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Volume 689: debated on Thursday 1 March 2007

My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister for the Armed Forces. The Statement is as follows:

“Before starting the Statement proper, I should like to pay tribute to Rifleman Coffey, who was killed in Iraq on Tuesday. Our thoughts go to his family and friends at this time.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement about the UK military commitment in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The UK first deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992, as part of UNPROFOR, in response to inter-ethnic violence resulting from the collapse of the former Republic of Yugoslavia. We are all sadly familiar with the atrocities committed during the Bosnian War, which resulted in an estimated 100,000 people killed and the forcible displacement of some 1.8 million people.

“After three years of conflict and following a NATO air and land campaign, a ceasefire in Bosnia-Herzegovina was agreed in 1995. This was followed by the brokering of the General Framework Agreement for Peace—more commonly known as the Dayton agreement—underpinned by the deployment of NATO forces.

“The international community has retained a military presence in Bosnia-Herzegovina since then, initially through NATO and, since 2004, through an EU force. At its peak, the international community presence, under NATO, amounted to some 60,000 troops, including some 12,000 UK personnel.

“Today there are approximately 6,000 international troops in EUFOR, of which some 600 are from the UK. This significant reduction over the years is testimony to the continuously improving security situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

“With the UK’s involvement in the UN, NATO and now EU forces, we have been operating in Bosnia-Herzegovina for some 15 years, contributing to the maintenance of a safe and secure environment. Indeed, we led EUFOR for its first year of operations and have been the lead nation in Task Force (North West).

“Over the years, UK troops have been engaged in large numbers of operations to recover illegally held weapons, ammunition and explosives, as well as assisting the local authorities to combat organised crime. I would like to set out the detail of some of our successes.

“There are still dangerously high levels of small arms and light weapons in Bosnia-Herzegovina and, while a number of international organisations are implementing initiatives in this field, they are all dependent on donors. Last November, I had the pleasure of opening an explosive waste incinerator designed to destroy surplus small arms ammunition. The UK funding for that project amounts to some half a million pounds.

“In addition, the UK continues to fund the training of junior officers from all of the three main ethnic backgrounds, thereby contributing to the building of the state. In this financial year, UK support for this project is in the region of £1 million. The UK is also assisting in the development of the NATO trust fund mechanism to facilitate the resettlement into civilian life of up to 6,000 personnel made redundant through defence reform processes. The project will aim to provide training and advice to former soldiers who are returning to civilian life.

“It is clear that Bosnia-Herzegovina is becoming increasingly safe. In recent years, there have been increasing indications of a security situation that is approaching normality. Parliamentary and presidential elections took place last year, and they were judged to be free and fair. Significant steps in defence reform have been made, resulting in the establishment of a single, multi-ethnic military force that is compatible with NATO. That has resulted in Bosnia-Herzegovina being able to contribute a small number of troops to operations in Iraq.

“Perhaps most important, the majority of people displaced from their homes during the war have chosen to return, many of them to areas where they do not belong to the majority ethnic group. In recognition of progress in all those areas, Bosnia-Herzegovina was invited to join NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme last autumn, on the condition that there will continue to be full co-operation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. NATO will closely monitor its efforts.

“The time is right, therefore, to reassess the role of the international military presence. In December, EU Foreign Ministers agreed in principle to transition EUFOR from a large dispersed force structure to a smaller, centralised one. On Tuesday, at a meeting of the Political and Security Committee, EU member states gave the final approval, in light of the continually improving security situation, to this change. The resulting reduction in force levels, from approximately 6,000 troops to 2,500 troops, will allow Bosnia-Herzegovina to take more control of its own affairs. The EU decision to move to transition is in accordance with clear military advice that the security situation is stable and that the local authorities are able to cope with all but the most serious incidents.

“The Welsh Guards, who are currently deployed, will therefore not need to be replaced with any further manoeuvre troops. More than 600 troops, principally from the Welsh Guards, will return to the United Kingdom. That will mean that the UK’s future in-theatre commitment for the next phase of EUFOR will be a small number of staff officers in the Sarajevo HQ, although we will continue to contribute to the pan-Balkans operational reserve force. A small number of troops will be needed to ensure a smooth transition to the new EUFOR structure and to dismantle the base at Banja Luka.

“As we come to the end of UK military operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, we can look back and see the contribution that our Armed Forces have made to the rebuilding of a country destroyed by conflict. As with other theatres of operation, they have been central in establishing a secure environment in which political solutions and reconstruction can be pursued.

“But while much has been achieved by the UK, our efforts have not been without significant losses. We must remember those UK service men and women who were injured or who laid down their lives trying to protect the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and I pay tribute to them. A series of commemorative events, both in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in the UK, is being planned to honour the 55 personnel who lost their lives and the many thousands who were deployed. I will provide further detail of these events in due course.

“But we must look forward as well as back. There is still progress to be made, particularly in pushing forward key political reforms, ensuring less nationalism in political discourse and developing state-level institutions. The UK must, and will, remain engaged as Bosnia-Herzegovina strengthens her position within Europe and beyond”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and for giving us advance sight of it. I declare an interest as a trustee of the Fund for Refugees in Slovenia, which was founded to provide relief to Bosnian refugees, primarily in Slovenia. The charity has been concentrating on helping Bosnians to return to their pre-war homes, particularly in the Srebrenica region. I join the Minister in paying tribute to Rifleman Coffey, and from these Benches we send our condolences to his family and friends. We also echo the Statement in remembering all those United Kingdom service men and women who died or were injured trying to bring peace to Bosnia-Herzegovina over the past 15 years.

Much progress has been made in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and we welcome those successes referred to in the Statement. However, it would be naive to see this announcement as an end to all the problems there and to expect a smooth transition for Kosovo. On every front, 2007 looks set to be an extremely challenging year for the Balkans region. Serbia remains an unstable country that is led by a radical party whose leader is currently in The Hague facing charges of genocide. The recent unrest in Kosovo, and Belgrade’s unwillingness to engage constructively in the final status talks, have cast a shadow over President Ahtisaari’s proposals for supervised independence in Kosovo. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, separatist forces in the entity of Republika Srpska continue to hamper Bosnia’s progress. Too many Serbs believe in a greater Serbia and that all Serbs should live together. What message is our pull-out sending them? Will they not be emboldened by the lack of an international military presence that has long served as a deterrent to their aspirations?

High Representative Christian Schwarz-Schilling has just announced an extension of his role until 2008, which is an extra year on top of his original mandate. That reversal of an earlier decision has been taken after a realistic assessment of the obvious uncertainties in the region. At the same time, the decision has been made to reduce the international military presence by cutting EUFOR numbers from 7,500 to 2,500. Will the Minister explain the remarkable discrepancy between those two assessments of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s stability?

If the Bosnians are deemed incapable of taking greater control over their own affairs on a political level, why are the Government so confident that they can be self-sufficient on a military level? We hope that the decision has been taken because of a genuine belief that lasting stability can be maintained in the Balkans region and not because the Government need all the troops that they can get in Afghanistan. What provisions have been put in place to allow a future increase in the number of troops in the region if needed?

The alleged war criminals General Mladic and Radovan Karadzic are still at large. Who will be responsible for trying to bring them to justice? To argue that the region is now stable suggests that a lesser emphasis is now being put on the surrender of those two individuals. How many of our troops, and from what other countries, will remain in the pan-Balkan force, mentioned in the Statement? Finally, how many of our own troops will remain to continue the important task of training the Bosnian forces, particularly in the essential task of mine clearance?

My Lords, from these Benches we, too, offer our condolences to the family and friends of Rifleman Coffey, who was killed in Iraq earlier in the week. We warmly welcome the Statement as an indication of improvement in the security situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is always difficult to judge the exact moment when one can make a significant drawdown and there are inevitably some risks associated with it.

I note the report in today’s New York Times of a statement released in Brussels that said that, in doing this,

“the Union would be prepared to ‘re-establish a more robust military presence if needed’ in the months after the reduction”.

Other reports talk about such a contingency for the next six months. The Statement does not mention that. Perhaps the Minister could clarify whether there is such a contingency, so that it may be necessary to put some more forces in during the transition period. If so, is the UK committed to such a reserve of force capability?

The Statement reviews the history of our involvement in Bosnia-Herzegovina and shows how the progressive move from the military operations under NATO auspices to the civil military under the EU, and progressively towards total civil, has been the right approach. It also shows that we have been at this problem now for 15 years. This is a lesson that we need to learn for our other stability operations worldwide: they take a very long time to achieve what we are seeking.

Does the Minister agree that this has been an excellent example of co-operation between NATO and the EU, in the handover from NATO to the EU? Does he also agree that it has been a milestone in the development of experience for forces operating as part of the European Security and Defence Policy forces and, as such, that it gives us some confidence for the future?

I regret that my noble friend Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon is overseas and cannot be here for this Statement, but I pay tribute to his important role as high representative. Much was achieved during his time in the post. However, does the Minister agree that there is still much to be done? The Statement reflects and welcomes the unification of the military forces. The three communities—the Muslims, Serbs and Croats—still disagree over unifying the police forces. What progress does the Minister see in that aspect? The high representative post itself is to be extended. To what extent does that indicate continuing concerns about the robustness of the political arrangements, rather than the security ones?

In this progression from military to civil, we will presumably need to be thinking EU-wide about more support for civil society in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Statement gives some indications of what the UK has been and is doing, but do we intend to do more in the future on the civil side?

The Statement is a welcome piece of news in the context of the over-commitment of our forces globally, which we have been talking about so much over the past weeks. It presumably also brings other benefits in equipment. Can the Minister tell us whether any support helicopters will be released that we might be able to use elsewhere?

The Statement is also a reminder of the scale of other EU forces that are involved in this operation. They, too, will feel the benefit of a drawdown. Does the Minister feel that this will make it easier to get them to contribute elsewhere, where the demands are needed? We have talked in particular about Afghanistan.

I wonder whether the time is now right for the Ministry of Defence to produce a report on this operation—the history of it, the lessons learnt and the successes—as we have done with other operations. Perhaps the Minister might take that idea back to the Ministry of Defence. As the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, reminded us, other problems still remain in the Balkans, particularly in Kosovo and Serbia, and we will have to remain aware of what is happening there and hope that we can have similarly happy outcomes.

Finally, reflecting the Statement, I make from these Benches a tribute to those members of the British Armed Forces who have over the years served there and done a fine job, in particular those who have been injured and killed. As I said earlier in the week when reviewing our contributions in Afghanistan and Iraq, we keep saying how much we value our forces. One tangible way of showing how much we value them is through how much we reward them. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body report is still awaited; it is still overdue. Perhaps the Minister could say something about that in his reply.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords for their support of the Statement. The noble Lord, Lord Garden, is absolutely right; this is an example of the success. We believe it is an excellent example of the positive impact that a European security and defence force can make. It is a positive example of the way in which the international community can come together to be a force for good in an area of great difficulty. It is also an example of the considerable length of time that these operations can take— 15 years. As we think about our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and our experience of the Balkans and Northern Ireland, it is worth reflecting on the considerable time it can take for the people within such countries to take full responsibility for their own security. None the less, it also tells us that there is a need for our Armed Forces to make a contribution under the comprehensive approach to security reform, after considerable fighting has taken place.

The noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, asked about the apparent difference between the political and military assessments. That reflects the assessment by the European Community that the time has now come for the emphasis really to shift to diplomatic measures. We accept that there are remnants of difficulty. He highlights the particular issue relating to war criminals and we accept this. But we and our partners do not believe that a military force is now the prime means by which these issues are addressed, and therefore the emphasis needs to go to diplomatic means. As the tripartite presidency of the country recently said, the point has been reached whereby responsibility for security can be taken by the country itself. This news is positive.

In terms of the number of troops that were asked within our contribution, we are contributing approximately 180 personnel to support the NATO KFOR and UN mission in Kosovo. With regards to the reserved force, that is to be undertaken during the next two years by other countries, although we are the standby force. The noble Lord, Lord Garden, paid tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, for his contribution. There are a number of noble Lords in this House, some of whom are in their place today, who have together made considerable contributions—both in terms of foreign policy and defence—to the progress of this troubled region and to today’s happier position.

We need to continue to provide support on the civilian side—for example, by providing police expertise—and we will do so. We are looking at issues relating to equipment. I am not in a position to give specific details of helicopters, but we are looking at that issue. I will take back to the Ministry of Defence the noble Lord’s idea about a report on operations and the lessons that can be learnt. Although we cannot make a read-across from one theatre to another—the geography and the situations are completely different in Afghanistan and in the Balkans—none the less, we can see the effectiveness of the comprehensive approach and of the international community working together over a considerable time with a joined-up approach, with diplomatic efforts, and with efforts in defence, to achieve a successful outcome. I believe that can give us increased confidence that the strategy we are following in very difficult operations in Iraq and in Afghanistan will, in time, prevail. The noble Lord mentioned valuing our Armed Forces, as we do, absolutely. On the pay review, my understanding is that there will be a Written Statement on that tomorrow.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for looking back over the 15 years. It has been a long, sad and in some respects highly controversial effort, but the noble Lord dealt with that very well, for which we all thank him. Is he aware that his account of the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina today is notably more optimistic than others we have received? By chance, this morning I read a very detailed and authoritative report which was much more pessimistic.

I have two questions. First, which European countries will provide the remaining 2,500 troops that it has been agreed should stay there as a continuing military presence? Secondly, can he assure the House that in taking this decision, the EU took into account the dangers arising from Kosovo, where an announcement, a plan, is being made, but where there will be much argument and dissension? The Republika Srpska argues that if Kosovo is allowed to secede from Serbia, it must be allowed to secede from Bosnia-Herzegovina. That is a dangerous and deceptive argument. Are his colleagues really sure that it will be pursued by diplomatic, political and argumentative means, as we all hope, and that there will not be a temptation to take advantage of the run-down of UN forces to try to urge that argument by violence?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to highlight that. With his deep experience of these matters, he is right to highlight that one needs to identify the tipping point; when the military effect has got to a point when the right thing to do is to draw down those forces. A balance has to be struck between defence and security reform and diplomatic efforts. That judgment has been taken very carefully by the European coalition, taking into account the dangers, recognising that there is a point when the presence of the troops is no longer the major way in which the pressures can be brought to bear and that the people can be encouraged to take responsibility for reform, allowing the diplomatic process to blossom.

The judgment is that that point has been reached and that the contribution of the Armed Forces in the region is no longer necessary. I shall write to the noble Lord and give full details of the breakdown of troops and operations by country. I also mention the presence of the reserved troops who provide a strategic overwatch. In other operational theatres, we have a clear strategy by which we move to local overwatch and then to strategic overwatch, so that, if the situation deteriorates, troops are able to go back in. The situation will be closely monitored.

An example of that relates to mine clearance—the noble Lord asked about that. The role of the forces was to teach the country’s own forces the skills of mine clearance and to support them in that. They have now got to the point when they can and should be doing that themselves. That is an example of where the time is right. It is a difficult judgment to make and it has been considered carefully, but we believe that this is the right time to make that transition.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement and for the condolences about the rifleman killed in Basra. As he was from my old regiment and indeed from my new regiment, the Rifles, I particularly appreciated his words. Although that was the first fatality suffered by that battalion— now 2nd Battalion Rifles—I thought that noble Lords would be interested to know that it has already had 23 other casualties in the course of its term of duty in Basra, having been there for just a few months. That gives some idea of the strength of the military activity that our troops still face in that area.

On the Statement, I am very glad that it has been found possible to withdraw troops from Bosnia. That will certainly relieve undoubted overstretch and make it easier to sustain our military effort in Afghanistan. I am sure noble Lords will agree that it is an indication of how well and intelligently our forces have done their job of gradually securing the integrity of the Bosnia-Herzegovina state. Once again, they deserve to be congratulated on their performance over the years.

My Lords, I agree 100 per cent with the noble and gallant Lord in paying tribute to members of the Armed Forces who have lost their lives or who have been seriously injured on operations. He mentioned, in particular, those who have been hurt or have died in operations in Iraq. I also agree with how well and intelligently our forces have acted in that theatre over many years. I am sure that the whole House will join me in paying full tribute to the contribution that they have made.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the British Army on the job that it has done in Bosnia-Herzegovina and elsewhere in the west Balkans over many years. I echo the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, about the wider picture concerning Republika Srpska and so on. Serbia is feeling a little roughed up at present. The autonomy and independence of Montenegro is one factor and there is also the position in Kosovo. Some of us have been quite surprised at how robust the Dayton process has proved to be. It is very important at this stage not to allow it to be destabilised.

My other point is the wider role of the European Union, acting as a magnet—and a magnate, when one considers the funds that go there. When, in 2000, we on the European Union Select Committee took evidence, I recall that each year €5 billion were being spent on the military and €1 billion on development and reconstruction. It would have been nice if it had been the other way around. Perhaps my noble friend could comment further on the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Garden, about how far that is now in prospect. Although the European Union is acting as a magnet, lots of development work has to go side-by-side with governance in building up the economy.

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. He recognises the essential importance of the Dayton agreement, its robustness and the way in which we must continue to pursue those ends. We have reached a tipping point in the comprehensive approach between the emphasis on military input and on diplomatic means to civilian support for the region, particularly as regards the police, where we are making a significant contribution, and as regards development and reconstruction. The emphasis needs to be on that, together with diplomatic efforts. It is very important that, having gone through the processes and the difficulties of the past 15 years, we do not allow the region to slip back, and that we continue to make efforts on civilian support and reconstruction that we have made throughout that time.

My Lords, I am confident that the Welsh Guards operated with great distinction, as they normally do. Last year, it was my privilege to attend the ceremony granting them the freedom of Pembroke. Will Minister tell me what, if any, casualties they suffered?

My Lords, I do not have the precise details of casualties and serious injuries among the Welsh Guards. I will write to my noble and learned friend with those details. I agree with him absolutely about the contribution made by the Welsh Guards.

My Lords, I add my condolences on the sad death of Rifleman Coffey, who was a light infantryman before he became a member of the Rifles, the regiment in which I once had the privilege of serving, like the noble and gallant Lord. The striking point is that this young man, who only joined, I think, in August 2005, was already on his second tour. He had to be asked to do a second tour in Iraq. This adds considerable weight to the suspicion of my noble friend Lord Astor that the optimism expressed by the Minister in this Statement may surely, in many people’s minds, be severely coloured by the worry that it has not necessarily been made on a purely objective judgment of the situation in Bosnia, but arises from the reality of the troops’ situation and the problems of manning-level faced by our Armed Forces.

I ask the Minister, first, a question he has already partly addressed: if our hopes are disappointed, what arrangements are there for going back to restore what may be, by then, a much more difficult situation? Secondly, does this enormous reduction of forces in one go have the support of the Bosnian Government?

My Lords, yes, it has the support of the Bosnian Government. The arrangements for response by the reserved forces have been identified. We then provide a standby force behind that, to provide a strategic over-watch. I will write to the noble Lord with the full details of numbers and contribution of troops from different countries.

This Statement, as the whole House recognises, is a positive statement of progress made after a considerable period. Nevertheless, it is in the context of significant pressure on our Armed Forces in other operational theatres. The way we, with our European partners, have been able to make this decision about Bosnia-Herzegovina reduces that pressure by a small amount. However, let me make absolutely clear that in each of our operational theatres we make decisions based on conditions on the ground. To say that this decision has been taken to provide us with the ability to relieve pressure and support other theatres is just not true. We have, jointly with our European partners, taken a decision that is appropriate to the conditions as we see them. There is no intention to address issues in any other operational theatres.