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UN: Responsibility to Protect — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:26 pm on 30th June 2009.

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Photo of Lord Parekh Lord Parekh Labour 8:26 pm, 30th June 2009

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme, for securing and introducing the debate. I extend a particularly warm welcome to my noble friend Lady Kinnock of Holyhead. She brings to this House great experience, wisdom and courage as well as a fine record of commitment to the cause of justice.

I endorse the United Nations report on the responsibility to protect. It identifies four major evils and tries to tell us how to anticipate and deal with them. These evils are genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. I have nothing against the doctrine of responsibility to protect. In fact, I endorse it wholeheartedly. However, as the document is formulated, there are important gaps. I will briefly highlight five of them, and hope that the Minister will feed them into the appropriate channels.

First, those four evils overlap. It is not easy, for example, to distinguish between genocide and crimes against humanity or between genocide and war crimes. Equally importantly, these evils arise differently. Some arise because the state is evil. Others arise because the state has collapsed. In one case, the state is responsible, in the other, the absence of the state is responsible. These two situations need to be distinguished because they call for two kinds of responses. The United Nations document tends to homogenise them and fails to appreciate the need for different strategies.

Secondly, we need to evolve a global consensus on what obligations and responsibilities the outside world has. We tend to assume that the West, or the world at large, has the responsibility to intervene in situations of this kind. There are major powers that take a different view because they have suffered at the hands of the West's doctrine of intervention. China, for example, places great responsibility on the doctrine of sovereignty and does not think that it is its business to interfere when evils of this kind occur. The Chinese have made that very clear in their official policy documents. To some extent, India has tended to take this view as well, because it does not want outside powers to interfere in Kashmir or with lots of other internal problems.

The United Nations document makes the mistaken assumption that there is already a universal consensus on intervening in situations of this kind. That is arrogant and presumptuous. We must develop a global consensus by encouraging a dialogue between the western and Chinese points of view. Both make important points. Unless we do so, we will be working at cross purposes.

The third point that needs some attention is the document's total absence of mention of the need to restructure the United Nations. The United Nations as it is constituted, its structure and procedures, reflect the world of the late 1940s. It is dominated by the Security Council, where five members have the right of veto. The United Nations is seen as just another stage for its members to pursue their national interests. It should become a genuinely global forum where members deliberate in a calm and disinterested manner and reflect the viewpoint of humanity at large. If the United Nations is to carry moral and political authority it will need to be far more representative than it is. Muslim voices and the voices of other developing countries need to be given greater prominence. I should also have thought that the United Nations would benefit greatly if it had a standing commission keeping a global watch on the world at large and alerting the world community to potentially dangerous situations.

Fourthly, in situations of the four evils that we talked about, military intervention sometimes becomes necessary. No one can deny that. But military intervention cannot be the first course of action. When it is undertaken, it needs to be guided by an appropriate ethics, which is absent. There should be clear guiding principles as to when it should be undertaken to ensure consistency in international action. It should be authorised by the United Nations and well judged, because military intervention works in certain situations and not in others. It would not work in Myanmar or Burma today and it would not have worked against Zaire under Mobutu. When the legality of military intervention is in doubt, as it was in the case of Iraq, we should make it a point of law to refer to the International Court of Justice, which would have helped us greatly in the case of Iraq. The purpose of military intervention should be not to run the country or discipline the natives and sort them out but rather to restore normalcy and hope that over time the country, now handed over to its citizens, will be able to manage its own affairs.

My fifth and final point is to do with the need to explore non-military forms of intervention. We have got into a binary opposition: either we abstain and do nothing, or we move in with armed forces. Is there no other way; no middle space that we should be exploring? I should have thought that there are half a dozen ways that we could move in such situations. Countries involved in these four evils could be expelled from international bodies, or recognition given to them in international law can be withdrawn temporarily. We could involve other agencies in civil society—for example, the churches, which wield enormous power. I am struck by the fact that the Buddhist monks endorsed the murder of Pol Pot or that the Vatican itself stayed quiet in relation to Rwanda.