May 26, 2005

Millennium Review Summit

John Bercow highlights the important role for the future of the UN but raises his concerns that the it has failed in its obligations in relation to the people of Darfur.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): The United Nations was, of course, set up in 1945 as the chief agent of collective security. It is perhaps salutary to recall that it was only four years ago that it was described in the United Nations millennium declaration as

“the indispensable common house of the entire human family”.

It is also only fair in the circumstances to record that many people and countries around the world will conclude that, due to errors of omission or commission on the part of the United Nations, that common house is short of bedrooms and other floor space for suffering peoples.

If I do not make the next point it will certainly be made to me. I am conscious of the truism that the United Nations is as good and effective only as the sum total commitment of its individual members. My purpose is not to slate the United Nations for the sake of it. That will not greatly advance matters. It is the apex of the multilateral machinery that we have at our disposal and I—in common, I suspect, with most colleagues from the different political parties in the House—respect it, believe that it has a contribution to make and want to see it strengthened. In short, I am not a narrow nationalist or an impatient isolationist. I am an internationalist and believe in the potential of the United Nations as an organisation. However, it is as well to look at some of the commitments made in the millennium declaration and to take stock of where we now are. Inevitably, it will be a selective choice given rather fleeting attention.

Mr. Gareth Thomas : I want to intervene before the hon. Gentleman gets into the body of his speech to refer back to his intervention on me, when I said that I was not aware of particular accusations. The Department is aware of accusations, although whether they are the particular accusations to which the hon. Gentleman was referring, I have no idea. I repeat my offer to discuss that with him afterwards.

John Bercow : I am grateful to the Minister. We could have a conversation across the Chamber now. Some people might think that that would guarantee that it was a closely guarded secret, but I cannot be certain that it would. I should like to take advantage of the Minister’s offer and discuss that particular matter at a later stage‚Äîperhaps at the conclusion of the debate.

The millennium declaration states:

“We will spare no effort to free our peoples from the scourge of war, whether within or between States”.

That is what the signatories profess; but of course, to be brutally candid, it is not true. It is not correct to say that the signatories have spared no effort. Let us give just one example—the continuing crisis in Darfur. Too little money has been devoted, too little thought has been given and too little logistical back-up has been provided. There is a lack of political will, which has been, and continues to be, a major obstacle to the achievement of peace in Darfur.

We know also that the massive oil interests that China has in Sudan have prevented concrete measures from being taken. My view—which I have frequently articulated and should like to reiterate—is that what we need, quite apart from a robust sanctions policy against the Government of Sudan pending the achievement of peace in Darfur, is a peace enforcement mandate for Darfur. We need a dramatically increased African Union presence—if an African Union presence it is to be—and a blue-helmeted force, with all the financial backing that would thereby flow from the United Nations.

Peter Luff (Mid Worcestershire) (Con): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the remarkable work that he has done in highlighting the issue consistently in recent months. I can bring him some moderately good news. I understand that the African Union today tabled a request for the equivalent of £252 million of aid, of which by lunchtime some £110 million had been pledged by donor countries to assist the union in its peacekeeping work. Something good is beginning to happen, and I hope that the other £142 million will follow.

John Bercow : That is extremely good news and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for being the bearer of glad tidings. Progress has been incredibly slow. Let us be clear about what we have witnessed and what we know continues to happen in Darfur— aerial bombardment, mass shootings, widespread rape, theft of livestock and destruction of crops. They are all part of the cocktail of barbarity that is visited on the long-suffering people of Darfur on a daily basis. It has to stop. It is estimated that between 10,000 and 35,000 people a month are losing their lives. The reality is that, for all the world has said, it has not cared that much about the serial slaughter of black Africans in Darfur. The world may say that it cares, but it has not done so in the only way that matters, which is practical.

Jeremy Corbyn : I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s analysis or with what he said about the need for an African force and about the abominable behaviour of the forces that are killing so many people. Does he accept that in the long term a peace settlement would have to consider the people who have migrated to the region because of environmental destruction in other parts of Sudan? We must consider the pressure on resources if we are to bring about a wider peace. The conflict is, in part, one of many environmental wars in Africa.

John Bercow : I accept that that is a relevant consideration. Another important part of the equation is consideration of the rights of people who have moved away from Darfur and in the process found that their land has been stolen. That is a big factor, but I certainly accept what the hon. Gentleman says and do not think that there is a cigarette paper between us on the matter.

Ms Keeble : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that his points tie up with those that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) made about the need to consider conflict areas carefully and not assume that we cannot provide assistance, and the need to prepare for peace much earlier? That can help to stabilise situations such as the one that the hon. Gentleman describes.

John Bercow : I would not want to take an absolutist view on the matter, but there might be some difference between the hon. Lady and me. The reason is that the Government, it seems to me, have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayer. We must be careful about committing substantial sums of money in development assistance‚Äîas opposed to humanitarian aid‚Äîto countries where there is not even a peace agreement or a basic framework for civilised relationships. However, I would not want to rule the idea out in all circumstances. There may be particular projects that we could support. The Government should be prepared to consider them, but it would be wrong to suppose that the Government could in all conscience commit huge sums of money to development assistance to forestall a continuation of violence or, better still, to prepare the ground for a substantial peace, simply on an “I hope” basis. The British taxpayer is entitled to expect something a bit more solid and concrete before major resources are committed. I am glad that the issue has excited some response.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab) rose—

John Bercow : I would like to make some progress on other points, as I know that other hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate, but how can I resist the exhortations of the hon. Lady?

Ms Taylor : I am most grateful. I have been listening to the hon. Gentleman with great care. He is saying things that, sadly, I have had seriously to think about when considering the UN’s peacekeeping competence in the Balkans. NATO had to be deployed after what were, quite frankly, horrendous murders and tyrannies.

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting to the House that the United Nations peacekeeping forces are well past their sell-by date‚Äîthat they have become less and less valuable‚Äîin dealing with corrupt regimes such as the one in Sudan, and that the UN will seriously have to consider a model that is more similar to NATO’s if we are to achieve the kind of peace that is necessary if aid is to work in any way, shape or form?

John Bercow : We must think boldly about the sort of approach that is required in places such as Darfur. The word “peacekeeping” is a misnomer, as peace does not exist in any material sense in Darfur. We should not play semantic games or use easy terms such as “peacekeeping”, which does not reflect the reality on the ground that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) and I encountered on our recent trip to Darfur or that I witnessed for myself during my first visit in July last year. It would seem more sensible to recognise that peace does not exist, to decide whether it falls within the ambit and responsibility of the UN to seek to ensure that it does, and, if we decide positively on the latter, to try to give effect to peace‚Äîthe result that we seek‚Äîthrough a peace enforcement mandate with the blue helmets and the resources of the UN.

The millennium declaration also states:

“We will spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty”.

To be candid, the reality is that that has not happened and is not happening. Member states are not contributing the scale of resources that would allow for fulfilment of the millennium development goals by 2015 or any time near that date. A ratcheting-up of resources is certainly needed. As that is common ground, I shall not focus on it any further.

I believe that we all agree that, irrespective of the determination of Governments to commit resources through aid, a bigger element of the equation in improving the life chances of people in developing countries will always be trade. Trade is massively bigger than aid could ever be. We may have different views about fair trade versus free trade, but we can confidently say that developing countries are unfairly denied access to western markets on the basis of alleged anxieties on our part about health and safety. The reality is often that that is simply a smokescreen for continuing self-interest and protectionism.

Similarly, we can safely say that, more often than not, the trade that takes place is not free trade. It is heavily subsidised to the advantage of the European Union and the United States, which is why I endorse the call made by my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) to make progress towards a successful conclusion of the Doha development round, which must involve a massive and speedy reduction in trade-distorting agriculture subsidies for western agricultural production. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and I debated that very point on the Floor of the House only a few days ago. I do not know how it will be possible to persuade rich and articulate defenders of self-interest in the United States to change their ways, and it will not be any easier to do that within the European Union, but we must abandon the guff; the hypocrisy is too stomach-churning to continue with any longer.

If we do not want to achieve a dramatic improvement in the fortunes of poor people, we ought to be honest enough to say so. We should acknowledge that keeping our living standards just as they are and placating professional and powerful political lobbies in our own democracies is more important to us. I hope that that is not true, but it simply does not wash to say that we want to improve the opportunities for poor people in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, and then to fail to adopt the measures required to achieve that purpose.

Ms Keeble : I do not want to delay the hon. Gentleman’s speech for too long, but I would like him to address an issue that is a serious problem for his party; it is not so much of a problem for my party. In addition to policies that promote growth, there must be policies to redistribute wealth. China has the fastest growing economy in the world, but it also has among the highest numbers of poor people. It cannot tackle that poverty because it has a complete dearth of redistribution policies. This subject is not just about trade and economic growth; it is also about redistribution and good social policies, and members of my party, as socialists, understand that.

John Bercow : I certainly agree that countries need good social policies, but we should be realistic about our ambitions. There are certain things that we can expect to do in the short term‚Äîor even the medium term. I do not honestly think it is realistic for our country, the European Union or the United States to seek to tell countries whose performance is already improving exactly what scale of redistributive policy they should adopt. Yes, they should use increased resources to develop decent systems of social services, and they should have methods of ensuring that the poorest people in their countries are able to get their feet on the ladder of commercial opportunity and educational advance, but I am cautious about setting out too many specific and high-falutin’ goals which we might not be able to attain.

My hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness referred to the importance of the MDGs and the Conservative party’s support for them. I respect what he said, and I agree with it. However, all of us also know that those goals have proved to be very ambitious, and that they go far beyond the scope of the existing, and rather unsatisfactory, policy commitments that nations have made.

I respect the point made by the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), but it would be good if we could learn to walk effectively before seeking to sprint. We are not even walking very effectively at present, and I am therefore a little reluctant to be tempted down the utopian path that the hon. Lady wishes me to tread with her.

Jeremy Corbyn rose—

John Bercow : I am tempted to give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I think that if I do so I shall be even more unpopular with my colleagues than I have already managed to become. I may give way to him shortly, if he behaves well for the next five minutes.

Jeremy Corbyn : What I wish to say is part of the point that the hon. Gentleman is making.

John Bercow : Oh, very well.

Jeremy Corbyn : I am trying to help the hon. Gentleman along the road to utopia and social justice; I know that he is searching for that road, and I want to help him. He is anxious not to make over-prescriptive demands on poor countries, and I understand where he is coming from on that, but does he accept that many British, European and north American companies are making incredibly large profits out of investing in very low-wage—indeed, slave-labour—economies in the far east, and that we need a much tougher International Labour Organisation that can improve the living standards of the poorest workers in the poorest industrialised countries in the world?

John Bercow : I am very sceptical about that; it sounds to me like a model for grossly increased regulation. If there were to be a body charged with the task of devising the most burdensome and onerous set of regulations known to mankind, I cannot think of anyone more appropriately qualified to be at its apex than the hon. Gentleman. To make business more uncompetitive, to increase the load of regulation, to stifle competitive endeavour, and to encourage an effectively Marxist ethos as far across the world as possible, would, of course, be the daily joy of the hon. Gentleman. I do not myself think that it would advance the interests of the poorest people in the world.

I believe that globalisation is, on the whole, a great force for good. It is also pretty well inevitable. Whereas the hon. Gentleman, whose knowledge and integrity I massively respect, is probably hostile to much of that phenomenon, I think that it has, on the whole, been a good thing. If we look, for example, at countries such as Vietnam, where there has been a dramatic improvement in living standards and economic growth over the past 15 years or so, we see the impact of companies such as Nike. There will be those who say, “Oh no, they’re capitalists. They’re exploitative. They’re bad guys. We don’t approve of them. They must be regulated. They should be trodden on. They shouldn’t be allowed to behave in that way.” But I do not agree. Paying someone $54 a month to work in a Nike factory might not sound very good to us or to the professional salariat of western non-governmental organisations, but it is a damn sight better deal than somebody in Vietnam would get if they toiled away for 14 hours a day in a rice field. We have to operate within the framework of the country whose interests we are considering.

The millennium declaration says:

“We will support the consolidation of democracy in Africa and assist Africans in their struggle for lasting peace, poverty eradication and sustainable development, thereby bringing Africa into the mainstream of the world economy.”

In essence, that raises an issue of governance. Without labouring the point, I simply remind the Minister in a constructive but robust way that those aims have not been met in relation, for example, to Zimbabwe. We have historical obligations, and the international community has burked those obligations in relation to Zimbabwe. There has been no serious attempt to ensure better governance, and I appeal to the Minister, and in particular to Foreign Office Ministers, to redouble their efforts to persuade the South African Government to recognise their responsibilities to bring about a step change in the behaviour of that despotic regime.

On the subject of human rights, which the hon. Member for Islington, North and I have debated previously on the Floor of this Chamber, the Secretary-General of the United Nations has a much better idea for improving the UN’s human rights machinery than does the high-level panel. The panel does very good work and correctly diagnosed the weaknesses of the United Nation Commission on Human Rights, but it flunked the opportunity to make a satisfactory proposal for reform. As the hon. Gentleman will recall, it suggested that membership of the Commission should be made universal‚Äîafter its analysis had demonstrated that there were consistent breaches of human rights by member states. It acknowledged that the organisation had variously been chaired by Nepal‚Äînot a noted supporter of human rights and democratic pluralism‚Äîand by Libya, and that it is, indeed, currently being chaired by Indonesia. Yet, after all that, it said that membership should be made universal. The problem is the automaticity of membership and the Buggins’s turn criterion for chairmanship. That should change, and the Secretary-General is right to suggest that there should be a smaller human rights council, membership of which should be determined by behaviour, not geography. That would be a tremendous improvement, which I hope that colleagues could support.

There is much to do. I have had an opportunity to focus on some of the themes, eloquently aided and abetted by several hon. Members, who have made helpful interventions. I support some of the work that the Government are doing. The United Nations has a future, but it must tackle its own internal problems. If it is to have credibility in talking, for example, about the millennium development goals in respect of women, it clearly must do something to counter the welter of accusations about the maltreatment and sexual harassment of its own staff.

There is work to be done. The only beneficiaries of a weakened or, worse still, eliminated United Nations would be the most powerful people in the world, who do not really favour any collective machinery. If we are united in this Chamber in believing that there is an important role for a multilateral organisation committed to collective security, the advancement of human rights and the extension of opportunity to the poorest and most disadvantaged people in the world, we should unite in trying to find ways forward for an organisation that has good intent, but which, in recent years, has sadly lost its way.

4.10 pm

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