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Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the city of Hull is twinned with Freetown? Over the past few decades, a close and continuing relationship has developed, and we have help to train local government personnel and others. The events that have unfolded over the past few weeks have caused much shock and horror, and aroused fears that terrible scenes of butchery might be seen again in Sierra Leone.
Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that British nationals and others for whom the Government have a responsibility will be protected and helped, and that a similar degree of protection will be extended to those citizens of Sierra Leone and of Freetown who have co-operated happily with the NGOs and others? Will he ensure that their co-operation will not cause them to be singled out as victims if the RUF should turn out to be successful?
Finally, I thank my right hon. Friend for his robust statement, and the robust riposte that he gave to the speech of the Opposition spokesman, the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), which was one of the most disgraceful things that I have heard in the House for a long time.
Mr. Cook: I appreciate my hon. Friend's point about the hopes of the people of Sierra Leone, and those in Britain who are concerned about their welfare, being dashed. What has happened in the past week has been particularly cruel, given the enormous hope that was invested in the peace agreement a year ago. I remember, just about a year ago, speaking personally with President Kabbah after he had toured the country selling the details of the peace agreement. He told me of the joy, the elation and the relief of the people he addressed at the prospect of peace and an end to violence and repression by the RUF. We must not let that hope die--we must make sure that we restore the peace that was promised a year ago. We will do all we can to ensure that that peace is rebuilt and that the people of Sierra Leone have the right to enjoy the same stability and peace as any of us. However, I must be candid and honest about this--I cannot offer them the military protection that we are currently providing to secure the evacuation of our own nationals.
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Given the litany of the thousands of awful murders and mutilations that the Foreign Secretary referred to, does he accept that his foreign policy on Sierra Leone over the past three years has not been a success? Does he remember the Prime Minister's official spokesman saying two years ago that it did not really matter because the good guys won? Does he regret that? Does he regret not listening some two and a half years ago to the advice of Peter Penfold, when high commissioner? He was then supporting President Kabbah,
Mr. Cook: The whole House will appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has uncorked the ancient vinegar. I think it regrettable that there is any Member of the House who cannot rise to the gravity of the situation faced by 500 British nationals and those UN forces engaged in the field.
Mr. Cook: I think that "counter" came after the hon. Gentleman originally said that it was a coup. I presume that the hon. Gentleman was making a reference to Sandline. The liberation of Sierra Leone that occurred in 1998 had nothing whatever to do with Sandline, and everything to do with Nigerian troops, which took a large number of casualties in the process. The truth is that, in the present situation, mercenaries would be nothing but a menace.
Jane Griffiths (Reading, East): Does my hon. Friend agree that a way should be found for the wider international community, whether that be Commonwealth nations, inside or outside Africa, to assist further? Britain is doing a most commendable job in attempting to protect British nationals, but there is a much wider task to be done. Does he also agree that there must be scope for the international community to address the politics of diamonds, because the diamond trade has left a scar on Africa over the decades and the centuries?
Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend makes two important points. If we are to contain the conflicts of Africa, it is important that Africa develops professionalism and competence in peacekeeping. I am pleased that Britain is playing an important role in this, given the number of military advisory training teams that we have in Africa, including a large one in Ghana, which I visited while calling upon President Rawlings. I am grateful to Ghana for its support in providing a centre for excellence in peacekeeping training.
I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend about diamonds. It is a great tragedy that the conflicts in Sierra Leone, and also in the Congo and Angola, have been fuelled by the attempts of various armed groups to obtain control of the diamonds fields. It is extremely difficult to control the flow of diamonds from such African countries, which have large borders and difficult terrain. However, the trade in uncut diamonds is relatively modest and concentrated, and it should not be beyond the wit of the international community to find a better way of regulating it.
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): The Sierra Leonean community in this country will be grateful to the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for his welcome support for the United Nations. Does he envisage taking any action, perhaps in New York, to ensure that the UN is strengthened in whatever ways it needs to see through its mission? In the
Mr. Cook: First, I am well aware of the hon. Gentleman's constituency interest. A large community of people from Sierra Leone is resident in Britain, and those people will closely watch what the Government do to assist in their home country.
In relation to the UN in New York, I have already approached Kofi Annan to discuss how we can help with the present operation. The immediate priority is to try to provide support and strengthening for the current operation to overcome the crisis. Questions may remain to be asked about the mandate and the terms of operation for the future, but the immediate priority must be to ensure that the operation has adequate strength.
Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South): I believe that most Members will applaud the Government's efforts in committing British forces. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on avoiding reciprocation of pathetic political point scoring. We ought to send out a message of consensus.
If a message is to be given to the butchers, the sending of the Royal Marines, the Parachute Regiment, HMS Ocean and an aircraft carrier with aircraft is a powerful one, and I hope that that will be appreciated. I shall enter into negotiations with the Secretary of State for Defence to invite him or the Minister of State to discuss deployment with the Select Committee on Defence.
Finally, illicit diamonds are normally associated with mercenaries. How high up the agenda is legislation or a White Paper on the exercise of a degree of control on that rather squalid, sordid industry?
We promised a Green Paper on mercenaries in response to the Select Committee's report on Sierra Leone last year, and work is well developed. I hope that we may take it forward. I agree with my hon. Friend on the importance of diamonds.
My hon. Friend made an observation about hearing from a Minister at the Ministry of Defence. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence heard that observation, and I should not dream of interfering in those negotiations.
Secondly, on diamonds, how far has the Foreign Office gone in its analysis of the situation, and in the actions that it tried to take through the UN and commercial trading operations--notably in Brussels--to contain the traffic, which would enable us to undermine the finance of the appalling rebels?