I beg to move,
That this House has considered British engagement with Libya.
It is a great pleasure to introduce a debate of such importance—it is a wonderful privilege as a Member of Parliament to have the opportunity to raise subjects of international importance. We all know, given where we have come from with the debates on Brexit, Heathrow and all the rest, that we focus a lot on domestic issues. We particularly focus on European issues, but the situation in Libya is of enormous importance for the country and the wider picture in the middle east. The waves of migration we are seeing in Europe are in many ways a direct consequence of the total collapse of order and civic administration in Libya. I do not want to exaggerate that and suggest that Libya is in a complete state of anarchy, but there is no doubt that there have been many failures of omission in Libya, as the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), and his team have pointed out.
We have had five years in which it has been unclear what the future political make-up of the country will be in terms of its institutions. Muammar Gaddafi saw his end five years ago, in October 2011. It is disconcerting to see that there is no single constituted political entity or Government in Libya. Instead, there are two Governments and various militias. The country is divided geographically between the east and the west, with their respective centres of power in Tobruk and Tripoli. The Government of National Accord have been backed by the United Nations, by us and by the international community, yet when we read reports on what is happening on the ground in Libya with the militias and military activity, the striking thing is that the GNA’s forces do not seem to be making much impact. In fact, I rarely read about what they and their military forces are doing.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this timely debate. Does he agree that Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar would possibly be a better person to lead security in Libya at this time?
I want to address precisely that point in my remarks. There seems to be a complete disjuncture between what we want to happen with the people we want to back for our own reasons—they could have a legitimacy or legal primacy—and what is happening on the ground. That has been a constant feature of the western approach to the area. We have our own ideals and beliefs about the process, the rule of law and what we think should happen, but when we look on the ground at the instrumentalities, as Woodrow Wilson used to call them, we see a complete mismatch. The people whom we want to be in charge—the people whom we believe have legitimacy—have very little capacity to enforce their will and ensure that their writ is run through the country we hope they can rule. That fundamental problem always comes up.
Haftar represents Operation Dignity. He has set himself up as an anti-Islamist strongman. There is no doubt that he is a controversial figure, but it is difficult to envisage a stable Libya without his active participation. He simply has a lot of muscle and many forces. He controls a significant portion of the country, particularly in the east. A few weeks ago we discovered that his forces took over a lot of the oil installations at the beginning of September. He has to come round the table if we are to reach a satisfactory solution.
There have been dark rumblings in regard to Haftar. We have read many times that the French secret service is supporting him. They are rumours, but it is important that we know what is being said. We also know that allies, including our friends in Egypt and the Egyptian Government, are openly supporting Haftar. The United Arab Emirates is broadly in support of his objectives. Many of our allies are openly or covertly supporting General Haftar, yet we stick to this idea, perhaps rightly, that the GNA is the legitimately constituted Government of Libya.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend is spending time talking about General Haftar. Our Government’s line has repeatedly been for the past five years, “We must wait for a Government of National Accord and national unity.” It is clearly evident after five years that that will not happen, and it is unrealistic to expect it. We should support General Haftar to bring peace and stability to the country.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I am trying to say—in many ways, it is the crux of this debate and nearly any debate about the middle east—that we have our own ideals and our own sense of what the rule of law and due process are, yet the realities on the ground in many instances bear no relation to the theoretical aspirations and structures that the international community constructs. I am trying to grope towards some way in which we can accommodate or harmonise our intellectual construct and method with what is happening on the ground.
The reality is that there are something like 1,700 militias. General Haftar is probably the biggest military presence, and many of our allies openly support him. My hon. Friend asks an interesting question: why do we not just support General Haftar? I do not propose to answer that definitely today. It is a difficult question and there are lots of balancing factors. The fact is that General Haftar is not universally popular. We have big issues with militias in Misrata. A number of other tribes on the western side have said openly that they are not prepared to tolerate rule by him. Their belief is that, if we support Haftar, we will be substituting one military dictator for the former military dictator, Gaddafi.
Be that as it may, I want to talk about my hon. Friend’s suggestion. Our strategy has not moved the country forward in five years. The financial situation is such that whatever oil reserves Libya had are rapidly dwindling. Libya’s GDP was something like $75 billion in 2011 and is now something like $41 billion—it is roughly of that order; that figure is from a couple of years ago, but it is the latest we have. We are talking about an economy that has essentially halved in five years. GDP per capita was something like $12,500 in 2011, at which point Libya was one of the wealthiest countries in Africa. It was seeing some degree of material progress. Today, GDP per capita is about $7,000. No country in Europe has seen such a diminution of its wealth, including Greece. That has huge implications for the security situation in the region and outside.
Not only have people become a lot poorer, but the political institutions in many instances have broken down. Whatever Gaddafi’s strengths and weaknesses were—let’s face it, he was a tyrant—he had a degree of control over the country’s borders. Those who know geography will know that Libya is an enormous country with something like 4,000 miles of borders. To stem the flow of migration, it was very important that a centrally constituted Government—a central authority—could control the borders. That has now completely collapsed, which is why hundreds if not thousands of people come from very poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa through Libya and find themselves on boats in the Mediterranean going to Italy, in many instances ending their lives there.
I did not want to talk about the EU—we have had plenty of debates in this place about it—but one of the failures it needs to address is the lack of a co-ordinated plan for Libya. There is no point pretending it is going to go away, because it is not. The problem will get worse.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this timely, topical debate. Does he agree that, although focusing on Libya’s coastline is very important to prevent the tragedy of human trafficking, it is also important to look at Libya’s southern borders, where people are coming up from sub-Saharan Africa? Perhaps we could be doing more to understand what is going on there and to tackle trafficking at its source.
As is often the case, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. That goes to the heart of the question. There is no centrally constituted Government or central power to hold the country together and control the borders that she talks about, which are pretty porous.
I secured the debate because I have spent time in Europe speaking to German colleagues and MPs and politicians from other countries, and I am struck by the fact that there does not seem to be any real plan of action. Nothing has happened for five years. The country is not in a state of chaos—that would be an exaggeration—but it is certainly not stable. Its oil reserves are dwindling. It is still fairly rich by African and developing country standards, but its wealth is being depleted, and if it diminishes further the problem will get worse. It is no use pretending it is simply going to go away, because it is not.
One of the biggest problems is that when the United Nations or outside organisations such as the European Union try to help one side or the other, they are regarded with the deepest suspicion by a large number of people in Libya. That is one of the reasons why the latest plan seems to have failed.
My hon. Friend makes a fair point, but I am told that one of the reasons why the Libyans view western involvement with such scepticism is that 2011 was not this country’s finest hour. I agree substantially with many of the findings in the Foreign Affairs Committee report. We went in there, but we did not have a plan or a follow-through. Given that context, it is not surprising that Libyans are sceptical.
Our ideals—what we want to happen—and what we can actually do are often completely different. I completely understand the support for the Government of National Accord, but it is difficult to see how we can empower them to take control of the country. None of the militias that one reads about—Haftar and Operation Dignity, Libya Dawn, ISIS and various al-Qaeda militias—are GNA forces. They are not under the control of the Government of National Accord, yet we carry on in a fantasy world in which they are the official, legal Government and we are going to support them. I totally understand those pious words, but nothing is happening on the ground.
We can go on like this. I am sure that in five years’ time I, or some new MPs, will take up the issue. We can go on forever and a day talking about what is going on, but in this debate I want to say, “Look, this is a big problem. What are we going to do about it?” I do not propose any definitive answers, but it is highly important that MPs have the opportunity to speak and think about these issues. We do very little thinking in this place; we do a lot of talking, posturing and virtue-signalling, but as parliamentarians we need to engage our minds critically with these problems.
My hon. Friend said that 2011 was not our finest hour. May I remind him—I am sure he remembers this very clearly—that only one Conservative Member of Parliament voted against military action: our colleague from the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron)? Does he agree that we need to learn from that terrible mistake? We saw on our television screens constant coverage of the alleged bloodbath that would ensue if Gaddafi was not stopped. We reacted quickly without thinking about the consequences and without the follow-through that was needed.
That is a very timely intervention, because that is exactly the kind of thing I am talking about. For far too long, we have had emotional responses to situations. I remember the debate very vividly, although I was a new Member of Parliament and less experienced and less versed in issues relating to the middle east then. We talked a lot about the humanitarian crisis and what we needed to do to intervene to stop the potential bloodbath. All of that was well understood, but we did not stop and think.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. I apologise for not being able to stay for the whole debate to hear what the Minister has to say in response. May I gently remind my hon. Friend that simply to dismiss our intervention in Libya as an emotional response and to say that the Government and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office did not think through the consequences is not fair? That does not adequately describe the work that went into Libya afterwards, which included intensive work with politicians to create the opportunity for elections. In recognising what happened, which is immensely difficult, he might pay tribute to the work of the Foreign Office, our diplomats and our ambassador, who worked so hard to try to create something. He must not assume that it was simply an emotional response without regard to the consequences.
I fully appreciate my right hon. Friend’s point. He was at that time a Foreign Office Minister largely responsible for the middle east, and he served in that post with considerable distinction. I fully appreciate his efforts.
My phrase “emotional response” might be a little dismissive. It is very brutal and horrible to have to say this, but we have to look at the consequences of what happened. We have to look at the situation, put our hands up and say, “This is not a good situation.” I appreciate that there were lots of motivated, highly skilled diplomats, and that lots of thought went into the intervention on the ground. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO Secretary-General said that, if we just look at the means by which we carried out the intervention, it was effective, but I am afraid that the judgment of history is that it was not particularly successful, based on the consequences of our actions. At some point we have to be hard on ourselves and look at the outcomes. We can say, “We discussed this endlessly, we met all these committees, we had all this planning and we got votes through Parliament”, but—to use that old phrase—the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If the pudding does not taste very good, something has gone wrong, and we have got to accept that.
While we are looking at our intervention in Libya in 2011, perhaps we might also look at the consequences of the vote on Syria in 2013. Perhaps my hon. Friend will agree that deciding whether to intervene or not is very difficult. The same consequences can arise from both because we are not fully in charge of all the circumstances.
The conclusion—one does not require the brains of an archbishop to reach this—is that when we intervene, we should have a plan for the follow-through, perhaps for up to 18 months. I am not one of those people who is against all interventions, but I am against interventions the consequences of which have not been properly considered, or properly planned for. That is not a radical thing to ask.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, which is the latest in a number of debates on Libya, in this Chamber in particular. I agree with a lot of what he is saying. One of the consequences of the chaos in Libya and the lack of any centralised Government is the failure, or inability, to get to grips with getting justice and compensation for the victims of Libyan-inspired IRA and other terrorism. That is a major problem. Many of the victims are getting older and they wait in great frustration for our Government to do more, and to get what they are entitled to. Does he agree that that is another aspect of what is happening?
Absolutely. For those who study the outbreak of the second world war, the question then was always, “Who do you call in Berlin?” or “Who is actually responsible for the action?”, and that is exactly the kind of question that we need to ask about Libya. If we want to start the compensation process, who on earth do we call? Yes, the GNA is in control of the central bank, but they are not in control of the oil production or the generators of wealth, so it is a legitimate question.
To wrap up, our foreign service’s capabilities in diplomacy are second to none, as a country, but once in a while we have to admit, “We might not have done this very effectively. We might have got things wrong.” After all, President Obama, our closest ally, said that Libya was the worst mistake of his presidency. He had the honesty and candour to put his hand up and admit that and, if we are to proceed as a more effective player or counsellor in the politics of the region, we have to have the courage to admit when we get things wrong.
The report from the Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate did that—although perhaps it cast blame too narrowly and was not overly generous in its interpretation of what happened—but we have to recognise when we get things wrong. We have to be more realistic about what we can achieve when we intervene. We also have to be realistic about the kinds of players involved and with whom we have to deal. My hon. Friends have mentioned General Haftar, and he is clearly an important figure. There is no point pretending that he will disappear because he does not constitute a legitimate authority, so he can be ignored—he cannot be ignored. He is a fact in the Libyan scene who needs to be dealt with.
In conclusion, I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate. I am interested to hear what colleagues have to say about the situation and, if I were to summarise the kind of conclusion that I want to reach, the kind of thought that I want to stimulate, it is to ask how we are going to marry our ideals with what is happening on the ground. How will we do that? We have endless debates, but perhaps we have to shift our ideals and to compromise if we cannot reach a solution. There is no point sticking our heads in the sand and saying, “Well, this is the legitimate Government”, but then nothing happens. That is a complete waste of time.
I beg for consideration of this. I beg right hon. and hon. Members to spend time thinking about how to move forward and to marry ideals with what is happening on the ground in Libya, and about what we as parliamentarians and broader supporters of the Government and of our country can do to bring some degree of stability and order to a country that for far too long has lived with a level of chaos that none of us would accept in our own lives and in our own country.
The wind-ups will start at 10.30 am, but there is quite a lot of interest in this debate, so I hope Members will tailor their remarks accordingly. I call Jim Shannon.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Chope. It is a pleasure to speak in this debate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) on his excellent contribution, which set the scene so well. No one in this Chamber should be under any illusion about the fragile situation in Libya. The Foreign Affairs Committee reported on the situation in Libya in September 2016, and the report was eye-opening. The summary alone is enough to demand a reconsideration of the Libya situation and our involvement.
I am known to be someone with a positive nature. Rather than focusing solely on a problem and apportioning blame, I like to see what the solution is—in other words, I like to see a glass half full. I cannot, however, skip past a part of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report that needs to be addressed. I will quote it, because it sets the scene clearly:
“In March 2011, the United Kingdom and France, with the support of the United States, led the international community to support an intervention in Libya to protect civilians from attacks by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi. This policy was not informed by accurate intelligence. In particular, the Government failed to identify that the threat to civilians was overstated and that the rebels included a significant Islamist element…The result was political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL in North Africa. Through his decision making in the National Security Council, former Prime Minister David Cameron was ultimately responsible for the failure to develop a coherent Libya strategy.”
In response, the Minister will emphasise that we have a new Prime Minister—we are glad to see her in place and the changes that she has brought and is bringing—but that cannot take away from the fact that the Government are failing in their engagement with Libya and that things need to change. I respect President Obama, even if I largely do not agree with his policies, and Parliament and the Government must address his damning accusations with regards to Libya.
The USA cannot be absolved of all responsibility for the situation. A sore point for me is that the US Government were actively working hard to secure compensation for their citizens for Libyan-sponsored acts of terrorism, but our Government have all but refused to do that for our citizens.
Does my hon. Friend agree that with all the ongoing conflict and diplomacy, there is still a major problem for the people of Libya, especially the women and children? We can argue all day about the rights and wrongs of conflict and intervention, but something more needs to be done to help the people of that country.
I wholeheartedly support what my hon. Friend and colleague says. In an intervention, my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) mentioned IRA terrorism and the sponsorship of the Libyan Government. That issue is close to our hearts in the Democratic Unionist party, the second largest party in this Westminster Hall debate, and we are pleased to make that case.
If our friends across the pool were able to achieve compensation for their citizens, one must wonder why they are unable to step in and make a difference in the current climate. It is incumbent on me as a representative of the Democratic Unionist party, on behalf of the victims of Libyan-sponsored terrorism, to ask the Foreign and Commonwealth Office again for an update on the situation since it was last discussed in the House. I trust that steps have been taken to make a stand for our victims and to see their pain acknowledged in a tangible way.
My hon. Friend is elaborating on the distinction between the success obtained by the American Administration for their victims of terrorism and the unfortunate lack of success by our Government in getting compensation for victims of terrorism in the UK, many of them in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that we need to see progress in Libya, for the people of Libya, but that in return we need to see those legacy issues resolved, so that people here are more satisfied with our Government’s input than they have been to date?
I am coming on to some of those things, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need the Government to be responsive and to help our people.
The hon. Gentleman is referring to the legacy issues affecting many people in Northern Ireland. I join our colleagues in Northern Ireland in campaigning on such an important matter, and I am very disappointed that the Government have not made more progress. May I ask him to support action on the other key outstanding legacy issue, which is the murder of a serving British police officer, PC Yvonne Fletcher, who was shot outside the Libyan embassy? To this day, we have still had no indication of who her murderer was, and he has not been brought to justice.
It is good to be reminded of that case, which has never been resolved from an investigative point of view and for which no one has been held accountable. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We want that issue, as well as other outstanding legacy issues, to be addressed. It is such a major issue that I will not do my constituents the disservice of ignoring it and failing to take the opportunity to call for the wrong to be righted as far as possible, which is what the Government appear to have done. I hope that they will not continue to do so.
The IRA terrorist campaign led to the deaths of 3,750 people, not only in Northern Ireland but in Brighton, London, Manchester and other places. Libyan involvement is undisputed. Compensation has been paid to the families of Americans who lost their lives as a result of that involvement, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) referred to, but the loss of British lives has not led to similar aid or support. I have said before in this place that our citizens are not second-class citizens and that they deserve the same justice as the Americans, and I stress that essential point about British engagement on behalf of my constituents.
Chaos reigns in many parts of Libya. I am aware from the Library briefing that in August, the Royal Navy supported the removal of potential chemical weapons materials from Libya. There are a lot of issues to be addressed there. This is not about winning a war; it is about seeing how we can influence the country and help to rebuild it from a dictatorship into a democracy. However, many external factors are taking control, and we must decide what the appropriate action is in that scenario.
The United Nations has brokered the formation of an inclusive Government of National Accord, but as seems to be the norm, the people the UN seeks to support have no regard for its regulations. There is substantiated evidence of the GNA having been undermined by people flouting the United Nations arms embargo and using Libyan militias as proxies. I have some good friends who work in security in the middle east and have been in Libya, and they have informed me that Libya is awash with illegal arms, some of which have made their way to terrorist groups in Europe. If we want to address terrorism in Europe, we must address the availability of arms in Libya.
Libya has descended into lawlessness since the fall of Gaddafi in 2011, giving groups such as the self-proclaimed ISIS free rein to attack Christians. The Minister would expect me to make this point, because I take the opportunity to do so whenever one comes my way. We all know that Libya has a deep Islamic culture, so Libyan Christians must keep their faith completely secret. Churches for Libyans and Christian literature in Arabic are forbidden. Although migrant Christians are allowed to practise their faith in Libya, many have paid the ultimate price: in 2015, dozens of Christians from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Egypt were kidnapped or killed by extremists in Libya. Several of those cases have been well expounded upon and were in the papers and on TV at the time. For example, a brief search for links to news stories related to Christian persecution and Libya returns the following headlines: “Christian woman in fear for her life”; “IS kidnaps 86 Eritrean Christians”; “Islamic State capture more African migrants”; and “IS kill 30 Christians, destroy churches”. Those are just some of the things that happen. Continued persecution is an important factor that must be considered in any discussion of our role and involvement in Libya.
I am conscious of the time and your direction, Mr Chope, so I will conclude with this comment. We face a massive problem. We must first determine our role in solving it and working with others who seek to absolve themselves rather than help solve the issues. We must try to bring stability to an area that desperately needs it, for the benefit of Christians, citizens and neighbouring countries, simply for the fight against terrorism, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) referred to, for the ordinary people of Libya—the mothers, families, children and hard-working people. We must be wise and effective. Our actions must be co-ordinated to ensure that there is a global response that is felt by those who continue to seek to bring the country to its knees. We in this House have a duty, but we are not alone in that, and we must ensure that all the key players have a role in bringing stability to Libya.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng). People always refer to debates as timely, but this debate has special merit because it shines a light on an area that is often forgotten in the shadow of the atrocities in Syria, but that has a huge role in the region’s stability.
I did not vote for a no-fly zone in Libya in 2011; I abstained. I wondered then whether that was to my shame. Sadly, on balance, I do not think that it was. Back then, as a new MP, I was not sufficiently confident that there would not be mission creep, I could not see a concrete plan for what Libya would look like were there to be mission creep, and I looked at the west’s track record of removing nasty dictators, and it was not good. It is easy to be wise after the event and rehearse mistakes that were made. We can say that lessons will be learned—that cliché is often used—but we can perhaps best demonstrate that we are going to learn the lessons by tackling the situation properly and realistically now.
I am often surprised that Libya does not feature more in the media and political discussion, particularly on compassionate grounds. Libya is well known as a haven for people traffickers, who often traffic people to their deaths in the Mediterranean. When I was in Sicily last year helping to redecorate and renovate a migrant hostel, some young men from Africa told me that they were kept locked like animals in storage containers in Tripoli for two weeks and were basically forcibly starved. One man speculated that that was to ensure that they were smaller so the traffickers could fit more people on the boats. Those are the kinds of human atrocities that are happening, but they do not seem to be attracting Twitter hashtags commensurate with appalling human rights abuses. What are we doing on Libya’s southern border to prevent such atrocities from happening at source? Once people are at the coast, it is in a sense almost too late, although we must of course take action there too.
Libya is obviously of strategic importance. We know that it has become a fertile breeding ground for IS and other violent Islamist groups. It would be a mistake to limit our attention solely to Daesh. We might eradicate Daesh, but the ideology that it espouses will be articulated in another way. Let us not be simplistic and attach ourselves to defeating just a name and not an ideology. The chaos—some call it chaos; some call it deep instability—in Libya is deeply destabilising for neighbouring nations. The last thing that we want is a destabilised Egypt, which has its own challenges. Having a neighbour in such a situation as Libya is in is deeply destabilising for Egypt. As a nation, we are partially responsible for creating that situation, so we have a responsibility to engage energetically in trying to return some form of stability to Libya.
I am far from an expert, and I am aware that I am in the company of far greater experts, so I will make a few observations and then ask some questions of the Minister. We backed a revolution, which is always a risky business. Revolution is very different from reform. In many ways, having taken the actions that we took, we cannot be surprised that we are where we are in Libya.
My hon. Friend mentions that we backed revolution. That is precisely the point: we had no idea what was going to come after the revolution. We simply thought that things would right themselves on their own, and that once we had destabilised the situation, Humpty Dumpty would somehow just come back and reform almost spontaneously.
My hon. Friend refers to a nursery rhyme; I was going to say that we have a slightly short attention span and in many ways a fairytale view of foreign policy—“It’s all going to be fine and everyone will live happily ever after once we’ve done the nice thing that the Twitterati will approve of.” We are where we are.
We in the west in general—I do not intend to label any one person as responsible—make two mistakes. First, we tend to see situations in a binary way. We are quick to call the good guys the good guys and the bad guys the bad guys. That has led us to be allies with questionable people just because we want to defeat Daesh. Does that really mean that we should align ourselves with Islamists who perhaps have ideas not that different from Daesh? The reason that they are anti-Daesh may be that they see it as a competitor in the region, not that they share our values.
I remember that those who advocated attacking Iraq back in 2003 pointed to an atrocity that Saddam Hussein had undoubtedly perpetrated against the Kurds in Halabja some 15 years or so before as a pretext for launching strikes. Do we not have to be clear that there is an ever-present opportunity in the middle east to make a horrendous situation full of human rights abuses even worse?
Absolutely. A theme that has arisen again and again in this Chamber is the tension between stability and freedoms, and the extent to which we match our concern with alleviating human rights abuses with a concern with maintaining stability. Once stability goes in a country, there are an awful lot more human rights abuses, however many there were beforehand.
My hon. Friend was far too modest in her analysis of her abstention in 2011 when she was a new MP. I was not aware that she had abstained; I focused on my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), who voted against the no-fly zone. I pay tribute to her for effectively scrutinising the situation. Does she agree that we must learn from the mistake of the speed with which we reacted to the crisis and intervened in the country at that time?
I thank my hon. Friend for his very kind intervention. Yes, we must learn lessons, but we do that not by sitting in this Chamber saying that we will learn lessons, but by doing things better, starting from today.
The second mistake that we often make, which feeds into the reference by my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne to nursery rhymes and fairytales, is that we forget that the middle east is not Tunbridge Wells, if hon. Members will forgive me for labelling that area of the country. The models of democracy and methods that would work in the home counties will not work in the middle east. It is a very different scenario. We seem constantly to make the mistake of putting ideology and our own ideals of how the world should be ahead of how it actually is.
I have just a few questions for the Minister that are based on observations. I am not an expert on this subject at all, but it seems to me that pursuing a 100% inclusive settlement for a Libyan Parliament is fantasy. It will not happen. I worry that, in failing to realise that, we risk making the best the enemy of the good. How possible does the Minister think it is for a sustainable majority to be gathered to govern—I am talking about bringing in recalcitrant Islamists and those in Misrata—such that Britain can then engage in maintaining the human rights of the minorities that are left outside?
It seems very hard to play the active role that we want to play in helping to reconstruct Libya if we have our diplomatic service based in Tunis but making forays—flying visits—into an occupied Tripoli. Is the Minister looking at putting an expeditionary diplomatic presence back on the ground in Tripoli, so that we actually have skin in the game, and so that we can perhaps stand alongside a Libyan Parliament in the same way as we did early in 2011, which is what we should do if we really want to see it gain traction and force?
What assessment has the Minister made of the effects of our efforts to displace Daesh from Sirte on the wider political situation in Libya? Has he made any assessment of the risk of our efforts on the ground boosting one side—the Misratan militias—and the potential effect of that, if it is happening, on the Parliament and the army? It would be a shame if unintended consequences from our efforts to displace Daesh from Sirte contributed to the destabilising situation that gave birth to it in the first place.
I am aware that we have limited time, but in the absence of clear and effective practical leadership in the country, I would value the Minister’s thoughts on our relationship with General Haftar. My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne rightly said that we cannot just ignore him and airbrush him from the picture because he does not fit in with our ideal of a GNA-led democracy. Whatever we think of General Haftar, he is really the only man who has managed to keep the army in one piece against an array of Islamist attacks. As my hon. Friend said, he is a controversial figure, but I struggle to think of any figure who has maintained any stability in the middle east who is not controversial. If we are looking for an uncontroversial leader to provide stability, we may have a very long wait.
To start to wrap up, I will borrow words reported to me by the former head of the British embassy office in Benghazi, Mr Joseph Walker-Cousins. He recalled words uttered by Salwa Bugaighis, a leading Libyan human rights lawyer. She had represented Islamists oppressed under the Gaddafi regime and had previously disagreed that Islamists posed a significant threat to Libya. Mr Walker-Cousins recalled how, shortly before she was assassinated by the Islamist militia group Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi on the day of the general election in June 2014, she said of Haftar: “I hate that man. I hate everything he stands for. However, I have come to understand that he is the only one capable of containing and then destroying the extremists.”
Under threat of death, Salwa Bugaighis returned to Benghazi to take part in the elections and tweeted a picture of herself with an inked finger at the polling station. Her last tweet was of a convoy of Ansar al-Sharia breaching the gates of her villa compound. She was found the next day murdered in her kitchen, and her husband, a leading pro-democracy politician in Benghazi who was in line to be elected leader of the Benghazi local council the next day, was missing, presumed dead.
I ask the Minister what our vision is for Britain’s role in Libya. Will we regain skin in the game back on the ground with expeditionary diplomatic engagement and perhaps push for UN pro-consul level international engagement? Will we seek to work with General Haftar and the army, which are realities on the ground that we cannot ignore, or will we seek to step aside and create space for Russia to step in and start making decisions in Libya in the same way as it is now calling the shots in Syria? I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts on that.
I will finish with a quote attributed to Churchill:
“United wishes and goodwill cannot overcome brute fact”.
I am grateful to my very good and hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) for getting this debate going. I take issue slightly with the comments on the decision in 2011. I felt that we had no choice but to save the people of Benghazi. We did not think of the consequences; we had damn all time to look downstream. I felt that the decision was quite right. My experience of watching people die when there is military inaction was why I supported military operations against Gaddafi.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) raised this matter. It is very sad that, throughout the middle east, stability and safety and a normal society so that children can go to school often seems to require a strong person, normally or even always a man, to be in charge of the country. Democracy such as we have in this country is only a serious long-term wish.
Is there a lesson from British history? If we go back to a time before there was a civil service, before there were all the organs of the state, it required a strong man in the form of the King to keep the King’s peace. That is a lesson from our own history that we would do well to observe.
I entirely take that point, which in fact reinforces the point I was making. It seems, therefore, that people such as Saddam and Gaddafi sometimes work for the majority of people in a country. For some, of course, they do not. Libya is seemingly ungovernable at the moment. Some say that there are two Parliaments, and huge numbers—thousands—of militias and generals running around. It is a ghastly place. My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne mentioned 1,600 militias—goodness, that is a heck of a lot. However, with apologies to my good and hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West, I shall concentrate on Daesh and what it could do in Libya.
I have no intelligence information on this—it is all open source—but I am told that Daesh started moving into Libya in about 2014, when it was looking for an alternative place. It found that in Sirte. When we talk about Sirte, I, as a military officer, am always reminded of David Stirling and his SAS raids on Sirte airfield, which other hon. Members are nodding about, and the gallant actions of those young men, who were mainly from New Zealand, in those days. [Interruption.] I am so sorry: the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) reminds me that the Irish were there, too. We are always reminded of the Irish, Mr Chope, because they apparently have more Victoria Crosses than the English, the Welsh and the Scots put together. Mind you, I have to say, just to add a lighter note, that I am quite sure they were a bit pickled when they won them.
According to open sources, there are about 4,000 to 6,000 Daesh people operating in Sirte and around there. What is the threat? What threat are these guys going to make against us? I think it is not as bad as it could be. They are stuck in an enclave in Sirte. Perhaps they are being hellish inside it, but if I were a Daesh commander, I would not put my operatives into a leaky boat full of migrants or refugees, with scant chance of making it across the Mediterranean. I am also sure that when they do get to Europe the security forces of the country check them out thoroughly before they get ashore.
I would not take that course of action, so how else do they get into Europe? To the east they would be going into Egypt. President Sisi is adamantly determined to wipe out terrorist groups such as Daesh, and has set the armed forces and security forces firmly against them. Again, he is a strong man in the middle east. Tunisia, after the tragedy of Sousse and Tunis last year, has decided to put up a great barricade across the border. That is being done fairly effectively, although it is not complete. Algeria is 1,000 miles away, but the Algerians too are effective at chasing down Islamists trying to cross into their territory. It is not easy to get into Europe. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West mentioned going south across the Sahara, but that is a pretty dodgy route to try.
I am thinking about the threat to us from the people in question—being a member of the Defence Committee, of course I am thinking in that way. They are holed up, but it is quite clear that we have to eliminate them. We will support anything that helps with their elimination. The objective of eliminating Daesh and other terrorist organisations in Libyan society is crucial, but, as other Members and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West have suggested, Daesh is just one. If it is squashed, it will come out in some other form. Somehow, politically, Libya has to find a way. Whether that involves a strong person or not, I am sure of one thing: it took us 800 years to get to our imperfect democracy, and it cannot be imposed quickly. As others have suggested, there will be a Libyan model. I hope it comes quickly for the sake of the decent, normal people of Libya.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) on securing the debate, which has given us time to think. I heard a remark of Henry Kissinger’s about a month ago; he said that the problem these days was that when politicians came to see him they asked what they should say, not what they should think. My hon. Friend has provided us with an opportunity to think, and in the time available to me I want to deal with just one issue. I want to take on the slightly concerning chorus of voices saying that General Haftar—or Field Marshal Haftar, as he has now been styled by the House of Representatives—might somehow be the solution.
Given the enthusiasm for strong men in the middle east, my colleagues might do well to reflect that such men both create and perpetuate the conditions that make them necessary. I was slightly surprised at the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), who was, of course, with us on the Select Committee visit to Tunis, when we sat down with Imhemed Shaib, the first vice-president of the House of Representatives, and a number of his colleagues. At that time, in March, they were trying to put together a House of Representatives vote to support the Government of National Accord. Our brilliant ambassador, Peter Millett, and the team of other international diplomats there have worked hard on that, to try to create what the Committee concluded was the only show in town to avoid the descent into civil war.
It was clear from the discussion that the Members of the House of Representatives had been intimidated and practically prevented from gathering together to vote so that they could support the new Government of National Accord. The House of Representatives had no votes between January and August this year, and indeed by May or June the United States had decided to sanction the Speaker, Aguila Saleh, as an obstacle to putting together support for the Government of National Accord, which all nations are formally signing up to as the best vehicle to take things forward.
It is undoubtedly true that Field Marshal Haftar commands the most substantial military force in Libya, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne mentioned, he is getting aid of one sort or another, covertly from the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere, and almost overtly from Egypt, where a degree of air power of course gives him military superiority. In the end, the solution is in the hands of Khalifa Haftar: will he place himself under the civilian authority of a Defence Minister appointed within the Government of National Accord? If that were to happen, we would begin to see the possibility of Libya finding its way through the appalling crisis that it has been in since our intervention in 2011.
The international community should be making sure that all our allies are not playing a double game in their own interest. They should instead be playing a game in the interest of the whole international community and the people of Libya, to find the best way of getting a Government who will bring all the people of Libya together. To my hon. Friends who are contemplating what I might describe as a Haftar shortcut, I would say that it would be a shortcut to civil war. The people of Libya have suffered enough. We should do everything in our power to try to prevent such an outcome.
It is all very well to say that things will descend into civil war, but in a country with 1,700 militias at the latest count, and two Governments, there is effectively civil war now.
My hon. Friend is correct, but if there is to be a unification of the forces of the west against the military forces under Field Marshal Haftar, we shall see civil war on an even greater scale, with a greater scale of human misery, than we have now.
The issue for us and our interest is the collapse of central authority in Libya. That is why there is no control of the littoral, and why there is now uncontrolled emigration out of Libya and the appalling trafficking of people from the south up to the north. I add my voice to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) on what is happening on the Libyan southern border. Some of the migration trails need to be interdicted at that point, but that will be immensely more difficult if we cannot establish a decent central authority in Libya. It was the conclusion of the Foreign Affairs Committee that the Government of National Accord was the only game in town. In my judgment, we should all be focused—including through our leverage over other members of the international community—on supporting its efforts. All the alternatives are far, far worse.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) on securing the debate. He gave a substantial and comprehensive introduction to it. I do not know whether he remembers that we first crossed paths in 2010, at a young person’s “Question Time” broadcast on the BBC. He was considerably more successful in that election than I was, but I am delighted to have begun to catch up with him, at least.
Barack Obama has admitted that military intervention and the mishandling of the aftermath in Libya was the worst mistake of his presidency. In many ways that is a brave and admirable statement to make, and is evidence of a politician willing to learn from his mistakes. Unfortunately, when our previous Prime Minister has been offered the opportunity he has not been willing to show similar contrition. More worryingly, the Government still seem unwilling to learn lessons from a situation that they have helped to cause and that continues to unfold.
I will look briefly at some of the findings of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the opportunities for the UK Government to take responsibility, to learn lessons and to work for a peaceful solution in Libya, and perhaps to address some specific questions about Government policy going forward. The contribution of the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), was substantial. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins) thoroughly welcomes the opportunities he has had to contribute to the work of that Committee, but its membership is predominantly made up of Government Members.
The Committee’s report is pretty scathing with regard to the actions of the former Prime Minister. It found
“no evidence that the UK Government carried out a proper analysis of the nature of the rebellion in Libya.”
It also found that they had no defined strategic objective, which meant that a
“limited intervention to protect civilians drifted into a policy of regime change by military means.”
Furthermore, it found that there was no attempt to pause military action when Benghazi was secured, and that
“the UK Government focused exclusively on military intervention”
at the expense of stabilisation and rebuilding.
We have heard some more substantial and thoughtful ways that we could move forward from the hon. Member for Reigate and other Members, but the biggest example of failure came in an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife, which revealed that the UK Government had spent 13 times more on bombing Libya than on rebuilding it post-war. The eight-month UK military intervention cost £320 million, but the money set aside for rebuilding totalled just £25 million. The consequences of that are there for all to see and have been outlined by a number of Members. The hon. Member for Spelthorne outlined the impact on GDP, infrastructure and the general collapse of governance. The hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) spoke quite movingly about human rights abuses that she has witnessed.
The Government must support the UN’s efforts to mediate a political solution and dramatically improve the effectiveness of the EU’s practical support to the interim Government. There are still opportunities for the UK Government, working with the international community, to make a positive contribution to the outcome in Libya. The Scottish National party condemns the recent coup attempts by opposition factions in Tripoli and urges all factions to work constructively with the interim Government and the UN to end the fighting, reach a lasting political settlement and build stable state institutions that serve the people of Libya.
In the midst of ongoing military intervention in the form of airstrikes by the US, Turkey, Egypt and other regional actors, the UN has taken a lead in working with the various competing factions in an attempt to reach a viable and lasting political agreement. It must receive all possible support in doing so. The SNP urges the UK Government to channel their efforts in Libya in that way. Instead of wasting any more time or energy planning further ill-conceived or poorly planned military intervention, they should seek to work with the international community—notably the European Union—to provide proper support to the capacity building of the Libyan state institutions and police force.
There is a particular lesson that needs to be learned from the experience in Iraq, which is the need to support the interim Government in ensuring that oil revenues are not misappropriated and are instead used for the benefit of the people of Libya. Libya has been granted an exemption from cuts in oil production by OPEC, and as competing factions within the Government seem to have reached an agreement, however fragile, on resuming oil exports, the mistakes from Iraq must not be repeated. The UK and the wider international community must work with the interim Government and the private sector to ensure that oil revenues are properly invested in rebuilding infrastructure and in supporting stable state institutions for the benefit of the Libyan people, rather than lining the pockets of corrupt Government officials or unscrupulous businessmen. In that way, perhaps at least one lesson from the debacle in Iraq will have been learned.
There are ongoing questions about the possibility of the deployment of troops. I understand that the proposed Libyan international assistance mission is on hold, but the Government need to confirm that, if UK troops were ever to be deployed in Libya, it would not happen without parliamentary approval. I am also interested in something that happens in a number of conflict situations: the continuing mismatch between Home Office guidance on the settlement of refugees and asylum seekers, and Foreign and Commonwealth Office guidance on traveling to the country in question. The FCO advises against all travel by UK citizens to Libya; the whole country is shown as red on the FCO guidance page. However, section 2.3.10 of the Home Office guidance issued in June 2016 for people seeking asylum or making their way here says:
“In general conditions across the country are not so poor that removal would be a breach of Article 2 or 3”
of the European convention on human rights.
I did not wish to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I am conscious that I have only limited time at the end of the debate to cover everything, and this is an important issue. The advice from the Home Office deals with Libyans who need to go back. There is a different set of circumstances in place for westerners and Britons, who are a target for extremism and so forth. The hon. Gentleman is comparing apples and pears.
I am afraid I must disagree with the Minister. This is a matter of basic human rights and of our responsibility for the safety of individuals who have made their way here through some horrific situations.
Surely the hon. Gentleman understands that there is a massive difference between the guidance given to nationals going to their country and the ability of another country to absorb migrants. For example, it is perfectly understandable for the Government to advise people not to go to Egypt, but that does not mean that everyone coming here from Egypt should be granted asylum.
I am afraid I simply do not accept that. If people have made their way here through really horrific situations, as we have heard from other hon. Members, for the UK Government to say it is safe to deport those people back to a country that they are not willing to advise their own citizens to travel to is, frankly, rank hypocrisy. I thank the Minister for his intervention and for making the Government’s continued position clear, but we will have to agree to disagree.
Hon. Members from Northern Ireland raised the issue of compensation for victims of terrorism. Again, a peaceful and diplomatic solution to that must be found.
In short, the UK Government must take responsibility for their failure to plan for the aftermath of their military intervention in Libya, and they must demonstrate a willingness to learn lessons from that failure. Sadly, there is little evidence of that so far, given that the objectives for military action in Syria do not appear to have materialised. Later today the House will discuss the situation in Yemen, where the Government refuse to admit any complicity, despite Saudi troops being trained in the UK, being accompanied by UK military observers and allegedly using weapons manufactured or sold in the UK. As the hon. Member for Spelthorne said, we have debates such as this and Select Committee reports for a reason. It is not too late for the Government to follow the example of Barack Obama, admit to their mistakes and set out how they intend to make amends.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), who is the Scottish National party’s spokesperson on foreign affairs and international development.
Back in 2005 I had the opportunity to visit Libya with the Foreign Affairs Committee. It was very different in those days. Gaddafi reigned supreme, and I found, as we all did, the country to be a paranoid place, covered with posters of Gaddafi—“the father of Africa”—with his portrait stemming out of a map of the whole of Africa. It was a deeply disturbing place; there were no street signs or even road markings because they were so scared of invasion. We did not have the opportunity then to meet Colonel Gaddafi—I never met him, thankfully—but we met his deputy, Musa Kusa, who was one of the most sinister people I have ever met. During the revolution he “defected” to the west and came to live in Britain. I do not know if he is still here, but he gave us a portrait of Libya in 2005 that was worrying to say the least, given the human rights abuses and the absolute authority of Gaddafi and the way he dealt with opposition.
My understanding is that Musa Kusa did not come to live in the United Kingdom. I believe he is currently living in the middle east.
That is interesting to learn; he certainly survived, although he was clearly Gaddafi’s henchman and de facto deputy.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) on raising a really important issue in the debate. It is something Parliament has not paid sufficient attention to, and the Government have not paid sufficient attention to it either; I am sure the Minister will contradict that when he winds up the debate in a few minutes’ time. I also commend the Foreign Affairs Committee—I served on it for 10 years—under the leadership of the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt)—I think he is a right hon. Member now.
No? I am baffled by that. In the hon. Gentleman’s contribution, he showed his detailed knowledge of the current machinations of Libya’s internal politics and said quite clearly that the British Government should not support General Haftar, otherwise the country will descend into civil war. It is hard to see how much worse it can get, given some of the things we have heard today.
The hon. Member for Spelthorne made some important points about the two Governments, about the GNA being backed by the international community—something that the Foreign Affairs Committee certainly agrees with—and about the economic situation, which is very alarming indeed. In fact, the United Nations human development report ranked Libya as the 53rd most advanced country in the world, with a GDP per person similar to a number of European countries. That was in 2011. Five years later, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, that has halved, and it continues to fall precipitously. That is extremely worrying for not only the people of that country but Libya’s place in the region and the rest of us, including in terms of migration, which the hon. Gentleman pointed out clearly. He asked in his conclusion how we can marry the ideals of what we would like to happen and what is actually happening on the ground. I am sure the Minister will address that.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) rightly wanted an update on the lack of success in getting compensation for victims of Libyan terrorism from the Government of Libya, though we do not know who the Government of Libya really are at the moment. He said that chaos reigns in many parts of Libya and pointed, as he often does—rightly so—to the continued persecution of Christians in that country, as in so many other parts of the world.
One of the best contributions today was from the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie)—not just Bristol North; I often get called the hon. Member for Leeds North, not the hon. Member for Leeds North East. She displayed an extraordinary knowledge of the area, with some extremely pertinent observations and questions that I will leave the Minister to answer.
One point that has come through in this debate is the proliferation of small arms in Libya, as in so many other parts of Africa, which fuels death and destruction and the different militia groups roaming the country trying to claim territory and their superiority, or the superiority of their particular ideology. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that out of a total Libyan population of 6.3 million, half have been impacted by the armed conflict, with 2.4 million in need of some form of protection and humanitarian assistance. More than 400,000 people have been displaced since the conflict started.
Reference has been made to our British ambassador, Peter Millett—a man who I have come to know well in his former roles in Jordan and Cyprus. He is one of our best diplomats. If anybody can do the work of the British Government in Libya, it is Peter Millett and his excellent team. However, as the hon. Member for Bristol North West pointed out, the team is based in Tunis. I spent some time in our embassy in Tripoli. We have some very good buildings and a very good estate there. I appreciate that it is not a safe place to be right now. It did not seem that safe under Gaddafi, to be honest. Constant threats were being made against the British mission there, even at that time, but I share the view that some kind of mission needs to be based in Tripoli. Is the Minister prepared to comment on the possibility of that happening soon? As I say, if anyone can do it, it is Peter Millett and his team.
It is estimated that there are more than 3,000 Daesh fighters in Libya at the moment. That is what the then Foreign Secretary, the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, said in his report in 2016. The US intelligence agencies believe that number could well be considerably higher. It continues to increase, as many of the fighters go to Libya, instead of Iraq and Syria, to join Daesh.
The Minister has stated that the international community needs to rally together and be ready to “provide service and support” to the GNA. The UK Government have stated that the security agenda in Libya must be “owned and led” by the GNA, but how do we actually make that happen? The British Government have also discussed the deployment of approximately 1,000 ground forces as part of an Italian initiative with Spain, France, Italy and other nations, but only at the invitation of the GNA. The previous Foreign Secretary, the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, said on 19 April:
“Libya has Africa’s largest oil and gas reserves and a population of…six million”—
—the population that existed before the civil war. Currently, only 200,000 barrels of oil per day are being produced. The UK is assisting Libya, I understand, in attempting to bring that number up to 700,000 barrels a day, but oil is the main source of revenue and international finance in that country. The country did, of course, have a sovereign wealth fund—the Libyan Investment Authority —that used the proceeds of oil revenues prior to 2011, but those funds have been frozen ever since the conflict started.
Reference has been made to removing chemical weapons still in existence in Libya and the risk they may have to the population of that country, to the wider region and to Europe. The current Foreign Secretary said in August this year:
“The UK, in close co-operation with our international partners, is taking practical and effective action to eliminate chemical weapon risks in Libya”.
Will the Minister tell us a little more about what is being done to neutralise and remove those very dangerous chemical weapons that could be a threat to so many? I understand that in August the Royal Navy assisted in the removal of a batch of known materials that could be used in the manufacture of chemical weapons, but what more are we doing?
The Minister has quite a lot to follow up on, so I will wrap up. Let me quote something that President Obama said earlier this year, which has already been quoted this morning but is worth saying again:
“When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong, there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up.”
He went on to say that the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, was
“distracted by a range of other things”.
Can the Minister tell us what, in practical terms, the Government are prepared to do to try to reduce the flow of weapons and weapons currently in circulation in Libya, and to bring about further concerted support for the GNA, which, as many Members have said, is really the only hope for rebuilding Libya?
It is a pleasure to respond to what has been an important debate. I will put out a written ministerial statement on this matter. It is clear there is an awful lot of information that the Government are aware of, but there is also a lot of disinformation and confusion. I will also make a recommendation to the Foreign Secretary that, as with Syria and Iraq, an oral statement is made to the House on a regular basis, updating colleagues on what is happening here. Today’s debate is pertinent and it is a pleasure to respond to it.
Many discussions on Libya go straight into the details. That needs to be done, but I want to step back for a second and look at the context in which this is playing out. It is often seen through the prism of Gaddafi and the consequences of his removal. Seeking solutions to today’s challenges requires a deeper understanding of what is happening and the character of this north African piece of land. Going back to the 7th century BC, Libya has been occupied or run by the Venetians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs and the Ottomans, each of them carving their own personality unto the three regions of Libya: Fezzan, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.
During the interim war period, it was occupied by Italy, and then by us and the French after the second world war. Then came independence in 1951, under King Idris, who was removed in the coup that we know led to 40 years of misrule by what started off being Lieutenant Gaddafi—talking of promotions, he promoted himself to Colonel because he was trying to emulate Colonel Nasser further to the east. That 40 years of misrule destroyed any tribal relationships that existed. It stifled any political representation and undermined the development of institutions. That all came about and was laid bare in the 2011 revolution.
Sadly today—we have heard a little of this in the Chamber this morning—some people are attempting to rewrite recent history, linking the 2011 decision for the west to intervene with the very difficulties we face today. That glosses over important events in between. We must not forget that the decision to intervene was international and supported by UN Security Council resolution 1973 and by the Arab League. We took action to prevent attacks on civilians that were about to take place. There would have been a bloodbath if we had not intervened. Even before Gaddafi went into hiding, more than 60 countries, with the African Union, recognised the National Transitional Council—the body of Libyan people based in Benghazi who were looking ahead to a post-Gaddafi world.
Will the Minister give way?
I will give way briefly. I have only a short time left.
I am sure my hon. Friend’s skill will enable him to make a more concise speech than the one written for him, or that he wrote himself.
Why would President Obama say this was the worst mistake of his presidency if everything were as hunky-dory and rosy as my hon. Friend suggests?
First, I confirm that I write my own speeches and I am happy to place that on the record. Secondly, if I may, I will come to the aftermath and what is happening in relation to international views later.
I stress the point about the context in which things happened in 2011, which was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), a former north Africa and middle east Minister, who is no longer in his place. There were elections in July 2012 and the General National Congress was formed. Libya was starting to take charge of its own destiny. In 2014, there were elections for the new Council of Deputies.
It is recognised today that perhaps we did not do enough. Perhaps the west could have done more, but many agencies, including UN agencies, were asked to leave Libya because the Libyan people wanted to take ownership of the path they wanted to pursue without interference from the west. Could we have done more? Of course we could have done more. That is what President Obama is looking at and why he is making those comments.
I certainly believe that, with the disparate society we are dealing with that had 40 years of misrule, not enough happened during Gaddafi’s reign for society to develop. I politely disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne that nothing has happened over the past five years. Elections have taken place, there is a Prime Minister in place and there is a structure, including a Government of National Accord, a Presidency Council, which needs to be confirmed and put in place, a House of Representatives and a State Council.
Those important infrastructure institutions must be given the opportunity to work. It is right to say that they are not working as efficiently as they should, because there are spoilers and stakeholders who are choosing to follow their own agendas. The challenge facing us today is getting them to realise who benefits if they do not support that infrastructure—the criminal gangs that move the migrants through and the extremism that flourishes in that vacuum.
The Skhirat process helped to empower the moderates and the Khartoum process brought together countries around Libya to ensure that they secure their borders and provide support to Libya—that was raised as a concern in the debate. International countries have come together. I have sat in many meetings discussing how better to co-ordinate our international aid and our work to improve governance, and to ensure that that happens. The issue came to the fore in December 2015 with the agreement that rolled into Security Council resolution 2259 formally recognising the Government of National Accord as the sole legislative body to take Libya forward.
I will pose a question, but I do not want to go down this rabbit hole. Which countries can intervene when something very bad is happening in another part of the world? I take hon. Members back to Rwanda and what happened there. The world blinked while a travesty took place. Is it right that the international community glosses over things and asks who in the world can step forward and which nations have the ability and commitment to do that? There are very few and they can be counted on one hand, but we are one of them. What would colleagues do if they were in No. 10 and Benghazi had tanks on the outskirts that were about to roll in? Would they have a plan for what happens next? They would have to think about that, and also about our duty as a permanent member of the United Nations interested in supporting international security and stabilisation and decide whether to act. That is exactly what David Cameron did and I believe it was the right decision.
Libya’s governance structure today is not as strong as it should be, but we must give our support to Prime Minister Siraj. I believe that the Libyan political agreement is the framework to enable things to move forward and make that happen. We want the Libyan Government to submit promptly a revised list of Ministers which the House of Representatives must endorse and we need a more unified command structure under General Haftar. He is a general and he needs to answer to civilian governance structures. That is very important indeed.
We must address the challenge of Daesh and people traffickers. If there is time I will come to that.
The conflict is unique and very different from all the others. There is a lot of plate-spinning in the middle east and north Africa, but this is different because there are working institutions. Oil is flowing—there are up to 500,000 barrels a day—and that money is going into the central bank. It is paying people who, ironically, are fighting on both sides of the argument. The salaries of teachers, doctors and nurses are being paid because those basic structures are in place. However, we certainly need to do more and that is why we have allocated £10 million to provide technical support for the Government of National Accord.
Operation Sophia was mentioned a couple of times. It is important to stem the flow of migrants choosing to make an horrific journey in an attempt to get to Europe. Unfortunately, we can work only in international waters. We cannot get into territorial waters at the moment because the Government are not fully in place to give us that permission and Russia is denying us the ability to use military capability in that space. We must answer that, otherwise we are encouraging people to come here. When ships pick them up, which British ships have done, those people are taken to Italy, so we are still not breaking the chain. We are now working to train a local coastguard to break that chain so the boats never leave Libyan soil in the first place.
Several hon. Members mentioned Daesh. It is absolutely right that we are concerned about the vacuum. Its numbers are down to 200 or 300 in strength and many are indigenous local people choosing to join that gang because that is where the money is. That is where the guns come from and where the success seems to be. That is why it is important that the Government offer something different to fill that vacuum of governance. It is important to recognise what we can do, but also where things are in the country. It is not as bleak as some of the comments today have suggested, but we are not there yet in any sense whatever.
In conclusion, Libya is extremely complex, as has been highlighted by colleagues today. It is dynamic and certainly challenging. The process of building trust between communities, confidence in political institutions and willingness to compromise for the common good will not be easy. It is up to the political leaders of Libya—I stress this—to make this work. We remain committed to supporting them, but also to working for peace and security in Libya, not just for the sake of stability in the region where the UK has important interests, but for the sake of the Libyan people.
I very much welcome this debate and look forward to the closing comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne. I will seek to provide a full and regular oral statement so that the House is informed as progress moves forward.
I am grateful for the Minister’s remarks. We have covered many of the issues that bedevil Libya and have a huge impact on our safety and security here in Europe, with particular regard to the question of migration. I conclude by saying this is not the end of the matter, but the beginning of a fruitful and, I hope, effective engagement with many of the issues that have been raised this morning.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered British engagement with Libya.
[Relevant document: Third Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the UK’s future policy options, HC 119.]