The UK House of Commons Debated on Tuesday 18 January 2022 about the UK Government’s recognition of Somaliland.
Below is the full transcript of the debate as it happened:
UK Government Recognition of Somaliland
Debated on Tuesday 18 January 2022
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Gareth Johnson.)
Gavin Williamson (South Staffordshire) (Con)
I am very grateful for the privilege of being able to bring this Adjournment debate to the House today.
In 1960, Somaliland emerged independent from the British empire after many years as the British Somaliland protectorate. For five days it was independent before it took the step to merge with what was then the Trust Territory of Somaliland, historically Italian, to form a union. Both nations entered that union with optimism—a sense and a view of creating a pan-Somalia where all Somalis would be able to come together. The hope, for so many of those in Somaliland, was that this would be a union of equals.
Sadly, over the following 30 years, those hopes and aspirations for what might have been were not fulfilled. Instead, as the years progressed, the situation got worse, with military dictatorships and, tragically, people from the north of Somalia in historically British Somaliland being discriminated against. What started to emerge was attacks on civilians. There were mass killings of tens of thousands of Somali civilians. It was one of the few conflicts where fighter jets took off from cities in one area in order to bomb the cities that they had taken off from, indiscriminately killing thousands of civilians.
Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab)
My constituency has a very large population from Somaliland, whose families suffered, as the right hon. Gentleman has described, in that conflict. Last year, Somaliland celebrated 30 years since the declaration of independence. It has built up its own independent government, its own currency, and democratic elections. It has shown the capability to establish a state. Is it not time that the UK Government formally recognizes its right to self-determination and its need to be an independent state?
The hon. Lady raises a very important point. The key reason for this debate is to discuss the fact that Somaliland has developed so much. In those years of conflict—where so many Somalilanders had their lives under threat, and so many hundreds of thousands were displaced, both internally within Somaliland and externally—that dream and that vision of creating their own homeland once again and re-establishing those old territorial borders burned bright, and that is what they were able to achieve in 1991.
Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
I draw the House’s attention to my interest as one of the vice-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group on Somaliland. It has been a privilege to work with the right hon. Gentleman on these issues. Will he also pay tribute to my predecessor, Alun Michael, and the many members of the Somalilander community in Cardiff and across the UK for exposing those atrocities at the time, including in this House and elsewhere, and explaining what had gone on to the world? Will he commend them on what they did at that time?
Just mentioned the role of my predecessor @alunmichael and key members of the #Somaliland community exposing atrocities committed against civilians – here’s a picture of them meeting at UK Parliament.
Our friendships and partnerships in #Cardiff #Wales are historic and deep ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/ty0Gk8cCqC
— Stephen Doughty MP (@SDoughtyMP) January 18, 2022
I pay tribute to the hon. Member’s predecessor and the many people who live in his constituency. In his constituency is a very established Somaliland community that has been there probably far longer than he or I have been on this earth. This country has deep links with Somaliland that go back not just many decades, but a century and more, with many Somalilanders calling Britain their home, as well as Somaliland itself.
Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con)
I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has secured this important debate. Many of us have been supporting Somaliland as an independent state, and we very much welcome the fact that he is here. On that point, he will know no doubt that many of Her Majesty’s naval ships for 100 or more years have had lascars from Somaliland—stokers and others—who built the first mosques in this country. Does he not agree that recognizing the Somalilanders here in the UK is also about recognizing our own past and our own future together as investors in a new Africa? It would demonstrate that independent states that govern themselves well in democracies can succeed, and we can partner with them.
This is an important debate. I will be supporting @GavinWilliamson and speaking up for a community and country that has been standing up for freedom for years. https://t.co/rJoRPFiQ7L
— Tom Tugendhat (@TomTugendhat) January 18, 2022
My hon. Friend the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee is absolutely right. By taking the brave step to recognize Somaliland, we would not just be opening up opportunities for Somaliland itself, but opportunities for British investors and British business to go there and work, very much creating the gateway to the whole of the horn of Africa.
Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con)
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has brought this most important subject to the Floor of the House. I visited Hargeisa when I was Secretary of State for International Development, and we spent quite a lot of time on exactly the issues that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee have just raised. There is an enormous degree of normalcy there. The democratic structures, when they have elections, have held in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. There is proper governance. I have traveled on a bus in Hargeisa that was a result of British investment. The case that my right hon. Friend is making about Somaliland becoming an independent state is one where the Foreign Office normally takes the view that it does not want to lead it, but it would support it. Is he aware that the African Union is at least passively acquiescent in that view, if not actively supportive?
On both areas that my right hon. Friend raises, he is absolutely right. One flies into Hargeisa airport, and it is a safe place to visit. One can get a bus to the center of Hargeisa, as he did. When I visited, I must confess I did not get a bus, but I will endeavor to do so the next time I visit. He is equally right that this is an opportunity. The Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office so often wants to be led on these issues, but there is sometimes a moment for Britain to lead, as against to be led.
Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con)
My right hon. Friend makes an important point about leading the world. Throughout the world, where western nations do not get involved, China does, and recently we have had many discussions about China’s influence. Does he, therefore, agree that when we look at development taking place in Somaliland, we can see that it is in our strategic interests and that of western countries not just to see what happens but to take an active, leading role and not allow that vacuum to be filled with those who, perhaps, we have difficulties with?
My right hon. Friend is so correct. If we look to Djibouti, to the north of Somaliland, we see the Chinese investment that is going in. Where there is a vacuum, others do step in. If this country showed the leadership that it can by recognizing Somaliland, that would show the Somaliland Government the value that we put on their friendship and partnership.
Sir Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con)
I commend my right hon. Friend for securing the debate. I am honored to represent a Somaliland community in Swindon. Building on the points made by right hon. and hon. Members about Somaliland’s strategic importance, and in particular its proximity to international shipping lanes, we all know that with British leadership under our good friend the noble Lord Hague, we led the way in dealing with piracy emanating from the horn of Africa. Is this not another opportunity for Britain to show leadership and recognize the stable government in a region that is in pitifully short supply of such a quality?
My right hon. and learned Friend is accurate in his assessment. Even though we are not yet in a position of recognizing Somaliland, we already have that level of co-operation with Somalilanders. When I visited Somaliland as Defence Secretary, I saw at first hand the cooperation that British forces already had with Somaliland in protecting its coastal waters—and by doing so, keeping them safe for the international community.
Kim Johnson (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab)
I thank the right hon. Member for securing this important debate and commend the Government on the support they have been providing to the Administration in Somaliland. Liverpool Riverside has a long-established Somali community and Somalilanders. Will he join me in calling for the UK Government to support a binding referendum within two years to allow Somalilanders to express their democratic will, guaranteed by the international community?
Today I attended the important Adjournment Debate called by @GavinWilliamson on Somaliland, conveying calls from my many constituents for the UK Government to recognise Somaliland as an independent state. pic.twitter.com/D5AXS01PxY
— Kim Johnson MP (@KimJohnsonMP) January 18, 2022
I am not sure whether you are an expert on Somaliland affairs, Madam Deputy Speaker, but this is the opportunity for you to brush up on them. The hon. Lady makes an important point, but there has already been a referendum in Somaliland, and it was absolutely clear about the wishes of the Somaliland people: they want to see recognition, to be independent and to have that independent state. However, if that is a hurdle to establishing international recognition for Somaliland, the Somaliland Government may wish to look at that.
Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab)
The right hon. Gentleman has been extremely fortunate not only in the House allowing him a lot of time to debate this important topic but in the number of hon. Members in their places supporting him and the cause of Somaliland. Wembley has a huge Somaliland community of expatriates who have said to me that, in all likelihood, a new Somaliland would desperately want to join the Commonwealth. Does he agree with them?
From my visit to Somaliland and my discussions with so many Somalilanders in the UK, I have a real sense of kinship between Somaliland, Britain, and other Commonwealth nations. I think that Somaliland would very much want to join the Commonwealth, and I hope that the Commonwealth would welcome them with open arms.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab)
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I have the privilege of chairing the all-party group on Somaliland, and we have a large Somaliland community in Sheffield. The way he described the formation of what is currently legally Somalia was really interesting. Immediately on gaining independence, Somaliland was an independent country, and it voluntarily chose to enter into a union. The concerns about changing post-colonial boundaries do not apply in the case of an independent Somaliland; post-colonial boundaries, it was an independent country. The idea that Mogadishu now has any remit in Somaliland is a piece of nonsense, and it is time the Government recognized that.
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. The boundaries being proposed are exactly the same as those that were agreed between Britain, Italy, and Ethiopia, and with the French in numerous treaties prior to that. Somaliland is not asking for a change to the boundaries, as they are very much what was there in 1960. There are precedents when it comes to unwinding acts of union and confederacies. One need only look to the other side of Africa, at the confederation between Senegal and Gambia, which was unwound in the late 1980s. This is not unprecedented. We are suggesting going back and recognizing what were well-established international boundaries that we ourselves recognized and drew up.
Stuart Anderson (Wolverhampton South West) (Con)
I thank my right hon. Friend and constituency neighbor for giving way. The Defence Committee has just produced a report on the Navy and the importance of the sea in defense, and he mentioned his visits as Secretary of State for Defence. Does he agree that it is vital that we recognize Somaliland, given the strategic importance of the location in terms of defense?
My hon. Friend is accurate in pinpointing the strategic importance of Somaliland. That is one of many reasons why it is so vital that not just Britain, but the United States and other NATO members lead the way in recognizing Somaliland—not just because of the many brilliant things that have been done there, but because of the country’s strategic importance. The question is how we reinforce and support that Government.
John Spellar (Warley) (Lab)
If I may pursue that point, is it not desirable for a stable state in a region that is becoming increasingly unstable to achieve that level of recognition? We talk a lot about supply chain vulnerability; this is one of the most vulnerable places we have found. Even one ship blocking the Suez canal caused ripples right the way throughout the industry. We should also recognize the importance of enabling communities here and in Somaliland to move freely, have passports that are recognized, conclude international agreements, and unleash the country’s energy. Having a properly administered state in the region would enable those communities to do those things. Is it not time that we grasped the nettle and recognized Somaliland?
There is a level of consensus bubbling up that is not always typical of debates in this House. It is incredibly important to demonstrate the will and feeling of the House on this important issue. The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point about supply chains. DP World already invests in the port of Berbera, and the welcome investment from British International Investment—the old Commonwealth Development Corporation—amounts to hundreds of millions of pounds. The Government recognizes the importance of Somaliland, and we are willing to invest hundreds of millions of pounds there because we realize that it opens up so much of the horn of Africa to British goods and investment. However, we still do not recognize the state of Somaliland, which is a real tragedy. It is so sad to see that so many Somalilanders have difficulty traveling to Somaliland. They cannot fly direct from the UK, but have to go via either Addis Ababa or Dubai. By taking the step of recognizing Somaliland, we can make so many British citizens’ lives easier.
Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con)
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for securing this important debate; the attendance shows the strength of feeling across the House. Does he agree that recognition can take several forms, and that the Government could take interim steps to show willing, and to demonstrate progress towards the formal recognition that we all want? That could include the Department for International Trade—or the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, which has responsibilities to DIT—channeling food and aid through Somaliland. That way, Somaliland will not be at the wrong end of the supply chain; it often ends up with a raw deal.
That is absolutely correct. For so long, international development aid has been channeled through the Federal Republic of Somalia and the Government in Mogadishu, which sadly means that people in Somaliland have often not had the assistance that this Government expected them to get. A perfect example of that is vaccines. A large supply of vaccines was sent to the people of Somaliland, but it was channeled through the Government in Mogadishu. By the time it arrived in Somaliland, sadly, there was only a few days left in which to dispense most of the vaccines.
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con)
I thank my right hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene. I do not have any Somalis in my constituency, but I have a great love for the country because my ayah came from Somaliland when we lived in Aden. I remind the House that the Aden Protectorate and the Somaliland Protectorate were very closely linked; I remember my father flying over to Somaliland as part of the Aden Protectorate Levies when there was that close link. The people of Somaliland have a real affection for this country. That goes back a long time, and it would be absolutely right of our Government to encourage, support and allow Somaliland to be a real nation.
We have seen the people of Somaliland pay a price for the defense of this nation in both the first and second world war. If people go to Somaliland, they can see the Commonwealth war grave cemetery. So many Somalilanders gave their life in defense of this country and beat fascism on the horn of Africa. We owe a debt of honor to the people of Somaliland and should restore to them the freedom that they fought to preserve for us.
Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab)
I congratulate the right hon. Member on securing this debate, which has demonstrated an exceptional degree of unity across the House in support of his proposal. He makes a good point about the debt of honor that we owe to the people of Somaliland. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) highlighted that we have a strong community of people who owe their origins to Somaliland in our city. In recognition of that, the council passed a resolution in 2014 adding its voice to the demands for independence. Does the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) agree that the parliamentary and local elections held last year were another successful democratic moment in Somaliland, further reflecting the maturity and strength of democracy in the country, which is an essential building block for recognition of statehood, and which the Government should recognize?
I do not often advocate that a Government should follow the leadership of Sheffield City Council, but on this occasion I certainly do. The Government should try to catch up with what that city council has been doing. So many communities—Sheffield, Liverpool, Cardiff, Bristol, Swindon; we could go on and on—have welcomed Somalilanders, and Somalilanders have made these great cities and great communities their home, and will continue to do so.
Ruth Jones (Newport West) (Lab)
The right hon. Gentleman has demonstrated just how important this topic is to all of us here. Newport is home to the second-largest Somaliland community in Wales, and I want to place on record my thanks for the community’s amazing contributions to the city over the years. Has the right hon. Gentleman given any thought to how the devolved Governments can play a role in supporting the people of Somaliland as they continue to seek formal recognition?
Newport is home to the second-largest Somaliland community in Wales. Therefore I was pleased to speak in the debate on the UK Government's recognition of #Somaliland and place on record my thanks for the community’s amazing contributions to the city over the years. pic.twitter.com/3K6aA5jzdy
— Ruth Jones MP (@RuthNewportWest) January 19, 2022
I strongly believe that this is a United Kingdom endeavor, in which we can all move forward in strengthening the bridges that already exist between the United Kingdom and Somaliland. Many steps have already been taken in municipal and devolved government to encourage the links between our great nations of the United Kingdom and Somaliland, but now is the time for the UK Government to take the lead—for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office not to be shy, and not to think that policy is stuck in the 1960s.
James Daly (Bury North) (Con)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing a debate on such an important subject. There has been unanimity this evening on the many reasons why we should recognize Somaliland, but does he, as a former Education Secretary, view and accept Somaliland as a champion of education in Africa for both boys and girls? We have heard about how the devolved Administrations and this Government can assist, develop and support Somaliland. In that context, the education system is not only something to be treasured but perhaps a way in which we can provide support.
One of the most precious things that a nation can have is democracy. That means justice, but it also means the education that we give our children. Those who have the privilege of visiting Somaliland will see both boys and girls being educated. There is no discrimination there; Somalilanders want to educate all, because they recognize that that is what will strengthen Somaliland for the future.
My right hon. Friend has heard representations from people in a number of places where there are large Somaliland communities. Does he agree that the level of remittances to Somaliland from the diaspora is enormous? Some years ago, it was about six times the annual state budget. Perhaps, following this debate, the Minister could consult his officials on trying to make remittancing easier, so that there is more competition and lower charges, and the enormous Somaliland community in the United Kingdom can send money back through the remittancing structure without paying exorbitant fees.
My right hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of remittances going to Somaliland. This Government do not make that easier for people. Their view that Somaliland is locked in with Somalia makes it much more difficult for businesses to operate there, and to ensure that a flow of money from the diaspora community in this country goes back to Somaliland. The FCDO, working with Her Majesty’s Treasury, could take up this practical issue and consider how it could make improvements. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to respond to that point at the end of the debate.
Somaliland is a country that has incredibly proud links with our country. When we have been in need and have asked for help, it has responded by sending its young men to defend our values and our freedoms. In 1991, it emerged from years of subjugation to the regime in Mogadishu—from having so many citizens, including children, killed in cold blood—and it was able to establish its borders once more.
It was able to put in place the structures for a legal system and elections. All across Africa, we are always asking for countries to have proper legal systems, to educate their boys and their girls and to ensure the establishment of democracy. In May last year, we saw the parliamentary elections in Somaliland. They were peaceful; they were calm; they were fair. We saw the roll-out of iris-recognition technology, the first use of that technology anywhere on the continent of Africa, to ensure that they were fair and properly run.
All that goes to show the maturity of this country. In Somaliland, we have seen different parties enter government and leave it without questioning the veracity of their opponents’ claim. Indeed, as I recall, one presidential election was won by a margin of 80 votes. That vote was accepted, and we saw a peaceful transition. I cannot help thinking that there are some western democracies where, if the margin was quite so close, there might have been a little bit more controversy than we saw within Somaliland.
Somaliland has been an amazing, shining beacon of everything we want to see flourish in Africa. It is the example we want others to follow, but it needs our help and our assistance, because around it are real challenges. To the south, in Somalia, we see the challenges of al-Shabaab. We see the disorder and difficulties in Thousands upon thousands of cassette tapes and master reels were quickly removed from the soon-to-be targeted buildings. They were dispersed to neighboring countries like Djibouti and Ethiopia and some of the real security challenges in Djibouti.
Somaliland is a country that wants to be our friend. It is a country that turns to us and asks us to show leadership. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister, instead of delivering the pre-prepared brief that no doubt every Foreign Office Minister has a readout for the past 60 years, to show some guile, some leadership and some imagination—to show that he is a politician, not just a tool of Foreign Office officials to read their words. I have worked with him in the Whips Office; I saw some moments of merit.
As politicians, and as this House, we must show leadership on this issue. We must show our friends in Somaliland that we are willing to defend them as they have defended us. Even if the Minister cannot give us all the promises we would like to hear—even if he cannot say at the Dispatch Box today that we can recognize Somaliland—he needs to go away, sit down and work out how we take the next steps. We cannot spend another 30 years pretending that the reality on the ground, an independent Somaliland, does not exist because it is not on the Foreign Office map. We must respond to those realities. We must lead on foreign policy. We must show our Somaliland friends that we are there for them and that we will deliver for them—that we will not just talk about our history, but talk about how we can make history together in the future.
Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
It is an unusual pleasure to be able to speak in an end-of-day Adjournment debate, because of the time. I congratulate the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), the former Defence Secretary, and thank him for securing this debate. It has been hugely powerful, and the voices that have been heard on both sides of the House show the strength of feeling among hon. Members and Somaliland communities here in the UK on many of the issues he raised.
I declare my interest as one of the vice-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group on Somaliland, which has existed for a long time in this place. In the spirit of this debate, I am pleased to say that it includes Members from all parties and both Houses. Many of them, like the right hon. Gentleman and I, have traveled to Somaliland and seen for ourselves the hugely impressive progress that has been made, particularly since those very dark days that he started his speech by discussing—the atrocities that were committed and the literal leveling of Hargeisa, the capital city—and the remarkable progress since, largely driven by Somalilanders themselves and members of the diaspora. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), the former International Development Secretary, who is still in the Chamber, mentioned the importance of remittances, and the role of Somaliland communities here in the UK in raising funds and supporting projects in Somaliland has been absolutely crucial to that rebuilding since those dark days.
I also want to pay tribute to my predecessor, Alun Michael, who did so much in this place to raise Somaliland’s concerns and to work with people from many different parties, communities and civil society groups, and with different parties in Somaliland, to ensure that our friendship and the progress that we had seen continued.
The all-party group visited Somaliland just a few years ago. It was the first visit we had been able to undertake for some time, and it was remarkable. I had heard so much about Somaliland from Somalilanders in Cardiff and then I was able to see it with my own eyes. We met civil society groups, women, young people, members of the legislature from both houses, and members of the Government. We also saw some of the progress that was being made and heard about the work the UK Government had done to support development projects, trade, economic development and security.
Does my hon. Friend agrees that, as well as Government recognition, we should also recognize, as he has, the important contribution that Somalilanders have made to the development agenda? The Government’s decision to cut the aid budget from £121 million in 2020-21 to £71.2 million this year is setting the nation back, so the Government needs to reconsider that.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. She knows my views on the aid budget—I have expressed them in this place many times, and I know they are shared by many Conservative Members. There have been some welcome investments in Somaliland through the aid budget and, as the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire mentioned, through the investment made by the former Commonwealth Development Corporation—now British International Investment—in Berbera port and the DP World partnership there, which has been very important and welcome. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right that those cuts have impacted on our ability to work on a whole series of issues in a whole series of countries and strategic locations, and they were an error, as we have debated many times in this place.
As has been mentioned, the history of the Somaliland community and our friendship links goes back well beyond all of us in this Chamber. In fact, in Cardiff, they go back to the middle 1800s. Cardiff was one of the largest coal ports in the world, exporting to the world and setting the price of coal, and friendship links, particularly with the horn of Africa, the Arabian peninsula and elsewhere, were absolutely crucial. That is one reason why there is such a strong Somaliland community in Cardiff, as well as a strong Yemeni community and many other communities from around the world, which made up the incredible part of the community I live in—Butetown or Tiger Bay.
At the heart of that has been the incredible contribution from Somalilanders, which continues to this day. They take great interest in what happens not only in Somaliland but, crucially, at home in Cardiff, and they are key in many of our community organizations and institutions. It has been a pleasure to hear from many of them in advance of this debate—I do not want to name names, because I will upset people by missing them out, but all those who contact me regularly know who they are, and they continue to stand up for the interests of Somaliland and Somalilanders.
Somalilanders have a proud history in Cardiff, which also stretches to military history, with those involved in the Somaliland Camel Corps and the Somaliland Scouts. Those Somalilanders, along with many people from across the Commonwealth—from across the former empire and dominions—fought alongside us in world war one, world war two, and many other conflicts. That is often overlooked, but we in Cardiff recognize those contributions regularly. We also recognize the contribution made by those who served in our merchant navy. Every year when we celebrate merchant navy memorials in Cardiff bay and elsewhere and look at the lists of names, we see Somali names and names of people from countries all around the Commonwealth that we have friendships with.
I well remember Somali soldiers coming across from the horn of Africa to the Aden protectorate and my father having the honor to command really good soldiers and decent men.
Absolutely. The hon. and gallant Gentleman makes an important point. We as a country need to recognize far more that our friends from across the Commonwealth have made contributions, and in some cases the ultimate sacrifice, in conflicts throughout many generations.
I want make a few practical points. First, we should recognize the strong links between so many cities across the UK and Somaliland. There are many British-Somaliland dual nationals, yet they experience many difficulties with travel, visas, restrictions—all sorts of things go on. We must ensure that support is available to them. That is difficult given the current situation in Somaliland, and we heard from many members of the British-Somaliland community on our visit about issues that arose if they lost a passport or wanted documentation authorized. They asked why the British Council did not have a bigger presence there.
I met young people who want to come and study here in the UK and build links between UK universities and educational institutions in Somaliland. They are often denied those opportunities. We could be doing so much more at a practical level to support those with dual nationality and dual heritage.
I support my hon. Friend’s point about the need for the British Council to be located in Hargeisa. Does he agree that the Government may need to think about the funding to enable that to happen and to develop relationships with Somaliland?
Absolutely. The British Council plays a key role around the world. The cuts to it have been deeply concerning and have been raised by hon. Members from all parties in the House. The issue was specifically raised when we were there, and I hope our links in that area can develop.
Huge progress has been made in health and development in particular. I have had the pleasure, as many across the House have, of meeting the remarkable former first lady and Foreign Minister Edna Adan on many occasions. If hon. Members have not listened to her “Desert Island Discs” and other fantastic interviews with her, I would strongly encourage them to do so. She is one of the most remarkable women I have had the pleasure of meeting, and I had the pleasure of visiting the hospital that Edna helped to resource and establish. She provided significant funding out of her own pocket. It is a maternity hospital; a training hospital to improve maternal health outcomes in Somaliland. Remarkable work is being done there, but so much more could be done if we were to develop our friendships further and ensure that the support was there for that.
We have seen remarkable progress in education. I visited Hargeisa University, a remarkable place doing brilliant work, where the majority of students are women and girls. That is exactly the sort of example that we want to set around the world, ensuring that young women and girls are able to thrive and seize all the opportunities that should be available for them, whether in Somaliland or elsewhere on the global stage.
Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab)
My hon. Friend is making a powerful contribution to an extremely good debate. Does he agree that Somaliland stands as a beacon of hope and shows what can be achieved where there is a democracy, and that that is part of the reason why the UK Government should officially recognize it for the work that it does and the leadership it can offer within Africa?
The leadership and the example that Somaliland has shown is there for all to see, and it is certainly there for those who have had the pleasure of visiting, as I have. Its progress in so many areas has been long overlooked. Progress has been made in trade and we met many businesses that wanted to expand their trading relationships with the UK and with their neighbors. Indeed, that is one of the crucial driving factors behind the investment in Berbera port by DP World, the UK and others. It is critical, not least when other trading routes may be more difficult and maybe in the interests of strategic—I do not want to say “opponents”—challenger countries in the world that may have a different agenda. It is crucial that we are getting in there and supporting the development of trade links.
The politics has already been mentioned. Significant progress has been made in elections and democracy. Multiple elections have been held at both the presidential and parliamentary levels. I have met representatives of all the parties and civil society. Not everything is perfect, but significant progress has been made over recent years, and the UK has played a key role in supporting the practicality of elections and ensuring that they are free and fair. Election observation missions have often had strong UK support and included UK contingents.
Hon. Members have mentioned the security situation. I would love to see the day when a more reasonable approach is taken to travel advice about Somaliland. There have been recent improvements, but unfortunately, some of the advice that is given at the moment puts people off traveling and building those links. I urge the FCDO to look again at the travel advice to Somaliland and see whether it can be more open because, in reality, it is a very safe place to engage in business, education and travel. We do not want to see potential friendships and links pushed away.
Several hon. Members, particularly the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire rightly raised the strategic location of Somaliland. There is very serious concern about the activities of opponents—Russia, China or others—operating in the region. We have a strong friendship; Somaliland wants a strong friendship with the UK. It is a key strategic location, and we would be very foolish not to recognize that in our global Britain strategy and our wider strategic posture around the world, not least in relation to a place that wants a close friendship with us.
Mr. Richard Holden (North West Durham) (Con)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) on securing the debate. The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) raised the specific issue of strategic placement. Does he agree that if we use our Commonwealth connections across Africa, we can highlight not just Somaliland’s strategic importance for military and diplomatic links, but its strategic place within the future development of the Commonwealth?
That point has been raised with me on a number of occasions by the Somaliland Government and members of the Somaliland community. Although at the moment Somaliland cannot attend the Commonwealth summit as a full member, our all-party group has raised the question whether observer status or attendance in another capacity might be possible even now.
Building links through the Commonwealth and other international organizations will certainly be critical. As I mentioned, it was a delight to have the support of the Inter-Parliamentary Union for our APPG links, because there is a huge opportunity for mutual training, exchange and links between our Parliaments. There is a real desire for that on both sides; again, the Commonwealth could be key.
I end by re-emphasizing the huge contribution that Somalilanders have made to Cardiff and to the UK, and the huge benefits of that mutual relationship of friendship and respect. It is a relationship that has not had enough attention; it needs far more, both from our Government and in this place. I am delighted by the voices that we have heard speaking up today in friendship, support and solidarity with Somaliland: they send a very strong message to the Government. I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
It is an absolute pleasure to contribute to this debate. I often make contributions to Adjournment debates, but they are usually interventions, so perhaps tonight I will get the chance to say a wee bit more.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) on securing the debate. He said many things that I totally agree with. He mentioned the words “union of equals”; I hope that that will take place. There has been much talk of Somaliland citizens having the support of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland through and alongside their participation in wartime activities. That is very important—that strong relationship is clearly there. I hope that our Minister will reply very positively.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, which the right hon. Gentleman and others referred to, I wish to draw the House’s attention to something that concerns me: the situation of Christians in Somaliland. It is heartbreaking that so few Christians remain in Somaliland because most have been driven out by extreme persecution or even killed. It is estimated that only a few hundred Christians live there today, but it is impossible to know the exact number because of the secrecy that they are forced into as a result of the divisive clan mentalities and vigilantism that pervade the country.
Christians suffer ostracism and discrimination from their wider families and communities wherever they are discovered. The few Christians remaining in Somaliland are forced to worship in secret for fear of attacks from extremists. The extremist group al-Shabaab, which the right hon. Gentleman referred to, propagates anti-Christian ideology and threatens converts to Christianity with execution on discovery.
Many women in Somaliland are under threat. The situation is even worse for those who are discovered to be Christians—fearing rape, forced marriage or being stoned to death. I hope that tonight’s debate will illustrate and raise awareness of those things, and perhaps they can be addressed through the requests that we are making.
Our Government have made it central, in the Ministers who have been appointed, that in foreign policy we have a particular focus on religious persecution, the persecution of ethnic minorities and human rights issues. Those are key to my approach. I make a plea to the Minister for improvements in those things to be central to any steps forward that we all wish to see.
I do not have anyone in my constituency from Somaliland, as far as I am aware, but that does not lessen my support for what the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire said. Those who have Somalilanders in their constituencies, such as the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), who has a strong community, know that political factors are at play in the conflict. The religious motivation for attacks in the region cannot and should not be denied, with Christians suffering the worst of the persecution.
All the contributions tonight have clearly shown that we wish to help Somaliland economically, but central to any agreement must be human rights guarantees and religious freedom. We must help if we can. Others have referred to the democratic process and the education opportunities that we can build on, with jobs, a strong legal structure and improvements to health through covid vaccines, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned.
There has been much talk of the history that unites us, but it is important—I love history: it is probably one of the few subjects that I enjoyed at school and did fairly well at—that we also look to the future. The UK Government have stated that they will not formally recognize Somaliland as a sovereign state until it initiates a process to do so with the Federal Government of Somalia, but human rights issues and religious liberty need to improve. I agree that it is important that the UK retains diplomatic relations and a supportive presence in Hargeisa through this process, to ensure that there is no breakdown in relations between Somaliland and other African countries.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for bringing the matter to the House. This debate has benefited from the presence of a large number of Members who all want the best for Somaliland. I believe the Minister wants the best for Somaliland and its people too, and that is what we are trying to achieve. Somaliland needs our help, and perhaps the debate tonight will be our opportunity. Let us not be found wanting. The time has arrived and the contributions from everyone tonig
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