Humanitarian Relief and Libya

Part of Bill Presented — Sustainable Energy (Local Plans) Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:57 pm on 5th April 2011.

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Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Labour, Rotherham 3:57 pm, 5th April 2011

It is always a pleasure to follow Mr Leigh, who has an independent voice and, as he reminded the House, an independent vote on these matters. Unlike him, I am profoundly in favour of regime change. Much of my political activist life has been committed to regime change, for example against the apartheid regime in South Africa, or in Poland, where I was put in prison by the communists because I wanted regime change there, obviously by peaceful means.

Did we perhaps leave it too late to think of putting other pressures on Milosevic to get regime change there? Had we acted earlier or more decisively, might we have stopped not only the bloodbaths in Sarajevo, Srebrenica and Kosovo, but many hundreds of thousands of citizens—perhaps as many as 1 million—of the former Yugoslavia having to flee as refugees and asylum seekers? I still have many people in my constituency, as I expect do other Members, who came here from Kosovo because we failed to intervene. I would also like to see regime change in Zimbabwe and Burma. As we look at Ai Weiwei, a great Chinese artist banged up in prison, perhaps a change of approach in the regime in Beijing would not be wholly unwelcome.

I pay tribute to the energy and leadership of the Secretary of State in providing humanitarian aid, but we took some time to get to where we needed to be. The House will record that, incessantly from the beginning of the year, I asked for debates on international affairs in either Government or Back-Bench time. The whole revolt started in mid-December in Tunisia, it spread to Egypt and to Libya and it is now taking off in Yemen, where hundreds of people are being killed and where the Gaddafi of Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, is saying, “I’m staying. We’ll open fire and my troops will be protected by British body armour as we do so.”

We do not have a coherent and overall response, and we cannot forget the Prime Minister’s arms sales trip and his remarkable statement in Cairo in mid-February, when he said that

“I am not a naïve neocon who thinks you can drop democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000 feet.”

Well, that is precisely what he then decided to do, as he agreed with the point of view, originally advanced by Lord David Owen, that a no-fly zone would be a good idea.

I do not quite accept the view that all this is a miracle of British leadership. For good or ill, some of us can read papers in other countries, and in The New York Times and in the French and the German press many believe that President Sarkozy was probably the driving force behind much of the UN activity on Libya, inviting the Benghazi resistance committee to Paris, offering it recognition without any consultation with London—and much of it driven by internal French political reasons.

That said, we have a remarkable UN resolution, and it throws into relief the fact that the coalition, for its first period in government, did not have an active foreign policy. It was broadly hostile to Europe, indifferent to President Obama’s United States and very much focused on mercantilism and trade, talking a lot about the BRICs, with the Prime Minister going to India and to China.

But what do Brazil, Russia, India and China have in common? They all failed to support the resolution at the UN, so Britain has to ask itself serious questions about whether we have enough allies and friends throughout the world, and whether we punch too far below our weight, because we have turned our back on alliances in Europe, we are not really that interested in collaborative work with the United States any more, and we think that, if we can send a PM to India or China, that means Beijing and Delhi will fall in behind us as they vote in international forums throughout the world.

We have to look at the structural approach to our foreign policy, and that is why I invite the House to consider this point. I address it directly to the Secretary of State for International Development, whom I congratulate on staying for the whole debate. It is the first time that I have seen a Secretary of State stay right through a debate, and it is a tribute to the fact that he takes the House seriously and his job very seriously. I invite the House to consider the idea that, rather than just going in with stretcher bearers, aid, blankets and great waves of British generosity and charity after a humanitarian crisis unfolds, we look for more preventive development work.

I propose to the House an idea that I have raised with the Prime Minister in shorter statements and in questions. We should consider creating a UK foundation for democracy development, a properly endowed and resourced all-party foundation, which could help us to put into play some of the ideas that we have discussed in the House today, doing so before the event, however, rather than running—suddenly when a crisis breaks out—after the events on the ground, trying to get a UN resolution, to mobilise our rather limited armed forces and to find humanitarian aid.

We have the excellent Westminster Foundation for Democracy, but its budget has been cut to a little over £3 million—about half a banker’s bonus at the going rate. We have development money available, and we are going to give more than £1 billion over the next four years to India alone. I am a friend of India, I hope, but it has more millionaires and billionaires than we have. It has its own aid and development programme, its own space programme and its own military programme. It gives us no help at all in international forums. In military terms, it has rather more aircraft carriers than we can manage—and so on.

We have within our national budget money to find £50 million or £100 million to create a UK foundation for democracy development. It would have three principal goals, the first being to support economic and business development. The biggest complaint from people in Tunisia and Morocco was that the regimes presiding over those two countries were deeply corrupt in terms of demanding a slice of the economic action. I was told that nobody in Tunisia would employ more than 100 people because the moment their firm got big, the Ben Ali family would arrive and take their share. In Morocco, too, there are very serious complaints. It is not all happy development there, with huge demonstrations on the streets and demands that some of the advisers around the King, who are accused of helping themselves too easily to Moroccan economic wealth, move on. We need to promote good business and free-trade market economics. At the moment, too much Maghreb and southern Mediterranean trade flows north to Europe, and very little is intra-Arab, intra-Maghreb trade.

The second goal of the foundation should be to develop political institutions, which the Prime Minister rightly calls the building blocks of democracy. Apart from the very limited money given to the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, we have no facility in this country to advance this. All our political parties, none of which has any significant money to spend on international work, would then be resourced to try to develop democratic political institutions.

Finally, there is civil society, including the media, women’s organisations, judicial organisations and trade unions. As the Secretary of State is here and has done me the courtesy of listening to my speech, I must protest that, of all the cuts it has imposed, DFID has taken money away from the International Labour Organisation, which was set up by Britain in 1919, was instrumental in defeating communism and apartheid in the 1980s, and is seen around the world as embodying British values. DFID’s removal of money from the ILO is regrettable.

By bringing in work from other Departments and from hon. Members, we can create something that is in place for the next stages, so that when regime change does happen, as I hope it will in Libya, it comes not from the air—not because of military intervention—but because Britain is there ahead of the crisis trying to promote and develop democracy, open-market economics and the building blocks of a free society with the rule of law and free media and trade unions. Let this Government’s legacy be a foundation for democracy and development to make the world of the 21st century a better one.