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Andrew Mitchell MP: The issue of conflict resolution must be central to our international development agenda

Andrew Mitchell MP is Shadow Secretary of State for International Development.

Mitchellphoto In the lush green jungles of Sierra Leone last week, I met British soldiers who are training one of the world's least developed armies in the art of jungle warfare. I stood with British Officers on a narrow ridge high above the Guma Dam, looking down as, in a simulated firefight, Sierra Leonean troops demonstrated a casualty extraction exercise in the thick, matted tropical undergrowth. Later they showed us an array of traps that their soldiers use on patrol - some to catch food, others to ensnare enemy fighters.

Today there are some 70 British troops stationed in Sierra Leone under the auspices of IMATT, the International Military Advisory and Training Team.  Brigadier Powe, the British military commander, explained that the skills of the Sierra Leonean troops have developed considerably over the last eight years. He was clear that British support has made a huge difference.

Tony Blair's record on humanitarian intervention will forever be overshadowed by the problems in Afghanistan and Iraq.  But his earlier foray into using British military force to do good in Sierra Leone should be judged more kindly by historians. Eight years ago Sierra Leone was menaced by gang warfare and the terrifying West Side Boys, who were infamous for amputating limbs, widespread rape and the use of child soldiers. When our troops landed in Freetown they found one of the leading towns of West Africa, famous for its wealth, education and civilisation on independence from Britain in the 1960s, reduced to a form of evil barbarity, with a population living in appalling conditions often sleeping rough and in terror.

Blair's interest in the crisis was rumoured to be reinforced by the urging of his father, who had lived in this former British colony.  In May 2000 Blair ordered hundreds of British troops to perform an ambitious landing on the shores of Freetown to replace the ailing UN mission and restore order. Now, eight years on, I visited Sierra Leone to evaluate the role of Britain in post-conflict reconciliation and construction in a country that - with the exception of a recent goodwill visit by David Beckham - has largely slipped off the world's radar.

The struggle against conflict is one of the most overlooked yet most important aspects of international development.  It doesn't matter how much aid or trade a country has, if it is mired in conflict, its people will remain poor, bitter and destitute until the fighting stops. One of my priorities as International Development Secretary in Government will be to prevent conflict starting, stopping it once it has started, and once it is over promoting reconciliation and reconstruction.  Much greater use should be made of regional forces such as the African Union. It is these institutions that we should focus on strengthening.

We should do more to encourage the development of centres like the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Centre which I recently visited in Ghana.  The Centre is bolstered by the presence of the British Military Advisory and Training Team.  This Centre can in theory mobilise hundreds of troops in Africa with 30 days notice to take action in response to a regional crisis.

The situation in Darfur, Sudan shows how far we still have to go in terms of generating the capacity for an effective African response to African problems, but also in matching the West's trenchant rhetoric with action.  The African Union force in Darfur has done its best for the last three years in the face of deliberate obstruction from the Government of Sudan.  But even then, it clearly needed to be reinforced and strengthened by the equipment, expertise and resources of the West. I think one way Britain can do more to help is to hold specific courses at Sandhurst or Shrivenham to train the most senior officers of the African Union troop contributing countries.  This would help create a cadre of committed and expert officers from many different African countries who will be able to work together effectively when the next crisis in Africa strikes.

Douglas Alexander, the Secretary of State for International Development, now plans to follow in the footsteps of my visit to Sierra Leone and Ghana – I am delighted that he has chosen to do so: both countries underline important lessons in many aspects of international development, but gripping the issue of conflict resolution is one of the toughest but also the most potentially rewarding challenges in international development today.

Related link: Watch a short video of Andrew Mitchell's visit to Sierra Leone


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