TERROR IN SIERRA LEONE – 28 February 2001

Dr Julian Lewis: I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr Mike Gapes) on his initiative in applying for this debate, on his success in securing it and, above all, on the sincerity and comprehensiveness of his presentation. I also thank the Secretary of State for Defence, who kindly invited members of the Select Committee on Defence to accompany him on what was essentially his second trip to Sierra Leone since Britain became so heavily involved. Not only that, but when we were there, the Secretary of State took every opportunity to keep us fully involved in all that was happening in some of the more sensitive briefings, and, as the hon. Member for Ilford South mentioned, gave us the opportunity to meet President Kabbah. We were both grateful for that.

President Kabbah made a good impression on us all. He struck us as a man of great calmness, thoughtfulness and, in so far as it is possible to make judgments on a short acquaintance, integrity. I could not help reflecting on the tragedy in which his country finds itself. It is one example – there are so many in international affairs – of the road to hell being paved with good intentions.

As the hon. Member for Ilford South said, every time that we were seen in parts of Freetown, there would be shouts of welcome such as: "You are welcome here. Thank you for being here. Thank you for coming." It is strange that if there were to be a referendum in Sierra Leone today on whether the people would be better off as a colony under British rule, or in their present state of oppressed independence –

Mr Gapes indicated assent.

Dr Lewis: I see a wry look of agreement on the hon. Gentleman's face. There can be no doubt that they would wish that they were still a part of the supposedly exploitative British empire of the past. That empire would not have stood for the sort of terrorism and banditry that has had such terrible effects on the people of Sierra Leone in recent years.

When I visited the amputee camp with the hon. Member for Ilford, South, I was reminded of why the early evidence of Nazi atrocities in the second world war was not believed. The disbelief was a reaction against what was believed retrospectively to have been baseless atrocity propaganda from the first world war, which centred most memorably on the story of the Belgian babies' hands. When the Germans invaded Belgium in 1914 and violated Belgian neutrality, there was a story that they cut off the hands of Belgian babies so that they would not be able to hold weapons when they grew up. Subsequently, it was thought that no such injury would be survivable by such a young child. The hon. Member for Ilford, South and I know that such injuries are survivable. As he pointed out, they are survivable even by a child as young as Marie Koroma, who was 13 months old when her left hand was chopped off in that bestial way.

We were told that the purpose was to terrorise the population – to show them that that was the sort of treatment that they could expect if they dared to support the legitimate Government of their country. It was intended to deny support to the Government force, and, undoubtedly, to encourage chaos and force people to flee from their homes. It is believed that about half of the 4.5 million inhabitants of Sierra Leone fled from their homes within the country, and that about half a million fled beyond the borders of the country.

The hon. Member for Ilford, South stated clearly that the motivations are diamonds and exploitation. As far as can be seen, the activity is being fuelled by the interference of a country outside the diamond area – Liberia. Its leader, Charles Taylor, seems to be playing a strange game. Apparently he has a habit of ringing up President Kabbah every so often and making friendly inquiries about whether he can assist on minor matters. He professes to be in favour of steps towards a peaceful settlement and expresses concern about the degradation, terror and misfortune being inflicted on the Sierra Leonean people.

I would like to join the hon. Member for Ilford, South in pressing the Minister to spell out clearly, for the benefit of all hon. Members, the Government's assessment of the role and activities of President Taylor and Liberia in the troubles in Sierra Leone. If they believe that President Taylor and his agents are responsible for what is happening in Sierra Leone, what steps are they taking – and what steps do they propose to take – to put pressure on Liberia to cease its malign interference in Sierra Leone?

When we were in Sierra Leone, we were told that 600 British military personnel were taking part in the training mission. If it is possible for 600 British military personnel to achieve a genuine and – to use a vogue word – sustainable change in the circumstances of the people of that unfortunate country, that is a good investment of time, effort, money and British personnel. We have an historical connection with Sierra Leone; we arguably have a continuing moral responsibility for the country, even though with the ending of its colonial status we sadly – one might say – no longer have a legal responsibility. Many of my right hon. and hon. Friends worry about the overall effect of undertaking individual commitments that are in themselves worthy but which may cumulatively lead to an enfeebling of our capabilities to intervene militarily in other theatres, should other crises arise. Therefore, we must keep in mind the intended end-game for this intervention.

What scenario does the Minister envisage for liquidating this commitment by the end of the autumn? If the Sierra Leone army is by then perfectly capable of re-establishing and maintaining control over the country, I shall be pleased to hear it. However, that is an optimistic prediction; there is a long way to go, although much progress has been made. The briefings that we received when we were in the country suggested that, as a result of the international presence in general and the British presence in particular in training the Sierra Leone army, between 40 and 50 per cent. of the land area had been brought back under Government control, pacified and stabilised. That would be a great achievement.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Cheryl Gillan) asked the hon. Member for Ilford, South what progress had been made in cutting off the flow of blood diamonds – as she put it – from Sierra Leone. Given that the diamond areas are the ones most heavily infested with RUF forces and are relatively close to the border of Sierra Leone, the likelihood is small of impeding that flow for any considerable time. We are certainly unlikely physically to have stopped the flow. Will the Minister tell us whether that can be achieved successfully? Is it being attempted through international arrangements controlling what happens to the diamonds after they leave the country?

The people behind the horror in Sierra Leone have a sense that the writing is on the wall. The reports that filter back into Freetown from the diamond mining areas inform us that the rate of diamond extraction is being accelerated dramatically. That suggests that the people involved are aware that their opportunities for exploiting the mines may not last indefinitely.

We need to be reassured that the Government, in undertaking a worthy mission, can be certain that a stable situation will be the result at the end of their intervention. Those who have disturbed the peace, terrorised the population and sought to exploit the country's potential wealth to their own sectional advantage must be sure that, not only have they failed in their endeavour, but that they will never be allowed to do something of that sort again. If it is the case that the RUF's campaign would have been unsustainable without the external support of Liberia and its president, the only hope of arriving at the situation that I have just described is to show the people who are fundamentally and ultimately responsible for what happens inside Sierra Leone that outside that country they cannot escape retribution for what they have done.

The Government favour the setting up of an International Criminal Court. I have always supported them in that endeavour. My final request to the Minister is, therefore, that when all this is over and an International Criminal Court is set up, those who did what they did to little girls like Marie Koroma – a myth perhaps in 1914, but reality in the 21st century – will be brought to justice before the bar of world public opinion.

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Mrs Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): I echo the congratulations to the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr Gapes) on securing the debate, which is long overdue. Sierra Leone seems to have slipped off the Government's agenda over recent months. I pay tribute to him and to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr Lewis), who showed personal courage in visiting an area in which our troops are deployed, no doubt bringing them succour, and seeing the situation at first hand. Nothing – certainly not reliance on reports – replaces witnessing events on the ground ….

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The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Brian Wilson): First, I join other hon. Members in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr Gapes) for securing this debate, which has been extremely useful. It may surprise hon. Members to learn that one does not necessarily become an expert on everything just by becoming a Minister. Listening to today's debate has been an important part of my learning process about Sierra Leone. I single out my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr Lewis) for their outstanding contributions, which reflect the fact that they have been to the country, experienced and seen it. There is no substitute for that and both hon. Gentlemen articulated their experiences effectively …