My Lords, I declare my interests as published in the register, in particular my presidency of the institution Remembering Srebrenica. I thank noble Lords who are participating in this important debate. We have a strong line-up of speakers, particularly my noble friend Lady Helic, who has personal experience of this like nobody else here does, my noble friend Lady Warsi, who has direct experience from the Foreign Office, and my noble friend Lady Mobarik, who was a Member of the European Parliament. I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, will come in during the gap; we very much look forward to that too, as well as hearing from many other speakers.
We have been here before. In the 1990s, we saw the horror of Sarajevo under siege. We saw victims held in concentration camps and atrocities committed across Bosnia. We saw genocide committed; that is at the root of the issues that we are confronting today. Genocide took place on European soil, 50 years after the Holocaust and the cries then of “Never again”, yet it happened again. The events of the 1990s and the inaction, or certainly the slow action, of the West is a stain on the conscience of the West—of us all.
In July 1995, more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were systematically murdered by Bosnian Serb forces. Let us not forget that. They were dumped in mass graves and later moved to secondary and, in some cases, tertiary mass graves, and their remains are still being identified today. War leaders were charged, convicted and imprisoned for unspeakable crimes, and Sarajevo, as I have said, was shelled under the orders of Ratko Mladic—to the point of madness, as he asked for at the time.
There followed the Dayton peace agreement of November 1995, which effectively split the country into two parts: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Republika Srpska, within Bosnia-Herzegovina, the area that was ethnically cleansed by the Bosnian Serb forces and army. The accords established peace, underpinned by a tripartite rotating presidency—a far from perfect arrangement, but it has, by and large, provided a durable peace in the time since.
I had the great privilege of visiting Sarajevo and Srebrenica as a Minister. For me, it was the most important political experience of my life. I met many survivors. I remember meeting in Sarajevo a doctor who had qualified just before the Bosnian war, who had decided that he did not want the hurly-burly of practice in Sarajevo and moved to Srebrenica, expecting to work as a general practitioner. His life took a very different course, and he had to deal with unspeakable horrors as a surgeon. That brought home to me what had really happened in that dreadful civil war. I remember also meeting a twin, Hasan Hasanović, in Srebrenica. He had been on the death march, which was for many people an attempt to escape the horrors of Srebrenica. He was on the march with his twin brother, and he never saw his twin brother again; he completed the march, but his twin brother disappeared.
I met, too, some of the incredible mothers of Srebrenica—survivors who had lost husbands, brothers and sons and who were determined that this would never happen again and that their country would come through this. They had the most incredible grace, serenity and goodness—and that, too, has stayed with me.
We now face a very serious threat from the Bosnian Serb president of that tripartite presidency, Milorad Dodik, who is trying to create, in effect, a parallel state within Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Bosnian Serb part of the country is undermining state institutions—the army, the judicial system, the intelligence agency and other parts of the state apparatus of Bosnia-Herzegovina. People are also up in arms about the law that was passed under the influence of the previous High Representative of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Valentin Inzko. It is worth pausing at this point to say that the name of the late, lamented Lord Ashdown—Paddy—still carries so much weight over there, because of what he did in establishing a strong presence as high representative. The outgoing high representative forged an important genocide denial measure, to say that any attempt to deny the genocide would be a crime, and the Serbian part of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Dodik in particular, is up in arms about that.
Behind all this, of course, we have the influence of Serbia and the malign influence of Russia, which casts a very long shadow, supporting what is happening. Ultimately what will happen if the West does not act is that there will be secession, which is why it is important that we do act, so we are not faced with the same situation that we were faced with some 26 or 27 years ago.
The West, NATO, the G7 and the EU must all act. We must use our influence. We cannot have the same shameful inaction that we had 26 years ago. The moral case is truly compelling, but so is the geopolitical one when one looks at the serious threat presented by Russia in Ukraine, the Balkans and, indeed, the Baltic states. Our country knows like no other that appeasement does not work.
I commend the Government and my noble friend the Minister on what has been done so far. The appointment of Sir Stuart Peach as special envoy to the region is certainly welcome, as are the recent visits of my noble friend the Minister and my noble friend Lady Goldie to Bosnia-Herzegovina; I look forward to hearing about them. That is obviously not enough. Like others, I met the Foreign Minister, Bisera Turković, who I know has met our Foreign Secretary. It would be good to hear the Foreign Secretary’s stance on this, because we have to up our game. More is needed.
I respectfully say that we need a commitment of more British troops to either the NATO force in the country or EUFOR; that is certainly possible, but it is not limited to EU forces. That is, I think, a sine qua non for progress; we need that commitment and show of strength to make it clear that we stand with our allies in Bosnia-Herzegovina. We also need to make clear our support for the current high representative, Christian Schmidt.
We need to look at and impose sanctions. We have the legal framework for this; a pre-emptive sanctions regime is anticipated in the Bosnia and Herzegovina (Sanctions) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020. This would provide for the freezing of assets and travel bans and would forbid financial institutions providing funds to Dodik and his allies. We really need to up our game and do that too. The Bank of England needs to work with other central banks from the G7 and the EU to ensure that Dodik and his allies are excluded from the SWIFT transaction system to prevent money circulating via international transfers. These things are vital and urgent.
In the longer term, there are things we need to do to provide for civic society and institutions of that nature being strengthened. But there is an imperative need in relation to dealing with the immediate threat, which is considerable, of secession and unsettling the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina. We cannot afford a repeat, or anything akin to it, of what happened to this wonderful country, with which our own country has such strong, positive ties. We have those ties through remembering Srebrenica and institutions in Parliament, including all-party parliamentary groups.
Recently, there was a debate in the Commons that put many of these things on the agenda and in which many honourable Members, including Alicia Kearns and Bob Stewart, who has a direct interest and influence in Bosnia from being out there, spoke. They argued for many of the things I have argued for, as did other Members, including Yasmin Qureshi and Fleur Anderson from the Labour Party. This is something on which all political parties are united. That should strengthen the Government in doing what is needed.
If I may say so, we have an opportunity to make it much clearer than we have done how strongly we support the admission of Bosnia-Herzegovina to NATO. We are not in such a strong position to influence its admission to the EU, sadly, but that would help too; I suggest that we at least try to do that behind the scenes. If global Britain is to mean anything at all—I hope that it will—I certainly look to the Government doing more. Warm words may be important, but we need strong action at a time when we can see off this threat; it will not last for ever. There is a window of opportunity here where we can act firmly and clearly. The Government, the Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Office can show the mettle they are made of, and we can see off this dreadful threat to prevent anything like a repeat of the horrors that happened to an ally on our doorstep 26 years ago. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for bringing this debate and for his wise words. I commend the Foreign Secretary, the FCDO and MoD Ministers on the clear stance they have taken on the crisis facing Bosnia-Herzegovina, including the appointment of Sir Stuart Peach as the UK envoy to the western Balkans.
Thirty years after the wars began in the western Balkans, I wish we were able to speak of a region that is as prosperous and as firmly integrated into the EU and NATO as the Baltic states are today, but regrettably that is not the case. For all the talk of progress and of a future in the EU, the western Balkans have stagnated. They have been infiltrated by Russia, gripped by corruption and dazzled by Chinese loans that trample over transparency and the environment. Aggressive nationalism reminiscent of the 1990s has for some time been on the up.
Today, just like 30 years ago, the most vulnerable country is Bosnia-Herzegovina. In the words of Christian Schmidt, the high representative, Bosnia
“faces the greatest existential threat of the postwar period … The prospects for further division and conflict are very real.”
Many noble Lords will clearly remember the 1990s, when a calculated policy of ethnic cleansing culminated in the first genocide on European soil since the Holocaust. Any Bosnian citizen above the age of 25 has direct memories of the war: memories of shelling, rape camps, siege, displacement, fear, abandonment, ethnic cleansing and genocide. Almost everyone under 25 carries the trauma of their parents.
It is hard to describe the sensation of horror that arises from any prospect that this could be repeated, that the poison of extreme nationalism and that willingness to disregard human life in pursuit of goals entrenched in political fanaticism could once more be unleashed in the Balkans. That nationalism, mixed with corruption, is still alive. It manifests itself in genocide denial, the decision of secessionists to withdraw the entity of Republika Srpska from Bosnian state institutions and the re-establishment of the very Bosnian Serb army that besieged and broke Srebrenica and committed genocide throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina.
This is not the innocent pursuit of autonomy for RS. Autonomy is already there. The Dayton peace agreement was a compromise that gave Republika Srpska its autonomy. This is the dream of achieving a greater Serbia, the same wartime goal of Karadžić and Mladić, the notorious war criminals now languishing in prison. With this aim, separatists seek the erosion and eventual collapse of the Bosnian state, bringing the country to a point of no return. This is about picking up where they left off in 1995, only this time with Russia as an active player. Moscow sees the western Balkans as NATO’s underbelly: an easy means of destabilising and humiliating Europe. What better way to limit the expansion of NATO, for instance, than by keeping the whole region in a state of perpetual instability?
Beijing’s interests are aligned with Moscow’s. They march together at the UN Security Council, while China buys Balkan proxies and secures energy and mineral resources. Meanwhile, the EU is split down the middle, with its own illiberals leading the way in repeating the mistakes of 1990s. Now, as then, its policy is built on appeasing the provincial strongmen who are bringing Bosnia to the brink. The US, wary of alienating the EU, has yet to take an independent position.
The picture I paint is dark but it is not hopeless. We and our allies have the capacity to turn this around and to push back against the secessionists, their enablers and their allies. First, we need to recognise that the crisis in Bosnia-Herzegovina is not a political crisis. It is a security crisis and, as such, demands a security response. The fastest way in which to guarantee security is by deploying a deterrent force to Bosnia. I repeat, it would not be a peacekeeping force or a fighting force but a show of strength to deter adventurism. At present there are only 660 EUFOR troops, dispersed in vulnerable units across the country. Under the UN Chapter VII mandate, Dayton’s Annex 1A, and the Berlin-plus arrangement, NATO has the authority to deploy. My noble friend Lord Hague has recently called for troops to be sent to
“strategically critical areas such as Brcko and Tuzla airport.”
As he put it,
“it is only strength, determination and readiness to act that will deter a great deal of trouble.”
The presence of a NATO brigade, if deployed soon enough, would make violent secession impossible and would transform the security situation. Nationalist strongmen would be forced to switch from threats to compromise.
Secondly, we must ensure, as my noble friend said, that those who seek the destruction of Bosnia face consequences. We have an existing sanctions framework to uphold territorial integrity, peace and security in Bosnia and ensure compliance with the Dayton peace accord. High Representative Schmidt told the Security Council that
“the RS authorities are already in grave violation of the Agreement and are poised to violate it further, potentially causing irreparable damage.”
“actively obstructing the Dayton Accords”, warning that he
“poses a significant threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina”.
It is high time that we and our European allies join the US, pushing back firmly and imposing sanctions on anyone undermining Dayton.
Thirdly, once the question of redrawing Bosnia’s borders has been taken off the table and the break-up of the state is impossible, then there is space for an inclusive, bottom-up political process—space for a new social contract for the 21st century and a political settlement that works for all, not just some, Bosnian citizens.
The original agreement was a bandage for a bleeding wound but was not meant to be a permanent settlement. It stopped the conflict but it has locked Bosnia into a set of Kafkaesque institutional structures. Dayton Bosnia has three Presidents, 13 Prime Ministers, 14 Parliaments, 147 Ministers and 700 parliamentarians, divvied up according to ethnic quotas, all for a population of less than 3.2 million—about as many people as live in Wales. This is not a recipe for good governance but a route to inefficiency, corruption, abuse and chaos.
There is more. The current Bosnian constitution works for Bosnia’s so-called constituent people: Bosniaks, Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs. But in Dayton Bosnia, if on is Jewish, Roma, or simply do not wish to declare oneself a member of one of those three exclusive constituent groups, one cannot stand for the presidency or the House of the Peoples. That basic right is denied. In a series of court cases brought by Bosnian citizens who sought to challenge this discrimination, the European Court of Human Rights has ordered that the constitution must be changed. However, that reform agenda has been hijacked. The quest for minority rights has again been subverted by nationalists seeking to lock ethnic division into the system to cement their own power. Bosnia’s future should be founded on a principle of genuine equality, meritocracy and ability, not on discrimination and segregation, as it is today.
Finally, one of our biggest mistakes in the 1990s was looking to solve the Bosnian crisis via Serbia and Croatia. This did not work then, and it will not work now. As neighbouring countries, their support is welcome but they must not be allowed to be kingmakers. A myth has been created that they, like the United States or the United Kingdom, are guarantors of the Dayton peace accords. Serbia and Croatia were signatories but are not members of the Peace Implementation Council. They are not guarantors.
The late Lord Ashdown told a story of a dinner in Banqueting House in 1995 with Franjo Tuđman, the then Croatian President. Lord Ashdown sketched a map on the back of a menu, offered it to President Tuđman, and asked what his plan was for Bosnia. Tuđman drew a line down the middle. One half was to be Croatian, the other Serbian. There was to be no Bosnia —and no space for Bosniaks.
We cannot afford to repeat the same mistake over and over. All the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, whether Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish or atheist, deserve an alternative to life under fear and threat of conflict. The secessionist elites do not speak for most Bosnians. They speak for themselves and their interests. If anyone doubts the desire of Bosnia’s people to live in a stable, prosperous country—to live in peace and dignity—they need only look at the queues outside European embassies in Sarajevo lining up for visas. They need only look at the Bosnians in language schools, studying hard so that they can work abroad. Bosnian doctors and nurses staff German hospitals, while Bosnian engineers build roads across Europe.
Given a choice, most would probably want to stay in Bosnia, but while the current elite retains its grip on Bosnian politics and insecurity dominates their lives, they will make their futures elsewhere. If we can give Bosnia-Herzegovina the security and confidence to agree a new social contract for the 21st century that works for all citizens, support a positive vision for the whole region and make Russia and its satellites understand that there is a line we will not allow them to cross, then we, together with like-minded democracies, can turn this around. Then we can make sure that the ugly past never comes back and that genocide and ethnic cleansing are never again used to destroy a country in the heart of Europe.
If noble Lords will permit, I will first recount a memory which haunts me to this day, and which I believe is important to this debate. I travelled to Bosnia in November 1996, after the Dayton peace agreement, having spent much time during the conflict years raising money for humanitarian aid and, after the horror of Srebrenica, calling for UN intervention as part of a group founded by some of us in Glasgow known as the “Save the Bosnian People Campaign”.
Still with no direct flights to Bosnia, I travelled to Zagreb in Croatia to meet members of the team of Edinburgh Direct Aid, a charity we had used to deliver aid to Bosnia. I declare an interest as patron of EDA. From Zagreb, we travelled by road to the town of Ključ in north-western Bosnia-Herzegovina. Devastation paved the way. Every one of the 34 mosques in the Una-Sana Canton had been dynamited to rubble. No house was left intact—they were covered with bullet holes and without windows or door frames—not even the one where we stayed in the village of Biljani. Some plastic sheeting from UNHCR was all that acted as a barrier from the bitter cold.
The next day, we received a call from the mayor’s office, as he knew that foreigners were present in the town. He asked if we could meet him; it was important, as he needed us to see something. He had something to tell the world—for us to be witnesses to the truth. The chairman of Edinburgh Direct Aid, Dr Denis Rutovitz, and I, along with Feho Botonjić, who had spent six months in the Manjača concentration camp, reached the appointed place, the outskirts of a forest in a mountainous region some 14 kilometres from Ključ. Then accompanied by the mayor, Amir Avdić, we walked into the heart of the forest with its towering trees.
We came upon a strange scene. There was a wooden table where four or five exhausted young men, not more than 17 or 18 years old, were sitting eating their meal. Beside them lay bundles wrapped in black plastic sheeting laid out in a row. A few hundred yards across from them were people around a gaping hole and down below, as we approached, we saw that there were more young men digging many metres below to extract what was there and haul up, by ropes, one by one, the evidence of the brutality that had visited that forest several years before. The bodies of 188 people, some of whom had been beaten and killed outside the local primary school in Biljani, and others taken alive and loaded onto buses in July 1992, and whose whereabouts had been unknown, were there in that dark abyss.
The townsmen who had gone hunting in the forest after the war had noticed that the natural crater, 20 metres deep, that had been there was now filled in and covered over with earth. It rang alarm bells, so they started digging, only to discover those 188 people who had seemingly vanished. The strange, unfamiliar, bitter-sweet scent that shrouded the forest now made sense—it was of human remains long since decayed. It pervaded the forest, and my consciousness, long after we left. The bodies were transferred to the school hall for identification by those who had missing family members. Among them, the oldest was an 85-year-old man; the youngest were a four month-old baby and a young girl in her teens. “The sweetest, prettiest, kindest girl”, lamented Ramis and Raifa, our hosts: “How is it possible?”
It is too often possible, as history tells us, for perfectly normal people to descend into such barbarism. If the language of division is used as a weapon to bring out the worst in people and to deliberately incite hatred, it is all too possible. We face that scenario once again in the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina. If our humanity means anything to us, we must act to prevent another inhumane situation—another genocide in the heart of Europe.
In 1992, the world watched and waited and ignored the deteriorating political situation, the reports of mass killings, until eventually the scale of the genocide in Srebrenica awoke us to a truth we could no longer ignore. Alongside the physical devastation lay a devastated economy. The factories I visited in Sarajevo lay mostly empty, with owners struggling to revive their businesses. All the export markets, for leather shoes, timber and textiles to Germany, Italy and elsewhere, had been lost during the years of conflict. I ask whether we could have done more to ensure the economic success of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Some 25 years on, many of the villages lie empty. Opportunities are few. Half a million of the brightest and best have left in the last decade, and in recent years the institutions of government, which should have been strengthened in order to build on a fragile peace, have instead, in the last 10 years, been eroded by the political leadership of the Bosnian Serb region, Republika Srpska, with the President, Milorad Dodik, questioning the legitimacy of the Bosnian institutions—the Bosnian army, security services, tax system and judiciary. Last Saturday, on
The Opposition leader in Republika Srpska, Mirko Šarović, has said that secession would be
“a direct threat to peace, which would lead Republika Srpska into the spiral of war.”
We cannot allow that to happen. If we care nothing for what happens to Bosnia, let us ask ourselves: can we afford another refugee crisis? At this moment, we have a small window of opportunity. The proposals that have been voted through require new laws and changes to the constitution within a six-month period. We can no longer ignore what is happening and time is of the essence. We support it and were deeply involved in the Dayton peace agreement. We must uphold it, and the constitutional integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Dayton peace agreement was by no means perfect, but nevertheless has provided peace.
When you look at the geography you realise that there is no clean separation of the territory, as Dodik proposes. In parts of the country, villages are entangled along ethnic lines. Let us for a moment remember that in Bosnia in the early 1990s, the people were completely integrated. They spoke the same language, went to school together and worked side by side in the same factories and offices. They socialised with each other. The only thing that was different between them was their names. When I spoke to the citizens of Ključ and of Sarajevo they said, “We were targeted simply because of our Muslim names”.
When Dodik and others refuse to define Srebrenica as a genocide it means they have no regrets for what happened. The theory that the mass murders across Bosnia and genocide in Srebrenica the 1990s is a lie is espoused by a small percentage of people, not just in the Bosnian Republika Srpska, Serbia and Croatia but right across Europe. I heard such views in recent years from individuals I served alongside as a Member of the European Parliament. It is why organisations such as Remembering Srebrenica—I declare an interest as a patron—must be supported. Educating future generations about that miserable episode of European history is vital to a more caring, tolerant and peaceful society.
I am heartened to know that our Government are taking the current situation in Bosnia very seriously, having recently appointed to the role of special envoy to the Balkans Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in 2006. There can be no one more qualified. This step is to be commended, but would my noble friend the Minister agree that this issue means that we leave every option on the table? Do we follow up on our interventions or do we walk away? Britain, as one of the signatories of the Dayton agreement and a participant in the NATO peacekeeping forces, has a clear duty to intervene and to persuade all its allies to intervene. We owe it to those 59 British soldiers who lost their lives and the many more who were injured in the 1990s war in Bosnia, to people such as Christine Witcutt, who was killed by a Serb bullet while delivering humanitarian aid to Bosnia on behalf of Edinburgh Direct Aid, and to our future generations, for whom we would wish a peaceful and prosperous Europe.
My Lords, I highly commend my noble friend Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth for bringing this debate. It is very timely, even if it is almost the last bit of business before the Christmas Recess. I hope it will have a wider audience, because this is a crucial moment, not just for Bosnia and Herzegovina but for Europe and the wider world—and so often we ignore these things until it is too late.
It is also an absolute privilege to follow my noble friends Lady Mobarik and Lady Helic, who have so much experience—not necessarily of the best sort, I have to say. They brought passion but also great wisdom in possible solutions. I cannot say that I will be able to improve on that, but I can certainly support them in what they say. I am the weak link in this debate; my noble friend Lady Warsi and the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, will follow me.
As to my experience in the region, on my 18th birthday I was sitting in the Herzegovinian artists’ village of Počitelj along the Neretva River, about 20 miles down- river from Mostar. That was 48 years ago. I would never have thought that, 20 years after I was sitting in that idyllic landscape dotted with mosques—it was the first time I had seen mosques in Europe; I found it fascinating, exciting and exhilarating that we had such diversity in Europe—the village would be pretty much destroyed. Of course, the famous bridge in Mostar was also blown up.
I followed that by studying, at university in London and for three months in Belgrade, Serbo-Croatian language and literature. That language has now been superseded, as it has split into Serbian, Bosnian, Croatian and so forth. As my noble friend Lady Mobarik said, at that time one was aware of the rivalry, even hatred or hostility, between Serbs and Croats. I remember getting into trouble on a train going back from Belgrade through Croatia because I used the wrong word for bread. I tried to explain that I was an English student, but that was not good enough for them. But Bosnia-Herzegovina was actually a model of integration, where people lived together regardless of religious differences and everything. As my noble friend said, it was only the names that really identified to which group people belonged.
So what happened in the 1990s was appalling to me. I would not have expected that savagery and ethnic cleansing to take place there, but we know that it became—it still is—a byword for all that was bad in that conflict. I do not have to mention Srebrenica again. As has been said, it is a blot on the world’s history for that to have been repeated in Europe after the Holocaust, when everybody said, “Never again”. That is something we should be ashamed of.
I remember reading a Yugoslav author, Ivo Andrić. He wrote a short story called The Titanic Bar, in which he described how, during the war, a Jewish barkeeper who had been part of the community was eventually targeted and killed by a young nationalist, who was just showing off.
The Dayton accord resolved the bloodshed, as we have heard, but it was unfortunately just that. I feel we have to go forward. As my noble friend Lady Helic said, the state of the country is not tenable with all those different institutions, presidents and so forth. Something has to be done immediately, but we also have to look at economic help, because that would make people realise that it is worth trying to get together.
Republika Srpska seems to want more and more independence. It is nationalism that causes so much problem in the region. I believe Belgrade does not want it, but there will be people in Serbia who think this “Greater Serbia” idea is still the way forward. It is rampant in the region; nationalism is the curse of the Balkans. Today we are discussing this particular situation, to which I will return, but I point out to the Minister—although he is aware—that there are all the other questions in the Balkans, such as Serbia and Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia. North Macedonia is now being somewhat bullied by Bulgarian nationalists to rewrite its history books and deny that the Macedonian language exists. These things are going on all the time, pretty much unobserved by the West. They are all potential flashpoints which, as we know, are fanned by outside politics.
I return briefly to the works of Ivo Andrić who, by the way, was a Nobel prize winner for literature. He wrote a book called Travnik Chronicles, which is available in translation. It went back to the early 19th century, when foreign powers—France at the end of the Napoleonic period and Austria—were sending in their consuls to try to influence what was then a declining Ottoman state. The same thing goes around, except that the superpowers have changed. We know that Russia and China have said that, if sanctions are imposed on Republika Srpska, they will help out. We must not take our eye off the ball in the Balkans, particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
On that first visit I made to the region all those years ago, I stood—I do not know if they are still there—in two footprints put in concrete where Gavrilo Princip was supposed to have stood when he shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand. I do not think we need that to realise that there was a flashpoint and what it led to. Ignore the Balkans at our peril, I would say.
I am deeply grateful for what the Government are doing; they have risen to it. There is more that we can do, and I shall look forward to hearing about it. This has been said before, and it will be said again, but we owe it to those countless victims of conflict in the region—not least those lying in named and still unnamed and unmarked graves in Srebrenica and elsewhere—never again to go into this spiral of conflict, ethnic cleansing and genocide. We cannot just issue hollow promises; we have to put forward concrete measures.
My Lords, we speak in one of the last debates on the last day of parliamentary business before recess, but the subject was one of the first which shaped my adult politics and which continues to shape me today.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Bourne for securing this important and timely debate, and like my noble friend Lord Randall, I just hope that it reaches a much broader audience. I also pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Bourne’s work as president of Remembering Srebrenica and his ongoing commitment to shining a light on this issue.
Bosnia-Herzegovina hit the general public consciousness in two stark ways when I was growing up. The first was the Winter Olympics of 1984 in Sarajevo—which many of your Lordships will remember—where Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean performed that wonderful “Bolero” routine to win gold. The second was a few years later when the same city was under siege as the world watched a nation rip itself apart, where neighbour killed neighbour and the genocide of the Bosniak people unfolded. Today, art, music and culture once more thrive in Sarajevo—as, however, does the threat from hateful ideologies rooted in the past which are once more being adopted by right-wing politicians to further their own political and financial interests.
Noble Lords before me have spoken with great expertise and experience. I pay tribute to the work of my noble friend Lady Helic; we had the privilege of serving at the Foreign Office at the same time. Her work and that of my noble friend Lord Hague meant that the issue remained a priority under the coalition Government. As we heard from my noble friend Lady Mobarik, this issue has shaped so many of us for so long—long before many of us even entered politics.
I commend my noble friend the Minister and my noble friend Lady Goldie for their recent visit and refocusing of the FCDO’s attention on this issue. Through their ministerial work and wider Conservative Party engagement in Bosnia-Herzegovina, they both have many years of understanding of this issue. Therefore, it gives me some comfort that they are in office at this crucial time. I also pay tribute to the work of the late Lord Ashdown, which remains the bedrock upon which the killing stopped. We all miss him and his leadership. Paddy was brave and clear. His diplomacy produced results and was rooted in a clear sense of justice.
And it is justice that I want to focus on first today, because there can be no justice or a just settlement if those who perpetrated genocide, those who still perpetuate the hateful ideologies that underpinned it and those who prevent healing by promoting genocide denial are rewarded. We cannot and must not reward genocide. By dancing to the tune of Milorad Dodik, we are doing just that. If we continue to stand by and allow an ever-belligerent leadership from the Republic of Srpska to continue to weaken and dismantle state entities and institutions, if we do not stand strong in the face of nationalism, if we do not ensure that consequences follow those who undermine the territorial integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina and if we do not sanction those who deny genocide, we are rewarding genocide.
We must also be clear in our policy and approach about who we are dealing with. For over a decade Dodik has enjoyed the support of the European Union, the United States and this country. He was elevated to the position of Republika Srpska Prime Minister with the help of the Office of the High Representative and NATO-led peacekeeping troops. We saw him as a moderate, which of course he was compared with Karadžić, the butcher of Bosnia, the chief architect of the Srebrenica genocide and now a convicted criminal.
However, over time Dodik has adopted an increasingly nationalist stance, aligning himself with Russia, China, illiberal nations within the EU and populist xenophobic leaders within the EU. He has adopted a belligerent stance and an anti-statist position, weakening Bosnia-Herzegovina state institutions while strengthening Republika Srpska institutions and proposing legislation for Republika Srpska to withdraw from state judicial and tax structures and, most worryingly, from the state armed forces. Dodik increasingly promotes an anti-reformist stance against NATO membership and pays lip service to EU membership while doing everything to block it. As the high representative said, these actions
“endanger not only the peace and stability of the country and the region, but—if unanswered by the international community—could lead to the undoing” of the Dayton peace agreement itself.
Can my noble friend the Minister assure the House that officials working on this issue across departments understand Dodik and the way in which he operates? Do they understand that making outrageous demands, only to pull back—but, in doing so, extracting less outrageous concessions—is how Dodik operates, all the while undermining the territorial integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina? He is no honest broker. He is no moderate. His agenda—of carving out a separate state for Serbs—is the same as that of Mladić and Karadžić; what they started down the barrel of a gun, Dodik is striving to implement through the bullying of an international coalition that is fragmented and, sadly, increasingly uninterested. If he is not stopped, if this lack of international pushback continues, then we are collectively rewarding genocide.
The second issue on which I seek assurance from my noble friend is whether the Government understand both the seriousness of this issue and the need for urgency. We have been found wanting in the past. We reacted too slowly: our civil servants urged caution in action, Ministers spoke of the need for balance, politicians made well-meaning statements, peacekeeping troops stood aside—and a genocide took place, with men and boys separated and shot and women and girls raped.
The late Baroness Thatcher accused us then of lacking resolve in the face of Serb aggression. She said we were accomplices and urged action. She foresaw a catastrophe unfolding and predicted a massacre, but at that time her views were dismissed as emotional and insulting.
Can my noble friend the Minister assure the House today that we have a plan, that we have our red lines, that civil servants are well engaged and fully informed, and that we have contingency planning for troops to respond, if necessary, to what is being described as the most dangerous moment in Bosnia-Herzegovina since Dayton? Can he assure us that the recent firefighting engagement by the US has focused minds on a more united and long-term plan and is more than a simple short-term reaction?
With this country as one of the strongest and most informed voices on this issue in Europe, can the Minister assure us that our exit from the European Union will not prevent us working closely with European partners in finding solutions? In particular, have the Government raised concerns about the visit by the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, to Bosnia-Herzegovina last month, when, in breach of diplomatic protocol, he met Dodik but not the other two members of the tripartite presidency?
I want to end on an issue that relates to Bosnia-Herzegovina but impacts us here in the UK. The slaughter of Bosniaks in the Srebrenica genocide, a cleansing of Muslims in Europe which took place in our time and near our shores, was a moment that shaped the lives of so many British people—it shaped my life and that of many British Muslims. It is why in government we established the Remembering Srebrenica programme, a programme that works across all four nations and which has resulted in hundreds of initiatives that keep alive the memories of those killed and make sure that, through never forgetting, we continue to learn the lessons and build tolerant and inclusive societies.
We fail Bosnia-Herzegovina. We fail the idea of a multi-ethnic, multiracial, multireligious nation state in Europe. We feed extremism, we feed division and we allow the powers of hate to win. As the rise of populism, xenophobia and authoritarianism sweeps through parts of Europe, we must stand strong as defenders of democracy, human rights and progressive liberal values. How we respond to the current crisis in Bosnia-Herzegovina will be an early test.
My Lords, I am speaking in the gap and will therefore not detain your Lordships long. Having been much involved in the Bosnian tragedy as Britain’s Permanent Representative to the UN until July 1995, which was before the Dayton accords were concluded but after the horrors of Srebrenica, I thought it right to participate. I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, for securing such a timely occasion to debate this important matter.
I will make only three points. First, the policies being pursued by Republika Srpska are not only a complete denial and contravention of the Dayton accords but a real threat to international peace and security in the wider west Balkans region. I hope the Government will do all they can to deter these policies, including by working as closely as possible with the European Union and its member states, who must be the key actors in this, along with the United States. Unfortunately, I do not believe we are a key actor on our own, but we need to work with others. I hope therefore that the Minister will make it clear that we will keep in lockstep with the European Union in its response to any events in Bosnia that may now occur and resist any attempts to play us off against each other—a feature of every Balkan crisis for the last 100 years or more.
Secondly, I warmly welcome the intention of the incoming Prime Minister of Bulgaria to lift Bulgaria’s veto on the opening of North Macedonia’s accession negotiations. EU accession by the remaining non-members in the west Balkans is the sine qua non of peace, security and prosperity in that whole region. Progress on that has been very slow and almost invisible for far too long and it really would be good if the incoming French EU presidency abandoned the hesitations it has had in this respect. Britain is of course in no position to play a role in that matter, but we did participate in the Thessaloniki commitment that the EU would admit all the countries of the region.
Thirdly, we really should not let the cuts in our aid budget lead us to withdrawing from the good work we have done in recent years in strengthening democracy, human rights, the rule of law and freedom of speech right across the region, including in Bosnia. That would be a foolish error, as neglect of the west Balkans has proved to be again and again, for 150 years.
My Lords, I apologise. I am speaking in the gap—but my apology concerns being two minutes late at the start of this debate. I thank everybody who was consulted for allowing me nevertheless to speak a few words. I shall not take too long.
I agree with all the remarks about urgency—but urgency to do what? I tend to be 100% in the line of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. I remember, in the period before the tragedy, that I was in a meeting at Wilton Park—he may have been there himself—where all the parties were looking so dismayed that nothing could be done. But in the corridors they said, “Bring back Tito; all is forgiven”. One thing about Tito, of course, although it is not exactly news to say this, is that he was not a tool of Moscow. The idea that someone is the tool of somebody else has to be kept out. I am not even sure about how we play the card vis-à-vis NATO, the EU and so on, but it is very important that this is decided in a west Balkans context, even though the politics is not clean politics. Greater Albania could be given as an example vis-à-vis Kosovo, and Belgrade sees some of those things in those terms.
What can one do without giving way to blackmailing Belgrade? Obviously, we do not know whether there is a settled view in Belgrade about a European Union accession initiative, but it is the only card game in town, even though this may be exactly the wrong moment to take practical action. Perhaps the Minister could comment on that. We cannot say, “This is what we would do in theory, but this is what we can’t do in practice”.
Some of us have been able to put ourselves in the shoes of Princip, who shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand—but people did not think it was a big deal at the time. We do not know what people in Moscow think would be a useful tool—along with other things going on in Moscow at the moment. We have to see how these great powers can be engaged without them playing the game of proxy. I do not know the answers but those are some of the questions.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, for bringing this debate to us. He introduced it so well and so clearly, and he gave us an opportunity to hear from the noble Baronesses, Lady Helic, Lady Mobarik and Lady Warsi, who have direct practical experience and made very moving contributions to this debate. I am grateful.
It struck me that history is a very heavy weight and, when empires or autocracies weaken, nationalism often strengthens. There is a lesson from history in that regard. I remember my visits to the region, as others have said they remembered theirs. No one who spoke in this debate has visited the region without having powerful memories; it is telling that the region allows us to have those. I remember that, when I served on the then International Relations Committee with the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, and the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, we carried out a short inquiry into the western Balkans and the UK—I shall return to that later—and I went with a number of colleagues to Sarajevo. During a break, I went to see an area for which it is famous, being the only European city with a mosque, a synagogue, an Orthodox church and a Catholic church in the same neighbourhood. I wanted to walk that circuit across all the different areas. In so doing, I did what many tourists had done, which was to stand on the “east meets west” line. On that short walk around that neighbourhood and over that line, it struck me that its having brought so many cultures and religions together has been part of its beauty—but has also led to part of its tragedy.
When I was doing the walk, I walked around a number of the Sarajevo roses, which I had not heard of and which have always stuck in my memory. For noble Lords who are not aware of the Sarajevo roses, I can explain that they are the wounds in the concrete of the shells, which have been left but filled with red resin. They struck me with a real conflict. I was not sure whether I was happy that these remembrances were there for people to recall the sacrifices and violence inflicted on a community, or whether I felt that this was still an open scar. As I listened to the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, I felt that there were still many open scars, not just in the fabric of the city but in the people of the region.
Before this debate, and before my visit, I reread part of Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign, because this is a debate not just in the context of 30 years, a century or even six centuries hence but of the Ottoman Empire. That campaign in 1879—coincidentally, given in what is now my former constituency—led to him establishing what he called the six principles of a Liberal foreign policy, which I think on these Benches we still fairly hold true. He was inspired then because of the atrocities in that very region. The principles are: good government at home; the preservation of nationhood; maintenance of the concert of Europe; avoiding needless wars; maintaining the equal rights of all nations; and always being inspired by the love of freedom. It struck me that those six elements are also necessary for any sustainable future for the region,
June this year marked the 30th anniversary of the opening shelling of the conflict in the Balkans, the first killing that led to bloodshed among those who had lived together in relative stability, as we have heard. When those binding ties were released, so was dreadful nationalist violence—in a region as easy and as quick to get to from here as it is to Shetland. Our intervention eight years later, after the Dayton accord but when there was still violence inflicted on the Kosovans, was separated by only 16 months from Operation Noble Anvil, the US-turned NATO bombing of Serbia, and then Operation Enduring Freedom and the invasion of Afghanistan. As we reflected this summer on the sustainability of Operation Enduring Freedom, we were also concerned about the sustainability of the settlements in this region.
I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, for his role in remembering Srebrenica. He was right to highlight the experience of those taking part in this debate, and I am grateful for the many references to my late noble friend Lord Ashdown. He is highly regarded in memory in this House, as he is in many communities in the areas that the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, mentioned. We on these Benches are grateful for that. I spoke to Paddy before my visit and, as you can imagine, he gave me characteristically clear, practical and structured advice and did not leave much option for any of my thoughts to come in: he told me exactly what I was to expect. That preparation was valuable. I remember being met by Bosnian Serbs, who singled me out directly because they knew that I was in Paddy’s party and blamed him as the cause of all their troubles. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, said, Lord Ashdown and others worked hard to create the best elements for a sustainable future. As the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, indicated, there are significant questions about that framework’s stability, given the fragility of the area.
As I mentioned, I reread the International Relations Committee’s summary of conclusions and recommendations before this debate and, as with our debate on Afghanistan, it was depressingly prescient, because it highlighted some of the areas where progress could all so easily be turned away. I quote from its third conclusion:
“The region still suffers from the legacy of the wars of the 1990s. Some political leaders are pursuing the aims of those wars by different, political and diplomatic, means including calls for redrawing national borders and secessionism. Any such act would be regressive, dangerous and destabilising for the region. Progress cannot be taken for granted.”
That is exactly right and, if anything was to summarise this debate so far, that is it. The report also highlighted that Russia’s influence in the region was a factor of particular concern. The committee found its effect had been to
“slow progress towards good governance and the region emerging as fully democratic”.
The report made a number of recommendations. Key among them was the need to sustain our partnerships with our European colleagues, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, indicated. I would be grateful if the Minister could outline what institutional frameworks exist for UK and EU co-operation, specifically on the western Balkans. When the UK hosted the Western Balkans Summit, in the UK press that was known as the week when Boris Johnson resigned as Foreign Secretary, not the week when the UK was hosting the summit. However, during it a number of areas were highlighted where the UK could act and I would be grateful if the Minister could update us on the practical steps that can be taken.
Key among those was highlighted in an excellent briefing that was given to me by Dr Kate Ferguson of Protection Approaches, which is a member of the UK Atrocity Prevention Working Group and has done work in the Balkans to consider where the Government could act and make preparations with others for the position that we are now in, which is to prioritise atrocity prevention. It is depressing to say so after all the work that has been put in, but that is where we now must make preparations. Atrocity prevention is an element within the integrated review and I welcome that within the Government’s approach. The noble Baroness, Lady Mobarik asked, “What if we had acted differently?” The noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, asked the same question, adding, “What would have happened if we had listened to others at the time?”
Among the recommendations that the Atrocity Prevention Working Group highlighted is recommendation 3, the preparation of a smart sanctions strategy. I add that that should not be limited by the US or EU but should be co-ordinated with them. What would a smart sanctions strategy look like, specifically for Republika Srpska, on the areas where it is acting to destabilise, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, indicated? Recommendation 4 is to work with civil society within areas that are resistant to the nationalist leanings of the leadership. What struck me on my visit was that, even with the plethora of representatives, the numbers of Ministers and Prime Ministers and the tripartite presidency, as the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, mentioned, a large proportion of the public still do not feel represented and neither do a large proportion of the female public, hence the enormous number of young women in particular who want to leave the area. The brain drain on the area is now getting towards a critical mass.
Another recommendation is that the Government publish their central atrocity prevention policy. As Protection Approaches has indicated, this area is a good case study for the Government to outline their preparatory thinking. It highlighted that our embassy in Myanmar has an emergency communications protocol and is applying a framework of atrocity risk analyses. Are these preparations going on and are these areas being worked on within the Balkans?
I conclude by returning to one of the areas that I mentioned at the outset. These communities that come together, along with their tensions, have to be part of the solution too. I do not mean to be flippant about this. I am a borderer and every year—apart from when there is a pandemic—I take part in remembrances and events that mark the conflict in that border area five centuries ago. We do it through our cultural history. The tensions that exist in the region that we are discussing are so raw and fresh that they are live wounds, but reconciliation and social and political cohesion have to be secured and that has to be done in a political way. I therefore support the Government working with any of our partners to place more emphasis on this social and political cohesion that is so desperately needed.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, for initiating this debate and noble Lords for all the contributions that we have heard today. I hope that the other end will read this debate and follow some of the expert advice that we have heard. I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, for her contribution and the noble Baronesses, Lady Mobarik and Lady Warsi. The point is that in this House we have a lot of expertise. Our work, particularly the response to the Urgent Question that was repeated here, as well as the Westminster Hall debate down the other end, shows that Parliament is taking this issue seriously. We need to keep reminding ourselves how important it is that this country responds.
The Dayton agreement, which saw the ending of armed conflict in post-war Europe, is a key diplomatic achievement, which this country played a significant role in helping to establish. While everyone here recognises the clear imperfections of the agreement, it has stopped the bloodshed and allowed nearly 30 years of peace, although perhaps not as much development as we had hoped. There is an ongoing threat to re-establish a Republika Srpska army, which would represent a disastrous turning point in the region. It is the responsibility of us all to ensure that peace continues.
To deliver on this, we have to ensure that there is a medium-term and a longer-term strategy on Bosnia-Herzegovina. As the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, said, we need to begin to think about how that agreement could be modified, possibly even going as far as a Dayton II agreement. But first we must do the groundwork. There are certain basic principles that we need to keep repeating. In her article in the House magazine, the noble Baroness made this fundamental point: we are committed to a multi-ethnic state and demand that that idea continues. There can be no redrawing of the boundaries of Bosnia-Herzegovina. We cannot return to the violence and destruction of the 1990s. It is critical that the United Kingdom works with all our European partners to defuse the current situation. There is no doubt that the challenges that the international community and the people of Bosnia face are huge. We have a special duty to protect the peace and progress made in the region, not just as a signatory to the agreement, but also, as we have heard in recent debates, because UK troops served there with distinction and 57 died securing that peace.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, that we also need to reinforce our commitment to practical peacekeeping in Bosnia. There is the European Union Force, which, although we are not members of the European Union anymore, we still support. We need to ask whether 600 to 700 personnel on the ground is sufficient. I hope that the Minister can respond to that and say whether we should be working with our alliance on the ground in a more practical way.
James Cleverly, in response to the Urgent Question down the other end in November, stressed the vital role of the high representative. I, too, pay tribute to the late Lord Ashdown and his critical work in that role. When the Urgent Question was repeated here, the Minister reminded us that UN High Representative Christian Schmidt will visit the United Kingdom for meetings in the beginning of December. Mr Schmidt is tasked with discharging civil affairs in the country and has been seriously undermined by the actions of Russia and its attempts to abolish his role. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, assured us that the UK stands firmly behind the high representative, who
“has the United Kingdom’s full support, including for the use of executive powers should the situation require it.”—[
I am also grateful to the Minister for the opportunities to engage directly with the high representative on the situation during his visit. In the briefing to MPs, Mr Schmidt warned of a potential return to violence and fragmentation. He also discussed the importance of keeping Dayton alive and of refreshing it, so picking up the points that we have made. I welcome the Government’s announcement of the appointment of Sir Stuart Peach as special envoy. I am pleased that his brief appears to be wide—to support the civil institutions, to work with others in the area and to ensure that the British Government give a firm commitment to do everything possible to stabilise and, we hope, improve the situation—but how will he support the work of the UN high representative and ensure that the role is not undermined by players such as Russia?
The EU, the UN, and NATO have all echoed Mr Schmidt’s warnings of a real danger of a return to violence. We underline the point made in this debate about the importance of working with our EU partners here. At last month’s NATO Foreign Ministers’ meeting, the Foreign Secretary pushed for more focus on and resource for Bosnia and Herzegovina, and on the need to rebuff Russia’s actions. While diplomacy is the best option to secure the peace there, it is important to recognise the need for short-term stability and to work with France, Germany and the US in NATO to reinforce the EU’s peacekeeping operation. I hope the Minister will tell us again today about the detail and form of the greater focus on and resource for Bosnia and Herzegovina that the Foreign Secretary called for, and how specifically we will rebuff Russia’s actions.
I completely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, about sanctions and having a flexible and immediate response on them, so that people better understand that we mean business in ensuring that our strategy is stuck to. I know the normal mantra about designating sanctions, which he will no doubt repeat tonight, but I hope that the Minister will say that this country will respond positively on sanctions to all those who seek to undermine the agreement and threaten the peace and stability of the past 30 years. Of course, as we have heard, UK and international engagement is key to supporting the progress and peace enjoyed over the past 30 years. We must redouble our efforts across all the Balkan states to demonstrate our commitment to the region.
Here, I agree with noble Lords’ emphasis in the debate on the importance of civil society. We focus on politicians, but real change and sustainability come from an effective civil society. I have played a small part there, working with Balkan political parties on how they engage with civil society on the question of LGBT rights. I was surprised by how receptive politicians were in countries portrayed as fairly conservative. They were willing to engage on issues where the need for equality and respect was understood. I got a very positive response. This has been an excellent and important debate. It is important that we engage with our neighbours.
I understand the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Bourne and Lord Hannay, who suggested we are not necessarily in a good position to advocate EU enlargement. However, not only should we advocate it, we can give practical support, and not just through political commitment or by arguing for it. When we engage with civil society and political parties there, we can stress that EU membership can deliver a better society that results in working across those states, emphasising the importance of good governance and making sure that there is no vacuum in which Russian destabilisation efforts can win.
It has been an excellent debate and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I join all other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth for tabling this debate. I totally agree with the noble Lord, Lord Collins. The quality of this as the final debate today is a reflection of the deep wisdom, expertise and insight of your Lordships’ House.
I can say with great humility and pride that I am the Minister of State responsible for foreign and development affairs in this House, which gives me a unique perspective and insight. We really do draw on the expertise of your Lordships’ House. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, spoke poignantly of his experience of civil society leadership, and we are fully aware of his expertise on some of the challenging situations faced by different communities, particularly the LGBT community. I very much valued his voice, advice and counsel on certain issues and how to resolve them. That reflects the tone of the debate.
Perhaps I may first turn to my noble friend Lord Bourne. He continues to play an important role on this agenda, these issues and their impact, and on standing up for the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina. He remains vice-chair of the APPG and is president of Remembering Srebrenica.
My dear noble friend Lady Helic is someone who, perhaps I may say on a lighter note, often keeps me on my toes—and rightly so. I pay tribute to her valuable work as a senior adviser to my noble friend Lord Hague, playing a significant role on this issue, which I will move on to in a moment, and setting up the important initiative on preventing sexual violence in conflict. That word, “preventing”, is key as we approach the issue of conflict resolution. I know that other noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, talked of that significant issue.
I am also grateful to other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Hannay—whose specific questions I will come on to—as regards the United Nations and the insights that he provided on strengthening alliances. They are much valued here. My noble friend Lady Mobarik spoke of her early insights and my noble friend Lord Randall of his early visit as an 18 year-old. Among other things, I began to calculate how long ago that was. Although we are not here to talk about ages, he mentioned his experience. He illustrated valuably the vital importance of Bosnia-Herzegovina. My noble friend Lady Mobarik spoke poignantly about communities living together, learning from each other and coming together. That is indeed what our country—which I am, with all its challenges, still proud to represent—is all about. That was a theme of my recent visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Equally, I pay particular tribute to my noble friend Lady Warsi. She has a unique insight, given her previous role—one that I now conduct. I always have a degree of trepidation when I take on a subject that I know my noble friend has taken on and charge forward with it. Along with my noble friend Lady Helic, I pay tribute to her dedication and devotion. It is not often said but I thank my noble friend Lady Warsi for ensuring that the Remembering Srebrenica initiative was set up. Anyone who has served in government, in your Lordships’ House or the other place, knows how difficult it is to set up an initiative and sustain it. I pay tribute to her. I was there and I saw the dedication and devotion that she put in. It is a live initiative that we as the British Government and the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office are proud to support and is led so ably by my noble friend Lord Bourne.
This debate has highlighted, as the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Purvis, said, the importance of your Lordships’ House in bringing insight and experience. Like my noble friend Lady Mobarik and the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, I remember seeing that conflict unravel. I was a younger man at that time as well; I had just started a career in the City of London but, together with two charities—one was Save the Children and the other, which I helped to set up, was Humanity First—I embarked on a visit to the western Balkans in response to the crisis. At that age, you do not know what to expect. Little did I know that those two charities would epitomise what was needed and required in that conflict.
My noble friend Lady Mobarik spoke with great emotion and dedication about the work that she carried out. Perhaps I may have a moment of reflection, which I know will resonate with my noble friend Lady Helic, as well as my noble friends Lady Mobarik and Lady Warsi. I remember returning from that conflict and sitting down with my late father, God bless his soul, to recount my experiences of conflict and division. What I had seen was friend turning on friend, neighbour turning on neighbour and even, in some cases, family members who were taken by the divide turning on each other. That was one of two occasions that I saw a tear in my father’s eye—for it was at that moment, 45 years on, that he opened up to talk about the conflict of Partition that he had witnessed. When my noble friends Lady Mobarik and Lady Warsi and others in your Lordships’ House speak of that, it is perhaps a reflection of our own family heritage to realise the importance of avoiding conflict and standing up for the rights of others.
The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, talked about those issues of conflict. The troubles that people go through run deep through the generations. As I look towards my noble friend Lady Helic, that holds true for many people. It is therefore vital that we keep on the front foot on this important issue.
Noble Lords have rightly shone a light on the serious risks that Bosnia-Herzegovina faces to its stability and integrity. After the devastating conflicts of the 1990s, notwithstanding differences, it was beginning to build peace, stability and prosperity. The Dayton peace agreement, referred to by noble Lords, provided the basis for much of this but it has required co-operation and support from all sides and partners. The late and much-missed Lord Ashdown—I join others in remembering him—described the peace agreement as
“the floor, not the ceiling”— a base on which to build progress on issues of concern to all its citizens. Sadly, politicians who are more focused on maintaining their own positions have exploited that agreement over the years. At my recent meeting with him, Christian Schmidt recalled referring to the current situation as a “de facto secession”.
We must not be complacent—I assure noble Lords that the Government are not—about the risk posed to peace and the long-term future of the country. The situation is as serious as we have seen since the Dayton accords. Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian-Serb member of the tripartite presidency, continues to threaten to withdraw Republika Srpska, one of the country’s two constitutional entities, from the important state-level institutions.
I know that the decisions taken recently, on
The Prime Minister’s special envoy was referred to and welcomed by several noble Lords. My right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary decided to appoint a very experienced individual in Sir Stuart Peach as the UK’s Special Envoy to the Western Balkans. Indeed, we announced that during the visit my noble friend Lady Goldie and I made to Sarajevo. Sir Stuart is well known to many as a former Chief of the Defence Staff and chairman of the NATO Military Committee. He brings all the necessary skills, experience and gravitas to influence change in the region, working with our networks and Ministers.
I can share with noble Lords that Sir Stuart is actually in Sarajevo as we hold this debate. He is there as an immediate outcome of the Lancaster House meeting, which I will come on to. It is his first visit in his new role. He met a wide range of political, defence and civil society actors. During his visit, he has called on all three members of the presidency and stressed the seriousness of what is happening and unravelling in the country. He was clear that the UK cannot and will not allow conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina to happen again. Sustained engagement will remain through Sir Stuart and our other senior figures. That will be an important part of ensuring not only that the political dialogue continues but that we head off any signs of conflict.
I fully accept that there are other influences, as noble Lords raised. I will come on to those in a moment. I am sure that noble Lords will join me in welcoming Sir Stuart’s appointment, which many noble Lords alluded to. However, as my noble friend Lady Warsi highlighted, that is just one of the actions. I hope that, with some of the areas I will list, I will give the assurances noble Lords have sought about the action Her Majesty’s Government are taking.
As noble Lords will know, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary convened a meeting on Monday. We spoke directly about the stability and security of the western Balkans. My right honourable friend brought together the Foreign Ministers of all six countries of the western Balkans to boost our close co-operation on trade and security, and to ensure that, through this, we prevent the horrors of conflict returning and together build enduring stability. I assure the noble Lords, Lord Hannay, Lord Purvis and Lord Collins, that we are working directly with the EU. The EU’s high representative on foreign affairs, Mr Borrell, was also present at that meeting.
On other actions, I have already alluded to, and noble Lords mentioned, the recent visit. The commitment not just of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office but of my colleagues in the Ministry of Defence was shown through a joint visit I had last month to Sarajevo with my noble friend Lady Goldie. We separately met our respective counterparts, but we also met President Komšić directly to discuss how, together, we can safeguard the country’s sovereignty and integrity. I also had a meeting with the chairman of the Council of Ministers, who is himself a Bosnian Serb. He once again assured me, together with the ambassador, of his commitment to ensuring the unity of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
However, there is deep concern. It was perhaps pre-planned, but it was noticeable that, during our visit, Mr Dodik was on his way to Moscow via Belgrade. It was quite clear that he was seeking further support and reassurances from Russia.
The noble Lords, Lord Collins, Lord Purvis and Lord Hannay, mentioned the role of civil society. I was privileged to meet members of the Forgotten Children of War Association and Medica Zenica. It was a particularly poignant visit. I remember visiting the very centre that, together with two other Members of your Lordships’ House among others, we helped, through our own relative skills, to decorate and renovate back in 2013. It was quite poignant to return there. I also met once again the courageous survivors of the conflict in the 1990s. They continue to be incredible campaigners.
As my noble friend Lord Bourne mentioned, I too have visited various parts of the country during various times as a Minister. I have also gone directly to places such as Srebrenica. You cannot help but be moved and horrified by what unravelled there. We pay tribute to the Mothers of Srebrenica, as my noble friend did, who continue to this day to ensure that the genocide against the Bosnian people is not forgotten.
Perhaps there is hope. My noble friend Lady Helic is better placed than I to judge, but that it happens to be Srebrenica in that part of the country, which falls within the Bosnian Serb entity of the current country—
I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. I thank him for what he has said so far, but will he say something specific about two issues that came up repeatedly: the commitment of more troops—I appreciate he might not want to indicate exactly where or how many—and sanctions? Those are two very positive things we can give an indication of. I appreciate he might not want to be specific, but something general on that would be welcome.
Of course—my noble friend is right to point that out. We continue our work in that respect; if noble Lords will bear with me, I will come on to those specific points in a moment or two.
I underline our continued commitment on the community side. During our recent visits, we met civil society leaders and the youth of the country. It is important that we continue to engage on all these fronts and show our unrelenting support for the people.
I turn to the specific points referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, which my noble friend has just highlighted. On EUFOR, we are supporting the bodies created by the Dayton peace agreement. We have worked hard in the UN Security Council with our allies to renew the mandate. Questions were asked about the high representative; I met Christian Schmidt while I was in Sarajevo. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, and others talked of their recent meetings; the Foreign Secretary met him during his visit to London. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that we continue to ensure that we are fully behind the mandate of the high representative. We will not allow those who wish to cause harm to Bosnia and Herzegovina to undermine his authority. While he did not address the Security Council directly, all his briefings were fully provided.
My noble friends Lord Bourne and Lady Helic asked specific questions on NATO. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has said very clearly that NATO must play an enhanced role in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the western Balkans. At the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting in Riga, the Foreign Secretary called on all allies to contribute personnel to the NATO headquarters in Sarajevo. She also urged them to support work to counter disinformation and strengthen defence reform. Many noble Lords—my noble friend Lord Bourne in particular—have called for an increased number of UK troops to be sent to Bosnia and Herzegovina. I can say at this juncture that we will use all UK expertise and resources to support NATO in the country. The fact that I visited it with my noble friend Lady Goldie, Minister of State for Defence, underlines our commitment in that respect.
I will say a word about Russia, which my noble friend Lady Helic and the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, raised. We are seeing a concerning pattern of Russian behaviour, attempting to stop Bosnia and Herzegovina moving closer to NATO and Europe. I assure all noble Lords that the UK Government take an extremely serious view of this and will continue to call out aggression. It is very true that we are seeing assertiveness and added Russian aggression across the European continent.
The noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Collins, and my noble friend Lord Bourne talked about the important issue of sanctions. I have listened very carefully to noble Lords; if it helps, I also hold the portfolio of Minister for Sanctions at the FCDO. Sanctions are an important part of our toolkit for the western Balkans, to address corruption and destabilising activities. We are in close touch with partners and are discussing all aspects of our response to the current challenges. As I have said repeatedly, we work very closely with our key partners; sanctions work when we work together with the likes of the United States and the European Union.
To conclude, I join others in paying tribute to my noble friend once again for tabling this debate. In doing so, I also pay tribute to the contributions we have heard from across your Lordships’ House in this final debate before Christmas. It underlined the strong commitment across the House and across parties and the unity of purpose and action we have seen. I assure noble Lords that that is shared in the intent and actions of Her Majesty’s Government. I fully accept, as my noble friend Lady Helic said, that there is no short-term solution. We are very much in it for the long term—and we need to be. We owe it to the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who want and deserve peace, security and hope for the future.
I hope that in closing this debate I have underlined that the UK does not just believe that it has a vital role but is already playing a key role in ensuring a co-ordinated and focused international response, as my noble friend Lady Warsi said. I thank noble Lords once again for their valuable contributions, and I assure the House that Her Majesty’s Government will continue to remain committed to the success of Bosnia and Herzegovina for all its people. I will continue to update noble Lords on progress in this respect.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in a debate of incredible weight and significance, as other noble Lords have said. I regret the circumstances that cause us to be discussing this subject, but it is heartening that we have such unity of approach across all parties and on the Cross Benches. I thank all noble Lords for their contributions.
I also thank the Minister for what he said, and particularly what he said about options being on the table in relation to troops and sanctions, which are important. Like other noble Lords, I agree about the importance of ensuring civic society is brought forward, but there is an immediate threat and, as the Minister will well know, we will be holding the Government’s feet to the fire to make sure that the approach is appropriate. It is good to see that the Government are taking this seriously and taking it forward and that we are providing the sort of lead which we are looking for. I am most grateful.