I beg to move,
That this House
notes the concerning political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina;
expresses its support for institutions set out in the Dayton Peace Agreement, and the office and work of the High Representative, Mr Christian Schmidt;
and supports continued efforts by the UK Government and its allies to ensure peace and stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina and to uphold the provisions of the Dayton Peace Agreement.
Conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina is not inevitable, yet today we find ourselves closer than ever to conflict in the Balkans. We see the rise of hatred, division, sectarianism and the ugly beast of nationalism. We see fears rising, and still-raw wounds being ripped open. That is why I have called for today’s debate.
I believe that all of us in this place have one common responsibility as parliamentarians, to protect our nation, but we also share the responsibility to seek to prevent loss of life and to uphold human rights. With the resolve of once-stalwart partners now in question, now more than ever Britain, and we in this place, must stand up and be counted.
More than 26 years ago, the same hatred, sectarianism and nationalism brought bloodshed to Bosnia. More than 8,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred, women were systematically raped and the lives of more than 100,000 people were taken in a war led by greed and inhumanity. In that war, 57 British soldiers were murdered. I stand here today because that loss of life, those murders and attempted extermination of the Bosniak people, cannot be repeated, and because those whose voices were stolen deserve that we should learn from their silence.
We are here today because peace in Bosnia is under threat, but conflict is not inevitable, and this House can make a difference. Deterrence diplomacy can make a difference. Today we seek to raise our voices to help prevent loss of life, and to uphold human rights and peace, because Britain and this House have an opportunity to prevent history from repeating itself.
Some 26 years ago, the international community secured a fragile truce. The Dayton peace agreement was signed, and in Bosnia a shot has not been fired in anger since. Bloodshed gave way to peace—a fragile peace, but a peace that prevented further loss of life. Over the past few months, however, the leader of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, has put the Dayton peace agreement under enormous strain. He has long worked to systematically undermine the very instruments of stability that he is mandated, as the Serb member of the presidency, to protect.
Dodik has publicly repudiated the Office of the United Nations peacekeeper-in-chief, the UN High Representative, threatened to withdraw Republika Srpska from federal institutions and threatened to withdraw Bosnian Serbs from the armed forces, the judiciary and the police forces. Meanwhile he is significantly increasing military spending, militarising the police force and holding illegal independence day celebrations, showing off vast arrays of submachine guns.
What instigated the crisis we now see unfolding? Ultimately, it was Dodik’s refusal to stop his shameful and insidious campaign of genocide denial and glorification of war criminals. In July, the then High Representative banned the denial of the genocide that took place at Srebrenica. The war crimes that took place during the Bosnian war, and in particular in Srebrenica, are the most heinous committed on European soil since the second world war.
Under Milošević, the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia was industrial and the motive clear: extermination. I believe that this House is united in agreeing that what took place was a genocide. It is important that we say so here in this place, the mother of all Parliaments, and that the UK and our Parliament give the High Representative our full support in ensuring any genocide denial law is implemented. Amid that backdrop, I hope it is already abundantly clear to Members why the Dayton peace agreement must be upheld.
Some have rightly noted that the Dayton peace agreement merely froze the results of the ethnic cleansing, and did not represent a true healing. We have probably all asked ourselves whether there should be a redrawing of the lines if that would bring down tensions, but it would be a grievous error. That would be to give ethno-nationalism, hatred, and ethnic cleansing a victory, to say that communities cannot co-exist, that we will reward division and hatred as forms of negotiation, and that the policies of ethnic cleansing in the ‘90s were not only successful, but are now being mandated. I am deeply concerned about reports that there is a growing view or opinion in Brussels, and even in America, that Bosnia and Herzegovina should be split, and the Republika Srpska allowed to secede. If that is true, it is entirely contrary to the Dayton peace agreement, and contrary to our principles that we share as members of the international community. It would, in effect, enshrine the results of 1990s ethnic cleansing.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate, and I agree with what she is saying about not redrawing boundaries that have now been established for more than 25 years. Does she recognise that one way that we can perhaps try to evolve the Dayton agreement is through trying to build up civil society in Bosnia, particularly on a multi-ethnic basis, and to encourage and support those voices to come together and try to create more of a shared vision for Bosnia in its entirety as a single entity?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, but I had a chilling conversation this morning with the UN High Representative, who joins us today from the Gallery. He said that civil society is not where it should be, that it is chilling how divided it is, and how it is not able to bring people together. But yes, the Foreign Office should be looking at exactly how we support civil society, as should all our allies.
There have been increasing noises that the EU will also accept negotiation on genocide denial and electoral law, accommodating Dodik’s appalling undermining of state institutions and stability. I hope the House will join me in condemning those sentiments without qualification, and that the Minister will make representations to her European Union counterparts that any such split would be unacceptable. No deal can be done as long as the threat of secession is used as a bargaining chip. I wish also to acknowledge that Dodik does not have unanimous support for his behaviour, and it is important that we do not internationally accept his position as representative of the will of Serbs and Bosnian Serbs. There is opposition. Only a couple of weeks ago he tried to pass laws that would undermine the Dayton agreement, and his majority unravelled.
Before I turn to my asks of the Minister, I wish to thank her, as well as my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary, for their engagement on this situation over the last two months, and I put on record the alacrity with which they have responded to the concerns raised. I commend them for inviting the High Representative, Christian Schmidt, to the UK, for putting Bosnia on the agenda at the NATO ministerial meeting in Riga this week, for arranging two ministerial visits to Bosnia just this week, and for announcing this morning a special envoy for the western Balkans. But I now turn to my further asks, and I urge the Minister to build on that track record urgently and raise the situation with her American counterparts who, only this morning for the first time, tweeted their concerns about this issue. Yes, it is just a tweet, but words and diplomacy matter.
My hon. Friend is making an important point about international diplomacy. Does she agree that obviously we need to put pressure on our allies in America, but we also need to stand up to those in the wider world who are using the situation in Bosnia as a pawn or bargaining chip in a greater play? We must ensure that those countries hear the voice of this Chamber, and of all those in western Europe who would like to see stability maintained in the western Balkans.
My hon. Friend puts it well, and I hope I can shortly make the same point as elegantly as he did.
Some 73% of Republika Srpska exports go to the EU, so the UK and our EU partners can work to impose multilateral sanctions in line with those of our American allies. Even minimalist sanctions would have an impact, because we cannot accept a situation where pro-integrity forces are told that efforts to undermine the peace will serve to further a negotiating position. Part of the reason we are where we are today is a lack of clear, unambiguous pushback against secessionist politics from the international community. If we do not push back now, Dodik and his enablers will be emboldened to escalate. The time for deterrence diplomacy is now. We talk about deterrence in terms of military interventions, but deterrence can be a diplomatic effort, and that is something the UK should lead on.
The UK is also one of the world’s best conveners—I would say it is second to none when it comes to foreign policy—so I hope the Government will use the immense expertise in the Foreign Office to secure multilateral engagement and commitments to de-escalate, by convening the NATO Quint and G7 Foreign Ministers, and by raising the issue at the UN Security Council, to demonstrate that diplomacy can be an effective deterrent.
I totally endorse what my hon. Friend is saying, but could I perhaps encourage her to amplify this point? I get a sense of déjà-vu from 30 years ago, when we looked the other way for too long, but involvement became inevitable. Will she emphasise that the timeliness and promptness of an intervention is all the more important?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, which is why this debate is so important. We as parliamentarians can raise the flare and ask the international community to sit up and take action now, not wait until the first shot is fired.
I ask that when the Minister convenes the Quint, the G7, or UN partners, we seek to secure an uplift to our personnel at NATO HQ Sarajevo. A joint exercise in the Balkans would also have much merit. As ethnic tensions rise, I ask that the UK activates the new conflict centre for which I lobbied and campaigned. It would map actors, identify those perpetrating identity-based violence, look at what multilateral activity is needed to prevent conflict, and act as an early warning system. I urge the Government to create a cross-Government, counter-atrocity strategy for what is happening in Bosnia, as well as in China and so many other places. Indeed, the Prime Minister has received an excellent letter about that from Protection Approaches, which is a fantastic charity. We need a strategy that would allow us to identify emerging tensions and early signs of human rights abuses, and trigger action before mass bloodshed.
One might ask why Dodik feels so emboldened to act in this way. When threatening the secession of Republika Srpska, Dodik stated:
“If anybody tries to stop us, we have friends who will defend us.”
Those friends—they say you should judge a man by his friends—are Russia, Serbia, China, and even a handful of EU member states. Dodik himself has named Hungary, Slovenia, and even, in his words, “the Brussels Administration” as having an understanding of his position. Some of those hostile states are using their influence to foment instability and ethnic tension, to distract from their own heinous actions at home, to secure their own territorial ambitions, or to feed instability in Europe’s near neighbourhood.
Dodik has stated publicly:
“When I go to Putin there are no requests. He just says, ‘what is it I can help with?’”
At this moment, Dodik is with Putin in Russia. I fear what he is asking, and clearly he will receive whatever he asks for. In the last few years, Putin has delivered semi- automatic weapons to Republika Srpska—2,500 to be exact, that we know of. He has sent his paramilitary motorcycle gang, known as the Night Wolves, to bring pro-secessionist messages to the streets of Bosnia. China has steadily increased its presence, and Bosnia’s international debt is now held by China. If we do not support Bosnia, it will find itself in the same situation as Montenegro—indebted, and facing the reality of China’s wolf warrior diplomacy as its loans become due next year. Dodik must learn that Bosnia also has friends, with none more committed to Bosnia’s stability than the UK. We must use deterrence diplomacy to demonstrate our resolve, and to stop autocrats making our neighbourhood their playground.
I ask the Minister to ensure that we engage with Serbia, and call on it to stop telling us behind the scenes that it wishes to prevent conflict and division, while in the same breath giving Dodik platform after platform. We must engage heavily with western Balkan nations to demonstrate that our eye is firmly on the region, and we must counter Russian and Chinese overtures towards them.
I thank the hon. Lady for her brilliant speech. In light of all the threats that Bosnia and Herzegovina is facing, would it help if we helped to facilitate Bosnia joining NATO?
The hon. Gentleman will be unsurprised to know that I fully agree we should be doing that. However, we must also recognise that that is one of Russia’s greatest concerns and fears, and that is why it is acting to undermine in such a way. Yes, NATO membership is more achievable that EU membership, so let us stand and fight for that.
We know that as part of their support to Dodik, the Russians and even the Chinese and the Serbians are spreading disinformation in Bosnia. The UK is a world leader in countering disinformation, particularly that of Putin. During my time in the Foreign Office, we exposed his devious disinformation networks, knocked him off balance and countered his lies. As a result, I am on a no-fly list. I take that as success. We know how to counter Russia’s disinformation and we should be doing more of it, so I urge the Minister to consider establishing a NATO counter-disinformation capability at NATO headquarters in Sarajevo.
There is a cost to inaction. That cost would be felt in Bosnia, throughout Europe and most certainly here in the UK, and it would be felt by our veterans, who gave so much and witnessed appalling atrocities while serving in Bosnia. Were conflict to reignite between communities in Bosnia, I can think of no greater recruiting sergeant for the far right or Islamists across the world. As in the 1990s, bloodshed would displace thousands of people, and we would need to respond with boots on the ground. Peace in Bosnia is not just a moral imperative but a security necessity for all of us in this place.
I am heartened to see so many colleagues here today—we are united in our resolve—and I thank them all. I am grateful that so many took the time this morning to meet the High Representative to show our support for his office and the work of the international community.
In 1992, the world moved too slowly. Three years of bloodshed stained the western Balkans and our collective conscience. It was a failure of the international community then, and we cannot accept a failure of the international community now. As we establish ourselves as global Britain, let us make one of our great acts of foreign policy to de-escalate tensions in the Balkans. Let us prove what we as the United Kingdom can do. I hope that by speaking with a clear voice today, our Parliament is making it clear that we stand by our duty to the people of Bosnia, that peace in Bosnia will remain a priority for us, that the time for deterrence diplomacy is now, and that violence in Bosnia is most certainly not inevitable.
Order. As colleagues will see, this is a very well subscribed debate. I would prefer not to introduce a time limit, but I urge contributors to take approximately six minutes, or slightly less, so that we can get everybody in.
I take note of your suggestion, Madam Deputy Speaker.
In October 2013, I visited Bosnia and Herzegovina with the Inter-Parliamentary Union; my hon. Friend Chris Bryant was with us. Before the visit, I travelled across the western Balkans from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo. The winding journey through the mountains was incredible—the scenery was spectacular—but the number of graves in every community we went through was really striking. It was truly horrific.
When I arrived in Sarajevo, I was met by a young woman Government official, who greeted me with some surprise because I was getting off a bus. She took me to the Government headquarters, and I was making polite conversation with her. I asked her simply what the civil war in the early 1990s meant for her. She showed me the wound on her leg and explained that she had been shot by a sniper when she was a small child. That is what the conflict meant for her. That illustrates better than anything I can think of just how horrific the situation was in the former Yugoslavia. As internationalists—as people who are concerned about justice, life and civility—we must make every effort possible to ensure that similar situations never happen again.
In recent times, the UK—unfortunately, in my view—has not been as proactive in the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina as it might have been. I am pleased to say, however, that things may be changing. I welcome the Government’s announcement of the appointment of Sir Stuart Peach as special envoy. That is a positive statement and a real contribution to ensuring that many of the problems that the people of Bosnia currently face will be addressed. I am pleased that his brief appears to be wide—to support the civil institutions, to work with others in the area, and to make sure that the British Government give a firm commitment to do everything possible to stabilise and hopefully improve the situation.
There is no doubt that the challenges that the international community and the people of Bosnia face are huge. We must begin thinking about the situation with the Dayton agreement, which we played a significant role in helping to establish. It is clearly inadequate to take the situation forward, and we need to begin to think about how that agreement could be modified, possibly even going as far as a Dayton II agreement.
We also need to reinforce our commitment to practical peacekeeping in Bosnia. There is the European Union force—although we are not members of the EU any more, we still support EUFOR—but we really have to ask whether 600 to 700 personnel on the ground is sufficient, given the gravity of the situation we now face and bearing mind that at one time there were 30,000 soldiers from the western alliance on the ground.
We must realise, too, that the stakes are extremely high. If the situation in Bosnia deteriorates significantly, it will not just be bad for Bosnia itself; it will be bad for the whole of the western Balkans, and there will be repercussions elsewhere.
As Alicia Kearns said, Putin is the common factor in destabilising Belarus, Ukraine and Bosnia. Just as we support them, should we not also make it clear to the Serbs that if they continue to destabilise and to help Putin, EU membership will remain a distant dream for them?
Yes, I think we have to be objectively very critical of a number of players in the area. Russia is, of course, destabilising the situation for its own ends—as, indeed, it is doing elsewhere—and I think the House will be united in condemnation of its efforts. However, other countries leave a lot to be desired in their activities too; the hon. Member correctly refers to Serbia. We need to be determined in saying to our friends and allies that we do not expect that kind of behaviour, and we really have to work together as an international community to stabilise the situation and take things forward.
However, it is important to recognise that the main external disruptor is indeed Russia. We have to be very clear with Russia, in a whole host of ways and in different spheres, that its material efforts at destabilisation are totally unacceptable. We realise what is happening, we will not have the wool pulled over our eyes, and we must stand united against its destabilisation efforts.
It is extremely important that this debate is taking place today and that a powerful and united message is sent from all democrats and peace lovers in this House, right across the Chamber. But a debate is not enough; we need to make sure, dare I say it, that our Government are wholeheartedly involved and using their maximum diplomatic and material effort to stabilise the situation. It is important, too, that we do not see this as a one-off debate but that we maintain our interest and concern so that we have a genuine, long-lasting peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
I deployed in September 1992 with 900 men and some women to save lives. We were neutral. We were cast into the middle of a war between three basic sides, not including the mafia. Bosnian Serbs were fighting Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims. Bosnian Muslims were fighting Bosnian Serbs and sometimes Bosnian Croats. Bosnian Croats were fighting Bosnian Serbs and occasionally Bosnian Muslims. We have to avoid that happening again. We were sent there to try to give Bosnia a chance. We managed to save quite a number of people, for example in April 1993 we led on pulling out about 2,000 people from Srebrenica three years before the disaster of July 1995, but we failed to save many others, so, in my view, it was not a success.
What is pertinent to this debate is the fact that I witnessed a political solution, the Vance-Owen plan, which the Bosnian Croats immediately tried to put into action by trying to take out a town called Gornji Vakuf. I watched as the Brigadier General of the Bosnian-Croat army tasked his tanks to fire one round at each house, one after the other, destroying the town piecemeal. I spent three weeks personally trying to stop that fighting, at some cost—my escort driver was killed. The lesson for me was that having a political solution that starts dividing Bosnia is asking for real trouble, so it must not happen.
I left in May 1993, but the war ground on. There was political indecision and a lack of will among Europeans, the Americans and the United Nations. It ground on until that awful genocide of Srebrenica in July 1995, when 8,372 men and boys were murdered by the Bosnian Serb army—by the way, the same Bosnian Serb army that might want to split away. Srebrenica was the catalyst for Dayton. The Dayton peace accords—thank goodness it happened—achieved its primary end: it stopped the war.
As we heard from my hon. Friend Alicia Kearns, no one has been shot or blown up in Bosnia since—I am sure they have, but to our knowledge they have not—but it was lousy politics, because it set up a very weak country and a very weak Government, with three Presidents in rotation representing each side for eight months, and it did not work. Dayton was meant to last for only a short while. Look how long it has had to exist. Now, we have this Bosnian Serb, Dodik, who is threatening to take Republika Srpska out of Bosnia.
I was very friendly with the late Lord Paddy Ashdown. Paddy told me a story about having dinner with Franjo Tuđman, the President of Croatia, in May 1995 at the Guildhall in London. Paddy said to Tuđman, “How do you see the future of Bosnia in 10 years’ time?” Tuđman grabbed a menu, drew a map of Bosnia and divided it in half: half Serb, half Croat. Paddy asked, “What is going to happen to the Bosnian Muslims?” Tuđman said, “Well, maybe a small section in a Croatian area.” By the way, they are all south Slav. Everyone is a south Slav, but by religion they are 30% Serb, 15% Croat and over 50% Bosnian Muslim—1.8 million people. Bosnia matters to us, because if the Croats and the Serbs divide the country in half, guess what will happen to 1.8 million people. They are going to be on the road. They will not be looking east, but north and west. It matters to us what happens in Bosnia.
As the right hon. and gallant Member knows, as a BBC presenter I interviewed him many times at that time. He mentioned a number of times the secession of the Bosnian Serb part of Bosnia. If they pull out their troops from the joint army and set up their own army, that surely takes us right back to the time that he was there. It is a clear breach of the Dayton accords. It arms them and makes them dangerous. That should be our line in the sand, surely?
There are two lessons: dividing Bosnia will not work; and the only way to get a solution in Bosnia is by robust international actions. So what will we do? Let me finish by making four points.
First, we have to sustain Dayton at least until we get something to replace it or help it. Secondly, Mr Christian Schmidt, who is sitting here today, requires our absolute and unequivocal support. He must be given all the power we can provide for him to stop the country going backwards. We need another Dayton, which some have called Dayton II. We need the involvement of the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Russia, which is playing hard to get, and Serbia. And, of course, in any Dayton II we require the presence of the Bosnian Serbs, because they were not there at Dayton I. I expect—I hope that the Minister is listening to me carefully—the UK to lead on sorting this out.
My final point is this: we must be prepared to send in our soldiers to save lives. That is what we did before: save lives. Fifty-seven of our soldiers died. One of them, Lance Corporal Wayne Edwards, was my driver. That does not count Dobrila Kolaba, my wonderful interpreter who was killed. Minister, it is over to you. The UK must lead and sort out this problem. We can do it.
I was the Minister with responsibility for the south Balkans back in the mid-’90s. The war had finished, but it was close enough to see the damage. I have one personal reflection. I travelled to Srebrenica with British troops, who were necessary as an escort because the situation was still fraught. When an elderly Bosniak Muslim couple returned to Srebrenica, the town of their birth where they had not been for some time, they needed British troops to make sure they were safe from those who could have done them harm. Anybody who travelled to Sarajevo and looked up to the hills, where Republika Srpska is, knew that Republika Srpska had the capacity to do damage to the people of Sarajevo on a daily basis. It happened, and the massacre of innocents was a regular event. My hon. Friend Wayne David told the story of a woman who survived with injuries, but many died as well. We cannot go back to that kind of conflict, and the level of nationalism is dangerous.
In 1990, the beat of nationalism in the Balkans was strong—there was Tuđman in Croatia and Milošević in what became Serbia—but we ignored it, because we did not believe that we would see the conflict that ensued. The beat of nationalism is now coming very strongly from Banja Luka, from Prime Minister Dodik, who ironically—at the time when I knew him, years back—was a moderate looking for the movement of Bosnia and Herzegovina into the European Union. At that time, we were a member of the European Union and were able to offer the illusory prospect of movement towards central European institutions, but we have never been prepared, as Europe, to bring that into a transition.
Dayton was temporary; it was never meant to be permanent. The world lost interest in the western Balkans. We did as well—Labour, coalition and Conservative Governments—and, as the High Representative said recently, 10 years have gone by without our paying attention to the situation in Bosnia. We have to ensure that there is a medium and long-term strategy on Bosnia. The right hon. Member for Beckenham is right that we need to look at Dayton II, but that is not immediate. It has to happen, but we need to do the groundwork. That involves saying, “We are committed to a multi-ethnic state; we demand that that idea continues.” There can be no redrawing of the boundaries of Bosnia and Herzegovina. That cannot happen.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; I agree firmly. Let us not rush into Dayton II. It has to happen and the participants on the ground have to be there, but let us do the groundwork. He is also right that we empowered Paddy Ashdown to operate as a powerful UN High Representative. We are not empowering the High Representative now and we have to return to giving that kind of power to him.
I completely agree with the points that my hon. Friend and Bob Stewart made. It seems that one of the problems, which has got worse since my first visit in 2003 and my second in 2013, is that much as we would want to create a multi-ethnic, multi-denominational constitution and structure, a lot of people’s daily lives are spent in a separate silo. Their education, healthcare and so many different elements of their lives are effectively pulling them apart. That is why we need to recreate the whole of society in a multi-denominational way.
I do not disagree, but look at the progress we have and have not made in Northern Ireland. This takes time, but it is a real issue. That is why we cannot let Bosnia and Herzegovina disappear off the radar again as other crises move in and out. Belarus matters—as the Minister knows, I am deeply involved in Belarus—and I can name conflicts all around the world, but this issue in the western Balkans also matters.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the role he played as shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. In the light of the comparison that he is making, it is worth stressing that there are similarities with the Good Friday agreement, which did lock in identity back in 1998, and to some extent, has not evolved, as Dayton also has not. However, the key issue is how we build up the civil society and try to create the overall sense of a Bosnian identity and work on shared and integrated education and other areas that he supported Northern Ireland in during his time in post.
I am grateful for that intervention because my hon. Friend leads me on to my next point, which is a simple one. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton said, importantly, that Dodik is not the voice of every Bosnian Serb. We have to make sure that we speak to the majority of Bosnian Serbs and say, “There is a different future. It is not Russia—it is not with Moscow. It is not even with the mad voices coming from across the border in Serbia. It is something very different.” But we have to give the incentives that we promised but never delivered on, and we have to think seriously about what that means. We cannot offer European Union membership—it is not in our gift—but we can think about NATO, which is certainly a possibility, although NATO cannot interfere in internal conflicts in any easy way. However, there has to be conversation with the decent people among the Bosnian Serbs to make sure that they can see a better future that eschews the kind of nationalist rhetoric that will damage them and permanently lock Bosnia and Herzegovina into a past that is unthinkable and deny it a future that is possible.
There are big things to play for. This debate is an important part of that. Let us give the very clear message that we do care. We will not go away. We want the Bosnian Serbs to work with the Croats and the Bosniaks to guarantee that future. Yes, let us rethink the structure around Dayton in as short a time as we can. Let us make sure, if necessary, that we sanction the individuals, such as Dodik, who would do harm. And let us make sure that we simply do not let this disappear once again from the agenda.
I very much welcome the points made by Tony Lloyd, and I wholeheartedly agree with them, except for one: I think it is NATO’s job not to interfere in the internal affairs of a state but, if invited to secure the security of that state—and we feel we can do that—to make an offer to it to save it from conflagration. I will come back to that. I congratulate my hon. Friend Alicia Kearns on securing this debate, on the very knowledgeable way in which she introduced the topic and on the passionate way that she spoke. I have wonderful words in my prepared speech, Madam Deputy Speaker, but in the interests of brevity, I shall cast aside my beautiful turns of phrase and say what I think needs to be said.
I think there are only three Members here this afternoon who sat through the 1992 to 1997 Parliament. We heard Paddy Ashdown every week at Prime Minister’s Question Time—it was twice a week then—asking questions on what we were going to do about the Balkans crisis. I have to say, I am one of the guilty ones who sat on the Government Benches and thought that he had become obsessed with something that we could not do anything about or should not get involved with. But he was right. It was only when the bread queues in Sarajevo were being shelled by the Serbians that we began to realise that something terrible was happening in our own continent.
I happened to make a visit, I think with the armed forces parliamentary scheme, to NATO, and I heard the then Supreme Allied Commander of NATO describe this as the biggest security failure in the European continent since the second world war. We began to wake up to the fact that something terrible was happening. What had gone wrong? My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton said that we are repeating the same mistakes as we did in the early 1990s. Oh yes we are.
First, there is complacency. Secondly, there are different voices. We talk about the European Union, but the European Union has different voices. Different countries have different approaches. I am afraid that the German Government are pretty ambivalent at the moment about whether the Bosnian state should be secured permanently. The French have always had a stronger relationship with the Serbs than with any other part of the Balkans. The United States now, as it did then, feel that this was a post-cold war European security problem that it should not get involved with. And then there was some precipitate action by an external actor, Germany—the recognition of Croatia, I think in 1990—that triggered the whole Balkan crisis. It took years before it was understood what we had to do—we tried an air campaign, which did not succeed, and we had to put troops on the ground to stop the fighting—but at least when we got in there and did it, we got an agreement.
We got the agreement with tacit Russian co-operation—Russia did not prevent it. This time, Russia is a player in the conflict. It is stoking the ethnic tensions and encouraging the separatists and the break-up of the state, because I imagine Putin regards it as in his national interest to see 1.8 million Bosnian refugees flooding into Europe when western Europe is already facing a refugee crisis. He would love that, and the Chinese are helping, too.
What are we going to do? Are we just going to carry on pussyfooting around? The solution is for EUFOR, which is a small European Union force, to be reinforced very substantially, now. I differ from the hon. Member for Rochdale on this point: I think that if the Bosnian Government requested that, NATO would have to respond. However, that would require persuading the United States’ Mr President Biden, who has become far more isolationist and unhelpful to NATO. I have no brief for Trump, but at least Trump managed to get us all to spend more money; Biden looks completely disinterested from foreign wars. He has to become interested. Just as Clinton started from that position—
I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend, who is making a very good point. I just want to briefly make a point about wars. What we are saying, and what Biden does not appear to have an appetite for, is that we are trying to create a forever peace, not a war or a conflict. It takes guts, commitment and determination; I thank all hon. Members who have spoken so far and have shown that. That is a slight divergence from my hon. Friend’s point, but it is important that this is about forever peace, not war.
My hon. Friend is quite right. I was going to go on to the point that it was Madeleine Albright, bless her, who persuaded President Clinton that the Americans had to be involved. President Clinton nicknamed it Madeleine’s war, but this time it has to be Secretary of State Blinken’s peace. My hon. Friend is completely right.
The point is that we can pre-empt war if we get in there with sufficient deterrent force to deter those who are arming the separatists and encouraging their withdrawal from the Bosnian state institutions. The October mandate that Dodik issued that Republika Srpska elements should cease to operate as part of the Bosnian armed forces is an act of revolution, and it must be stopped. It is contrary to international agreements and it is contrary to the UN resolutions. The UN resolutions are still in force under which we can act—and we should act.
What if Russia objects? That is the question that I want to deal with.
We could. I do not know whether we should do that in order to help to secure international agreement and consensus, or whether we should do it after we have secured international agreement and consensus, but if securing agreement takes too long, that may be something that we should do. Brave nations need to act to prevent another conflagration on our continent—it need not be inevitable.
These are my final questions to the Minister. What happened at the Riga NATO summit? What was discussed? When will we have a statement from the Government about what has been decided and how we, as NATO, will proceed on the matter? I am quite certain that the EU cannot do it on its own. One of the myths created by the EU is that there is something called European defence and security, or a European army, or whatever it is. It cannot act. There must be much wider international agreement. The United Kingdom must support EU action and NATO action to do this together.
I declare an interest as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Srebrenica. My interest in that part of the world arises from the fact that, from 2000 to 2002, I worked with the United Nations mission in Kosovo after the NATO bombing of the former Yugoslavia. Kosovo was an autonomous province of the state of Serbia. Prior to 2000, the Serbians had come into Kosovo; I saw at first hand some of the atrocities that had been carried out by the Serbian Government in Kosovo. After I came into Parliament in 2010, I got interested in Srebrenica in particular and founded the group with a Conservative Member.
The name “Srebrenica” is associated with the dark days in July 1995 when thousands of men and boys were systematically murdered and buried in mass graves. The victims, who were Muslim, were selected for death based on their identity. Many of us will remember seeing images of the war in Bosnia during the 1990s, watching the horror of the footage of Sarajevo under siege and people being held in concentration camps, and slowly learning about the reports of the atrocities committed across Bosnia that culminated in genocide. The APPG was set up in 2013 with the purpose of commemorating Srebrenica and reminding us of those horrors. Until July 2020, when we stopped doing it because of the pandemic, we had a book of commemoration and remembrance to sign in this House.
After every conflict, we say “Never again,” but years later we have another. When the Dayton agreement was signed, it was not perfect, but it stopped the bloodshed for a number of years. It is important for us all to ensure that peace continues. We cannot return to the violence and destruction of the 1990s, so it is important for the United Kingdom to start working together with our European partners and with others in the world to ensure that they do not happen again.
The seeds of genocide in Srebrenica were planted after years of growing Serb nationalism and the spread of fear and hatred. Even now, there is genocide denial by Serbian leaders. They are trying to stoke the same fears again. Recently, Biljana Plavšić, a former President of Republika Srpska and a convicted war criminal, explained their dehumanising ideology and thinking:
“It was genetically deformed material that embraced Islam. And now, of course, with each successive generation it simply becomes concentrated. It gets worse and worse. It simply expresses itself and dictates their style of thinking, which is rooted in their genes. And through the centuries, the genes degraded further.”
I hope that the Minister will agree that that is inflammatory language that should be condemned by all.
Given the history of atrocities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I hope that the Government will take steps to activate the conflict centre and adopt an atrocity prevention framework so that we do not descend into any more identity-based violence. We know that the current Serbian leader, Dodik, has pledged to withdraw from the federal institutions and form distinct entities, seriously threatening the stability of the nation and heralding fears of a return to violence.
If the international community allows this secession, it will be rewarding the Bosnian Serbs with their goal of creating a “Greater Serbia” by handing to them the very territory in which they committed a four-year campaign consisting of forced deportation, torture and mass murder. It would also be a risk to the most vulnerable returnees, who are based in places such as Srebrenica and Prijedor. Those survivors have already experienced suffering at the hands of the Bosnian Serb force and many of their loved ones have been killed. There is now a real danger that there will be a conflict again and it will happen to them.
The potential for a return to conflict on our doorstep is worrying. Will the Minister and her Department ensure that they share analysis of the current crisis across all Departments, including the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities? Members of the Bosnian-British community are reliving their trauma and fear for what an escalation of violence might mean for their loved ones in the Balkans. I ask the Government to proactively reach out and work with Bosnian communities here, so they feel that there is someone looking after them and that they will not be left alone as they were years ago. I also ask the Government to work with Remembering Srebrenica, led by Waqar Azmi and his team, so that we are reminded of what can happen if we do nothing.
We know that the first world war was started by a Serb nationalist who killed a king in Sarajevo. I do not want to see history repeating itself.
I was a young captain in 1997, when I deployed on my very first tour to Bosnia. It was an amazing experience. I was a logistics officer based in Split in Croatia, but I spent most of my time in Gornji Vakuf, Šipovo, Kupres, and Tomislavgrad. I also spent time in Banja Luka, which was then the headquarters of the multinational division that was entrusted with enforcing the peace and the Dayton agreement. Enforcement is a theme to which I shall return.
As some may know, Bosnia is a beautiful country. I have been there many times, and I refer Members to my interests, having visited it recently. It is full of lovely people of all nationalities and religious beliefs. These are great people; these are humble people; these are hard-working people; and these are people who deserve the full support of the international community.
The awful war that lasted from 1992 until 1995 left an appalling legacy. An estimated 100,000 people were killed, 80% of whom were Bosniaks. In July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces killed as many as 8,000 Bosniak men and boys from the town of Srebrenica. I have been there a few times. Ethnic cleansing became part of our language at that time, which it had not been for many years. The legacy is pretty horrible, and it is a legacy of which we must remain mindful today.
The Dayton agreement was signed on
In a report delivered to the United Nations Security Council earlier this month, Christian Schmidt, the international community's high representative, suggested that Dodik had been persuaded by regional leaders to suspend his plans. That is very good news, but we cannot and must not take our foot off the gas. Why? Because Dodik’s rhetoric is separatist, and he has vowed to sever the legal and tax systems and the army in the Serb-run half of the country.
With reference to what was said by Yasmin Qureshi and my hon. Friend’s wonderful words, may I point out to the House that, if Republika Srpska were to split from Bosnia, it would be a bit rich if Srebrenica—which is in Republika Srpska—stayed where it is, after what has happened there?
My right hon. and gallant Friend speaks very wisely, and I could not disagree with what he has said. I urge the Minister to heed those words.
As for the future, we know there is a problem, but let us not admire the problem too greatly. For me, this is about the solution. It is clear to me that a calm de-escalation of the crisis must be the current political goal and that, as a signatory, we must stand by the Dayton agreement. As was mentioned earlier, we must also give the high representative our unequivocal support. He knows what he is talking about, so let us get behind him. I agree with the suggestion that we should support the current headquarters in Bosnia with NATO troops, or even troops of support of the EU; it does not really matter, but an enhanced British presence in the headquarters and possibly on the ground is necessary to give us the eyes and the ears that we need.
I am pretty enthused by the progress so far. We are having this debate, and I commend my hon. Friend Alicia Kearns for securing it. Baroness Goldie of the Ministry of Defence was in Sarajevo yesterday for the Bosnian Armed Forces Day. It was recently announced that Sir Stuart Peach would become the special envoy to the western Balkans. Let us recognise the good work that has been done so far. Let us recognise the senior engagement that is happening, and let us also recognise the need for a much broader unity of purpose within NATO and the United Nations, so that all signatories can come together and do what is necessary.
I will end with three points. First, I have mentioned the military presence, and it is very important to get military planners on the ground. Secondly, I believe that new Balkans policy is needed, perhaps amending the structures of the current Dayton agreement and perhaps even creating something called Dayton II, encompassing the changes and the cultural developments. The divides are still there in that fantastic country.
My last point is a simple one. I deployed in 1997 to do peace enforcement; I think we now need to do political enforcement.
It is a pleasure to follow James Sunderland.
The recent political violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina should be of significant concern to the UK and the international community. Under the leadership of Milorad Dodik, there has been a return of ethnic conflict in the region. As we all know, in 1995 Srebrenica experienced a genocide on a scale not seen in Europe since the second world war. Eight thousand Muslim men and boys were murdered, women were raped, children were slain in front of their parents, and bodies were pushed into mass graves with the use of bulldozers. The scale of the crimes exceeds comprehension.
Following those horrific events, a peace agreement was eventually reached. The Dayton agreement is widely considered to be a holding operation, and with the situation rapidly worsening, the already fragile agreement is under immense strain. However, I welcome the appointment of Sir Stuart Peach as our new special envoy for the western Balkans.
Sir Stuart Peach is probably the most experienced and intelligent man to do that job. This is a wonderful opportunity to show leadership. We have shown that leadership; now let us give full backing to Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach and allow him to solve this problem from our point of view.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman.
Does the Minister agree that there is an urgent need to reinforce the political will behind the Dayton agreement, and will she commit herself to working with the US, NATO and the EU to underline the agreement as the basis of peace in the western Balkans?
My journey with Bosnia goes back almost to the very beginning. While Yugoslavia was disintegrating, I was involved in organising demonstrations in my home city of Manchester against the persecution of Europe's Muslims. Seeing the Bosnian community flourish in Manchester and across the UK demonstrates the strength of humanity. Despite experiencing such atrocities, people were able to start a new life here in the UK and provide their children with a better future. The events of Srebrenica have always stayed with me, and they are part of the reason I dedicate so much of my work to challenging hate and division in society. Later, when I became a member of the European Parliament, I had the opportunity to serve as a shadow rapporteur for Bosnia, which took me to that beautiful country on many occasions. I had an opportunity to meet amazing, warm, loving people in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I am now involved in Remembering Srebenica, a charity doing excellent work throughout the UK in schools and other community organisations, trying to learn the lessons and develop champions who can strengthen the communities.
The UK has a special duty to protect the peace and progress made in the region, not just as a signatory to the agreement but because our UK troops served there with distinction and 57 of them died securing the peace. We now know that the assaults on Bosnia’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and constitutional order enjoy the full backing of Russia, China, and Serbia. Dodik has separately said that he has support from both Russia and China, with both countries opposing the role of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Given that Russia and China are state-based threats identified in the Government’s integrated review, will the Minister condemn their attempts to undermine the High Representative’s position and the influence of the UN in the region?
It is a tragedy that, to this day, minority groups around the world are still being persecuted. After the holocaust, we said, “Never again”, yet what happened in Srebrenica and what is happening in Xinjiang, China, against the Uyghur Muslims, proves that words are not enough. They must be matched with action. As we mark 26 years since the harrowing genocide in Srebrenica, we must ensure that there is no return to the violence and suffering of the past and secure the gains made for the people of Bosnia. To echo the words of the High Representative, Bosnia
“is facing the greatest threat of the post-war period”.
It is paramount that the global response now matches the gravity of the situation.
I thank my hon. Friend Alicia Kearns for the work she did to bring about this debate. Many excellent points have already been made on the importance of retaining the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and I add my voice to those expressing concern about recent events. The western Balkans have contributed to the history of modern Europe; they have been a meeting point between east and west for centuries. They have struck a fine balance between competing demands, and have typically performed admirably against coercive and malign forces. Any change to that position is extremely worrying.
I first visited Bosnia and Herzegovina on a visit organised by my right hon. and gallant Friend Bob Stewart, who made an excellent and powerful speech earlier. Like Wayne David, I found that the two most notable features were the beautiful countryside and, sadly, the scars of conflict. As the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to the western Balkans, I approach this debate from a slightly different perspective and will focus on the main element of my brief. Trade is, after all, not simply a means of growing economies but a means of ensuring peace and harmony between and within nation states. As the trade envoy, I visited Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia in October, when I held a string of meetings and visits to see for myself the fantastic partnerships that exist, as well as the numerous opportunities that we should be seizing upon.
Those fantastic partnerships would not happen without fantastic, active individuals. Joining us today in the Public Gallery is the Bosnian ambassador to the UK, Vanja Filipović, and I want to tell the House how important he personally has been in ensuring that the things we want to talk about—trade, opportunity, partnership and friendship—are coming about. None of us wants to be having this securitised discussion about Bosnia, so I say thank you to him.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. She has made a point that I was going to make in two or three pages’ time, so I hope the House will forgive me if I repeat it.
On my recent visit, I visited a range of businesses. For example, the leading retailer in the country, Bingo, is seeking to cement existing partnerships and encourage new ones with UK suppliers. I also attended a reception hosted by the newly formed British Bosnian and Herzegovinian chamber of commerce, where I met around 50 local businessmen and women eager to do bilateral business. I met the Elnos Group and its UK partner Emico, which recently won a contract to deliver 13 prefabricated substations for HS2 and is planning to bid for more. I also met the Alfa Energy Group, one of the pioneers in energy sustainability; Riva, which is looking to introduce British fashion brands into Bosnia and Herzegovina; and Adriatic Metals, which is creating high-value jobs through a silver mine and also working to boost social cohesion through its charitable foundation.
That list is not exhaustive and I apologise to any organisation or business that I have left out, but I would be here all day if I went into more detail. In fact, there was so much to discuss that no sooner had I landed back in London than our embassy, led by our excellent ambassador Matt Field and his extremely capable team, requested that I return a couple of weeks later for further meetings—a request that I was happy to accept. The point I am trying to make is that there are endless opportunities for our two countries to co-operate further and deepen our partnerships.
The possibilities are endless, but only if we have a stable Bosnia and Herzegovina that is committed to the rule of law and the international agreements to which it has signed up. Yet decision making in the country is deadlocked and preventing it from functioning. The political blockade is damaging not only the internal dynamics of Bosnia and Herzegovina but the external ones as well. One key impact is on the trade continuity agreement that the Governments of the UK and Bosnia and Herzegovina are aiming to secure. After a slow start, we were finally making progress, but the blockade has stalled the process once again and this is unlikely to be resolved until the blockade ends, meaning that Bosnia and Herzegovina is one of just three countries we have not yet signed a TCA with. As a result, customs duties have come into force, hurting businesses and trade.
That is all the more disappointing given the fact that our trading relationship has been improving in recent years. Total trade is modest, but it is increasing despite the impact of covid-19. In the four quarters to the end of the first quarter of 2021, total trade in goods and services was worth £117 million—an increase of 77% or £51 million on the previous year. This is an opportunity that the excellent chamber of commerce I mentioned is well placed to seize upon. I was pleased to play a role in the formation of the chamber earlier this year, but businesses will be aware that instability in the country will not be to their advantage. It is hoped that Bosnia and Herzegovina will gain membership of the World Trade Organisation in the near future, but this will be very much in doubt if the country is divided.
Those who seek to undermine the integrity of the country need to recognise that the High Representative’s use of his executive powers to amend the criminal code was not an attack on any ethnicity, and the country as a whole needs to acknowledge the past so that it can move forward. A political blockade prevents this. The Dayton peace agreement, and the constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina that resulted from it, ended the 1992-95 conflict. It may not be perfect, but it has been for some time the strongest guarantee against conflict in the region. Without it, EU accession talks would not be possible. Calls for the dissolution of Bosnia and Herzegovina are contrary to the Dayton agreement. The UK stands ready to support Bosnia and Herzegovina in protecting its territorial integrity and will support political and democratic reforms that safeguard social cohesion, the rule of law and the safety of its people.
We are committed to tearing down barriers to co-operation, not putting them up, and so long as Bosnia and Herzegovina maintains the same commitment, it will have the full support of the UK as a steadfast ally. I know from my visits and from discussions with politicians and diplomats across the region that there are moderate voices to be heard. We need to work closely with them and develop not only our political links but our trading and economic ties, which can lead to peace and prosperity. We must do all we can to urge those moderate voices to engage with us and to deliver the peace and prosperity that is within their grasp.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee and the hon. Members for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald for arranging this debate on such an important topic.
The current situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is difficult and highly political both in the region and internationally. We have heard how some EU countries have suggested sanctions against the state, while Dodik purports to have other EU leaders firmly on side. We have heard him declare that they will
“defend ourselves with our own forces” if EU sanctions are implemented, and we have heard his thinly veiled threats to involve Russia and China if NATO gets involved. All that must, of course, be considered and addressed, but I wish to use my time to focus on the humanitarian side of this fast-unfolding crisis.
We are all aware of the dangerous and divisive rhetoric running unchecked throughout the region and, as I mentioned last month when the Minister came to the House to answer an urgent question, I am deeply concerned about where it could lead if it is not stopped in its tracks. The Srebrenica massacre of 1995 was an atrocity. The genocide of thousands of Muslim men and boys—the most horrific of events—is now being dismissed and genocide-denial sentiments are rising among Republika Srpska factions. It was only 26 years ago—not nearly long enough for it to slip from our consciousness. Letting it do so is incredibly dangerous.
That massacre was not the only atrocity of the war in the ’90s: there were many instances of what can be described only as crimes against humanity. There was the murder, torture and systematic rape of Bosniak Muslims throughout the region because of their ethnic and religious identities. That is why the charity Remembering Srebrenica has dedicated so much over the past eight years to educating young people on the lessons to be learned from such events so that they are never repeated.
There are people in the region who will be terrified, because they have not forgotten. Those on the receiving end of the growing hate speech know all too well what could happen if nobody is willing to intervene. Right now, they have no assurance that this is not the path that Bosnia and Herzegovina is on. Genocide and widespread crimes against humanity do not happen by accident or chance; they are well planned and organised. The seeds are sown early, from creating division throughout a society to manipulating citizens and playing to their fears.
As a signatory of the Dayton agreement, the UK has a responsibility to the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, so will the Minister commit to developing not only a strategy to prevent any further escalation of the divisive discourse in the region but country-specific approaches for other regions of concern? Will she commit to ensuring that such work will be properly funded and resourced?
Although another war is not inevitable, we have seen how similar conflicts have led to the criminalisation and persecution of human rights activists and civil society. That is why those groups were among those prioritised in the evacuations in Afghanistan, and we have seen how Palestinian groups have been proscribed recently too. Such people and organisations can have a tangible impact in deradicalising extremist views and protecting vulnerable minorities, but they need the opportunity to do their job safely and without fear for their lives. Will the Minister confirm that a plan is in place to protect civil society in the region?
There has been and will be much talk of sanctions, military presence and national security—not just in today’s debate but in conversations everywhere. Every option should be given due consideration, but only so long as the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina remain at the heart of much-needed intervention. That must be the priority. As the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton said, we who are here today are friends of Bosnia and will continue to demonstrate that friendship.
I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I visited Bosnia and Herzegovina in September as part of the delegation of the all-party parliamentary group on the armed forces. I am grateful to my right hon. and gallant Friend Bob Stewart and my hon. and gallant Friend James Sunderland for making the trip so successful. I am also grateful to the excellent ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Matthew Field.
It was an extremely useful visit, as I knew little about the country, apart from having followed the war in the 1990s. Such trips are essential if we are to understand what is going in other countries. We met Members of Parliament from Bosnia and Herzegovina and assured them of our support for future trade and diplomatic links. We were aware of the tensions, but they were well hidden during our meeting. Twelve UK Members of Parliament, I think, took four days out of their recess to visit the country to learn more about it. We learned about the Bosnian war, and I hope that that reveals the seriousness with which we take the events and people of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
We visited two sites of genocide, at Ahmići and Srebrenica—and it was genocide, despite the denial of Mr Dodik. We talked to local Muslim people about what they had seen, and heard some very moving testimonies from the mothers and wives of those who had been murdered. The UK Government have sponsored an excellent museum at Srebrenica that shows the atrocities in full. One harrowing video showed a man calling his son and others down off the surrounding wooded hills, as he had been assured by the Serbs that they would be safe. It was not so. The Serbs filmed everything and the language they used while tracking people in the woods through their sniper rifles was that of hunting animals.
Eight thousand men and boys were massacred in three days. The Serbs moved the bodies they had buried in mass graves ,so that they would not be spotted and the numbers of those murdered would not be known. That means that their body parts are now in different graves and families still do not have a whole body to grieve over.
We met people who had been teenagers in Sarajevo during the war. Previously, there had been no issue with the different religions or ethnicities and everyone had mixed happily. One day they were all in nightclubs being teenagers; two days later they were hiding in basements, where they spent three long years during the siege, not able to venture out for fear of being shot by snipers. Bullet holes are on practically every building.
Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot go back to those dark ages. We have heard from others about the importance of the Dayton peace agreement and of the compromise that has led to so many years of peace. Mr Dodik appears to want to tear that up by withdrawing Republika Srpska from key state institutions.
What of those Muslim families we met in the state, whose families have lived there for generations and are keen to work with others from all religions again, as before the war? Schools there are segregated and named after Serbian war criminals, and there are statues of those people too.
The 1992 war started by the Serbs was well planned. They dominated the armed forces and used army exercises to train Serbians and establish bases around Sarajevo and beyond. Genocide was well planned. The actions of Mr Dodik as he builds up allies like President Putin should not give us confidence that they are not doing the same again.
A war in Bosnia Herzegovina will destabilise the region and threaten UK national security. Bosnia is on the crossroads of east and west and is a centre for criminal gangs—ironically, they work seamlessly across ethnic divides within the gangs—as well as drugs and people traffickers. President Putin would like to disrupt any chance of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s joining the EU or NATO, which should be fast-tracked as soon as possible.
The US has asked us to lead in this area, alongside the EU, and we must shoulder that responsibility immediately, alongside the UN special representative. With my co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on women, peace and security hat on, I say that we must enable civil society, and particularly the many women who are working towards establishing relationships with other religions, to flourish. We must help them to get back to the pre-1992 situation, when everyone worked together regardless of religion or ethnicity.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. One thing that most strikes me—she will know this from her leadership of that group—is that when we meet the widows of Srebrenica and the women of Bosnia, the systematic rape of these women is a silent issue. People do not speak up about what these women went through and what they see when they look into their children’s faces. It is important that we talk about that and do not force them to feel ashamed, as they do, about what they went through. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for touching on the importance of women in this situation, because so often when we talk about Bosnia that has been silenced.
Absolutely, and it makes it even more remarkable that they want to move forward and start to form new relationships with their neighbours from different religions and ethnicities, despite what they have gone through.
Too many young Bosnians are leaving the country because they feel it is unsafe. Like others, I would really like to see more international troops on the ground to reassure the Bosnia and Herzegovina Government that we are there to deter any internal conflict or destabilisation by Russia or internal forces.
I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton for securing this timely debate. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
I thank the hon. Members for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) and for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) and my hon. Friend Sarah Champion for securing this important debate, which is very close to my heart. We have had an excellent debate this afternoon. The House should be united on this issue, and I think it is. This debate has shown our close links with Bosnia and Herzegovina and, without a doubt, it has shown the urgent need for action. I am delighted to have seen the Minister in her place throughout the debate, listening carefully.
I declare my interest as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity and vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Bosnia and Herzegovina. I was a humanitarian aid worker during the war, living in Serbia and Bosnia, and four years later I returned with my small family to head Christian Aid’s Bosnia office, rebuilding villages in north-west Bosnia and supporting the return of refugees.
I saw how a country that seemed to be peaceful and communities that seemed to be ethnically diverse and happily co-existent could slide into conflict, and I saw how devastating that is for everyone. I lived in communities and spoke to the relatives of elderly people who fled with an hour or two’s notice and never returned to their home. They died, devastated, in another part of the country. I spoke to people whose education and dreams for the future were shattered, whose families were separated and whose husbands were killed. The country suffers that deep trauma still.
I will never forget standing in a village with some returning refugees when my translator froze in terror as he recognised the voice of someone who had been a sniper, firing into the town night after night, during the siege of Bihać. Despite those deep traumas and differences, I pay tribute to everyone in Bosnia who has worked hard to rebuild their beautiful country and who looked atrocities and killing in the face and did not let it define their community forever—to everyone who has consistently chosen peace over hate for many years.
This month is the 26th anniversary of the Dayton agreement, to which the UK is a signatory. We need to reassert our support for the agreement and for the integrity of the national borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The trigger for the current crisis has been genocide denial. We stand together to condemn that genocide denial and the rise of divisive identity-based politics. The UK and international response to the increasingly divisive politics of the leader of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, has been quiet for too long, but I sense a turning of that tide, and I hope this debate will hasten it.
We must learn from what happened in the 1990s and in Srebrenica. When we say “never again,” we must mean it. A return to violence in Bosnia is not inevitable, and I will focus on two things. First, civil society has an important role. We have talked about troops on the ground, which I hope not to see. If we work well with civil society now, we can stop it.
We have learned lessons about peacebuilding in Northern Ireland, and that peace was built not just through diplomatic agreements or military action but through community groups, brave individuals, women’s groups, teachers and young people. It was supported by other countries, too. For example, a stream of parliamentarians from South Africa repeatedly went to Northern Ireland and lent influential encouragement and expertise during the peace process. Let us learn from that.
I emphasise the hon. Lady’s point about the role of women and the empowerment of women in conflict prevention, which has also been raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) and for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond). The women’s peace movement in Northern Ireland was instrumental in helping to end that conflict, and men should be supporting women’s peace movements.
I absolutely agree. There are voices of peace, especially women’s voices, within Republika Srpska, but it is not easy to work with them. Earlier we heard from the High Representative that it is difficult to be in civil society, to be those voices and to be those women who speak out. We need to seek out those groups and find where they are. I have been asking about this for quite a long time, and I do not know the groups with which we should be working. We in the UK face a challenge in what we can do not only to prevent genocide and conflict now—that is clearly value for money—but to build a lasting peace for the future. That has to be done in conjunction with civil society.
Secondly, we need an atrocity prevention strategy. The United States has one. The Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocity Prevention Act 2018 commits the US Government to pursuing a Government-wide strategy to identify, prevent and respond to atrocity risk. We need that across all the countries in which we work, but we need it in Bosnia right now. Such a strategy would include improved communication between desk officers and London and proper training on spotting the signs early and on what to do, and it would put in place a better early warning system to spot the signs of genocide. According to the UN framework, we can see 21 of 80 warning signs right now. What is happening in other countries? Do we spot them? Are we ready? Without a genocide prevention strategy across all our work, we will not be ready in Bosnia or elsewhere.
Finally, what can the UK do now? I echo many earlier points. I welcome today’s announcement of a special envoy to the Balkans. Will the Minister join me in condemning genocide denial and remembering the 8,000 people who died in the Srebrenica genocide? Will she work with the US, NATO and the EU to impose sanctions on countries that undermine the Dayton peace agreement and to assert the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina? Will she provide unequivocal support for the UN High Representative, Christian Schmidt? And will she look into the peacebuilding and civil society support we need to give to groups, communities and individuals in Republika Srpska now?
A co-ordinated, coherent and well-implemented atrocity prevention strategy can save countless lives, stop the need for military intervention and complement diplomatic support.
I speak as someone who was very close to an atrocity. I love the idea of an atrocity prevention strategy but, when it happened within three miles of my camp, I knew nothing about it until it happened. There were no indications whatever. It went bang and 100 people were dead.
Atrocities and crimes against humanity happen in different ways in different countries, but the experience from many other countries and other conflicts around the world shows—not always but in many cases—that there are indicators that can be spotted and acted upon before there are military personnel on the ground.
I take the right hon. Gentleman’s comments, and I understand there is some scepticism among Conservative Members about an atrocity prevention strategy, but I urge them to look to the experience of its implementation in America and in many African countries. A co-ordinated atrocity prevention strategy can stop history repeating itself. It needs to start with Bosnia, and it needs to start today.
The tone of this debate has been grave, and it has been one of concern. If Bosnians are watching, I hope it will be understood that the motivation is one of love and affection. Bosnia and Herzegovina is a beautiful country of rivers, valleys and mountains, with a vibrant and friendly population. Bosnia could be a great southern European country, if its great potential can be exploited.
In saying that, I do not dismiss the obvious challenges that Bosnia and Herzegovina faces. It has faced the worst atrocities in post-war Europe, and after the civil war it has weak governmental structures, having what has been called a “flat tin roof” of central Government covering two statelets, and there is still a strong international presence in the High Representative. I thank Mr Christian Schmidt for taking the time today to brief parliamentarians on his work. Bosnians should take pride in the fact that for more than two decades there has been peace in that country. As we have heard, no harm has been caused to peacekeepers during that time either.
As a result of those achievements in the past two decades, I share the serious concerns about talk of secessionism; attempts made to weaken central structures even further and to undermine the role of the High Representative; the great deal of political uncertainty; and the weakness of civil society structures. Those concerns build a picture of a lost opportunity to build Bosnia into a strong country. I do not have the experiences that other right hon. and hon. Members have voiced this afternoon, but my small experience came from visiting Ježevac, where there is a refugee camp about 12 miles from Tuzla. It is remote and off the beaten track. I visited in 2000 as a young undergraduate doing some charity work. It is a pretty village of white buildings built by a Norwegian non-governmental organisation, but it is a village of women, girls and boys—an entire generation of men from about 17 onwards is missing there, as they were murdered at Srebrenica. In this remote village were survivors of Srebrenica who were eking out an existence, having been abandoned by the world. In my preparation for this debate, I wanted to know what happened to Ježevac, and I found a report in The Guardian from just last year that showed it was still there. Some 20 years later, the people in Ježevac are in this small remote village outside Tuzla eking out an existence on the hillside in their little huts. That just shows that although great progress has been made, there has been a big lost opportunity to build the country that Bosnia could be. So there is a great deal of work we can do.
I appreciate that only the people of Bosnia can build that strong Bosnian nation, but I add my voice to the calls we have heard this afternoon for Her Majesty’s Government to be that friend of Bosnia that it needs, to support the Dayton structures, including the role of the High Representative, and to take on the malign forces that are seeking to undermine the nation. As we have heard, we have seen twice in the 20th century that Bosnia has been a flashpoint for great violence, and I hope that we can start to take the action that we need today to make sure that Bosnia will not become the headline in the 21st century, as it has been previously.
It is always a pleasure to speak on this issue. I commend the hon. Members for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) and for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for leading today’s debate. All debates are important, but this one is particularly important to me as I am a huge advocate for human rights globally, and it is a pleasure to be here today to address the ongoing issues in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
I wish to commend James Sunderland, and, in particular, Bob Stewart for his courage and leadership. I have had many discussions with him, and in this House he is held in very high esteem. We have a friendship and a personal relationship that has been enhanced by being here, but I just want to say to him that when I think of him I know why his men followed him—
No, it is more than that. It is because he gives them leadership and courage—that is the issue.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has been experiencing intensified political and ethnic tensions, which could potentially break the country apart and slide it back into war once again. Bosnia has seen ongoing political violence since the early 1990s, and long before the Bosnian war of 1995. The violence stemming from the discrimination and inequalities is political. I speak as chair of the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief, and I speak up for those of an ethnic or religious minority who run for public office in that country—it is almost impossible for them to do that. So I find it astonishing that the constitution has still not been amended, as there is a need for it to be changed. Why should anybody be subject to discrimination and persecution just because they have a different religion or are from a different ethnic minority?
The human rights abuses occur many ways. First, Bosnia and Herzegovina is faced with thousands of migrants and asylum seekers wanting somewhere to live. Between January and August 2019, the state service for foreign affairs registered some 11,292 irregular arrivals and only 185 submitted an asylum application. No one received refugee status. So we have to look at that issue as well.
Secondly, the levels of domestic and gender-based violence are rife—others have mentioned that but I want to state it as well. Human Rights Watch stated that violence against women increased to significant levels in Bosnia during the pandemic, as it did in many parts of the world. However, in this case, in 2018-19 only 1,223 of the 2,865 reported cases of domestic violence resulted in a court decision—those figures worry me, as this is less than half. In the remainder of the cases, the victim had changed their statement or had withdrawn the allegation, ultimately dropping charges against the perpetrator. I always like to make it clear that when we look at such figures, they are the “reported” figures. Therefore, I suspect—I do not have any evidential base to prove this, but I do not think I am far wrong—that many hundreds, if not thousands, more women are probably suffering at the hands of abusers but are too frightened to report it, given the ongoing human rights abuses.
I was not aware that Fleur Anderson had done work in Bosnia, but I commend her for that. We were at a Christian Aid thing last night and I saw her there, but I did not realise that she had personal experience of this—I just want to put my thanks to her for that on the record. Intervention from our Government and others is the way to help tackle this problem. We cannot sit back and expect stability and peace to occur if we do nothing to help. This debate is about what we can do and the leadership to which the right hon. Member for Beckenham referred. This country must lead and be at the front. We are accountable for assistance, although I have to say that the human rights abuses by way of a restricted media are prominent. For example, it has been stated that journalists continue to face interference to their work, including lawsuits, and verbal and physical attacks. There have been at least 51 documented violations of media freedom.
Many right hon. and hon. Members have spoken about the peace process in Northern Ireland. As a Unionist, I am very pleased that we have the peace process and that many parts of the world—the USA, the EU and other countries—took the time and effort to make that happen. But do Members know why the peace process delivered at the end of the day? It was because the people of Northern Ireland wanted it to happen. So for it to happen for the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, they need to make it happen. The leader of our group here, my right hon. Friend Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson, was in South Africa, along with others, to look at the peace process there and how to move forward.
The hon. Gentleman absolutely makes the point: this has to be about what the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina want. Again, this goes back to the point that Dodik does not have the support he claims he commands. Poll after poll, meeting after meeting of civil society groups, interventions and meetings involving the High Representatives have shown that people do not want secession. The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the Republika Srpska and in every other part of it, just want peace, stability and opportunity. So when we talk about what people want, it is important that we keep that in our mind: they do not want secession.
I thank the hon. Lady for that, as it is good to have it on the record. She is absolutely right about where we are in this position. As a Unionist, I changed my position when we looked at what we wanted for Northern Ireland. We could not always depend on the Unionist majority and so we needed to have a relationship with those of a nationalist persuasion and we needed to work together to make that happen. So it does come from within. It came because the majority of the people—that is her point—wanted it to happen.
I wish briefly to discuss a topic on which I like to encourage conversation, as this happens all too often and more times than enough it is ignored: the persecution of religious groups in Bosnia. In particular, I refer to the Bosnian genocide, which has had a prolonged effect on the Bosnian culture. It was estimated that some 23,000 women, children and elderly people were put on buses and driven to Muslim-controlled territory, while, as others have said, 8,000-plus battle-age men were detained and killed. Many Bosniak residents were driven into concentration camps, where women were abused in a horrific way and other civilians were tortured, starved and murdered.
In the wider struggle for stability and peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I give encouragement to and call upon the FCDO. I look to the Minister, as I always do, as she is the person who is going to answer and give us the answers we want—no pressure there. We must offer our support to her to give the direction that we all wish to see. As the right hon. Member for Beckenham and I have said, we want our United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to lead on this, and therefore we look to our allies in NATO, the EU and, further afield, in the US, to come to do that. We need to uphold the provisions of the Dayton peace agreement that was signed in November 1995. It is not too late to adhere to that.
Speeches in this important debate today, so successfully led by my hon. Friend Alicia Kearns, have reflected the wide range of contributions made at the time—whether military, in the media, charitable or parliamentary—by Members both in Bosnia and indeed elsewhere. Above all, what comes out of this debate is the huge amount of shared interest, concern and goodwill for the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina. All of us can remember where we were during some of the most horrific events from a generation ago, particularly the massacre in Srebrenica. All of us today wish to see this newish nation continue to succeed.
I come to this debate partly as chair of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which was born out of those events. The then Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, created the foundation with huge cross-party support from individuals such as George Robertson and Margaret Ewing. It was not just a Conservative venture, but a parliamentary venture to help build and support the new democratic parties and institutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Thirty years on, a few months away from that anniversary, it would be a horrible irony if this effort, among all the efforts made by people in this country and elsewhere, including in Bosnia itself, were to come to a horrible return to the nationalistic and secessionist events of a generation ago. All of us stand in support of the work of the High Representative, the ambassador here and also our ambassador out there, and the Minister and her colleagues to try to play our role in preventing that from happening.
The hon. Gentleman is making a fine contribution. Let us just think how cheap the work of the Westminster Foundation is, or other measures designed to maintain peace, compared with the enormous cost of refugees flooding across Europe and of conflict once again in the heart of Europe. It is a cheap deal and we should grab it.
The hon. Gentleman is right, although, by mentioning that, he tempts me to stray into the territory of budget resolutions for the WFD and other such issues—but I will not do so today. He is right that what is absolutely crucial is maintaining peace, continuing stability, building on an imperfect agreement—the Dayton accord—and trying to encourage all the political institutions in Bosnia to work more closely with civic society to build a country in which the young, above all, have confidence and can see a future. That is precisely what the WFD is doing there today, and what we have been doing across the west Balkans, which, above all, includes, as the Minister knows, trying to build more inclusive societies where both the young and women feel that they have a critical role to play. This is perhaps particularly so in a society that was so dominated by war and by male nationalism not that long ago. It is interesting, for example, that following the programme that we ran there in 2020, 30 female councillors were elected at local government level. That is an encouraging step in the right direction.
However, all of these efforts will come to nothing if, as has been rightly said, we somehow allow the country to slide back potentially towards civil unrest and even civil war. That is the theme of today. There will be other themes to come. My hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall will no doubt allude to the very successful campaign run by Baroness Helić, now in the Lords, when she was working as special adviser to the then Foreign Secretary, Lord Hague of Richmond, while I was a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Foreign Office, to highlight some of the unbelievable atrocities done in that conflict and elsewhere in the world. All that good work risks being unravelled by some in Bosnia and Herzegovina who wish to return to a different nationalistic world of division and conflict.
We have seen plenty of evidence of the commitment of the Minister and our Government. I know that the Minister has seen the High Representative. Her colleague, the Defence Minister, was in Bosnia yesterday for Armed Forces Day, and we are beginning to see the right signals coming through social media from the US, the EU, NATO and the UN. They are all coming together and not sounding a slightly different note and tone about their approach to secessionist moves. Ultimately, if we start redrawing maps in Bosnia and Herzegovina, we risk unravelling maps all across central and eastern Europe with horrible consequences. I am talking about the 1.8 million Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina who will surely find their way in that situation towards other parts of Europe and towards our own shores, rather than being able to build their current and future lives in their own country. We do know of the ghastly consequences that could come from this.
The appointment of Sir Stuart Peach is an encouraging step forward. All sorts of discussions are to be had, as my right hon. and gallant Friend Bob Stewart suggested earlier, about what role we could play in EUFOR and the UN forces as a stabilising and protecting mission with a clear purpose of saving lives and preventing war. There must be no doubt about what that goal should be. Perhaps, above all, we should try to make sure that this country continues to play our role in the issues in Europe, which matter to all of us here, for that is the goal not only of this debate, but much more widely, of our role in Europe and in the world as a force for good.
I, too, thank Alicia Kearns for opening this debate so powerfully. I also thank those Members who have spoken today who have direct experience of the conflict and of the subsequent peacebuilding in Bosnia and Herzegovina. For me, the conflict then was a horror unfolding on the nightly news, and has seldom been mentioned since in the news. However, in the past week, I have received a number of personal and moving messages from constituents who came from Bosnia and Herzegovina, telling me just how worried they are about the current situation.
The Dayton agreement was a key diplomatic achievement in post-war Europe; it was not a perfect agreement, but it stopped the bloodshed and provided nearly 30 years of peace. It showed that peace was possible and that the international community, including the US and the UK, could be a force for justice, a force for good and a force for peace. It sent a powerful message, while also bringing peace for so many families.
The 1995 horrors of Srebrenica are a painful reminder that genocide and crimes against humanity are not merely something from the distant past. The legendary writer and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said that, after the holocaust, the words, “Never again” became more than a slogan; they became “a prayer, a promise, a vow.” That vow should underpin the work of our Government—and indeed of all Governments—on the world stage.
One constituent who lived through the conflict wrote to me of
“the large number of concentration camps where people were tortured in many inhumane ways, subjected to torture, hunger and thirst.”
He told me that these horrors had a particular impact on children, as they had
“their carefree childhood interrupted, and many were left without one or both parents and lived in orphanages or in foster care.”
Those in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the diaspora across the world are really worried about the situation. A constituent told me that citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina
“want to enjoy peace, freedom and democracy, and to preserve their integrity and sovereignty. They want to progress and have a better future...They deserve happiness and prosperity as any other human being.”
Those words echo the central point of this debate: they deserve happiness.
My hon. Friend Catherine West has written to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and rightly called on the Government to take urgent action, as others have done today. The UK has a special role to play and should be leading on this situation. We hear much from the Government about global Britain. Surely this is the type of issue where we need to see the whole Government playing a larger role, not only as a signatory to the Dayton agreement, which underpins peace, but because of our duty to the memory of the 57 members of the UK forces who died while securing peace.
We have heard serious concerns about the current situation from the UN High Representative, Christian Schmidt, and from the EU and NATO. Our Government need to work with our European partners in France and Germany, along with the US, to ensure that the EU’s peacekeeping operation has the necessary support. We have a moral duty to find a solution to this crisis, to work with our allies and to lead. I hope that we will hear from the Government about just what they are doing.
As has been mentioned by Richard Graham, I am privileged to chair the all-party parliamentary group on the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative, which was set up by the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and Baroness Helić, who sits in the other place. The APPG and the initiative have recently been relaunched, and I understand that Stuart Peach is to have a remit and a role. The initiative shows the significance of ensuring that women are included in the peace discussions, and that we can push for justice, support, and action against the perpetrators.
At this point in the debate, there is little else that I can say that has not already been mentioned. This is the second significant debate that we have had in this House on Bosnia in about three weeks. It is important that we continue this momentum and pressure to ensure that Bosnians, Bosniaks and people of the western Balkans understand that we will continue to discuss and debate this issue, and that this House is united and the Government are listening, because today’s call for action is unanimous.
There is no doubt that we need to recognise the genocide that has gone on in the western Balkans and in Bosnia, but it is also important to understand that Bosnia might be the first domino that will fall, and if it falls we will see action in Kosovo and issues in Montenegro, and we will give up the ghost in the western Balkans as a whole; the spread of fear and intimidation is being used to divide people. Of course, after Afghanistan we have seen that the west’s response has been somewhat subdued. We need to use this as the opportunity for the west to regain its confidence and to act and intervene where necessary. Bosnia is a case in point, not just because of our history or the extraordinary service of our soldiers and the UN peacekeeping forces, but because it is in our backyard and it is the playground of Russia, and of Serbia and Croatia, where they are trying to ignore international rules.
So much has been said about Dodik, but we know his playbook. It will be to use a small riot or some security issue, and then areas will go into lockdown and police forces will arrive. As my hon. Friend Alicia Kearns said, we are already seeing it. Those are the tactics that will be used; we have to expect them, but we have to expect a robust response.
We should have two focuses. The first is on the short term. Today we need a commitment from the Foreign Secretary to respond. If Dodik takes action and there is intervention, we need to be able to say with confidence that we will react and encourage others to do so. We need to ensure that sanctions and travel bans are implemented. I do not know whether the UK will unilaterally put sanctions and travel bans on individuals, but we should have no fear or hesitation about publishing a list of those we want to target; that should be absolutely no problem for us. Of course, this short-term focus must also be about reaffirming territorial integrity. We made this point during the last urgent question on this issue, but we need this reaffirmation conclusively, and we need it to be repeated again and again and again.
The second perspective is the long term. As Jim Shannon mentioned, we need to reform annexe 4 of the constitution to ensure that there is democratic accountability, and to give that confidence to people in the region and area. As so many Members have said, the Dayton accord needs to be modernised and updated.
Russia and China are meddling and disrupting in the region. Russia is arming police forces in the Republika Srpska. China is trying to encourage a debt-trap scenario in Bosnia. Those are two of the outside players, but we must ensure that there is accountability towards Croatia and Serbia, because, frankly, they must be held to account for their actions. If they want to see entry into the EU or other organisations, we must hold them to account on this issue.
Today’s announcement about Sir Stuart Peach is particularly welcome, but would the Minister inform the House on what his remit will be, when he will be reporting back on what is going on, and what his powers will be, because this morning’s announcement was very broad?
We have seen EU intransigence, NATO inaction and US indifference. I am sorry to put it like that, but the United Kingdom seems to be the only country right now that is standing up and talking about this issue. As other Members have said, we have a duty to lead. Let us lead and let us restore the confidence in the international rules-based order, and support an extraordinary country.
I thank my hon. Friend Alicia Kearns for securing this incredibly important debate.
My interest in this matter is connected to two things. First, I have not really spoken about this, but my academic background is in Russia, and Russian and eastern European history. If I have any international knowledge, it is connected to that. I also had the great privilege of going to Bosnia only about two months ago, on a delegation to Bosnia and Herzegovina led by my right hon. and gallant Friend Bob Stewart, who gave a fantastic tour.
As my hon. Friend Tom Randall said, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a country and a nation with, in some respects, so much going for it: the great, unique beauty of the physical environment; by and large, lovely, interesting people; a culture and a history that is unmatched; and a capital city that is probably one of the most fascinating that I have ever had the privilege of visiting. It is slightly disappointing that we are now at a point where we cannot fly direct to Sarajevo. I hope that that changes at some point in the future, and that many of my constituents and those of every hon. Member in this place can go and see the wonders in Bosnia and Herzegovina that a lot of us have had the benefit of seeing.
It is sad that so long after the Dayton agreement, the political lines remain very narrow. We do not see political parties that transcend the particular ethnic and religious groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and that has been made more difficult by the self-interested behaviour of various political actors there that have held back the process. I do think it is possible that Bosnia and Herzegovina can be a sustainable nation, if given the chance to do so by those who have the ultimate responsibility for making that happen and for ensuring that the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina can live together in peace and harmony.
During my visit to Bosnia, I went to Ahmići, which is in the north of the country. My right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham was at the heart of witnessing the horrors that happened there. Of course, it was Bosnian Croats who committed that genocide; and it was a genocide, and it was right that it was called that.
Srebrenica will stick with me forever in terms of what I saw there and the graves. Although more than 8,000 people died, there are nowhere near that many graves there, because a lot of the remains have not been found. But they continue to be found, and when I was there, I saw new, fresh graves being dug.
We also had the great privilege of meeting the mothers of a lot of the boys and young men who were massacred, and the women whose husbands were massacred. That will stick with me perhaps more than anything. It was probably the most depressing thing about the visit, because I have been to a similar place where such horrors happened, and that place was Auschwitz. My visit there will also stick with me for the rest of my life, but there is something particularly depressing about a visit to Srebrenica, because not all the lessons have been learnt. In fact, most of the lessons have not been learnt by those connected to and close to the horror that took place.
We should listen to the mothers of those who were massacred explain how, to this day, they see in their communities those linked to the people who carried out the evil that happened, how they are a victim of abuse in the streets, and how they know that within schools in the Republic of Srpska revisionist history is taught and the mayor of a local town has not even bothered to visit the cemetery. This is happening on our doorstep and any country that supports the individuals involved in this should be ashamed.
What do we know would happen if we were to say that the Republic of Srpska can succeed? What message would that send in giving in to the tactics of many people who do not see this for what it was—a genocide—and who are not apologetic for the evil that happened? What message does that send?
The importance of going to Bosnia must not be understated. I thank my hon. Friend for sharing that because I remember visiting the Srebrenica memorial in 2015, and two Serbian young men driving past in their car with music blaring, throwing bottles of urine into the memorial. I remember attending the funerals of people whose body parts had finally been pulled together because the Serbians went in with diggers and dug up the mass graves to try to deny and hide how many people they had murdered. I remember people screaming, “The deaths are made up—they are not real, what is going on?” and people picketing these funerals. Does he agree that it is vital that as many Members of this House as possible visit and learn, because it is only through seeing the visceral pain that was there in 2015, and is there now, that we can truly understand how much of a tinderbox Bosnia is?
I thank my hon. Friend for that fantastic intervention. I think any Member who has the opportunity to go there should go there. Anyone outside this place who has the opportunity to go there should go there. I admit that before I went I was quite blind to the reality of the present-day situation and the extent to which many of the problems still exist. I probably naively thought, “That was a little while ago now. I assume it’s all moved forward and the lessons have been learned.” The most depressing thing about all this is the extent to which, in many ways, that is not the case.
I use that comparison: that visit and my visit to Auschwitz. That is a relevant comparison because the scale is not the same, but the brutality, the genocide and the evil intentions are the same. The difference is this. We know that antisemitism still exists in our country and in the world and we should not stop until it is completely eradicated, but, other than a few fringe conspiracy theorists, nobody denies the brutal evil reality of what happened in the holocaust. But, to this day, not far away from where we stand, there are many people, and many countries backing people, who do deny what happened in 1995. That should cause us all great concern. I do not profess to be an expert on international affairs or that country, but I am an honourable Member in this place who was incredibly moved by what I saw on my visit, and it has shaped my thinking in a way that I doubt many visits will ever do for me as long as I am a Member in this place.
In terms of what we do now, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton because, at the very least, this will raise awareness and that is good and an end in itself. But in terms of concrete actions, I would like to share the views expressed by the vast majority of hon. Members about what we need to do. We do need to stand tall because so often this great country is relied upon to do so and we must not let the people of Bosnia down.
It is a pleasure to follow all the speeches in this debate and to wind up for the SNP. I warmly congratulate Alicia Kearns on bringing this important issue before the House and on an excellent speech that I very much enjoyed.
A number of excellent points have been made throughout the debate, so I will focus particularly on outcomes and action points because it is important that we take stock of what is happening in Bosnia. The price of peace is eternal vigilance and that has never been more true than with what is happening in Bosnia and Herzegovina just now. There is a wider context as well. We are seeing a pattern of behaviour. We are seeing it in cyber-attacks in the Baltic states, in the odious use of refugees to create a crisis on the Polish border, and in the continued illegal annexation of Crimea and continued instability in eastern Ukraine. Russia and its proxies will test, and are testing, the limits of the rules-based international order, and the Dayton accords are fragile and under threat because they are also testing the resolve of the international community to defend that international order and those accords. So international solidarity and co-ordination have never been more vital.
In terms of action points and what we can do, I will not repeat the excellent points that have been made from all points of the compass in the House. There are a number of things that we can and should be doing more of. I commend the work that the UK Government have done but I would like to see further action. First, on focus, we need to make everyone aware in the region that we are paying attention to what is happening there, and it is relevant to us in our countries and to what is happening here. We need to give vocal support to the high representative, as a number of colleagues have said. He needs support in his job and full-throated support in the international forums where he is trying to win his arguments.
Secondly, it is surely past time that Magnitsky sanctions were imposed on individuals within the region, but also that wider sanctions were set out as there will be consequences to infringements of the Dayton accords. We must ratchet that up to make sure that people are in no doubt that there will be consequences to malfeasance.
Thirdly, on NATO, the establishment of a counter-disinformation centre in Sarajevo is a wonderful proposal. It would be useful in countering the blizzard of disinformation and lies that is trying to muddy the water and confuse people within the region.
Fourthly, I echo the comments of Fleur Anderson about an atrocity prevention strategy. This is very close to the SNP’s heart as well. In the coming weeks we will be putting forward our proposals for the protection of civilians. I warmly commend the paper by Dr Kate Ferguson from Protection Approaches to the House. She sets out a number of very practical ways in which this could be taken forward. It would boost the efforts of global Britain to be the force for good that various Members hope it can be. If the UK Government took steps in that direction, we would support that. It would be a common effort. We think that atrocity prevention should be far higher up the agenda within the FCDO.
The protection of civilians is crucial within Bosnia and Herzegovina. As we have heard, violence is not inevitable, but surely history tells us that it is very far from impossible either. So we must see higher action on this. The price of peace being eternal vigilance, we remember Srebrenica each year as a humanitarian tragedy, but we also need to remember it as a collective failure. Let us not be the generation that looks back on this point and says, “We could have done more.”
This really is Parliament at its best, when we are united and speaking with one voice on the importance of saving lives, because this is where we could end up with this very grave debate and the situation in Bosnia Herzegovina. I thank Alicia Kearns, who clearly has intimate knowledge of the subject and a real passion to deter what could be a terrible outcome if we do not get moving, as the international community, in preventing further conflict, in-fighting and hatred, which so many humanitarians around the Chamber have mentioned. I also want to mention my hon. Friend Sarah Champion, who in this House has a history of stopping violence against women and girls, both domestically and internationally, and Stewart Malcolm McDonald. I thank them for securing the debate.
Parliaments have a real role in sparking these debates and in galvanising Governments. We have seen that today. This morning we had the meeting and the briefing from Christian Schmidt, who has a background not just in the defence brief in the German Parliament but in the friendship group with the UK. It is fantastic that he made it such a priority to be here—at the invitation of the FCDO, the Minister, the influential Back Bencher, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton, and all those who were there, including my hon. Friends the Members for Caerphilly (Wayne David), for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), who all have a strong history in this area—to counter the beat of nationalism, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale said. Mr Schmidt warned of a potential return to violence and fragmentation. We had a long discussion about the importance of keeping Dayton alive and going, but also of refreshing it, as it was 20-odd years ago.
I briefly want to put on record my background as a visitor to asylum seekers and refugees from the area, mainly young Kosovans, in the late 1990s. That is how I met my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy and then came into politics myself—visiting youngsters in bed and breakfasts in London boroughs. When we visit children in our own constituency, we might have helped their parents as asylum seekers and refugees in the late 1990s.
Nationalism can be toxic, but there is another crucial ingredient in this potential catastrophe: the interference by other sovereign states, such as Russia and China, and the benign neglect by states that should know better. That is what creates the catastrophe. Will the hon. Lady address that a little in her remarks?
I thank the hon. Member for making that point, because the role of the US has come up in the debate. We call the agreement the Dayton peace accords for a reason. I hope that the US will join us and put on record its commitment to maintaining the Dayton legacy.
I was coming to this, but I am happy to bring forward my bullet points for the Minister. Will she condemn the sale of arms to the Serbian police forces, which has been discussed? Will she condemn the role that Russia is playing in the wider picture, given that it was around the table originally for the Dayton peace talks? Can she give us her current assessment of the danger Russia poses in this situation?
We know that widespread bigotry and hatred can snowball into violence, destruction and ethnic cleansing. Through the international actions that we can all take now, rather than waiting for things to worsen, we can have a real impact, because we know that 26 years ago is but a blink of the eye when the feelings still run high. I was particularly moved by the comment of Jim Shannon that he had changed his position during the debates on the Irish question we had here in the 1990s and into the 2000s. He said that he had changed, and I wanted to emphasise our own experience of that conflict—I know that Bob Stewart has experience of that conflict, too. We can change and we can hope to be the conveners of change.
My second challenge to the Minister is to ask what is the UK’s role? As Anthony Mangnall, who is no longer in his place, asked, what will Sir Stuart Peach’s remit be when he arrives in Bosnia? How will he support the work of Christian Schmidt, so that we can lead with the UN High Representative and not be undermined by players such as Russia? Will she respond to the question on sanctions? Are sanctions being considered in the effort to use every single tool available to us?
If a sanctions regime is appropriate, does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital that the sanctions be finely targeted, so that they do not hit the people of Bosnia and even those in the Republika Srpska, but are directed at the authors of this nationalism, which is so unacceptable?
I agree with my hon. Friend and with the excellent approach he takes on Belarus. I know the Minister is aware of that. My hon. Friend has led in a number of the debates on sanctions in Belarus, and it is the same actor there. I say to Sir Bernard Jenkin, who challenged on the role of Russia, that this is the same sort of undermining of international action as we are seeing in Belarus. The sanctions response from the Government has been good and cross-party. I hope to see that in Bosnia, if the assessment is that sanctions are necessary.
I have two more challenges, and then I will conclude. What increased engagement and proactive work are being undertaken to prevent the slide into the rhetoric and violence of the past? At civil society level and at the economic level, what role can international partners play, both in promoting trade, which Martin Vickers talked about, and in promoting the role of civic society, which my hon. Friend the Member for Putney emphasised? Will the UK Government be prepared to continue to act as a convener to bring together the international community, given the tragic past? The right hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham left us with the image of his interpreter and driver being assassinated during the conflict and he himself being at risk.
Let me conclude by saying that the world is watching us. My hon. Friend Ruth Cadbury reminded us of the immortal words of Elie Wiesel. We know that with Holocaust Memorial Day just a month or two away, the work that is done to prevent further loss of life is crucial. Now is the time to act. We must step up. We must, throughout all civic society, as well as through the use of our armed forces and others, put this on record: never again.
I start by thanking right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House for their clear interest in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the western Balkans and for their often powerful and personal contributions to the debate.
I would like to make a bit of progress first. I have a huge number of questions to try to get through, but I will happily come back to my hon. Friend.
As this debate has highlighted, political developments in Bosnia and Herzegovina are of significant concern to the UK Government. I will endeavour to address all the points raised during my speech. The views expressed by Members of this House in relation to peace and security in the region do have an impact. The urgent question of
After the devastating conflicts of the 1990s, Bosnia and Herzegovina has lived in peace for 26 years. This has allowed the country and the region to build stability and prosperity. The late and much-missed Lord Ashdown described the Dayton peace agreement as
“the floor, not the ceiling.”
It is a base upon which to build progress on issues of concern to citizens. Sadly, politicians who are more focused on maintaining their own positions have exploited that agreement.
As the system that underpins stability is undermined, we see tension spreading across the region. Milorad Dodik, a Bosnian Serb member of the tripartite presidency, has threatened to withdraw the Republika Srpska, one of two constitutional entities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, from important state institutions. The High Representative, Christian Schmidt, has called that an attempt at de facto secession. The situation is as serious as we have seen in a long time.
President Dodik’s plan, which is clearly dangerous and deliberate, would undo much of the hard-won progress of the past two decades. It would isolate the Republika Srpska, increase instability and reduce opportunities for all citizens. We must not be complacent about the risk posed to peace and the long-term future of the country. The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina deserve a better future in a stable and prosperous state with strong institutions, and the UK is committed to helping them.
To address these challenges, the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have today appointed a UK special envoy for the western Balkans. I am pleased that Sir Stuart Peach, well known to many in this House as a former Chief of the Defence Staff and then chairman of the NATO military committee, will take on the role. Members, including Catherine West, have asked what his work will entail. It will involve promoting strong democratic institutions and open societies, helping to tackle serious and organised crime and other joint security challenges, and encouraging resolution of legacy issues such as war crimes and missing persons. The UK will also continue to lead work to advance gender equality and to implement the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative. I am sure his appointment will be welcomed across the House—I sense that it has been welcomed this afternoon. It demonstrates the UK’s strong commitment to stability and prosperity in the region and to deepening our bilateral relationships.
As a demonstration of our commitment, my ministerial colleagues Lord Ahmad and Baroness Goldie were both in Sarajevo yesterday. They discussed with ministerial counterparts how together we can safeguard Bosnia and Herzegovina’s sovereignty and state integrity. Baroness Goldie marked Armed Forces Day to show our support.
On EUFOR, we worked hard with our allies in the UN Security Council to renew the mandate for the EUFOR stabilisation force, and we welcome EUFOR’s ability to continue its ongoing work. The mandate is an important deterrent against those with malign intent who would seek to damage regional stability.
The most important thing to recognise is that we have renewed the mandate and we welcome the ongoing work that EUFOR can continue. We recognise that it is an important tool and an important deterrent against those with malign intent.
As I mentioned, I sat through those debates and questions in the 1990s, and I am not prepared to sit through more months and years of prevarication. My right hon. and gallant Friend Bob Stewart proposed that we should simply make an offer of British armed forces to pump prime the whole of NATO to make a considerable enlargement to the force, because that is what is necessary. The force needs to be moved into the Brčko corridor, which is the main enclave that we need to protect, and to deter the detachment of Republika Srpska armed forces. Otherwise, it will happen—it is happening. It is being encouraged by Russia and we are not doing enough to deter it. We just want a deterrent force; we do not want to start a war.
Okay. As I explained, I believe EUFOR is an important deterrent, but I recognise that Members of both sides of the House are keen to understand and learn more about what the UK is doing, so let me make some progress.
On the position of the High Representative, we are fully committed to supporting the High Representative as he works with people in-country to implement the civilian aspects of the peace agreement. We support the use of his executive powers, should the situation require it. As Members are aware, he is in London today and I know that he spoke with many Members this morning. I also met him, as will the Foreign Secretary, and our embassy team in Sarajevo remain in close contact with him. That visible and vocal support for the High Representative is essential. We will not allow those who wish harm on that country to undermine his authority.
Many right hon. and hon. Members raised NATO and asked about the meeting in Riga this week. NATO must play an enhanced role in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the western Balkans. At the NATO foreign ministerial meeting in Riga, the Foreign Secretary focused attention on Bosnia and Herzegovina and encouraged greater engagement from the alliance. She called on allies to contribute personnel to the NATO headquarters in Sarajevo and to support work to counter disinformation and strengthen defence reform. The UK will do its part. The UK also offers defence assistance to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s armed forces in support of capacity building efforts and their partnership for peace goals.
On Russia and disinformation, we are seeing a worrying pattern of Russian behaviour aimed at stopping Bosnia and Herzegovina moving closer to Europe and NATO. The UK takes that extremely seriously and will continue to call out aggression. We are also backing projects to counter disinformation in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the wider region, including giving support to independent media organisations.
Regarding Russia, when I was in Bosnia as part of the United Nations protection force, a Russian man called Victor Andreev was very much part of the headquarters. I suggest that we invite the Russians to send people, and possibly even forces, to join any units that we deploy there, because that might be a way forward.
I am grateful for my right hon. and gallant Friend’s suggestions, and those of other Members on both sides of the House, which I will consider.
I will touch on Serbian language that is seen as provocative elsewhere in the region. We wholeheartedly condemn that divisive and inflammatory rhetoric, just as we condemn deliberate attempts to destabilise the region. We have consistently urged Serbia and its neighbours to play a constructive role in the region.
I am conscious of time, so I will crack on and try to answer as many questions as I can. Many Members rightly raised the danger of genocide denial and glorifying war criminals. The UK has consistently urged all political leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the region to reject hate speech; to condemn any glorification of the perpetrators of genocide and war crimes; and to respect the verdicts of international and domestic courts.
My visit to the Srebrenica Memorial Centre earlier this year, and my meeting with some of the mothers there, is an occasion that will stay with me forever. We cannot allow such crimes to be repeated anywhere in the world. We are working with the Srebrenica Memorial Centre to establish a centre for genocide research, prevention and reconciliation. In the UK, we support the work of Remembering Srebrenica, which works tirelessly to raise awareness.
Many Members raised sanctions, which are an important part of the UK’s toolkit for the western Balkans to address corruption and destabilising activities. Obviously it would not be appropriate to speculate about future sanctions targets, as to do so could reduce their impact, but we are in close contact with our partners and we discuss all aspects of our response to the challenges.
I assure Members that preventing sexual violence in conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina remains a priority through our strategy. We are supporting a number of successful projects. There are many other areas that I would have liked to cover, but I will follow up in writing to any specific questions.
The citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina want and deserve security, peace and hope for the future, yet divisive rhetoric and escalating intercommunity tensions threaten those dreams. There is no short-term solution, but as I have set out, the UK has a vital role to play alongside a co-ordinated and focused international response. We remain committed to the success of Bosnia and Herzegovina and all its people.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Earlier in the debate, when reading from awful notes, I made an assertion about the perpetrators of the Srebrenica massacre. In the interest of absolute balance and objectivity, noting current sensitivity within Bosnia, I would like to state for the record that that is contested. I therefore pay tribute to all those across the whole region who have done so much to maintain peace since 1995, and I defer to the position of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
I, too, start with a slight correction, as I should have declared in my opening speech that I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Bosnia and Herzegovina. I apologise for that absence of mind.
I am humbled by and grateful to every Member who has spoken today, and I am proud of the unified voice with which we have spoken. I thank the Minister for her comments and commitments. I am sure that there are more conversations to be had.
We have sent an undeniable message that we stand united with Bosnia; we stand behind the Dayton agreement and the High Representative; we stand against hatred and division; and we want an uplift in our NATO HQ deployment in Sarajevo. We believe that there is hope and that violence is not inevitable.
I hope that our voices are heard in Bosnia and the Balkans, and I damn well hope that they are heard in Moscow. We can do more and we have a duty to do more. Today, we have started to live up to that duty. I hope that we will not divide on the motion, so that we can send a unanimous message to the world that we stand with our friends in Bosnia.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
notes the concerning political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina;
expresses its support for institutions set out in the Dayton Peace Agreement, and the office and work of the High Representative, Mr Christian Schmidt;
and supports continued efforts by the UK Government and its allies to ensure peace and stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina and to uphold the provisions of the Dayton Peace Agreement.