UN Mission in Mali: Armed Forces Deployment - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:47 pm on 14th December 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence) 8:47 pm, 14th December 2020

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.