Britain's role in Sierra Leone: Prime Minister's broadcast, Friday 19 May 2000
There are many things about this country which make us proud. But close to the top of any list must come our Armed Forces.
Their professionalism and courage has earned respect right across the world. Their discipline and dedication make them first choice for peace-keeping and humanitarian operations. Again right round the world.
There are many people, in many different parts of the globe, who have reason to thank our servicemen and women. And to that list in recent days can be added the people of Sierra Leone.
From the day of their arrival in this West African country, British paratroopers have helped to bring new stability and hope to a people who have suffered terribly.
It is difficult for us to comprehend what the ordinary civilians of this country have endured at the hands of so-called 'rebels' trying to undermine a democratically-elected Government and trying to do so through a campaign of terror.
This isn't war as we understand it. It is an appalling savagery inflicted upon the civilian population in which rape and slavery and mutilation are the everyday weapons.
It's a campaign of butchery in which - as we've all seen on our television screens - young children have had their arms and their legs hacked off as a warning to others.
When the British forces arrived in Sierra Leone, the rebels were again in full advance and close to the capital Freetown.
There was understandable fear among the civilian population. Government forces were demoralised. The multi-national UN peace-keeping mission faced a worsening situation without the right equipment or manpower.
The main task for the British forces was to help evacuate safely the hundreds of British citizens who risked being trapped in Sierra Leone.
It meant securing the main airport so the airlift could take place peacefully. But the airport was also the key to reinforcing the UN force in Sierra Leone to give them the forces and firepower necessary to restore peace.
And the best hope for Sierra Leone in the long-term is an effective and capable UN force.
So we agreed that we would hold the airport to enable the UN to fly in the reinforcements they needed. It is a task that as ever our troops have performed with enormous skill and courage.
I should emphasise our forces are not there as combat troops. They are not there to fight a civil war. Their task is to get British citizens out - and those UN reinforcements in.
They are also working closely, as part of their role, with the UN forces already on the ground, giving them logistic support and advice.
But our troops do, of course, have the right and equipment to defend themselves robustly if anyone attacks them. It's a right they have already used - and will use again if necessary.
It is an uncertain situation there. There are, of course, risks. But what is certain is that, as I record this, the presence of the red berets has already made a real difference.
They've helped hundreds of British and other nationals fly to safety. Raised morale among the UN forces and the troops of the Sierra Leone Government.
And perhaps, most of all, re-assured the people of Sierra Leone by demonstrating the rest of the world would not abandon them to their fate.
Our forces there are doing a magnificent job. We've every reason to be proud of them.
I know there are those, of course, who believe that we should do nothing beyond offer some words of sympathy and condemnation. But that would be to turn our back in effect on those poor defenceless people in Sierra Leone, when we could do something to help them. It's one of the reasons why Britain counts in the world. Britain is seen to have values and be prepared to back them up.
And Britain's strength in the world matters. It matters not just for what we can do for people but for our influence, for jobs, for investment.
It is also in our national interest to do what we can to support the United Nations and to tackle instability in world affairs wherever we can.
None of it means that we help in every crisis. We can't do that. We can't take responsibility for every conflict. But where we can help, we should. Especially where, as in Sierra Leone, we have historic responsibilities and where our own interests are also at stake.
For instability, even thousands of miles away, can lead, for instance, to fewer jobs back home, to more drugs on our streets, more refugees in the world.
And one of the main reasons for Britain's strength, for Britain's ability to affect stability in the world, is our Armed Forces.
They don't want to stand idly by when they can help. They know better than anyone the risks they run, but they know also that this is what they have been trained to do better than anyone else in the world.
They understand that it was only their swift deployment, their work, that helped rescue our citizens and, by supporting the UN, has given Sierra Leone and the millions of people there, the chance of a better future.
It's why they deserve our support, and our thanks.