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United Nations

– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 10th June 2009.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change 4:30 pm, 10th June 2009

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Miss Begg, and I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for selecting this debate. I also welcome the Minister to his place—I think that this is his first debate with his new responsibilities. I am glad that he is here, and I am glad that I am here, too. Since my meeting in the House, I have been back to my constituency and returned again. It was a pretty tight call, but it is important to be here for this debate.

My request for this debate was prompted by the recent events in Sri Lanka. I make no bones about the fact that that will be the main theme of my comments, because it tested the effectiveness of the United Nations, which, put bluntly, was found wanting.

I welcome my friend Jeremy Corbyn, who, with me, has been interested in this subject since we entered the House 25 years ago. Like me and many other colleagues in this House, he is frustrated that, in recent weeks, when the Tamil community in Sri Lanka and around the world, including here, looked to Governments outside Sri Lanka and international organisations, such as the EU, the Commonwealth and the UN, to help it in its hour of need, such help was not forthcoming to the desired extent.

I am aware that there is a general debate about reform of the UN. My party, and others, have long argued that the structure set up in 1945—over the road from here, where the first General Assembly took place—which was understandable at the time, and which gave five countries particular responsibilities and control, is no longer appropriate for the modern age. As we all know, the five countries that had that privilege, and continue to enjoy it, are the United States, the Soviet Union—now its successor, Russia—China, France and the UK. They are permanent members of the Security Council and have the right of veto, which means that they determine decisions. Over the years, that veto has often been used by Britain, the States and the other three members. Then, of course, there are the other members who rotate with the presidency.

Since the beginning of the year, a huge effort has been made to persuade the UN to take international action to avoid a continued and unabated military offensive by the Sri Lankan Government against the Tamil Tiger rebel army, which was conducted in such a way that civilians were injured and many innocent people were killed. The blunt truth about the past few months is that many civilians were injured and killed. We still do not know how many, but we know that, at the beginning of April, the UN estimate—from its own papers—was between 6,000 and 7,000 killed since the end of January this year and about 14,500 injured. In April and May, until the conflict ended with the victory of the Sri Lankan army, many more were killed and injured.

Those who went anywhere near the fighting in the Jaffna peninsula, Vanni and Vavuniya, and along the north-eastern seaboard, said—I paraphrase—that it was the most terrible thing that they had ever seen. Among others, we have heard descriptions of the devastation from the International Committee of the Red Cross, which remained there until the end, from John Holmes, who is one of the most senior UN officials, and from Ban Ki-moon, who visited after the conflict ended and flew over the northern territory. Like others, I have just come from a meeting in the House at which the journalist, Catherine Philip of The Times,who visited the region after the event, with the UN party, said that it was one of the greatest scenes of devastation that she had ever seen. Photographs were shared with us.

The problem was not that the UN was not asked to help, and it was not that it was not trying to help. Colleagues in this country, including Foreign Office Ministers, were assiduous in their attempts to put pressure on the UN. I pay tribute to the Prime Minister and, in particular, the Foreign Secretary for their efforts. The latter visited the States, where he engaged with the Secretary of State. I also pay tribute to the American Administration, who made clear the need to engage with the UN on the need to take positive measures. Three young British Tamils and I had the privilege of visiting the State Department, the White House and the British embassy in Washington. We left convinced of the Administration's commitment. We also held a teleconference in this building with two senior UN civil servants, and we were convinced of their desperate desire to intervene. They were waiting with medical and humanitarian aid and food and water. Ships were waiting with tons of equipment, but they could not enter, because the Sri Lankan army would not agree to it.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and on the way in which he is making his case. Does he agree with me about the problems facing the UN? Responsible and high-ranking UN officials drew attention to the fighting, the civilian deaths and the ongoing humanitarian crisis, and there is a requirement, under international law, to provide assistance. However, due to the arcane structure of the Security Council and the Human Rights Council, the UN was unable to act, despite the fact that events in Sri Lanka contravened both the universal declaration of human rights and the UN charter itself.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Like me, he has taken a long interest in international affairs and the interests of minority communities in many countries around the world. He knows that one of the institutional problems is that the UN Security Council is, by its constitution, intended to take action only in the face of a threat to international peace and security. The Sri Lankan Government argued to the Chinese and Russians that this was not an international matter and that it did not threaten international peace and security. I contrast that with the situation in Iraq some years ago when, owing to the threat—perceived or real—from weapons inside Iraq to other countries, it was argued that there was a threat to international peace and security. Arguably, the UN's actions are much more limited, if something can be described as internal.

In recent years, the international community has sought to address that issue. It has moved from saying, "We can act only in the face of a threat to international peace and security," to deciding, only as recently as the past decade, that there is a responsibility to protect, which is an entitlement. Significant work has been done—I pay tribute to the UK and others—to invoke and establish that responsibility to protect. That responsibility is important, because we have seen how no intervention was forthcoming when places such as the Balkans, Darfur, Rwanda and Burundi descended into genocide.

Arguably, if we accept the right to intervene and protect, we need the mechanism to do so. My colleague, Lord Ashdown, has argued that it is no good unless troops are available, willing and able to enter under such circumstances. However, I argue that in this case there was undoubtedly an international right to protect. Sufficient independent evidence, including from the UN and certainly from American satellites, pointed to attacks on civilian communities in such significant numbers to lead only to the conclusion that those affected were unnecessary and intentional victims of the Sri Lankan Government's actions.

The first question is whether there is something wrong with the UN, when the same criteria are required both for intervention and for threats to international peace and security. Both require a vote by the Security Council, and there can be a veto by any one of the permanent members. The same blocking mechanism applies in both cases. If Russia or China, or anyone else with the right of veto, wants to block an initiative, then the right to protect and intervene for humanitarian purposes cannot be acted on.

Does the Minister accept that that is a flaw in the present system and that we need urgently to restructure the organisation of the UN and the power mechanisms within the Security Council, so that we do not have a single country, or combination of countries, blocking that second right to intervene for the protection of communities? If we wait for unanimity or for vetoes to be lifted, it will be too late.

My second concern about the working of the UN is, I am afraid, demonstrated by what happened a couple of weeks ago in Geneva at the UN Human Rights Council—the Human Rights Commission was thought to be inadequate, so the UN created the Human Rights Council, which is unarguably a better mechanism than its predecessor. The Human Rights Council, which was convened by a significant number of countries, including ours, was requested to consider whether there was a case for investigating war crimes—by the Government of Sri Lanka or by the Tamil Tigers—and the question of genocide. In the end, the request did not succeed. Despite a plea by Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, a coalition was built up by Sri Lanka, which effectively turned that request into almost a paean of praise for the Sri Lankan Government.

The countries at the meeting included Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, Mauritius, Mexico, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Slovakia, South Korea, Switzerland, Ukraine, Uruguay and the United Kingdom. In particular, Argentina, Chile, the Czech Republic, Mauritius, Mexico and Switzerland wanted a stronger resolution, but in the end they were blocked by action on the other side by Brazil, Cuba, India, Pakistan, Bolivia and South Africa. Bluntly, countries such as South Africa should know better than to intervene to prevent that sort of investigation. It was unsatisfactory that the Secretary-General did not throw his weight behind the Human Rights Commissioner at the Geneva convention. Having got that item on the agenda, it was the obvious place to do the first follow-up to the conclusion of proceedings.

I am keen for the Minister to have a full opportunity to say something, and the hon. Member for Islington, North may want to say a word as well. I conclude with the very simple proposition that the UN is not up to the job in those sorts of cases. I want to know that the Minister accepts the case for reform both of the Security Council and of the Human Rights Council. Moreover, I want to hear what the Government intend to do with the unreconstructed UN to get justice and rights for Tamil communities and others affected in Sri Lanka.

As of today, there are many people in camps in Sri Lanka, and some of our colleagues have been to see them. Many people are separated from their families; many people are missing and presumed dead; and many people have been taken away and are experiencing the most severe detention. There is still no access for journalists or the UN. Moreover, international humanitarian agencies do not have full access to everywhere they want to go. There is something wrong with our international structures when our only international body, on which all the countries of the world are represented, is unable to intervene in such circumstances before the event, during the event or even after the event.

As an internationalist and a supporter of effective international action, my plea to the Government is to energise themselves to reform the structures so that never again do people have to sit by while minorities are killed and wounded by their own Government, when the rest of the world should be intervening.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 4:45 pm, 10th June 2009

I shall be brief so that the Minister has sufficient time to reply to the debate. I thank and congratulate Simon Hughes on securing this debate.

The situation in Sri Lanka is obviously terrible. We must reflect on how the UN has reacted in that respect. I am not here to be critical of the British Government. Indeed I have had meetings with the Foreign Secretary, and the matter has been raised countless times in the House by a large number of Members who have been extensively and effectively lobbied by their concerned constituents. I thank the Foreign Secretary for going to the Security Council and to Sri Lanka and for doing his best to bring about a ceasefire and some kind of humanitarian resolution to this crisis. Therefore, my point is not to be critical of the British Government.

Serious issues, however, must be addressed. First, as I said in my intervention on the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey, in terms of the UN charter and the universal declaration of human rights, it is quite clear that there are serious deficiencies in what is happening in Sri Lanka. After making a statement, visiting Sri Lanka and calling for a ceasefire and humanitarian aid, it is unfortunate, to put it mildly, that the Secretary-General should be ignored by the majority of the Security Council, and because of the veto system, that is essentially the end of that.

My second point concerns the Human Rights Council. I have attended meetings of the Human Rights Commission in the past and the Human Rights Council on behalf of the non-governmental organisation Liberation. I found the Commission to be quite cumbersome, but it did give quite a lot of space and working areas to a number of other organisations and NGO groups. I was concerned that with the establishment of the Human Rights Council, the NGOs would be driven out of the frame. I was assured by Louise Arbour and others that that was not the intention. I do not believe that it ever was her intention, or the intention of those who set it up. None the less, the voice of civil society has effectively been diminished and diminished in the Human Rights Council. If someone is in a country in which there is a serious attack on the human rights and liberties of individuals, they need to have a civil society voice that can bypass their Government and go to the United Nations. If that voice is choked off, the UN is less effective. It is quite clear in the founding principles of the UN and all its agencies that there is a civil society component in what the United Nations does. I am interested in hearing the thinking of the Minister on that and on enhancing the role of civil society organisations at the Human Rights Council.

As for the current situation in Sri Lanka, there are at least 250,000 people in what the Sri Lankan Government euphemistically refer to as refugee camps, but which, in reality, are prisons. People are not free to come and go. Disturbing reports talk about the treatment of individuals in those places and about the lack of visits. It is very clear that there is no access by independent observers or by the media. The well-grounded suspicion is that when those camps are finally closed the inmates may not be allowed to return home. No guarantees have been given. They may well be sent to another place. A humanitarian aid ship off the coast of Sri Lanka has been denied access to Sri Lanka to bring in its voluntarily collected aid.

We applaud and thank the Department for International Development for the very large amount of aid that it has provided through NGOs to try to help people through this humanitarian crisis, but there must be transparency. Sri Lanka is a member of the United Nations, a member of all the appropriate UN agencies and a signatory to all the appropriate international declarations. It must abide by them and allow these poor people, who were bombed in the war and now, unfortunately, are suffering and starving in the camps, to get the aid that the rest of the world wants to get to them. It is not right that a coalition at the Human Rights Council and the Security Council can effectively override the very decent humanitarian instincts of many senior UN officials who want to help people and do their jobs properly.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 4:50 pm, 10th June 2009

I congratulate Simon Hughes on securing the debate. He has a long track record of raising concerns about what is happening in Sri Lanka. The same can be said of my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn, who mentioned the work that DFID is doing on humanitarian assistance. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for International Development, who represents Harrow, West, is with us. He not only has many Tamil constituents but, on a long-term basis, has had overall responsibility in DFID for overseeing the money that we give to the Red Cross and for matters relating to the functioning of the UN regarding the humanitarian assistance that is being provided now, and has been in the past, to those most affected in Sri Lanka. I know, because I am a former colleague of his in that Department, that he does an excellent job in ensuring that humanitarian assistance is made available in what are very difficult circumstances.

From my previous role in DFID, I learned how important the UN is to the UK. It remains at the heart of our multilateral architecture. However, it needs to change if we are to be able to respond properly to the new challenges of the 21st century. Reform is easier said than done, but building the capacity of the UN and the wider international community to prevent and resolve conflict is at the heart of the work of my new Department, the Foreign Office.

At the pinnacle of the UN system to face threats to international peace and security is, of course, the Security Council. As hon. Members have graciously said, the UK has been leading the action at the UN in terms of our response to the Sri Lankan crisis. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made clear when he visited the UN on 11 May, we believe that the civilian crisis in Sri Lanka merits the attention and focus of the UN at all levels, including formal discussions by the Security Council. Security Council members made their concerns about the situation clear in the statement of 13 May.

I welcome the continued engagement of the UN and regular informal briefings given by senior UN officials, including a briefing to Security Council members by the Secretary-General on 5 June. Those actions at the UN have been important, because they have maintained the spotlight of international concern on the Government of Sri Lanka. We welcomed the visit of the UN Secretary-General to Sri Lanka last month. We urged the Government of that country to use the opportunity provided by that visit, as well as those by the Secretary-General's chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar, and Sir John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, to recognise that the UN has a pivotal role to play—as the hon. Gentleman made clear—both in the delivery of humanitarian aid and in encouraging the process of political reconciliation that must be an integral part of rebuilding Sri Lanka's civil society.

We also welcome the joint statement between the Secretary-General and the Government of Sri Lanka, which underlines the importance of an accountability process for addressing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. The Government of Sri Lanka have agreed to take measures in response to those grievances. We want to work with the Government of Sri Lanka and the international community to help to alleviate the dreadful situation in Sri Lanka.

The hon. Gentleman, who secured this Adjournment debate, should be aware of the views of some members that the Security Council is not the appropriate UN forum for discussion of the situation in Sri Lanka. As the Foreign Secretary made clear, a failed resolution—one that faces a veto—is worse than no resolution at all. Of course, we remain deeply concerned for the more than 270,000 civilians tragically affected by the conflict and now being held in camps for internally displaced persons in northern Sri Lanka. Throughout the conflict, the UK repeatedly called on both the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law. The UK supports the EU's call for an investigation into the alleged violations of international humanitarian law. The UN remains engaged with Sri Lanka. The Secretary-General visited on 23 May and reported to Security Council colleagues in an informal briefing.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

The Minister has helpfully said that the Government want an investigation into crimes in Sri Lanka. How does he think that that will best be taken forward? What is the best way of getting the quickest and most effective investigation into what has been going on?

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

It is by ensuring that through the UN processes there is consensus that a process should be undertaken, but one that is transparent and credible, in which the international community can have confidence and which will allow those people who feel that that they have been the victims of infringements of human rights to know that there will be a level of justice. The UK will be arguing and fighting within the global architecture to ensure that there is not only an investigation, but a robust, credible and transparent investigation into the events that have taken place.

In crisis situations, the priority should be to take collective action that is as swift and effective as possible. That covers a range of things, including diplomatic, peaceful and humanitarian measures. Its invocation may help to focus international attention and to facilitate agreement on collective action, but it could also hinder it. That does not prevent the international community from acting in the spirit of the R2P—the responsibility to protect—but the action itself must remain the primary concern. The EU and UN have called on the Sri Lankan Government to build a realistic prospect of a sustainable peace that addresses the legitimate grievances of all communities.

With regard to human rights issues, it was right to support the Sri Lanka special session with the EU and like-minded partners to call attention to a situation in which there has been significant and unacceptable loss of life and prolonged suffering of civilians displaced by the conflict. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the UK voted against the final resolution tabled by Sri Lanka at the HRC and regrets that a consensual outcome was impossible, despite the fact that the EU did everything to try to engage constructively. However, the session was not only about a resolution. Many important interventions were made during the debate, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights calling for an independent inquiry to ensure accountability for human rights violations committed on all sides.

I shall conclude by focusing on the more general question of UN reform. There are two urgent priorities. One is reforming the Security Council—to which both the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North referred—to make it far more representative. Permanent reform remains the ultimate prize, but an intermediate solution such as that set out in the report of the high-level panel on threats, challenges and change would be a helpful first step. Such reform would consolidate the Security Council's primacy as the authoritative body on maintaining international peace and security. It would counter charges of irrelevance made by those who do not yet have the stake that they feel they deserve, and acknowledge that those nations need to be part of the solution.

The second element of reform is to deliver system-wide coherence across the UN, building on the November 2006 high-level panel report, "Delivering as One". Massive growth in UN development, humanitarian and environmental systems is not yet matched by the coherence that would allow them to be sufficiently effective and efficient. Some $15 billion-worth of official development assistance is channelled through the UN, and that money must be used to best effect. That is particularly relevant in the context of the current economic crisis. For example, 23 separate agencies working on water issues in the UN system is not an efficient division of labour. We must continue to drive forward the "One UN" reform processes being piloted in eight countries around the world.

Better ways of managing our global affairs will emerge from multilateral negotiations. We remain committed to that. From civil society—my hon. Friend referred to the central importance of civil society in situations such as this—to business, and from public health to terrorism, there are just too many reasons why we need multilateral approaches. We must ensure that the platform for that continues to be a United Nations, but a United Nations that is reformed and fit for the 21st century and that can respond properly and nimbly to humanitarian crises and tragedies such as the one that we are seeing unfold in Sri Lanka.

Sitting adjourned without Question put Standing Order No. 10(11)).