty will not contribute to the process of reconciliation",and the African Commission on Human and People's Rights, which called upon Sierra Leone to stop the executions.
The convicted soldiers had recourse to a Committee for the Prerogative of Mercy, but there was no formal appeals process. In other words, it was either mercy from President Kabbah himself, or death. President Kabbah chose not to show mercy. Given Sierra Leone's obligations under the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, which places an obligation on signatory governments to ensure fair trials for all those accused, in what ways are the Foreign Office's regrets at the executions and its concern at the lack of a proper appeals process for the military courts martial taking practical expression?
I return briefly to the Foreign Office's role in the restoration of President Kabbah—as did the noble Lord, Lord Avebury—not least because today the Foreign Secretary and his Minister of State came before the 1371 committee to give evidence on that very subject. It is of course the responsibility of Foreign Office Ministers to ensure that questions are answered. Amidst the conflicting stories and facts, the allegations and counter-allegations, some of which boil down to one individual's word against another's, the Select Committee has found one thing upon which both the High Commissioner to Sierra Leone, Mr. Penfold, and Colonel Tim Spicer of Sandline agree. Both are absolutely certain that the Foreign Office did not make it clear to either of them that the UN arms embargo and the Order in Council which enshrined it in UK law was comprehensive in its coverage and included the supply of arms to President Kabbah as well as to the ruling junta.
Given that the Foreign Affairs Committee has found that Mr. Penfold gave the illegal arms shipment a degree of approval on the basis that he believed that the UN sanctions applied only to the ruling military junta and not to President Kabbah's government in exile, presumably because the true position of the British Government had been well and truly obscured for him, whose duty does the Minister understand it is within the Foreign Office to keep ambassadors informed of issues of legality, such as the Order in Council in this case, and who should accept responsibility if those ambassadors and high commissioners are not kept fully informed?
In his evidence to the Select Committee, the Foreign Secretary stated that Mr. Penfold could have done more to inform himself about the extent of the UN arms embargo. Does the Minister believe that the same could equally be applied to Ministers in other aspects of the affair? The Foreign Secretary also said that Mr. Penfold should not have relied on the Foreign Office internal telegram 277 which briefly addressed the issue of the coverage of the UN arms embargo. Is it not a further incredible indictment of the state of communications in the Foreign Office if high commissioners cannot rely on the information contained in internal telegrams?
What is happening in Sierra Leone runs far deeper than parliamentary point-scoring. Bearing in mind the recent manner in which President Kabbah was restored to government and the British Government's role—whatever it might prove to have been—the reason it is so important is that its implications go to the heart of the future of Sierra Leone and the future of a region racked by tension and instability. Let us not forget that the real tragedy in Sierra Leone is the condition of the ordinary men, women and children of the country to whom we owe a moral and political debt, given our historical ties and the responsibility we have towards a member of the Commonwealth.
§ 4.21 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)
My Lords, I too welcome this debate and thank the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, for the opportunity to draw attention to the immense problems faced by the people of Sierra Leone, one of the poorest countries in the world—as the noble Earl, 1372 Lord Sandwich, reminded us—and to talk about ways in which the United Kingdom is helping Sierra Leone to tackle its problems.
The democratic elections held in March 1996 offered the people of Sierra Leone the chance to put behind them seven years of civil war. President Kabbah was elected. The elections were a demonstration of the commitment of the people of Sierra Leone to peace and democracy. They were held despite the efforts of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) to disrupt the electoral process through violence.
However, as the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, reminded us, on 25th May 1997 hopes for a better future were dashed by a military coup. The coup overthrew the democratically elected government. It was rightly condemned by Britain and the entire international community: the United Nations, the Commonwealth, the European Union, the Organisation of African Unity, the Economic Community of West African States and others.
The noble Lord, Lord Chesham, quoted from the Amnesty International report, which makes clear that the period of the military junta was characterised by widespread human rights abuses and atrocities, which many of your Lordships remarked on this afternoon. The rule of law collapsed. Hundreds of civilians were arbitrarily killed. The junta had nothing to offer the people of Sierra Leone but murder, violence, torture, rape and looting.
Furthermore, the junta was rejected by the people of Sierra Leone, who stood up for the principle of democracy. There was a widespread yearning for an end to the violence. Many thousands fled the country, and the vast majority of people in Sierra Leone refused to have any dealings with the junta.
Britain led the international efforts to restore the democratically elected government of President Kabbah. We led action in the United Nations; we supported the Economic Community of West African States' efforts to find a peaceful solution. That is why we warmly welcomed the restoration of the government chosen by the people of Sierra Leone in March this year. No one who supports democracy or who has witnessed the scale of atrocities committed by the junta could disagree.
The return of President Kabbah on 10th March was greeted with widespread popular relief. It was a justifiable source of pride for the people of Sierra Leone. It was also a source of pride for the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG). It can be argued that the end to that misery would not have been possible without its assistance.
The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked about the use of military force across boundaries in those circumstances. Her Majesty's Government attach great importance to the rule of law in international relations and the authority of the Security Council. While we welcomed the fact that the rule of the military junta had been brought to an end, we were unable wholeheartedly to endorse the ECOMOG action. We believe that any use of force must be based upon international law. But the fact is that President Kabbah's government faced then, and still faces, the massive task of rebuilding the 1373 country after the abuses of the junta. The democratic Government of Sierra Leone is publicly committed to re-establishing the rule of law, respect for human rights, the restoration of national institutions and, importantly, the strengthening of the civil administration, and also to offering the people of Sierra Leone lasting peace.
Of course, it is right to help the government of Sierra Leone in those tasks. It is right if we care about human rights and the rule of law. The noble Lord, Lord Chesham, was quite correct when he said that since the restoration of democracy in March, the Department for International Development has committed over £20 million for rehabilitation and reconstruction in Sierra Leone.
In answer to the specific point put by the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, that includes a DfID pledge of £6.5 million to support the Government of Sierra Leone's programme for disarmament, immobilisation and reintegration of 33,000 former soldiers. The programme is vital for rebuilding peace and for long-term reconciliation in Sierra Leone, as the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, implied. It demonstrates to the combatants that there is an alternative to violence; that they have an economic future if they have a peaceful future.
Britain is providing humanitarian assistance through non-governmental organisations for post-conflict relief and rehabilitation. Current support during this financial year is in the region of £2 million. That money provides direct support for agriculture, health and education. We shall also provide £6 million over three years for a funding programme for good governance in Sierra Leone. I assure the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, that the money will help to restore not only the key areas of civil society and parliament, but also the judiciary—a point to which he particularly drew our attention.
In answer to the point on aid put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, Her Majesty's Government will continue to remind the Government of Sierra Leone of the need for continuing evidence of their real commitment to human rights and the rule of law and respect for their international obligations, including during the current treason trial process of which I hope to say more in a moment.
We are also helping in other ways: for example, in the United Nations. We fully supported the creation of the United Nations observer mission in Sierra Leone in July. The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, particularly asked about it. It is a military/civilian observer peacekeeping mission and it also monitors human rights in a way that we hope helps the Sierra Leone Government to address their human rights obligations. Britain has provided seven of the 40 military observers for the current first phase. Those observers are playing an extremely important role.
We are also planning to help the Government of Sierra Leone to reform the army—a point that several noble Lords raised—to ensure that there is proper democratic control. A reformed army is central to preventing human rights abuses, sustaining democracy and building lasting peace and stability. It is essential to ensure stronger oversight of the military by democratic government and, of course, parliament.
1374 But we all recognise that Sierra Leone faces an uphill struggle. Progress cannot be achieved without a lasting peace. I believe that that point was made by virtually all noble Lords who spoke in this debate. Peace is elusive. Continuing violence in the country is a source of great concern, as many noble Lords pointed out. Since their removal from power in February remnants of the military junta have conducted a campaign of appalling atrocities against the civilian population. The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, was right to say that several thousand civilians have been brutally killed or mutilated by the rebels since February. Killings have occurred on an even greater scale than during the rule of the junta. The indiscriminate mutilation of men, women and children is particularly grotesque. There have been more than 4,000 cases of mutilation since February. I believe that the description given by the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, went to many of our hearts.
Her Majesty's Government condemn these atrocities in the strongest possible terms. We are also deeply concerned about the fate of children. Not only are children being killed and mutilated but several thousand have been separated from their families, due mainly to their forcible recruitment into rebel forces. The United Nations estimates that 4,000 child soldiers are still attached to the military forces. The majority of them—about 2,500—are forced to fight with the rebels and the rest are recruited by the civil defence force. In answer to the point put by the noble Lords, Lord Avebury and Lord Moynihan, Her Majesty's Government have expressed their concern on this matter to the Government of Sierra Leone. We shall continue strongly to urge the parties, including the rebels, to disarm and demobilise all children. We shall also continue to support the efforts of the United Nations in this regard. The successful reintegration of child soldiers into civil society will be a difficult and long-term process but it is one that we are determined to follow through.
The rebels are particularly active in the north and east of the country. Like many noble Lords, we are concerned about recent reports of attacks on villages and towns close to Freetown. The noble Lord, Lord Chesham, made particular reference to that. We understand, however, that the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) has regained control of these areas in the past week or two. We are monitoring the situation very closely. We believe that ECOMOG is in a position to safeguard and protect Freetown at the moment, but we shall be very vigilant and keep the position under review.
ECOMOG is helping the Government of Sierra Leone to combat rebel atrocities and to restore security throughout the country. Her Majesty's Government support these efforts. In addition, Nigeria has played a leading role, as the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, told the House. Nigeria is making real efforts and daily sacrifices in the interests of peace in Sierra Leone and stability in the region. We hope that other countries in the region will also be able to play a similar role by contributing troops to the ECOMOG force in Sierra Leone.
1375 It is vital to ensure that the rebels who commit these atrocities are starved of weapons. Therefore, the rigorous implementation of the UN arms embargo on Sierra Leone is essential. We shall play our part and we expect others to do the same. We welcome the Economic Community of West African States' small arms moratorium. Strict implementation will contribute to stability in the region.
Britain is also playing a leading role in supporting efforts to restore security. We gave £2 million to the United Nations trust fund for peacekeeping in Sierra Leone. Of that, £1.5 million has gone on direct logistical support to ECOMOG. We hope that others can continue to follow Britain's lead in providing much-needed logistical support for ECOMOG. As the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, said, Britain organised, hosted and chaired the first meeting of the international contact group on Sierra Leone on 5th November. That conference brought together key international organisations and donors and the Government of Sierra Leone. We are pleased that the meeting resulted in new pledges of financial support for peacekeeping in that country particularly from the Netherlands, Japan and France.
The meeting of the contact group marked an important step in broadening support for the Government of Sierra Leone among the international community. It was an important boost to international efforts to bring long-term peace and security to Sierra Leone. Britain will continue to draw to the attention of the international community the urgent needs of Sierra Leone in this way. In answer to the specific point raised in the debate, we hope that there will be a second contact group meeting early next year.
Diplomatic efforts are vital if long-term peace is to be achieved. The contact group meeting endorsed the dual approach of support for ECOMOG and the pursuit of a diplomatic solution. A proper reconciliation process is the key to long-term peace. We shall continue to encourage the Government of Sierra Leone along this path. Difficult decisions will need to be taken if real progress is to be made. A way to achieve lasting peace has been mapped out for the rebels. In answer to specific points raised by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, the Commonwealth Secretary-General has set out to the rebels clear terms for talks with the Government of Sierra Leone, including recognition by the RUF of the legitimacy and authority of the government; unconditional and indefinite cessation of all hostilities; and willingness to enter into talks to bring about an immediate end to the conflict. The United Kingdom Government fully support the efforts of the Commonwealth in this respect.
The noble Lord, Lord Chesham, also referred to the treason trials. Her Majesty's Government are following those trials very closely. We recognise that the junta overthrew a democratically elected government. There cannot be immunity for those who are responsible for committing atrocities. But the Government of Sierra Leone cannot be in any doubt about our very strong opposition to the death penalty. The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, drew attention to the execution of 24 1376 soldiers. Her Majesty's Government regret those executions. We hope that they will be the last. We believe that large-scale executions will not promote national security.
In answer to the specific point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, and by the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, my right honourable friend the Minister of State has intervened personally with President Kabbah to urge clemency for those who are sentenced to death. For civilian trials, President Kabbah has undertaken to consider our representations carefully once the appeals process is exhausted. I hope that that answers the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury.
International observers agree that fair trials have been conducted under difficult circumstances. However, we have concerns about the lack of a proper appeals process for military courts marshal. We have urged the Government of Sierra Leone to instigate such an appeals process. We shall continue to take every opportunity to remind them of their international obligations to provide fair trials for all concerned.
The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, referred to the arrest of journalists, in particular Winston Ojukutu-Macaulay and Sylvester Rogers. We have asked our High Commission to express to the Government of Sierra Leone our concerns about those arrests. We have asked the High Commission to point out that while we understand the effects of inaccurate reporting on the fighting we look to that government to see what can be done to ensure accuracy, for example by means of daily bulletins on the security situation. Mr. Rogers is unwell and has been transferred to a hospital in Freetown and Mr. Ojukutu-Macaulay has been released on bail.
The noble Lord also asked about the status of women. The DfID is providing funds for a number of non-governmental organisations that work in this field, particularly in the area of women's health. Recent examples include £227,000 to the Marie Stopes international programme for safe motherhood and community health and over £100,000 for the Campaign for Good Governance which is also very active, particularly on women's issues.
Several noble Lords asked about the reports in today's newspapers on Sandline and GCHQ. Sir Thomas Legg saw all of the intelligence reports and assessments on Sierra Leone during the period in question. I believe that this can be seen from paragraph 2.16 of the report by Sir Thomas Legg. He concluded that only one bore significantly on his investigation, and he addressed it in his report at paragraph 6.53. I believe that those questions were dealt with thoroughly in the Legg Report and have been dealt with thoroughly all over again by the FAC.
There was no cover up. There was no effort to mislead Parliament. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary accepted the findings of the Legg Report in a Statement to the House on 27th July. I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, in particular for his constructive summary of that point. Similarly, I extend my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood.
1377 The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked about the Home Office country assessment. I understand that that assessment is due early in the new year. The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, was concerned about the possibility of Nigeria pulling out and the situation in Sierra Leone degenerating as a result. The Nigerians have made clear that they cannot stay indefinitely in Sierra Leone. What we have said to the Nigerians is that they and the rest of ECOMOG should stay, with the support of the international community—I stress that—until a self-sustaining peace has been established in Sierra Leone. We are having those discussions with the Nigerians. I hope that that assures the noble Lord that the Government are engaged on that point.
Sierra Leone is facing many daunting challenges: the shocking atrocities, about which we have heard; being one of the poorest countries in the world; the grave humanitarian crisis; and the plight of child soldiers. But the people of Sierra Leone can also be justifiably proud. They have stood up for democracy. They overthrew a brutal military junta. The Government are doing their best to build a better future for their people. It is a fertile country rich in natural resources. Her Majesty's Government's policy is to support the people of Sierra Leone in their search for lasting peace, security and stability and democracy. We believe that it is right to do so. The rebels must now stop their violence and enter into the internationally supervised disarmament which is available to them. That and the path set out by the Commonwealth is the only way ahead for them.
It is important that Britain remains a friend to Sierra Leone. That does not mean giving anyone a blank cheque. It does not mean ignoring faults. It means continuing to remind the Government of Sierra Leone that we expect a continuing commitment to respect for human rights and international law. We shall also try to build on international support for Sierra Leone because it deserves stronger interest and support so that the people who have suffered so much in recent years can look forward to a better and more secure future.
§ 4.42 p.m.
§ Lord Chesham
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. It has been useful. I hope that it sends a message to Sierra Leone that we do care. Everyone has demonstrated that in their speeches. As the Minister mentioned, certain aspects need to have an eye kept on them—but we care. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, before we move to the Statement on competitiveness I should like to take the opportunity to remind the House that the Companion indicates that discussion on the Statement should be confined to brief comments and questions for clarification. Peers who speak at length do so at the expense of other noble Lords.