Somalia

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:51 pm on 9th February 2012.

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Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander Shadow Foreign Secretary 1:51 pm, 9th February 2012

I was a little surprised that the Foreign Secretary chose to mention the Maldives without the courtesy of prior notification, but I have noted all that he said on the matter.

I welcome the opportunity to debate Somalia this afternoon. Although I obviously welcome the conference on 23 February, it is necessary to put the changes of recent months within the broader context of the decades of conflict, poverty and violence that Somalia and the horn of Africa more widely have endured. Somalia’s crisis did not begin with the poor rains of 2010 or the collapse of the Somali dictatorship in 1991; the tragedy in Somalia has been the inevitability of the cycles of despair from which, to date, it is has been unable to escape.

It is right to begin by acknowledging, as the Foreign Secretary did, the significance of Somalia to the United Kingdom. Somalia’s trajectory of decline poses real threats to our security and continues to draw on British resources. The threat of piracy, kidnapping and terrorism, and the potential radicalisation of British youth in terrorist training camps across the country, all directly threaten the security and stability of the region, as well as posing an immediate risk to British interests at home and abroad.

Alongside the security threat, the United Kingdom is also deeply affected by the inevitable burden of responsibility that it rightly shares with the rest of the international community to protect and provide for those affected by the ongoing humanitarian crisis and seeking refuge, aid and sanctuary during these desperate times. Given all those factors, I support the Government’s stated intention to affirm Somalia as a key priority of British foreign and development policy in the years ahead.

Although Somalia’s decline goes back much further than the past few months, the timeliness of this debate reflects the fact that the situation on the ground has changed dramatically in recent months, as the Foreign Secretary made clear. Al-Shabaab has suffered several military setbacks that have seen it pushed out of parts of the southern border areas of Somalia and most of Mogadishu, creating an opportunity for the Government to strengthen their hold in these crucial areas. In the second half of last year, famine struck six regions of southern Somalia, and although the United Nations has, I am pleased to say, declared the famine officially over, the situation remains fragile and millions more could still die if international support is not maintained.

The changing situation in the country provides an opportunity, but no more than that—I respectfully suggest—because the causes of state failure lie much deeper than the recently changing dynamics on the ground. For many years, the state in Somalia has not existed in any meaningful sense. It has failed to secure its borders, monopolise force within the territory and even to provide basic services to its people. As a result, Somalia faces challenges of security, governance and corruption that would test even the strongest of states.

That is the context of the conflict with the Islamist terrorist organisation, al-Shabaab, and of a famine that has put 4 million people in crisis and caused the displacement of about 2 million people and the spread of violence perpetrated by terrorists and pirates who terrorise the local population and destabilise the region as a whole.

It is vital that we can distinguish between symptom and cause in relation to a state that has failed as comprehensively as Somalia. The structural failures of widespread violence, endemic corruption, weak governance and a state unable to maintain a monopoly of force over its own population in turn contribute to desperate poverty, the rise of non-state terror and violence, and the Government’s failure to deliver basic goods and services. It is vital, therefore, that the London conference and the work that follows from it address not simply the symptoms but the causes of Somalia’s decline—at root a profound failure of politics and, more broadly, of governance.

Each of us inevitably brings our own perspective and experience to this debate. For myself, this involves not only being a Member representing a constituent, a merchant seaman, taken hostage for some time by Somali pirates but my work as International Development Secretary in the previous Government working to find ways to deliver aid and support development in what is undoubtedly one of the most challenging environments on earth during some of the most desperate years of violence and famine that the country has experienced.

Aid to Somalia increased from just over £3 million in 2002 to more than £30 million by 2009, which meant that we could achieve limited but real progress in dealing with some of the most acute challenges facing Somalia, including helping to deliver basic health care, treatment for malnutrition and improved clean water and sanitation facilities. I say with genuine humility, however, that notwithstanding these sustained efforts, progress was limited. This was not a failure of will but a testament to the scale of the challenge that we faced then and that remains today.

Then, as now, it is important to acknowledge that a response to the pressing humanitarian crisis is a necessary but not sufficient condition for dealing with the broad spectrum of challenges that face Somalia. Circumstances on the ground, specifically the changing security situation, provide new opportunities for action, so I shall first address some of the symptoms of Somalia’s recent decline before addressing the root cause.

I shall begin with the most immediate level of human suffering that has added such an immense sense of urgency to this crisis. The humanitarian situation in Somalia has been described as a chronic catastrophe. The horn of Africa has experienced one of the worst droughts in 60 years and the most severe food crisis in the world since Somalia’s famine in 1991. The situation in Somalia is deteriorating so rapidly that for the first time in 10 years, the UN last year announced a famine across the country. Almost 4 million people—more than half the population—are living in crisis, with 750,000 of them living in absolute famine. That is an increase of 46% from July last year.

The situation is made all the more severe as a result of the deteriorating security situation in parts of the country and the stranglehold of the Islamist organisations that continue to hold sway in parts of the country. Since the first failed rains in 2010, international aid efforts have been in place, but from the outset they have been beset by challenges, particularly al-Shabaab’s decision to ban some aid organisations from operating in the country. An immediate task, therefore, is to alleviate the suffering resulting from the famine declared by the UN. When the Minister winds up this debate, will he share with the House some of the Government’s thinking about how the immediate humanitarian needs can be better addressed and international efforts better co-ordinated in the critical months ahead?

I turn to the piracy off the coast of Somalia, which was mentioned by the Foreign Secretary. Somali piracy has recently grown into a major international problem, exacerbating many of the underlying challenges that we face in promoting the rule of law and in helping Somalia to recover from conflict and famine, not least because many argue that some of the ransom money paid to Somali pirates is finding its way back into funding groups like al-Shabaab.

Somali piracy also threatens vital trading routes and poses significant risks to international security, which makes it an ever-more pressing aspect of the crisis which must be addressed if significant progress is to be made. I welcome the limited progress of which the Foreign Secretary spoke, but there are currently thought to be between 1,500 and 3,000 pirates operating off the coast of Somali. Some 49 of the world’s 52 hijackings last year took place off the coast of Somalia, and the global annual cost of piracy has been estimated at between $7 billion and $12 billion. Despite nine United Nations Security Council resolutions, three multinational naval operations and a counter-piracy policy that has been taken forward by a number of different international bodies, progress remains limited. The number of attempted attacks, the cost to the industry and the cost of ransoms have all increased significantly since 2007.

In addressing the issue of piracy, a co-ordinated international response is therefore key. NATO, the European Union and the combined maritime taskforce have all thankfully established naval operations to counter piracy, and we welcome the fact that the UK has contributed naval assets to all three operations. We also support the Prime Minister’s recent announcement that armed guards will be allowed to be used in protecting UK ships, although I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm whether the terms of engagement for those armed guards have been agreed. Although tackling Somali piracy cuts across a number of Departments, will the Minister also indicate which has the overall lead on countering piracy?

Let me turn more generally to terrorism and criminality, which continue to plague Somalia and pose an increasing risk to British security and British interests. Large areas of Somalia are today still controlled by militants, and Somalia has become a haven for some of the worst criminality and terrorism to be found anywhere on earth. As early as 2010, the MI5 director general warned of the threat posed to Britain from the rise of terrorist training camps in Somalia, one of the gravest security threats that our country faces, not least because there are now steady numbers of UK nationals known to be receiving training in al-Shabaab camps in Somalia. We are right to be concerned that those who are today fighting alongside al-Shabaab could some day redirect their focus back towards the population in the United Kingdom. Will the Minister give an updated assessment from the agencies of the scale and character of the Somali-based threat to British interests?

Alongside the threat from al-Shabaab-affiliated camps, there is also growing concern about the spread of al-Qaeda-inspired jihadists across the country. Somalia today is showing many of the worrying characteristics that made Afghanistan so dangerous a seedbed for terrorism under the permissive regime created by the Taliban. Strengthening counter-terrorism co-operation in Somalia—and, indeed, across the region—is of vital national interest to the United Kingdom, and will be a crucial step on the path towards securing peace and stability for Somalia. I hope and trust, on the basis of the Foreign Secretary’s remarks, that it will therefore find a place on the agenda of the London conference.

I have spoken of the symptoms of decline that have plagued the people of Somalia and threatened the vital interests of the UK and the wider international community. It is right that tackling those symptoms should remain a high priority for the Government, but let me turn to what I believe are some of the underlying causes that must be addressed if we are to make genuinely sustainable progress on other fronts. Military efforts—although welcome, and significant in recent months—will not alone bring a lasting peace to Somalia. Structural political reform is the only sure foundation for progress. The depth of the failure of governance has to be understood in order to understand the depth of the crisis still facing Somalia today. Somalia has not had a functioning Government for 21 years. Since 2004, the country has, at least in name, been governed by the transitional federal Government. Beset by corruption and institutionally weak, Somalia’s transitional Government now have only six months before their mandate expires. However, in these crucial few months, the situation on the ground has changed dramatically. For the first time in years, Somalia now has a Government who can hold and control a portion of Somali territory beyond the borders of Mogadishu. That is a significant advance, but the fundamental question remains whether the TFG are in a position to benefit from, and capitalise on, the military progress being made, and thereby fully assume responsibility for security across the country.

The international community cannot ignore the reality that the TFG are seen by many Somalis as inadequate and ill-equipped to deal with the immense task at hand. For many Somalis, the record of the TFG is marred by allegations of corruption, embezzlement and state-sponsored violence. For others, the TFG are still largely seen as a Government made up of the victors of Somalia’s bloody civil war. Many struggle to see the current leadership as representing Somalia as a whole. In August, even as the United Nations agreed to extend the TFG’s transitional mandate for one more year, it noted that the TFG had failed to accomplish a single one of their previously agreed goals in the seven years since they were created, including completing a Somali constitution and holding local elections.

In less than six months, the transitional period is due to come to an end. Neither allowing a political vacuum to develop nor simply continuing with business as usual is sufficient under the circumstances. A key challenge for the London conference, therefore, is to encourage the development of a political process that is deemed legitimate and judged inclusive, and that allows all those Somalis who wish to play a constructive role in their country’s future to take part. For durable progress to take hold, the transition stage must end and the task of establishing permanent representative government structures, based on a robust constitutional processes, must begin.

Alongside the pressing need for an effective transitional political arrangement in Somalia, establishing effective political structures will also be a crucial step towards enabling the people of Somalia to engage with the ongoing demands and struggles for representation and self-determination that communities in the country have long been seeking. On that issue, I praise the work that many colleagues across the House have done to promote the cause and facilitate the genuine progress that has been achieved—in particular, the work of my right hon. Friend Alun Michael. In government, we were clear in acknowledging the unique and distinct character of Somaliland and Puntland, and continue to defend their right to appropriate representation. However, we must be clear that the task of securing legitimate representation must not be divorced from the broader task of developing the inclusive national political structures that are a necessary part of Somalia’s development into a stable and secure country.

The case for focusing sustained effort on Somalia is clear. However, there have been many attempts—which, to be fair to the Foreign Secretary, he acknowledged—by the international community that have so far failed to resolve the underlying tensions that have had such devastating consequences for the people of Somalia in past decades. Given that, we would like to ask the Minister some specific questions about the approach that he plans to take at the upcoming conference on 23 February and what steps he will take to ensure that it is not a missed opportunity, but the start of real progress. Given that the strength or weakness of the TFG will prove to be as decisive for the future of Somalia as the strength or weakness of Al-Shabaab, how will the conference progress without either guarantees of security on the ground or a credible partner in the TFG for the task of political reconciliation and reform? It is clear that the problems of Somalia will not be solved by a single conference, but will require a continued process of engagement and reform. Given that, what measures are being put in place now to ensure that the outcomes of the conference are sustainable over the long term?

In order to be sustainable, the outcomes must be closely linked to the existing United Nations structures—the Djibouti process has been mentioned—that are already in place. Given that, what measures are being taken to ensure that the decisions taken at the conference are effectively linked to the existing goals, strategies and objectives of the United Nations operation in Somalia? Given that part of the task of the conference must be to tackle the root cause of so many of Somalia’s problems—a chronic failure of governance—what steps has the Minister taken to ensure that civil society groups from across Somalia are engaged at all stages of the process of political transition? Finally, will the Minister set out how the goals and objectives of the conference are expected to tie in with the existing timetable, set out in the road map on political reform that is already in place?

It is clear that Somalia today stands at a critical juncture in its history. 2012 is a crucial year for the political process in Somalia, and 2011 saw significant security progress on the ground. It is right, therefore, that we must seize this opportunity to make real progress and deliver a better and more secure future for the people of Somalia. However, our broad experience of supporting countries emerging from conflict—as well as our more recent experience of state building—demonstrates that changes in the security environment in Somalia will not alone be sufficient to bring real hope for development. Instead, what is needed is an approach to reform the governance structures that lie at the heart of so many of the more visible symptoms of state failure that we see on the ground in Somalia today. The challenge is one that will take years and decades to tackle, not weeks and months; but this should harden, rather than weaken, our shared resolve.