The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 14 November.
“West Africa is an important region for the United Kingdom and our allies across Europe, and the UK is strongly committed to supporting the UN to deliver its peacekeeping commitments around the world. That is why, since 2018, we had been supporting the French-led counter-terrorism mission in Mali with CH-47 Chinook helicopters under Operation Barkhane, and more recently, since 2020, through the deployment of a long-range reconnaissance group as part of the UN’s MINUSMA—multidimensional integrated stabilisation mission in Mali—peacekeeping mission.
The House will be aware, however, that in February President Macron announced the draw-down of French troops in Mali and was joined in that announcement by all other European nations, as well as Canada, that were contributing to the French-led Operations Barkhane and Takuba. In March, Sweden announced that it would be leaving the UN’s MINUSMA mission. Today, I can announce that the UK contingent will also now be leaving the MINUSMA mission earlier than planned.
We should be clear that responsibility for all of this sits in Bamako. Two coups in three years have undermined international efforts to advance peace. On my most recent visit last November, I met the Malian Defence Minister and implored him to see the huge value of the French-led international effort in his country. However, soon afterwards, the Malian Government began working with the Russian mercenary group, Wagner, and actively sought to interfere with the work of both the French-led and UN missions. The Wagner Group is linked to mass human rights abuses. The Malian Government’s partnership with the Wagner Group is counterproductive to lasting stability and security in their region.
This Government cannot deploy our nation’s military to provide security when the host country’s Government are not willing to work with us to deliver lasting stability and security. However, our commitment to west Africa and the important work of the UN is undiminished. We have been working closely with our allies to consider options for rebalancing our deployment alongside France, the EU and other like-minded allies.
On Monday and Tuesday next week, I will join colleagues from across Europe and west Africa in Accra to co-ordinate our renewed response to instability in the Sahel. This will be the first major gathering in support of the Accra initiative, which is a west African-led solution focused initially on preventing further contagion of the insurgency into Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Niger, and tackling the growing levels of violence in Burkina Faso as well as in Mali, making this a very timely conference, indeed.
Of course, it is not just the UK military that will remain committed in west Africa—the UK will continue its commitment to Mali and the Sahel through our humanitarian, stabilisation and development assistance, working in close co-ordination with partners—nor is this a reduction in our commitment to the United Nations. The UK remains an important contributor of troops through Operation Tosca in Cyprus and of staff officers across several missions, and provides training to around 10,000 military, police and civilian peacekeepers from a range of countries annually. We remain the fifth largest financial contributor and will continue to drive reform in New York. Indeed, we are working with New York on developing a pilot, to be delivered through the British peace support team based in Nairobi, to develop the capacity of UN troop contributing nations across Africa. We will, of course, co-ordinate with allies as we draw down from Gao and have been sharing our plans with them over recent months. The Army will be issuing orders imminently to reconfigure the next deployment to draw down our presence.
We are leaving the MINUSMA mission earlier than planned and are, of course, saddened by the way the Government in Bamako have made it so difficult for well-meaning nations to remain there. The work of our troops has been outstanding, and they should be proud of what they have achieved there. But through the Chilcot report and our wider experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, we, like so many allies, are clear that the military instrument should not be deployed on counter-insurgency or countering violent extremism missions unless there is a clear and compelling commitment towards political progress.
We will work quickly with allies in the region and across Europe to support the Accra initiative to deliver security, stability and prosperity in west Africa. Our commitment to the region is undiminished.”
My Lords, I thank the Minister for being here to respond to questions on the Statement.
I commend the 257 British personnel who have been deployed in Mali as part of the mission. It is the deadliest UN peacekeeping mission to date, with 281 peacekeepers of the 12,000 on the mission sadly losing their lives. RAF air and ground crew have also been deployed in Mali. Their bravery and dedication will rightly be commended by both sides of the House.
The withdrawal of French troops from Mali was announced in February, and of Swedish troops in March. Can the Minister explain why this Statement is being made in November, given that the reason given for the withdrawal of our troops is the following of European allies? When were UN partners informed? Does this also signify an end to discussions on an alternative mission in Mali, which the Armed Forces Minister said was under consideration in July? In this time, there has been nothing but silence from Ministers. Is this because the Government have simply taken this long to work out what to do?
What has happened in this time, however, is the mandate of the mission being renewed by the UN Security Council, with British support. That begs a number of questions as to how the mission will proceed given that it would have expected both our personnel and expertise, particularly in long-range specialised reconnaissance? How do Ministers expect our decision to impact the mission’s continued progress and the region’s future, particularly with recent rises in terrorism across the Sahel region and neighbouring countries and the continued presence of the Russian mercenary Wagner Group? The latter has been accused of massacring civilians in a region of Mali where extremist Islamist factions have sought to recruit. What recent assessment has the Minister made of the Wagner Group’s activity in Mali, and its ability to foment further uncertainty in the region? I understand that UK officials were expected to meet counterparts from the EU, west Africa and the UN in Accra today and yesterday for talks on its potential to move on to Burkina Faso, which has suffered two coups in the last eight months. Have these talks taken place, and can the Minister update us?
At the end of the Statement, the Chilcot report is mentioned. One of Chilcot’s key mantras is that action should be taken only if the next step is already determined. When we entered Mali, did we have clear criteria as to when we should leave, and if so, have these criteria been met? The need for this strategic approach applies to the next steps too. France has already outlined its plans for working with African countries for the next six months. Can we expect a similar plan from the UK Government shortly, or will we have to wait another nine months? A lack of clear thinking for the Sahel region was also evident in the integrated review, which hardly mentioned it. Can we expect a more thorough strategic overview in the upcoming update?
Finally, turning to Thursday, it may be a coincidence that this withdrawal comes at the same time as we are expecting government cuts. Is the withdrawal connected to cuts to the defence budget? Clarity on defence spending is vital, especially when looking to maintain our NATO commitments. We know that a real-terms cut was agreed in the 2020 settlement. Its negative impact has been significantly exacerbated by the recent rise in inflation.
My Lords, for a decade now, the people of Mali have suffered the consequences of war, the multiplication of violent extremism and the ensuing violence. This has led to a state of crisis, with people facing refugee migrations and food insecurity, and to the suffering of, primarily, women and children. This in turn has led Mali to be ranked 131st of 163 countries for peace, and 137th of 145 countries for gender equality. I therefore support and commend the British personnel who have worked with others to try to create an opportunity for some stability. It is regrettable that there has been a move back from this because of the Mali Government. I hope that the Minister will be able to outline the Government’s policy for continuing the vital work of supporting NGOs, civil society groups, and women and children in Mali after this draw-down.
I declare an interest: I chair the UK board of peace- building charities, Search for Common Ground. It has been operating in Mali with the British Government’s support, trying to combat the sources of the problems there. I hope that this kind of support can continue. Will the Minister outline the Government’s development priorities? How is it seeking to use the Accra talks to progress them? What mechanisms will we use for our development ambitions in Mali?
Will the Minister also outline the role that the UK will play with ECOWAS, the AU, the United States and others to try to return Mali to a constitutional order? Of course the country’s future is in its own hands, but the UK has played a role: it has committed forces. A full draw-down should not bring about a full withdrawal of UK interest. On that, could the Minister explain why UK development assistance is planned to fall dramatically from the £22 million provided in 2019-20 to just £500,000 in 2023-24? Would the draw-down of military personnel not be exactly the right time to review development priorities so that a development vacuum is not created by UK personnel leaving?
Finally, I wish to return to the issue of the Wagner Group. I am on the record on a number of occasions pressing the noble Lords, Lord Ahmad and Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park, for the UK to move on the proscription of the Wagner Group. I will now press the Defence Minster on this. The Wagner Group is acting directly against the interests of the United Kingdom and our allies. Commons Minister James Heappey referred to the human rights atrocities that it is carrying out. The UK has no interest that is not being undermined by the Wagner Group, and there should be consequences for UK relations with countries that seek to use the Wagner Group not only against their own people but against the UK’s national interests. I repeat my call for the Government to prepare and bring forward mechanisms that would see the Wagner Group proscribed. So far, the Government have not made any moves on this. When answering questions, the Minister in the Commons said that he would engage in discussions with the Home Office on this issue, so I hope for a suitably positive response from the Minister today to me on this issue, so that we send a very strong signal that, whether in Mali or elsewhere, the UK will act against groups such as Wagner—and particularly against the Wagner Group by proscribing them.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Tunnicliffe and Lord Purvis of Tweed, for their very helpful introductory remarks, and their tributes to the personnel we have had serving in the Sahel, particularly in Mali.
The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked about the delay. This was a complex situation. My right honourable friend the Minister for the Armed Forces, James Heappey, said in the other place yesterday that it would have been wrong to have had an immediate unthought-out reaction. I assure your Lordships that he has been working tirelessly in the area. He has been in Mali, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Togo. His counterparts from France have visited Niger, Benin and the other countries extensively because it was important that there was some collective understanding about mapping out what we think the best situation is.
It is important to say to your Lordships something that my right honourable friend referred to in the other place yesterday. We should always remember the attitude of the African states. The impression seems to be emerging that African nations feel that they do not want us on their borders physically fighting the insurgency. They think that there is a danger that that accelerates conflict. They want us to work with them to support them in generating capability and in advising, along with other countries, how they might build for a more stable, secure and prosperous future.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, in particular that this has come about not through absence of concern or lack of action. A lot has been happening behind the scenes. He raised the subject of the Accra initiative, which I will come on to. It is exciting. In fact, my right honourable friend will be in Accra on Monday and Tuesday next week, not this week, with representatives of the EU, the United Nations, France, the UK, the Economic Community of West African States, and all the member states of the Accra initiative to discuss exactly how they will go forward. We need a cohesive strategy that brings together not just a military response but the political and economic response. I hope that reassures your Lordships that very serious discussion and consideration has been given to how we take this forward.
The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked what this means for the United Nations mission, MINUSMA. That is initially a matter for the United Nations but, as he will be aware, the UK is very supportive of the United Nations. We have always done our best to be an influence for good in the discussions, whether on the Security Council or in the General Assembly. We will certainly look to continue feeding in what we think is helpful to those discussions. As your Lordships will be aware, MINUSMA has faced constraint in recent months because of the operational environment and the attitude of and decisions taken by the Malian authorities, but the mission still has an important role to play in achieving long-term stability in Mali and we will continue to play a role as a member of the Security Council in shaping MINUSMA’s mandate to try to ensure maximum effectiveness. The noble Lords, Lord Tunnicliffe and Lord Purvis of Tweed, helpfully referred to the environment that has created this challenge for MINUSMA. We have to be realistic about that. We have to respond to the situation as it is on the ground.
The noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, asked what we are doing and what aid we have been providing. In defence terms, we have been doing and will continue to do a lot. After Kenya, Mali is our biggest presence, but we have a British Army training unit in Kenya. We have a British peace support team there and other defence supports offering advice and help. In Somalia, we have a regular deployment of regular operational staff under Operation Tangham. It is supporting African Union peace enforcement operations, plus UN missions. In Nigeria, we have around 40 permanent staff providing bilateral support to Nigeria to help it deal with diverse security threats.
As we look ahead, particularly at what the Accra initiative will, I hope, invite by way of discussion and constructive thought about how we take all this forward, it is important to remember that we have been doing a great deal in the broader area through our diplomatic engagement and our aid programmes, and we will continue to support local, national and international efforts to promote long-term prosperity and security in Mali. A lot of the work MINUSMA has achieved there has been positive and beneficial but, as the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, said, it is one of the world’s poorest regions. He mentioned the bilateral aid we spent in 2021-22. Our multilateral contributions added an extra £60 million to that, and he will be aware that our work covers the delivery of critical humanitarian assistance, whether in relation to food insecurity, malnutrition or supporting those displaced by conflict. We have done a lot of work to empower women and girls through initiatives such as the Gao stabilisation fund. We are one of the largest bilateral funders of global health and education initiatives. Our resolve is to continue with that very good work.
The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, was particularly interested in these aspects but he asked, if I understood him correctly, where the MINUSMA mission goes. I have tried to explain where I think we are with that. That will require discussion at the United Nations and at Security Council level. If the question is whether the UK will deploy in another United Nations mission, any potential future UN deployments will be scrutinised carefully. They must clearly support both the mission in question and our own strategic objectives. If that arises, we will look at it responsibly, but I go back to saying that the Accra initiative is a very important development.
No one can be anything but deeply troubled by the presence of the Wagner Group. I think I can do no more than repeat the description accorded to it by my right honourable friend Mr James Heappey, who said in the other place that
“it remains a bunch of murderous human rights-abusing thugs and there is not a country on the planet that is any better for its presence”.—[Official Report, Commons, 14/1/22; col. 405.]
I think that encapsulates the character of the group. It does what it wants to do, it does not care how it does it as long as it gets paid for doing so, and it is a very brutal grouping of individuals. We are cognisant of the threat it poses and aware that the other countries in the Sahel are equally conscious of that. The experience of Mozambique is interesting. Wagner was taken in initially to help in Mozambique and then kicked out because of the way it behaved when it was there. The UK, along with all our allies and partners working with the Accra initiative, are very keen to point out to these western African states that when they engage with the UK, France, the US, the EU and other western allies, they get a security partnership. They get something robust that wants nothing in return other than the advancement of our shared interests and security in the region. That contrasts sharply with the activities of Wagner.
I certainly look forward to hearing more from my right honourable friend Mr James Heappey when he returns from the meeting in Accra. I think it promises to be interesting. The long-term objectives of the initiative, which are basically to secure the borders, tackle insurgency in Burkina Faso and look to the longer-term future of stabilisation, security and prosperity are laudable. A lot of good will is being brought to the table to try to ensure that a coherent strategy is developed that can be delivered.
My Lords, as a Defence Minister at the time who helped negotiate our initial deployment to Mali, I of course support the deployment but, equally, I support our early withdrawal. The reality is that the political foundations on which the deployment was made have, unfortunately, crumbled.
However, my concern is this: the reality is that the capability we have delivered there is exquisite. The long-range reconnaissance group, with its vehicles, drones and long-range medical evacuation, has a capability that not many other nations can provide. Indeed, if we are to have an African solution to an African problem, I think many are being put off by that. Is that capability still required on the mission? If it is, will we consider gifting the vehicles we have in the region at the moment, many of which would come back and simply be put into retirement, and training those willing to take over from us to ensure that the capability will continue to be delivered?
My noble friend raises a very interesting point. I go back to my earlier observation about how the African states view involvement externally from the continent. We have to be sensitive to that. That is one of the areas of important discussion for the Accra initiative. I totally understand the point my noble friend makes. He will appreciate that I cannot give a specific response to it, but I am sure his point is noted and I will certainly make clear to my right honourable friend Mr James Heappey the concerns that my noble friend has expressed.
My Lords, the Minister has been through a great deal of detail, but I do not think she mentioned the financial implications for the Ministry of Defence. Will there be some savings? If so, has she any idea what the figure might be? More importantly, can she assure the House that there is no intention that any of the units withdrawn will be withdrawn from the front line and that they will return to other duties on the front line?
My understanding is that a total of £79.85 million has currently been committed to the deployment through the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund. I emphasise that the decision to withdraw is nothing to do with money—I wish to make that clear to the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe. It is to do with a fundamental change in the operational environment, which means that we are trying to support a peacekeeping mission when the host country is not prepared to co-operate on that objective and is enlisting the help of parties that have a directly inimical attitude to such an objective.
As to future funding, we have to look at the Accra initiative and see what unfolds from that. We have not yet asked His Majesty’s Treasury to fund that initiative. When we know more about what is needed and how much funding we will apply for, we will make sure that this is an agreed, cross-government effort. The noble and gallant Lord will remember that Operation Newcombe, our contribution to Mali, was resourced by two different funds. It was resourced by the special reserve for our support to Operation Barkhane and the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund for our contribution to the MINUSMA mission.
My Lords, we must all feel deep sorrow for the people of Mali if they are to be left to the tender mercies of the Wagner Group, as looks all too likely. I should have thought the Government of Mali would rue the day they got in with that lot. Can my noble friend elaborate, which she is very good at doing, on the phrases in the Statement and exactly what they mean? What is the implication of
“rebalancing our deployment alongside France, the EU and other like-minded allies”
“preventing further contagion of the insurgency”—[Official Report, Commons, 14/11/22; col. 401.]
in a whole string of countries in the region? Does that mean we will redeploy some of our troops, military effort and equipment to these other countries? Will we concentrate just on those that happen to be in the Commonwealth, such as Togo and Ghana, or will we put troops in Niger? Can she give us just a little more indication, even though decisions have yet to be made, on what the broad aim is—to leave troops in the area or to take them all away?
I am not sure that it is possible to give a specific response to my noble friend’s question; reverting to the Accra initiative, I think a great deal of discussion has to be had as to how we take forward a concerted desire to support these west African states, with a mixture of military intervention—or military support rather—if that is required, and advice and support for the political or economic regimes. A number of factors have to be taken into account. Mali is, of course, an observer member of the Accra initiative along with Niger. In total, the initiative represents a very healthy and promising group of countries. One of the strategic challenges to be hammered out is just what my noble friend referred to: at the end of the day, what is it that the African states are looking for, and what can we do to support that endeavour?
I am not being evasive; it is just that I think a great deal more discussion has to ensue before clarity begins to emerge about some of these strategic objectives. My noble friend will be aware that we already do a lot in west Africa. We provide support in Nigeria and in the Chad basin, we are supporting the armed forces of Cameroon and we are working closely with the Ghanaian armed forces to develop ongoing counterterrorism training packages. At the end of the day, the threat of terrorism in the Sahel has not disappeared; it is there. Sadly, the presence of Wagner is likely to exacerbate the situation rather than facilitate solutions; that is another important component of everything that has to be discussed.
My Lords, while joining those paying tribute to the work that our peacekeepers have done in what is obviously an extremely challenging and difficult mission, I have two questions for the Minister. First, did we have any consultations with the UN’s department of peacekeeping operations before the announcement that the Minister and her colleague in the other place have made—and, if so, how did it respond to our intention to withdraw? Secondly, can she say what number of UN peacekeepers we will have deployed after this withdrawal has taken place?
On the first question, I am not privy to what discussions took place. I shall make inquiries and respond to the noble Lord with more details if I am able to do so. As to the second point, I do not have specific information but, again, I will undertake to investigate and if I can provide more detail, I shall.
My Lords, I too pay tribute to MINUSMA and its work—in particular, the incredibly professional input by our own peacekeeping troops. MINUSMA will obviously continue. Does my noble friend agree that the capability and capacity of UN troop-contributing nations, particularly from Africa, will be really important? As my noble friend has pointed out, it has been shown time and again that the input from UK staff officers, trainers and other personnel can make all the difference. Can she say a bit more about the peace support team in Nairobi and the role that it will play?
Yes, I say to my noble friend that that source of support which we provide is important. Through that base, we are providing training to peace- keepers from a wide range of troop-contributing countries, the majority in Africa. A lot of good work is coming out of there and we see that role continuing. We think it is an important contribution to the broader environment of west Africa and certainly anticipate that the base will continue to be strategically important from which to continue providing that help. Again, trying to look at how all the pieces of the jigsaw will ultimately fit together, we need to await further discussions from the Accra initiative and see what the likely outcomes are. Then it will be easier for all the participating nations to work out what they can provide.
The encouraging thing about the Accra initiative is the interest it has generated. My understanding is that we have received interest and support from the Germans; we have also received positive responses from the Czechs, the Norwegians and the Dutch. I indicated earlier the extent of the nations covered—the United Nations and the EU as well—by the forthcoming meeting, next week, so there is a lot of interest. As I said earlier, it looks to me as though people are prepared to endeavour to pool their talent and expertise to see how best they can provide the support that is undoubtedly needed. As I said to my noble friend Lord Howell, terrorism is still there; it is not disappearing, and other factors are very troubling.
My Lords, the Minister has spoken at some length about the hideous human rights-abusing nature of the Wagner Group. I can only concur with her. Does she agree that this really adds force to the arguments for what is generally known as the UN mercenary convention—otherwise, in formal terms, the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries—which has been ratified by 46 states? Will the UK Government look again at signing that convention, promoting it and trying to set a new international framework against the use of mercenaries?
I will call on my colleague in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to answer the noble Baroness, and perhaps to do so more ably than I could achieve. I think we are all united in agreeing that what Wagner represents is repugnant. I do not know if I replied to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, on his specific point about proscription, for which I apologise, so let me tell him that there is a lot of sympathy with the sentiment which he expressed. I know that my right honourable friend James Heappey undertook to have discussions with the Home Office, and I would certainly be very much in sympathy with seeing what we can do along these lines. As to the noble Baroness’s question, it will fall to one of my colleagues to give a more specific answer.
My Lords, there are obviously a lot of new initiatives coming up, which the Minister has described, as a result of the withdrawal from Mali. Will she undertake to talk to her colleagues in the relevant ministries about reporting back to Parliament, because we so rarely hear about peacekeeping in Africa?
The noble Earl raises an interesting point. From a defence perspective, I would certainly be sympathetic to providing a further briefing once more details are known. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Ahmad would be equally sympathetic to providing that in relation to the broader issues of foreign affairs. It is a useful suggestion, so will the noble Earl let me take it away?