United Nations — Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords at 7:30 pm on 28th April 2009.

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Tabled By Baroness Howells of St Davids

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they will take to ensure that the United Nations can act in accordance with the objectives outlined in the preamble to the Charter of the United Nations.

Photo of Lord Patel of Bradford Lord Patel of Bradford Government Whip, Government Whip 7:38 pm, 28th April 2009

My Lords, this is clearly an important debate with a large number of speakers. I take this opportunity to remind noble Lords that if they stick to their allocated time of three minutes, it will allow all noble Lords a fair opportunity to speak within the hour.

Photo of Baroness Howells of St Davids Baroness Howells of St Davids Labour

My Lords, today's debate is an opportunity to explore the options for reforming the United Nations to re-establish its position as the pre-eminent institution in global politics. The UN was created on 24 October 1945 with a commitment from 50 founding members to provide a strong body with power to provide a forum for debate and resolution to preserve the peace. The role of the United Nations has developed and diversified in the 63 years since its inception, yet many of the founding challenges remain.

The horrors that confronted the Allied and Red armies in eastern Europe motivated the founding members of the United Nations to make it much more powerful than the League of Nations. It was given the organs and strength to go further than simply preventing war. It is perhaps in this realm of world health and the codification of human rights where the UN has had its most impressive and unique successes.

As problematic as it may be to conceive of a world where the United Nations had not been created, it is equally difficult to imagine that so much would have been achieved in these areas without the work of those who have so generously served under its name. A World Health Organisation programme eradicated smallpox. UN awareness campaigns limited the scourge of landmines, HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.

Despite its varied and historic achievements, the central organ of the United Nations—the Security Council—is in a state of near total paralysis, perennially handicapped by its inability to deliver in the face of adversity. In pursuit of two of its central goals, the maintenance of international peace and security and the protection of human rights, the UN has fallen short of its establishing ideals.

When the United Nations was conceived, the shadow of the horrors of World War II still loomed large, not least the collective shame of the international community on discovering the fate of so many in Auschwitz, Belsen and beyond. Yet just half a century later in Rwanda, more than 800,000 people were murdered with nothing more sophisticated than a machete, for nothing more arbitrary than their ancestry. Soldiers wearing the blue beret of the UN peacekeepers were forced to stand by as Tutsi men, women and children were barbarically slaughtered.

Without the mettle, legitimacy or support to act, these peacekeeping actions have even served to worsen the suffering. UN troops with flimsy rules of engagement were used as a human shield while nearly 8,000 Muslim men and boys were ethically cleansed in Srebrenica. Even today in Darfur, essentially the same things are happening with the same wretched and feeble response from the international community. More could—and should—be done. The UN can go some way to addressing this dire need. With these stark and harrowing examples I seek not to shock or appal but to say that we could and should have done better.

We in the United Kingdom must accept our share of responsibility for these failings and ensure that we help to create a United Nations with the funding, structures, transparency and legitimacy to act where it has so painfully failed in the past, a UN whose actions are more than just an amalgamation of the interests of the United States, China, Russia, France and the United Kingdom, and one whose response is not muted and activity not hindered by a structure so spectacularly out of step with a globalised and independent world. While disputes and hostilities are invariably complex and contradictory, surely giving the United Nations the tools to act is much more agreeable than simply looking on as lives are extinguished on an unimaginably horrific scale.

In 1993, the UN General Assembly established an open-ended working group on Security Council reform. The commitment to change was reaffirmed in the millennium development goals but the status quo persists. It is absurd in the multi-polar world of the 21st century that the power of the United Nations is concentrated in the hands of the victors of World War II. Is it not preposterous that Africa and South America, together representing more than 23 per cent of the world's population, have no permanent representation on the UN Security Council? Many of the conflicts and humanitarian crises that persist today stem from the post-colonial legacy of failed states in Africa, yet they have no voice at the table—an oversight, perhaps.

The United Nations has often been accused of acting only in the interests of its most powerful participant. In recent years, that has been the United States, using the UN to gain legitimacy where it could, acting unilaterally where it could not. Over the next 20 years, many believe that the role of chief puppeteer will fall to China. We are at a crossroads where the opportunity to change and enhance the UN sits comfortably with our own national interests. This, perhaps more than any other reason, defines why we should act now in pursuing genuine and systemic change at the UN.

As it did with the creation of the United Nations, the UK should be taking a lead with reform. We need carefully to consider what changes we support to make the United Nations a more effective body. Failure to effect meaningful change would only serve to betray those who fought so fiercely to provide us with a seat at the table. The UK Government's current position is support for the expansion of the Security Council to include Brazil, Germany, India, Japan and African representation.

In a world of failed states and terrorist threats, it is almost inconceivable that the United Nations continues to concentrate its power in the permanent five, veto-holding powers. Britain is almost uniquely placed among the 192 member states of the UN to take the lead in redressing this asymmetric balance of power. Could we not be bold and cede our right to the veto in exchange for a genuine and far-reaching transformation? One could argue that we would gain influence and achieve more in forgoing our veto and supporting expansion than by maintaining the existing norms.

Maybe relinquishing the veto would be too hard a pill to swallow but we could make the Security Council more effective by limiting its use. This could be achieved through a number of strategies from unilateral action to institutional change. All too often the paralysis which befalls the Security Council is the result of one of the P5 vetoing a resolution supported by the rest of its members. One viable proposal is to change the influence of the veto by insisting that no single member of the P5 could unilaterally veto a resolution supported by the remaining four. No single power could continually act as a wrecking ball against the consensus of the wider international community, thereby freeing the Security Council to consolidate its primacy as the authoritative body in maintaining international peace and security.

The United Kingdom is currently the fourth largest contributor of UN funding, supplying just over 6.6 per cent of the regular budget. Yet the United Nations is chronically under-funded, hindered not least by the failure of some of the world's richest nations to pay their share. Although a difficult argument to win in our current economic crisis, we should consider the implications of pressure on this budget and look closely at the need to expand it. Money alone will not be the solution to the UN's ills but we cannot continue to expect it to achieve more while we starve it of funding.

One of the useful things additional funds could pay for is a permanent secretariat for the Security Council. I believe we could instil within it an institutional memory, making more effective the contribution of those elected members.

I have run out of time, so I end by thanking those who have put their names forward to speak in this debate.

Photo of Lord Alderdice Lord Alderdice Liberal Democrat 7:50 pm, 28th April 2009

My Lords, among the great pleasures of working in your Lordships' House is not just that wonderful debates are introduced, as this one was by the noble Baroness, Lady Howells of St Davids, but also the quality of participants with so much experience. To have a debate on the United Nations with the participation of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and a response from the noble Lord, Lord Malloch-Brown, as the Minister, is just another example of that marvellous opportunity.

The preamble to the charter of the United Nations talks about it being an organisation, but I remember some years ago speaking with an old friend, Ahmad Kamal, who was the ambassador of Pakistan to the United Nations for about 17 years and who told me that the United Nations was not an organisation but a table—a place where people meet and talk about things. I think that what he meant was that there are many of the attributes of an organisation that the United Nations does not have. The United Nations has moral authority but for the authority of its decisions it has to resort to the sovereign states—particularly the permanent five and the other members of the Security Council. The noble Baroness mentioned the problem of resources. It is a question not just of financial resources but of resources of people. For military resources and peacekeeping operations, the United Nations is dependent on states agreeing, first, to stump up with the numbers and, secondly, producing the numbers that they undertake to provide in due time and with appropriate quality. On implementation, it is not as in a national situation when one can implement laws and depend on the administration of justice from the police and the courts to ensure that they are implemented. Many decisions are taken by the United Nations and it proves impossible to implement them; sometimes repeated decisions are made about various parts of the world and it proves impossible to take them very much further. These are difficult problems.

One outcome of the United Nations being a table, rather than an organisation, is that it has gradually lost vigour and momentum over the years. If one looks back at the vision of the person who will, I suppose, not be disputed as the greatest of the Secretary-Generals, Dag Hammarskjold, one sees that he brought with him a great conviction and passion for peace and a different world. To some extent that has fallen foul of national interests rather than what the charter calls common interests. As a country, we find ourselves probably better at instituting wars and military operations than in instituting peacekeeping forces backed by the tremendous experience of our military and focusing sometimes more on the technology of military operations than on the capacities of our people. We have also failed to capitalise fully on the remarkable network of relationships in the Commonwealth, which is exemplified fully in the United Nations, not only by smaller countries but by powerful countries such as Canada, India, Australia and South Africa.

I shall listen with great interest to what noble Lords say, with their experience, but I hope that we see more vigour on the part of our Government in this regard.

Photo of Baroness Coussins Baroness Coussins Crossbench 7:53 pm, 28th April 2009

My Lords, when I worked at the United Nations Association in the early 1970s, the late Lord Caradon used to joke that the UN is a wonderful idea, but that the people in it are the problem.

The preamble is wonderful—as relevant and eloquent today as ever. The UN, through its agencies for economic, social and humanitarian work, has pioneered the transition from peacekeeping to peacebuilding, and confidence in the UN must be strengthened if that vital work is not to be undermined. It must be tempting for Governments to let the bureaucracy hold sway and avoid sensitivities. I am glad that the UK Government have shown that they rate the UN as sufficiently important to take an initiative to find ways in which to make it more effective, but I am disappointed that they have not been brave enough to follow that through.

The initiative to which I refer is the 2006 report called Delivering As One. It would be a wasted opportunity if it stayed on the shelf instead of being the catalyst for reform. My frustration echoes that of the distinguished former UN under-secretary, Dame Margaret Anstee, who has pointed out that the report is very similar to the capacity review that she co-authored with the late Sir Robert Jackson in 1968. There was no action then and there has been none now.

Dame Margaret proposes three reforms that I endorse; together they would help to reinvigorate the leadership and quality of governance at the UN. First, the way in which the Secretary-General and all the DGs are appointed should change. No large multinational company would recruit its chief executive without a systematic and professional global search. Political criteria are bound to be relevant, but so are international track record and stature. Secondly, and also in line with good governance, there should be a maximum fixed term with no further re-election for these most senior appointments. Thirdly, there should be a unified budget for all the agencies, to eliminate duplication and improve value for money.

These proposals are well known, but my understanding is that the Government are reluctant to push them, or any of the others from the Delivering As One report, because certain countries might misconstrue a UK initiative. But fear of being misinterpreted is a weak basis for inaction; why not just take the extra care to explain, show leadership and spell out what all Governments have to gain? These are fairly obvious reforms, but they have become too hot to handle, as if their supporters were naive idealists rather than highly experienced and knowledgeable people such as Dame Margaret Anstee. I hope that the Minister will be brave enough to persuade the Government and then a critical mass of other Governments that, if the UN is needed, not just as a wonderful idea but with the capacity and reputation to deliver on the promise of its preamble, these reforms are an essential starting point.

Photo of Baroness Amos Baroness Amos Labour 7:56 pm, 28th April 2009

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for giving us an opportunity to debate this issue and for her excellent opening speech.

There has been a change in the nature of conflicts around the world. Internal conflicts have in many instances replaced conflicts between states, and civilians now make up the vast majority of casualties. The genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia as well as the crimes against humanity in Kosovo, East Timor and Darfur, have demonstrated massive failures by the international community to prevent atrocities. That is why I was so delighted when in 2005 world leaders endorsed a new doctrine for the UN—the responsibility to protect—which is designed to provide a moral and legal framework for the international community to respond to mass atrocities. This means that if a state defaults on its responsibility to protect its citizens, the international community would assume the responsibility collectively. The notion that the international community has a responsibility to protect entails three distinct yet related commitments—a responsibility to prevent, to react and to rebuild. But by far the most controversial element of the doctrine is the idea that military force should on occasion be used to protect civilians. That amounts to a new take on a very old and divisive issue—humanitarian intervention.

In recent years, there have been many debates and discussions about the application of responsibility to protect in relation to, for example, Zimbabwe and Burma. However, I should like to focus on Sri Lanka. I am puzzled at the lack of action from the UN in the context of responsibility to protect. Just last week the International Crisis Group talked of the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in Sri Lanka. The International Committee of the Red Cross has warned that,

"conflict parties must take immediate action to prevent further mass casualties among civilians".

Members of the International Advisory Board of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect have urged the Security Council to uphold the responsibility to protect 100,000 civilians at risk of mass atrocities in northern Sri Lanka. It states, of the responsibility to protect:

"At the core ... is the obligation to act preventively to protect peoples from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, rather than waiting until atrocities have already occurred, as states have too often done in the past".

I agree with my noble friend Lady Howells that we need to strengthen the UN. We need to enable it to act responsibly, and intervene in urgent humanitarian situations. The responsibility to protect goes some way towards doing that, which is why I ask the Minister why the UN has not taken action in Sri Lanka.

Photo of Lord Roberts of Llandudno Lord Roberts of Llandudno Spokesperson for International Development, Spokesperson for Wales 8:00 pm, 28th April 2009

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness for giving us the opportunity to discuss this important topic. We are perhaps celebrating the first meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco; but let us not forget that it was across the road from here, in the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster, that the first gathering was held a month or two before. We have spoken of the way that nations have developed and changed their approaches because of the UN. There are now 192 member nations. When I stand outside the UN in New York and see all the flags, from that of Afghanistan through to that of Zimbabwe, my heart warms. At least we are able to discuss issues together.

People have been given new opportunities because the wording in the preamble of the charter makes us all "world citizens". It talks of,

"the dignity and worth of human people", and of,

"living as good neighbours".

Is the United Kingdom taking the lead in building up the work and effectiveness of the UN? We sometimes criticise and condemn the actions of other nations, but the UN's strength depends on all member states being able to discuss, sign, ratify and implement conventions. The last time I brought up this subject, some time ago, I was told that there were 630 treaties and conventions, of which 156 had not been signed or ratified by the United Kingdom. Has the situation changed since then? These are treaties and conventions by which, it is said,

"the United Kingdom has not consented to be bound".

We are talking about a quarter of the total. Has the situation improved since then? Are we implementing in full the charter on the rights of the child, or the convention on trafficking? These things are so important.

Finally, the action of individual nations within their own borders affects their standing as good neighbours, and the dignity and worth of the individual. I have previously raised the desperate state of failed asylum-seekers under the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act 2004. Whatever the Government's intention was, these people are driven to destitution when their benefits are withdrawn. Is that being thought of in the context of the United Nations preamble? There is also the situation of migrants. There is no time this evening to discuss this, but I have seen them. They are penniless, homeless and in this country. Life is desperate for them. I ask the Minister—I know that his heart and mine often beat to the same rhythm—whether we cannot somehow make the life of individuals more in tune with the preamble to the charter of the United Nations.

Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench 8:03 pm, 28th April 2009

My Lords, it is always timely to be reminded of the visionary language of the UN charter of 1945, and particularly of its preamble. It is also timely to be reminded of how far short we still fall when it comes to fulfilling those commitments, which have since been accepted by nearly 150 new states in addition to the original signatories. It is in that spirit, and having declared an interest as chair of the UNA association of the UK, that I welcome and participate in this short debate.

Are the charter and its preamble still fit for purpose? With one exception—the composition of the Security Council—I would answer that question in the affirmative. We need to face the inconvenient truth that, if the 192 members of the UN were to sit down today to rewrite parts of the charter, they would be unlikely to produce anything so crisp, clear and to the point as the original. So despite all the compelling arguments for amendment, I would urge that we forswear that route.

The one exception, Security Council enlargement, is now long overdue. The high road to enlargement and inclusion of new permanent members seems as firmly blocked as ever. That leaves the other road identified by the high-level panel on UN reform, on which I had the honour to serve: the creation of a new category of longer-term renewable seats to reflect better the regional balance of our own days. It is encouraging that the Government are pushing in that direction. They will need much patience and perseverance to succeed, and no doubt some luck, too. They will also need to avoid overrating our own fairly modest ability to move things on.

The main changes needed, if we are to act more effectively in accordance with the objectives of the charter and its preamble, lie outside charter amendment. I suggest three priorities. First, now that we have finally and belatedly got rid of regional pre-emption for the posts of Director General of the IMF and the World Bank, is it not high time that we did likewise for the post of Secretary-General of the UN? I am not so naive as to suppose that we can, or should try to, eliminate any element of regional rotation from appointments to that post; but surely we need to remove the degree of pre-emption that results in only candidates from one region being put forward at the outset, thus damagingly narrowing the field.

Secondly, we need to strengthen the UN and regional peacekeeping, both of which are under greater stress because they are in greater demand than ever. What is the Government's response going to be to the recommendations of the Prodi report? Will they accept the proposals that regional peacekeeping operations, particularly those mounted by the African Union, should on a case-by-case basis be financed on the assessed contributions of the whole membership?

Thirdly, the recent report of the Secretary-General on the responsibility to protect, based on the work of his special adviser, Professor Ed Luck, is a reminder of how far we still are from operationalising that new concept. What is the Government's reaction to that report; and, if they are in broad agreement with it, how do they propose to move away from a sterile debate almost exclusively about the pros and cons of military intervention in failed or failing states, unable to protect their own citizens, towards a multifaceted approach designed to prevent states from getting into that condition in the first place?

This debate demonstrates what an essential part of any reformed international architecture the UN continues to be; and also how far we are from maximising the benefits that the international community could derive from the fully functioning organisation envisaged in the preamble to its charter. We have a UN that is both indispensable and ineffective, and we need to move on.

Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour 8:08 pm, 28th April 2009

My Lords, it is good to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, with his distinguished record of service to the UN and his recent role as a very effective leader of the United Nations Association. I thank my noble friend for giving us the opportunity of this debate and for the powerful introduction that she gave us to her reflections. She concentrated to some extent on reform of the Security Council, and she is right. We simply cannot go into the 21st century with a Security Council based on what was appropriate in 1945. It has to match the challenges of the century in which we are living.

My noble friend also referred to resources for the Security Council. I remember a previous Secretary-General saying on one occasion that when he was analysing the kind of crises that confronted us, he found it immensely difficult that he was utterly dependent on intelligence provided to him by the permanent members of the Security Council at their discretion. He did not have an independent intelligence system at his disposal by which he could make his own judgments. My noble friend's proposal for a permanent secretariat for the Security Council is a first-class proposition which deserves fuller consideration.

If the UN did not exist—it is easy to say this, but it is true—it would be essential at this juncture to invent it. The sense of exclusion and exasperation among millions of people in the world because they are not able to participate in the decision-making processes of the world cannot be overestimated. Many men and women just like us with the same aspirations as us are absolutely fed up with being told in effect that they have to be managed by a self-appointed elite in the international community. It is therefore essential that we have somewhere in the world system a place where the world can come together and demand accountability from those who have greater power than the others.

It is also essential to re-examine the concept of security itself. Traditional concepts of security do not suffice. We have to look at the matrix that makes up the security challenge—the economic issues, health issues, environmental issues, issues of climate, issues of terrorism and issues of human rights. On financial issues, it may well be said that the UN is not the appropriate body to manage the multilateral financial institutions of the world. That might be so, but it is essential for some way to be found for those bodies to play into the deliberations of the Security Council if we are to have a sane approach to managing the security of the world.

Finally, there has been reference to the charter. The charter emphasised people. People are now looking for an opportunity to be heard. We cannot impose security; we have to build it. That means having global forums where the world can speak.

Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 8:11 pm, 28th April 2009

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Howells, rightly reminded us that after the devastating world war came the horrors of the concentration camps and the realisation that mankind had fallen so low. That must explain why the second objective of the UN charter was,

"to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small".

I thank the noble Baroness sincerely for giving us this chance to reflect on the atmosphere of that time.

It is easy for people to criticise the UN when they think of the outrage of poverty, child labour and the depths to which human beings have to sink to survive, and of our collective inability to change even the worst aspects of the way in which we live. But this country has a good record at the UN. The Government have not only met aid targets, they have made notable and specific contributions to the workings of the UN. British NGOs have also made their mark going back to Eglantyne Jebb's work for Save the Children 85 years ago when she persuaded the League of Nations to adopt the first Declaration of the Rights of the Child.

The UK was among those states that established the new Human Rights Council following the 2005 summit and the report of the high-level panel, and it was a UK initiative that in September 2007 established the Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery. I have seen at first hand the extraordinary success of the UN in post-conflict countries such as Nepal, where the UK has also played a leading role.

Human rights, especially the rights of minorities, are arguably the UN's biggest headache. Membership of the old commission was a constant source of internal rows and an embarrassment to the secretariat. That was one of the concerns of the high-level panel which said that membership,

"has become a source of heated international tension, with no positive impact on human rights and a negative impact on the work of the commission".

Accordingly, it recommended a number of changes, most of which the UN subsequently adopted. The council now has 47 elected member states and, through the universal periodic review, it somehow manages to examine the human rights obligations of all UN member states. It may be that the machinery at the UN is improving. But human rights will remain a highly politicised area of the UN, and the issue could still encourage more fragmentation than consensus. Does the Minister consider that the new Human Rights Council is more effective than the old, and that it has fully met the concerns of the high-level panel about membership?

Finally, the Minister will know that there is a UN voluntary trust fund on contemporary forms of slavery which provides direct assistance to victims of slavery and trafficking. Can he confirm that the UK last supported this fund in 2003, and that the Government intend to support it again this year, six years later?

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Deputy Leader in the House of Lords, Spokesperson for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 8:14 pm, 28th April 2009

My Lords, in a short debate like this, we are forced to be telegraphic and focus on the key points. We all recognise that the UN system—and it is very much a system whose specialisations are increasingly important—is necessary but imperfect. It would be wonderful if we could redesign it from the outset, but we cannot. We therefore have to work as well as we can within this deeply imperfect system. With 192 members of the General Assembly and specialised agencies, it clearly is deeply imperfect. It includes some small, corrupt and, sadly, incompetent states. I only discovered that Palau existed when I read about its existence in the UN voting list.

We have, therefore, to work on an expanded agenda of global governance with instruments which are deeply inadequate. This includes the whole new security agenda, for which we need global governance. It includes population growth—population has more than doubled since the UN was formed. That means migration, it means social collapse and it means internal conflict. The whole climate change agenda is desperately central, as are the communications revolution and all the implications of that and the scientific and technical revolution, which has all sorts of implications, including those for the disarmament agenda. There is also the question of culture and civilisation. I note that President Obama spoke at an Alliance of Civilisations conference only the other week.

What, therefore, are the principles with which we have to deal? First, we have to cling to the idea of inclusive global organisations, not exclusive global organisations. The whole concept of an alliance of democracies, instead of a global organisation, is something that we should reject. I was rather worried the other week when I read the Henry Jackson Society's list of principles and saw that an alliance of democracies was one of the things that it still wished to promote. The Bush Administration were exclusive. Happily, the Obama Administration are now re-engaging.

The obstacles to the reform of the UN Security Council remain high, so we have to work as far as we can with ad hoc bodies. Perhaps the G20 is an ad hoc body which will work for a bit; at least we have to try it. We have to re-engage with China, India, South Africa and others, and I note that, at the moment, China, India and South Africa all have more troops engaged in UN or African Union peacekeeping than the United Kingdom does. So we really need to co-opt them to work with us as far as we can.

We have to recognise that popular nationalism and commitment to sovereignty have grown, even as the demand for global government has grown. There is a deep mistrust of elites, of bureaucrats, of distant conferences on complex topics, and of people like the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Malloch-Brown, deciding things far away from anywhere the Daily Mail journalists could fully understand or keep up with.

What is the UK's role in this? First of all, we have to work with our neighbours in the EU, as well as the Commonwealth. If we cannot co-operate with our neighbours, we certainly cannot co-operate with others around the world. Secondly, we need political leadership for popular education to explain to our publics why sovereignty does not work anymore. I simply end by saying to my colleagues on the Conservative benches as well as to the Government: we all need to explain to our publics how desperately we need stronger global and regional co-operation.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs, Deputy Shadow Leader, Parliament, Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 8:18 pm, 28th April 2009

My Lords, in the few minutes I have available to wind up for the Opposition, I will confine myself to saying that I almost 100 per cent agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Howells of St Davids, had to say at the opening of this debate. The UN is falling short; the core of it does need reform; it is spectacularly out of step, as she says, and far-reaching transformation is needed. The irony is that successive Secretaries-General have called for reform to come again and again, when people have sincerely wanted reform, but it has not happened. Frankly, it is ridiculous that Japan and Germany and India and Brazil should not now be permanent members of the UN Security Council. Japan and Germany are the second and third largest funders of the United Nations, and Japan pays one fifth of all peacekeeping operations of the UN. It is extraordinary that they are still excluded.

I agree very much agree with those who say—the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, is to the forefront in this—that reform needs to reflect the shift away from the old western and Atlantic hegemony. I agree with the noble Lord and I love his phrase "indispensable but ineffective", which just about sums up the position. The same could be said of many other 20th-century institutions, in fact the whole architecture of the 20th century, which includes NATO, the IMF which has entirely the wrong weighting, the World Trade Organisation which is running out of steam, the nuclear proliferation or NPT regime which needs revising, and indeed the European Union.

We expect much too much of the United Nations. Our hopes become almost overweighed in favour of the belief that the United Nations, by talking and gathering together, can solve all the world's problems. It cannot be done in that centralised way. We need new platforms and new networks in a totally transformed global situation. I was glad to hear the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, in particular, say that the Commonwealth had a key part to play in this. When it comes to, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said, allowing the people of smaller and deprived nations to feel that they have a part to play, it is organisations such as the Commonwealth that are bound to give a supplementary role to what can be provided in the enormous and sometimes remote United Nations with its 181 members, or whatever the number is, where voices tend to be drowned in the higher babble of the whole organisation.

I simply end my few minutes by quoting Boutros Boutros Ghali, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, who said in 1993:

"The globalization now taking place requires a profoundly renewed concept of the State. Between the isolated individual and the world there must be an intermediate element. This element is the State and national sovereignty. They respond to the needs of all human beings for identification. In a world both impersonal and fragmented such a need is greater than it has ever been in history".

That Secretary-General put his finger on the fundamental need for a balance between the great UN forum, which has its part to play, and the needs of national identity and the nation states, which will be the most creative network of the 21st century. Boutros Boutros Ghali was one of the best Secretaries-General that the United Nations has had; of course, they refused him a second term.

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN) 8:22 pm, 28th April 2009

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Howells, for initiating this debate and reminding us of the UN's glorious birth and the hopes which were vested in it at that time. When world leaders met in 1945 to lay down the charter of the United Nations, they did so on behalf of:

"We the peoples of the United Nations".

Those were ambitious words for their time, when few of the peoples probably knew what was being done in their name, and they certainly could not foresee the changes that lay ahead of them and the role that the United Nations would play for better and sometimes for worse.

It is a measure of a historical story that I never tire of telling that those hardened battle-weary world leaders who gathered in San Francisco to confirm and sign the charter considered it such a precious document that when it was flown from San Francisco to the east coast, they attached a parachute to it in case it needed to be ejected from the plane, if there had been any risk of an accident.

The fact that the most world-weary group of statesmen, and sometimes women, that the 20th century saw, the Allies who had prevailed in that most brutal and extended of wars, the Second World War, could have come together to form the United Nations and write that charter should give us pause, because the case is made frequently that somehow it was a naïve undertaking. We forget that these were men who had not just seen the horrors of the Holocaust and the brutality of a global war, but remembered very acutely and recently the failure of the League of Nations. They drew up this charter, not in a spirit of naïve hope that somehow humankind was to reform its character and that good would prevail over evil for ever after, but much more in a spirit of realism. This global world that we were embarking on was one where no country alone could exercise an imperial-like control over forces of law and order, or provide security or leadership to the world.

For President Roosevelt, and for President Truman who followed him, the United Nations was an exercise in collective security, where the burden of being the world's policeman would be shared by the United States, the great victor of the Second World War, both with its allies in that war and more broadly with the rest of the world. This was, if you like, global order on the cheap. The United States did not expect that it would step up to the plate to replace the old colonial powers in some system of direct rule over large parts of the world. Rather, through the charter of the United Nations and the institutions created under it, it hoped that collective security would prevent another world war, that the promotion of economic and social development would liberate hundreds of millions—and, later, billions—from the condition of poverty to which they had been assigned, and that the promotion of the values for which the war was fought—the values of democracy and human rights—would be secured.

Many years later, when working for Kofi Annan, the previous Secretary-General, we thought of how we might renew this organisation. The Secretary-General commissioned vital reports, including that on the reform of the UN security arrangements, in which the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, participated. It seemed to the Secretary-General that he could do no better than reconfirm the three basic, original principles of the organisation; that it is should have three pillars. One was a peace and security pillar. The second was a development and humanitarian pillar. The third was a human rights and democracy pillar. We saw it as a three-legged stool. You could not have security without democracy and human rights, just as you could not have development without security, nor security without development and human rights. In other words, each of these goals and objectives was dependent not only on its own achievement but on the achievement of the other two as well.

I believe that this is an enormously important point about the UN. People tend to select the goal they prefer, be it human rights, development or security. Each, in a sense, calls forth an apparently very different vision of the world. The security one is about collective security. It is about how we defend our countries as the nature of warfare changes, as terrorism and asymmetrical conflict, with the targeting of civilians, breaks down the traditions of war between states and introduces new and often more deadly forms of conflict. It is about how we mutually deploy armed force to address these threats and how we protect the sovereignty of nations from overbearing neighbours or from attack from within.

The second goal, the goal of development, is one which calls forth, if you like, a more apparently liberal doctrine of how we emancipate and liberate people from poverty, inequality and from the marginalisation that comes from being born into a certain class, caste or race. This third goal, of human rights and democracy, often seems the most elusive, the most naïve, of all. Yet over the years we have seen that on many occasions in the modern world security is provided by focusing on human rights and democracy.

Let us look at the UN's role in achieving each of those goals. I say to my noble friend who introduced this Question that in some ways perhaps the UN has done a better job at living up to these original ambitions than she may fear. We have seen a sharp decrease in the number of people dying from violent conflict. The best analysis of that—carried out, for various reasons, in several institutions in Canada—suggests that UN peacekeeping has made a significant contribution to the decline in conflict both between and within countries. Similarly, with regard to development, we have seen hundreds of millions of people lifted out of poverty. In many cases, that is due to the bold actions of Governments and countries, but the contributing role of UN technical assistance has been critical. I refer to the role of organisations such as UNICEF or my old organisation, UNDP, in contributing advice and resources to help economic and social development. The UN has also played a role on the humanitarian side, where, for example, the World Food Programme and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees have made astonishing differences to the lives of millions of people.

I turn to the area of human rights and democracy. In some ways, the UN has been critical in promoting democracy. However, turning from the historic record to look to the future, and in response to those who have raised the issue of the Human Rights Council, I have to acknowledge that there is, as many speakers have said, a lot of unfinished business. In the case of the Human Rights Council, there has been reform but it has not been effective. I think that its membership became over-expanded. The reform did not create a chamber which was objective and which could rise above the national interests of those in it to provide a truly nation-blind, colour-blind and values-blind view of human rights. Instead, as we saw as recently as last week in the review of the Durban conference, a lot of terrible things have been said in that council. Nevertheless, we have introduced some reforms which, in some ways, have started to improve the quality of the UN's work in human rights. We have introduced a mechanism called the universal periodic review, under which every member country must present and then defend its human rights record.

Moving on from human rights, there has been an attempt to introduce new doctrines. My noble friend Lady Amos spoke about the doctrine of the responsibility to protect. That is a very important innovation; nevertheless, it is still fragile and, although acknowledged, it is not yet resolutely established. She properly raised the example of Sri Lanka, where the responsibility to protect is very much on display in that an awful lot of civilians' lives have been put in danger by the violent internal conflict. However, to say that the UN has been inactive on this is unfair. It has not, if you like, waved at the doctrine because it is still a provocative one. Many countries see it as amounting to a foot in the door and they do not accept such interference in the internal affairs of member states. Therefore, the doctrine has to be pursued by other means, and the UN has been active in trying to secure humanitarian access. The Secretary-General, like our own Prime Minister, has repeatedly called for a ceasefire in Sri Lanka and for the protection of civilians.

I turn to the reform that has, perhaps, attracted most attention from noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and my noble friends Lord Judd and Lady Howells. I refer to the reform of the Security Council. In that regard, Britain is very clear indeed. We want to see the council enlarged, made more relevant to today's world, made more representative and more authoritative as a result. We have pressed hard, most recently in partnership with France, to try to move this forward. The first round of a General Assembly-based debate on UN Security Council reform has just concluded and there will be discussions to follow. We feel strongly, as guardians, if you like, of the charter, which in some ways comes with our P5 membership, that rather than protecting and conserving that as just a privilege locked in history, we must renew this chamber by expanding its membership, by drawing in precisely those countries mentioned in the debate—Japan and the others whose names have been mentioned in this context—as members on some basis or other. Whether or not the membership will agree to an immediate expansion of permanent membership, or some intermediate solution, is a matter for the membership as a whole to conclude.

In finishing, let me just say to noble Lords that this Government are very committed to this. The question was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, as to whether we should be doing more to press for the so-called "One" UN reforms. Let me say that a member of the panel that led to those recommendations was a certain G Brown Esquire, now Prime Minister of this country, so I do not think she need doubt the commitment of this Front Bench and of my colleagues in Government to achieving those reforms. In fact, a new administrator of UNDP took office this week and already she has had our Secretary of State for International Development in her office arguing the case for "One" UN reforms. The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, need not be concerned. We are committed, because my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has recognised that, for a country such as Britain, our ability to exert influence in this modern world depends enormously on effective multilateralism and at the heart of that effective multilateralism lies that indispensable institution—to borrow at least half of the phrase of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay—the United Nations.