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Volume 710: debated on Thursday 21 May 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the political and humanitarian consequences of the conflict in Somalia.

My Lords, the Djibouti process led to the expansion of the Somali Parliament and its selection of a new President. The formation of a more broadly based Government provides the best opportunity to create a lasting peace and reconciliation necessary for tackling the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Although that Government are battling an assault by the armed insurgency, they must continue to strive for further reconciliation with those outside the political process.

My Lords, if we are really determined to prevent the terrorists affiliated to Al-Shabaab taking over the whole country, is it not necessary to provide greater support in terms of logistics and training, both for the Government’s armed forces and for the AMISOM troops? With regard to the humanitarian crisis, is the noble Lord aware of any steps being taken through the Security Council or otherwise to meet the gap of two-thirds in the funding to meet the needs of the 400,000 people displaced internally, and a similar number in refugee camps in neighbouring countries, particularly Kenya?

My Lords, the noble Lord has repeatedly brought the question of Somalia to this House’s attention, and correctly so, because it is often one of those forgotten crises. About 40 per cent of the country’s population are displaced, completely dependent on international aid, and it has been very difficult to get it there. Despite the current upsurge of fighting, the distribution continues in key places such as Mogadishu, and the World Food Programme delivered something like 35,000 metric tonnes of food last month. On the noble Lord’s other point, we are also seeking to make sure that AMISOM, to which we have contributed generously, is properly supported during this crisis; and there was a move in the Security Council last week to make sure that the transitional Government’s armed forces be supported with the resources they need and to deal with this critical issue of salaries to soldiers and police.

My Lords, is it true that the Eritrean army is yet again invading Somalia and helping the Al-Shabaab rebels? I do not know whether the Minister has any news on that. One area where we in this country have a direct interest is the offshore piracy. Is it correct that the Iranians now want to contribute through their naval resources to the anti-piracy movement? Might this not be at least one area where, despite all our disagreements with Iran on everything else, we could co-operate with it?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first point, there is pretty strong evidence of Eritrean collusion in the upsurge of violence against the Government and of possible arms resupply to the rebels by the Eritreans. They were condemned in a Security Council presidential statement at the end of last week and have furiously denied the charges, but frankly that does not give me much confidence—it does not mean that the charges are not true. There is also a real risk of this situation escalating; there have been reports, again denied, of Ethiopian troops returning into Somalia. This is an enormously serious challenge to the Government and we all have reason to be very concerned to support and reinforce them over the coming weeks. I will have to get back to the noble Lord on his second point about Iran and piracy.

My Lords, given the mayhem that has characterised Somalia for so long, is there not a case for reconsidering the whole question of recognising the Government in Somaliland, the former British protectorate, which at least is stable and orderly?

My Lords, this is one of those perennial issues which, quite rightly, come up every time that Somalia lurches back into crisis. The noble Lord knows our position, which is that we try to give Somaliland support but we think that its status and potential independence must be dealt with through African forums: first, through talks between the two sides in Somalia and, subsequently, through the AU. We do not think that British recognition of Somaliland would help its goal of independence.

My Lords, we have a large Somali community in Liverpool. Has there been any contact between the Government and local authorities where there are large Somali communities, to address possible tensions that might arise within those communities?

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate raises an important point. I will look into it and ensure that information is being shared. Broadly, I do not think—although he knows better than I do—that this is a situation where our Somali British community is divided, as is the case with some other conflicts with which we have been dealing. I think that among Somalis resident here there is quite broad support for the transitional Government; indeed, one very distinguished British citizen is now the Foreign Minister.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, in the immensely difficult situation as he described it, a priority is to regain access for the free-standing non-governmental humanitarian agencies, which are perceived to have no political agenda of their own and are therefore in a particularly strong position to make a contribution in a fraught situation? Does he also accept that humanitarian assistance and the political dimensions are seldom in watertight compartments and that, in approaching lasting solutions, it is terribly important to listen very carefully to non-governmental organisations about what they are learning in the context of their work?

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely correct about the critical role of humanitarian non-governmental organisations. DfID is in daily contact not just with the UN agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross but also with the NGOs involved, to try to work out how we can programme an additional £3.5 million of support. The NGOs are obviously suffering from the same difficulties as the UN agencies, including the huge difficulty of deploying staff there due to the dramatic security situation.