HL Deb 02 March 1999 vol 597 cc1567-76

4 p.m.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, with the leave of the House I will now repeat a Statement on Uganda which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.

"Madam Speaker, with permission I will make a Statement on the recent kidnappings in Uganda.

"I must first say to the House that these events occurred in a remote part of Uganda and we do not yet have official corroboration of the most recent developments. We will of course make further public statements as we receive confirmation, but the House will wish to hear what is known so far.

"Yesterday morning 14 tourists, including six British nationals, were abducted from Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in the Kisoro District of Uganda. In addition to the British nationals, those abducted included US, New Zealand, Canadian, Australian and Swiss nationals. Several others who were present at the time of the attack, including one British citizen, managed to avoid capture. Those who did so returned to Kampala last night, where they were all debriefed and offered support by the British High Commission.

"As soon as we learned of the abductions we were in immediate touch with the Ugandan authorities. Our High Commissioner told the Ugandan Foreign Minister that we expected every effort to be made to achieve the rapid and safe return of those abducted. He made clear that there should be no intervention which might put lives at risk. The Foreign Minister gave us that assurance, and undertook to keep us fully informed. Two members of the High Commission travelled to the area to liaise with the local authorities.

"This morning we received reports that some of the hostages had been killed, but that others had been rescued. I regret to inform the House that our present information is that four of the six British nationals were among those who were killed. The whole House will wish to join with me in expressing our deepest sympathies to their relatives and families.

"We are seeking urgent clarification from the Ugandan authorities of the circumstances in which these deaths took place. It is not yet clear whether the Ugandan military intervened directly, but if that is confirmed we will want an immediate explanation of how this happened despite the assurances we were given yesterday.

"From our interviews with those who escaped we believe that the abductors were a rebel group opposed to the present Government of Rwanda, and operating from over the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is the first such incident in Uganda, although last August the same rebel group seized a number of tourists, including one British dual national, who had strayed over the border into the Democratic Republic.

"Our travel advice for Uganda was last updated on 19th February. It warned: 'Rebels are periodically active in Uganda/Rwanda/Congo border areas around Kisoro District. Although the situation is currently peaceful, it can change quickly'. "Yesterday, in the light of these kidnaps, we revised our travel advice to warn against all travel to these border areas.

"My honourable friend the Minister of State for Africa has just returned from an extended trip to nine countries involved in the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In each of them he pressed the need for a negotiated settlement and underlined the willingness of the United Kingdom to do all we can, both in the European Union and the Security Council, to support such negotiations. This latest tragedy demonstrates the distressing human cost of that continuing conflict and the urgent need for a settlement."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.4 p.m.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place and I should like to associate these Benches with the Government's sense of shock and outrage at the tragic outcome of this unprovoked attack on British tourists in Uganda. Our first thoughts must go to the families of those involved who have been anxiously awaiting news about their loved ones. To the families of the victims we extend our deepest sympathy.

It seems that history has repeated itself as the tragedy in Yemen is now mirrored by events in Uganda. There still remains much uncertainty about the exact chain of events which led to these tragic deaths. I am sure that the Minister will agree that it is vital that this uncertainty is cleared up as soon as possible for the sake of all those involved.

Can the Minister give an assurance that when our High Commissioner saw the Ugandan Minister of State yesterday he made it clear that above all the Government sought a peaceful end to the hostage affair? I note what the Foreign Secretary has said in his Statement, but perhaps the noble Baroness the Minister could elaborate as to whether he stressed the importance of mediation and the importance of avoiding a rescue attempt which could be botched and which could cost the lives of innocent men and women. Were offers to mediate made and what co-operation was asked for or received from other western diplomatic posts? Can the Minister say how the French authorities, through their deputy ambassador, Anne Peltier, were apparently able to negotiate the release of all the French hostages and some Australians? Can the Minister confirm that a member of the High Commission staff, together with Ugandan officials and American colleagues, will be flying to the scene to ascertain exactly what happened and to establish the exact chain of events which led to the death of the tourists? Does the Minister agree that the reports that the British and American tourists were deliberately singled out for mistreatment by their captors are extremely disturbing?

I totally understand the position facing the Minister and the Government in terms of details available to the Government at this stage, but is the Minister in a position to be able to confirm these reports and can she shed light on what motivated the Hutu rebels in this way?

I am grateful to the Minister for outlining the Foreign Office's travel advice. Keith Betton of the Association of British Travel Agents has said that, while the Foreign Office advised people of the potential dangers, he felt that the advice was not clear and referred to armed robberies and hi-jackings rather than to abductions. Of course, although those who travel to dangerous places do so at their own risk, I am sure that the Minister would agree that they must be in no doubt from the Foreign Office's advice that the regions which they are visiting are potentially hazardous. However, given the recent kidnappings of foreigners which have ended in tragedy in Chechnya, Yemen and now Uganda, does the Minister feel it is timely to review the detail contained within, and indeed the quality of, the Foreign Office's travel advice?

This incident is a stark reminder of the wider theatre of bloodshed in the Great Lakes region of Africa. The conflict there is real and dangerous. Unchecked, it is raging on and threatens to engulf the entire region, denying all Africans who live there any hope of peace and prosperity. It is incumbent upon us to work with those governments who share our values in order to help them establish the rule of law and political systems which respect human rights, democratic values and liberty itself.

4.7 p.m.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, we on these Benches would like to echo the sympathy that is being expressed on all sides of the House to the relatives and families. I would also like to associate those feelings with my noble friend Baroness Williams of Crosby who would have taken this Statement if she could have done.

From the information available it seems to me that the advice given by the FCO was entirely in accordance with the situation that existed at that time. It is extremely difficult to provide information for all parts of Africa and it has been my experience in the past that the FCO has always given a judged and well valued opinion. It is extremely unfortunate that this area has now become unsafe due to the activities of this rebel group.

I hope very much that the Government will express their appreciation of those Ugandan soldiers who were killed in the rescue attempt. Sometimes it is too easy to lay the blame for the deaths of people who are taken hostage at the doors of those who would have rescued them. When we consider the nature of the rebels who took the hostages, it would be extremely unfortunate not to thank them for and recognise the sacrifice the Ugandan soldiers made in trying to rescue the hostages. It is obvious that mediation with this group of rebels is extremely difficult, as they have few political objectives. It seems that this was a well planned and co-ordinated attempt to kill people and to destroy property at the camp. I hope that the one thing this tragedy will have achieved will be to redouble the effort to restore peace to this extremely troubled region of Africa.

4.10 p.m.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Moynihan and Lord Redesdale, for their comments. I join with them in expressing sympathy to the families who are caught up in this appalling tragedy. The agony those families must be suffering is compounded by the uncertainty, alas, as to who has been so tragically killed. There is also much uncertainty as regards the exact circumstances in which these appalling events took place. It must be an agonising time for the families until we are able to bring a little more certainty to the position.

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, asked me about the way in which our High Commissioner had dealt with this issue with the Ugandan authorities. The High Commissioner stressed to the Ugandan authorities that every effort should be made to secure the rapid and safe return of the hostages. Alas, we have all too sadly in recent weeks had some unhappy experiences with British tourists being taken hostage. I assure your Lordships that our paramount concern in all these incidents is the safety of the British travellers who are caught up in these appalling events. That was made absolutely clear yesterday to the Ugandan authorities. I join with the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, in acknowledging that others have been killed in trying to secure the safe return of the hostages. I say to the noble Lord that we do not have the details of what exactly has happened. There may be a number of conflicting reports. It would be quite wrong for me at this Dispatch Box to make any authoritative statement on what has happened until we are absolutely clear about the details in this case.

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, asked about the position of the French. As I understand the position, no French hostages were taken. I believe that a deputy high commissioner from the French post was a tourist at the time. We shall have to get some details on that before I say anything more on the point. I hope that the noble Lord will bear with me until I am able to give him and indeed the House a fuller explanation. That also holds good for the reports that he, and I expect other noble Lords, have seen with regard to the singling out of United States and United Kingdom citizens. It is terribly important that we get some certainty on this. At the front of my mind—I am sure it is at the front of all noble Lords' minds—is the fact that British families are waiting for advice on what has happened. That advice must be accurate.

The noble Lord referred to the travel advice. The travel advice on Uganda was focused on different parts of Uganda. A clear section of the advice referred to the Kisoro district and mentioned the periodic activity of the rebels there. Up until these appalling events occurred, the position was peaceful. However, it was pointed out that this could change quickly. We constantly examine this travel advice. We shall continue to do so in respect of Uganda and indeed other areas which may be affected by this activity.

We held a useful seminar in the Foreign Office last week on the way in which the Foreign Office pulls together travel advice. As I say, that is done on a regular basis. We received some useful indications from members of the travel industry as regards what they would find helpful. We stressed to the travel industry and to those who travel abroad that travel advice is what it says it is; namely, it is advice. That is all we are able to give. There are no guarantees involved in giving advice. I believe that everyone who travels to this remote area does so because it is remote. That is part of its enchantment. There is wildlife to see there which in so many other parts of the world simply does not exist.

I agree strongly with what both the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, and the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, said about the absolute importance of focusing every effort—as my honourable friend the Minister of State has done during his recent trip to the area—to try to find a peaceful solution to the appalling conflict that is raging there around the border area and which is spilling over so tragically to involve totally innocent tourists.

4.16 p.m.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I rise to support the Minister in what she has said. I apologise for missing the Statement, which I have just read. I am sure the noble Baroness will agree that it is crucial that people realise that all the Foreign Office can ever do is to issue advice, as she has just said. This area has always been notoriously uncertain, shall we say? It forms the triangle between what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda.

I, too, express sympathy for the families involved. Having dealt with some of these situations in the past, I can well understand what they must be feeling. However, I urge the Minister—I believe she is inclined to do this—not to make any further announcements until we have some certainty about the situation. This will take time. I have travelled to that area, but not deep into the park, and I know how difficult the communications are. I am quite certain that Michael Cook, the High Commissioner, will do everything he can to resolve this matter as quickly as possible. However, we must be certain about what has happened.

Will the Minister and her colleagues make it quite clear to the British tourist authorities—whoever they are—that at no time can the Foreign Office do more than advise? It is quite wrong to try to hold—as I heard one commentator do—a high commissioner or any of his staff responsible because people entered this region. That is just simply not possible. If one travels to uncertain regions where we know there have been machete wielding Hutu rebels, one runs a risk. It is as simple and as short as that.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, for her support. If I may say so, it is all the more welcome because of her well recognised expertise and knowledge of this part of Africa. I thank her warmly for what she has said. The noble Baroness is right; it is wrong to rush into a judgment at the moment as regards what exactly has happened. For the sake of those who are personally involved and others who are connected with this appalling incident we must discover the truth of what has happened. That is difficult as it is an area where communications are problematic. It is some way from Kampala. The terrain is difficult, as I am sure the noble Baroness knows better than most. Two of our diplomats have travelled there as quickly as they can. I very much hope that they are in the area now. It will, of course, be their primary concern to establish exactly what has happened and to obtain for us the advice that we need to enable us to bring some certainty to those families who are suffering such an agony of uncertainty at the moment.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, I associate myself entirely with all the sentiments that have been expressed. Does the Minister agree that both diplomatic posts abroad and the consular department in London have a very difficult balance to draw between alarmism and complacency? In these situations it is extremely difficult to avoid retrospective criticism for having just got it wrong. Is the Minister aware that I recently had reason to visit Indonesia from Singapore the day after the United States Government had issued blanket advice not to visit Indonesia to all their citizens? I therefore asked the High Commission in Singapore for our travel advice and I was extremely impressed by the detailed care with which the travel advice had been drawn up, as a result of which I visited Indonesia.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for what he said. I do not want to concentrate too much on travel advice because a human tragedy is being acted out here. While it is important to discuss the role played by the Foreign Office in giving advice, it is of paramount importance at the moment to find out what has happened and to bring certainty to the situation. Of course, there is always a balance to be struck over travel advice—that came out very strongly in our seminar last week. Deaths of British tourists travelling abroad can occur in the safest countries. Sadly, as is well known, there was a death of a British subject on the Champs-Elysées only last year. Our advice is used as a model by many other countries, including France, which send officials to the Foreign Office to see the way in which we draw up our advice. I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Wright, and the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, that the advice has to be based on facts. It is no good saying afterwards that people should have known things when there was not factual evidence to adduce. Anything else would undermine the value of that advice and people would just dismiss it as too alarmist. We shall continue to work on it and we shall continue to look at the way in which we draw it up, whichever country is concerned. And, of course, at the moment, we shall continue to look at the advice on Uganda very carefully indeed.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, does the Minister agree that Uganda is generally peaceful and that tourism should not be unduly discouraged in other parts of the country? Uganda is in need of radio communications for outlying areas, and a programme of disarmament and a round table to discuss regional difficulties is an imperative.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we have had to advise against all travel to Uganda's border areas with Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There is evidence—we stated this in our advice before the appalling incidents of yesterday—of rebel attacks and road ambushes in the northern districts of Gulu, Kitgrum and the western Nile. Within the past few weeks we have seen some awful bomb attacks in Kampala. Anyone who is thinking of travelling to Uganda would be well advised not only to read the travel advice but to look at the further advice contact points which are mentioned in the travel advice. They should seek advice from the British High Commission if they are going to any of the difficult areas. Establishing proper contact within the country in some of the outlying areas is very important, but I would not wish anything I say at the moment to detract from the importance that we attach to people who are thinking of travelling to this part of the world to think very carefully indeed.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I support what the noble Baroness said. Admittedly, my knowledge of the country goes back some years when I had the responsibility on behalf of the United Kingdom Parliament of going there for some time and presenting a gold mace to its national assembly after independence. Is the noble Baroness aware that even in those days it was not a peaceful country? The parts of it which were less disturbed were, nevertheless, subject to tribal rivalries which caused a good deal of trouble then and have done more so since. In those days—and it is still so now—about a third of the country was impenetrable because of tropical forests. The noble Baroness is quite right in stressing the difficulties and potential dangers that there are in going there unless all the circumstances are borne in mind.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his support. He is quite right. This is not a peaceful part of the world, which is why my right honourable friend the Prime Minister asked my honourable friend Mr. Lloyd to go to the area and travel through the key countries involved in the conflict. Mr. Lloyd has just returned from an extensive tour of the region. He saw not only the key leaders of the countries concerned but also the secretary-general of the Organisation of African Unity. Mr. Lloyd underlined our commitment to a peaceful solution and our readiness to use whatever support we can through the UN, the OAU and the EU to help secure a negotiated settlement to this difficult conflict.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is not the presence of these rebels in that part of Zambia a product of the disorder in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Does the Minister agree that her honourable friend Mr. Tony Lloyd is to be congratulated on the arduous shuttle he has undertaken to the regional capitals in order to see what can be done to sort out the problem so that peace can be extended not only to the DRC but to the neighbouring countries affected by the conflict? Can she say whether her honourable friend achieved a result in terms of persuading neighbouring powers such as Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia not to participate in the fighting in the DRC, and whether during the short stop-over he had in Addis he spoke to the secretary general of the OAU and whether that organisation has any measures of conflict resolution which it could apply in this case?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, there are two threads to the noble Lord's points. I join with him in congratulating my honourable friend Mr. Lloyd on his tour through the area in order to do everything he can to help find a solution. The noble Lord asked what results my honourable friend has managed to secure. I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me for a degree of ignorance about this issue. I have spent the morning concentrating on the consular aspects and the difficulties which have been thrown up for the British families involved. My honourable friend has offered the good offices of Her Majesty's Government to both the OAU and, bilaterally, to the countries concerned. He has also offered to see what can be done through the EU to help resolve this appalling conflict. If there is anything more helpful I can say on the detail of those offers and how they were received, I shall write to the noble Lord.

The noble Lord said that these appalling incidents are the direct product of what has happened in the DRC. I feel a certain diffidence about confirming that there are any direct linkages. It is important that we establish why this has happened, who are the criminals who took these hostages and what were their motives. Speculating on this at the moment will not help the really dreadful position that the families, who need some certainty, are in.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, some of us on the Cross-Benches would like to be associated with the sympathies being extended to the families. As some one who was in Uganda in October, I should like also to commend the Foreign Office for the advice it gives. I should like particularly to commend the diplomats who went directly to the area. It does not always happen, but it did on this occasion. The noble Baroness said that she does not think she can answer the wider questions, and yet we are not confined to the question of tourism. Does she not agree that the aggression in this case was not directed against foreign tourists but against Uganda? It is only one of many events which have occurred—as the BBC is now reporting—arising from the terrorism of the Interahamwe Hutu guerrillas all along the Zaïre border. Ugandans are facing this situation all the time. Will the noble Baroness also extend sympathy to President Museveni and his government who are doing their utmost to contain this threat without breaching international law?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his comments and particularly those concerning the British diplomats involved. I am sure that they will leave no stone unturned in trying to discover exactly what happened. I agree with the noble Earl that this appalling business throws up the wider question of the roots of the conflict in that part of the world. I hope to give more detail to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. If I am able to do so I shall put a copy of my letter to him in the Library of the House.

The noble Earl made the assumption that this is action directed against Uganda. I merely remind him that there are reports, to which the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, referred, that some nationals were singled out in particular. That would seem to imply that there may be other forces at work here. We have a highly complex situation. We know that it has lasted for a number of years. There are many different countries involved and within them there are different groupings. I do not suppose that there is a single line of argument that can be drawn from all this. We shall certainly do our best to find out exactly what happened, and why, in order to bring certainties to the families. As the noble Earl indicated, we of course extend our sympathy to the Ugandans who, I am sure, are doing everything they can to help us find out why our tourists in the area were treated in such an abominable way.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, my noble friend has already spoken on behalf of the Cross-Benches. I am far too new on these Benches to be able to speak on their behalf although I suspect that I do and, indeed, on behalf of the whole House, in saying how enormously grateful we are to the noble Baroness for the very warm and sympathetic way she has handled this horrible question. We ask her to extend to the families of all the victims, if she can, our warm, loving thoughts and prayers at this horrible time.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I do not suppose there is anything that can compensate for the loss of a family member. If anything could, then I am sure that the kind words of the noble Baroness are of comfort to them.

Lord Rowallan

My Lords, does the Minister believe that we are now in the midst of a move by rebel terrorists to kidnapping whereas 10 years ago skyjacking was their usual tactic? Kidnapping now seems to be happening more and more all over the world. Can the Minister say whether it is a general trend and, if so, what the Foreign Office is doing about it?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I caution the House against rushing to any conclusion. The noble Lord is obviously summarising some of the more terrible incidents which have involved not only British tourists but others from the United States, Canada, New Zealand and many other countries. My right honourable friend suggested in another place today that the Foreign Office should now take forward the suggestion made some while ago that we look at the possibility of consultations with experts on the subject of kidnapping. It is a very worrying development. I suspect that there has always been a certain degree of kidnapping taking place in the world. But the motivation for such kidnapping, moving from perhaps the straightforward financial aspect to political motivation, which we have seen demonstrated in some recent instances, is a very worrying development. I do not wish to commit my right honourable friend except to say that I believe the points raised by the noble Lord are worthy of further consideration. If we feel that we need further expert advice I assure the noble Lord that we shall take the appropriate steps.

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