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Poverty and Terrorism

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:22 pm on 27th February 2002.

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Photo of Baroness Rawlings Baroness Rawlings Conservative 7:22 pm, 27th February 2002

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, on initiating this important debate. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, for replying in the absence of her noble friend Lady Amos, who I gather is representing us in Australia. We quite understand that. The debate has been most informative, with many extremely interesting and convincing contributions. I agree with many of the points that have been made by most noble Lords.

As has been said, we were all stunned by the terrorist outrage on 11th September, which shocked and shook the complacency of the West. We have been horrified and outraged yet again by the more recent terrorist attacks in the Middle East. The Government and her allies have the support of these Benches in their actions to tackle terrorism and the causes of terrorism. It is this second point—the causes of terrorism—that has provoked today's debate. We have heard several noble Lords refer to the links between third world poverty and terrorism. We on this side have long emphasised the importance of humanitarian assistance. That has been particularly relevant in the rebuilding of Afghanistan, where humanitarian aid has gone hand in hand with combating the evil forces of the Taliban, who occupied that country for a number of years.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States last September, the question of where and why terrorism originates has preoccupied leaders and governments throughout the world even more than it did before. But the war against terrorism has erroneously broadened into a war against poverty. Poverty was soon identified as a major cause of disaffection, which could easily lead to extremism in certain circumstances. That link was the theme of the Prime Minister's recent visit to Africa.

The causes of terrorism are wide and varied, as we have heard from many noble Lords, especially the noble Lord, Lord Parekh. It is not my intention to argue that poverty does not contribute to the causes of terrorism, but to emphasise that any problem often has many root causes. With terrorists, we are not dealing with the African poor, as my noble friend Lady Park so eloquently described, but with an exceptionally dangerous trans-national network of political conspirators who employ terrorism as a strategy—that is, they strike at non-military targets to gain publicity for their cause, to demoralise and discredit governments and to gain popular support by provoking the authorities into overreaction. Those are the classic tactics of the weak, not the poor.

Terrorism today, as in the 1960s and 1970s, is mostly about destabilising the West by extending the classic von Clausewitz definition of war as the continuation of politics by other means. The main tools for dealing with terrorists are the same today as they were then: the intelligence services and the police, backed, where necessary, by specialist paramilitary units, not necessarily international aid.

My noble friend Lord Moynihan was quite right when in October he argued that:

"Terrorism is a malignant disease, and like all diseases, prevention is better than cure".—[Official Report, 18/10/01; col. 770.]

That quite accurate sentiment makes it important that we do not lose track of the wider issue by focusing on just one cause of terror. Indeed there is an argument that, far from breeding global terrorists, poverty makes countries more introspective. Global terrorists may use impoverished, unstable countries as cover, but they need money, technology and sophisticated organisations. In many cases, recruits to terrorist organisations have been identified as disaffected, well educated youths from relatively affluent backgrounds. The terrorists who attacked New York last September were not Afghans, but Saudis and Egyptians. The threats from weapons of mass destruction come from oil-rich Iraq and Iran. The very poorest countries are often too preoccupied with internal affairs to foment trouble far away on different continents.

Traditionally, terrorism has been a method used to achieve a specific political objective. In 19th century Russia it was the overthrow of the Tsarist regime. In the Bosnia of Gavril Princip or the Ireland of Sinn Fein it was liberation from alien rule. Once their objective is achieved the terrorists—now transformed into "freedom fighters"—are welcomed into the community of nations and become respected heads of state or, at the very least, are provided with offices in Westminster.

In the case of Al'Qaeda, the ideological war against the West, and particularly against the United States, goes way beyond the impoverishment of Arab territories. To the Al'Qaeda network, US policy towards the Middle East is seen as a just cause to attack the perceived oppressor. That policy includes the presence of American forces in Saudi Arabia, the impact of 10 years of sanctions on the Iraqi people and the American support for Israeli measures against the Palestinians. Their roots go far deeper and their objectives are infinitely more ambitious. They are rooted in a visceral hatred and contempt for Western civilisation as such and resentment at its global ascendancy. Their object is to destroy it altogether.

Those factors make it very important that an explanation of the current inflammatory situation cannot be confined to poverty. As my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever so clearly and rightly said, although the alleviation of poverty should be high on the world's agenda, we should perhaps be cautious about viewing it as a solution.

During this debate, speakers have identified a wide range of other causes of terrorism, including religious intolerance, lack of respect for human rights and individual liberty, and—as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said in his interesting speech—narrow nationalism. Moreover, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, so rightly said, we should not forget to include animal rights terrorists.

Over the years, the factors that I have mentioned have influenced terrorist organisations such as the IRA, ETA in Spain, Hamas and Islamic Jihad although poverty was not the issue.

Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out a century and a half ago that revolutions are caused not by poverty but by rising expectations and by the whole process of development—without which poverty cannot be eliminated. As Professor Sir Michael Howard, the renowned military historian, rightly said,

"historical precedent suggests that poverty itself is not the problem as has been frequently emphasised, it is not amongst the poorest countries that al Quaeda finds its recruits but the richest. Our object in combating terrorists must be not to exact revenge but to bring them to justice for the crimes they have committed and prevent them from committing any more".

The issue of injustice, whether real or perceived, has woven its way throughout this debate, as my noble friend the Duke of Montrose has reaffirmed. In the end we cannot escape the evil of terrorism. Andrei Sakharov, when in forced exile in Gorky, said much the same as did President Bush after September 11th. He said:

"I hope that people all over the world will understand the deadly nature of terrorism whatever its goals and will deprive them of any kind of support, even the most passive, and surround them with a wall of condemnation".