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10.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) for making the elections in Sierra Leone the subject of this debate, for drawing attention to the recent positive developments there and especially for naming all the groups that, in his view, have contributed so much to those positive developments. That Sierra Leone is holding parliamentary and presidential elections on 14 May is a remarkable achievement. It clearly illustrates the real progress that Sierra Leone, with the help of the United Kingdom, the United Nations and the wider international community, is making towards a lasting peace.

Let me speak first about the peace process. A year ago, more than 50 per cent. of Sierra Leone was under the control of the brutal RUF rebels. Since then more than 50,000 combatants have disarmed and the UN peacekeeping force, UNAMSIL, has deployed throughout the country. The Government of Sierra Leone have restored their authority over the whole country and are now gradually extending basic Government services into areas that have not been under Government control for the best part of a decade. All parts of the country are now accessible.

On 18 January, President Kabbah declared that disarmament was complete and the war over, and on 1 March, he lifted the state of emergency. Thanks to the training provided by, among others, our own armed forces, Sierra Leone can now have more confidence in its rehabilitated armed forces, which are now patrolling the borders effectively. Like my hon. Friend, I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the critical contribution made by our armed forces since their deployment to Freetown in May 2000, and by the UN, to the restoration of peace.

Our strategy in Sierra Leone is working, but the peace is fragile, and much remains to be done to consolidate it. In the short term, there is an urgent requirement to establish reintegration programmes across the country to help, through training and employment, former combatants to resettle in their home communities. We are

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extending a reintegration programme successfully piloted in north-western Sierra Leone to other areas, and we hope that other donors will follow our lead.

The illegal mining of diamonds by the RUF fuelled the conflict. The Government of Sierra Leone need to set out and implement a comprehensive strategy to manage and secure the diamond fields, so that the diamonds can be exploited to the benefit of all Sierra Leoneans and are put beyond the reach of rebel groups. Consultants funded by us have finished a study setting out the options for the Government. We are also funding a technical adviser who will work in the President's office.

As my hon. Friend rightly says, in the long term Sierra Leone faces the massive task of rebuilding its shattered infrastructure and society. The priority for the new Government after the elections will be to improve standards of governance and to root out the endemic corruption that was one of the root causes of the conflict. Our commitment to Sierra Leone is long term, but we cannot do everything alone. I urge all donors to seize the opportunity for lasting peace in Sierra Leone and to mobilise the funding and technical assistance required for economic, social and political development.

Having described the background, I now focus on the main subject of tonight's debate: the elections, which should mark a further significant step towards peace and the restoration of normal, peaceful politics. My hon. Friend is right to raise this important issue. Preparations for the elections have taken place in difficult and unusual circumstances. Voter registration commenced barely one month after the ending of disarmament, and a new electoral system—the district block system—has been introduced. Wherever possible, arrangements have been made for refugees and the internally displaced, who are returning to their home communities, to vote.

While I am on the subject of refugees, let me say a little about the issue that my hon. Friend mentioned at the start of his speech—the serious allegations made in the joint report by Save the Children Fund and the UN about the sexual abuse of refugees and the internally displaced by aid workers and peacekeepers. We welcome the UN's investigation into these allegations and urge the UN to ensure that internationally accepted standards concerning the treatment of refugees are met, and that appropriate controls are put in place to prevent the recurrence of such unacceptable abuse.

Like most of the institutions in Sierra Leone, the National Electoral Commission has been degraded by years of civil war and it lacks capacity, but it is the NEC, not the international community nor the UN, that has taken on the responsibility for running the elections. I stress that the elections are being run by Sierra Leoneans for all Sierra Leoneans.

We have long recognised that elections would be an important element of any peace. Through the electoral consultancy International Foundation for Electoral Systems, we have provided more than £3 million of technical and material assistance to the NEC since 2000. The US Government have also provided funding to IFES, and the European Commission has funded the printing and supply of ballot papers.

Security is of course a vital issue in the elections. UNAMSIL is playing a key role by providing a secure environment for the elections, as well as logistical assistance to the national electoral commission, including

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the security and transportation of election materials. UNAMSIL will also provide advice and support to the Sierra Leone police, who will be responsible for security at polling stations. I commend the UN for that constructive contribution to the elections.

Voter registration took place over three weeks in February and March, and it was extended by one week as a result of organisational and logistical problems. Some 2.3 million people registered to vote. That compares favourably with only 1.6 million registered voters in 1996. The registration process was acknowledged to be fairer and wider than in 1996, and there were no violent incidents. IFES is working with the national electoral commission to ensure that the problems encountered during the registration process do not recur during polling.

Campaigning has now started. Ten parties will contest the elections. There are nine candidates for the presidential elections and 1,349 candidates for the parliamentary elections. The Revolutionary United Front has transformed itself into a political party—the RUFP—and it is the fourth largest party in terms of its number of candidates. We urge the RUFP to continue to turn its back on violence and embrace normal politics.

Participatory politics suffered during the conflict and the parties, especially those in opposition, lack resources, capacity, experience and organisational skills. We have focused on the need to develop the capacity of parties as a priority, not only before the elections, but over the long term. We have provided some £150,000 to fund the Westminster Foundation for Democracy's work with the parties.

I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend's positive feedback about the Westminster Foundation for Democracy's work in Sierra Leone. We have come to expect high standards of that organisation, but this is an important and large programme that is laying the foundations for a longer-term programme in Sierra Leone. I was particularly pleased to learn that its events are well attended and appreciated by the Opposition parties. I commend the Westminster Foundation for Democracy for its valuable work in Sierra Leone.

I thank my hon. Friend for taking the trouble to visit Sierra Leone to participate in the Westminster Foundation for Democracy's round table on promoting democracy. I am aware from our contacts in Freetown that the round table, which was attended by 12 parties, was a success and that Opposition leaders valued my hon. Friend's contributions in both formal and informal meetings. If my hon. Friend will allow me, I shall write to him about the detailed point that he raised in relation to his informal surgery concerning Opposition parties' fears about polling stations.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the presence of international observers in addition to local monitors will further help to give the parties confidence in the process and to ensure that the elections are credible. The European Union is fielding an observer mission of 18 long-term and 56 short-term observers. I can confirm that we are contributing one long-term observer and four short-term observers, including the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones). The majority of long-term observers are already in Sierra Leone to observe the electoral preparations and campaigning. I understand that the Commonwealth, the Economic Community of West African States, the African Union and Nigeria are also planning to send observer missions.

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Free access to the media is another important factor in the election campaign. In a country where communication is very difficult, radio is the only medium with national coverage. We have provided more than £20,000 of funding to the Thomson Foundation, which is working with the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service on the reporting of election campaigns. We urge the broadcast and print media in Sierra Leone to play their full part in the elections and ensure that all parties have equitable access to the media. I commend UNAMSIL and several commercial radio stations for giving the political parties free air time on their radio stations.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, we also need to look beyond the elections. Holding credible elections is only one stage in a long process of political development in Sierra Leone. The Government of Sierra Leone, with the support of the United Kingdom and others, must promote improved governance and accountability. I assure my hon. Friend that the United Kingdom is fully involved—probably more involved than any other country, as he must know from his visit. We intend to remain so.

The Government of Sierra Leone need to build the capacity of Parliament, ensure that it has adequate resources and develops a structure of committees so that it can scrutinise more effectively the activities of Government and call the new Government to account. We

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hope that, after the elections, the new Members of Parliament will raise the profile and reputation of the Parliament through constructive debate.

For the moment, we are looking forward to peaceful and fair elections. I am encouraged that the Opposition parties that attended the Westminster Foundation signed a memorandum of understanding calling for a

I call upon all those participating in the elections, whether candidates or voters, to ensure that the elections are conducted in an atmosphere of peace.

We hope that all Sierra Leoneans will benefit from the peace and that, for the first time in a decade, they can exercise their democratic right to vote in peace. In his speech at the George Bush Senior Presidential Library in Texas on 8 April, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke about his visit to Sierra Leone on 9 February. He said:

Question put and agreed to.

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