HL Deb 08 May 2000 vol 612 cc1233-40

5.1 p.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on Sierra Leone which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"Over the past week RUF rebels have broken heir commitment to the Lomé Peace Agreement and returned to conflict. They have made a number of attacks on the UN forces and on demobilisation camps. At least four Kenyan members of the UN forces have been killed in action. Around 500 UN personnel have been detained, including one British IJN military observer.

"At the weekend the rebels appeared to be moving on Freetown. The situation in Freetown is tense. I spoke at midday to our High Commissioner there who reported that the police had been successful in arresting a number of rebel bands and seizing arms which they had been about to distribute.

"Tens of thousands of residents of Freetown loyal to President Kabbah have today marched on the residence of the rebel leader, Foday Sankoh, which they have surrounded. From about one o'clock this afternoon the sound of gunfire could be heard from that location. This development has serious implications for the security situation within Freetown and the future actions of rebel forces commanded by Foday Sankoh.

"Our first duty is to protect the lives of British citizens in Sierra Leone and others to whom we have consular responsibility. We believe that there are up to 500 British nationals in Sierra Leone, mostly in the Freetown area. There is a smaller number of European Union and Commonwealth nationals without diplomatic representation for whom we have consular responsibility.

"Our immediate advice to British residents in Freetown is to stay indoors. This afternoon the High Commission has activated its evacuation plan and is contacting British residents through the local warden network to give them the necessary instructions.

"In view of the limited commercial opportunities to leave Sierra Leone and the current insecurity, we have taken the precautionary measure to deploy a number of British military assets to West Africa.

"The forward elements of the current spearhead battalion, the 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment, arrived in Dakar, Senegal, over the weekend. The battalion is currently moving from Dakar to Freetown. In addition, HMS "Ocean" and support vessels, with 42 Commando and a number of helicopters, are moving towards the region and will be in Sierra Leone early next week. HMS "Illustrious" has been withdrawn from NATO exercises to be used if needed.

"These measures have been taken to ensure that we are best placed to respond quickly to safeguard the security of British nationals. Our forces will ensure the security of Sierra Leone's international airport. This is not only of immediate utility for the evacuation, but is also valuable in allowing the UN forces to continue to build up.

"The UN force is currently about 3,000 short of its mandated strength of over 11,000. We are urging the nations contributing to the UN force to expedite the additional numbers. I spoke last night to Madeleine Albright, and I welcome the US offer to consider a strategic airlift to fly in units from the Jordanian and Bangladeshi armies.

"I have also spoken to Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and offered further logistical support, such as vehicles, for the UN force. I pressed upon him that one of the immediate lessons of the past few days is that nations contributing forces to the UN must also contribute the equipment necessary to fulfil their mandate.

"My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has just spoken to President Obasanjo of Nigeria, the major regional state, to discuss what immediate assistance Nigeria can contribute to the UN forces.

"The responsibility for the current outbreak of violence lies squarely with the RUF rebels and their leader Forday Sankoh. A year ago he committed himself to a peace process which offered rehabilitation and retraining to his troops in exchange for demilitarisation. Considerable progress had been made on that process. UN forces had deployed across two-thirds of the country, almost half the armed groups had registered at demobilisation centres and a significant quantity of weapons had been surrendered. Work had begun on training a new defence force for the legitimate Government of Sierra Leone and on preparations for democratic elections next year. All that progress has been put at risk by the RUF reneging on the commitments that it made.

"One of the triggers of the current conflict appears to have been the attempt by the UN forces to enter the diamond-producing region which is held by the RUF and provides it with weapons and friends. This development underlines the importance of the international debate, in winch Britain has been a leading voice, for more transparent regulation of the trade in uncut diamonds. We should not allow diamonds to be sold for weapons or at the cost of lives.

"I want to make it clear to the House and to the people of Sierra Leone that Britain will not abandon its commitment to that country. Britain has done more than any other country outside the region to restore legitimate government in Sierra Leone. We are the largest national donor to the peace process. We hosted the international donors' conference earlier this year and we are in the lead in training the new army for the Government of Sierra Leone. We shall continue to take the lead at the UN and elsewhere to restore the peace process. We must not allow a few thousand rebels to prevent the end to violence and the peace in which to get on with their lives, for which the 3 million people of Sierra Leone desperately hunger".

My Lords, That concludes the Statement.

5.7 p.m.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement and updating the House on what is clearly a very serious situation. We welcome and support the sensible and appropriate measures that are being taken to prepare for any evacuation of British and other nationals. The force that has been assembled for this purpose—one-and-a-half, or perhaps two, battalions and five ships—appears to be quite a large one. I am mildly surprised that there are still 500 British nationals in Freetown and surrounding areas when everyone, including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, knows what a dangerous place it has become and how the rule of law has evaporated in many parts of that unhappy, and pathetically poor, country. But if that is what is necessary to get people out safely, it has our full support.

I should like to put a number of questions. First, can the Minister reassure the House that this large force is solely for evacuation and rescue? Can the noble Baroness elaborate on the words "further logistical support"? The House needs to be reassured that this is not the beginning of an entanglement, by a side door as it were, in the whole UN operation that is in difficulties. If evacuation is the purpose, could that be made absolutely clear? When does it begin? We gather that some military units have already been ashore for a day or two in Freetown. What is their aim beyond securing the airport? How long does the Minister think that it will all take?

On the broader scene, the UN operation was supposed to be a showpiece. People were saying that if we cannot get it right in Sierra Leone all hope is lost in Africa, and such words. We should now like to know where the UN operation is heading. At the moment the direction appears to be downwards. What line are Her Majesty's Government taking at the United Nations in support of pulling the operation together? At present, the operation looks in extremely bad shape.

Has the Minister a view, first, on the reports of huge illegal arms shipments going in through Burkina Faso to the rebels to the general chaos of the country? Secondly—my question relates to an issue raised many times by my noble friend on another crisis in Africa, Zimbabwe—has the Commonwealth a role? It is a Commonwealth country. It is part of the Commonwealth scene. I should like to believe that the Commonwealth has a positive role but I have heard nothing of that from the Government.

5.12 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. Perhaps I may also express our strong support for the very bold action taken by the Foreign Office to protect the interests and lives of British citizens and others in Sierra Leone for whom we have consular responsibility. I should be grateful if we could express the sympathy of the House for those UN peacekeepers who have lost their lives, many from Commonwealth countries which responded to the request from the Secretary-General to send troops to Sierra Leone.

It seems clear that the betrayal by Foday Sankoh of the peace agreement reached only a few months ago—he was invited into the government in exchange for cooperating on the restructuring of the security forces and the retraining of the army—has been a betrayal not only of his own people but of all the people of Sierra Leone. I hope that the Minister can assure us that we shall not pursue further any attempt to negotiate with a man of such evident false standing.

Perhaps I may ask three questions. The first concerns where our responsibilities begin and end. In the Statement the noble Baroness mentioned that we have consular responsibilities beyond those to British citizens. Perhaps she can enlighten us a little further. Can she also enlighten us on the position we would take if UN peacekeepers close to British forces, in a situation of danger to themselves, were to plead for our assistance to rescue them from, for example, hostage situations?

The second question concerns the position of the diamond trade in this continuing bitter civil war. It is notable that exactly the same has been true in Angola for an equally long time. Can the Minister tell us—she was able to do so with regard to Angola—what steps the British Government are taking to identify rough diamonds and in particular to strengthen the sanctions with regard to trade in Antwerp and other traditional diamond centres which appear not to be upholding the sanctions as much as they should?

Finally—it is the only critical note I have—should we reconsider the link between armies being made available and equipment? Clearly a country such as Bangladesh has no heavy-lift equipment and can get the troops who are so welcome to support the UN effort in Sierra Leone only if equipment is made available. The Minister will be well aware that one of the major UN members, the United States, is almost invariably reluctant to send troops but happy to offer heavy-lift and other essential equipment.

5.15 p.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I endorse entirely the expressions of sympathy offered in relation to this sad situation. I can reassure the noble Lord that evacuation and rescue is the focus for Her Majesty's Government's intervention—the security of those individuals, the British and those others for whom we are responsible. In reply to the noble Baroness's point, we are responsible for our own British nationals but we have also accepted responsibility in consular terms for EU, US and Commonwealth citizens who may also be there. It is not simply our 500 for whom we express real anxiety.

Our first move must be to secure the airport. It is a central point. I believe that the evacuation of certain British nationals may have started as we speak. That situation is developing rapidly on the ground. Our High Commissioner there will be liaising directly with the other authorities to keep a close eye on that dangerous situation.

I was asked where the UN operation was heading. Noble Lords will know well that this UN operation was put in place as perhaps the most helpful effort in the past 10 years finally to bring security and sanity to this area of the world. It is regrettable that the force—it should have been over 11,000—was only 8,000. We are doing all we can to encourage those involved to send the personnel and equipment as quickly as possible.

I endorse what has been said about the behaviour of the leader, Foday Sankoh. Much trust was placed in him—most importantly, the trust of the Sierra Leone people. The new government was to be a positive way forward. All of us hoped that it could and would be achieved.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, says, diamonds are a matter of great importance. I understand that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is today considering further measures that we can take with our EU partners in relation to diamonds and may be making comments in that regard as I speak but which I am unable to voice fully in this House at this moment.

On arms, we shall consider carefully these issues. I hope that noble Lords will understand that security of our Armed Forces and those currently in Sierra Leone is the most important issue at this time. I am unable to disclose to your Lordships the details in relation to those matters.

5.17 p.m.

Lord Shore of Stepney

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement. It is particularly welcome news that the Prime Minister is in touch with the Prime Minister of Nigeria and that we have taken such apt precautionary measures at the seizure of the Freeport airfield. I welcome all that. I am sure the Government are right in taking action, as all governments must do, to protect their own nationals when they are in danger.

However, I worry whether that is enough. I do not say that we should do more individually as a country, but it is a terrible humiliation of and rebuff for the United Nations. The United Nations is the only, last, best hope for peace at the beginning of this century. Should we not at least bring together the Security Council for immediate and urgent consideration of the further measures needed to restore the authority, status and reputation of the UN?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I wholeheartedly agree with my noble friend that this is a rebuff; and it is a matter that we must all take increasingly seriously. I cannot say whether it would be right, at this moment, to call for a meeting of the Security Council but I can assure your Lordships that every possible way forward is being actively considered. Nothing is being left out.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, can the Minister say anything about the joint UN/RUF mission which was supposed to locate and, if possible, rescue the UN hostages? The noble Baroness told the House that the British troops being sent to Freetown will not have responsibility for rescuing the UN troops who are being held hostage. If the mission is unsuccessful, what fall-back plans does the United Nations have—was this issue discussed yesterday at the Security Council? —for rescuing the 500 people now detained by the RUF?

What information do the Government have on the allegations of a coup, which was supposed to be launched today, and the arrest of senior RUF personnel, who were alleged to be responsible for it, by troops loyal to the AFRC in Freetown? Have charges been laid against Mr Mike Lamin or others alleged to have been involved in the coup? Do the Government consider that the remit of UNAMSIL was sufficiently clear in that, although SCR1289 required them to provide security, to enable people to move freely and to co-ordinate with the Sierra Leone authorities on the administration of law and order, there is no specific mention in the UN resolution of how they are supposed to respond if they come under fire? Is it the task of UNAMSIL to neutralise any group which fails to honour the peace agreement? If so, is it nor essential that UNAMSIL detachments which find themselves under fire should be able to call for rapid reinforcements from the rest of UN forces in the territory and that they should have the logistics to enable them to do so?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, understand the noble Lord's anxiety and h:s hunger for in-depth information. I hope that he will understand the limits currently placed on any disclosures I can make as regards precisely what is happening on the ground. We must do nothing to exacerbate or inflame the situation.

Our troops are on their way and we shall know more once we have people on the ground. Their main task is to bring out citizens safely. The situation is rapidly changing and I am sure that the noble Lord knows that UNAMSIL has a broad mandate. It certainly has a mandate to keep its own security as a priority, but this is a fluid and rapidly changing situation. It is perhaps best at this stage for us to respond moderately and to wait to see what we discover in detail on the ground.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, what consultations have the British Government had with our European partners? After all, one of the contexts of the European defence initiative has been that the operation one might envisage for the new battle reaction force would be to help to prop up collapsing states. Therefore, it seems entirely appropriate that consultations should have taken place.

Furthermore, can the Minister confirm that British interests in Sierra Leone are not simply those of rescuing British nationals? As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a position which the Conservative Party among others is strongly committed to Britain retaining, we have a strong interest in maintaining the authority of the United Nations and, thus, in ensuring that the UN does not fail in its commitment to Sierra Leone.

Can the Minister also comment on the refugee issue? We in this country have learnt bitterly that when states collapse in Africa some of their desperate refugees turn up, legally or illegally, within the EU. We have a substantial Somali community in London and elsewhere in Britain which was not here 10 years ago. I am not sure how they got here, but somehow they did. That confirms that it is greatly in Britain's interest to ensure that Sierra Leone does not collapse as a state.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I agree with the import of the anxieties expressed by the noble Lord. We are consulting our EU partners in relation to what is happening in Sierra Leone. It has been agreed that we should take the brunt of the rescue mission, which is why we and our forces are going in to rescue British, EU and Commonwealth nationals from the situation. We are going in not only to do that, but to try to maintain the authority of the UN. The noble Lord is right in pointing that out, but at this stage our primary focus must be to secure the situation and rescue the nationals for whom we have accepted responsibility.

We have a continuing commitment to Sierra Leone and we have tried to make that clear. Once the nationals have been removed, we shall participate and encourage a reconstruction in terms of how Sierra Leone works. The refugee situation will be another complex issue with which we shall have to deal and it is with great energy that we shall try to address our minds to any fall-out that may come from that. However, it is a rapidly developing situation and we are communicating with all our partners to try to get a focused and cohesive response to the difficulty.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, bearing in mind the complaints that radio equipment did not work for our troops in Kosovo and that the rifles with which our infantry were supplied needed to be modified, can the Minister assure the House that the troops whom we have sent to West Africa have a suitable supply of radio equipment that works and additional equipment which they can lend to UN troops already there so that they can communicate with them? Furthermore, will she assure the House that the troops who have already left have properly modified weapons?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I can reassure the noble Lord that the officers and men and women whom we have sent are appropriately equipped for the task with which they must deal. We understand that that task will be complex.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 5.30 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 5.26 to 5.30 p.m.]