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UN: Responsibility to Protect — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:55 pm on 30th June 2009.

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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 8:55 pm, 30th June 2009

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme, for initiating this short debate. He was very patient when he had to wait a bit. We are all looking forward to the maiden speech by the new Minister for Europe, the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock. I want to make sure that I leave her enough space to make her speech, which will be a little tricky. Tonight, she has to be the Minister for the whole globe because we are talking about global issues rather than just European ones. We were all very interested to hear the contribution by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield, who reminds us of the huge international role of the church. Although it may be fashionable to denigrate spiritual and religious aspects, they are becoming more important than ever as we try to bring sense into the near anarchy of the new globalised system. The role of the right reverend Prelate and his like will increase enormously in coming years.

The doctrine we are taking about, the responsibility to protect, is beyond reproach. The aims are almost unchallengeable. They are to codify the humanitarian intervention procedure within states. This idea was born before 9/11, at the end of the previous century, but since 9/11, it has become many times more searing and relevant to our deliberations about what we are supposed to do. On the one hand, there are states that are living entities of people who form together under their own rights, customs and governments, good or bad, and on the other hand, there are the searing demands of a globalised world with atrocities pitched into our living rooms and onto our websites almost every night. One has to ask whether one can generalise or make general rules, or whether each situation is bound to be fraught with its own conundrums and dilemmas.

I do not know the answer to that but, looking back over the past decade, one has to ask whether it would have been helpful to have had firm rules on intervening in Rwanda, or in Bosnia to deal with the horror of Srebrenica—the worst tragedy of humanitarian intervention that I can remember in my lifetime—or in Kosovo, Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Darfur, Zimbabwe—very controversial—or Somalia? What help would it have been in the agonies over Iraq and whether we got United Nations agreement, or whether we are right to be so involved in the Pashtun frontier area between Afghanistan and Pakistan? There are many other places as well.

One can see the need for a general framework, but within it, there will still be agonising decisions about whether to intervene. It is a bit like the proverbial elephant. The case for intervention, whether soft and mild or military and hard, and whether it is likely to succeed is like the elephant; it is difficult to describe and generalise but easy to know when we see it. When we have the horrors of ethnic cleansing etched on our minds or see the agonies of deliberately inflicted starvation, murder and torture, we know it is a case for action. The evils and cruelties of aggressive terrorism have been brought to our doorstep—we see immediately that they, too, are a case for international action.

We then face the problems, discussed this evening, of what kind of intervention; and if it is military force, which of course is the last resort but a resort that we keep resorting to, what kind of military force? Is it self-defence—standing by—or is it becoming involved on one side or another in internal civil wars and other horrors? When we consider United Nations military intervention, do we need new force structures to deal with the asymmetric warfare that we have encountered in Afghanistan and elsewhere, rather than the traditional bringing together of various forces by contributions from different countries that go off to war and often find themselves powerless?

We must also take account of the debate on the nation state. I am not talking about the old doctrine of sovereignty, but about something new. Boutros Boutros Ghali, who was one of the best Secretary-Generals of the United Nations—he was sacked after one term, but he was a superb man—talked about the essential need for a profoundly renewed concept of the state to give the isolated individual identity and fulfil deep needs to belong and love a country. That is in contrast to other, more fashionable talk about the nation state being finished and being superseded. Still others, as we have heard this evening, have talked about the shift of power away from western hegemony and into the hands of the rising Asian states.

I will just say that these feelings of the need to belong and have an identity, even in countries that are sadly disadvantaged, are not reached by talk about the international community, or by remote parliaments and assemblies. This is because the whole texture of international relations has changed very fast in the past 10 to 15 years. Thanks to the internet, international relations are no longer confined to officialdom and to formal relations between Governments. There are a mass of connections and interfaces between semi-public and non-governmental bodies. This is the new fabric that Governments and officialdom sometimes find difficult to grasp. It is the new international network, of which the Commonwealth, which I was delighted to hear mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Jay, is a vital part.

In this new landscape, we must look at the old institutions and reform them. The UN, the Bretton Woods establishment, the World Trade Organisation, the non-proliferation treaty regime, NATO and the European Union—somehow, out of all of this, a fresh, global will must be distilled and sewn together. Perhaps we should start with the democracies—including ours—which are not healthy at the moment; then with the international institutions of the 20th century that all need revising; and then find the true consensus needed to protect all mankind. Just a thought.