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Promoting Democracy and Human Rights

Part of Points of Order – in the House of Commons at 7:58 pm on 13th October 2008.

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Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation 7:58 pm, 13th October 2008

I welcome John Mason to this House. He has made an accomplished maiden speech, and I know that we will be hearing a great deal from him over the weeks and months to come. I wish him well during his time in this House. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House will appreciate what he said about his predecessor, David Marshall. I was on the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK branch executive committee when David Marshall was its chairman, and I saw the passion and diligence with which he pursued Commonwealth interests and foreign policy concerns through the association.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that, like many Members of my party, I paid a visit to Glasgow, East in July. I travelled by the National Express east coast rail service. National Express is an English company, with headquarters in my constituency, the City of York, and its services benefit both the Scottish economy and the English economy. In fact, it is one of those institutions that shows the interdependence of Scotland and England, and the benefits that links between those two parts of the United Kingdom bring to people in Scotland and in England.

In Glasgow, East I knocked on doors, I spoke to many constituents and I did all that I could legally, decently and honestly to prevent the hon. Gentleman from being elected, and I failed—but he should not think that I fail in every political challenge that I take on. I warmly congratulate him on his victory. Perhaps the fact that his party can mount a challenge and capture a Labour seat that was seen as so safe before the election is a compelling illustration of the vibrancy and the fundamental strength of democracy in this country. There cannot be a multi-party democracy without opposition parties. Opposition parties can be a big headache for a ruling party, but it would be a far bigger headache if we did not have viable opposition parties in this country.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind has now slipped out of the Chamber, but his speech raised the tone of the debate. I know that at this time of night, gastric pressures make people flee from the Chamber—they are affecting me, too. I wish that the right hon. and learned Gentleman were still in his place, but I hope that he will see how Members have responded to what he said. It is difficult to disagree with his conclusion on Iraq—that military intervention has done more harm than good. However, I would say to him something that the Select Committee on International Development said to the Government before the war, which was that at least as much attention ought to be paid to the task of post-war reconstruction as was paid to the task of the military campaign. The real catastrophe in Iraq has been a catastrophe of political mistakes being made in the post-war situation.

The convincing case that the right hon. and learned Gentleman made on Iraq does not, however, ring true when we go from the particular to the general. The arguments that he made on the Balkans ignore the harm that was caused by non-intervention. When he was Secretary of State for Defence, I remember going with a cross-party group of Members to NATO headquarters in Brussels to talk to people about whether there was a military response that could be made to the genocide—and I use that word, which he used in his speech—in Srebrenica and elsewhere in Bosnia. A string of ambassadors, directors and officials told us that it was difficult to intervene militarily, that the Serbs were tough fighters who held down eight German divisions in the second world war, that it was difficult mountainous country and that there was not much we could do in military terms.

We were about to leave at the end of the day when a message came from Field Marshal Richard Vincent, who was the chairman of NATO's military committee at the time. He asked us to speak to him, and he told us a very different story. He obviously was not speaking on behalf of any Government, and he made the point that he had a NATO role at that time, not a role as a British Army officer. He said that sooner or later, Europe was going to have to take military action to stop what Serbs were doing in the former Yugoslavia, and that the longer we waited, the more battle-hardened and effective Serb regular and paramilitary troops would be. He told us a story: as a boy, he had been taken by his father to see the miracle of a Prime Minister flying back to Britain by aeroplane. He saw Chamberlain come off that aeroplane and wave that piece of paper, and he said that that was appeasement then, and he believed that not intervening militarily in Bosnia was appeasement too. [ Interruption. ] I see that I have got my marching orders from the Whip.

On Kosovo too, the right hon. and learned Gentleman said that there was no genocide so we should not have intervened. At the time of military intervention, the majority of the Kosovar Albanian population had been driven out of their country, across the border into neighbouring countries. It was an unstable position, and I believe that non-intervention would have done more harm than good.

As my hon. Friend Dr. Wright said, people sometimes use the terms "democracy" and "human rights" almost as if they are interchangeable. The ideas are related, of course. Both concepts require rulers to cede power to the people. They both imply the accountability of those with power to a broader constituency, but they are not the same thing. It is possible to have some human rights, such as habeas corpus or the right to a fair trial, without living in a democracy, but democracy cannot exist without human rights. That is why the Council of Europe requires countries to meet human rights requirements before they can join. I believe that the Foreign Secretary is right to make democracy one of the key goals of British foreign policy, but promoting democracy internationally is not easy, and I believe that distinguishing between human rights and democracy helps to highlight how Governments can promote democracy effectively.

Western support for democracy has been tainted by the military interventions in Iraq, certainly, and in Afghanistan, to some extent. They make it clear that democracy cannot be imposed from outside. Democracy is a collective concept—without a thirst for democracy from the people, it cannot grow. It certainly cannot be imposed by military force. The best the military can do is to create conditions that allow security and the rule of law to flourish—in other words, to create human rights conditions that permit democracy to grow if there is a public thirst for it. Human rights are a precondition for democracy.

For the past three years, I have had the great privilege of chairing the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. It was created when the Berlin wall fell, and over the years it has done extremely important work to support democrats, reformers and democratic political parties in the countries of central and eastern Europe when they were breaking free from Soviet control. It has done similar work in other parts of the world, such as Africa and the middle east. In the early years of this decade, it lost its way. My hon. Friend Mike Gapes, who was my predecessor, began to rebuild the organisation.

WFD is a Foreign Office sponsored, non-departmental public body. Shortly before I was appointed to the foundation's board, the Foreign Office commissioned an independent review of the organisation from River Path Associates. The review was highly critical. It proposed a number of options, including winding up the foundation, scaling down its operations or transferring its funding responsibilities from the Foreign Office to Parliament. Some of those criticisms were completely unreasonable, but there were some problems in the organisation, and I told the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend Mr. Straw, that I was prepared to take on the appointment in order to lead a process of reform and renewal, but that if the Foreign Office wanted to close the organisation down, it should go ahead.

I was appointed on the basis of leading a process of reform in the organisation. The Foreign Office kept its side of the bargain, and I believe that WFD has kept its part of the deal and has emerged as a stronger, more relevant and more effective organisation. I should like to thank my fellow governors and members of the board—I see one in his place tonight, Mr. Dunne—and the chief executive and the staff of the foundation. I should also like to thank the staff of the political parties who implement the party-to-party foundation programmes, and the Foreign Office officials and Ministers who have supported the foundation during the three years for which I have been in the chair.

During those three years, we have put through quite a number of reforms. We have concentrated the foundation's resources so that it now has greater impact in fewer countries and fewer specialised fields of work. We have moved the foundation's focus from being a London-based grant giver funding one-off projects to being a manager of sustained programmes of work over several years. That has led us to move some of our permanent staff from working in London to working in the field. We have reduced the percentage of the budget being spent on administration, and taken the difficult decision to make some senior management posts redundant. We have also increased our overall funding without increasing administration—

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