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Volume 712: debated on Thursday 16 July 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the incursions by troops of neighbouring countries into Somalia.

My Lords, we are aware of reports in May 2009 about incursions of Ethiopian security forces in Somalia, but we have not been able to verify these claims. The UK has no presence on the ground. The Ethiopians have stated publicly that, since the withdrawal of their forces from Somalia in January 2009, they continue to conduct only legitimate defensive operations to secure their own border with Somalia. We are of course concerned by any harmful foreign intervention, including by foreign fighters as insurgents in Somalia. We are worried by reports of Eritrean support for insurgent groups and we urge the UN to complete its investigation urgently.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. I also take this opportunity to thank him for the way in which he has answered Questions, prepared Statements and briefings to us all during his tenure at the Dispatch Box.

My Lords, in connection with that Answer, I am sure that the noble Lord is aware of the UN Security Council’s concern over the reports of Eritrea arming al-Shabaab insurgents in Somalia in breach of the UN embargo. Should these reports prove to be true, will the Government support a call for sanctions against Eritrea? Finally, AMISOM is seriously underfunded and underresourced and has no mandate to engage with the militants in Somalia. In that situation, what chance is there of any success for AMISOM without a full settlement in the region and a resolution of the boundary dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his remarks about me. I fear that it is in all likelihood the case that the Eritrean involvement will be confirmed. As ever, it is enormously important that effective measures are taken against Eritrea. First, we need to make sure that what we do will work, because in the past Eritrea has defied the will of the international community and has, if you like, called the international community’s bluff. Secondly, I agree entirely that we need to strengthen AMISOM and its mandate. The UK has given it £15.8 million this year. We are encouraged by the suggestions that it will adopt, just as it did this last weekend, a more robust and proactive approach to suppressing the insurgency.

My Lords, perhaps I may add to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey. As this is positively the last appearance of the Minister at the Dispatch Box, unless he gets caught by a topical next week, we on this side, too, are sad at his departure. He has dealt with your Lordships’ House with efficiency, charm and candour—and I say “candour” for both sides, not just for us. We admire that. This is the fourth time that I have had to say farewell to a Foreign Office Minister in the past seven years and I think that the regret is the greatest in this case, although possibly that is shared with the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean. He has done a very good job and we appreciate that. We thank him very much indeed.

The Prime Minister of Somalia has just announced that he fears that there is a large flow of al-Qaeda-backed foreign fighters coming into Somalia. There have also been intelligence rumours—I do not ask the Minister to comment on them in detail—that some of these are being trained up as terrorists and are coming to the United Kingdom. We are worried about what is happening in Somalia; it is not only a remote fight and none of our business. Would the noble Lord like to comment on these concerns about al-Qaeda’s involvement in Somalia?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his kind remarks and observe to the Benches opposite that, if in the area of foreign policy in this House we cannot find a spirit of bipartisanship, then on what issue where? It has been a great privilege to be faced by such supportive, if occasionally critical, questioning from the Benches opposite. It is parliamentary business at its best and I thank all noble Lords for that.

In the context of foreign fighters in the country, I have no doubt that they are there. President Sharif’s allegations are, in broad outline, correct. We have to take steps to end this. We must make it clear that the internationalisation of the conflict in Somalia is utterly unacceptable and will be robustly addressed. The United States, France and others have already taken action in this regard and we will, too, through the Security Council and other means. The noble Lord is right: there is a worrying increase in the number of UK terrorist cases that have a Somali root.

My Lords, as this Question Time seems to be turning into a tribute, may I, from these Benches, endorse everything that has been said about the noble Lord? I particularly thank him for the courteous and effective way in which he has answered, I am afraid, far too many difficult questions from me over the past two years.

My Lords, I have been delighted to be seduced and pulled by the neck, nose and other limbs into saying more on the Middle East than perhaps a prudent Minister would have done at the Dispatch Box.

My Lords, I add from our Front Bench our view that the noble Lord will be an enormous loss to the House and to the Government. We shall miss him sorely. As to what is happening now in Somalia, has the noble Lord seen the statement by the Uganda army spokesman that 16,000 troops and a more robust mandate for AMISOM are necessary to quell the insurgency? What will happen when the recent IGAD resolution calling for neighbouring countries to contribute to AMISOM comes before the Security Council? Will we support that proposal? What alternatives have we for increasing the size of the AMISOM force?

My Lords, again, I thank the noble Lord for his questions over the past two years on a range of enormously important issues that otherwise often get overlooked. IGAD and the African Union have three essential recommendations: the first is sanctions against Eritrea; the second is strengthening AMISOM and its mandate to allow it to take proactive action; and the third is to supplement AMISOM by troops from the immediate neighbouring states. On the third, we have some cautions. We want to make sure that the conflict does not, in a sense, become a regional conflict with neighbours drawn in, as we have seen in the Great Lakes and, indeed, previously in Somalia. However, it is equally the case that we need to give AMISOM those extra troops. I have talked to the Ugandans, and the Burundians are now sending in an extra battalion. I hope that we can find ways other than through the neighbours to reach those troop numbers.