James Cleverly, Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, responds to an Urgent Question on Bosnia and Herzegovina and the potential of a renewed conflict in the Western Balkans following threats to withdraw Republika Srpska from certain state-level institutions.
I thank my hon. Friend for his interest in the current situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and he is right to highlight it. 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 hon. 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.
For almost 30 years we have been engaged in the Balkans, and until recently in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In December last year we withdrew from Operation Althea, the international stabilisation force in the country. The decision to withdraw came just as Bosnia was about to be put under the worst possible pressure by Bosnian Serb secessionist leaders. In the words of the High Representative, Christian Schmidt, who reported to the UN Security Council last week:
“Bosnia and Herzegovina faces the greatest existential threat of the post-war period…the prospects for further division and conflict are very real…ignoring or downplaying this state of affairs could have perilous implications for the region and beyond.”
The secessionists are operating with the support of Russia, as we saw at the Security Council meeting last week, and Serbia, as is evident from the joint military exercises held in the past few weeks between Serbia and Bosnian Serb forces. This is a dangerous situation in a country where ethnic cleansing and genocide were perpetrated in the 1990s. With that in mind, will the Minister tell the House that it is still Government policy that the redrawing of borders in the Balkans was finished in the 1990s, and that they will not tolerate any secessionist adventurism? The EUFOR presence on the ground in Bosnia is hardly sufficient to respond to any security challenge, with only 700 troops on the ground and inadequate equipment. What consideration has been given to redeploying UK forces in support of EUFOR and through NATO? What consideration has been given to imposing sanctions on anyone undermining the Dayton peace accords, which is in line with the US but sadly lacking from the EU and UK?
In an article written last week, Baroness Helić quotes the former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, commenting on the Bosnian genocide in 2000. He said the most important lesson was that
“we must recognize evil for what it is, and confront it not with expediency and compromise, but with implacable resistance.”
Now is the time for us to act, not to wait. If we fail to do so, we will further weaken the international rules-based order and embolden our enemies, and we will also see death and destruction rage again in our backyard.
I reflect on the passion with which my hon. Friend puts forward the case, and he is completely right. The period of borders being redrawn in that region is behind us. We saw the devastating conflicts of the 1990s, and nobody should be willing to go back to that period. We support EUFOR. I beg my hon. Friend’s indulgence, but I am not going to speculate on what a future stabilisation or military force composition might be like. As I have said, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will shortly be raising this issue in the strongest terms at the meeting of NATO Ministers of Foreign Affairs in Riga. We support the NATO Headquarters Sarajevo, and my hon. Friend will know that it is a long-standing policy of the UK Government not to speculate on future sanctions designations, for fear that doing so might undermine their effectiveness. We are determined to ensure that the peace the region has enjoyed for the past quarter of a century is maintained.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing this urgent question. Today the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is extremely serious. I visited Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2013 as part of a delegation with the British group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. I well remember our chaperone in Sarajevo telling me how she had been shot in the leg by a sniper in the 1990s when she was a small child. We do not want those dark days to return.
At the time of my visit in 2013, the situation was precarious, with the Dayton agreement widely seen as a holding operation. It did not really provide a way forward, but it did help keep a lid on the conflict. Now the situation is undoubtedly dangerous. The Dayton agreement is under serious strain, with the very real risk that the country will fragment and conflict will once again erupt. There is the distinct possibility that the President of Republika Srpska, one of the two autonomous elements of Bosnia and Herzegovina, will withdraw from the federal Bosnian army and create a separate force. With the threat of Serb withdrawals from other state institutions, the situation is extremely serious, and not only for Bosnia; as the EU’s High Representative has said, there could be implications throughout the western Balkans if the situation deteriorates in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
My questions to the Minister are these. First, what pressure are the UK Government applying internationally to prevent the Serbs in Republika Srpska from fracturing the Bosnian army and the institutions of the Bosnia and Herzegovina state? Secondly, what representations have the UK Government made to China and Russia for them to adopt a more constructive attitude towards Bosnia and Herzegovina? Every effort must be made to insist that all ethnic groups continue to work together. Thirdly, what co-operation is there between the UK and our EU allies to ensure that the EU’s 700-strong peacekeeping operation, EUFOR, plays an effective role in helping to maintain peace during the coming months?
The hon. Gentleman makes some incredibly important points, and in many respects I echo the concerns that he has raised. With regard to working with our international partners, which goes to the core of his questions, we maintain a close engagement with EUFOR. Having left the European Union, we are no longer formally part of it, but, alongside the United States of America, we pushed for the mandate renewal, and we were very pleased that that was successful. We will continue to support it.
The key institution here is the High Representative, Mr Christian Schmidt, and we will continue to lobby in support of the work that he is doing on the international stage. However, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we have to prevent the fragmentation of this country, because that would almost inevitably be the precursor to further conflict. Many of us in this House have seen the genuine horror that conflict in this region brings, and we must work together with our international partners to do everything we can to deter that from happening.
I call attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests with regard to a recent visit to Bosnia as part of the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces.
Is it not extraordinary—I am sure the whole House will be amazed—that the trigger for the current instability in Bosnia and Herzegovina was that the High Representative brought in a law outlawing genocide denial? The last place in the world where genocide can be denied is Republika Srpska; all the High Representative did was say that that is now outlawed. Does my right hon. Friend not agree that behind all this lies Russia, and Serbia itself, and that unless we do something very dramatic, serious and urgent about it, we will face a return to the kind of chaos that we saw in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the late ’80s and early ’90s? We really must act seriously on this. We are facing catastrophe—a disaster—in Bosnia, and just saying “we’ll think about it” is no good at all.
My hon. Friend is sadly right that we see the hand of Russia at play here. We need to work with the High Representative and our international partners to ensure that there is not a fragmentation. My hon. Friend is right that it is unacceptable to deny holocaust in whichever arena it occurred, but for many of us, this is the event that was a significant part of our lives, and we have to ensure that it is not repeated.
Remembering Srebrenica tweeted earlier that this day in 1993 saw the destruction of the historic bridge in Mostar, a poignant reminder of the conflict and genocide in living memory. Our thoughts should very much be with the people who live there and who fear a return to the types of horrors they saw in the past.
What steps will the Minister take to ensure that the UK plays its part in securing peacekeeping efforts, as needed? We welcome very much that the UN mandate to EUFOR was renewed last week. It must be seen to be fulfilled. Will he tell us a bit more about the discussions he has had with key regional partners in the EU, the US and leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina itself? If the situation deteriorates further, we risk a return to the sectarianism of the past and the violence to civilians that that entails, and emboldening Russian influence in the region. Will he tell us more about what steps he will take on a multilateral level to ensure that the UK plays its part alongside regional allies to ensure that existing frameworks are managed in a way that protects the settlement within the country? Lastly, are there any considerations about the nature of the UK’s role in supporting EUFOR specifically? What contingency plans is he making, should we require to be brought into that?
I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. Specifically on EUFOR, as I said, the UK and the United States of America were vocal in our support of the mandate renewal and we are very pleased that that happened. Although we are not formally a member of EUFOR, we have seconded staff officers to support capability-building work and we have given direct support to the Bosnia and Herzegovina armed forces, which are an essential part of the security framework. As I said, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will speak at the upcoming NATO Foreign Ministers meeting and push for more focus and resource on Bosnia and Herzegovina, and for the collective need to push back against Russia’s actions in the area. With regard to what we might do next, that will need to be a collective decision by the international community, because working in accord with each other is the only way we will make meaningful progress. However, I can assure the hon. Lady that this is, and will remain, a very clear focus for UK foreign policy in the region.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for securing the urgent question. As someone who spent time in Yugoslavia during the wars of the 1990s, I do not underestimate how unpleasant this could get, and how violent and how quickly. I want to look at Russia. We know it has been selling arms to the ethnic Serbian police. We know it has form in handing out passports to people in conflict areas as a reason for intervention. We also know there is now significant potential for European Union forces to come into direct conflict with Russian proxies. Is the Minister aware of the true danger of that situation, and that it follows a pattern not only in the western Balkans, but in eastern Ukraine and, now, on the Belarus border? We, and NATO and the EU, are being significantly tested. Do we have a policy?
I thank my hon. and gallant Friend for his points. I recognise the contribution he has made and his understanding of the issues in the region. He is right that those of us who remember the headlines and images that came out of the region not that long ago are horrified at the prospect that it might slip back into that level of violence. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) visited the region extensively earlier this year. She and our officials are well aware—well aware—of the circumstances on the ground. We will, as I say, continue to work with our international partners, both European partners and NATO partners, to do everything we can to prevent the region slipping back into the kind of horrific sectarian bloodshed we saw, sadly, only 26 years ago.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall). We know how quickly the situation can deteriorate in the Balkans. The bloodshed and the flight of refugees we saw in the past will be with us if we see secession by Republika Srpska. I have to put it to the Minister that he said nothing really about what our red lines are. It is not enough to wait for secession. The steps that Prime Minister Dodik is talking about now are steps to secession. We have to make our red lines clear to Russia and Serbia, as well as to Prime Minister Dodik. In that context, EUFOR simply has no peacekeeping capacity if things deteriorate. We now have to have a strategy for Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We recognise that EUFOR is there to do a particular role. We would, of course, all collectively much prefer to prevent, rather than have to deal with, a return to violence. If there is an escalation—we will work hand in glove with our international partners to try to prevent that—that would need to be discussed at the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting. Any red lines put forward would need to be done in conjunction with our international friends and allies. However, I completely take the hon. Member’s broader point about the need to work collectively to prevent this situation slipping back into violence.
As a Bosnia veteran, I am very familiar with that country. I went there recently and I know for a fact that fears about security are justified. Britain signed the Dayton agreement in 1995, so we are part of the solution. Is it perhaps time for another ministerial visit to Sarajevo?
My hon. and gallant Friend makes an important point about the need for visible support for the institutions that have helped to keep the peace for such a long time. As I said, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, went to the region recently. I am not in a position to commit to exactly when a future ministerial visit will be, but the Foreign Secretary will bring this up at the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting in Riga in the near future. I have no doubt that it will be the location for a ministerial visit in the not-too-distant future.
I thank the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for securing this urgent question. The world cannot make the same mistakes again. In the 1995 genocide, more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed in a single day. The US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Gabriel Escobar, told Congress last week that the US is working with the EU to
“make sure there are consequences for any illegal or any destabilising actions”
in Bosnia. The hon. Member asked what representations have been made and the Minister answered that they will be made at Riga shortly. Given what happened in Afghanistan when the Government were asleep at the wheel, my concern—I think rightly and fairly—is whether the Government are asleep at the wheel again on this one. Why have we not already made representations? What representations, if any, have we made to the EU, world partners and NATO?
I think the hon. Lady is frankly wrong in her assessment. This is not a question about Afghanistan, but she will know that we started the evacuation process in Afghanistan in spring this year, long before the fall of Kabul. I have already said that in conjunction with our European partners and the United States of America, we made representations at the Security Council to renew the EUFOR mandate. We have done that important and significant piece of work in conjunction with our international partners. We have made public statements and acted in support of the High Representative, Mr Schmidt, and we will continue to do so. As I said, the Foreign Secretary will bring the issue up at the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting in Riga. What else we might do will be defined by the circumstances, but I assure the hon. Lady, you, Mr Speaker, and the House that that will remain a focus for Her Majesty’s Government.
I thank the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary for their time on this issue, as well as colleagues, because there have been many ongoing conversations over the past few weeks. Dodik has one goal: the destruction and failure of the Bosnian state. As chair of the all-party group for Bosnia and Herzegovina, I have invited the High Representative to visit Parliament, and I hope that you will join us, Mr Speaker, when we meet him as parliamentarians from across the House. The time for diplomacy is now, so that we do not have to have this conversation again because we have been able to ride out the crisis. Will the Minister consider activating the conflict centre; review all conflict, stability and security fund programmes to see whether they are fit for purpose; and work with Defence Ministers to increase our deployment to NATO and Sarajevo and consider joint cross-Balkan deployments and missions?
My hon. Friend again speaks with great passion, but perhaps more importantly, with authority and experience on this issue. I pay tribute to the work that she and the other members of the APPG do. I assure her that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is looking seriously at what administrative structures need to be in place for us to respond to an escalation of the situation. Obviously, our priority is to try to prevent an escalation. I am very glad that she has extended an invitation to the High Representative, because public, visible support for his work is incredibly important, both from Government and Parliament. I echo her calls that that should be done internationally and not just here in the UK.
I am sure that many others, like me, regret that the late Paddy Ashdown is not with us here today, because he would have a lot to say as an expert. There has been much talk about the tilt to the Indo-Pacific, and yet, as others have said, Russia and possibly China are not hesitating to get involved in European affairs in our own backyard. So I ask the Minister: first, is our defence poise possibly wrong in terms of the tilt to the Indo-Pacific? Perhaps we should concentrate on our own backyard. Secondly, I have spoken before about defence cuts and the cut in the size of the Army. I wonder whether I can tempt him to agree that this is no time to cut the size of our armed forces.
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the work of the late Lord Ashdown. Indeed, I should have paid tribute to him in my opening statement, because his work was incredibly influential and the whole House should recognise that. I will not be drawn on the size of the armed forces, but I will make the point that the Indo-Pacific tilt, as set out in the integrated review, should be read not as an exclusive focus on that part of the world, but as an additional focus. We absolutely recognise that the security of this region and our peace and security are interwoven—he is right to highlight that—and that is why I can assure him that we will work diplomatically with our international friends and colleagues and through the conversations that we have at the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting shortly in Riga to look collectively at what our response might need to be. Ultimately, the win would be to put pressure on Republika Srpska not to go down this separatist path.
As the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to the western Balkans, I have made two recent visits to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Indeed, I was in Sarajevo on Thursday and Friday last week and there is no doubt that there has been a significant increase in tensions. I pay tribute to our ambassador and his excellent team over there, who are working not only to reduce those tensions, but to develop our economic ties and the economy of the country to the benefit of all the people there, particularly the young people who are leaving the country in enormous numbers. I urge the Minister to continue his work with colleagues in the Department for International Trade so that we can develop our economic ties with not just Bosnia-Herzegovina, but the whole western Balkan region. Will he urge politicians of all descriptions over there to work together and seize the moment now for peace and prosperity?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that international trade is a force for good and a force for peace. “When goods cross borders, soldiers do not”—I paraphrase, but I am sure that every Member of the House is familiar with that. Ultimately, we all have an interest in the economic stability and prosperity of the region. The belief that there is a failure in the economic opportunities for people in the region is a big driving force for the actions of Republika Srpska. To directly answer his question, I will continue to push for increased trade with the western Balkans and Bosnia and Herzegovina, because it is to the benefit of both us and them that it continues.
I was in Bosnia a few weeks ago with the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces. I was genuinely shocked that the segregation of communities felt worse than in the ’80s, with some schools even teaching that the genocide of Bosnian Muslims did not exist. Can the Minister explain why we seem to be shifting our development money away from stability? Can he tell us what he is doing to safeguard the investment that we have already made in that country for peaceful dialogue and tolerance? Will he consider embedding atrocity prevention in all our embassies to prevent this situation from happening in other countries?
The hon. Lady, as always, puts forward thoughtful ideas. I will pay close attention to her final point. It is essential that we never allow the genocide that happened to be forgotten. We must ensure through our diplomatic work that it is not expunged from the curriculum for young people in the country. We will seek to work with our international friends and partners to prevent the situation from slipping into conflict, but if we are successful, we will still have to go further and ensure that our diplomatic efforts are focused on bringing communities together. I recognise that money plays a part, but in this context I think that our diplomatic heft is probably of greater impact than our official development assistance contributions.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing the urgent question. The secessionists, having denied the genocide and tried to discredit the post-war Bosnian state, have created a crisis that could get violent. I know that the Minister has offered a commitment, but as he has heard today from hon. Members, we want the issue dialled up to a priority, whether that is through challenging the EU’s failure, putting pressure on China and Russia, or even making troops available, not just to protect but to collect evidence of any atrocities that may take place.
There is a red line that the Minister can draw right here, right now. Ministers have repeatedly said that we recognise genocide only when it is declared by the UN. The UN has declared a genocide. The Office of the High Representative has said that anyone who denies that genocide was committed will face a sentence. Perhaps the Minister could say that we stand behind that statement.
We will have to speed up if we are going to get through all the questions.
I appreciate that, Mr Speaker.
My hon. Friend will know that the UK has zero tolerance for holocaust denial, wherever it comes about. I can assure her that we will continue working with our international friends to ensure that the Republika Srpska understands that its actions are unacceptable and that there will be consequences if they continue.
I worked in Bosnia in the late 1990s with political parties and civil society. Does the Minister recognise that one of the downsides of the Dayton agreement was that it institutionalised political difference and crowded out any multi-ethnic voices from the political space? What more can the Government do today to support civil society, especially on a multi-ethnic basis, to have a more powerful voice to combat the forces of division in Bosnia?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point about the Dayton accords. They serve an important function in underpinning peace; I do not think that they were ever envisaged as a permanent structural solution to the situation. Ultimately, our focus at the moment is on the High Representative and his work in the here and now. The future evolution of a political and social structure in Bosnia and Herzegovina is a subject that we will need to look at once we have resolved the current issue.
The break-up of Bosnia and Herzegovina would create massive instability in the region, which would not be in the best interests of neighbouring countries such as Serbia. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government are engaging with Belgrade to encourage leaders in the region to ensure that that wider instability, which would be so damaging, is not borne out?
My hon. Friend makes the incredibly important point that this is not a situation in which countries in the region will be disinterested. We have active bilateral conversations with countries in the region—the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, has been there and is very active—and will continue to do so because the instability in Bosnia and Herzegovina is not something that anyone, either in the UK or in the region, wishes to see again.
Stephen, from my constituency of Weaver Vale, was a peacekeeper who saw at first hand the genocide in the Balkans, on our doorstep. The Minister referred to close co-operation with EUFOR. What are the details? What does that co-operation involve?
As I have said, the UK is not formally a member of EUFOR, having left the European Union, but we have secondees in the NATO headquarters in Sarajevo and we have been very supportive of the mandate renewal. Exactly what future support may be required is a question that we will have to decide, depending on the circumstances at the time, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that we stay very focused on ensuring peace in the region.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing the urgent question. Some years ago, I visited Bosnia and Herzegovina with Stephen Parkinson—now Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay—as part of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy programme. May I ask the Minister to ensure that the UK Government will oppose all attempts to redraw borders? Alongside the sadly necessary consideration of hard power and sanction options, will he do all he can to continue to dial up all the soft power levers at our disposal to pressure those who would seek to damage the fragile peace in Bosnia?
My hon. Friend makes the incredibly important point that we would much prefer to resolve the situation through diplomatic efforts and persuasion rather than force. That will be the focus of our work, and we will do it in conjunction with our international partners.
On 14 October, Dodik said that he would force the Bosnian army to withdraw from Republika Srpska by surrounding its barracks if the west tried to intervene. He said that he had “friends” who had promised to support the Serb cause—a presumed reference to Serbia and Russia, which are both seeking to undermine the role and the authority of the High Representative.
This is a massive test for NATO. Does the Minister agree that it is crucial for us to bolster the Office of the High Representative, get NATO on the same page with a solution and tell Russia in no uncertain terms that we will not accept the break-up of Bosnia and Herzegovina?
I have to confess that I find myself in complete accord with the points that the hon. Gentleman makes.
I call Jonathan Edwards.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Speaker. The Minister will know that the situation is very worrying. If it quickly deteriorates into conflict, the inevitable consequence will be a refugee crisis, perhaps—hopefully not—on the scale that we saw a few decades ago. That would put enormous pressure on neighbouring countries. It seems to me that all Governments internationally are between a rock and a hard place, but one thing that we can do is start preparing contingency plans with neighbouring countries for dealing with a potential refugee crisis.
The hon. Gentleman is right that, whatever the ultimate resolution is to the attempted break-up of Bosnia and Herzegovina or to a potential refugee crisis, it will need to be achieved in conjunction with countries in the region. That is why the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, has been—and no doubt will continue to be—active in speaking to all countries in the region.
The Srebrenica massacre in 1995, the worst atrocity on European soil since world war two, was a horrific genocide that cannot be repeated. Dodik has alluded to alliances with China, Russia and Hungary, which could provide support should conflict break out. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the likelihood and impact of those countries intervening in the region?
We are aware of the likely hand of Russia in the matter. We will ensure that we continue with a dynamic assessment of the situation on the ground. Ultimately, we will work with the member states of the European Union, as well as with the United States of America, to do everything we can to ensure that the situation does not escalate once again to the violence that sadly we saw in the 1990s.