United Nations

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:00 pm on 19th January 2005.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham 2:00 pm, 19th January 2005

I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Mr. Rammell, and I am delighted to have secured the debate on this day, as it is my birthday. My interests are declared in the Register of Members' Interests, and I remind Members that I am parliamentary adviser to the human rights charity, Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

Some people, notably political isolationists and extreme nationalists, might think that the United Nations is a threat to national sovereignty, but I do not. I shall put my cards on the table. I speak as an internationalist, I do not accept the law of the jungle, I have no desire to turn a blind eye to the conflict and injustice in the world and I think that the multilateral machinery for addressing inter-state and intra-state conflict and for tackling the abuse of human rights is far from perfect, but that it is better than nothing.

The UN stands at the apex of that multilateral machinery. Set up in 1945 as the chief agent of collective security, it was described only four years ago in the UN millennium declaration as

"the indispensable common house of the entire human family".

However, today it is mired in controversy: corruption in the oil for food programme, administrative incompetence, rampant cronyism, and sexual harassment of staff are among the welter of accusations it faces.

Freedom lovers might accept a plea in mitigation for all the other sins of the organisation if it at least acted to protect the oppressed; sadly, it does not. The grim record speaks for itself. In the 1990s, the UN was a craven bystander in Angola, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. More recently, its troops in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have been slated as poorly equipped, badly trained and lacking in commitment. UN soldiers are accused of abusing vulnerable refugees, and 1,000 people are still dying every day. To cap it all, with regard to Darfur in western Sudan, the UN has imposed no sanctions on the Government of Sudan and sent no troops, even though the former UN humanitarian affairs co-ordinator for the region has described the situation there as

"the worst humanitarian and human-rights catastrophe in the world."

Equally disgracefully, the UN Security Council has never made an agenda item of Burma, whose brutal military junta savagely violates human rights every day.

In 2003, in the aftermath of the Iraq war, Kofi Annan, conscious of the crisis of confidence in the UN, appointed a high-level panel to consider the UN's future in the face of threats, challenges and change. Its report covers a vast terrain. I intend to focus narrowly on three issues: the UN Commission on Human Rights; the criteria for humanitarian intervention; and the scope for a peace-building commission.

The UN Commission on Human Rights was set up by the UN Economic and Social Council in February 1946. It first met in 1947. It meets annually for six weeks in March and April in Geneva. It can make statements, adopt resolutions and appoint special rapporteurs, but it cannot directly refer abuses to the Security Council. Instead, its resolutions can go to ECOSOC, which is a main organ of the UN. If it adopts them, they can go to the General Assembly. If the General Assembly adopts the resolutions, they can go forward to the Security Council for consideration. The words cumbersome and circuitous spring to mind as descriptions of that protracted process. At its best, the commission can shine a light on abuses; at its worst, it is an organised hypocrisy for tyrannies to shield themselves from scrutiny.

The essential problem lies in the three Cs; composition, chairmanship and credibility. Seats are allocated according to regional grouping; there are 15 for Africa, 12 for Asia, 11 for Latin America and the Caribbean, 10 for western Europe and others, and five for eastern Europe. At present, there are 53 members, including China, the Congo, Cuba, Eritrea, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Zimbabwe, to name but 10 states that are not renowned for their commitment to pluralism or respect for human rights. Yet, on 10 December 1948 when the United Nations universal declaration on human rights was issued, reference was made to the pursuit of a

"common standard of achievement for all peoples" in terms of respect for, and observance of, human rights.