Queen's Speech — Debate (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:47 pm on 19th November 2009.

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Photo of Lord Jay of Ewelme Lord Jay of Ewelme Crossbench 12:47 pm, 19th November 2009

My Lords, I start by echoing the tribute made by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, to our Armed Forces in Afghanistan. In particular, I pay tribute to the role played by our helicopter pilots and crews and those who support them. I do that for two reasons. First, the joint helicopter base at RAF Benson is just down the road from Ewelme, and I know well the sacrifices that they have made in Iraq and are making in Afghanistan. Secondly, when there is so much focus on the helicopters that we do not have, it is good to remember the bravery, sacrifice and professionalism of those who operate the helicopters that we have.

However, I focus today more on how we prevent future conflicts, conflicts which cause great humanitarian crises, damage our interests and may draw our Armed Forces into bitter and difficult wars. It is, alas, only too easy to see where tomorrow's risks and conflicts may lie, conflicts which would inevitably draw in the international community and whichever Government are in power in the United Kingdom at the time. I shall briefly mention three-Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Liberia-all of which I have visited in the past couple of years as chair of the medical aid charity Merlin, an interest which I declare today.

First, I turn to Sudan. There is, rightly, a strong focus on Darfur, where the humanitarian crisis is acute, but there is an equal if not greater danger that in the referendum planned for 2011 under the terms of the comprehensive peace agreement between the north and the south, the south decides to secede, the north resists and a further bloody war breaks out. That is a really frightening prospect.

Conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo is now focused in the east, in North Kivu province around Goma. Despite the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world today, recent fighting there has seen 1,000 civilians killed, 7,000 women raped and more than 1 million people displaced; and the prospects are not encouraging. I greatly look forward to the forthcoming speech from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester, which I hope will touch on the Democratic Republic of Congo.

I turn, finally, to Liberia. Liberia has a functioning democracy with an impressive President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. However, the economy and political system are fragile after 14 years of vicious civil war and the prospects for the elections in two years' time are uncertain. Guinea, to the north, is volatile. If that volatility should spread to Liberia, the impact on Sierra Leone, to the west, where we have invested huge amounts over the years, could be disastrous.

So how can we prevent conflicts in these and other areas in the future? My first suggestion, which I have made before-and to which I know the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, is sympathetic-is to urge the Government to work to make the UN doctrine of responsibility to protect a reality and not just an aspiration. Behind the jargon "responsibility to protect" is a UN principle of huge importance: a pledge by world leaders to protect their populations from genocide, from ethnic cleansing and from crimes against humanity, and to give the rest of us the responsibility to ensure that they do just that. It is of course controversial. It is seen by some as an undue interference in the domestic affairs of others and even as a justification for military adventures. However, as the UN Secretary-General himself recognises, it is not that. It is a doctrine which, if widely accepted, could improve governance in some pretty dire states by putting pressure on leaders to abide by proper standards and by giving the international community as a whole the means to exert such pressure. Had it been in operation, the genocide in Rwanda, the conflict in Darfur and in Sierra Leone and the civil war in Liberia might at the least have been less likely.

The UN resolution adopted by consensus at the General Assembly in July was a modest step forward. May I encourage the Government to work with others-in particular the United States; Canada, whose idea it was; the EU and likeminded developing countries-to strengthen the doctrine so that it can play a real role in preventing future conflicts? This is an idea whose time must come.

Secondly, and moving from what is now still a theory to what is very much practice, I urge the Government, and any future Government, to ensure that Britain continues to play, and indeed increases, the active role it plays in present and future conflict prevention and resolution activities. This means supporting the UN in its peacekeeping activities. On one specific point, I urge the Government, when the mandate for the UN peacekeeping force in the Democratic Republic of Congo comes up for renewal next month, to work to extend it to cover peacebuilding as well as peacemaking and to work with the African Union to strengthen the capacity of the Congolese army to prevent future atrocities in that benighted country.

It also means working with the European Union, now that the Lisbon treaty has been ratified, and in particular with the new high representative, whoever may be chosen this evening, to put conflict prevention and resolution high on the EU foreign policy agenda-with, I would suggest, Somalia and the Horn of Africa, Sudan and the Great Lakes as priorities. This does not mean limiting our horizons to the EU but using our influence in the EU to further our interests elsewhere. As the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said a moment or two ago, we must have the self-confidence to recognise and to act on that. I believe very strongly that that is in Britain's interest, it is in Europe's interest, and it would be greatly welcomed by the United States.

Finally, I urge the Government once again, as many of your Lordships have in recent months, to recognise that cuts in our conflict prevention budget are hugely short-sighted. I know the budgetary pressures. I know that there have to be priorities and savings. However, to cut small sums now that can prevent the expenditure of large sums later if conflict does, alas, break out, makes no sense at all. Surely that must be a point that all government departments, including the Treasury, recognise as common sense. But that is what we are now doing, alas-wrongly, in my view-in Liberia. The Government must find a way at least to prevent the erosion of our peacekeeping budget from the depreciation of the pound, which has a completely arbitrary effect on the activities that we need to carry out to prevent conflicts in the future.

I hope that the strategic defence review that will take place next year whichever Government are in power will ensure enough capacity in our force structure to enable Britain to play a major role in conflict prevention and resolution in the years ahead. This is an area of great strength for this country thanks to the professionalism and reputation of our Armed Forces, and we must capitalise on that. It would be good to have an assurance to that effect from both Front Benches at the end of this debate.