I think that all members of the United Nations have their faults, in terms of their record of support of that organisation and I do not want to make an unduly controversial speech. But I do believe that the Leader of the Opposition's speech showed lack of an imaginative response to the changing nature of the United Nations and to the changing nature of the world in which we have to live and in which I think Britain has an immensely constructive contribution to make.
While, admittedly, the United Nations remains an imperfect preserver of peace, we in this country must continue to safeguard cur own interests and security in association with our allies, and consistent with the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations. But let there be no uncertainty on this point: the Government do not belong to the doubters or fainthearts about the United Nations. We believe that it is the hope of the human race, and we shall work constantly to strengthen its work for peacekeeping, for disarmament and for economic development.
We shall be ready at any time to look at proposals, which are practicable, in agreement with our friends and allies, to improve the Charter and organisation of the United Nations. It is the Government's particular objective to do everything they can to strengthen the peace-keeping capacity of the United Nations.
Although, in our view, the previous Government may not always have fully entered into the spirit of the United Nations, it must be said in all fairness that all British Governments have always observed the letter of their financial obligations to the organisation. In the past, we have paid our full share of the assessed contributions and have also made voluntary payments to peacekeeping operations which have taken place so far.
We are playing a prominent part in Cyprus. In addition to providing troops and their support, the present Government have recently agreed to airlift another national contingent free of charge as an additional contribution to this United Nations' effort. I should like to pay tribute to our troops in Cyprus in their r rôle as United Nations' soldiers. It has not often been an easy rôle but they have shown characteristic patience, cool-headedness and good humour, and we in the House are proud of them.
It would be idle to pretend that it will be easy to work out an effective peacekeeping system. The conflicting and strong views of all members of the United Nations have to be reconciled. The Soviet view is that peacekeeping lies within the sole purview of the Security Council. Our view is that the Security Council has a primary responsibility for peacekeeping, but that it must be possible for the General Assembly to act if the Security Council fails to do so. This is the root of the present political and financial crisis. The Soviet Union and its allies are refusing to pay their share of the expenses of the peacekeeping operations in the Middle East and the Congo. As the hon. Member for Devon, North indicated, the General Assembly upheld with a large majority the advisory opinion of the International Court that these expenses of these peace-keepings operations should be considered expenses of the organisation.
As I explained at Question Time this afternoon, the Soviet Union is over two years in arrears in its payments, and under Article 19 of the Charter in our view is liable to lose its vote in the General Assembly. I want to emphasise to the House that in our view this is not a cold war problem, and we are not approaching it as such. It is a vital matter of principle for all who believe in the strengthening of the United Nations. We believe in the collective financial responsibility of the United Nations and the right of the General Assembly to assess the contributions of member States.
At present, the General Assembly is in session in New York. The noble Lady pressed me to go into greater detail than I did earlier this afternoon, but I hope that she will understand that my reticence to go into detail is simply a desire, which I am sure the House shares, that the negotiations going on at present should come to a successful conclusion, There is an understanding to the effect that issues other than those which can be disposed of without objection will not be raised while the general debate proceeds. In close co-operation with our friends, we are trying to reconcile those opposing views which I have mentioned in the negotiations which are taking place. With the United States, we put joint proposals to the Soviet Union as far back as last March.
Her Majesty's Government are working on three lines. First, we are seeking a solution of the immediate financial crisis, without which no progress can be made. This involves not only clearing up the legacy of the past but also making satisfactory arrangements for the future. This means an agreed solution to the problem of payments for operations with which certain members do not agree. We wish—I emphasise again—to achieve a settlement which will not be a victory over the Soviet Union but which will be seen as a success for the United Nations as a whole.
Secondly, we see the need for the strengthening of the permanent United Nations headquarters military staff, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Ennals) referred. As the Secretary-General said in the introduction to his annual report, there is much which needs to be done to ensure better, more efficient and more economical peace-keeping operations in the future. In our view, this is a task for an enlarged military staff. At present, it is too small for this purpose, although its achievements under the direction of General Rikhye have been remarkable, given this lack of resources.
Thirdly, we are giving wholehearted encouragement to those countries which have earmarked forces for United Nations duties. The Canadian Government, which has been in the lead in this matter. was host to an international meeting on United Nations peace keeping in Ottawa from 2nd November to 6th November. Twenty-two countries which had contributed to United Nations peace-keeping operations took part in this working meeting on the technical and military aspects of peace keeping.
As the noble Lady has explained, we could not be a participant at this meeting because the permanent members of the Security Council were not taking part in the conference. But we regard the conference as of the greatest importance and, like the noble Lady, we very much support the initiative of the Prime Minister of Canada in this matter.
While we are at the moment playing our full part in United Nations peace-keeping through our participation in the Cyprus operations, we are also looking into what it would be possible for Britain to do in this respect in the future. This is a matter about which the noble Lady asked me for further information. She will appreciate that what we can do has to be agreed with our friends and has to be agreed with the Secretary-General of the United Nations. We are anxious to do only what the United Nations feels that it is helpful for Britain to do, but we are studying closely ways in which this country may make assistance more readily available when required for United Nations peace-keeping operations, with particular emphasis on the provision of logistic support. Lord Caradon, at the United Nations, is keeping in the closest touch with Commonwealth representatives on this and other United Nations problems.