John Healey is Shadow Secretary of State for Housing, and MP for Wentworth and Dearne.
This month more than 250 British troops will begin a three-year deployment with the UN peacekeeping force in Mali. This is described by the UN as its ‘most dangerous mission’, with 227 personnel killed since 2013.
With the growth of Islamist groups linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State, the Sahel is now one of the most unstable regions of the world. The UK will be filling a ‘capability gap’ in the UN force by providing soldiers who are specialist in long-range reconnaissance. Combat and casualties can be expected.
Since 2018 the UK has provided RAF logistical support to the French counter-terrorism operation Barkhane, with three Chinook helicopters and non-combat ground crew, though the MoD stress the new UN deployment is separate from the French mission.
Despite committing British combat troops into a conflict zone, the Defence Secretary has felt no duty to report on this directly to Parliament. The deployment this month was confirmed in an MoD press release during the summer recess.
Labour strongly support this commitment of UK troops to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, and we do so with eyes wide open to the risks they face. The public have a right to expect Ministers to be more open too.
As a UN P5 Security Council member, Britain has an overdue duty to support the 15,000-strong UN mission in Mali, which was first established in 2013, and which the UN Secretary General says plays “a fundamental political and security role”.
There is significant humanitarian interest in Mali, with the UN estimating 6.8 million in need of humanitarian assistance, and over a quarter of a million people internally displaced.
There is significant development interest in Mali, with 78 per cent of the population living in poverty, 39 per cent of primary age children not in school and the country ranking 184 out of 188 on the UN human development index.
Above all, there is significant security interest in Mali, with al-Qaeda and Islamic State groups active in the region which the Government say have a terrorist reach beyond Africa into Europe.
In these circumstances, the questions about British troops in Mali abound. What role will they play? How will they contribute to the UN mandate? What risks do they face? How does this deployment contribute to the UK’s new strategic approach to sub-Saharan Africa? What are the criteria for a successful mission and bringing Britain’s troops home again?
The practice of accountability to the public via Parliament is decaying under this Government but it should remain a basic principle that no Defence Secretary commits British troops into a conflict zone before a full statement in the Commons so that MPs can secure answers to concerns about the mission and the service personnel.