United Nations Reform

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:30 am on 18th April 2006.

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Photo of Michael Moore Michael Moore Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs) 10:30 am, 18th April 2006

This has been an important and impressive debate. Like others, I pay tribute to Dr. Blackman-Woods for securing the debate and setting out the issues so comprehensively at the outset. I extend that tribute to those who went on what was clearly a worthwhile visit to the United Nations. I echo the comments made about the value of going to the UN to see for oneself its range of activities and its complexities. I certainly gained enormous benefit from going there myself a few years ago. In common with others, I pay tribute to British diplomats and officials in the UN for the excellent work that they do, day in, day out. The fact that Britain punches above its weight is in large part due to the skills, expertise and approach of our diplomats in important places such as the UN.

I shall pick up on a point made by Andrew Selous about the prospect of an annual debate on the UN. I have recently returned to the foreign affairs brief, but I recall that just over a year ago the current Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning pledged that there would be such a debate—and, indeed, for two years we have managed to secure one, albeit usually in Westminster Hall on a Thursday afternoon. Nevertheless, that is important, and I hope that today the Minister will confirm that it is still the practice and the intention of the Government to provide such debates.

The United Nations matters more than ever because of the uncertain nature of our world; collective security is vital to us all. It also matters because, as contributors have said, there is still the huge issue of the lack of human rights and democracy across the globe; that remains an absolute disgrace. The inequalities of wealth and opportunity in different continents is, to borrow a phrase already used once this morning, a scar on the conscience of us all.

The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire was slightly critical of the prosaic language in the UN charter about the different pillars of the organisation. I refer him back to the preamble, in which the lofty ideals of the representatives in San Francisco are set out in slightly better language, which says,

"to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war . . . to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights . . . and . . . to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom".

Those ideals are still relevant today, across the world. Recent debates about reform of the UN have brought them into even sharper focus.

In a recent speech to the British Council, Mark Malloch Brown—the new deputy Secretary-General of the organisation—stressed the centrality of security, development and human rights to the reform programme that is now under way, following the world summit last autumn. He emphasised that reforms had to be underpinned by radical change in the organisation and in the management of the UN itself—a strong theme in our debate this morning.

The oil-for-food scandal undoubtedly rocked the UN, and it lapped uncomfortably close to the Secretary-General himself. To his immense credit, he has not shied away from facing the weaknesses and rot that were exposed by that scandal and others referred to this morning. He will need strong support from Governments such as ours if he is to carry out the painful processes that he has outlined and now seeks to implement.

It is always pretty easy to set out a list of the failures of the UN, or the differences between its high-blown rhetoric and the often grubby reality. On security, there have been failures in Rwanda, the Balkans, the Congo and now Darfur; on human rights, there is the embarrassment and disgrace of the old commission's having Zimbabwe and Libya as members; on development, there is the horrible reality that we are barely on track to meet the millennium development goals—the basic targets set in a flurry of good intentions five years ago—by 2015. Also, as contributors to the debate have stressed, there is a worrying lack of attention to perhaps the most important challenge for all of us, climate change, which we need to tackle with great urgency.

The attempts at reform are well documented. The high-level panel and the world summit last year got that process firmly under way. The world summit was a mixed bag, perhaps reflecting the mixed motives of the participants. However, we should recognise the achievements, not least of which is the fact that a debate was started on intervention for humanitarian purposes—the so-called "responsibility to protect". Also, a peace-building commission was set up, and—not at the time, but subsequently—there was agreement on the human rights council. Also, a new emergency development fund was created; the UK has led the way in terms of its contributions to it. I pay tribute to the Minister and the Government for that.

Alongside those strengths of the summit, there was a worrying failure to tackle the issue of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, or to make any mention of disarmament. Even the Secretary-General himself branded that "a real disgrace". Also, the issue of pre-emptive strikes—which have undermined the United Nations since the war in Iraq started some three years ago—was not referred to. Although there was unqualified condemnation of terrorism, there is as yet no working definition of it. Those are serious disappointments, but it is not time to give up. It has been said that we get the United Nations that we deserve. Sometimes there is a risk of our treating the UN as if it were a fully autonomous and independent organisation. The reality, of course, is that the UN is very much a creature of its individual member states.

The UN is not beyond meaningful reform or irredeemably damaged, as long as there is the political will to sort it out. It is unlikely that we will have a "San Francisco Moment" in which to put it all right, but effective and deep reform is possible if a coalition of democracies, the United States placed centrally among them, perseveres in the development of an effective United Nations. That means that we need a more open approach to the UN from the United States. Its ambassador, John Bolton, has characterised his approach as "muscular diplomacy", but was recently rebuked by the International Herald Tribune, which said that there have been plenty of illustrations of the muscle, but not many of the diplomacy. We need to rebalance that approach. Britain has an important role in persuading the Americans of that.

As others said, we need to recognise the realities of the 21st century, and not only the post-war realities of 1945. We need to consider seriously Security Council reform to bring others such as Brazil, Germany, India, Japan and a representative from Africa into the Security Council, if they meet the high standards that we should all expect of them. It is in nobody's interests for the impetus for United Nations reform to fail. The world needs a strong UN to face the complex challenges of the 21st century. However damaged it is, and however marginalised it has been in recent times, no other organisation can compete with it as a source of global legitimacy. At a time of worrying developments in Iran and the middle east, and of catastrophe in Darfur, the world needs a United Nations that works.