The International Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:25 pm on 12th January 2000.

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Photo of Baroness Scotland of Asthal Baroness Scotland of Asthal Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office 8:25 pm, 12th January 2000

My Lords, it is a great privilege to close the debate, although I fear that it will be a gargantuan task. I am grateful to all noble Lords who spoke in it and to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, for tabling the Motion which made the debate possible. Virtually every speaker has referred to the noble Lord's erudition, his value and his unerring judgment. I would not like to detract from any of those comments.

In the debate on the Queen's Speech the House had an opportunity to discuss a number of the current foreign policy issues. I welcome this further opportunity to build on that debate. As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace Saltaire, rightly reminded us, next week we will have the advantage of the debate of the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, on Pakistan. I hope that the House will understand if I respond to the comments made by noble Lords about Pakistan then.

I should like to add my congratulations to those of other noble Lords to the noble Lord, Lord Fellowes. I refer in particular to the elegant tribute paid to him by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. The intelligence and wisdom for which the noble Lord, Lord Fellowes, is already reputed were clearly shown in his speech. I associate myself with all the comments made in relation to it. I can assure the noble Lord, as one whose heritage is both British and Caribbean, that I share his commitment to the Commonwealth and that we too believe that the Commonwealth is a valuable forum for discussion of issues of world trade and international economics. I was warmed to hear the support for those sentiments which echoed from all Benches. No one in the House will be surprised that my noble friend Lady Amos and I particularly welcomed the glowing comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, about the excellence and outstanding quality and talent of Caribbean people. The concerns of the Caribbean are concerns for Her Majesty's Government. I can assure the noble Baroness that her concerns are very much mirrored by our own.

The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, was right to draw attention to the changes that have taken place in the world over the 10 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War brought us all great benefits--in reducing the threat of nuclear annihilation and in bringing new freedoms and opportunities to the people of central and eastern Europe. The relief that we somehow all escaped Armageddon was palpable. The world is also changing in other ways. Many noble Lords have spoken about it. There is the globalisation of the world economy and the information revolution, to which the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, made particular reference. Both, unthinkable 10 years ago, are having a major impact on the way people and governments interact.

The noble Lords, Lord Carrington and Lord Eden, to mention just a few, remarked on those changes. The changes are much more complicated than before. We have more opportunities but we also face new challenges. The noble Lord, Lord Lamont, would have us believe that the world has not changed; that we have remained static; that there can be no change; or that it was something that we no longer had to take into account--we did not have to live in the real world. We have new challenges because we are faced with the need to find new solutions.

Britain's foreign policy has had to adapt. The Foreign Office's mission statement sets out clearly how the Government intend to deal with those opportunities and challenges by promoting security, prosperity, the quality of life and respect for human rights.

It is of course in central and eastern Europe where the changes of the past 10 years have been most widely felt. The people of Europe have been given the historic opportunity to re-unite a continent that had been divided for a generation. A number of noble Lords mentioned the idea of a bipartisan approach to foreign affairs. I was pleased to see such clear recognition from all Benches and from some of my most distinguished predecessors at the Foreign Office that it is vital to Britain's interests that it should play a leading role in the European Union. I assure your Lordships that we shall continue to do so.

I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, and to the noble Lord, Lord Eden of Winton, that we see no dichotomy between full engagement in Europe and strong relations with the United States of America. Those relationships are complementary, not competing. They are mutually reinforcing.

The British Government have long championed EU enlargement and are working closely with the applicants to get their institutions and economies into shape. Accession negotiations with Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Estonia and Cyprus began, as many noble Lords are aware, during our EU presidency in 1998. In Helsinki, heads of government agreed to start negotiations with Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania and Malta. The European Council agreed also that Turkey was a candidate and would be treated on the same basis as the others. The advances made by those countries, as the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, highlighted in her speech which laid particular emphasis on Bulgaria's advancement, have been acknowledged. I assure the noble Baroness that we shall seek to anticipate the problems before they arise. I am sure that we all welcome those historic decisions.

Russia, perhaps more than anywhere else in eastern Europe, has changed, almost beyond recognition, over the past 10 years. It is now a functioning democracy. State planning has been abolished. An independent judiciary is emerging. Progress has been made in establishing a functioning market economy. We must recognise that the transition is far from complete, but the direction of change is clear.

That does not mean that we should refrain from criticising Russia when we believe that its government are making serious mistakes; for example, in their actions in Chechnya, about which many noble Lords spoke. It is incumbent on all those in the West who want to see real partnership between our countries and Russia to let Russia know frankly and clearly when we have concerns about Russian behaviour. The Government have repeatedly recorded our concern at the Russian military action in Chechnya. We recognise that Russia faces a genuine threat and we take fully on board the concerns expressed in relation to those matters. We agreed with our EU partners in December to cut EU assistance to Russia and we are continuing to press the Russians to pursue a political solution and to use the good offices of the OSCE to achieve that goal.

We take extremely seriously the comments made by my noble friend Lord Judd about the challenges with which we are presented in that regard. We understand also the anxieties expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. I assure the noble Baroness that Her Majesty's Government are committed to alleviating human suffering around the world and that the Government take all terrorist threats seriously whatever their origin and are determined that terror shall not prevail.

Many noble Lords--I hope they will forgive me if I do not name them all--have remarked that the most unwelcome consequence of the end of the Cold War has been the re-emergence of extreme narrow-minded nationalism in the Balkans. Those pressures culminated last year in Kosovo. The situation there has been dramatically transformed over the past year. It was right for the noble Lord, Lord Owen, to remind us of the consequences that would have resulted had we not intervened. We must not forget that as we look at the considerable challenges that still lie ahead.

Many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Judd, have said that the challenges that the UN mission and the NATO-led Kosovo force now face are immense: the physical, political and economic rebuilding of a society which has been oppressed and neglected for over a decade. We do not entirely accept the gloomy picture that has been painted by some, but we should say that they are making progress. The refugees have returned, schools have been re-opened and the basis of a modern market-oriented economy is being laid. Free and fair elections will happen.

There is in the wider Balkans an opportunity now to press home our advantage and push for genuine change across the region. The challenge for the next decade is to help the countries of the region shape their future through political and economic reforms and to bring them towards European integration. The EU, NATO, the OSCE and the countries of the region are all engaged in that process under the auspices of the stability pact and their own programmes. The noble Lord, Lord Hurd, asked about the size and duration of British military developments in the Balkans. I do not have the precise figures at hand. I hope that the noble Lord will be content that I shall write to him.

The challenges are formidable. But so is the prize: lasting peace and stability in the Balkans. It was right that a number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, raised the importance and difficulties of the situation in the wider Balkans, but I assure each of your Lordships that we are watching the situation in Montenegro closely and with vigilance.

One of the consequences of the Cold War has been the way in which NATO and its member states have had to adjust their military posture to meet new realities. Noble Lords have commented upon that already. We have already welcomed Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into NATO. At the Washington summit in April last year, NATO reaffirmed that its doors remained open to further new members.

Bosnia and Kosovo have illustrated that Europe needs to develop an effective and flexible military capability. That is why Britain launched an initiative in the European Union to develop those capabilities. The European Council in Helsinki saw a firm commitment from all members. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Vincent of Coleshill, and the noble Lord, Lord Owen, were right to remind us that the military intervention in Kosovo was a success. We welcome the support and understanding of many of the comments made by other noble Lords from all sides of the House; in particular, the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and many others.

Our initiative has two key goals: a dramatic improvement in capabilities across Europe and to develop structures for EU crisis management operations in situations where the NATO alliance as a whole is not engaged. That is not a plan for collective defence--that is NATO's role--but rather a mechanism to deal with crisis management operations. It will help to drive change in all EU countries. We need to move away from static territorial defence towards flexible, mobile units.

The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and the noble Lord, Lord Owen, made specific mention of the European Parliament and the Commission. I reassure them that there is no role in those plans for the European Parliament or the Commission. Defence is an intergovernmental business. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Vincent, the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, the noble Lord, Lord Eden, the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, and my noble friend Lord Longford all raised the importance of the attitude of and the importance per se of the Americans in that regard.

We are confident that they share our view that those arrangements will serve to strengthen further the North Atlantic alliance by increasing Europe's capability to act in a crisis. A stronger Europe must mean a stronger alliance.

In response to the concerns raised by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, perhaps I may say that it is important that on 15th December 1999 the US Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, himself said:

"There should be no confusion about America's position on the need for a stronger Europe. We are not against; we are not ambivalent; we are not anxious; we are for it. We want to see a Europe that can act effectively through the Alliance or if NATO is not engaged, on its own, ... Helsinki represented from our perspective a step, indeed, several steps in the right direction".

The Americans are with us. Therefore, we are confident that a strong Europe must mean a stronger alliance. As we consider the next steps in the endeavour, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Owen, that we shall pay due attention to the advice and comments which he gave us here today. I can also reassure the noble Lord, Lord Howell, that we, too, see no danger that the nation state will disappear or lessen in significance.

Tonight we have heard views from a number of noble Lords about the Government's policy on human rights. In particular, the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, highlighted powerfully the challenges presented by disease, prison conditions and the need for penal reform, and the splendid work being done in this regard by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I am happy to tell the noble Baroness that Her Majesty's Government are one of the principal bilateral donors in the area of tuberculosis control in Eastern Europe. We have committed over £1 million in this area in close collaboration with the World Bank and the World Health Organisation. We are committed to protecting and promoting the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the core United Nations human rights instruments.

In looking around the world, there are still many regimes which are undemocratic and engaged in barbarous acts. As many noble Lords said, we cannot right every wrong. There are no magic wands or easy answers to intractable problems. However, working in co-operation with our international partners, we can make a difference. I was happy to hear the understanding of that reality echoed round the House by many, many noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, said powerfully that the world interests are our interests. I know that that sentiment seemed to find favour among many noble Lords this evening. However, we must be realistic about what we can achieve. We need also to be flexible. But that is no reason for us not to be ambitious. I welcome the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Eden, in this regard.

The noble Lord, Lord Lamont, raised the legality of NATO's actions in Kosovo. That subject has been discussed often and at length in your Lordships' House in the past months. NATO's action was legal. It was justified as an exceptional response to a humanitarian crisis, and all NATO members agree that the action was necessary and legal.

The noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, emphasised the need for prudence. I echo that need. However, in response to the challenges with which they have been faced on the international stage, I say without apology that Her Majesty's Government have exercised that prudence with considerable effect.

Our policy is to take whatever steps are most likely to secure real human rights improvements on the ground. I know that a number of noble Lords--the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, among others--tried to tease me to rise to a complaint about consistency. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, did so more seriously. However, at this late stage in the evening I shall not rise.

We are consistent in the goals which we pursue. But different circumstances require different methods. In extreme cases, where countries abuse all norms and rules of civilised behaviour--in cases like Milosevic, Serbia or Saddam's Iraq--we may have to resort to military action. As your Lordships know, we have done so with a heavy heart and a sense of the responsibility involved in asking our soldiers to risk their lives.

In other cases, we believe that progress is more likely to be encouraged by dialogue and engagement. That is not a soft option. For example, with Libya and Iran we have taken cautious steps to improve relations with regimes which have shown signs of re-engaging with the international community. That policy of engagement has led to positive gains; for example, the handing over of the suspects for trial in the Lockerbie case.

I turn briefly to the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, in relation to the Global Witness report about oil in Angola. We believe that Angola's oil wealth should be used for the benefit of all her people. That point was made by my right honourable friend the Minister of State, Peter Hain, in his speech at the Annual Conference on Action for Southern Africa on 20th November last year. He called also for full transparency in the handling of oil revenues. I hope that the noble Lord will accept that I shall write to him in relation to the more specific issues which he raised.

The Government are committed to the UN as the central pillar of international co-operation. But, as the Prime Minister said in Chicago last year, we must modernise the UN and find ways to make it and its Security Council work more effectively.

The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, asked me a number of specific questions. If I may, I shall try to deal with them briefly. We believe that the United Nations Security Council must be made more representative of the membership of the UN, including German and Japanese membership. We have welcomed the internal reforms of Secretary General Annan, and shall continue to discuss with him and others how to enhance the UN's capacities. We continue to encourage all UN member states to meet their financial obligations to the UN.

A key challenge is to define more clearly the conditions and circumstances when it is right to intervene in the face of massive violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. We cannot expect agreement overnight. But the Government are working actively to develop a broader consensus. Kofi Annan, in his article in the Financial Times on 10th January, commented on the changing understanding of state sovereignty and the increasing weight attached by the international community to human rights. He concluded that:

"Intervention must be based upon legitimate and universal principles if it is to enjoy the sustained support of the world's peoples".

He went on to comment that:

"Any such evolution in our understanding of state sovereignty and individual sovereignty will, in some quarters, be met with distrust, scepticism, even hostility. But it is an evolution that we should welcome. For all its limitations and imperfections, it is testimony to a humanity that cares more, not less, for the suffering in its midst, and a humanity that will do more, and not less, to end it. It is a hopeful sign at the beginning of a new century".

I hope that we can all agree with those sentiments.

The noble Lord, Lord Biffen, spoke eloquently about Indonesia. As he knows, the Government welcome the election of President Wahid following Indonesia's first genuinely multi-party elections in over 40 years. I can assure him that the Government are devoting significant diplomatic and developmental assistance resources to aiding Indonesia in its transition to democratic politics, with greater respect for human rights than in the past.

Perhaps one of the benefits of the end of the Cold War has been the increased chance of lasting peace in the Middle East. I should like to welcome the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Wright, on the Middle East peace process on which he speaks with such authority. I welcome, too, the comments made so knowledgeably by my noble friend Lord Janner. The advances made in this area were perhaps best demonstrated by the unity mirrored by those two speeches--something which I dare say many in this House may not have expected to live to see. I can confirm that it is the Government's understanding that there is now a real possibility of peace on the Syrian track.

I fully concur with the noble Lord's tribute to the political courage shown by both parties in agreeing to resume negotiations. The United Kingdom's position on the key issues and our close relationships with all the parties enable us to speak with some authority in the region. It in no way detracts from American efforts to say that I believe that we play some part in facilitating a resumption of the negotiations. I fully agree that the United States's commitment to help the parties to reach agreement is most important. We and our European partners share that commitment and are working closely with the United States towards a comprehensive and durable peace. We are in no way neglecting the need for agreement also on the Palestinian and Lebanese tracks. We hope that it will soon be possible to look forward to a time when Arab/Israeli conflict is behind us.

The Government welcome too the efforts being made in Nigeria to consolidate democracy, eradicate poverty and build prosperity. In particular, we welcome the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, in that regard. The challenges facing President Obasanjo's government are huge. The years of corruption and mismanagement by the previous regime have left untold damage. The Government have drawn up a range of measures to support Nigeria. That includes support for economic reform, security sector reform, reform of the justice system, anti-corruption, human rights and good governance.

Notwithstanding the time, I cannot end the debate without making some comment on the fine speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood. He rightly referred to the failure of the WTO meeting in Seattle. I am happy to assure him that the Government share his commitment to trade liberalisation and his caution as to the introduction of non-trade issues to too great an extent into the proceedings of the WTO. However, I should say also that following Seattle, the present time is a good time for careful and mature reflection about the WTO, its procedures and public perceptions of it.

I assure the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, that we share his concern about the dangers of global warming. We shall continue to urge, as we did in Kyoto, effective action by the international community on that vital issue.

The subject of foreign affairs has been popular because it reflects the experience, interest and knowledge of so many noble Lords in this House. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and I may not agree on everything but I am happy to say that the insight which he brings to foreign affairs is shared by other noble Lords who have spoken this evening. It is a pleasure to reply to such a high-quality debate.

In particular, I echo the appreciative words of many noble Lords, including the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, and the noble Baroness, Lady Young, about the men and women of our Diplomatic Service. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Park, will permit me to say that I was particularly enchanted by the vivid account which she gave. The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, is right to say that that will remain fresh in our memories for many years to come.

I also share the concern expressed by many noble Lords that the Diplomatic Service, the British Council and the BBC World Service should be properly funded. That is why this Government are providing an extra £219 million to those three organisations from 1999 to 2002. Perhaps I may say what a particular pleasure it has been for me--perhaps the most junior Member of this House--to have the privilege of making this response.