HC Deb 28 February 2001 vol 363 cc235-54WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mrs. McGuire.]

9.30 am
Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Today, I shall speak about an important matter: the situation in Sierra Leone. Four weeks ago today, I was privileged to go to Sierra Leone with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). I shall refer to various matters arising from our brief visit and draw attention to wider political, economic and military issues affecting the region.

My abiding memory—I am still coming to terms with it—is of a visit to the amputee camp in the middle of Freetown, where 226 people who have had arms or legs or both hacked off by Revolutionary United Front terrorists are living with their families in a self-help community of around 1,000 people. It is financed and assisted by international development agencies and supported by a number of other organisations and Governments, including ours. I was introduced to some of the people living there. A little girl called Marie Koroma was brought to see me. She is about two and a half years old; when she was 13 months old, her left arm was chopped off by an RUF terrorist. That is the reality in Sierra Leone that we must deal with. It is essential that our commitment and that of the international community and the United Nations are maintained for as long as necessary.

Sierra Leone has an interesting history—for many years, it was a positive history. The country was founded by freed slaves, and throughout our colonial administration its people held the British in high regard. They have now had almost 40 years of independence, but ordinary Sierra Leoneans ask what they have to celebrate; they say that those years have been wasted. The country was agriculturally self-sufficient and exported agricultural products. It has a difficult climate and fosters diseases such as malaria, but, like other countries in the region such as Gambia, it has potential for economic development based on tourism. However, that has suffered enormously in recent years.

I shall not go into the history of the conflict, preferring to concentrate on the future. However, it is worth recalling that in May 2000 my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) introduced a debate in the Chamber during which he drew attention to the importance of explaining to people in this country our actions in Sierra Leone, the reasons for those actions and the fact that our commitment may not be short term. I was fortunate to speak in that debate, and I am pleased to be able to raise the issue again today after having had the opportunity, for the first time, to go to Sierra Leone and see what we and others are doing.

In 1999, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs produced an important report which, although concerned mainly with other matters, referred to the situation in Sierra Leone. It provided an important historical introduction by setting out the context and explaining how the democratically elected Government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah came to power in 1996. Since then, there have been several coups and attempts by different groups to overthrow democracy.

As the report makes clear, and as everyone to whom I have spoken has confirmed, Sierra Leonean society consists of many different tribal groups and is 65 per cent. Muslim and 35 per cent. Christian. However, the people live harmoniously and the conflict has nothing to do with tribalism or religion. I asked a military commander in the Sierra Leone army—judging by his name, I suppose that he was a Muslim—about this issue. He laughed and said, "My wife is a Christian, my deputy is a Christian, and his wife is a Muslim."

Despite the nature of that society, there is conflict. It is based on one factor: greed for diamonds. The 1999 report from the Foreign Affairs Committee quotes one witness saying that some people would argue that diamonds have been the curse of Sierra Leone. Diamonds have financed a conflict that has throughout centred on control of the diamond mining areas and the activities of a foreign Government—the regime of Charles Taylor in Liberia—who are using the RUF as proxies in Sierra Leone to control Sierra Leonean diamonds and profit from their export and sale.

None the less, having visited Freetown and some of the surrounding areas, my message is positive, not pessimistic. I saw children smiling and waving as they went to school dressed in their pristine school uniforms. I saw the little kiosks that are being set up on the beach to sell Coca-Cola and ice cream to tourists whom the people believe will one day visit Sierra Leone. I am told that where a few months ago there was nothing, there are now signs that the people are returning to normality.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

We are listening attentively to the hon. Gentleman's moving description of his visit to Sierra Leone, and I am pleased to hear that he gleaned some cause for optimism from it. Was there any evidence to suggest that British Government efforts to stem the flow of blood diamonds have been successful? I am sure that we all want progress to be made in that respect.

Mr. Gapes

I saw no such evidence. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will respond to that question when he winds up.

We visited an area known as Wilberforce, which has a major, albeit rather basic, hospital that treats a variety of people; military personnel financed by the Department for International Development are playing a key role in its medical services. Among those in the hospital beds were members of a rebel faction—the West Side Boys—who had been injured in the conflict. To judge by the history of the conflict in Sierra Leone, people from the other side are not usually taken to hospital to be treated and allowed to recover, so their presence was an interesting sign of returning normality. Another interesting aspect was the way in which community activities such as schools were coming back together.

Important work is being carried out by our people in Sierra Leone. We are making a significant contribution, working in support of the United Nations, as well as playing our own distinctive role. We are making a small contribution to the United Nations force and as observers in the UN operation, and we are the lead country in the establishment of the international military advisory team. Our most significant role is in the short-term training programme to rebuild and establish democratic, competent, accountable and efficient armed forces for Sierra Leone. The problem in recent years was that the drug-crazed, diamond-fuelled factions were able to mobilise far more people and have a much greater impact on society than the badly trained and badly equipped official forces of the state. State power in the country almost disintegrated.

In May last year, when the Secretary of State for Defence made his statement in the House, the RUF was in the suburbs of Freetown and it controlled almost the entire country. We went in initially to evacuate our civilians and other European Union civilians; we then started the process of consolidation, held the airport until the UN forces came to take it over and began to work to establish and restore the state power of the democratically elected president and his Government—all vital work.

In less than a year, 6,500 people have been trained by our armed forces. We were fortunate to visit the area in which that training is carried out by Gurkha soldiers of the British Army. A young member, aged about 20, of the Sierra Leone army who was being trained by Gurkhas said to me, "These Gurkhas are very good men—very tough. Please keep them here. Please train all Sierra Leoneans with Gurkhas." I walked around the area with Major Ashok Kumar of the Gurkhas, a namesake of my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar). Children and adults shouted out, "Hello, Ashok."

British people walking down the street got the same positive reaction. We are incredibly welcome and there is great support for our actions. As we passed along the streets, people would shout out, "Hello—thank you!" In all my visits to places around the world, I have never seen a reaction like that. In certain countries, at certain times, British citizens have not been quite so popular. I emphasise the popularity of what we are doing, which is vital to the future of Sierra Leone.

The British joint taskforce under Brigadier Jonathan Riley, those who are working with the Sierra Leone army and those who are carrying out the vital training mission have an important role to play. I was pleased by the recent announcement by the Secretary of State for Defence that the short-term training mission, which was due to end in the spring, is to be extended to September 2001. To take forward the programme in the long term, we intend to form with the Canadians an international mission, which we hope other countries will join.

What is the programme's future? When the Secretary of State for Defence spoke in the House on 23 May 2000, he said that we would be in Sierra Leone no longer than is necessary."—[Official Report, 23 May 2000; Vol. 350. c. 863.] However, in the Select Committee on Defence on 7 February 2001, in reply to a question that I asked, he said: We will stay for w long as we are needed. I welcome that change of tone and emphasis, because our impact on Sierra Leone is proportionately greater than our impact on any other country.

We have for many years had long-term commitments in Cyprus, we have a long-term commitment—albeit unintentional—in Bosnia, it appears that we are developing a long-term commitment in Kosovo, and British forces have other long-term commitments in other parts of the world. However, our commitment to Sierra Leone is more important than any of those in terms of its impact, its long-term potential and the gratitude of the people, which is something that we have not always received. That is not to decry the work we do elsewhere, but emphasises the vital difference that we are making in Sierra Leone.

I am proud that we are considering staying for as long as we are needed, but we need to tell the British people why that is necessary and to demonstrate the benefits of our involvement. I am concerned about several difficulties. Until I went to Sierra Leone—now I speak as the chairman of the all-party United Nations group—I had not fully appreciated why British forces in Sierra Leone were not flying the UN flag. Following my visit, I have a better understanding of the situation and believe that our relationship with the UN is correct. The development of the UN peacekeeping operation was not optimal—indeed, there was well-documented tension between the Nigerians and the Indians; the latter have now left Sierra Leone. There have also been problems, which I shall discuss later, with the deployment of the UN force and its future role.

I have received a letter from Oxfam that raises several other concerns. Despite the ceasefire agreement worked out in Abuja last November, it appears that UN forces are unwilling to move into areas previously or currently controlled by RUF rebels, even though the agreement states that they should. The Sierra Leone Government are keen for that to happen, but it is not happening and there are serious questions to be asked about when it will happen. Until it does happen, significant areas—perhaps one third of the country—will remain outside the ambit of the legally elected Government of the country, and it will be impossible to reintegrate the country as a whole.

In a similar vein, at what point will the Abuja process lead to the demobilisation and disarming of the rebels? To that difficulty, which is inevitable in all conflicts, two approaches can be taken: try to negotiate the solution, or try to win a victory. At this stage, the Sierra Leone forces are probably not strong enough on their own to be able to win or hold the territory, but the problem must be resolved at some point. We know from experience that the RUF did not abide by previous agreements. There is enormous resistance to loss of control of the basis on which such organisations are run and financed—diamonds.

The situation in the neighbouring countries is also a cause of concern. One of the consequences of the effectiveness of our operation and the deployment to Sierra Leone of 10,000 UN troops, which number is supposed to increase, is that the RUF rebels have switched their focus. There is now a bitter conflict across the border in Guinea, and the Government of Guinea are fighting hard against the RUF. As a result, refugees who previously fled from Sierra Leone into Guinea are now trapped in a very small area between Guinean forces and RUF forces. It has been stated in the press that as many as 400,000 people are in danger of starvation because they are not receiving necessary food supplies. This week, some convoys reached part of the area with food for between 1,300 and 10,000 people, but it has been reported that hundreds of thousands of people are trapped between the conflicting forces. A corridor must be opened to allow those people to return to Sierra Leone, away from the conflict.

It is vital that more work is done for those people internally displaced in Sierra Leone, not refugees across the border. There are reports of large movements of people away from the areas in the north-west towards Freetown and Lungi, where there is an airport. That is inevitable because of the British presence and the deployment of UN forces in Freetown and beyond. Such areas and those within the ambit of the Sierra Leone Government offer security and the potential for a good life whereby people live without the threat of suffering. A great effort must now be made to help refugees in Guinea and internally displaced people in Sierra Leone. They must be fed, provided with transport and safe routes and moved into liberated areas. Such areas are growing all the time—indeed, we visited a place that had only just become open as a result of recent changes. However, such matters are taking time: as the liberated area spreads in one direction, conflict arises with the other side and the population is squeezed in between those areas.

It is essential that the international community, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, international aid agencies and non-governmental organisations can undertake their work securely and get through necessary resources to those who need them. Recently, some NGOs expressed anxiety about the security of their personnel in some areas. I would welcome a response on that matter, as it is clearly vital that they are able to do their job. We are making a great contribution to the security of Sierra Leone and NGO personnel do important work, often funded by the Department for International Development or other Governments in the European Union and elsewhere.

I should also like to mention public opinion in Sierra Leone. This week, I read a report of a seminar that was organised by representatives of what they call civil society in Sierra Leone. That report is strongly critical of the UN's role and calls urgently for more robust action to meet threats and deal with such problems. A cause of wider anxiety is the question of what effective action will be taken against the sponsor and host of the RUF, Charles Taylor's regime in Liberia. I understand that sanctions were supposed to be implemented against Liberia; the Governments of Guinea and of Sierra Leone strongly pressed for that, but not all other Governments in the region supported it. Can the Minister confirm the decision reported in the press this week to defer by two months the implementation of those sanctions? What is the current position and what is our Government's attitude? What steps are being taken to stop the blood diamond trade and introduce economic and other sanctions on Liberia, whose sponsorship, funding and organisation have lain behind the problems in Guinea and Sierra Leone in recent years.

I should like to ask about our future role and commitment to Sierra Leone. During our visit, I met President Kabbah. One of the interesting questions raised in our discussion was how we, as a functioning democratic society with civil control over the military, could contribute to the development of pluralistic multi-party democracy in Sierra Leone. In 1996, Sierra Leone had a democratic election in which lots of different parties stood. On the second ballot, the president was elected with nearly 60 per cent. of the vote, having received about 37 per cent. in the first ballot. However, Sierra Leone's political system is obviously undeveloped and political campaigning is impossible in large parts of the country.

The decision to postpone the next presidential elections was absolutely correct, as a free and fair election would be impossible in the current circumstances of conflict. That postponement gives us a great opportunity. I hope that our Government, through their support for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and other measures, will send resources, training missions and teams to help to build a pluralistic democratic political culture in Sierra Leone. Civil control of the military is a vital issue not only for Sierra Leone but for Africa generally. I remember the book by Ruth First, "The Barrel of a Gun", in which she explained the role of the military in African societies. We must develop a political culture in west Africa and elsewhere based on democratic control of the armed forces. The recent changes in Nigeria are welcome, but such changes can be transient or temporary. We must make sure that we achieve a functioning democratic civil society in Sierra Leone in the long term.

During my visit to Sierra Leone, I was incredibly impressed by the commitment of our people there. I witnessed our efforts to defend a democratic Government, establish security and provide the foundations of future prosperity and democratic society. A lot has been done, but there is still a lot to do that will require a long-term commitment on our part. We must remember that Sierra Leone is a Commonwealth country with which we have long been associated. It is good that Canada, another Commonwealth country, is making a contribution, but the commitment to help will also require support from our EU partners and others, including, of course, the UN.

In the UN forces there are Kenyan troops; there is a potential for a deployment of Pakistani forces; and Nepalese forces have recently carried out an inspection mission to decide whether to deploy troops, which would be welcome, as Gurkhas are already in the area with the British Army. In addition, many other countries, including Jordan and India, have made significant contributions in the past. We must not forget the major contribution made by Nigeria, whose forces have suffered huge casualties during the many years of the conflict in Sierra Leone. International commitment and effort is required, and I am proud that the United Kingdom is playing a vital role. I hope that that will continue for as long as we are needed.

10.2 am

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) on his initiative in applying for this debate, on his success in securing it and, above all, on the sincerity and comprehensiveness of his presentation. I also thank the Secretary of State for Defence, who kindly invited members of the Select Committee on Defence to accompany him on what was essentially his second trip to Sierra Leone since Britain became so heavily involved. Not only that, but when we were there, the Secretary of State took every opportunity to keep us fully involved in all that was happening in some of the more sensitive briefings, and, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, gave us the opportunity to meet President Kabbah. We were both grateful for that.

President Kabbah made a good impression on us all. He struck us as a man of great calmness, thoughtfulness and, in so far as it is possible to make judgments on a short acquaintance, integrity. I could not help reflecting on the tragedy in which his country finds itself. It is one example—there are so many in international affairs—of the road to hell being paved with good intentions.

As the hon. Gentleman said, every time that we were seen in parts of Freetown, there would be shouts of welcome such as, "You are welcome here. Thank you for being here. Thank you for coming." It is strange that if there were to be a referendum in Sierra Leone today on whether the people would be better off as a colony under British rule, or in their present state of oppressed independence—

Mr. Gapes

indicated assent.

Dr. Lewis

I see a wry look of agreement on the hon. Gentleman's face. There can be no doubt that they would wish that they were still a part of the supposedly exploitative British empire of the past. That empire would not have stood for the sort of terrorism and banditry that has had such terrible effects on the people of Sierra Leone in recent years.

When I visited the amputee camp with the hon. Member for Ilford, South, I was reminded of why the early evidence of Nazi atrocities in the second world war was not believed. The disbelief was a reaction against what was seen in retrospect to have been baseless atrocity propaganda from the first world war, which centred most memorably on the story of the Belgian babies' hands. When the Germans invaded Belgium in 1914 and violated Belgian neutrality, there was a story that they cut off the hands of Belgian babies so that they would not be able to hold weapons when they grew up. Subsequently, it was thought that no such injury would be survivable by such a young child. The Gentleman and I know that such injuries are survivable. As he pointed out, they are survivable even by a child as young as Marie Koroma, who was 13 months old when her left hand was chopped off in that bestial way.

We were told that the purpose of such atrocities was to terrorise the population—to show them that that was the sort of treatment that they could expect if they dared to support the legitimate Government of their country. It was intended to deny support to the Government force, and, undoubtedly, to encourage chaos and force people to flee from their homes. It is believed that about half of the 4.5 million inhabitants of Sierra Leone fled from their homes within the country, and that about half a million fled beyond the borders of the country.

The Gentleman stated clearly that the motivations are diamonds and exploitation. As far as can be seen, the activity is being fuelled by the interference of a country outside the diamond area—Liberia. Its leader, Charles Taylor, seems to be playing a strange game. Apparently he has a habit of ringing up President Kabbah every so often and making friendly inquiries about whether he can assist on minor matters. He professes to be in favour of steps towards a peaceful settlement and expresses concern about the degradation, terror and misfortune being inflicted on the Sierra Leonean people.

I would like to join the hon. Member for Ilford, South in pressing the Minister to spell out clearly, for the benefit of all hon. Members, the Government's assessment of the role and activities of President Taylor and Liberia in the troubles in Sierra Leone. If they believe that President Taylor and his agents are responsible for what is happening in Sierra Leone, what steps are they taking—and what steps do they propose to take—to put pressure on Liberia to cease its malign interference in Sierra Leone?

When we were in Sierra Leone, we were told that 600 British military personnel were taking part in the training mission. If it is possible for 600 British military personnel to achieve a genuine and—to use a vogue word—sustainable change in the circumstances of the people of that unfortunate country, that is a good investment of time, effort, money and British personnel. We have an historical connection with Sierra Leone; we arguably have a continuing moral responsibility for the country, even though with the ending of its colonial status we sadly—one might say—no longer have a legal responsibility. Many of my right hon. and hon. Friends worry about the overall effect of undertaking individual commitments that are in themselves worthy but which may cumulatively lead to an enfeebling of our capabilities to intervene militarily in other theatres, should other crises arise. Therefore, we must keep in mind the intended end game for this intervention.

What scenario does the Minister envisage for liquidating this commitment by the end of the autumn? If the Sierra Leone army is by then perfectly capable of re-establishing and maintaining control over the country, I shall be pleased to hear it. However, that is an optimistic prediction; there is a long way to go, although much progress has been made. The briefings that we received when we were in the country suggested that, as a result of the international presence in general and the British presence in particular in training the Sierra Leone army, between 40 and 50 per cent. of the land area had been brought back under Government control, pacified and stabilised. That would be a great achievement.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) asked the hon. Member for Ilford, South what progress had been made in cutting off the flow of blood diamonds—as she put it—from Sierra Leone. Given that the diamond areas are the ones most heavily infested with RUT forces and are relatively close to the border of Sierra Leone, the likelihood is small of impeding that flow for any considerable time. We are certainly unlikely physically to have stopped the flow. Will the Minister tell us whether that can be achieved successfully? Is it being attempted through international arrangements controlling what happens to the diamonds after they leave the country?

The people behind the horror in Sierra Leone have a sense that the writing is on the wall. The reports that filter back into Freetown from the diamond mining areas inform us that the rate of diamond extraction is being accelerated dramatically. That suggests that the people involved are aware that their opportunities for exploiting the mines may not last indefinitely.

We need to be reassured that the Government, in undertaking a worthy mission, can be certain that a stable situation will be the result at the end of their intervention. Those who have disturbed the peace, terrorised the population and sought to exploit the country's potential wealth to their own sectional advantage must be sure that, not only have they failed in their endeavour, but that they will never be allowed to do something of that sort again. If it is the case that the RUF's campaign would have been unsustainable without the external support of Liberia and its president, the only hope of arriving at the situation that I have just described is to show the people who are fundamentally and ultimately responsible for what happens inside Sierra Leone that outside that country they cannot escape retribution for what they have done.

The Government favour the setting up of an international criminal court. I have always supported them in that endeavour. My final request to the Minister is therefore that when all this is over and an international criminal court is set up, those who did what they did to little girls like Marie Koroma—a myth in 1914, but reality in the 21st century—will be brought to justice before the bar of world public opinion.

10.16 am
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate and to the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) for initiating it. I apologise that I was not here to hear the start of his speech; I had a constituency meeting that had to take place this morning. However, as he and others will know, I have sought to maintain an interest in this subject during my time in the House, especially recently, and so wanted to add a word or two, in support of his speech. Let me make it clear that mine is very much a Hughes Back-Bench speech and that it in no way trespasses on the greater authority that my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) will have if he catches your eye, Mr. Cook.

My links are in many ways far less credible than those of either of the hon. Gentlemen who have already spoken, for the simple reason that, despite my best efforts, I have not yet paid my first visit to Sierra Leone. Having hoped to go there in January, I now have a firm resolve to go in May—other things permitting—and very much look forward to that visit. Many Sierra Leonean nationals live in my constituency—the number has been hugely swelled by the civil war, during which people have felt obliged to leave for the United Kingdom. One reason that I feel that I understand something of what has occurred is that among those people are two party colleagues of mine who are councillors in Southwark: a Sierra Leonean national, Councillor Columba Blango, who with his family is obviously involved with the community; and Councillor Derek Partridge, who is the former high commissioner to Sierra Leone. With such expertise at one's fingertips, one will not go too far wrong. Many other active members of my community are in direct and regular contact with Sierra Leone.

Britain has the pivotal external role in Sierra Leone. I do not understate the huge contribution of Nigeria, of which it is rightly said that it gave voluntarily and to great sacrifice, but, as has been said, Britain is the country to which Sierra Leone looks for help in its hour of need. Sierra Leone is probably more loyal than almost any other Commonwealth country. I agree with the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis): were there to be a referendum on whether Sierra Leone should remain independent, its people would probably vote to become part of the United Kingdom again. That means that we must, as the Government have attempted to do, respond to the request for us to play a key role—not one that restrains the development of democracy and peacebuilding among the nationals and those who will stay in Sierra Leone, but as a means of securing and strengthening the democratic process. People must not feel that they will not have our support when they need us. The military peacekeeping process and the civilian peacebuilding process are equally important.

As the comments of the hon. Member for New Forest, East made clear, peace and reconstruction in Sierra Leone cannot happen if it is destabilised by pressures from outside its borders. Liberia acts as a hugely destabilising force. Secure frontiers are essential to prevent the growth of rebel forces and the exploitation of politics and economics. Without them, a rich, fertile and successful country will be pillaged and ravaged by others for their own interests. The Commonwealth and the United Nations should endeavour to achieve secure frontiers, so that other countries cannot exercise malign and oppressive influences.

Mrs. Gillan

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of reports that Burkina Faso has been involved? Can he shed any further light on that? Will he join me in asking the Minister to outline the destabilising factors that continue to exert influence within Sierra Leone?

Mr. Hughes

The hon. Lady is right. Several countries in west Africa have exerted influence. A key question—I would be grateful for an early ministerial response—is whether the Government are making clear to the new American Administration the importance of supporting and upholding democracy in Sierra Leone and of providing no permissive encouragement to other regimes to behave in ways seen in Guinea, Burkina Faso and Liberia.

My next point was central to the comments of the hon. Member for Ilford, South. Everyone accepts that the postponement of the presidential election that was due this year is understandable under the constitution of Sierra Leone. Another factor that unites Sierra Leone and the United Kingdom is that we both confront the prospect of elections in the near future, and both may be postponed for a while. As I understand the position in Sierra Leone, there is constitutional provision for a six-month postponement. There is no desire to evade democratic procedure, but there is an urgent need to ensure that free and fair elections are possible. They are not possible when so much territory is not safe for travel.

Many people—not only colleagues in Southwark, but charities such as Christian Aid—believe that it is essential to build up democratic processes and especially the next generation of leaders in Sierra Leone. Multi-party democracy is new, but unstable because of its newness: it must be given the chance to flourish. The people of Sierra Leone may need to renegotiate the constitution: theirs is not a constituency-based system, nor one in which the Executive is accountable to the legislature. Those are serious weaknesses. Building a multi-party democracy depends on the ability of people and structures to overcome those weaknesses. Bodies such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the British Council—both of which are supported by the Government—the voluntary sector, charities and others have a key role to play. Hon. Members can contribute through the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and other agencies.

I have two questions for the Minister. First, is there, to echo the words used by the hon. Member for Ilford, South, a continuing commitment to the normalisation of affairs in Sierra Leone and to building peace, even though it may be a long and hard road? The commitment must be secure; if it is not, much good work will be undermined. Secondly, will the Government continue to search for more and better ways of supporting, both directly and indirectly, people who can build up the democratic process? There is a danger of a democratic deficit in the next generation of leaders. People need to be encouraged and enabled to be strong leaders in difficult territory. Sierra Leoneans in this country are grateful for the Government's interest. It must continue. Britain has the key role to play.

10.24 am
Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester)

I start by joining other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) on raising an important subject this morning. His knowledge and his stories were moving. It was invaluable for all of us to hear him and the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) report back on what they saw during their visits. Liberal Democrats are strongly committed to supporting the Government initiatives in Sierra Leone, which have provided an example of our troops at their best and the role that we can play internationally. Many people are proud of that.

Sierra Leone represents a crucial test for our policy in this region of Africa. If we can get it right in Sierra Leone, lessons can be learned for other parts of Africa. It is therefore critical that we reinvigorate our efforts in west Africa in the next few months. The hon. Member for Ilford, South touched on the increasing problems in Guinea, which are a reason why today's debate is so important: there is a need to step up our activities in the area. In a complex situation, we have reached the difficult and critical point at which we must decide whether we are satisfied with our achievements, or whether we should step up our involvement to tackle some of the humanitarian issues to which I shall refer later.

Liberal Democrats support 100 per cent. the Foreign Secretary's statement that Britain will not abandon the people of Sierra Leone to the mercy of murderous thugs". It is good that the Government made that clear so quickly. There are two clear objectives. The first is to sustain the legitimate Government of a Commonwealth country; hon. Members have mentioned our historic connections with the area. The second objective is to protect innocent civilians from the brutality of the rebels in the area, try to restore law and order and ensure that human rights are not violated. We strongly support that twin policy.

The Government were right to become involved in providing advice and training in the region, and we have heard how welcome that advice is. The 600 individuals who are out there training show that we punch above our weight, and their work has obviously had an enormous impact on Sierra Leone's army, which, it is reported, has become much more effective. I also welcome the Government's recent announcement that they are happy to make that commitment run through to September, by which time the international military advisory and training team, supported by the Canadians, will be able to carry on that effective work. None the less, I should like an assurance from the Minister that September is not a fixed date and that we will withdraw that support only when we are absolutely confident that the IMATT can perform to the same standard as our personnel. Frankly, I have my doubts about that. We have heard about the role of the Gurkhas, and I would be extremely anxious if the Department wanted to stick to the September deadline regardless of the circumstances.

Liberal Democrats differ from the Government on involvement on the ground: we should like British troops to be part of a United Nations force. I know that the Government have rejected that and I understand the concerns voiced by the hon. Member for Ilford, South, but we are worried about current UN capability in the area. About 2,000 troops left recently when the Indians and the Jordanians decided to withdraw. Those countries that remain part of the UN force do not have the skills and the abilities that we could bring to it. We have heard about our training role, and it seems a great pity that that skill is not to be transferred to the UN forces so that we could play a critical role on the ground, especially as failure could prolong the difficulties in the region. Although I entirely understand the Government's anxieties about our troops being involved in a prolonged campaign, matters might be brought to a head quicker if our troops were involved in the UN force rather than confined to their current limited, albeit welcome, role.

On the subject of back-up for the troops, the Minister will be aware that 112 military personnel serving in Sierra Leone are suffering from malaria and that 15 claims for compensation have been made. The Government have set up a tri-service board to investigate and report on the matter, but I ask the Minister to offer a few words of comfort and to give an absolute assurance that our troops will be protected from malaria, although I know that it is difficult because of the time scale involved and because troops are moved around. Furthermore, will the Minister publish the full text of the tri-service board's report? Press releases and background papers have been issued, but we would have more confidence if the full text were made available to reassure us that everything possible was being done to protect troops from malaria.

Other hon. Members mentioned the difficult situation in Guinea. It is comforting that in the southern part of Sierra Leone, to which the hon. Member for New Forest, East referred, the Government seem to be in control; and we played our part in making that happen. However, as a consequence, trouble has moved northwards and into Guinea. The Independent this week carried alarming reports of the humanitarian difficulties affecting refugees who left Sierra Leone for Guinea. The United Nations has described that crisis as the largest in the world at present.

I am especially anxious about the region known as the "parrot's beak" and I would welcome the Minister's views. It is flanked by rebels on both sides and hemmed in by hostile Guineans to the north There are several refugee camps in the region, each with a population of several thousand—the biggest, in Kolomba, has 30,000—all of whom are in extreme danger and face hunger because of lack of supplies. Fighting is intensifying as the rainy season approaches, and there is grave concern about what will happen when it kicks in. Food envoys to the camps have been attacked by rebels and one camp was without food supplies for four months. The refugees, who face attacks as rebels move into the area, are not welcomed by some in Guinea, who say that they are bringing the war from Sierra Leone. President Conte of Guinea has not used the most helpful phrases about those individuals, who are trapped between two forces.

What discussions has the Minister had with his colleagues at the Department for International Development about humanitarian aid and the role of the United Nations in that difficult territory? United Nations staff have been kidnapped and killed in the region, which is highly volatile. Although much has been achieved in the south, and despite the humanitarian concerns, there is a reluctance to move into an area in which hostilities are occurring.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) in urging that consideration be given to our long -term exit strategy. What is the Minister's view about Britain's involvement in setting up democratic structures? My hon. Friend made a helpful suggestion about the role of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the British Council. Liberal Democrats support the Government's stance, but we are anxious that we have reached a critical point. Are we happy to let matters rest, or are we prepared to make a commitment to continue the training beyond September if we believe that others cannot train as well as we can?

We urge on the Government our belief that the situation will most effectively and speedily be resolved by UN troops playing a full role. That would send a strong message and put skills on the ground to deal with the problems in the region. Will the Minister also comment on what humanitarian aid we can give to help to address the difficulties emerging in Guinea?

10.35 am
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

I echo the congratulations to the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) on securing the debate, which is long overdue. Sierra Leone seems to have slipped off the Government's agenda over recent months. I pay tribute to him and to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), who showed personal courage in visiting an area in which our troops are deployed, no doubt bringing them succour, and seeing the situation at first hand. Nothing—certainly not reliance on reports—replaces witnessing events on the ground. My first question to the Minister, whom I welcome to his new post, is what plans he has to follow in their footsteps by visiting Sierra Leone. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), who has continuously shown great interest in the matter. I endorse his remarks about the British Council and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. I am worried about the fact that the British Council is being greatly run down in Africa; many of our posts there have closed because of the Government's changes.

We all share the desire for peace, security and the return of harmony to Sierra Leone—that is a given. We all endorse what the hon. Member for Ilford, South said about his visit to the amputee camp and Sierra Leone's potential. This weekend, I went to Zimbabwe and saw the situation there. I spent a similar amount of time in Zimbabwe as the hon. Gentleman spent in Sierra Leone, and witnessed the destruction of another African country with great potential. As in Sierra Leone, many of the problems of Zimbabwe reflect the desire for wealth and power, particularly through the diamond trade.

The Gurkhas, who have been tremendously praised in the debate, are a phenomenal division of our armed services. They have contributed greatly to our deployments throughout the world, not least in Kosovo where, during my previous visit, I saw them building shelters for our troops, who are doing a first-class job there. The Opposition give our troops who are deployed abroad every support and praise.

Sierra Leone is indeed a sad country. Until the 1990s it was reasonably stable, but then occurred the disastrous series of coups that led to the recent troubles. It is incredible that until the end of the 19th century the level of education in Sierra Leone was higher than it was in this country. Today, however, despite its phenomenal mineral wealth and the potential about which we have all heard, it is one of the poorest countries in the world with a derisory gross domestic product and a male life expectancy of merely 37 years.

I do not have much time to speak—I want to hear the Minister's response to the questions that other hon. Members have asked—but I wish to raise one issue that has not been mentioned: the progress of the Lomé peace agreement. I hope that the Minister will put some flesh on the bones of that agreement and tell us what progress is being made. Specifically, I should like to know what efforts have been made to transform the RUF into a political party, as was part of the agreement, and whether that transformation is happening. The disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of former combatants is a key part of reconstruction, so perhaps the Minister could let us know what progress is being made on that front. Furthermore, the release of prisoners of war was due to take place; has that happened? I hope that the Minister will also tell us about humanitarian assistance throughout Sierra Leone, which was another objective of the Lomé peace agreement.

We have not heard about the truth and reconciliation commission that was to be set up; perhaps the Minister can inform us of the latest position on that. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East raised the prospect of bringing before an international criminal court the perpetrators of some of the horrendous crimes that have been committed. We would all support that aim, but part of the Lomé peace agreement was an amnesty for crimes committed before the agreement's signature. I should like to know about the progress of those amnesties, how many have been granted and to whom. Another part of the agreement related to the exploitation of natural resources in Sierra Leone. It would be helpful to have an update on what legitimate exploitation has taken place. We know of the doubts that still hang over the illegitimate use of diamonds and possible intervention and interference by neighbouring countries, but I hope that the Minister will tell us what has been happening legitimately on that front.

On the question of the military deployment, it has always appeared to Opposition Members that the Government have been making policy on the hoof on Sierra Leone. We have had constant reassurances that we would perform certain tasks and go no further, but a few months later those tasks seem to expand. Mission creep has taken a strong hold on the Government's policy in Sierra Leone. We have evidence of that in recent announcements. On 19 December last year, the Secretary of State for Defence said: We are making preparations for the short-term deployment of a surgical team to Sierra Leone to cover the possibility of a gap in medical cover because of the withdrawal of certain UN troops. He went on: The team will be withdrawn as soon as possible once alternative arrangements are available."—[Official Report, 19 December 2000: Vol. 360, c. 89W.] Will the Minister update us on the team's status, what alternative arrangements have been made and the likelihood of its being withdrawn in the near future? In another written answer published Friday 26 January—not so long ago—the Secretary of State made yet another announcement that we were increasing our presence in Sierra Leone, saying: We plan to increase the IMATT's overall size from the 90 posts originally envisaged to 126."—[Official Report, 26 January 2001; Vol. 361, c. 725W.] That seems to follow the established pattern of the continual upgrading and reassessment of the tasks that British forces are in Sierra Leone to complete. Will the Minister enlighten the Opposition as to who is making those assessments, why they appear to be so inaccurate and why the tasks and expenditure in that area continuously expand?

Mr. Oaten

Will the hon. Lady confirm whether she is for or against the increased activity?

Mrs. Gillan

I cannot answer that question at this stage, because of the scant information available to the Opposition. I am searching for further and better particulars because I think that it would be more helpful if, instead of adding like topsy to announcements on an ad hoc basis, a longer-term game plan were laid out for the information of both Members of Parliament and, more importantly, British armed services serving abroad. Will the Minister think longer term rather than shorter term, as seems to be the Government's major problem? I want to leave time for the Minister to respond, but I hope that he will undertake to write to Members who have contributed to this debate if he cannot respond to all the questions asked today. The reconstruction and peaceful reconciliation within Sierra Leone concerns all of us.

Finally, the memorandum of understanding signed with Sierra Leone provides for written notice of termination of three months if we are going to withdraw our troops. Will the Minister tell us whether that memorandum of understanding is still in place, or whether it has been added to or amended? We want to make sure that we contribute positively to the rebuilding of Sierra Leone, and that our service personnel are fully backed up by the House in carrying out their duties on behalf of this country. I hope that the Minister will provide the reassurances that we seek.

10.46 am
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Brian Wilson)

First, I join other hon. Members in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) for securing this debate, which has been extremely useful. It may surprise hon. Members to learn that one does not necessarily become an expert on everything just by becoming a Minister. Listening to today's debate has been an important part of my learning process about Sierra Leone. I single out my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) for their outstanding contributions, which reflect the fact that they have been to the country, experienced and seen it. There is no substitute for that and both hon. Gentlemen articulated their experiences effectively. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) asked whether I intended to visit Sierra Leone. If I am privileged to be in office long enough, I shall visit the country. I am to visit west Africa next month, but the precise itinerary has yet to be determined. If I do not visit Sierra Leone on that trip, I expect to do so on a future one.

There is a fairly broad consensus, especially on the fundamental point that it is right that we are in Sierra Leone. It is a small country, it is poor and its people have suffered appalling brutality. However, it is a democracy, it has an abundance of natural resources and it has a vibrant and energetic people. Our purpose in Sierra Leone is to reassure those people that they have not been abandoned, and to help them to achieve the peace that they need to develop their country's potential.

It is incomprehensible and deeply depressing that a country so endowed with natural riches can be described as the poorest in the world, but the figures produced by the United Nations speak for themselves: in Sierra Leone, life expectancy is 37 years; of every 1,000 live births, 316 babies die and for every 100,00 live births, 1,800 mothers die. Those bald statistics are a sad reflection of a civil war that has lasted more than a decade and anchored Sierra Leone to the bottom of the United Nations human development index. Poverty has bred poverty as the economy has collapsed, leaving a young and disaffected population clamouring for non-existent jobs. The terrible conflict has caused the needless deaths of thousands of innocent civilians and resulted in some of the most barbaric atrocities of modern times: thousands of innocent people, including babies, have had limbs hacked from their bodies, and more than half of Sierra Leone's population of 5 million has been displaced. It is difficult to imagine the suffering endured by the people of Sierra Leone.

Our presence is intended to send a powerful message to the Revolutionary United Front about our determination to bring the conflict to an end. How that happens is the choice of the combatants: the sooner they realise that they have no hope of forcing themselves on the people, the quicker we can undertake the huge task of lifting the country from its knees and restoring the people's capacity to build a better future for themselves. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State described our strategy for Sierra Leone in his statement on 6 June. That strategy has not changed: our priorities are to repel the rebels, restore the peace and rebuild the country.

Mrs. Gillan

Before he leaves the subject of the RUF, will the Minister tell us what progress has been made under the Lomé peace agreement and the transformation of the RUF into a political party?

Mr. Wilson

Under the terms of the July 1999 Lomé accord, the RUF is entitled to form a political party, but its leader, Foday Sankoh, broke that accord in May 2000 and we believe that he has lost the right to any further involvement as a political leader. The RUF must appoint a new leadership if it wants to participate in elections, when they are eventually held.

Our priorities remain to repel the rebels, restore the peace and rebuild Sierra Leone. They are the necessary elements for sustainable long-term development and represent the essence of our commitment to the people of Sierra Leone. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South and others referred generously to our military assistance to Sierra Leone, which is fundamental to our goal of providing the Government of the country with the means to defend its people from brutal rebel attacks. Since June 2000, British forces have trained and equipped 6,500 soldiers. On 26 January, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced that the training will continue in its present form until September, by which time a total of 8,500 men will have undergone instruction. That programme has begun the development of an effective and accountable Sierra Leone army.

It would be remiss of me not to place on record, even at the cost of brevity, a tribute to the dedication of the men and women of the 2nd Roy Anglian, the 1st Royal Irish, the 1st Prince of Wales Own and the 2nd Royal Gurkha Rifles. I refer to all our forces involved in providing first-class training and support to the new Sierra Leone army. Incidentally, I shall write to hon. Members about all points to which I have not referred, including the point made by the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), who asked about malaria provision for our troops.

Mr. Oaten

Is September a cut-off deadline, or one that will be reviewed?

Mr. Wilson

I am coming to that. When the regiments have finished their work, an international military assistance and training team—IMATT—will take responsibility for longer-term training, but that does not signal the end of our involvement in the new army. Britain will continue to play a major role in IMATT. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is reassured.

Britain will remain at the forefront in providing training and advice to the Government of Sierra Leone and in helping to build the structures necessary to ensure the democratic accountability of the new army. We shall continue to strengthen and redefine the role of Sierra Leone's Ministry of Defence, paying special attention to aspects of civilian control. Our assistance does not end there. We are also helping the United Nations mission in Sierra Leone. In addition to the 15 military observers, we have, at the request of the United Nations secretariat, provided a senior officer as chief of staff as well as another six officers to perform key tasks within the mission. In addition, our rapid reaction force is ready to come to the aid of UN peacekeeping operations anywhere in the world, including Sierra Leone.

We shall maintain an operational headquarters in Sierra Leone until the end of 2001. Through military exercises, we will continue to remind the rebels that our over-the-horizon rapid reaction forces are never far away. We hope that further bloodshed will not occur. A negotiated solution is not impossible. We welcome the Abuja ceasefire that was signed in November 2000 between the Government of Sierra Leone and the RUF, and we would all like to believe that the new agreement has reawakened the prospect of a negotiated settlement. I do not need to remind hon. Members that Sierra Leone has suffered many disappointments in the past five years. In 1996, the Abidjan accord collapsed, as did the Conarkry peace accord in 1997 and the Lomé peace accord in 2000. Although those agreements provided a realistic basis for peace, the persistent duplicity of the RUF undermined each of them. Although I am encouraged by the Abuja ceasefire, the history of false starts causes me to regard that new agreement cautiously.

A credible disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration process is urgently required to encourage combatants to disarm. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has focused particular attention on that vital component of the peace process. The United Kingdom has developed model pilot projects that will provide visible evidence of the benefits in store for combatants when they have laid down their weapons and been demobilised. We shall continue to support the Sierra Leone Government, the World Bank and others in developing incentives designed to persuade combatants to give up the fight.

I am pleased to say that Britain played a leading role in the adoption of UN Security Council resolution 1315, which paved the way for the establishment of the special court for Sierra Leone. It has been created to deal with those who bear the greatest responsibility for the heinous crimes under international and Sierra Leone law that have been committed in recent years. That court is being established at the request of the Sierra Leone Government, with the support of the international community through the United Nations. It will have a crucial role to play in demonstrating the determination of the international community to bring to justice all those who are responsible for such crimes. I hope that I have answered a point that has caused concern to hon. Members.

Mrs. Gillan

Will the Minister tell us how that court fits in with the amnesties for crimes committed prior to the Lomé agreement? What is the status of those amnesties?

Mr. Wilson

The special court will deal with only a limited number of the most serious offenders. In parallel, we are supporting the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission, which will play an important role in establishing the facts of what has happened in Sierra Leone. It will provide a forum for those involved in the conflict on all sides to set out the truth. By definition, a special court would not deal with all matters and an amnesty is perhaps part of the overall mix.

Britain was also a key player in the adoption of UN Security Council resolution 1306, which imposed a ban on the import of all rough diamonds from Sierra Leone not controlled by its Government's certification scheme. That was a robust and imaginative response to Sierra Leone's tragedy, and sends out a powerful message about the need to end the trade in conflict diamonds. We shall continue to work to secure a worldwide certification scheme to halt the flow of illicit diamonds that fuels conflicts.

The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham asked what progress had been made in reducing that trade. I am pleased to report that the Sierra Leone Government recently reported to the United Nations sanctions committee that there has already been a small but significant increase in the number of diamonds passing through the Government's control. We shall build on that. More widely, the United Kingdom remains at the forefront of international and UN activity on the creation of an international certification regime, which will prevent conflict diamonds fuelling wars elsewhere, including in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola. That was a matter in which my predecessor was particularly interested and I intend to carry on that interest.

Malign external influences not only make our work in Sierra Leone much harder, but threaten the stability of the wider region. UN Security Council resolution 1306 established an independent panel of experts to examine violations of the UN arms embargo and links between the trade in diamonds and arms in Sierra Leone. It clearly identifies President Taylor of Liberia as a prime supporter of the rebels, supplying arms and equipment in return for diamonds. We are determined to ensure that measures are adopted to put pressure on President Taylor to end his connections with the rebels. Liberia's support for the RUF has been largely responsible for the conflict in Sierra Leone spreading to Guinea. I will write individually to hon. Members who have spoken in the debate to explain our policy in Guinea. Although it is important to set out our record on that matter, time does not allow me to do so today. I hope that what I have said to hon. Members and what I will add in writing will satisfy them.

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