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Promoting Democracy and Human Rights

Part of Points of Order – in the House of Commons at 6:44 pm on 13th October 2008.

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Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee 6:44 pm, 13th October 2008

I reiterate my welcome to my right hon. Friend Caroline Flint and my hon. Friend Gillian Merron to their positions on the Front Bench. I look forward to scrutinising their work closely through the Foreign Affairs Committee over the coming months and years.

I spent last week with the Committee at the United Nations in New York, and I want to share with the House some impressions that are pertinent to this debate. There seems to be a great expectation throughout the UN system—among the people who work in the UN full time, the permanent representatives of many countries and the non-governmental organisations—that, as has been mentioned, Guantanamo Bay will be closed, although there does not seem to be much discussion on the lines set out in a previous Foreign Affairs Committee report, about how we in the rest of the world can contribute to that closure. Some very dangerous people who are detained there will still have to be dealt with. It is easy glibly to say, "Shut the place". The decision also has to be taken on what to do with 100 to 150 hardened terrorists who are a great danger to many people.

We have expectations that the attitude of the United States will change, becoming more multilateral and less unilateral. Of course, we have already seen the malign influence, which has gone from the UN system, of the unlamented John Bolton. His successor, Zalmay Khalilzad, who was ambassador in Afghanistan and in Iraq, is doing a much better job in assuaging people's concerns. In his urbane style, he is able to act as an antidote to the provocative and inflammatory work of his predecessor.

However, we should not exaggerate what will happen with the change of the US presidency. Whoever is the next President, the United States will still have national interests, global interests and economic interests. It is a little naïve to think that the personality of the President will lead to a change in the policies of a country in which there is a separation of powers, and where there will be, as result of the economic crisis that we face today, less of a focus on trying to intervene in democracy and human rights issues worldwide, and more of a focus on coping with the economic consequences of the financial catastrophe that has hit the US harder than the rest of the world. I fear that there may be protectionist pressures in the US. I fear that there may be moves toward inward-looking behaviour.

An interesting opinion poll was reported to a seminar that took place during the Democratic national convention in Denver a few weeks ago, which I had the privilege to attend. It showed that there has been a significant shift among American public opinion away from involvement in the rest of the world, and a greater shift among Democrat voters than among Republicans. We need to bear that in mind, because whether it is President Obama, as I hope it will be, or President McCain, there will be domestic pressures on them, which may mean that we have some uncomfortable responses to deal with. There will be demands on the rest of the world, as well as a more multilateralist approach.