Humanitarian Relief and Libya

Part of Bill Presented — Sustainable Energy (Local Plans) Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:26 pm on 5th April 2011.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Nicola Blackwood Nicola Blackwood Conservative, Oxford West and Abingdon 3:26 pm, 5th April 2011

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. Let me begin by adding my tribute to the servicemen and women who are risking their lives in an effort to protect civilians in Libya. Regardless of the international debate on the parameters of the coalition’s intervention, their role is honourable, and their families can be justly proud of their bravery and assured of our support.

As the Secretary of State said, we should not forget why we got into this, and why, even after Iraq, the House voted so overwhelmingly in favour of humanitarian action and the establishment of a no-fly zone in Libya. It was because Colonel Gaddafi’s threats of vengeance on his own people were only too credible in the light of his record so far. It was because he told the world:

“There will be no mercy. Our troops will be coming to Benghazi tonight...If the world gets crazy with us we will get crazy too. We will respond. We will make their lives hell because they are making our lives hell. They will never have peace.”

It was because Benghazi’s 670,000 civilians would probably have been massacred, Libyan troops were already committing atrocities in the outlying areas of the city, and Colonel Gaddafi’s men had received orders to go from house to house and from room to room to burn out the opposition.

We are all anxious not to repeat the mistakes of Iraq and Afghanistan. We are anxious for mission creep to be avoided at all costs, and for the international community’s actions in Libya to present no opportunity for critics to claim that western humanitarian action is code for regime change or wider political interference. Far too often, however, the international community has stood by when genocide was imminent, paralysed by lack of consensus and fear of precedent. As has already been said, we must ensure that we learn the lessons of Rwanda and Darfur as well as those of Iraq and Afghanistan. We must ensure that we live up to the ideals of the “responsibility to protect”, but we must also ensure that all action that is taken is visibly based on wholly humanitarian motives: that it is based on the moral imperative to protect civilians, rather than on the western temptation to impose our own political solutions.

It must be said that, so far, the system has worked far better and far more quickly than most international responses to state-sponsored violence. The fact that in just six weeks we have secured two Security Council resolutions and NATO control of a broad international military force, and have averted a humanitarian crisis as hundreds of thousands of people have fled Libya, is nothing short of extraordinary. I join my hon. Friend Geoffrey Clifton-Brown in congratulating the Government on their leadership in driving this momentum, and on the care that they have taken to give the House regular updates and opportunities for debate. Nevertheless, a huge amount of work and careful judgment is still required if progress on Libya is to continue in a positive direction. Let me give a couple of examples.

As we have learned in recent years, development and reconstruction are not simply add-ons to a successful military operation. They are, in fact, integral to the success or failure of an operation, and short, medium and long-term planning must incorporate detailed development strategies. I was encouraged to hear the Foreign Secretary’s statement that the issues of urgent humanitarian assistance and the needs of Libya after the conflict were considered at the London conference, and that the British diplomatic mission led by Christopher Prentice will be making regular visits to Benghazi to understand the situation of the opposition and civilians on the ground better. However, may I ask for an update as to how DFID, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence are working to ensure there is a joined-up approach on the early and sustained provision of humanitarian assistance, and what role the UK will be playing in developing longer-term reconstruction strategies for Libya? For example, have these issues been raised with the interim transitional national council, NATO command and control, and the contact group, and will there be an ongoing forum to ensure that Libyan people are included in this process? In addition, there is some concern that at this point the opposition may not have sufficient training, organisation and leadership structures to ensure a smooth transition to a post-Gaddafi Libyan leadership. Given that the military part of this operation is likely to prove the most straightforward, has there been any discussion of UK Government support for capacity building for the ITNC leadership? Investment in that now is likely to bear significant dividends as Libya progresses towards stabilisation.

Another problem facing the international community is, of course, that while a measure of protection can be provided by a no-fly zone and the destruction of Gaddafi’s larger military capability, current coalition activity cannot protect civilians from small arms fire or other forms of abuse and oppression. Given Amnesty’s reports of hundreds of missing and detained civilians and Gaddafi’s record of torture and violent suppression of opposition, what assessment has the Secretary of State for International Development been able to make of the security situation facing Libyans on the ground in different parts of the country? Are we able to get a sense of the situation from the British mission to Benghazi, the International Committee of the Red Cross, or the reports of those fleeing the country? In particular, I am concerned about reports of 80,000 internally displaced persons, with 9,000 refugees massed at the Tunisian border. Given that a disproportionate number of refugees tend to be women and children, can the Secretary of State tell the House what measures have been put in place to ensure the protection of women and children in these temporary camps? Protection of Libyan civilians does not end at the border, and the history of refugee planning and protection shows that the international community does not always take into account the distinctive needs of displaced women and girls.

Finally, given the recent media coverage of the Libyan woman claiming to have been raped by Gaddafi’s soldiers, can the Secretary of State give an assessment of the incidence of sexual and gender-based violence in Libya? As the shadow Secretary of State pointed out, and as the Secretary of State knows only too well, women and girls suffer disproportionately in times of conflict and are particularly at risk of being targeted in civil war scenarios such as this one. So far, I have seen estimates of the number of dead and wounded, and estimates of the number of internally displaced persons and refugees, but not a single official estimate of the number of women and children subjected to sexual and gender-based violence, despite the fact that such atrocities are endemic in modern conflict. I remind the Secretary of State that while schools and roads can be rebuilt, communities torn apart by torture and sexual abuse are not so easily restored, and if proper restorative justice systems are not put in place early, the lasting legacy of these events will be to perpetuate violence and undermine peace building.

In light of that, will the Secretary of State tell me what consideration has been given to the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1325 in NATO and the contact group, and in humanitarian responses? As he knows, resolution 1325 calls for the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence and stresses the need to include women in all peace negotiations. It has been worrying that so far in all the statements and speeches of which I am aware there has been no reference to women in terms of the protection agenda or the political process. Is the British diplomatic mission to Benghazi making any efforts to contact grass-roots women’s groups or to establish the risks currently faced by women on the ground? Has the Secretary of State had any discussions on this subject with other UK Departments, or with NATO and UN counterparts?

If the Secretary of State is unable to answer those questions today—I did not give him notice of this speech —perhaps he will agree to meet me, the all-party group on women, peace and security and the Gender Action for Peace and Security coalition of non-governmental organisations, to hear their concerns on this topic. We are taking great care to make it clear that we are complying with Security Council resolution 1973, but the women and girls of Libya—not to mention their husbands, brothers and sons—deserve to have us take the same care to comply with resolution 1325. We have seen time and again that we will not achieve our goals of peace and security in such regions if we do not include women. If we get just one thing right with the humanitarian planning for the future of Libya, let it be to play our part in fully protecting women and girls, and to do all we can to ensure women are given every opportunity to participate fully in peace building and reconstruction. If I can put it another way: no women, no peace.