HL Deb 02 October 2000 vol 616 cc1123-6

2.37 p.m.

Lord Burnham asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are the nature and extent of the British military commitment in Sierra Leone.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, the nature and extent of British military commitment in Sierra Leone are as the Foreign Secretary set out in another place on 6th June; namely, the provision of training and advice to ensure that the democratically elected Government of Sierra Leone have effective, accountable armed forces. Such armed forces are essential if there is to be lasting peace in Sierra Leone.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply which might have been the response on 6th June. However, much time has passed since then. With the end of the monsoon season in about a week's time, will the Government make an up-to-date Statement about the current military situation in Sierra Leone? There are a large number of questions to be asked. Most importantly, what steps are being taken to develop the Sierra Leone army command structure? If that is not satisfactory—it does not seem to be—will the United Kingdom be required to take it over?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am not surprised that the Answer is similar to that which would have been the case on 6th June because the policy has not changed. But we shall keep the matter under review. I am unaware of any specific request from the Front Bench opposite for a Statement; I may be wrong. However, if there is such a specific request, no doubt that can be discussed through the usual channels in the normal way.

It is relevant that the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, have been invited to the Ministry of Defence for detailed briefings in confidence on some of the more security sensitive aspects of British activity in Sierra Leone. I have no doubt that they will to take up that invitation as soon as possible.

On the chain of command, the noble Lord will know that IMATT—the training team, which is being established under Brigadier Gordon Hughes and other key staff in Sierra Leone—will be addressing the questions which the noble Lord rightly identifies as key to the future health of that country's armed forces.

Lord Steel of Aikwood

My Lords, does the Minister acknowledge that the skill and commitment of our forces is recognised not only in Sierra Leone but throughout the Commonwealth? Does the noble Baroness agree that it would be a sad day if we were to interpret British interests so narrowly that we were riot prepared to come to the help of a democratic government in a former colony, especially one which has been confronted with such appalling atrocities?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree entirely with what the noble Lord says. If I may say so, he states the Government's position eloquently. The situation is being kept under constant review. Not only is the training team in place to look at the chain of command and some of the longer-term issues about the armed forces in Sierra Leone to which we are committed; short-term training teams have also been put in to look at ways in which 1,000 Sierra Leone troops can be trained at any one time. I am happy to say that we have completed two such courses and that a third is under way. I do not think that there can be any doubt about the commitment of Her Majesty's Government in this respect.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the Chiefs of Staff accept that the present level of personnel and the quantity of equipment supplied are adequate for their task of retraining the Sierra Leone armed forces?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I believe that the Chiefs of Staff believe that the personnel and equipment are adequate for the current task. What is under constant review is whether the security around the training teams is adequate; and whether there are other operational matters which would change our view about the number of British Armed Forces committed to Sierra Leone. As the noble Lord, Lord Wright, would expect, these matters are not set in concrete at any one time. They are kept under constant review by the Chiefs of Staff and, of course, by Ministers.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, perhaps I may return to a question that I asked some time ago. It is fully understood that these matters are always kept under constant review. However, what do the Government propose to do in conjunction with the government there to control the diamond fields, because unless some positive action is taken, I think that the noble Baroness will agree that there is little hope of making much progress?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord is entirely right. Part of the root of the dreadful conflict in Sierra Leone is the exploitation of diamonds. I am happy to say that Britain has taken a lead in the international community's efforts on the issue. We have been a key player from the start in the South African-led Kimberley process, which has recommended an international rough diamond certification scheme. We have also led the way in pushing for a UN Security Council ban on the import and export of Sierra Leone rough diamonds not certified by the Government of Sierra Leone. Not only are we doing what we can on the ground, we are making efforts to control the diamond trade, which has been at the root of so many of the appalling atrocities that we have seen in Sierra Leone.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, in reply to Questions, Ministers have said that we are supplying arms to the forces that we train in Sierra Leone. Who is supplying arms to the rebels and what steps are being taken to stop that supply?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord is right. When we have supplied arms, it has been in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1171. The shipments have also been notified to the UN sanctions committee. I shall write to the noble Lord with whatever information I can put into the public domain on arms supplies to the rebel forces. However, I hope that he understands that a great deal of that information is likely to be intelligence-sensitive and security-sensitive, so it may not yet be possible to give as full a reply as I should like. Armed conflict continues in Sierra Leone. There are 300 British troops there engaged in the tasks that I have outlined to your Lordships. We should not wish to put in the public domain any information that might in any way jeopardise their security.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, will the Minister say something about the relationship between the British forces in Sierra Leone and the United Nations? I have been puzzled by various remarks from Conservatives calling for British troops to withdraw and leave it to the United Nations, as if the UN had nothing to do with this country. We are a permanent member of the Security Council. Does the Minister recall her colleague, the right honourable Clare Short, saying some weeks ago that the peacekeeping operation in Sierra Leone was a test case for the future effectiveness of the UN in its peacekeeping role?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, the UK troops in Sierra Leone are not part of the United Nations mission in Sierra Leone. The UNAMSIL troops come from a variety of countries. I am sure that the noble Lord knows which countries have contributed what, but I shall be happy to write to him with details. Our main task in Sierra Leone is training to ensure that the Sierra Leone armed forces of the future will be responsive to a democratically elected government. We do not stand completely outside UNAMSIL in that task. Of course there is proper liaison with UNAMSIL troops and of course we notify UNAMSIL of our troop movements and expect to have notification back. I am sure that the noble Lord also knows that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has been in contact with Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and that we keep the provision of our Armed Forces under review in that respect. We have proper liaison both on the ground and through my right honourable friend and his contacts with the United Nations.