HL Deb 02 May 2001 vol 625 cc689-91

Lord Geddes asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is the objective of keeping United Kingdom troops in Sierra Leone, and when that objective will be achieved.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, British troops are in Sierra Leone in order to assist the democratically elected Government to establish effective and democratically accountable armed forces capable of defending against brutal rebel attacks.

Under the current package of short-term military training, we will have trained 8,500 soldiers by the end of September. After that, assuming a stable and permissive environment, we envisage that a UK-led International Military Advisory and Training Team will take over responsibility for continuation training.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply and warmly endorse the objective that she has reiterated. I also acknowledge the very real skill and professionalism of British forces in Sierra Leone. However, what has been the cost to date to the British taxpayer of the presence of those British forces, and what benefit has the British taxpayer received from such sum?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the total cost of the military training and equipment support to the Government of Sierra Leone is estimated to be some £48 million, split between the financial years 2000–01 and 2001–02. The largest element of that is the cost of the equipment for the SLA at some £24 million.

The noble Lord asks what is the benefit to the British taxpayer. The British taxpayer has a vested interest in ensuring that we live in a safe and proper world. The British taxpayer also has an expectation that Her Majesty's Government will behave honourably, will support friends in times of need and will not turn their back when those friends are in need of sustenance and help. This Government will not betray them.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, perhaps I may commend the Minister on that stirring and very essential reply. Have the British forces in Sierra Leone been able to do anything to assist the desperate plight of some Sierra Leoneans who have fled across the border into Guinea, and can the Minister tell us what is the current situation of those many tens of thousands of refugees?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I cannot give the noble Baroness a specific answer in relation to the assistance given. However, we know that there is movement across the Guinea border, and that is being monitored closely. We know that there have been incursions by the RUF forces and those are also being monitored. I undertake to write to the noble Baroness if I am able to provide her with a more specific response.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, will the Minister tell us what the United Nations operation in Sierra Leone is costing and what contribution it has been able to make, if any, to the restoration of peace throughout the country?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, implicit in the last part of the noble Baroness's question is a criticism or a suggestion that UNAMSIL has made no contribution. That is wholly wrong and quite unfair. UNAMSIL has been faced with a most difficult and complex situation. The United Nations as a community has responded robustly. It is correct to say that it has not been as easy as some would have wanted, but it was never going to be easy. We need to give all the support that we can to that initiative.

I shall be more than happy to write to the noble Baroness in relation to her specific question about cost. However, the money has been well spent if it has stopped the situation degenerating into one from which it would be impossible to return to peace and stability. It has not gone that far yet.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, following the question of my noble friend Lady Park, does the noble Baroness agree with the views of Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, that the whole UN operation in Sierra Leone is now a bit of a shambles? I believe that those were very nearly her words. Can the noble Baroness tell us something about the future relationship between our own troops and those of the United Nations? Is it intended that they should work together more closely? What prospect is there of tackling the RUF, regaining the diamond fields and bringing peace to Sierra Leone, which was the original objective of sending our troops there in the first place?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the noble Lord says as a throw-away line that that was the original objective. The noble Lord knows very well that we made clear from the beginning that the objectives were very narrow. They were: to get out the British and other citizens for whom we were responsible; to secure the airfield; and, thereafter, to give proper support to the UN and provide training to the Sierra Leonean army so that the army could become a source of succour to the people of Sierra Leone. I say that as a prerequisite to understanding the situation. The troops are supporting the UN and they are working together very closely. Efforts are being made to regain the areas referred to and those efforts are increasingly successful. We have a realistic expectation that the situation will be resolved in the long term.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, can the Minister say what measures are being taken to prevent the regime in Liberia supporting the rebels in Sierra Leone?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we have made clear efforts in relation to that issue. Noble Lords will know that Liberia's support in relation to the RUF has been a matter of concern. An independent panel of experts was set up by the United Nations under UN Security Council Resolution 1306 (2000) to investigate the links between the diamonds, the arms and the conflict in Sierra Leone. It produced its report in mid-December 2000. The report presented unequivocal evidence that Charles Taylor and his cronies have been instrumental in the theft of Sierra Leone's rich natural resources, especially diamonds. In return, they have supplied arms and safe havens to the RUF. Charles Taylor's meddling has now extended to Guinea, where the humanitarian situation has deteriorated further. It is clear that Taylor must be stopped. We have responded strongly by co-sponsoring with the United States the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1343 (2001), which imposes sanctions on Liberia and which was passed unanimously by the Security Council on 7th March.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, was the equipment worth £24 million a donation or an ethical sale? Is it our intention to provide more arms to Sierra Leone?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I have not got specific figures about the equipment but I shall write to the noble Lord giving him a detailed response to his question. The equipment may be part donation and part sale.

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