Sierra Leone

– in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 6 June 2000.

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Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary 3:31, 6 June 2000

With permission, Madame Speaker, I shall make a statement on Sierra Leone.

When I made my first statement to the House, I announced that the British military presence would be of value in securing two objectives: to get British nationals out and to get more United Nations forces in. I am pleased to report that we have made good progress on both objectives.

The United Nations force has expanded rapidly over the past month and, by next week, we expect it to be at its original authorised strength of 11,000. That successful build-up has been possible only because of the increased efficiency that the British presence has brought to logistic movements. We have provided security for the airport and provided a lead that has encouraged UNAMSIL contributors to deploy quickly.

The security situation has much improved, in part because of the United Kingdom presence. The rebel advance on Freetown has been reversed and their leader is under arrest. All the 500 UN personnel who had been seized by the rebels have been released, although we continue to watch with care the situation of Major Harrison and Mr. Smith.

We remain on course for our target of withdrawal by mid-June. The 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment has already withdrawn, and we expect 42 Commando to be withdrawn next week. At that point, the security of Lungi airport will be transferred to the United Nations. At the weekend, I spoke to Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations, who expressed his appreciation for what he described as the magnificent effort by the British troops in helping to stabilise the situation in Sierra Leone.

Much more remains to be done to ensure that the UN mission is not only at full strength, but an effective force. We will continue to provide valuable back-up to that UN operation, such as better communications to its units and military advice to its headquarters. The achievement of the past month, however, has been to avert an immediate threat to Freetown. As a result, Sierra Leone may have dropped out of the front pages—but we shall secure lasting stability there only if we, the international community, and the Government of Sierra Leone follow through the gains of the past month with a sustained effort. We must also expect to see some local reversals before we succeed in bringing the conflict to an end.

On Thursday, I shall be visiting Sierra Leone to explore with President Kabbah how we can take forward our work in partnership. Today, I wish to outline to the House our strategy for building on the progress of the past month. The strategy has three priorities: to repel the rebels; to restore the peace process; and to rebuild Sierra Leone.

The first priority is to equip the Government of Sierra Leone with an effective and accountable army of its own. Since the Lomé agreement of last year, Britain has been the lead nation in training a new Sierra Leone army. We propose to accelerate our training to achieve a rapid boost in troop capacity. We shall therefore be providing a short-term training team to provide an intensive infantry course for 1,000 new recruits—all of them screened recruits over 18-years-old. The training will be conducted by about 180 personnel drawn from 2 Royal Anglian. They will be supported by HMS Argyll and RFA Sir Percivale, both of which will provide communications and back-up offshore. Additionally, 40 junior officers of the Sierra Leone army have this week commenced training in Ghana with the British military and advisory team there.

We anticipate that the intensive phase of initial training will be completed over the next two months. In the longer term, we will retain the lead in military training of the Sierra Leone army and in advising the Government of Sierra Leone on structures for the democratic accountability of that army. We will be deploying shortly the lead elements of a long-term training team of about 90 personnel, but their full deployment will depend on establishing a secure environment.

The second priority is to restore momentum to the peace process. Before the recent return to conflict, more than a third of the armed groups had entered into the disarmament process started by the Lomé agreement. It is vital that the option of demilitarisation remains open to all those willing to lay down their arms. The United Kingdom is by far the largest donor to the peace process in Sierra Leone, and we have committed about £70 million from the development budget. We will be seeking further support from other donors, including the World Bank, to help match the resources required by the shattered economy and society of Sierra Leone.

The amnesty within the Lomé agreement applied only to crimes committed before the date of its signature; it does not provide immunity for crimes committed in the recent conflict. The rebel leader, Foday Sankoh, is now under detention, and it is our view that he must remain so until he is brought to justice.

The third priority is to reduce the incentive which the illicit trade in diamonds has provided for armed conflict in Sierra Leone. Diamonds have fuelled the war. The people of Sierra Leone remain among the world's poorest while the wealth of its diamonds goes to rebels. In the medium term, the objective must be to bring the diamond area under the control of the Government and of the UN. In the meantime, we must take action outside Sierra Leone to regulate the trade in its diamonds. We are exploring with our partners in the Security Council our proposal for a UN resolution banning trade in diamonds from Sierra Leone except where that is certified as legitimate by the Government of Sierra Leone.

Any action to halt the flow of diamonds out of Sierra Leone and the flow of illicit weapons into Sierra Leone would have a much better prospect of success with the co-operation of neighbouring countries, especially Liberia. I regret to inform the House that there is continuing evidence establishing close links between the rebels in Sierra Leone and supporters in Liberia, and that Liberians are profiting from illegal diamond smuggling. We are consulting the United States and the European Commission on how we can jointly step up international pressure on Liberia to close down its links with the rebels.

The position in Sierra Leone has greatly improved in the month since my first statement to the House. British troops have made a big contribution to this turn-round. The House will want to record its appreciation of the professionalism with which they have carried out their duties and the commitment with which they have served in challenging circumstances.

However, there remains a long way yet to go before Sierra Leone is free from conflict. The best way that we can express our appreciation for the efforts of our troops is to make sure that we build on the gains that their presence has secured. We are determined to do so, and we will continue to make every realistic contribution that is open to Britain. Our objective is to ensure that the people of Sierra Leone are offered a realistic prospect of stability and peace and are freed from the violence of a brutal rebel minority.

Photo of Francis Maude Francis Maude Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. The House will want to join in congratulating our soldiers on their role. They have, as we have come to expect, discharged their duties with calm and distinction. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have been ready to support whatever tasks they might be asked to undertake.

Clearly, and as we would expect, the Government and the people of Sierra Leone have been extremely enthusiastic about the British presence. Will the right hon. Gentleman say what President Kabbah's view is about its effective military withdrawal, save for the continuing welcome training presence? In the light of his repeated statements that Britain will not let down Sierra Leone, is there not a danger that expectations about the duration and scope of the British military commitment were raised too high, and that as a consequence people in Sierra Leone will now feel let down?

Given that the United Nations mandate is not to defeat the Revolutionary United Front or take control of the diamond mining area, does the Foreign Secretary believe that the Sierra Leone army is now in a position to do either of those extremely important things? What is he doing to secure a change of mandate to one of peace enforcement?

In reality, the situation outside Freetown has barely improved, with Government forces suffering, we understand, setbacks in Lunsar and the area surrounding Kenema and Makeni. Was it really necessary for the rebuilding of the army that British weapons should have been supplied to so many child soldiers?

We would support any effective ban on diamond trading that cut off the RUF's life support. How does the Foreign Secretary square his proposal to the House today with the suggestion by the UN Secretary-General two weeks ago that he would effectively trade such an embargo for the detained UN peacekeepers? Given the news that a further group of UN peacekeepers may have been surrounded, does not the Foreign Secretary's initiative today cut across what Kofi Annan has already held out? Can he say a little more about how it would operate, given the fact, as he has mentioned, that most Sierra Leonean diamonds go out through Liberia or Burkina Faso, with the Liberian Government apparently taking some 80 per cent. of the proceeds of diamond trading from Sierra Leone?

Obviously, it is desirable that the legitimate Government of Sierra Leone are permitted to sell diamonds. That will be their lifeblood for creating a new durable civil order there. However, how will that be monitored in the light of evidence that the RUF is openly co-operating with pro-Government militias in towns such as Kenema? How confident is the Foreign Secretary that the Belgian authorities, who are crucial in the matter, will co-operate with such an embargo? With Antwerp dominating that market, have they not been the major obstacle to any solution?

The Foreign Secretary is suggesting that the active phase of British military involvement in Sierra Leone is drawing to an end, giving place to a longer-term and lower-key commitment. Will he agree to a full inquiry into the events that made that commitment necessary in the first place?

People especially need to know why Brigadier Richards was withdrawn in early April, apparently against the advice of both the Sierra Leonean Government and the British high commissioner. People want to know what the involvement was of the Foreign Office last summer in pressuring President Kabbah into pardoning Foday Sankoh from his death sentence and installing him as vice-president of the country, with full control of the diamond mines. Was that not a fatal error that set him free to return to the path of murderous exploitation, and which made it necessary to send in British troops?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's support—I look forward with keen anticipation to the day when he attacks me. In response to his last point, there was no pressure from the UK on President Kabbah to sign the Lomé agreement. Indeed, we were present only as an observer. We did not broker the agreement and we did not witness the agreement. Nor was there any need, when I saw President Kabbah subsequently, to press upon him the Lomé peace agreement, because the reality is that peace has been warmly welcomed throughout Sierra Leone.

If the right hon. Gentleman really believes that there was an alternative to the Lomé agreement, he must recognise that it was to fight the RUF—and President Kabbah's tragedy was that he had no combat troops. That is precisely why it is so crucial that our strategy now should be to provide him with those combat troops, so that he has the ability to restore law and order to his country.

I agree absolutely with what the right hon. Gentleman said about the difficulties up country. In fairness to myself, I have made no attempt to disguise that. I specifically said that we must expect local reverses before we reach a conclusion to the conflict. However, it is important that we do not let those local reverses damage our determination or morale in Sierra Leone. That is why we shall persist with the strategy that I have set out. That strategy has to involve the supply of weapons to the army of Sierra Leone. There is no point in calling on the Government to assist in the defeat of the RUF and then complaining about the provision of weapons to the army that is to carry that out.

The right hon. Gentleman asked why so many child soldiers had been found with British weapons. As far as I am aware, one celebrated case has been discovered by the London Evening Standard. I noted with interest an article the other week by the man who discovered the child soldier. He said he was taken aback by the negative coverage and had intended his report to argue for more, not less, British involvement.

We have made vigorous representations to President Kabbah—and I shall do so again on Thursday—that we do not expect any child soldiers in the Sierra Leone army. However, I remind the House that 5,000 children have been pressed into forces on both sides in Sierra Leone over the past nine years. It will not be possible to secure an instant transformation and an instant cessation of all child soldiers. Our commitment is to make sure that they are phased out and rehabilitated.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked whether Belgium would co-operate. If we secure a Security Council resolution, Belgium, like all members of the United Nations, will be obliged to abide by it. We shall certainly make sure that if we secure a resolution, it is workable. I agree with him that it would be easier to make it work if we had the co-operation of Liberia.

Lastly, I return to the right hon. Gentleman's initial statement, in which he asked how welcome the withdrawals were. I remind him and the House that from the time of my first statement a month ago, the Opposition's complaint has been about mission creep and the operation carrying on beyond the goals that we set out in that statement. I set out two objectives: that British nationals should come out and that UN troops should go in. We have secured both objectives. We have met them on schedule and we are now withdrawing. Those who complained about mission creep from day one are not in a position to complain that we are ending the mission, when we have completed it.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

British forces have done a wonderful job in Sierra Leone. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will demonstrate their total support for what has been done. Is it not appalling that while babies in that country have their limbs cut off by rebel forces, people in Europe—apparently even in this country—are dealing in diamonds sold by those rebel forces? Does my right hon. Friend agree that, bearing in mind the failure of the peace agreement to which he has referred, there will be no lasting solution in Sierra Leone until the rebel forces are militarily defeated? Is not the task of the international community to secure a decent future for the people of Sierra Leone?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend that there will not be permanent peace and stability in Sierra Leone until the RUF ceases to exist as unit. There are two ways of securing that. One is to make sure, as I said in my statement, that the door to demilitarisation and disarmament remains open so that those who want to demilitarise can do so. There is evidence that more now wish to do that. At the same time, we must pursue the twin track of making it plain that there can be no military victory for the RUF, and the sooner that more of them opt for demilitarisation, the better for them and for Sierra Leone.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

May I offer my support for the British forces? I welcome the Foreign Secretary's statement, particularly the part that dealt with diamonds. It is right to seek to cut off the supply of diamonds. Have the Government given any consideration to measures that might cut off the supply of arms to the rebel forces in Sierra Leone?

Have not the Lomé agreement and the United Nations mandate been overtaken by events, to the extent that it might even be argued that they have passed their sell-by date? What, in the Foreign Secretary's view, should replace them? In particular, how should the United Nations mandate be strengthened?

By what criteria does the right hon. Gentleman think we will be able to judge the political success of the military deployment to Sierra Leone, and when might we make that judgment? Should we not accept, as the realistic position, that it will be some considerable time before the last British soldier can safely leave Sierra Leone?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

I agree absolutely with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that it would assist in ending the conflict if weapons could be prevented from entering Sierra Leone. There is a UN sanctions committee administering the sanctions in respect of Sierra Leone and the rebels. We are making available to it the information that we have, and we hope that it will take a robust position. The key remains with the diamonds, because they pay for the weapons.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked about changes to the Lomé peace agreement. Plainly, implicit in my statement is that changes must take place; for instance, the RUF members who took part in the recent rising plainly cannot continue to enjoy the privileges secured in the Lomé agreement. However, it would be a big mistake to dismantle the Lomé peace accord, because it has been of value in shifting the balance of forces in Sierra Leone. For instance, other rebel groups who signed the Lomé peace agreement have remained loyal to it. I do not think that we should give them the reason to believe that that loyalty is now no longer required.

I do not see a case for changing the mandate of the UN mission. It is a robust mandate and gives those involved the right to use lethal force not only to defend themselves, but to defend civilians. What is required is to make sure that we have a UN mission that can carry out the mandate.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to indicate a note of caution about reaching a judgment on the past month. To be fair, we have not sought to claim that this is the end of the story. On the contrary, we have embarked on a long process. Our commitment to the training of an army in Sierra Leone is a long-term commitment. It will take time to secure, but we are determined to see it through.

Photo of Mr Tony Worthington Mr Tony Worthington Labour, Clydebank and Milngavie

I very much welcome the Foreign Secretary's report on the achievements of the British forces and the other activities in the past month.

On the subject of diamonds, the capacity of the Liberian diamond industry is said to be between 100,000 and 150,000 carats a year. Between 1994 and 1998, 6 million carats a year were exported from Liberia to Belgium. How can that be? What action is the Foreign Secretary taking on that? I noticed the omission of the words "De Beers". De Beers has an office in Monrovia, in Liberia, but has no office in Freetown. De Beers controls the diamond industry. What is it doing to help cut off the supply of the fuel of war in Africa?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

My hon. Friend reinforces the importance of taking the action that we have outlined on the diamond trade. He is right to draw attention to the fact that most of the diamonds in Sierra Leone appear to be leaving the region via Liberia. With respect to De Beers, I would not wish to comment on its activities within west Africa. It withdrew from Sierra Leone and, in fairness, it has been foremost among the diamond traders in proposing measures for international regulation of the diamond trade. A number of the diamond traders have begun to recognise that it is important for consumer confidence that consumers should know that when they buy a diamond, they are buying a clean diamond and not a conflict diamond.

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament

The Foreign Secretary has said that there is a long way to go. Clearly, on that long way, the establishment of a strong British Army training team is a sensible and intelligent proposal which the House will support, given the Army's well-established reputation for training armies in African countries such as Namibia and Zimbabwe. However, does he understand that while I wish to see the earliest possible withdrawal of the main British forces, I am surprised by his statement today—that it has been possible to do it as quickly as it has been done? I understand the desire to avoid allegations of mission creep, but we owe it to the forces that their outstanding contribution should endure. I hope that this has not been done in too precipitate a way.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

I have made it plain that we have a long-term commitment to Sierra Leone and we are determined to see through the peace process in all reasonable ways we can, but we will not provide—as I have repeatedly stressed—combat troops for the front line. As for the process being quick, I remind the House that we said in the first week of May that we would withdraw in mid-June, and we are delivering on that schedule. I have endured allegations of mission creep with fortitude and patience for the past five weeks, and I am prepared to put up with them for a further five weeks. If the right hon. Gentleman is concerned that those allegations were misplaced or unreasonably influenced the Government's view, perhaps he should have a word with his Front Benchers and suggest that they were in error.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara Labour, Kingston upon Hull North

My right hon. Friend has spoken only obliquely about the role of Belgium. Have there been direct negotiations between our Government and the Government of Belgium on this issue, and what sort of reply has he received?

Supporting what the British Army has done will take enormous amounts of reconstruction and infrastructure improvement in Sierra Leone. In particular, it will require the education of many of the young soldiers and the children who have become refugees or been made parentless. Is my right hon. Friend, in conjunction with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, working on policies to help in those tragic circumstances?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

Both I and the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), have at various times discussed the trade in diamonds with representatives of the Government of Belgium, and they will be fully involved—as a legitimate interest—in the debate on international measures. We have pushed the issue for the past year globally, and it now has a particular and immediate urgency in relation to Sierra Leone.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) is right to draw attention to the need for support for those who have been traumatised by the loss of childhood and the brutality of the past nine years in Sierra Leone. There are rehabilitation centres for the child soldiers and we need to ensure that more are provided, that they are adequate and that the children are brought to them as quickly as possible. However, we should not persuade ourselves that we shall quickly achieve the process of rehabilitating those children, or the economy and society of Sierra Leone, because that will require a serious, long-term commitment to development and rehabilitation.

Photo of Mr Bowen Wells Mr Bowen Wells Conservative, Hertford and Stortford

I welcome both the return of the Government to the wholehearted support of efforts by the United Nations, and the progress that the Government and the Army have made in restoring some stability in Sierra Leone. Has any assessment been made of the long-term cost of rehabilitating, training and arming the Sierra Leone army, so that the rule of law may spread from Freetown to the country's borders and the democratically elected Government may remain in control?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

Of course we have made estimates about the likely cost to Britain of the training commitment we are making. The commitment is for a short-term, intensive team in basic infantry training, followed by a longer-term commitment of some 90 personnel for the further training of the Sierra Leone army. We have costed that commitment, which is greater than that made by any other country, but we are looking to the international community to support us. We will need help to ensure that the peace process succeeds.

Photo of Ms Tess Kingham Ms Tess Kingham Labour, Gloucester

For any peace in Sierra Leone to be lasting, it is obviously crucial that ex-combatants, especially children, be reintegrated successfully back into society. Many of the ex-combatants will be traumatised and will have psychological problems, because of the nature of the conflict. They will not have livelihoods, or even communities, to return to. What is being done to ensure that those people are not a seedbed for future conflict? Is there an international, UN-funded programme to reintegrate ex-combatants successfully?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

My hon. Friend draws attention to what is a very important part of the disarmament process. Lomé set out a programme of disarmament, demilitarisation and reintegration. The British Government are by far the biggest single donor to that programme, and we will continue to provide a lead while looking to others to support it.

The reintegration programme may have to be reshaped in the light of experience. In particular, I think that we should now try to avoid having large numbers of those who come forward for disarmament spending long periods in camps. We should try to move them more quickly back into civilian life and to train them for the civilian employment to which my hon. Friend referred.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

Has the Secretary of State any plans to give the House a full account of Government policy—past, present and prospective—with regard to Sierra Leone? That could best be done by means of a full day's debate on a substantive motion. Such a motion should be couched in terms of the House giving its authorisation and support for the policy, which it has not given hitherto.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

Four statements on Sierra Leone have been made in the past five weeks for which the House has sat. On most of those occasions, the right hon. and learned Gentleman has risen to ask not a question of substance, but the question that he has just repeated. The Government are entirely happy to defend our record on Sierra Leone at any time. We have done so repeatedly, and the House has been kept fully informed.

Photo of Ms Jane Griffiths Ms Jane Griffiths Labour, Reading East

I welcome my right hon. Friend's commitment to the eradication of the trade in blood diamonds, which has fuelled conflict in Sierra Leone and elsewhere in Africa, and in other countries. My right hon. Friend will know that the US State Department estimates that the income from smuggled stones is upwards of £5 billion, and that that money buys a lot of AK47 rifles. About 80 per cent. of the global supply of diamonds is processed and sold in Antwerp—a city that the UN has described as a diamond smuggler's dream.

It is essential to eradicate the trade in blood diamonds, and a UN resolution may help in that respect. However, given that practices go on in Liberia and Belgium which could be described as questionable at the very least, a UN resolution by itself would not eradicate that trade. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that other measures will be taken?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

The point of a UN resolution is to authorise the measures to enforce it. My hon. Friend raises the question of what is a very real challenge to us. It will be nearly impossible to secure 100 per cent. success in the objective that she sets out. If we were to set ourselves a target of 100 per cent. success, we would quickly become discouraged and turn away from a course that plainly must be undertaken. However, even partial success could still be of great value in reducing the flow of funds to the RUF and in reducing the prices obtained by those who succeed in smuggling. All of that would represent a substantial gain. I hope that we can achieve measures that are as effective as possible but, in this case, we should not let the best be the enemy of the good.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Will the Secretary of State give a slightly fuller response to the question put to him by the hon. Members for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) and for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara)? Would it ease the situation if De Beers closed down its purchasing office in Liberia? What discussions have the Government held with the Belgian Government about encouraging De Beers to take that step?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

The future of the De Beers operation in Liberia will depend entirely on the extent to which the company can become a party in the implementation of a UN sanction. If we can use De Beers to make sure that it does not purchase diamonds smuggled out of Sierra Leone, the company can become part of the solution, instead of part of the problem.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Labour/Co-operative, Ilford South

Has my right hon. Friend seen the letter, published in today's edition of The Independent, from a number of people from Sierra Leone who live in London? They are worried about the perception of a reduction in the British presence at this time. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that, when he meets President Kabbah, efforts will be made to send clear signals about Britain's long-term commitment to achieving a long-lasting solution? Will he also take the opportunity to speak to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and ensure that sufficient resources are made available for the Defence, International Development and Foreign Office budgets so that Britain can continue to play the positive role internationally that it displayed in connection with Sierra Leone?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

I regularly discuss public spending priorities with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. I shall bear in mind what my hon. Friend suggests.

I am visiting Sierra Leone on Thursday precisely to demonstrate our commitment to taking the peace process forward. President Kabbah has warmly welcomed what Britain has done. I am sure that what I have announced today in terms of a commitment to accelerating the training of an army for his Government will also be welcome.

Photo of Dr Jenny Tonge Dr Jenny Tonge Liberal Democrat, Richmond Park

Does the Secretary of State agree that money from the sale of diamonds which should have been used for health and education purposes to improve the lot of Sierra Leonean citizens has instead been used to buy arms and squandered on the civil war? When will he deal with the other side of the equation and introduce legislation to control the activities of the arms trade, and arms brokers in particular?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

The Department of Trade and Industry, as the hon. Lady knows, is examining introducing a Bill based on the recent consultation exercise. However, we have no evidence of any British-based broker being involved in supplying weapons to the rebels in Sierra Leone, and would happily receive any information that was provided to us on that front.

I welcome the close interest that has been shown in these exchanges about the extent to which the illicit diamond trade fuels the conflict in Sierra Leone. This will give us added strength in our representations, and I hope that the extent to which parliamentary and public interest in the matter is increasing will be of value to us in the United Nations when we seek that resolution.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Opposition Whip (Commons)

Will the Foreign Secretary join me in welcoming the highly successful operation carried out by the spearhead battalions of the Parachute and Marine Regiments? Will he also accept that there is a world of difference between mission creep involving a highly combative situation and mission creep whereby we are supplying support and logistical help to Sierra Leone? Will he, therefore, set out a programme whereby distinct objectives are to be achieved before troops training the Sierra Leonean army are withdrawn?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

I am very happy to echo the hon. Gentleman's praise for the professionalism of the two units that have been involved in providing a presence in Freetown. The 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment deployed extremely rapidly, and very professionally carried out an evacuation. Both it and 42 Commando have maintained a very useful presence in Sierra Leone, and have helpfully made sure that the UN presence was increased and strengthened.

On the hon. Gentleman's other point, I note that the accusations of mission creep are now shading. What I announced today is not a new commitment by Britain. For a year, we have been committed to the training of the army of Sierra Leone. That will take time. The ultimate objective is to ensure that we provide a disciplined and effective fighting force for the Government of Sierra Leone, but one that will also transform the equations within Sierra Leone and is accountable to a legitimate Government.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP, North Down

Does the Secretary of State agree that even if the Government did not broker the Lomé agreement, they have certainly endorsed it and continued to give it support? The agreement provided the rebel leader with a place in the Sierra Leonean Government and access to the diamonds which were the sinews of war. Will the right hon. Gentleman agree that in brokering or supporting any other peace agreement, it would be wise to ensure that the military arm and civil power of the Government are, like the army in Sierra Leone, in tip-top condition and are maintained in that condition, and that the rebels are not allowed benefits that may ultimately result in the breakdown of an agreement, such as occurred under the Lomé agreement?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

I can say to the hon. and learned Gentleman that we have indeed supported the Lomé agreement. Indeed, no other country has done more to try and make that peace process a reality. I think that we were right to do so and are right to continue to do so.

It was not the Lomé agreement that deprived the Sierra Leonean Government of an army—it was the mutiny in 1997, in which their former army went over to make common cause with the rebels. One of the successes of Lomé—and we should not lose sight of this—is that those former members of the Sierra Leonean army have come over to the Government and have been fighting on the side of the Government, not of the rebels, over the past month. That would not have been possible without the Lomé agreement.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that in this expedition, as in other recent military operations, a disproportionately heavy burden has fallen on the British aimed forces by comparison with the armed forces of some of our continental friends and allies, notwithstanding their unwise commitment to the creation of a separate European security and defence identity? Given that it is our armed forces who will have to restore the situation, what negotiations has he undertaken with our continental allies to ensure that they will take up the burden of the continuing commitment in Sierra Leone, once our forces have, yet again, pulled the fat out of the fire?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

The hon. Gentleman's question demonstrates nothing more than his obsession with Europe. We have received much international support for the exercise and for what we are currently doing in Sierra Leone. It is a country with which we have long historic ties. As one of my hon. Friends pointed out, we continue to have long community ties with the country. It is thus perfectly reasonable for our colleagues to look to us to take the lead—just as we would look to France to take the lead in one of its former colonies.

Photo of Stephen O'Brien Stephen O'Brien Conservative, Eddisbury

Despite the Foreign Secretary's earlier dismissal of the point, I urge him to acknowledge that the UN mandate needs to be changed from a peacekeeping to a peace enforcement one, given that, at the time of the withdrawal, there is no peace to keep. Does he realise that there is a risk that, if UN troops are put back under the same, failed mandate, the position would be insecure for our troops if they were sent back to pick up the pieces?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

It is certainly important that the UN force be as effective as possible. That has been our policy; it will continue to be the objective of the back-up we provide to the UN forces. I repeat that, if the hon. Gentleman studies the Security Council resolution that establishes UNAMSIL, he will find that it is very robust; it provides for lethal force to be used. It certainly mandated UNAMSIL to use lethal force in the circumstances in which the troops found themselves in the first week of May. The reason that it was not used had nothing to do with the failure of the mandate, but everything to do with the failure of effectiveness of the force. That is what should be tackled—not the mandate.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

Has distribution of British arms to the Sierra Leonean army begun, and, if so, under what conditions? When the Foreign Secretary meets President Kabbah on Thursday, will he seek further assurances that those arms will be used neither by child soldiers nor by those aged under 18? What assurances and commitments will he seek from President Kabbah to ensure that those arms do not fall into the hands of any other militia groups—whether or not they are currently aligned with the Sierra Leonean army?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

A quantity of rifles has been distributed to the army of Sierra Leone during the past few weeks. A similar quantity remains under our control in that country. It will be released only under the close supervision of our officers there and only on the clear and explicit understanding that the rifles will not be given to anyone aged under 18. Indeed, President Kabbah has given us an undertaking that he will not have under 18-year-old children in the army. He has warned army officers that they will face disciplinary action if they recruit children under that age.

Photo of Piara S Khabra Piara S Khabra Labour, Ealing, Southall

What action does my right hon. Friend propose to take against companies based in London that deal in diamonds in order to promote conflict in the countries of Africa?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Foreign Secretary

In the event that we secure our UN resolution, such activity would be illegal in relation to Sierra Leone. We shall certainly fully uphold the UN line.