Sierra Leone

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:07 pm on 8th May 2000.

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Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Conservative 5:07 pm, 8th May 2000

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement and updating the House on what is clearly a very serious situation. We welcome and support the sensible and appropriate measures that are being taken to prepare for any evacuation of British and other nationals. The force that has been assembled for this purpose--one-and-a-half, or perhaps two, battalions and five ships--appears to be quite a large one. I am mildly surprised that there are still 500 British nationals in Freetown and surrounding areas when everyone, including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, knows what a dangerous place it has become and how the rule of law has evaporated in many parts of that unhappy, and pathetically poor, country. But if that is what is necessary to get people out safely, it has our full support.

I should like to put a number of questions. First, can the Minister reassure the House that this large force is solely for evacuation and rescue? Can the noble Baroness elaborate on the words "further logistical support"? The House needs to be reassured that this is not the beginning of an entanglement, by a side door as it were, in the whole UN operation that is in difficulties. If evacuation is the purpose, could that be made absolutely clear? When does it begin? We gather that some military units have already been ashore for a day or two in Freetown. What is their aim beyond securing the airport? How long does the Minister think that it will all take?

On the broader scene, the UN operation was supposed to be a showpiece. People were saying that if we cannot get it right in Sierra Leone all hope is lost in Africa, and such words. We should now like to know where the UN operation is heading. At the moment the direction appears to be downwards. What line are Her Majesty's Government taking at the United Nations in support of pulling the operation together? At present, the operation looks in extremely bad shape.

Has the Minister a view, first, on the reports of huge illegal arms shipments going in through Burkina Faso to the rebels to the general chaos of the country? Secondly--my question relates to an issue raised many times by my noble friend on another crisis in Africa, Zimbabwe--has the Commonwealth a role? It is a Commonwealth country. It is part of the Commonwealth scene. I should like to believe that the Commonwealth has a positive role but I have heard nothing of that from the Government.