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UN: Responsibility to Protect — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:32 pm on 30th June 2009.

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Photo of Lord Patten Lord Patten Conservative 8:32 pm, 30th June 2009

My Lords, the term United Nations has been much used in the formidable tour d'horizon by the noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme, which I greatly enjoyed, and by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh. I hope that in particular the three right reverend Prelates on the Bench of Bishops will forgive me if I say—and it is to a certain extent like spitting in church—that I have not always been the greatest admirer of the United Nations on every occasion. I hope that the United Nations gets it right next week in the laudable aims that the noble Lord, Lord Jay, has set out. The noble Lord is right: we must always try to help, as we always have done under Governments of both colours. The aims of the responsibility to protect are high and good, but it is much easier to assert or say as some new United Nations norm that if a national Government attack their own people or fail to prevent their starvation then they forfeit their sovereignty, than it is to do something about it in a practical way or find constant and reliable partners to help those who are in the lead to help in this task.

I am also aware that behind the laudable aim of the responsibility to protect there are others who have further agendas that might not be in the national interest of powerful nations such as the United Kingdom. I hope that it is not politically incorrect to talk about national interests in a context where the United Nations is in the forefront. Of course we need to help those who need help, but we should do so throughout by maintaining our ability to take sovereign decisions to dispatch our Armed Forces or to deploy diplomatic pressure or apply and then sustain sanctions or whatever.

Yet I think that there are others who use this excellent instinct of wishing to try to help to promote another and more nebulous concept of some, at present, equally nebulous international community which is going to take over and do all these things. There are a number of organisations which I find rather mysterious but increasingly powerful, referred to as international non-governmental organisations, such as the Open Society Institute or the World Federalist Movement. They wish us to float away completely from national interests, voters and democratic legitimacy, and devise new so-called guiding principles, without much democratic foundation, for members of what is known as the broad international community. They are all anointed by something that I have seen called the "emerging international judicial consensus", whatever that is, and are all supported by lots of new UN special envoys, although mercifully not yet any UN tsars. I advise the UN not to adopt tsars in this concept. I think that the idea of a responsibility to protect is excellent but its broad principles, which I strongly support, must not be hijacked by those who have other agendas along the lines of world government.

Thirdly, we must not let other countries off the hook in sharing the burden of doing rather than sharing the fun and gratification of rhetorical grandstanding. There will always be pleas from others, once the international conference room oratory has stopped, that they are too poor or that they simply do not have the military strength to help, leaving the United Kingdom, the United States—which is so often criticised at the same time as it is looked to for help in these areas—and a few others to bear the unshared burden. I am sorry to use diplomatically incorrect language but it is shameful how little some of our European neighbours have contributed to burden-sharing, not only in recent conflicts but in helping in the humanitarian spin-offs which are so manifest in the world around us. That said, we must stand ready to help throughout—I entirely support what the noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme, said—although I do not think that the UN charter creates any legal obligation as such on members of the Security Council to act in concert in this respect.

Fourthly and lastly—and well within time, as the Whip on the Front Bench will be pleased to hear, let alone the Chief Whip, who I am flattered to see in his place listening intently to my speech—there is one very great conundrum that underlines and underpins this issue, and that is the dilemma to which the noble Lord, Lord Jay, referred. First, do great countries such as the United Kingdom have the moral authority to intervene in anything at all? Secondly, if we decide that we have the might, the means and the moral authority to intervene with some of our allies and friends, any such intervention, however well intentioned, will be seen as imperialism by other means, with stronger nations trampling on the sovereignty of troubled nations. That would certainly be the cry should we be at the borders of a Burma or a Zimbabwe, let alone an Iran if things turn worse there. I, for one, do not know what the answer to this conundrum is, and I hope that next week's deliberations help us to that end.