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Promoting Democracy and Human Rights

Part of Points of Order – in the House of Commons at 7:10 pm on 13th October 2008.

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Photo of Malcolm Rifkind Malcolm Rifkind Conservative, Kensington and Chelsea 7:10 pm, 13th October 2008

I very much agree with the final remarks of Mike Gapes, but when he deplores Russian recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia he should remember that the road to South Ossetia and Abkhazia began in Kosovo. There is a clear connection between those events, to which I shall return in a few moments.

May I say in what I hope is a non-partisan way that I think that there is a basic confusion at present in the Government's whole approach to the promotion of democracy and human rights? If there was one defining feature of the first 10 years of this Labour Government, especially under Tony Blair and the late Robin Cook, it was the belief not only that there should be ethical foreign policy but that there would be occasions—perhaps more than in the past—when the west had to show, not simply by soft power and diplomatic means, but by the use of military power, its willingness and determination to change the political situation in other countries: to use military power to intervene not simply to prevent aggression, but to advance human rights or ensure regime change.

That approach was very much associated with Tony Blair, but the point has been repeated by the current Foreign Secretary. He does not spend much time on it, but in some of his speeches he has emphasised the point that military intervention must be part of the Government's armoury as they seek to advance democracy and human rights. It was significant that the Minister for Europe, who opened the debate, said not a word about that. Indeed, even when I asked her views she had nothing to say of any significance as to whether that was the Government's position. I hope that we shall have a view about it.

I declare my position in a simple and straightforward fashion: I have always believed that almost without exception it is a gross and foolish mistake to intervene in a military way in the internal affairs of another state. I argue that case not on some theoretical ground of national sovereignty—it is often alleged that people who take the view that I take have an objection to breaching national sovereignty even when there is the most serious abuse of human rights. That is not my position. It is the position of the Russian Government and of the Chinese Government, but it is not my view, which is simple: almost without exception, intervention in the internal affairs of another country, using military might, creates more harm than good. It ends up creating more problems than it solves and people will live to regret that fact.

The issue is not about humanitarian intervention. When the Conservative Government were in power, I was responsible as Defence Secretary for the humanitarian intervention in Bosnia. We sent many thousands of British troops to help to provide food supplies and aid for people who would otherwise have starved. What we refused to do was intervene on one side or another, in a military sense, in the war being conducted at the time. We were criticised for that, but in light of the present Government's experience, both in Kosovo and in Bosnia, the arguments are profound.

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