Skip to main content

Sierra Leone: Arms Sales

Volume 589: debated on Saturday 11 April 1998

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

3.6 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice, namely:

Whether Her Majesty's Government will make a statement on reports concerning British sales of arms to Sierra Leone in breach of the United Nations arms embargo.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
(Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made a statement on this issue in another place on 6th May. I am glad to have the opportunity to give your Lordships as full a picture as I am able at this stage. We have consistently stressed the Government's intention to discover the full facts surrounding this case and to be as open as possible.

Let me put this into context. As the Prime Minister said today:
"This affair has been more than a little overblown. Of course it is the case that nobody should be involved deliberately in breaking a UN arms embargo".
But he also said,
"Don't let us forget that what was happening was that the UN and UK were both trying to help the democratic regime from an illegal military coup…That is the background and people can see that a lot of the hoo-ha is overblown".
I think that is an admirable summary which we would do well to remember.

Having said that, I must re-emphasise to your Lordships that Her Majesty's Customs and Excise, which is investigating the allegations of breaches of the arms embargo on Sierra Leone, has requested that while its investigation proceeds, nothing should be said that could prejudice it. It is a matter of record that the Customs investigation resulted from notification of the alleged breach being passed to it by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I welcome that investigation, and I hope that it can be completed swiftly.

When that investigation has been completed, the Foreign Secretary has announced his intention to appoint a person from outside the Foreign Office and Diplomatic Service to carry out a full investigation. The report of that investigation will, of course, be made public. In the meantime I can confirm to your Lordships that my department is co-operating fully with the Customs investigation.

I should also like to make the point that it is important to recognise that just because allegations have been made against officials in my and other government departments, we should not assume that they are true. This is a matter on which it is important not to rush to judgment until we have seen the conclusions of the investigation.

There have been a number of questions raised in the last few days about the investigation which the Foreign Secretary announced on 6th May: who is to head it; what its terms of reference are to be; how wide its scope should be. Your Lordships will appreciate that before it is set up it would be wrong for me to speculate on those questions. What I can say is that as soon as possible after the Customs investigation has been completed we will make an announcement that covers all these points.

Your Lordships are aware of the background to the allegations that have been made about breaches of the UN arms embargo on Sierra Leone. In May 1997 President Kabbah, the democratically elected leader of Sierra Leone, was deposed in a military coup. In October 1997 the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1132 which, among other things, imposed an arms embargo on Sierra Leone. That resolution was then implemented in the United Kingdom by an Order in Council. In March this year President Kabbah was restored to power in Sierra Leone with the assistance of military forces from the region.

Allegations contained in a letter from the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, in February that arms had been flown from Bulgaria to supply forces loyal to President Kabbah by arrangement through the British company, Sandline, were referred to H.M. Customs and Excise on 10th March. Since then the Foreign Office has given full, active co-operation to the Customs' investigation and full access to all relevant Foreign Office papers and officials.

The Foreign Secretary made clear on 6th May that he was first informed of the Customs and Excise investigation on 28th April and minuted the Permanent Secretary the following day stressing the importance he attached to full and open co-operation with the Customs and Excise investigation. The private office of the Minister of State with responsibility for Africa, Mr. Lloyd, received copies of papers on the Customs' investigation in early April and they were shown to him for noting in mid-April. However, he was not fully informed of the allegations made by Sandline of Foreign Office contacts until Friday 1st May.

There have been allegations in the press that Ministers had prior knowledge of or gave prior approval to breaches of the arms embargo on Sierra Leone. I can confirm to your Lordships that there was no such prior knowledge or approval. Your Lordships will understand that I cannot go into details which will be covered in full in the investigation by a person from outside the Foreign Office.

It is right and proper that this House should be fully informed of the events surrounding these allegations and I look forward to being able to present the report of the investigation to your Lordships when it has been completed. In the meantime, I would once again draw your Lordships' attention to the context of the allegations which are being made: the legitimate government of President Kabbah has been restored to power in a significant move for democracy in the region.

My Lords, given that earlier today the Prime Minister argued that the end justifies the means, even if you have to breach UN arms embargoes, tear up your ethical foreign policy and allow your Foreign Secretary to tell the House of Commons a very different story from the one made public today by the Prime Minister, when did the Minister learn about the Prime Minister's new foreign policy? And can the Minister explain to the House why such an extraordinary intervention by the Prime Minister was made when a Customs and Excise investigation into possible criminal charges is under way?

When did the Minister first learn of Sandline's involvement; and is the noble Baroness now aware that Ministers responsible for Customs and Excise first knew about the affair on Wednesday 1st April?

Finally, is it true that when the Foreign Secretary's ministerial boxes are returned by him, civil servants in the Foreign Office take it as read that the Foreign Secretary is content if papers are returned without written comments on them?

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite wrong. There is no, as he describes it, new foreign policy. As I made clear when I gave my Answer to your Lordships' House a few moments ago, the Prime Minister said quite clearly,

"Of course it is the case that nobody should be involved deliberately in breaking a UN arms embargo".
The Prime Minister said that. I made that clear to your Lordships. When did I first hear about it? At about lunch time today. The Prime Minister made that statement this morning. I reiterate to your Lordships,
"nobody should be involved deliberately in breaking a UN arms embargo".
The Prime Minister has said exactly the same as the Foreign Secretary has made clear: we are seeing an investigation by Customs and Excise and my right honourable friend, the Foreign Secretary, has made it clear to everyone that as soon as that investigation is completed he will initiate the investigation in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office by a person from outside the Diplomatic Service or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The noble Lord asked when I knew of Sandline's investigations. I saw a report in the Observer shortly before 10th March. These were allegations but I would not expect to see detailed papers. As the whole House will know, the Minister that deals with these questions in the Lords is briefed for Lords' debates and I would not expect to see, and nor indeed would it be proper and right for me to see, papers which are meant for other Ministers in their own areas of responsibility.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness recall that on 9th March before my Question the following day I wrote to her not only drawing attention to the Observer article but also to the fuller account, and perhaps the more reliable one, given in the US News and World Report which repeated the allegations that had been made as long ago as 31st July 1997 in the Toronto Globe and Mail?

Would the Minister agree that while we should not assume that the allegations that have been made are true, neither should we assume that they are false, and that the Prime Minister, in paying tribute to Mr. Peter Penfold, has undermined the future inquiry announced by the Foreign Secretary on the complicity of Foreign Office officials in the alleged violations of Security Council Resolution 1132? And has he not also undermined the position of the Foreign Secretary himself in describing as "hoo ha" alleged breaches of international law which Mr. Cook has treated with the seriousness that they deserve?

Does not the Minister also agree that a further matter has now arisen; that is, the role of the Royal Navy in helping to provide services to the firm of so-called military consultants who are at the centre of this controversy? Is the Minister aware that contrary to the impression given by the Prime Minister this morning that peace had been restored in Sierra Leone, one of the legacies of the counter coup is that they have been left with an ethnic militia known as the Kamajors which is hostile to other groups within the territory and that far from promoting reconciliation, the restored government have charged 59 people with treason and locked up 2,000 others without charge, most of whom are northeners or ethnic Krios and that this is hardly a recipe for the national reconciliation of which both Resolutions 1132 and 1162 have spoken?

My Lords, the noble Lord says that in the same way as we must not judge that the allegations that have been made are true, we should not judge that they are false. That is self-evidently so. That is the reason that there is a Customs and Excise investigation in process. That is the reason my department is co-operating fully with that Customs and Excise investigation. It is also the reason that we shall continue beyond that to look at any other pieces of information which may be of relevance in this business.

I do not accept that what the Prime Minister said this morning in any way undermined the Customs and Excise investigation, or the very robust position which my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has taken on these issues. They are very serious issues indeed; my right honourable friend has emphasised that at every turn. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister also emphasised that this morning, saying that nobody should be involved in deliberately breaking a UN arms embargo. He could not have been more unequivocal in his condemnation of any such breach, if that is the case.

The noble Lord also raised questions concerning President Kabbah's regime at the moment. I do not have information on what is happening at this moment in Sierra Leone, but I am happy to write to the noble Lord on the specific points he raises. All I can say to him is that this Government have supported the process of conciliation, as I hope I made clear in answering Questions in your Lordships' House on the day that President Kabbah was restored to Government on 10th March. But I shall of course be happy to write to the noble Lord on the detailed point he raises.

My Lords, this is not a hostile question but a request for a piece of information which I believe would help public understanding. What aspects of Customs law might have been broken by a firm which transported arms from Bulgaria to Sierra Leone without, as I understand it, touching down in the United Kingdom?

My Lords, I am not an expert on Customs and Excise. I understand the allegation is that a UN arms embargo has been broken. That is a very serious question; and it is taken very seriously by this Government. I am afraid that we shall have to await the Customs and Excise report. As I am sure all noble Lords will agree, it would be wrong in any way to prejudice the outcome of the Customs and Excise investigation.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness recollect that only about a week ago this whole affair was a disgraceful matter, all got up by a bunch of mercenaries called Sandline? However, according to the Prime Minister this morning, it was all rather a wizard idea thought up by the British High Commissioner and Sandline did not have much to do with it. I wonder what the noble Baroness's story will be next.

Will the Minister tell me whether the Government interpret the UN resolution as being an embargo on the sale and transport of arms to the country called Sierra Leone or to the previous military regime in Sierra Leone?

My Lords, I do not recognise the definition with which the noble Lord sought to characterise this debate. Nobody has described this as what he calls—I assume in an effort to be light-hearted—a wizard idea. The Prime Minister has taken this issue enormously seriously, as has my right honourable friend in his very robust responses on the issue.

The noble Lord asked a serious question which I shall attempt to answer. As I understand it, the Sierra Leone United Nations sanctions order prohibited sale or supply of arms to any destination for the purposes of delivery, directly or indirectly, to or to the order of a person connected with Sierra Leone. I understand that that is what is in the Sierra Leone United Nations order. I hope that that answers the specific point the noble Lord made.

My Lords, I am sorry to have to lumber yet again to my feet at Question Time. However, I think that it is this side's turn and then no doubt that of the noble Baroness.

My Lords, none of us will disagree that we must wait for the two inquiries to take place. However, I believe my noble friend said that Ministers had no prior knowledge and gave no prior approval. Being herself a Minister, I think that she included herself. As regards the proceedings of your Lordships' House, is it not therefore a matter of honour that we do not remotely question that statement? Ministers have said something; my noble friend has repeated that on behalf of Ministers and on her own behalf. I would not wish anyone to stop asking any other question. However, I should take a dim view if we were to impugn the honour of a Minister in our own House, or other Ministers, when they have put on record a statement which is easily tested. They know whether it is true or false. They have said that they had no prior knowledge and gave no prior approval. Will my noble friend repeat that so that at least we know according to which rules we are currently playing.

My Lords, my noble friend mentions the two inquiries. As I have made clear, the Customs and Excise inquiry will be completed first; and then the inquiry by an independent person from outside the Foreign Office will take place.

The noble Lord asked me to repeat the assurance I gave the House. There was no prior knowledge and no prior approval on the part of any Ministers. I hope it goes without saying that, of course, that includes me.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many of us share the enthusiasm of the Prime Minister in wishing to see democracy restored in Sierra Leone? However, with respect, that does not seem the key point which concerns many Members in this House and in another place. Perhaps I may ask her whether we may return for a moment to what seems to me the crucial constitutional issue of the relationship between senior officials and elected Ministers, without in any way impugning the honour of the noble Baroness, which I would not dream of doing.

There are two questions which I hope the Minister can assure us any inquiry will pursue. The first is whether Ministers authorised the use of Her Majesty's forces to help to maintain and repair equipment, in particular a helicopter belonging to a private group of mercenaries. The second question is whether, when on 12th March the Minister of State in another place let it be known that in his view an article that appeared on this matter in the Sunday Times was "ill informed and scurrilous", he had inquired of the Foreign Office what submissions it had received. That was more than a month after my noble friend Lord Avebury had drawn the attention of the Foreign Office to the serious allegation that Sandline was involved in breaching UN sanctions. Perhaps I may ask for the Minister's assurance that those two matters will be dealt with in detail and with great care by the public inquiry when it has been established.

My Lords, I can give the noble Baroness the assurance she requires about the relationship as regards the chain of information between senior officials and elected Ministers. Of course it is of the utmost importance that there is confidence between Ministers and officials over sensitive issues. I can assure the whole House that Ministers, and indeed senior officials, will be co-operating with the investigation by the person from outside the Foreign Office; and that Ministers, and I am sure I speak for senior officials in this respect as well, will be keen to see exactly how all the pieces of this important jigsaw (if I may put it that way without seeming in any way not to take the matter seriously) fit together. That is why my right honourable friend took the initiative in saying that we need a Foreign Office investigation on this matter as well. My right honourable friend is to be congratulated on taking the initiative on that in the way that he did.

My Lords, during the period of these investigations, life is going on in Sierra Leone. Before the coup, there were a number of initiatives to try to improve the level of governance in that unhappy state. May we have an assurance that the Foreign Office will not be totally distracted by what is going on from doing the job that it ought to be doing; namely, trying to strengthen democratic government in Sierra Leone for the future?

Yes, my Lords, I can give the noble Lord that assurance. Of course, there is much more going on in the Foreign Office at present than simply the preparation for this very important investigation and dealing with the Customs and Excise investigation. The noble Lord is quite right. The normal business of the Foreign Office must continue. That includes dealing with the problems referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, which are still evident in Sierra Leone.

My Lords, perhaps I may apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff. I had mistakenly assumed that we were all Cross-Benchers! My humble apologies.

Will my noble friend give the House an absolute assurance that if, following the inquiry being carried out by Customs and Excise, criminal proceedings were to take place, unlike the previous Conservative Government—who shame-facedly sought to use public interest certificates to protect Ministers in that government from public scrutiny in regard to any role they may have played in the Matrix Churchill fiasco—our Government will not, in any circumstances, in any proceedings, resort to the use of public interest certificates?

Yes, my Lords, I can give my noble friend that assurance.

My Lords, perhaps I may take the noble Baroness back to her answer. I am sure that she speaks with all honesty when she says that no Minister knew what was happening. I speak as someone who has been a Minister. I find it extraordinary, following upon the letter from the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and press reports, that no Minister was involved. I recognise, and hear, that the noble Baroness does not have responsibility for Africa and I should not have expected her personally to be the first to be informed about anything that was going on. I should, however, have expected her colleague, Mr. Tony Lloyd, whose responsibility it is, to know. There are those among us who find it quite extraordinary that Ministers did not know. How can that be the case? Is it believed that there has been some kind of extraordinary conspiracy on the part of civil servants, including our own High Commissioner in Sierra Leone, who is a most respected man, to keep Ministers in the dark over this affair? Can the noble Baroness shed any light on the point about whether or not there really was some document in a Minister's Box that was possibly not seen?

My Lords, I repeat what I said in my Answer: there was no such prior knowledge or approval. The noble Baroness asks detailed questions about the possibility of a conspiracy, and how it could possibly have happened that there were no details, prior knowledge or approval. Those questions are entirely right and proper. I applaud the noble Baroness and others for asking them. It is precisely those questions that we hope will be answered by the Foreign Office investigation. It will be carried out by an independent person with no conflict of interest. That person will examine all the paperwork with the full co-operation, not only of Ministers, but also of officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

My Lords, surely this House should welcome the Minister's Answer, repeating as it does the Government's firm promise to seek to find and report the full facts. Does my noble friend agree that that is precisely what the previous government did not promise to do, did not do, and should have done in the "arms-to-Iraq" affair?

My Lords, on 10th March, when the Minister answered a question from my noble friend Lord Avebury on the Observer article, she said:

"That article was in several respects not entirely accurate, or at least not on all fours with the reports that Her Majesty's Government are receiving".—[Official Report, 10/3/98; col. 101.]
The Minister will hear in those words an element of honest doubt. Can she tell the House what accounted for that doubt?

My Lords. I answered your Lordships as I always do, as honestly and accurately as I could within the terms of the briefing that I had at the time. I can say no more than that, except that, if my remarks are shown to have been inaccurate, although made in good faith, I shall of course correct them.

My Lords, when does the noble Baroness expect to receive some indication from Customs and Excise as to when its investigation will be completed?

My Lords, we have been discussing this matter for 28 minutes. The House may feel that these proceedings have gone on long enough. I say that merely because there is no standing order that governs the time allowed for Private Notice Questions. Under those circumstances, I hope that the House will feel that the correct way of dealing with the matter is for the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, to wind up for the Official Opposition, and then perhaps the House should move to other matters.

My Lords, with great respect, may I have an answer to the question that I have already put?

My Lords, we very much hope that the Customs and Excise department will be able to complete its investigations as quickly as possible. At that point, my right honourable friend will wish to make it clear who is to lead the Foreign Office investigation into these matters, and exactly what are the terms of reference for that investigation. I am sure that at that point noble Lords will wish to ask further questions. I shall, as always, be delighted to answer your Lordships.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for her answers. Inside this House—like, I am sure, those outside—we remain astonished that Ministers in the Government—not merely in the FCO, as we have learnt this afternoon—had no knowledge of the affair. They clearly should have.

Finally, does the Minister agree with those of her colleagues in the "arms-to-Africa" affair who believe and have said that they were quite right to do it?

My Lords, I am not quite sure what the noble Lord is saying—quite right to do what? No, I do not agree that it is ever right to break a UN embargo. I do not believe that; nor do my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister.