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UN: Responsibility to Protect — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:16 pm on 30th June 2009.

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Photo of Lord Jay of Ewelme Lord Jay of Ewelme Crossbench 8:16 pm, 30th June 2009

My Lords, I am very glad to be able to introduce this short debate this evening, and particularly glad that it has elicited two maiden speeches—from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield and the Minister. I greatly look forward to hearing both speeches.

It is nearly four years since heads of state and government, at Canadian instigation, adopted the doctrine of responsibility to protect, or R2P in the jargon, at the 2005 United Nations World Summit. Behind that jargon lies a principle of huge importance: a pledge by world leaders to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. We need only to recall for a moment some of the atrocities of recent years to realise the difference that this doctrine, had it been in effect, might have made—on the massacres in Rwanda, which showed that the machete is as deadly a weapon of mass destruction as the sophisticated weaponry of the West; the civil war in Sudan; the atrocities in Darfur; and the sustained misgovernment in Zimbabwe. There are others, and in other parts of the world.

The doctrine of responsibility to protect is thus important, necessary and potentially far reaching, with the possibility of making a huge and positive impact on many of the world's most vulnerable people. R2P has also, alas, been contentious. The Europeans have, on the whole, been enthusiastic, though not always at one. The United States, scarred by the intervention in Iraq, has feared that it may lead to pressure for similar adventures elsewhere. Many developing countries fear the opposite: that R2P may instead be used to justify such adventures. The Russians and the Chinese have seen it as leading to an unacceptable intervention in the affairs of other states. So, shamefully, little has happened to put the doctrine into effect.

Fortunately, the new UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, has recognised the need for action and, on the basis of work by his special representative, Ed Luck, has produced a report to the UN General Assembly that will, I understand, be debated next week. This provides a real opportunity for the UN to breathe life into the doctrine of R2P; and for the Government to use their undoubted influence to ensure this happens at next week's debate and beyond. The UN Secretary-General's report makes it clear that R2P is not and should not be seen as some neo-colonialist assault by the developed countries on the sovereignty of others. It should be seen for what it is: a recognition by the international community as a whole of responsibility to do all it can to prevent atrocities in future.

The Secretary-General set out a three-pillar approach for putting the doctrine into practice: first, that states themselves—this is a hugely important point—have the primary responsibility for protecting their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity; secondly, that the international community has the responsibility to help them do so, by encouragement, by aid and by capacity building, and to focus in particular on countries which are under stress, and before conflicts and crises break out; and, thirdly, only where a state is "manifestly failing" to protect its population, the international community has the responsibility to take timely and decisive action to prevent atrocities; such action may range from bilateral and regional pressure on recalcitrant states through sanctions to—if all else fails—coercive measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, but always with UN Security Council authorisation. Responsibility, in other words, is on all of us to protect the vulnerable.

I have mentioned past atrocities that the doctrine of responsibility to protect might have averted, but the key now is to anticipate and prevent future crises. Some of these are already too clearly on the horizon. Let us for a moment consider not Darfur, which rightly gets the world's attention, but Sudan and the growing tensions between north and south, which, wrongly, do not. As part of the comprehensive peace agreement between north and south that ended one of Africa's bloodiest civil wars, the south will hold a referendum in two years' time on whether to secede. It is almost certain that it will vote to do so. It is possible, perhaps probable, that the north will try to prevent it. The result could well be yet another catastrophic civil war.

I was in south Sudan a few months ago for the medical charity I chair, Merlin—an interest I declare this evening. I saw how fragile is the recovery from the civil war. I saw, too, how, within the south, weak government is leading even now to local conflict, exacerbated by incursions from across the border. If to this already explosive mixture is added a civil war between north and south, there will be a massive humanitarian disaster.

The point is that we know all this now; we do not need to wait until disaster happens to try, too late, to stop it. Early warning of crises, as the Secretary-General's report makes clear, is an essential element in putting R2P into effect, so that the international community as a whole—neighbouring states, regional organisations, the developed world—recognises its responsibility to act. There could be no clearer example than Sudan of the need to work hard now to put that doctrine into effect.

Against that background, I ask the Minister to ensure that putting the doctrine of responsibility to protect into effect gets to the top of our foreign policy agenda, with the departments concerned, especially the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence, working closely together so that the tools of our foreign policy—diplomacy, economic aid and our peacekeeping forces—are properly co-ordinated. I am not one of those who advocates the reintegration of the FCO and DfID, but I believe that there is a need for and scope for much closer co-operation between the departments and, in particular, between the instruments of our foreign policy that they control. I ask the Government to look again, as a number of Members of your Lordships' House have already urged, at the misguided cuts in our conflict prevention budget.

In addition, I suggest that we work to ensure the UN General Assembly reconfirms R2P at its meeting next week and agrees on the urgent need to put it into effect; that we make the doctrine a central plank of our foreign policy dialogue with the Obama Administration; that we work within the European Union, for which the Minister is uniquely well placed, and in particular with the Swedish presidency that takes office tomorrow, to put the doctrine at the top of the EU's agenda too; that we work equally hard—I hope that I am not pre-empting here the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Howell—to put responsibility to protect at the top of the Commonwealth's agenda—no issue plays better than this to the Commonwealth's unique strengths; that we work with the Canadians, as instigators of the doctrine, and as G8 hosts next year, to put the doctrine high the G8 agenda; and that we build up a dialogue on responsibility to protect with the African Union, the charter of which includes the important and welcome principle of non-indifference to grave crimes committed within African Union member states.

Speeches about Britain's foreign policy regularly vaunt the influence we can bring to bear through the network of groupings to which we belong. I have drafted many such speeches myself. Here is an opportunity to show what we mean. Finally, Britain's commitment to implementing this doctrine should be a criterion against which any British Government should be judged, so I greatly look forward to hearing the speeches not only of the Minister but of the Opposition parties too.