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UN: Responsibility to Protect — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:45 pm on 30th June 2009.

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Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 8:45 pm, 30th June 2009

My Lords, I shall, if I may, be the first to congratulate the right reverend Prelate on his maiden speech. He brings wisdom not only across the Thames, as he mentioned, having been the Archbishop's secretary for ecumenical affairs, but across the Tiber as governor of the Anglican Centre in Rome from 1990 when he also joined the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. I think I can say that he was the senior Franciscan "Brother of Penance" because he led the ancient Third Order of St Francis in its European province from 1991 to 1996. He is also chair of the Liturgical Commission. He has obviously set a very good example because his sons, Aidan and Gregory, are both ordained priests. We look forward very much to his future contributions.

I speak as a former staff member and trustee of Christian Aid and I thank my noble friend for introducing the debate. My experience is of small-scale projects where outcomes are measurable and perceptible, and so I can feel a warm glow inside sometimes, unlike my friends who have had to wrestle with great international institutions. I feel empathy with those, both in government and outside, who have promoted civil society within the international system, such as Mr Bernard Kouchner. However, I have misgivings about the ambitions of some human rights workers and politicians to effect regime change in places such as Burma within the new UN doctrine.

The doctrine has already gained support in Westminster, I hear. A group of MPs led by Mr John Bercow, the new Speaker, have signed a resolution in support of responsibility to protect in Burma, so it is coming close. Many people regard parts of the world such as the Congo as a priority for the UN because of the extent of human rights violations over a long period. I admire the way in which the UN force MONUC has survived with the minimum of personnel in very small, remote outposts, and I admire still more how experienced NGOs, such as CARE International and Merlin, have been able to offer protection to thousands of displaced families with very little back-up and protection and rarely any local recognition.

It is precisely because of those years of conflict and neglect in those countries that it would be absurd to pretend that the world has a duty to protect all its vulnerable citizens, because manifestly it does not and cannot. Either the infrastructure is there or there is no political will to do it. The same goes for Zimbabwe and other countries where tyranny has presided over various forms of chaos. This doctrine is evolving and the world has to pick and choose to implement it. Protection, child protection in particular, has long been a hallowed concept within the UN and the civil society extended family.

The General Assembly did well to introduce the R2P doctrine because it belongs directly to the rights-based tradition, but there are many grey areas. Protection can be a de facto consequence of any humanitarian programme. Social exclusion, for example, is an area of development abroad where the responsibility to protect can work with very specific targeted aid programmes, but it will not be among the programme objectives—it just has to happen. I am thinking of work among the Dalit communities in India where there may be daily violence against the low-caste with limited protection from the NGOs trying to defend them.

I am also thinking of various projects of NGOs in various parts of Afghanistan. Here I feel that NGOs are different. They constantly have to stretch their own security rules to the limit because of a separate moral responsibility, while the UN agencies are more likely to operate strictly within the brief. One thinks of UNRWA staff in Gaza. It depends on the personality of the people involved. Only rarely will the off-duty work of an NGO be recognised by the national Government.

I hope that I have a healthy scepticism about what the UN can do. I wish that it could have done more in Palestine and Sri Lanka, but the odds were stacked against it, including the world's apathy. It is easy to list the failures of the international system and difficult to discern what my noble friend Lord Hannay, who cannot be in his place, recently called the,

"emerging patches of genuine progress and rules-based order".

The work with the International Criminal Court and peacekeeping in the Balkans and east Africa are good examples of this.

The implementation of a responsibility to protect is a constant challenge in Africa—I am glad that my noble friend mentioned Sudan. Iraq has so dominated the airwaves that the UN has had no chance of showing its successes. I have had recent personal experience of the remarkable achievement of the UN in Nepal and Kenya, though these cases, too, may be listed as unfinished business. Everything in UN terms is unfinished business. I recognise the particular role of our own diplomats in these examples.

I pay tribute to the UN and voluntary agencies who work with refugees and the displaced. In Kenya, the Dadaab camps were constructed for 90,000 refugees from Somalia. They now have to protect more than three times that number, growing at 7,000 a month. Wherever the NGOs offer an umbrella, the migrants will come in. The R2P is concerned with crimes against humanity but it is not an open-door doctrine. It has to be policed or the genuine refugees will be twice victimised.

I look forward to the maiden speech of the new Minister, whom I warmly welcome to this House.