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UN: Responsibility to Protect — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:02 pm on 30th June 2009.

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Photo of Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Europe) 9:02 pm, 30th June 2009

My Lords, there can be few Houses in any of the Parliaments of the world in which a new Member is permitted to speak on the first day of membership—and from the Front Bench at that. Clearly, the famed generosity of this House begins at the moment of entry. I am very grateful for that, and for the warm welcome that has been given to me by the staff, by long-valued friends in the House and by new acquaintances in all parts of the House.

In my previous life in the European Parliament and elsewhere, I often had reason to admire the work of the House, particularly the Committee reports produced by your Lordships on issues related to the area of work that I was engaged in—foreign affairs, international development policies, trade policy and the European Union. The quality of the short debate this evening testifies to the experience, expertise and commitment that your Lordships bring to all these vital matters.

I therefore express gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Jay, for his kind words, for initiating this debate and for the opportunity to highlight the crucial significance of the concept of the responsibility to protect. The noble Lord, particularly through his work as the chair of Merlin, is well aware of the need for speedy and effective responses to emergencies.

I think that we all have seared on our memory the tragedies of Srebrenica, which was mentioned, of Rwanda and of Darfur. Now we grapple with how to deal with the tragic plight of civilians today in Somalia, in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in Sri Lanka. My interest in R2P is personal. I was in Rwanda and what was then Zaire in 1994 during the immediate aftermath of the genocide. The memory of those days will stay with me all my life. I have also been to Darfur, to Chad, to south Sudan on a number of occasions, and to the eastern Congo. All the suffering I have seen testifies to the need for us to undertake the shared responsibility, the binding commitment to tackle the structural causes of conflict which include social and economic inequalities, impunity—something that really has not been mentioned—and injustice. I can confirm that the UK Government are fully engaged and indeed were in the vanguard of efforts to ensure that the world summit agreement reached in 2005 included a clear and ground-breaking commitment to R2P. But while we have the tools and the instruments needed to fulfil the responsibility to protect, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said, the biggest challenge that remains is how we can make it all work.

First, it is clear that we must strive to create a culture of the responsibility to protect, a culture that is accepted across the world. This is work in progress for our governments. We have to build confidence in the principle that states have a fundamental responsibility to protect their own populations, and indeed we have to bring clarity and acceptability at the United Nations and European Union level to the concept of the responsibility to protect. Secondly, R2P must be a holistic concept in its development and in its application. Many noble Lords have spoken about the four R2P crimes; those crimes of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. But R2P must not just be about responding to such atrocities. It must relate to conflict prevention, mediation and peace-building. It must include efforts to increase awareness of potential tension, as the noble Lord, Lord Jay, said, and listening and then acting when the alarm bells ring.

Thirdly, we must tackle the misconception that R2P is somehow an initiative of the developed world, one that is being imposed on the south. The concept of non-indifference to crimes, which has been mentioned, was actually in the Constitutive Act of the African Union 2000, long before the UN adopted the responsibility to protect. It was the African Union that took an early lead in responding to the violence in Kenya last year when an estimated 600,000 people were displaced. We must also tackle the misconception that R2P is somehow a justification for military intervention. It is not about imposing solutions on countries from outside. It is about encouraging world leaders, politicians and representatives of civil society to play their own parts. It is as much about responsible sovereignty as it is about intervention. That is what I mean when I talk about the culture of R2P.

The Government continue to follow closely developments at both the EU and the UN levels in the run-up to the UN General Assembly debate, which I understand is to take place on 20 July. The UK has welcomed the reaffirmed commitment to R2P in the December report on the implementation of the European Security Strategy and the 2007 EU Consensus on Humanitarian Aid. R2P is a priority for the General Assembly, and I am glad to say that the member states of the European Union have confirmed this. Further to those actions, the Government continue to explore how we can ensure that awareness of R2P informs all our work on conflict, on development and on human rights at the domestic level, at the regional level and globally. We will therefore continue to work to secure better and more effective responses to the four R2P crimes and we will support the building of better early warning systems—which is essential—more deployable military and civilian capacity, and more effective regional reaction, particularly from the African Union and from the European Union. All experience tells us that international diplomacy and mediation, and being prepared to use all the tools at our disposal, is how we should proceed.

The Government have welcomed the UN Secretary-General's report, which is generally well balanced and shows a determination to change those words into deeds. We are particularly focused on the UN General Assembly and the resulting opportunity to build a real consensus on the 2005 agreement and secure practical measures related to the implementation of the Secretary-General's report. This task will involve a high level of political commitment for the foreseeable future. The Government understand that and are committed to fulfilling that aim.

Before I finish, I would like to address some of the outstanding issues raised by noble Lords. I would like to congratulate the right reverend Prelate on his maiden speech. It is comforting to have a fellow maiden speaker at this debate. I thank him for what he said.

I am also very interested and supportive of the references to South Sudan made by the noble Lord, Lord Jay. I absolutely agree that the peace agreement is looking very shaky at this time. I met people from South Sudan only last week and there is a great deal of doubt and apprehension about the referendum and about the prospect of an election. There is this terrible uncertainty, which, as the noble Lord says, is something we need to watch very carefully in order to ensure that there is no tipping over into yet more fighting and yet more conflict in a part of Sudan that has suffered so much over so many years.

I agree that R2P has to be at the top of foreign policy. Noble Lords can rely on me to understand this and constantly refer to it. It is also important to say that we are working very hard in the FCO, DfID and the MoD; working together perhaps more effectively, and for the long term, to ensure that we can be more coherent in the work across departments.

My noble friend Lord Parekh talked about the five gaps. I can say very clearly that I will take the appropriate action the noble Lord mentioned and will follow through on his points.

R2P is not a legal obligation. That is a very important point for us to realise in this debate. It is a moral and a political commitment that we have made. When you use the term "R2P" people often become very defensive in situations of tension. Quite often you can move things forward more effectively if you do not use that vocabulary.

It is very important for us to say that the suspicion about R2P, to which some noble Lords have referred, is something we need to be aware of, conscious of, and respond to appropriately. It is also important to mention that action can be taken, including that in Chapter 7 at UN level, if military intervention is considered to be appropriate and necessary; that is something that we would be looking at.

We have had a fascinating and wide-ranging debate, and I am grateful to noble Lords for their contributions. Everyone in this House, including the Government, is committed to working with the international community, to create what I have referred to as a culture of the responsibility to protect.

Finally, on the need to protect, the aim has to be to give resolute and effective meaning to those words, "never again".