Stuart Donaldson – 2016 Speech on UK Foreign Policy in Libya

Below is the text of the speech made by Stuart Donaldson, the SNP MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, in Westminster Hall on 3 May 2015.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effect of UK foreign policy on Libya.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson.

I start this debate by paying special tribute to Martin Kobler, special representative and head of the UN support mission in Libya, and to the British ambassador to Libya, who have both put an incredible amount of effort into bringing together competing institutions and encouraging them to form a single Government of national unity. However, the UK Government’s foreign policy legacy in Libya has been an unmitigated disaster. The lesson for the Government is that they reap what they sow. Today, Libya is in an extremely fragile state. The political and security crisis deepens, as two rival Governments—in Tripoli and Tobruk—compete for legitimacy. Meanwhile, countless rival militias and the spread of Daesh make for a troubled environment.

According to UN estimates, the violence in Libya has affected some 2.5 million people and displaced more than 430,000 people. It has also disrupted access to hospitals, schools and basic services, such as power, water and sanitation. However, a UN humanitarian appeal to provide basic services—including medical care, education and the protection of refugees and migrants—to 1.3 million people in Libya has just 1% of the funds that it requires.

In the absence of the rule of law and functioning institutions, refugees and asylum seekers are subjected to harassment, arbitrary detention, limited freedom of movement and other human rights violations. Libya continues to be the main transit and departure point for irregular sea migration to Europe from north Africa. In 2015, 151,000 arrivals to Italy were reported, with 90% of them departing from Libya. Meanwhile, the total number of detainees held by the department for combating illegal migration in Libya is between 2,500 and 4,000 people, including around 396 women and 52 children, who are held in eight detention centres.

We in the Scottish National party fully support Amnesty International’s call for the world to help to pull Libya out of its human rights chaos, five years after the uprising there began. Speaking in January, Said Boumedouha, deputy middle east and north Africa director at Amnesty, could not have been clearer when he said:

“World leaders, particularly those who took part in the NATO intervention that helped to overthrow Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi in 2011, have a duty to ensure that those responsible for the horrors that have unfolded in Libya in its wake are held to account.”

I want to raise the European Parliament’s recent resolution on Libya, as it reminds us of the increasing threat of security spill-over of the Libyan conflict not only in Egypt and particularly Tunisia, but in Algeria and its oilfields. The resolution emphasises the role of the Libyan conflict in exacerbating extremism in Tunisia.

The growing presence of extremist organisations and movements in Libya is deeply worrying. The lesson of Libya, like the lesson of Iraq, is that countries cannot just bomb somewhere and move on. Thanks to the work of the Library staff and my hon. Friend for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins), we know that the UK Government spent 13 times more money on bombing Libya than on rebuilding it. Let us just consider those figures for a moment. The Library confirmed that £320 million was spent on military operations and bombing in Libya during NATO’s intervention in 2011. Meanwhile, separate UK Government figures show that a mere £25 million was spent on rebuilding infrastructure in the years following the war.

The legacy of that policy in Libya has meant that today we have a vacuum that is being filled by rival militias and a country that is struggling to provide for its desperate population. US intelligence agencies tell us that the number of Daesh fighters in Syria and Iraq has dropped to about 25,000 from a high of about 31,500. However, the number of Daesh fighters in Libya has roughly doubled in the same period to about 6,500.

The UK Government cannot shirk their responsibility to Libya. Leaving the country in a disastrous state after bombing it has undoubtedly created the conditions that Daesh needs to operate, as it terrorises local civilians and sets up home among the rubble of 2011. Indeed, the UK’s bombing of Syria—along with countless other military operations—is not defeating Daesh but merely displacing it across the wider region.

The UK Government’s involvement in Libya has been so catastrophic that even the US President himself has criticised the UK’s Prime Minister. During an interview in March, the President was forthright in his assessment of the military intervention in Libya, criticising the Prime Minister for the UK’s role in allowing Libya to degrade to its current state; in fact, the President used more colourful language than that. The President also suggested that the Prime Minister had taken his eye off Libya after being

“distracted by a range of other things”.

The US President’s comments do not paint the picture of a UK Prime Minister who is either up to the job of leading our forces in strategic military interventions or capable of international co-operation in multi-faceted actions. The President went on to admit that Libya was the worst mistake of his presidency. The Prime Minister could do with reflecting on his own actions and admitting the catastrophic failures of his premiership regarding Libya.

On 19 April, the Foreign Secretary, freshly returned from his visit to Tripoli, announced £10 million of funding to support the new Libyan Government of national accord. This money includes £1.5 million to tackle illegal migration, smuggling and organised crime, and £1.8 million to support counter-terrorism activities. The new cash follows an £11.5 million payment last year for development and humanitarian assistance.

We in the SNP welcome that funding, but it is too little, too late. Despite urgent calls to provide humanitarian assistance to an estimated 2.4 million Libyans in need of aid, the Department for International Development has set aside just £50,000 in aid this financial year to prevent food and medicine shortages in the country.

Understandably, that has led to much criticism. A UN official has described the UK’s humanitarian efforts as

“paltry bone-throwing from a European country whose bombers reaped so much destruction”.

The Government not only undertook military action with little in the way of long-term planning, but they have left the state and people of Libya paying a heavy price for that action. Humanitarian conditions in Libya have deteriorated since mid-2014, leaving an estimated 2.4 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, and some 1.28 million people across the country are at risk of food insecurity.

It has been widely reported that the Government are now preparing to deploy British troops in Libya. The Foreign Affairs Committee wrote to the Foreign Secretary about the prospect of Britain deploying 1,000 ground troops in training and security roles for the new Government of national accord in Tripoli, but the response it received was less than clear. The Chair of the Committee, the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), accused the Foreign Secretary of

“not dealing straightforwardly with Parliament”

and went on to describe the

“less-than-candid reply to my request for further detail on a rapidly developing situation that may require further active British engagement.”

That is hardly a ringing endorsement for a Government who are already struggling with their poor legacy in Libya.

Furthermore, a leaked memo from a confidential briefing to US members of Congress from King Abdullah of Jordan suggested that British SAS units are already operating in Libya. We urgently need honesty and transparency about the Government’s intentions in Libya. Our troops may soon be in Libya as part of training missions. How much of that training do the UK Government envisage taking place on Libyan soil? In 2013, the UK Government agreed to train up to 2,000 Libyan soldiers, who were part of the Libyan general purpose force, at Bassingbourn barracks near Cambridge. The first contingent arrived in 2014, but the programme was halted early after repeated allegations of disciplinary issues and of serious sexual assaults by Libyan personnel against civilians. The Government appear unclear whether they would again host Libyan training missions in the UK.

Will the Government ensure that a vote and full debate take place in the main Chamber before any deployment of UK troops on Libyan soil? The Prime Minister must seek approval from Parliament before deploying any UK forces and provide full disclosure of the Government’s plans. Given that Libya is extremely fragile, with numerous militias and the growing presence of Daesh, how do the Government envisage a training mission in Libya taking place?

We now know that NATO Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, has ruled out any new combat operations, and that further highlights how unwise it would be for the UK to have any further military presence in Libya. The US President’s willingness even to partially admit he made a mistake is commendable, but only in that way will he and coalition partners learn from the errors of the past. It is time that the Prime Minister and his Government admitted their mistakes, and it is time that the Prime Minister was up front to Parliament about his Government’s plans in Libya. We need less military posturing and more long-term stability planning for Libya.

I conclude by posing some questions to the Minister. Why have the Government promised only £50,000 to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, for humanitarian efforts? It has been said that Libya is a rich country, but surely that makes reconstruction efforts all the more important, so that in the future we can access that wealth. Will the Government be hosting any more Libyan training missions on UK soil, or does the Minister envisage that the new training missions will be held on Libyan soil? Where do the Minister and the Government stand on the deployment of 1,000 British troops to Libya, and will the Minister ensure that a full debate and a vote take place in the House before the deployment of UK troops on Libyan soil?