UN Mission in Mali: Armed Forces Deployment

– in the House of Commons at 2:07 pm on 9th December 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence 2:07 pm, 9th December 2020

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement to update the House on UK support for the UN stabilisation mission in Mali, which supports the peace process, helping to counter the spread of instability in the Sahel.

This month, 300 United Kingdom troops led by the Light Dragoons battlegroup will complete their deployment into the United Nations mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA. Over recent years, Mali has become one of the most unstable countries on the African continent. Terrorist aggression and conflict between communities have been on the rise and the United Nations Multi- dimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali is mandated to support the Malian people in their effort to secure sustainable peace, to support the re-establishment of state authority, to protect civilians and to promote and protect human rights in Mali.

By 22 December, the majority of our 300 UK armed forces personnel will have deployed to MINUSMA and completed quarantine. Our contingent consists of 250 troops from the Light Dragoons, the Royal Anglian Regiment and other attached personnel, and a further 50 forming a national support element. They will soon begin operations in Mali, joining some 60 other nations contributing to the UN mission.

The UK has committed to a three-year deployment to MINUSMA, with a review to be held at the 18-month point. UK personnel will deploy on six-month operational tours. Accordingly, the first deployment, led by the Light Dragoons, will be replaced by a second contingent, led by the Royal Anglian Regiment, in the summer of 2021. This Government take their responsibility as a permanent member of the UN Security Council seriously. Our deployment to MINUSMA reflects our continued commitment to, and growing leadership in, multilateralism and international peace and security. Our nation has a proud peacekeeping track record, as we demonstrate global Britain in practice. This deployment builds on a successful multi-year commitment to the UN mission in South Sudan, where UK peacekeepers were responsible for building hospitals, bridges and roads.

In the Sahel region, more than 15 million people need humanitarian assistance. Some 11 million are food insecure and more than 3 million are displaced because of the conflict. As with many conflicts around the world, women and girls in Mali are disproportionately affected by the continuing instability. The Sahel is the worst region on earth to be an adolescent girl seeking 12 years of quality education, as it accounts for an astonishing 7% of the world’s population of primary age girls who are out of school. By 2030, almost one in five women aged 20 to 39 in the continent of Africa who have no education will be living in the Sahel.

Mali is at the forefront of countries in the Sahel affected by instability. Terrorism and conflict are sharply on the rise. Mali has already registered more deaths due to violence this year than any previous year in the past decade. This violence is costing lives, hindering development across one of the world’s poorest countries and spreading instability to the wider region.

International action is the right thing to do from a humanitarian perspective, but history shows us that international efforts to restore law, order and security are also the best way to prevent unstable regions from becoming safe havens for terrorist groups. It is in the UK’s interests to act.

Terrorist violence and conflict have risen sharply over recent years, and the permissive environment provided by the current instability in Mali and the wider region creates the space for developing threats. That harms UK interests and also those of our allies and partners, especially France and others in Europe. It is in all our interests that we work together to protect civilians and help build a safer, healthier and more prosperous future for the region.

Our contribution will provide critical capabilities to the UN mission at a vital time. We can have genuine impact on the mission’s overall approach. To help reduce the spread of conflict and insecurity contributes to the protection of civilians and supports Mali’s pathway to sustainable peace. This deployment is a vital part of our work in the Sahel to build stability, bolster conflict resolution, improve the humanitarian response and strengthen partnerships between the international community and regional governments in responding to the crisis.

We will be joining a UN mission led by a civilian special representative of the UN Secretary-General and an international peacekeeping force of over 60 nations, led by the Swedish UN mission force commander Lieutenant General Dennis Gyllensporre. It is a truly global collaboration, with contributions from our western allies, including Germany and France, and African nations contributing large contingents to support their regional stability.

The initial objective of the first rotation of troops will be to understand the operating environment so that they are best placed to support the UN mission going forward. The UK taskforce will be under command of the Light Dragoons’ commanding officer. Armed with cutting-edge technology, our troops will provide a specialist reconnaissance capability, which aims to improve the mission’s overall performance, particularly in protecting civilians. Our contingent will offer crucial support to the mission to better understand threats and to shape the mission’s response, enabling intelligence-led operations across the mission’s mandate.

Our MINUSMA deployment complements existing commitments we have in the region, including helicopter support to Operation Barkhane, the French-led counter-terrorism initiative in the Sahel region. Although the two missions are complementary, they are distinct in their objectives and tactics. Our experience in Mali will also help to develop our world-class training for peacekeepers that we provide each year in Africa. Our aim is that the response to more security challenges in Africa will be African-led, and we are mentoring and training others on the continent to help us achieve that goal.

The UK believes in peacekeeping as a way to stabilise and contain conflict. Our contribution to MINUSMA, alongside our enduring commitments to the UN peace- keeping operations in Cyprus and Somalia and the staff officers we have deployed to six other UN missions, is the UK playing its part in a multinational effort to contain the worst consequences of violent conflict and to help build confidence in the political process under way supporting longer-term peace and reconciliation.

UN peacekeeping operations are currently protecting more than 125 million of the world’s most vulnerable people across 13 different missions, consisting of more than 98,000 troops, police and civilians. Combined, they provide a critical tool in containing and reducing conflict in the world’s most fragile environments.

To function effectively, UN peacekeeping relies on contributions from its members, especially more experienced militaries such as the UK’s. Our deployment is a highly capable contingent able to support stronger mission performance and longer-term reform. The UK’s military contribution to UN peacekeeping in Mali is a clear illustration of how our defence and security capabilities can contribute to the UK’s role as a force for good in the world, working hand in hand to support the Government’s development and diplomatic agenda.

It is important to stress that deploying to MINUSMA does not come without risk. However, our forces are world-class and we have provided them with the right training, equipment and preparation to succeed in a complex operating environment. We have taken steps to mitigate the risks, and I am confident that our troops will make the UK proud by having a strong impact on the ground in Mali. They will bolster our standing in the United Nations and will help us in our endeavours to make the UN and its peacekeeping missions as effective as possible.

As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, we are fully committed to supporting the UN’s peacekeeping missions around the world and to encouraging them to be as effective as possible. Our MINUSMA deployment is a key part of that commitment and, as the Prime Minister recently noted, our uplift in defence spending should allow the UK to shape international security and provide a stronger contribution to global Britain.

Finally, may I thank all those serving in Mali and around the world this Christmas for their service to our nation and extend that gratitude to their families, friends and loved ones who will be celebrating Christmas in their absence? I know everyone in all parts of the House will want to wish all our service personnel serving over Christmas a safe tour and as merry a Christmas as they can manage.

Photo of John Healey John Healey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence 2:16 pm, 9th December 2020

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. It was good to have the written statement last Thursday, as troops began to arrive in Mali; it is better still to have his oral statement today, with the Minister ready to answer the range of questions that arise from this new deployment.

Let me say at the outset, as I said to the House on Monday, that Labour strongly supports this commitment of UK troops to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, and we do so with our eyes wide open to the risks they face. The public expect Ministers to be open about this too, so I hope the Minister will undertake to give regular reports on progress to Parliament during this deployment.

The Minister rightly said today that deploying “to MINUSMA does not come without risk.” The UN has described this as its most dangerous mission, with 227 personnel killed since 2013, so what assessment has he made of these risks and what specific steps have been taken to reduce them? Last week the French base in Mali at Gao was attacked; where will our troops be stationed and how secure will the British base be?

The Defence Secretary has told us:

“This deployment reflects our continued commitment to multilateralism and international peace and security”.—[Official Report, 3 December 2020;
Vol. 685, c. 14W.]

As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Britain does have this special responsibility, which we in Labour also take seriously; too often, however, there has been a view that, somehow, peacekeeping is beneath Britain, so I hope to see confirmation in the integrated review that this has changed as part of the Government’s plans for a post-Brexit global Britain.

Certainly, as with Mali, where Britain has special military skills we should step up, and the Light Dragoons and the Royal Anglian Regiment are filling a capability gap in Mali as long-range reconnaissance specialists. Since the Government first announced the intention to deploy these troops in July 2019, however, Mali has become more complex, less stable, more violent. This deployment is rightly limited; what measures must be met for the Government to judge it a success, are there circumstances in which the Government would widen the scope or increase the size of this UK military mission, and could troops in this UN deployment also serve in the distinct and complementary French-led Barkhane mission?

The Government have said that

“it is stepping up its engagement in the Sahel across the development, diplomacy and defence pillars”.

The Minister says that there is, rightly, very significant development interest in Mali, with 6.8 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. There are also significant security concerns, with drugs cartels, arms traffickers, and al-Qaeda and Islamic State terror groups all active in the region. When co-ordinated action and help are clearly needed, the deep cuts made in the spending review to the conflict, stability and security fund could not have come at a worse time for the Sahel. Will the costs of this Mali deployment be met from that fund? How much in development aid is planned for Mali and the other Sahel countries over the three-year period of this military deployment, and how are Britain’s development, diplomatic and defence activities being co-ordinated within Government?

Finally, Britain’s responsibilities as a leading UN member are being met with this Mali mission, alongside our continuing commitment to peacekeeping operations in eight other countries around the world. I pay tribute to our armed forces personnel who serve in these missions. They will, as the Minister says, continue to make the UK proud.

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his positive response to the statement. As we were saying in the Remembrance Day debate a few weeks ago, as people deploy on missions such as this it matters enormously to see support on both sides of the House for what they are going out to do. He rightly asked some questions that I will do my best to answer, starting with, of course, an intent to regularly update the House either verbally—although that met with no support from my hon. Friend Bob Stewart—or otherwise on the progress of the mission and the threat as it evolves.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to pick up on the line in my statement that says that this mission is not without risk. This is a dangerous part of the world in which to be operating. It is because it is such a dangerous part of the world that the case for being there as part of a peacekeeping force is so easily made. We should be clear that, despite all the training, all the equipment and all the mitigations that we will put in place—I will explain some of those in a second—our troops are accepting a risk to life and limb in serving in the Sahel, and we thank them for that. We genuinely believe that it is in the interests of the UK and the people of Mali that we contribute to that mission.

We have recognised that in previous deployments perhaps there has been a gung-ho willingness to expand the mission quickly and get on with things without fully understanding the realities of the threat on the ground and how that manifests itself in relation to military operations. In this first rotation—the first six months—we will be expecting the Light Dragoons battle group to deploy and to find its way in the immediate vicinity of Gao, the city in which the UN camp where they will be based is. If, over time, we come to understand that they can operate at range, we will consider that on its merits, depending on the mission design from the UN force commander. Our intention is to find our way slowly, to build our confidence and our understanding, and then to grow the mission, within the confines of MINUSMA. It is important to stress that there is no UK agency in being able just to decide what we do; we are under the command of the UN force commander.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the camp. It is a brand-new camp, and it is indeed in the UN super-camp at Gao. That camp is protected by a German early warning system called MANTIS—the modular, automatic and network capable targeting and interception system—which picks up the IDF, or indirect fire attack, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned in his reply. That allows people in the camp to take cover and adopt all of their drills when there is incoming indirect fire. Sadly, as a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, I know that that is just the reality of being in camps in those places, but these early warning systems give people great confidence that they can find cover before the rounds start landing.

This is, indeed, a complex mission. The UN’s mission is made all the more challenging as a consequence of the changing political tides in Mali—there was a coup only four months ago—and that means that the military mission, as designed by the UN force commander, and the political mission have some work to do to evolve and to react to those new political realities in Mali, hence our caution over the speed at which we unleashed the Light Dragoons on their mission. We want to see how things develop, and we will update the right hon. Gentleman and colleagues as that happens.

There is no scope to widen the size of our force; we are limited by what the UN requires of us. There is also no scope for us to decide unilaterally, as the United Kingdom, that we want to do more; we are within the UN’s mission. MINUSMA and Operation Barkhane are entirely separate; there is no opportunity to flex one from the other, as to do so would be to break the rules on UN peacekeeping contingents. In any case, the missions are so different; Barkhane is a more offensive, counter-terrorism operation, chasing both JNIM—Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin—and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara around not only Mali, but Burkina Faso and Niger. MINUSMA is a Mali-only peacekeeping operation led by the UN.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked me about funding. We are talking about £80 million over three years, which is indeed funded by the conflict, stability and security fund. It will matter enormously to people deploying on this operation to see the tone of these exchanges. Our intention is to keep the House informed as best as we can. This is a dangerous mission, but our people are well-trained and well-equipped. They are ready and they are up for it, and I wish them a good tour.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Sub-Committee, Chair, Defence Sub-Committee

I join the Opposition and our Front-Bench team in wishing our forces well and a very safe tour. The Minister speaks about wanting to increase our profile in the Sahel. The west has been without resolve in that area; this has been a hidden conflict. I am pleased that we want to close down this permissive environment, which he spoke about, of extremism, criminality, human trafficking and regional conflict spilling out beyond the Sahel. However, I hope that that commitment is matched by a greater western resolve to tackle the underlying causes of those issues, because we will not solve the challenges there through military means alone.

I must tell the Minister—I am pleased that the Defence Secretary is in his place— that I am sorry to learn that as we have in the Sahel taken a step forward with greater resolve, here we are taking a retrograde step with talk of reductions to our reserve forces and to their training. They are the very people who are the in-fill to the regular forces that go out to these places; I have not been on an operational overseas tour where I did not have reservists under my command as well. I say to the Minister that I hope that as we step forward with greater resolve on the international stage we will think more carefully about these cuts to our reserves.

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I am delighted to say that there are a number of reservists within the deployment to Mali. Their skillset is well valued and they will do a great job. The Secretary of State and other Ministry of Defence Ministers have, like me, all served alongside our fantastic reservists in various theatres over the course of our military service. Their value is undeniable and they are an integral part of the force. My right hon. Friend Mr Ellwood is right to say that to some degree this is a hidden conflict, although with the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq we now have the largest western troop deployment on earth in the Sahel. However, it is incomplete, no matter what the size of the force, unless a political and diplomatic effort goes around that response. He is right to encourage, not just here in our diplomatic and aid effort, but within the UN and across all the troop-contributing nations, the political effort to match the military one.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education)

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. It is important that the House is kept fully informed on issues such as this. The Scottish National party firmly supports the deployment of UK personnel in supporting the UN mission in Mali. It is important that the UK continues to promote global justice and peace. I support the Minister from a humanitarian perspective and echo his point that international efforts to support law, order and security are also the best way to prevent unstable regions from becoming safe havens for terrorist groups. Many areas of concern in Mali need to be addressed by this international action, including food security, health and child protection. This conflict has led to displacement and death, and most disturbing are the UN reports that rape is being used as a weapon of war, with both women and young girls the target of these attacks. It is therefore conspicuous that while the UK is sending personnel to the area, which of course is most welcome, it is also cutting aid by 30%. These two issues cannot be considered separate when we are looking at the humanitarian response.

The Minister stated that the UK troops will support the Government’s development and diplomatic agenda

“as a force for good in the world”.

Will he explain how the cuts to aid described could impact the UN mission in Mali? Will he detail whether any civilian support has been cut on the ground, including to those working with victims of sexual violence? Given the increase in terrorist activity and instability in the region, what safeguards are being considered for the personnel who are being deployed? At what point will our troops be withdrawn, and what are the success criteria for that to happen?

Finally, I would like to pay tribute, on behalf of those on the SNP Benches, to all those serving in such missions, especially all those personnel who will be away from their loved ones over the Christmas period.

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

On the official development assistance point, rather a lot of MOD activity, which has huge humanitarian advantage, was not counted under the ODA definition. We are rather proud of the amount that we do that does not make it into the accounting against that budget.

I thank the hon. Lady for raising the importance of human security as part of this mission. I had the pleasure the other week of doing a roundtable with the Countess of Wessex and the vice-chief of the defence staff, using Mali as a case study for exactly how the UK should lead in human security, and the role of the MOD and our armed forces in that leadership. The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that within the deployment to MINUSMA are specialist human security officers, who will add immeasurably to the emotional intelligence of the deployment and a recognition of the needs of women and other minorities in the community, so that human security can be integral to the UK’s effort within MINUSMA.

The hon. Lady asks about the term of the mission and the success criteria. This is very different from Iraq and Afghanistan, where the circumstances for our withdrawal were principally around political intent in London. We have signed up for a three-year commitment to the UN MINUSMA mission. We have said that we will review that commitment after 18 months to check that we still think it is the right contribution for us to be making. It is a time-limited commitment to the UN and we leave at the end of it, just as we did very successfully from South Sudan earlier in the year.

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham

By way of a declaration, I am a reservist. I welcome the Minister’s statement. Terrorists and insurgents are exploiting open borders in this region to smuggle weapons, arms and drugs. Do the British Government support the French initiative to increase regional co-ordination through the G5 joint force to deploy 5,000 personnel from five neighbouring states? With France’s key role in intelligence in the Sahel region, what does the Minister make of the point made by some that France should be included in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing system?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend’s last point may require a statement entirely in its own right. France is clearly an important partner in the international activity in the Sahel. It is really important, however, to note that the French-led Barkhane mission is entirely separate from MINUSMA. The Secretary of State and I both participate in conferences with other NATO Defence Ministers and Defence Ministers from across the Sahel, so we are aware of and support what France is doing to generate more mass to its Barkhane mission, but it is really important to note that that is separate from what we are doing with MINUSMA.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

I thank the Minister for providing such a comprehensive statement this afternoon, so soon on the back of last week’s written ministerial statement. That is deeply welcome, and I want to place on the record our support for our service personnel as they deploy. The Minister will know through correspondence from the Defence Committee and media reports that there are some concerns about the availability of the appropriate equipment for the circumstances, so may I ask him to place it on the record publicly this afternoon that those who are prepared to put themselves in harm’s way will have adequate and appropriate protection for the situation in which they will find themselves?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The environment in Mali requires a balance between ballistic protection against the threat of improvised explosive devices, and an environmental challenge where heavy rain and mud can easily lead to heavy vehicles getting bogged in. It is our assessment that Foxhound, Ridgeback, Coyote and Jackal—all of which were purchased for the Afghanistan deployment, have proved themselves against a far more severe IED threat than the one in Mali, and have been upgraded in the decades since—achieve that balance between the ballistic protection required against an IED threat such as this and the environmental challenge of such weather as is likely to be experienced in Mali.

Photo of Suzanne Webb Suzanne Webb Conservative, Stourbridge

This is the latest in a long line of peacekeeping and humanitarian missions undertaken by our armed forces with the support of this Conservative Government. Does my hon. Friend agree that, thanks to this Government’s support of our armed forces, in words and in actions, they have been able to deliver an immeasurable impact on the lives of those most in need of security and stability across the world?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

Yes, I do. This is in addition to Defence’s contribution to the life of the United Kingdom this year, of which we are very proud. Within the next week or two, our armed forces will be actively involved in peacekeeping operations in Mali, in addition to all that Defence is doing at home in response to covid, in addition to all that the Royal Navy is doing to protect the UK’s interests around the world, and what we are doing in Afghanistan, and what we are doing in Iraq, and, and, and, and, and. Our armed forces are a fantastic example of the very best of British and we in this Government are delighted to be supporting them in their endeavours.

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Wales), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

May I too pay tribute to the troops involved in this deployment and others globally at this time? Reports from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that 230 children were recruited by armed groups in Mali in the first half of 2020 alone, compared with 215 cases in the whole of 2019, are deeply concerning. What steps are the Government taking with international partners to help to protect vulnerable children who have been taken advantage of in this way and to ensure the sustainability that the Minister referred to in his statement?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Lady makes a very important point. The recruitment of children to the conflict is something we abhor. I refer her to the answer that I gave to the SNP spokesman on our enthusiasm for growing our human security capability. Those human security officers are within the force to deliver exactly this sort of thing—to recognise the needs of women, protect vulnerable children and ensure that the needs of the whole community are considered as we go through peacekeeping missions such as this.

Photo of Gagan Mohindra Gagan Mohindra Conservative, South West Hertfordshire

I too welcome the statement. At heart, all UK Defence operations are focused on building stability and security worldwide, from which all nations and people are able to benefit. Can my hon. Friend assure me and the House that, thanks to the record spending review, we will be able to continue to contribute to global safety and prosperity in the years to come?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I can, and what we aim to do, through a more forward presence of our armed forces around the world, is find ourselves in a position whereby we can more easily respond to the needs of different regions where there are UK interests or where the UK simply needs to be a force for good, alongside friends and allies in the international community. This integrated review gets after exactly the problem my hon. Friend describes, and we are excited about what the opportunities in the IR mean for us to do the right thing in different parts of the world in future.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General)

Mali is one of the world’s poorest countries, but it seems to be the vast network of small gold mines that is attracting jihadist and other terrorist organisations there. What can be done as part of this international effort to try to get those gold mines put to use in getting the country out of poverty, rather than funding terrorism?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

If I am honest, the hon. Gentleman raises a point that I have not come across in all the briefings I had before the deployment. I will of course look into that dimension, but I am not sure that those terrorist groups are motivated simply by any pecuniary advantage arising from securing the mines that he mentions. These people are ideologically opposed to any sort of religious freedom or social freedom, and I fear that their determination to disrupt and to be violent would endure irrespective of what natural assets lay beneath the earth, but I will of course go and inform myself on that point.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

The Minister says that this force of 300 will form a specialist reconnaissance capability. To do that, the troops will have to speak to the local people. Some 5% to 10% of the local people speak the official language, which is French, and the rest do not. When I took 900 soldiers to Bosnia, I required 20 interpreters—minimum. I suspect we will need at least seven for this force. May I ask my hon. Friend whether there is an ability to recruit interpreters locally, and whether interpreters in both French and local languages—there are quite a few of them—have been thought about? I am sure the answer is yes.

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is absolutely right: interpreters are an essential part of any population-centric military mission. There are French-speaking personnel within the force itself and we will be recruiting local interpreters to join the force. Crucially, they will not just be male interpreters who stand on the shoulder of the male platoon commander but female interpreters who work alongside human security officers, so that we are able to engage with all parts of the community in the course of our mission.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Opposition Whip (Commons)

We all send our best wishes to our troops on this mission. The Sahel is a complicated place. It has a lot of long-term problems in terms of both security and long-term development and governance. I appreciate that the Minister says this is a three-year deployment, but is he confident that the UN has criteria and definitions of success in which we can be confident, and an exit strategy for the mission?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The Algeria accords still set the conditions for the both the political and military response of the United Nations. I do not think anybody involved in the UN political mission in Bamako would dispute that the coup and political instability in Mali over a number of years have made the political mission very challenging, but that does not affect, necessarily, the duration of this military commitment. The way that UN peacekeeping missions work is that you sign up to do your turn, and we have done so. That notwithstanding, we of course want to see greater success from the political mission and an enduring political stability in Bamako, so that the UN mission can succeed.

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Conservative, Bracknell

It is not, of course, for MPs to dig into the tactical weeds of military deployments, but given the vast lines of communication in Mali can the Minister please assure the House that British forces will be operating with sufficient mass, force protection and an effective reserve to deal with a potent insurgency?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

There speaketh a voice of great experience. My hon. Friend’s caution is well noted. He will be reassured to know that, as I said in my statement, we will start with the first rotation focusing on understanding the ground immediately around Gao. As we develop that understanding, grow in confidence and develop our in-country ability to support ourselves at greater range, then we will expand the mission as the UN mission commander requires.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

I very much welcome this deployment, as I think everyone here does. In the ’90s, Britain was one of the largest troop-deploying nations for UN peacekeeping forces and now we are not. This is 5% or thereabouts of what Bangladesh, the largest troop-deploying nation and one of the poorest countries in the world, contributes. While the money the Government have agreed to invest in our armed forces is welcome, it does not include an increase in personnel and it does not include an increase in reservists—in fact, the opposite. Will the Minister look at changing some of that, and will he consider the fact that troops might help to stop violence but they do not bring peace? Development does, so what are the Government doing to make sure development money pours into this country so that our troops can leave it stable?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

On the last point first, I do not think that anybody in uniform within the Ministry of Defence or even MOD Ministers would pretend that a military solution uniquely is the answer to any of the world’s problems. Of course, the military sets the conditions within which prosperity and a political process can succeed. The hon. Gentleman also makes the excellent point that the campaigns of the past few years in the Balkans, Iran and Afghanistan have consumed UK military effort to the detriment of our contribution to peacekeeping missions. One of the great opportunities afforded by the end of major combat deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan is that we now have the mass available to support very worthwhile missions like this one in Mali.

Photo of Scott Benton Scott Benton Conservative, Blackpool South

In order to ensure that this peacekeeping mission does not become permanent, may I ask my hon. Friend what steps he is taking in conjunction with our partners in the UN to support the Government and armed forces in Mali with investment, equipment and training so that they can tackle the jihadist threat in the longer term?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

It is not part of the UN MINUSMA explicitly to be developing the capability of the Malian armed forces, but that clearly has to be a part of delivering a lasting peace in Mali, and the political mission does, of course, have within it security sector reform. I have said that our exit from Mali is time-limited, based on the three-year commitment, but what we hope to do as part of the MOD’s wider effort in west Africa is to develop during that time the capability of other west African states, so that they are better able to replace us in three years’ time as the troop-contributing nations in Mali. We think that that is the right way both to deliver success within the mission itself and to ensure that the mission continues to succeed in our absence, after we have gone.

Photo of Martyn Day Martyn Day Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Public Health and Primary Care)

I would like to extend my wishes for a successful deployment to everyone involved in what is seen as the UN’s most dangerous peacekeeping mission. According to the UN, about 12.9 million people are affected by the crisis in Mali, with 6.8 million in need of humanitarian assistance. Does the Minister agree that the situation highlights a strategic weakness inherent in the UK’s cutting international aid budgets?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

No, I am not sure that I do. I think it highlights the success of being a part of a successful UN mission that is resourced in terms of its ability to make political progress, and that it is adequately resourced to make military progress. I am confident that the military part of MINUSMA is well resourced, and the UK will play an important part within it. As I said in response to a number of hon. Members’ questions about the political mission, we just need the politics in Mali to stabilise so that the UN political mission can gain traction too.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Conservative, South West Wiltshire

It is absolutely right that the UK should play its part in this, but MINUSMA is the most costly of the UN’s peacekeeping missions, it is the most dangerous, and it is arguably one of the least successful. Furthermore, Mali can hardly be said to be a country of primary interest to the United Kingdom. Can the Minister assure me that our involvement will be largely technical and logistical in nature, that it will be modest, rather like our engagement with Operation Barkhane, and that we will not be subject to mission creep?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I can reassure my right hon. Friend that there will be no mission creep. This is a UN mission and our role is confined to that. I cannot, however, tell him that it is limited to logistical and technical involvement. This specialist reconnaissance force has been committed to MINUSMA precisely to provide an ability to understand where the threat is and to deliver a population-centric peacekeeping mission. This is time-limited and necessary. I accept that there is no obvious UK interest in Mali itself, but there is a great deal to be said for being there: first, because the humanitarian situation requires it; and, secondly, because the Sahel is a huge space on Europe’s southern flank in which violence is flourishing, and it is in the interests neither of countries in Europe nor of countries in coastal west Africa, where the UK has more obvious interests, that we do not work against the violence in the Sahel, but see it exported to places where the UK has more obvious interests.

Virtual participation in proceedings concluded (Order, 4 June).