Tony Blair 'proud' of UK role in Sierra Leone

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair Credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Tony Blair has told ITV News that he is proud of Britain's intervention in Sierra Leone and that he sees it as one factor in helping the country to get back on its feet.

Speaking ahead of today's momentous verdict on Charles Taylor, he said that the trial process will help the people of Sierra Leone to "draw a line under their past".

He told ITV News' Mark Austin that he has vivid memories of seeing child amputees on his visits to Sierra Leone, and he said there was a "very powerful humanitarian reason" for British aid going to the country.

He also said he still believes that the decision to send British forces to intervene in the civil war was the right decisions, because Sierra Leone's fledgling democracy was at risk from "a group of murderous thugs and gangsters".

Initially, 1,000 British soldiers were sent in May 2000 to help with the evacuation of foreign nationals, but their role evolved into providing logistical support for the UN forces and training to the Government forces.

UK troops also assisted in capturing the rebel leader, Foday Sankoh, and helped to form a military strategy which eventually forced the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) to retreat from Freetown.

Read the full transcript of the interview below:

  • How important do you think the trial process has been for Sierra Leone?

It is really important for Sierra Leone to have had the trial process because what people have got to understand is they engaged in this attempt to damage democracy and kill and harm people. In the course of that then, there is going to be a comeback, there's going to be a moment of accountability. So I think it is very important for people in Sierra Leone, even though primarily they are focused on their future and all the challenges they have, to draw a line under their past.

  • Originally the plan was to get British citizens and foreigners out - an evacuation. At what stage did it become a more robust intervention?

We could see a country for whom in days gone by we'd been responsible which was a democracy that was just starting to get on its feet. Basically going to be taken over by a group of gangsters who were going to exploit its resources, kill a large number of its people. So my military belief that they at the time they could do the operation and I was willing for them to do it, that if they felt we could do it that we should do it. And it was done brilliantly by the British armed forces and really within a pretty short space of time, a relatively small force was able to subdue the rebels and produce some order and everything that has flown for Sierra Leone since then has come from that intervention.

A chinook takes off as British soldiers wait on a van near the UN headquarters on the outskirts of Freetown, Sierra Leone, May 2000 Credit: REUTERS/Dylan Martinez
  • What sort of progress has Sierra Leone made in the 10 years or so since peace broke out?

Sierra Leone has made enormous progress, I mean look, if you are there you are still looking at poverty, the need for jobs, the development issues which are colossal. All of those challenges are there but remember this was a country that as in a way expressed by the film Blood Diamond was a by-word for civil war, anarchy and misery. It is now on its feet, able to hold and have proper democratic elections. It actually now has gone up the league in terms of big reductions in child mortality and maternal mortality. You've got the basis for the infrastructure now happening in the country and the future of Sierra Leone is potentially very bright today. So the challenges are manifest but I would be optimistic not pessimistic about the future.

  • Thousands of people were killed during the civil war, many children were mutilated. Do you regret not getting involved earlier?

I think we got involved realistically as soon as we could because it had to be apparent that everything else had failed otherwise it would be very hard to justify it. I will never forget going to Sierra Leone shortly after the intervention took place and seeing many of the children and the citizens with their right arms cut off where the rebels, the gangster group had essentially in order to deter them from voting because people used to raise their right arm to say they want the right to vote and they would cut it off in order to say you're not having it. And when you see something as gruesome and graphic as that you realise how important it is in these circumstance that somebody somewhere was prepared to go and stand-by them.

A British soldier on guard at Lungi Airport in Sierra Leone Credit: MoD
  • Britain has spent probably hundreds of millions of pounds on Sierra Leone in terms of aid. Do you think it is right that a country like Sierra Leone gets that kind of aid?

These are things that we should do because there is humanitarian justification and for example the fact that the UK along with other development partners and with the government now functioning there has cut child mortality roughly in half. I mean that is thousands of lives every year saved. I think that is a very powerful humanitarian reason for it. I also happen to think that the 21st century is going to see an Africa on the move and this is a great investment for us, for our future. These are all countries in this part of Africa who will be great partners for us, will provide us and help us with jobs for our economy and the future.

  • Sierra Leone is still a country of 70% poverty. One in four children don't even reach the age of five. It is still real a mess.

It is one of the poorest countries in the world. Actually the figure is no longer one in 4, it is more like 1 in 7 or 1 in 8. That is massively too high but shows what can be done and that was partly done with help from British aid. Also, their economy has moved, infrastructure has been built. The lights are on in Freetown for first time in many years. Things are happening. They are always going to happen too slowly. Sierra Leone today is a country with a future. Whereas if you go back 10 or 15 years or so the future looked bleak or non existent.

  • Are you proud of the intervention?

I think Britain as a whole can be immensely proud of what it has done for Sierra Leone and what it is doing. It is not often you get a situation in which the clarity is so obvious. Either you intervened or this country's democracy was given over to a murderous group of thugs and gangsters. The intervention was successful, The country has been struggling, it is still struggling but it is on its feet and is able to move forward which is a great thing.

  • You are very popular there, probably more so than here. Do you enjoy that popularity?

It is always nice to be popular somewhere. Frankly, I think this was something I remember at the time was in one sense a very difficult decision to make in another was was other was an instantaneous decision. We could help, we did help we should regret helping people in these circumstances. I think it is not so much me being popular. Britain who used to me known on the continent as a colonial ruler, it is a mixed legacy in many ways for obvious reasons. Now I think people do see us as a partner. By the way that in the end will be a very good thing for us too.

  • Do you think what happened in Kosovo and Sierra Leone emboldened you to move over to Iraq and Afghanistan or were they different things?

They were very different. Except in this sense, Iraq and Afghanistan were very different interventions in very different circumstances but one thing is the same in all of them which is that you had people living under the most brutal oppression and circumstances of deprivation really and I don't think we should ever feel bad about liberating people from that situation. The circumstances in Iraq and Afghanistan are just so much bigger and there are so many other factors but in Kosovo and Sierra Leone I think we did demonstrate how if you do intervene you can give people a much better future. And if you don't by the way as we learned in the early 90s in the Balkans when we didn't then that is also a decision with consequences in which many people die.