UN Mission in Mali: Armed Forces Deployment - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 8:29 pm on 14th December 2020.

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The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 9 December.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Lord Touhig Lord Touhig Shadow Spokesperson (Defence) 8:47 pm, 14th December 2020

My Lords, today’s repeat of the Mali deployment Statement is very much welcomed because, whenever British forces are deployed, it is right—indeed, absolutely necessary—for Ministers to come to Parliament to explain the reasons, outline the objectives and answer questions. I am sure that the whole House welcomes the fact that the noble Baroness is here to listen to the views expressed and to respond to questions the Statement made in the other place gives rise to.

Britain has rightly been described as a soft power superpower, and around the world many millions of people owe their quality of life today to support from Britain over many years now. In a report published in 2014 entitled Persuasion and Power in the Modern World, a Select Committee of this House chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, was tasked with examining the use of soft power in furthering Britain’s global influence and interests. The report is well worth further examination, stressing as it does the need for Britain to remain a top-rank player or face being outwitted, outcompeted and increasingly insecure.

The Mali deployment means we are sending our troops into the most dangerous UN mission in the world today. Our forces go with the respect—and more, the affection—of everyone in these islands. Our forces deploy to an area of the African continent that was in former times part of the French colonial interests. No matter the divisions and travails closer to home over Brexit, we go to Mali as part of the UN mandate —yes, we do—but we go in support of our French friends and allies, and that is how it should be: a common interest and a common responsibility to help bring peace and stability.

Our troop deployment is more successful thanks to the Royal Air Force at Brize Norton. Here I echo the words of Brize’s station commander, Group Captain Emily Flynn, who said that the deployment was a good example of the important and often unnoticed work that is carried out by personnel there. Brize Norton is the centre of a world network supporting Britain’s military operations across the globe and we should be proud of that.

We are told that our 300-strong Light Dragoons task group will be helping protect people from violence and encouraging political dialogue. Can the Minister tell us something about the latter role of encouraging political dialogue that our forces will engage in?

In the Statement, we are reminded that in South Sudan British forces were engaged in building hospitals, bridges and roads. This work, of course, requires the deployed forces to possess specialist skills in building and construction. Can the Minister say, thinking of that role, how we might engage in it in partnership with forces from other countries in Mali?

The Statement tells us that the region in which our troops are deployed is the worst place on earth to be an adolescent girl as it accounts for 7% of the world’s population of primary-age girls who are not in education. What plans, if any, do we have to help address this? I can still remember when, together with my noble friend Lord Murphy of Torfaen, I attended a lecture given by the then Chancellor Gordon Brown in Edinburgh almost 15 years ago, when he powerfully argued that the greatest gift and help that we can give the developing world is free education.

In a world ever more watchful of threats from terrorist violence, Mali, as the Statement emphasises, poses a real danger by creating a space for developing new terrorist threats. Without going into any great detail in a security-sensitive matter, can the Minister confirm that our forces will work closely with our allies, sharing intelligence gathering to the mutual benefit and protection of the citizens of the nations who have deployed troops in Mali?

Finally, as we approach the Christmas season, the whole House would echo the Statement’s grateful thanks and good wishes to our troops there. In this awful Covid time, when families across Britain cannot be together, that separation is even harder to bear for our service personnel and their families. Can the Minister assure the House that every preparation is in hand for our troops in Mali to be in contact with their loved ones here at home over Christmas? I am sure that I am not alone in believing that, if the families of our service men and women at home are happy, our troops, wherever they may be asked to serve around the world, will be happy and content. In an uncertain world, Britain’s soft power capability and our long-established and respected role as a peacemaker have never been more important or more needed.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, I start by echoing the words of the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, and the Secretary of State in expressing my gratitude to our service men and women. In particular at this time we send our thanks and best wishes to those serving in Mali and deployed anywhere else in the world in the run-up to Christmas. In particular, we send our thanks and gratitude to the families of our service men and women, without whom they would find doing their job serving our nation so much harder.

The deployment to Mali is, as the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, said, to be welcomed. It is one that the previous Secretary of State for Defence flagged up in the middle of 2019, so it is not a surprise; it is part of an international UN mission, and clearly something that our service men and women are trained for. It is precisely the sort of mission that is to be welcomed but, as the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, pointed out, it is in one of the most dangerous parts of the world. In his Statement, the Secretary of State suggested that our service men and women were well trained and equipped for the mission and have the right training, equipment and preparation to succeed in a complex operating environment. Could the Minister confirm that she believes that those deployed to Mali are appropriately kitted out and that they are not placed in any greater danger than is inevitably the case in such a deployment?

As the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, also pointed out, Mali is a country where it is extremely dangerous, because of terrorist activities, but particularly difficult to be a woman—or a girl being educated. To what extent will the change to humanitarian aid impact on Mali? The Minister is clearly responding primarily for the MoD but she is replying for the Government, so can she confirm that the Government remain committed to supporting women and girls?

In particular, what is the Government’s wider approach to sub-Saharan Africa? I note that the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, will speak later. She admirably chaired the committee of your Lordships’ House on which I sit, and which produced a report on sub-Saharan Africa in July. We have not yet had the opportunity as a House to debate that report, but one issue that the committee kept coming across was a difficulty in understanding whether the Government actually had a strategy for Africa. It would be helpful to understand from the Minister how far Mali fits into such a strategy. Clearly, the UK is playing an important role here as part of a UN mission, but does that fit as part of the Government’s wider strategy?

Overall, this is clearly a welcome mission, even if it is very unfortunate that Mali requires such intervention. It is welcome that the UK continues to play a global role. It is also notable that so much of that role is with our allies, including France and Sweden. Can the Minister reassure the House that, as we move forward, such security relationships will continue to be as deep and fully fledged as they have been? Those relations matter, regardless of the UK’s relations with the European Union. If the deployment to Mali fully reflects what our service men and women should be doing, sending the Navy to deal with French fishermen is perhaps not the best use of our resources.

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, very much for their helpful and constructive comments. On behalf of the Government, I also thank them for their tribute to our Armed Forces personnel and, as the noble Baroness so rightly pointed out, their families. Our thoughts are certainly always with our Armed Forces personnel and their families when there is any deployment at all. The noble Lord and the noble Baroness raised a number of points, which I shall try to deal with as comprehensively as I can.

The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, raised the issue of encouraging political dialogue and how we might contribute to the need for construction and engineering skills. I say to him that the whole reason that the United Kingdom is contributing to this United Nations mission in Mali is that the underlying instability means that it is very difficult, in the face of that turbulence, to move on to the more positive and constructive issues to which he refers. We recognise that while our contribution to the security response is important, security interventions alone will not address the instability in the Sahel. We continue to advocate for state-led progress on the peace process in Mali, and for political and institutional reform in the wider region, with greater ownership and leadership of reform efforts by G5 Governments. I reassure the noble Lord that he raises an important point, but the priority at the moment is trying to address the issues of instability and lack of security.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness also raised the issue of women. It is the case that women have been badly impacted by the consequences of the instability and turmoil. However, it is also the case that there is some cause for optimism. Over the past five years, we have seen progress. Widespread fighting between the parties has not returned, the reconstitution of a national army from members of the former armed groups and—this is the important point—the inclusion of women in the peace process, including MINUSMA’s role as mediator, have been critical to this relative stability. Important points were made about the position of women, how such civil unrest can impact on them and how we can do our best, as a contributing country, to encourage a more enhanced role for women.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked what our objectives are. The Foreign Secretary recently chaired a review process looking at all the strands of the UK ODA budget. The review safeguarded support for five ODA priorities: the very poorest—that is, poverty reduction for the bottom billion; climate change; girls’ education, which will, I hope, reassure the noble Lord and the noble Baroness; Covid-19; and the role of Britain globally as a force for good.

The noble Lord also raised the important issue of how we work with other forces from contributing countries and allies. Indeed, the noble Baroness also talked about that and about our security relationships. I commend them both: they have touched on something really significant. At the heart of this is the fact that we are part of a United Nations mission and we are proud to play our role. We want to be a positive influence to help those countries that have suffered such insurgency and insurrection, particularly Mali, to move on to a better and more stable course. We want that because it is good not just for Mali but for the broader security of the region and the world at large. As the noble Lord alluded to, if we can bring greater stability to that area, we can begin to introduce more robust political processes. If we look at the country’s infrastructure, a great deal of progress has been made in taking the country forward.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness will be aware that we work closely with France in particular. We are part of the Operation Barkhane mission, which is operative in the Sahel. Unlike MINUSMA, Barkhane is a counterterrorism mission, of course. It has a different purpose but it is an example of the importance of working with allies whom we know well, with whom we get on and with whom we are very proud to work in partnership to improve the overall situation.

I think that I have managed to cover the points made by the noble Lord and the noble Baroness. If I have omitted anything, I shall have a look at Hansard and undertake to rectify it. Again, I express to both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness my appreciation of their constructive comments, particularly their recognition of the tremendous role that our Armed Forces are asked to play.

Photo of Baroness Morris of Bolton Baroness Morris of Bolton Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, we now come to the 20 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions.

Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Chair, International Relations and Defence Committee, Chair, International Relations and Defence Committee 9:03 pm, 14th December 2020

My Lords, I also pay tribute to those who serve in Mali and wish them a safe return.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, referred to the report of our Select Committee on International Relations and Defence, The UK and Sub-Saharan Africa. In it, we welcome

“the UK’s increased attention to instability in the Sahel” and its decision to contribute troops to the MINUSMA mission. However, we received evidence that

“the UK still had ‘lessons to learn from Iraq and Afghanistan’, including those relating to equipment, regional understanding and engagement with local counterparts.”

Can my noble friend the Minister say what the MoD has learned from that experience, which is now informing its approach to the support we are giving to MINUSMA’s important mission?

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I thank my noble friend for raising a very important point. I also pay tribute to her role as chairman of the International Relations and Defence Committee and to its very positive and useful report, The UK and Sub-Saharan Africa: Prosperity, Peace and Development Co-Operation. My noble friend was in discussion with the FCDO. I think she received a fairly full letter of clarification about the points she felt were not addressed. I hope that has gone some way towards reassuring her of the Government’s good intent to make a positive contribution in this region of Africa.

Preparation and equipment are very important. There has been analysis of the tasks the UK contingent will conduct on mission, particularly the terrain and the threat they will face. For example, the deploying vehicles have been specifically selected to address these singular and challenging demands. There will be a number of vehicle types used for different tasks. They have previously been tested on operations and will include the Foxhound, Ridgback, Coyote and Jackal. When I read these, I wondered whether we were talking about a zoo, but we are talking about mechanical devices on wheels that will clearly be a very important support to our forces out in Mali. These vehicles have been chosen for a specific purpose. The analysis identified these types of vehicles as being most appropriate for the terrain and the tasks faced.

Our Armed Forces are professional and well trained. This is a United Nations mission, so they are under the command of Lieutenant General Gyllensporre, who is the Swedish commanding officer. I say to the noble Baroness that, yes, previous conflicts have identified the particular challenges of operating in difficult terrain—in coping with extremes of heat or cold—and lessons have been learned from that. I reassure my noble friend that our Armed Forces and their commanding officers are very mindful of that before asking troops to deploy to any region in the world.

Photo of Lord Craig of Radley Lord Craig of Radley Crossbench

My Lords, is the Minister aware that more than 200 MINUSMA troops have been killed and others wounded? This deployment to a faraway country of which we know little is risky. For the record, and to reassure the families and loved ones of any UK casualty, will the Minister explain why deploying in Mali fully justifies these acknowledged dangers to our forces? Have our rules of engagement been agreed with the UN force commander?

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

The noble and gallant Lord raises a very important point. We very much hope our Armed Forces remain safe and that they will not come under threat of loss of life or of injury. He is right to inquire why they are there, what we expect them to do and how we expect them to do it. As I said earlier, this is part of our contribution to the security response. We recognise that security interventions alone will not address the instability in the Sahel and continue to advocate for state-led progress in the peace process in Mali. As I said earlier, that involves political and institutional reform in the wider region.

We believe it is very important the United Kingdom supports the United Nations in attempting to deal with this area of instability. It matters because if that instability is not addressed then it has an effect of contagion. Instability is a threat that can spread. It can allow hostile operators to flourish and can encourage them to take their unwelcome activities to other countries. That could include the United Kingdom. There is an underlying purpose and we believe it is important that the United Kingdom supports the United Nations in this important mission.

I said earlier that the mission, being a United Nations mission, is led by a civilian—a special representative of the United Nations Secretary-General. The peace- keeping force element involves our own military and highly trained soldiers. Because it is a peacekeeping mission, and our forces are principally concerned with reconnaissance, this is clearly slightly different from an operation such as Operation Barkhane. But our force will provide critical capabilities at a vital time. MINUSMA was selected as a mission on the basis that it was where the UK could provide maximum benefit based on the expertise the UK Armed Forces have to offer. I reassure the noble and gallant Lord that this is a carefully constructed contribution from the UK; it is for a specific period; it involves an identified, set number of personnel; and it is a contained contribution.

Photo of Lord Boateng Lord Boateng Labour

My Lords, the struggle against poverty and for development in the Sahel requires peace and security in that increasingly troubled region. No country has invested more in development in ECOWAS than the United Kingdom. So, will the Minister recognise that, in addition to enjoying the support and appreciation of these brave men and women this House offers, the whole of the ECOWAS region, anglophone and francophone, welcomes their deployment? Will the Minister also take the opportunity of the review of ODA and the newly created FCDO to strengthen our military diplomacy in our missions in Africa as part of our development offer?

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I thank the noble Lord for alluding to an important point. He is right; I outlined earlier the principal objectives identified by the Foreign Secretary for ODA. In respect of our military activity, it is important we align these two so that there is a complementary effect. He is correct that these are not problems that one solution will address; there has to be a multifaceted approach.

Photo of Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, as we have heard, this is a most dangerous peacekeeping mission, which has seen 220 fatalities already, together with many injuries. I welcome the range of vehicles to be provided as part of force protection, but that will not be the only element of force protection required. Is the Minister in a position to give us more detail on that matter?

Returning to the matter raised by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, the rules of engagement are extremely important in a theatre of the kind we are discussing. Will the forces there deployed be acting under the rules of engagement of the United Kingdom or the United Nations?

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My understanding is that the direct line of command will be to the overall commander, Lieutenant-General Gyllensporre. But, obviously, our deployment unit has a commanding officer as well. As for specific rules of engagement, these would not normally be disclosed, but I seek to reassure the noble Lord that there is clarity as to why our deployment is there, what it is there to do and how it is intended it should do that.

Photo of Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton Conservative

I declare my interest as a member of the Army Reserve. I would like to explore the Government’s attitude to risk. After years of campaigning in Iraq and Afghanistan, risk was mitigated through a sophisticated use of ISTAR, enhanced medical capabilities and air cover operations to name but a few. But these mitigations are unlikely to be as sophisticated or mature in Mali. Are the Government prepared to take more risk, as many in the military would like them to do, or are we going to have to limit the scale of our operations in Mali, even if, ultimately, that means we will limit the impact the UK can have?

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

We take assessment of risk extremely seriously and we will keep mitigation and management of risk under continuous review. On the specific issue of medevac capability, as in all United Nations missions, United Nations member states are relied on to provide the nations’ capabilities, including helicopters and aeromedical evacuation teams for the benefit of all United Nations troops on MINUSMA. The facility is there. It is the collective responsibility of the United Nations to provide that. We constantly assess risk and keep mitigation and management of risk under review.

Photo of Viscount Waverley Viscount Waverley Crossbench

My Lords, common interest with France, a close ally, is welcome co-operation. The Sahel belt has long been a hotbed of Islamists, separatists and appalling banditry, with recent unrest in Niger and Katsina state in Nigeria, in addition to that in Mali and beyond. The Minister stated that instability could spread but suggested that the United Kingdom’s involvement would be for a limited period. However, will the Government urgently join in planning and implementing a Sahel-wide strategy—[inaudible]—the regional mix of the US and Morocco, having engaged in a major arms deal, together with the just-announced recognition, has the potential to further regional alienation, by some, of Western Sahara—by the US and Morocco.

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I slightly missed a bit in the middle of the noble Viscount’s question, but I will try to deal with the overall concept of his question as to what we are doing in the Sahel. Our objectives are to contribute to improving the situation. We recognise a number of different actors already present in the Sahel. We aim to work with them to better deliver for the people of the region. The UK’s deployment to MINUSMA is a vital part of our work in the Sahel to build stability, bolster conflict resolution, improve the humanitarian response and strengthen partnerships between the international community and regional Governments.

Photo of Lord Hain Lord Hain Labour

My Lords, I agree with the Minister that this is an important UN mission that we must support. I associate myself with my noble friend Lord Touhig’s remarks. The Sahel region is beset by an increasingly dangerous and violent Islamist insurgency, and in the east of Mali militants repeatedly attack French, European and local armed forces, including 50 killed in 2017 in a suicide attack on a military base. The Minister said that lessons had been learned from previous missions. How certain can she be that Mali will be very different from, for example, Helmand? I clearly recall similar assurances to those she has given being given to us in the Cabinet in 2006 on a straightforward mission, yet 454 soldiers, including British ones, were subsequently killed in combat operations against the Taliban.

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

That was indeed a very sad outcome. It is one we remain mindful of, and that we cannot and will not forget. The answer to the noble Lord’s question is probably best explained by returning to the role of the United Nations, because this is what we are part of. The United Kingdom believes in peacekeeping as a way to stabilise and contain conflict. Our contribution to MINUSMA, alongside our enduring commitment to the United Nations’ peacekeeping operation in, for example, Cyprus, and the staff officers we have employed in other operations, is the UK playing its part in a multinational effort to contain the worst consequences of violent conflict and to help build confidence in the political processes.

As I said, we constantly assess and after 18 months we will review this mission. We will analyse what has been happening and assess our role as a contributor to the mission. The noble Lord is right to be alert to what we must always be on our guard against. We want to be very sure that our presence is positive and that the contribution we make makes a difference to providing a more positive future for Mali. That is something we will constantly keep under consideration.

Photo of Lord Marlesford Lord Marlesford Conservative

My Lords, I echo the apprehension of the noble Lord, Lord Hain. We have sent only some 300 of our elite soldiers to fight against the Islamist terrorists in Mali. We must remember that it took more than three years and massive military support to subdue the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq when it sprang into action in April 2014. We must also remember that the French have been battling against the Islamists who seek to overthrow the secular Government in Mali since September 2013. Can we be sure that, if necessary, the British will add to their commitment and their force to see that this job is done at least in the case of Mali? Africa is now a big target of the Islamic State, which would put paid to the hopes of the African people.

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

The last part of my noble friend’s question encapsulates why the United Nations is there and why we are proud to make to our contribution to that mission. Our force may be 300, but that is part of a force of thousands, reflected by the other contributors to the mission. My noble friend is quite correct: there is a challenge—we do not diminish that—but it is best addressed in partnership with like-minded nations working together. Acting under the umbrella of the United Nations is a constructive and positive way in which to do that.

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench

My Lords, on March 12, in evidence to the inquiry on sub-Saharan Africa of the International Relations and Defence Select Committee, which has been referred to already, General Sir Richard Barrons said that the UK’s role in MINUSMA, the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, was

“not in support of a strategy of any kind other than ‘We should do a bit more UN peacekeeping’”.

When the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, answered my Question on 17 June, he said that our strategic approach would

“help tackle the underlying causes of poverty and conflict in the region” but he said nothing about the role of jihadists from both al-Qaeda and Isis, who have been referred to by a number of noble Lords. What has changed since General Barrons made his remarks in March about the lack of a strategy? Given the history of jihadism in Mali, including terrible attacks on women and the destruction of Sufi monuments in Timbuktu, will the Government be clear about who and what we are fighting in Mali and why, and reflect on the dangers of mission creep?

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I go back to what we are doing and why we are there. We are part of this United Nations mission. It is important to remember the umbrella character of that mission. I fully agree with the noble Lord that mission creep would be undesirable, but there is a minimal risk of that happening for the reasons which I stated earlier. This is a mission for our UK deployment of finite time—it is three years; there will be a review after 18 months. It is a fixed number of personnel; it is a peacekeeping mission—our role is one of reconnaissance. There are therefore clear boundaries round what we are doing there. That is not to say that our presence is ineffectual or not capable of achieving anything substantive—I would totally disagree with that as an assessment. As part of this broader commitment organised by the United Nations, we are contributing to addressing the issues which have made the country so challenging and dangerous. The noble Lord is quite correct. I do not seek in any way to diminish the threat, the dangers or the difficulties—they are real and they are there—but I am proud to say that, in so far as the United Kingdom is concerned, we have highly-trained, very capable and professional soldiers. I am confident that they will make a singular and important contribution to the broader objectives of the mission.

House adjourned at 9.25 pm.