Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 9 November.
“The recent political violence is of significant concern to the UK Government. Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb member of the presidency, has threatened to withdraw Republika Srpska—the entity—from a range of state institutions. That is an act that the high representative calls a de facto secession. This is a dangerous and deliberate attempt to distract from a failure to improve standards of living and to tackle corruption. It is unacceptable.
The UK fully supports the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Bosnia and Herzegovina. After the devastating conflict of the 1990s, the region has lived in peace for 26 years and the Dayton political system, which should have been used to deliver progress and development for citizens, has been exploited by politicians who are focused on building and maintaining their own position.
We recognise the important role that the EUFOR peace and stabilisation force has played and we welcome the renewal of its mandate—an important deterrent against those malign actors who wish to see instability on Europe’s doorstep. We worked hard in the Security Council to ensure that it authorised EUFOR’s mandate for a further 12 months. The UK continues to play an active role. My honourable friend the Europe Minster was in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the summer to support that work.
The high representative will visit the UK for meetings in December. The UK is in close contact with him to ensure that we work in co-operation and is giving him vocal support, including on the use of executive powers should the situation require it. That is a further check and balance on the destabilising actions in Bosnia and Herzegovina. At the upcoming NATO Foreign Ministers meeting, the Foreign Secretary will push for more focus and resource on Bosnia and Herzegovina and on the need to rebuff Russia’s actions.
The international community also has collective responsibility to ensure that there is no return to the conflict of the 1990s. Along with our international partners, we are ensuring that the high representative’s position and work are secured and we will continue to urge Russia to return to productive engagement with the peace implementation council’s steering board. Along with our international partners, we are working to tackle the divisive rhetoric and actions from some politicians in Bosnia and Herzegovina, including the threat to re-establish a Republika Srpska army and to pull out of other established state-level institutions.
The UK is committed to helping the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina build a better future in a stable and prosperous state, with strong institutions. We support the NATO Headquarters Sarajevo, including through the secondment of UK staff officers who play an important role in building the capacity of the armed forces. We are providing capacity building and expertise to those actors who demonstrate genuine commitment to progress.”
My Lords, there is clearly an urgent need to reinforce the political will behind the Dayton accords, and James Cleverly in the other place, in response to the Urgent Question, stressed the vital role of the high representative. As the Minister knows, his effectiveness is undermined by Russia’s continued lack of acceptance of his position. The ongoing threat to re-establish a Republika Srpska army would represent a disastrous turning point in the region. Does the Minister agree that this is a red line which must not be crossed? Can he confirm whether the upcoming NATO Foreign Ministers’ meeting will co-ordinate a response to this possibility?
My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we stand firmly behind the high representative and he has the United Kingdom’s full support, including for the use of executive powers should the situation require it. It is my understanding that the high representative will be visiting the United Kingdom in December, which will offer opportunities to engage directly with him on the situation. We were pleased, notwithstanding the challenges Russia posed, that the EUFOR is being renewed in November, which is a positive development—notwithstanding, as I said, Russia’s bid to undermine this role.
On the issue of the red line on Republika Srpska, we have been very clear that what we have seen recently from the actions of Mr Dodik, who is part of the tripartite presidency, is undermining the Dayton accords. He needs to cease from the statements he is making, which are doing nothing to further the great progress we have seen over the last 26 years.
My Lords, it is worth recalling that one of the high representative’s predecessors, my late noble friend Lord Ashdown, served with great distinction and benefited greatly from the combined work of NATO and the European Union, with the full support of the British Government. He spoke to me before I visited the region and met the President and Prime Minister of Serbia; those from Republika Srpska refused to meet me because I met Bosnians and Croats.
It struck me that technical assistance on good governance is needed in that area to defeat the considerable state capture there has been through organised crime, which the Russian Government are actively supporting in their destabilisation efforts. Will the Government support Serbia’s continuing negotiations for joining the European Union, and will they work with the European Union so that there is a common front for good governance in the area to make sure that there is not a vacuum which Russian destabilisation efforts can fill?
My Lords, I join in recognising Lord Ashdown; I am sure I speak for all in your Lordships’ House in saying that we miss Lord Ashdown. He was very generous with his time when I engaged with him outside the exchanges—I would not call them combative, but very measured—we have in your Lordships’ House. He had great insight on various ssues, and particularly Bosnia-Herzegovina. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, is correct, and we are working with EU partners. It is particularly notable that, on this occasion, the likes of Serbia and Croatia very much stand with ensuring the territorial sovereignty and integrity of Bosnia.
My Lords, regarding countries within the former Yugoslavia, I speak as chairman of the of the All-Party Group for Croatia and as a Council of Europe parliamentarian.
On the priority of maintaining stability in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I welcome the United Kingdom’s current actions and proposals: within the Security Council, already to have helped achieve the authorisation of EUFOR’s mandate for another 12 months; the Foreign Secretary’s intention at the next NATO meeting to press for increased involvement to avoid the splitting up of Bosnia-Herzegovina; and the United Kingdom’s constructive contacts with the high representative, including consideration of the possible use of executive powers.
On collective work with others, does my noble friend agree that adjacent states should now be invited to join NATO interventions, not least Croatia and Slovenia, which are also existing members of the European Union?
In yesterday’s debate in another place, the useful maxim was reiterated:
“When goods cross borders, soldiers do not”.—[Official Report, Commons, 9/11/21; col. 182.]
In the interest of prolonged stability, might the Department for International Trade now lead new initiatives to sustain trade and economic growth both in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the western Balkans?
Using its own authority, as well as operating within the Council of Europe where it remains a prominent member, does my noble friend concur that the United Kingdom, assisted by other states, should launch a variety of initiatives straightaway to protect and benefit Bosnia-Herzegovina and the region in order to prevent war and enable long-term peace?
My Lords, I agree with all my noble friend’s points. I assure him that the United Kingdom Government are using their position within NATO—the noble Lord, Lord Collins, made that point. We will be discussing this at the next meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers later this month, as well as how we can further support Bosnia-Herzegovina. My honourable friend the Europe Minister was in Bosnia over the summer, and I am in the midst of planning a visit to the region with my preventing sexual violence in conflict responsibilities, and to Bosnia specifically.
My Lords, as the first chairman of the All-Party Group for Bosnia in the other place, and one who was much involved in all the debates urging our then Government to take more decisive action, I am deeply distressed to think there is any possibility of further conflict. Will my noble friend use every endeavour he has, perhaps liaising with my noble friend Lady Helic, who knows more about this than the rest of us put together, to do what they can collectively to impress that we must never have another Srebrenica? That was a stain on Europe. I have not discussed it with her, but I think my noble friend Lady Helic would be well placed to give my noble friend every help and advice that he needs.
My Lords, I assure my noble friend that I know our noble friend Lady Helic well, and she does not need support or encouragement in giving advice to me as Minister of State. Indeed, I am regularly welcoming her insights on a variety of issues, particularly in her work on PSVIC. My noble friend is correct that she has deep insight on the conflict.
On a personal note, in a previous career just after securing my job in the City, I engaged through Save the Children in a direct visit to the region when the conflict broke out. I have also visited Srebrenica on a number of occasions. The annihilation of a complete community, young boys and men in particular, who were taken out for simply being of a particular nationality and faith, should never ever happen again anywhere—let alone in Europe. Perhaps it is a sombre reflection for us in your Lordships’ House; I said to my Private Secretary as we walked across that we often talk of conflicts that are remote, but today we are talking of emerging conflicts on our continent once again.