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Poverty and Terrorism

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:48 pm on 27th February 2002.

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Photo of The Bishop of Guildford The Bishop of Guildford Bishop 5:48 pm, 27th February 2002

My Lords, I must pray the indulgence and forgiveness of the House. Today I am on duty in place of my good friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford, who had hoped to contribute to this debate. I was determined to be present for this debate as chair of the board of Christian Aid, but this evening I have a longstanding engagement in Guildford that I cannot escape, so I doubt that I shall be here for the duration. That is my loss because the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, has introduced a subject of profound importance to all noble Lords. I share the gratitude of the House for that.

I want to establish a basic principle. One can raid moral and ethical thought and philosophy; one can dig deep into the heart of all the main religious traditions of the world; but nowhere will one find anything to justify the slaughter of innocent people. Whether one considers the terrifying experience of total war that was our lot in the 20th century, the suicide bombers who blow themselves up in open markets, or helicopter gunships and tanks firing shells at innocent people, one looks in vain for any principled justification for killing the innocent.

I am proud, if I may say so, to belong to a Church which owns the memory of Bishop George Bell, who had the profound courage in the midst of the last war to question the carpet bombing of German cities. We said, post-11th September, that we must respond to those wicked acts of terror by holding to the values of our history and culture in the practice of our international politics. If we allow an unprincipled pragmatism, which can sound so sensible in the immediate, to govern our politics, what response will we make to those who say that the only way we will shift injustice in our world is by indiscriminate acts of violence? "If it works, it must be OK", is not a principle of moral and religious conviction that we can accept.

So let us begin by drawing that moral line. But if the challenges of poverty and injustice in our time are not to be addressed by the route of violence, how are they to be tackled? The despair that many feel that there are no answers and that there is no hope will tempt people into seeking whatever way seems available to them if those of us with power and opportunity are not seen to be facing those challenges with urgency and commitment.

The moral challenges of poverty and injustice are huge, as the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, ably set out before us this afternoon. We cannot go on, through the process of globalisation and liberalisation in our international economic order, increasing the prosperity of the developed world while we leave billions of the rest of the human community behind. What strategies do we have for dealing with those challenges?

It is easy for us to point to war, civil disorder and mismanagement across the continent of Africa, for example, as the reason for so much poverty. There is truth in that. But following the suggestion that we should be specific, let me take noble Lords to the nation of Tanzania. It is one of the poorest nations in the world. But it is a peaceful country which, because it is at peace, can easily be forgotten in the cycle of need in our international community. The greatest contribution that its founding father, Julius Nerere, made was not rural socialism, but the uniting of its culture into one language and one political community. It is a country of equal numbers of Christians and Muslims, of people of many tribal and cultural backgrounds now owning a common commitment to the nation. People can walk the streets of Dar es Salaam, as I have, in peace.

I am told that 40 per cent of the world's population is under the age of 15. In countries like Tanzania the vast majority of the people are under the age of 25. The tackling of poverty can only happen by deliberate strategic action seeking to ensure that the systems of trade and international finance work for the poorest nations of our world. We have much still to do in that regard. Yesterday I was at a meeting, one year on from an international conference on child poverty addressed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. As was indicated there, we still have huge strides to take.

In relation to the issue of terrorism I turn to the Gaza Strip, to which some noble Lords may have been. If you enter some of the Palestinian refugee camps on the Gaza Strip you encounter the deep, seething anger of people about the injustice. This is the feeding ground of violence. We must tackle those issues politically. We must say to our American friends, "Unless you confront the issues of justice in places like that and not simply talk about the violence, you will go on feeding the possibility of terrorist action in our world".

Across our world emerging generations are looking to us to see whether we have the moral courage to meet the demands of justice for the poor and dispossessed. As the prophets of old made clear, protesting our religious or ethical purity carries no weight unless it is accompanied by actions which demonstrate our commitment.

Later this evening I shall be addressing a meeting in my diocese on the passion of Christ. There is an unbreakable golden thread of hope which links that theme to our debate this afternoon. It calls us to costly action for the helpless, and that is the meaning of this debate so beautifully moved by the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, this afternoon.