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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:12 pm on 16th October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Helic Baroness Helic Conservative 5:12 pm, 16th October 2019

My Lords, it is a privilege to speak in this House and a particular privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Judd. I often feel like a student when I speak here and fear that I will not deliver when I speak in front of him. I am very impressed to hear that there is someone in this Chamber who has met Eleanor Roosevelt and heard Prime Minister Churchill in years past—someone whom I hugely admire.

I was always under the impression—and I believe it was justified—that the United Kingdom and, at its best, the United States were the engines of progress, democracy and the rule of law internationally; and that the standards that we and our allies set, however imperfectly applied, were the best route to a more stable, secure and equal world. I am thinking in particular of the role of NATO and the building of international treaties and institutions, from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to the International Criminal Court and the Arms Trade Treaty. However, Brexit has consumed our foreign policy for the last four years and profoundly affected the way we think and the manner in which we engage with other countries—which I hope will be only temporary.

Having left the Foreign Office four years ago, I am not privy to the instructions sent out to our diplomats. We can assume, however, that they spend the majority of their time explaining events in London to those in foreign capitals and urgently seeking trade deals to bridge the gap after our departure from the European Union. If we exclude Brexit and trade, it is hard to discern UK strategy in foreign affairs, or to avoid the impression that we are absent or distracted in areas where we have previously played a leading role.

I believe that this trend has been exacerbated by the constant change in leadership in the Foreign Office. Since mid-2014, we have had four Foreign Secretaries; on average, there has been a change every single year—with some consequences. The United Kingdom spent almost 20 years in Afghanistan, fighting the Taliban alongside our NATO allies; yet today, the United States is negotiating its withdrawal with the Taliban directly, without our direct participation, and excluding the elected Afghan Government, who we so painstakingly helped come into existence. In Syria, our closest ally, the United States, has upended years of our collective efforts to defeat ISIS and maintain some leverage in the conflict, pulling out of north-eastern Syria without any apparent consultation with any Government other than Turkey’s, abandoning the very people we have supported and allowing the region to fall into Russia’s lap.

Here, the dangerous uncertainty surrounding the custody of ISIS terrorists and their families confirms the misguided decision not to address this question decisively with our allies last year, bringing those responsible for crimes to justice in their countries of origin, or in an international or regional court. I believe that anyone who leaves this country to join an organisation bent on inflicting harm and destruction cannot be excused and should face the judgment of law. But I am staggered that we have shown so little faith in the strength of our institutions, and that we have failed to find a legal and effective way to defuse this significant strategic threat in a manner that strengthens, not undermines, our moral authority. Stripping British nationals of their citizenship and leaving them in a security vacuum in the Middle East does not serve our security and is a danger to the citizens of the countries where they have brought so much misery and damage. We cannot wash our hands of this problem.

I hope that my noble friend the Minister can shed light on what the strategy now is to avert the risk that some of the hardest and most dangerous of these terrorists might once again be free to roam the region, to mount an insurgency of the kind we have seen in Iraq or Afghanistan, or to pose a direct threat to citizens in Europe. I also hope that he can confirm what the UK’s policy is towards the setting up of a regional court or international tribunal to prosecute ISIS terrorists.

I have sympathy for Ministers trying to chart a course in foreign policy, given the erratic nature of US policy under the current Administration. But I hope that on critical questions affecting the peace and security of the world, the UK will not try to split the difference between the US and other allies but will be absolutely clear where our interests and values lie and pursue those vigorously.

My noble friend opened his speech yesterday by warning that the rules-based international system is under attack, and I agree with him. But I respectfully note that it did not help that, when our German and French allies launched an alliance for multilateralism at this year’s UN General Assembly, it appeared that the UK initially did not join the joint statement or plan to send a Minister. I hope that, in the future, we will be strongly aligned with all efforts to uphold the international rule of law and its core institutions.

Over the last four years of our intense preoccupation with Brexit, Russia has carried out aggressive actions in Syria and on the streets of this very country; the Government in Myanmar carried out the ethnic cleansing of over 1 million Rohingyas from Rakhine State; the Indian Government have unilaterally stripped away statehood from Kashmir; there is talk of changing borders and swapping populations in the Balkans; Saudi Arabia has openly murdered a journalist and imprisoned women’s rights activists; the actions of some Gulf states have inflicted famine and starvation upon Yemen; China has imprisoned its Uighur population; and the number of displaced people and refugees has risen to over 75 million. This is in addition to the destabilising effects of the cyber era and other transnational threats, such as climate change. Some people will ask what we could have done differently to change the course of any of these crises. The answer is a little on our own, but a great deal with our allies.

I hope that, whatever happens at the end of this month, we have the strength as a country to rediscover our purpose, moral spine and diplomatic steel in foreign policy. There is an urgent need for a renewal of UK foreign policy, underpinned by the bipartisanship that, until Brexit, was a notable aspect of our strength. I hope that the Government move beyond the slogan of “Global Britain” to a much clearer definition of the United Kingdom’s international strategy and conduct an urgent review of our nation’s long-term foreign policy interests and capabilities, given that the last strategic defence and security review was published in 2015.

I also hope the Government will be clear that there will no weakening of our commitment to upholding human rights internationally. I want to particularly highlight women’s issues, which are always the first casualty of every crisis. I commend the Government for continuing their support of the Domestic Abuse Bill, which I look forward to debating in this Chamber. But I hope that this will be equally matched by support for the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative. Despite the great efforts of the Minister and my noble friend Lady Anelay, this has suffered from a lack of commitment and leadership from all four Foreign Secretaries since 2014, even though systematic rape has become a weapon of choice against women and girls, and men and boys, in the most complex conflicts we are facing today. I therefore hope that the PSVI conference planned for November, in London, will champion the creation of a permanent body focused on securing accountability for these crimes. We need prosecutions, not more awareness.

I also urge the Secretary of State for International Development, with whom I am yet to secure a meeting, to dedicate a small percentage of the overall development budget—1%—to fighting violence against women. I hope that the Government will also consider whether we need a women, peace and security Act in the United Kingdom, akin to that recently adopted in the United States.

Brexit is something we have done by choice. Foreign policy is what we must do from necessity and on behalf of every citizen of the United Kingdom. It is the most serious responsibility of any Government: on it hangs our security and our long-term prosperity. It cannot be seen through only the lens of Brexit, it cannot be driven by trade considerations alone and we cannot rely on aid to do the work of diplomacy. So I hope that, when we finally depart the EU—if that is where we end up—we take a deep breath, look critically around us and chart a course based on the totality of our interests, responsibilities and values as a nation, and one that rises to the severity of the challenges of our times.