Queen's Speech — Debate (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:14 am on 19th November 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa and UN) 11:14 am, 19th November 2009

My Lords, it is an honour to open this foreign affairs debate on Her Gracious Majesty's Address to Parliament.

We have clearly experienced a year of turbulence in development, defence and foreign policy. The global economic recovery is far from complete and the world's poorest countries continue to suffer most. The horrors of local and international terrorism persist in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere, while in the Great Lakes, Darfur and other areas conflicts ruin millions of innocent lives. From the Philippines to El Salvador, there have been many manifestations of the devastating human cost of environmental fragility. Decades of instability and insecurity in Somalia have contributed to an increase in the number of pirates who target not only large vessels but also individual sailors regardless of nationality, including the British couple Paul and Rachel Chandler, who are currently being held hostage-the thoughts of the whole House will be with them and those working for their release.

Meanwhile, because of lack of progress in reduction of carbon emissions, global temperatures are rising. Five million people in the UK now live or work in properties that are at risk of flooding-a figure that could rise to 8 million by 2035, according to the Environment Agency's latest figures. Countless millions more people across the planet are already enduring the trials and tragedies inflicted by climate change.

Truly, the past 12 months have been a time in which the people of Britain have seen just how closely events and trends on other continents directly affect their lives and livelihoods. A crisis originating in the United States brought the collapse of foreign as well as UK banks, hit the savings of British families and triggered the shrinkage or collapse of British businesses.

Against that background, the Government confirm our strong commitment to a resilient economic recovery, to combating global warming, to meeting international development goals, to defeating terrorism and to strengthening and reforming the institutions of the international community. I say to the House, therefore, that we are internationalists both by conviction and by necessity, because we know that the most difficult problems that our country and our world face are beyond the capacity of even the most powerful nations to solve on their own.

It is because we take seriously our duty to protect and promote the interests of the British people that multilateralism will remain central to our foreign policy perspectives and action. We can tackle the global challenges of climate change, international terrorism, nuclear proliferation or economic recession only if we remain actively and constructively engaged in all the multilateral institutions to which we in the United Kingdom belong-from the G20 to the European Union, the UN and the Commonwealth. To provoke unnecessary tensions with those closest to us or to retreat into an isolationist mindset would be a serious misdirection of our national policy at a time when, for the most pragmatic and self-interested reasons, our country needs friends and allies. That would offer the illusion of sovereignty paid for by the loss of our national significance and influence.

With less than three weeks remaining until the Copenhagen summit, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and other Ministers are determined to sustain pressure for a new and far-reaching framework for agreement on reducing carbon emissions. At the 2008 December European Council, the EU agreed its mitigation offer of a 20 per cent emissions reduction rising to 30 per cent in the context of an ambitious global deal. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister was at the forefront of that effort to reach a common EU position. In addition, the G20 has pledged to significantly increase the scale and predictability of climate finance. Again, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister was at the vanguard of that debate on what is needed. The challenge now is to leverage public and private finance to meet these commitments. That challenge has to be met.

Climate change is inseparably linked to the other major challenges of the moment: the global economic recovery and particularly the essential efforts to lift the world's poorest out of poverty. If we do not succeed on one, we will fail on both. Some 1.4 billion people still live below the poverty line, with up to 90 million more pushed back into poverty by the global economic crisis. Ten million children die each year before their fifth birthday and 75 million of the world's children are without access to primary education worldwide. That is why we will publish draft legislation to make binding our commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on official development assistance from 2013. I hope that the whole House will share that objective and support a proposal that I think crosses all political boundaries. We will also remain committed to the millennium development goal targets in advance of the review conference at the UN next year.

I turn now to the threats posed by conflict and instability. Nuclear weapons continue to pose a major threat to our security and, in the run-up to the UN non-proliferation treaty review conference next year, we seek to strengthen global agreements on how we support progress, recognising, of course, the particular challenges posed by the continuing failure of Iran and North Korea to comply with UN Security Council resolutions. In the coming weeks, this House will have the opportunity to consider the Convention on Cluster Munitions and the Bill that will pave the way for the United Kingdom's ratification of that convention. The convention will prevent armed forces from using these weapons and create a legal obligation to destroy them within eight years.

The foreign policy issue that is naturally of pressing concern to this House, as it is for the country as a whole, is the security situation in Afghanistan. The cost has certainly been heavy, especially in the lives of British service personnel. We salute their courage and we grieve at the deaths and the casualties and send our deepest condolences to their friends and families.

Our goal must remain a stable Afghan Government with a democratic mandate able to secure their own territory from the threat of terrorism and protect their own people. As we do that, we have a responsibility to consider the consequences that would arise if al-Qaeda were able to re-establish its Afghan safe havens and to regroup and reorganise. Those who advocate an end to our military commitment undoubtedly do so for the best of motives, but what they have not done is answer the question of how a resurgence of al-Qaeda activity can be prevented if withdrawal takes place before local Afghan forces are strong enough to repel terrorism on their own.

In addition, no one should fail to understand the implications of a Taliban victory for Afghanistan's neighbours, especially Pakistan, where militancy and terrorism continue to be grave threats to stability. We are working closely with the authorities there through the strategic dialogue and DfID's £50 million assistance programme. However, our efforts will come to nothing if Afghanistan once again becomes a launch pad for violence and international terrorism. That is the task that we and our NATO and other allies continue to undertake. The threat has to be tackled at source; we cannot wait for it to come to us. As the Prime Minister said this week, the campaign in Afghanistan is a necessity, not a choice.

We have hoped for many years for a US President to devote himself and his Administration to the creation of a Palestinian state that lives in peace alongside Israel. With President Obama we have just that. We support him strongly on the Middle East and on so many other issues. Our relationship with the US will continue to be close and constructive.

I am aware that the House has shown consistent and commendable interest in developments in Sudan. In Darfur, several million people are still wretchedly displaced and the high levels of insecurity continue to affect ordinary people as well as humanitarian workers. In south Sudan, tribal fighting is intensifying. There has been little progress towards gathering information for the census and registering voters in advance of the national elections in April next year and the 2011 referendum on self-determination for the south. Urgent progress is needed on implementing the comprehensive peace agreement.

In Somalia, a protracted conflict in one of the very poorest countries of the world has caused a massive humanitarian crisis, migration flows and regional instability. We are committed to supporting the transitional federal Government and working with the international community to build a peaceful and stable Somalia. We know that failure to do so would have severe security implications, not just for the Horn of Africa but globally.

In Zimbabwe, the transition to democracy is far from over and people continue to suffer daily threats to their security. We are following progress after the SADC meeting in Maputo and trust that President Zuma's mediation will produce positive results. In the Great Lakes region, there has been progress, particularly in the political rapprochement between Rwanda and the DRC, but human rights abuses, including sexual and gender-based violence, continue, particularly in the east.

In Sri Lanka, we look forward to greater progress towards a more inclusive, long-term political solution where accountability is a basic part of any reconciliation process. We remain deeply concerned at the appalling human rights abuses and the lack of a credible transition to democracy in Burma. Together with the United States and the EU, we will continue to press for the release of political prisoners and for dialogue between the Government, the opposition and the ethnic nationalities.

Closer to home, the ratification of the Lisbon treaty brings to a conclusion nearly two decades of preoccupation with the institutional architecture of the European Union. It is now time for Europe to fix its focus on issues that deserve a higher priority: the promotion of a fairer and more stable global economy; the fulfilment of new carbon emissions targets; policies to meet Europe's future energy needs; and greater effectiveness in dealing with countries such as Russia and China.

Those basic realities mean that calls for renegotiation of the treaties and a repatriation of powers from the EU lack relevance and intelligence. If pursued, they would make the UK the only member state wanting to prolong the institutional wrangling that has already absorbed far too much of the EU's energies in recent years. That would, at the very least, waste precious political capital. There is no prospect that our EU partners will agree to unravel arduously established current arrangements. To believe otherwise would be to repeat the failed policy of threats, vetoes, vacant chairs and beef wars that were followed in each and every case by confusion and climbdown. There is no future in diplomacy by tantrum. The only result would be to alienate our allies with no positive outcome for our country. This policy is not being advanced in defence of the British national interest; it is an attempt to patch up a party schism. Our country should never risk being disabled by such political pettiness.

Obviously, the Government do not regard the European Union as perfect. Indeed, we support profound reform of, for instance, the common agricultural policy and the EU budget, but we also recognise that the EU is a success story that inspires admiration, as evidenced by the many countries seeking to join and by the fact that the European example of integration is being widely emulated in South America, Africa and Asia. This emerging trend of greater regional co-operation and integration is one that we encourage and support. We welcome the fact the African Union, together with regional institutions in Africa, including SADC and ECOWAS, is emerging as a leader on conflict and governance issues within that continent.

In the 60th year of the existence of the Commonwealth, we recognise the need to maximise the potential of an unparalleled north-south relationship based on shared values and principles. The Commonwealth looks set not only to survive but to thrive for the next 60 years and beyond. We look forward to the summit in Trinidad next week.

The UN remains the only international organisation that is truly representative of the breadth of the world's countries. The case for UN reform is clearly compelling. We will therefore pursue our efforts to ensure that the Security Council is more representative and takes account of emerging powers such as Brazil and India. We look forward to the creation of a single entity to address gender issues at the United Nations, so that across the work of UN agencies, from access to finance to agricultural support, the gender perspective is taken fully into account.

I recognise that the interests and expertise of this House range widely and deeply and I know that it is impossible in this short space of time to do justice to every area of concern, but my noble friend Lady Taylor and I look forward to our debate today and to our continuing discussions on these issues over the coming months. It remains absolutely clear that, as we tackle the international issues and relationships that matter to the UK, to go it alone in the 21st century means going nowhere. Britain cannot risk or afford that.