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Poverty and Terrorism

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:39 pm on 27th February 2002.

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Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 6:39 pm, 27th February 2002

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, has raised a very difficult question. I support his analysis that the poor are not to be blamed yet again for our discomfort. The Question easily leads us into a cul-de-sac because it is said that poverty can be a breeding ground for terrorism. But even if all the Chancellor's highly publicised dreams—I should like to believe in them—were to come true, we would still be unable to smooth over all the wrinkles of the developing world. We have to deal with the world as it is and try to work out what lies behind the appalling acts of terrorism that we have seen.

The gunmen who opened fire in a Rawalpindi mosque yesterday, or the murderers of Daniel Pearl, will be found only through the normal process of the police and intelligence services—and they need more support than ever.

Poverty is only one indirect cause. A more obvious one is oppression, which afflicts rich and poor alike. VS Naipaul said oppression does not exist—the noble Lord, Lord Desai, may agree with him—but it is widely understood to be an abuse of power. It is one of the conditions of man which leads to frustration and intolerance and, ultimately, to violence or terror.

Another much quoted cause is the disaffection of youth—the revolt against authority which thrives on poverty and oppression, although it comes in almost every family. Linked with this is religious indoctrination—the pressure on young men and women to conform and fight for a particular fundamentalist credo.

The corollary is militancy, the love of fighting which persists in many societies. Who is surprised by the aggression of tribesmen, for example, in Yemen, Sudan or Afghanistan until it is directed towards foreign embassies or a financial centre in Manhattan? As the world contracts, such violent cultural and religious clashes are bound to be more frequent, and they are not cured simply by freezing bank accounts or denying passports.

What about the actual ideological causes which can lead to uprising and intifada? All this is now branded as terrorism. One familiar example for us is the resistance against the Germans in occupied France. Surely all of us, or our parents, would have attempted to join that resistance, or at least would have sympathised with it. As has been said, there is a very fine line between soldiers in uniform and guerrillas who resist occupation. Is the terror on the side of the state or on that of the resistance fighter? In Zimbabwe, the Middle East and many areas on the brink of civil war, this line has eventually to be drawn.

The yardstick of terror is fear among the civilian population, and the reality in the West Bank and Gaza today is that there are terrorists on both sides putting fear into the population. We all know, and have heard again, that one-time terrorists are also fighters turned politicians who become our respected friends, our trading partners and even our allies in the coalition against terrorism.

There are also much wider cultural causes. I do not doubt that Anglo-Saxon superiority in its various economic and political forms plays a role in this vicious prejudice born of poverty, oppression and madness. Here I advocate world awareness and citizenship, which is the language of contemporary education. We have started on this road under this Government and we must stay on it.

The US likewise. But why is it that the American view of foreign affairs still looks like cowboys and Indians? The Government, by placing themselves so close to the United States, are entering a dangerous world of black-and-white solutions—a world which Europeans have long rejected. I am thinking, of course, of the US policy in countries such as Sudan, Israel-Palestine, Iraq and other points further east on the famous "axis of evil".

We all hope that the US will play a more significant part in eradicating poverty, but now that the Taliban has been defeated, will the US pay more attention to the plight of the people of Afghanistan? Weeks after the Tokyo conference, the aid agencies are still waiting for that answer, because on so many battlefields they have too often seen billions of dollars of military hardware rolling along past forgotten civilians.

Our Government have an important role in Afghanistan. They have made bold statements about poverty in Africa and parts of Asia. Gordon Brown and Clare Short have taken a strong stand, but the latest aid statistics from DfID tell their own story. The international development targets are becoming more elusive. Education and infant mortality have improved and yet adult literacy in countries such as Yemen, Mauritania and even Pakistan is still as low as 40 per cent, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan.

The latest partnership in Africa is not adequate. The unpayable debt relief and trade programmes are regarded as more effective routes to poverty alleviation, but there are no new initiatives which suggest that developed countries are making significant concessions.

In conclusion, areas of terrorism may coincide with the world's poorest societies, and NGOs continue to do their essential work. But at a higher level there is little to indicate a major shift in policy resulting from September 11th. All we are seeing is a half-hearted political coalition against terrorism. In the Middle East, the latest Saudi moves are encouraging, but unless General Sharon can be forced into a settlement—this is at the heart of our anti-terrorist campaign—the US and Britain, in the name of anti-terrorism, will, in effect, connive at continuing illegal occupation and persecution of both Palestinians and the substantial and growing Israeli minority who would like to see an immediate cessation of violence.