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I shall not add to what the Secretary of State or my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), the shadow Secretary of State, said about the immediate future in Burma. Knowing both the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, I am sure that with DFID’s experience
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over the years in disaster intervention it is doing an exceptionally good job. Like most Members of the House, I am sorry that there seem to be some unnecessary divisions across the Chamber.

I shall take this opportunity to try to tease out the Government’s position on the concept of the responsibility to protect. That is an important issue. For some time now, the international community has been groping with the question of how to protect vulnerable people in countries where their own Governments cannot or will not protect them. On a number of occasions the Security Council determined that there was a threat to peace, even if the situation was internal. We saw examples of that in Somalia in 1992, Haiti in 1994, Rwanda, Zaire, Yugoslavia and East Timor, which the right hon. Member for Leeds, West had much to do with when he was a Minister at the Foreign Office.

There has been a tendency, however, for the international community to make it up, so to speak, as we go along. For example, Lord Hurd of Westwell, when he was Foreign Secretary, justifying the no-fly zones over northern Iraq in 1991, said that

As has been said, in September 2003 Kofi Annan, when Secretary-General of the UN, established a high level panel on threats, challenges and change. It followed the Canadian example and endorsed that work in producing what was described as an “emerging norm” of responsibility to protect civilians from large scale violence. The panel’s report, which the UN endorsed, makes two further points that I would like to cite. It stated:

It also states:

I am concerned that the Government’s amendment makes no reference to the responsibility to protect. We all know that parliamentary clerks in the various Departments will have pondered the wording of the resolutions carefully. I was concerned to see press reports that John Sawers, who—as many people will know—was an excellent Foreign Office diplomat for many years and is now our representative at the United Nations, had said that the doctrine of responsibility to
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protect applies only to intervention in response to genocide and war crimes. If that is the line that the Foreign Office is now taking, it is a much more restricted line than the Government took in the past. It is certainly a much more restricted line than the previous Administration took, and it would be helpful to understand what the Government mean when they talk about the responsibility to protect.

I understand if the Secretary of State’s response is to say that this is not a dispute about the responsibility to protect, but a pragmatic difference of opinion about how we keep China and Russia onside in the Security Council, but I hope that he will make that clear. The amendment says that the FCO

That seems to suggest that it is not a matter for the Security Council or the UN, but for us just to try to help regional partners put pressure on Burma. If that is the situation—let us not forget that the UK chairs the UN Security Council—we would be giving way too easily.

I also wish to flag up the concern that at some stage we will all have to engage more closely with China so that we better understand how it sees its role in the international community and the international community’s role in humanitarian disasters. So often—as in Darfur and now in Burma—the Security Council is semi-paralysed because France, the US and the UK take one view, which is broadly the responsibility to protect, and Russia and China take a different view. China and Russia are often preoccupied by access to natural resources and their own internal political agenda, but we have only the UN to act as the voice of the international community as a whole, and if the Security Council is paralysed, it will make the expression of that voice incredibly difficult.

Mr. Douglas Alexander: The hon. Gentleman makes his reasonable point well, and in the same spirit I wish to reiterate the position taken by the Foreign Secretary last night on “The World Tonight”, set out again by the Prime Minister at PMQs today and rehearsed in my earlier contribution to the debate. We retain the option of invoking the responsibility to protect. The disagreement reflected in the debate betrays some genuine confusion among the Opposition on the issue of the responsibility to protect, but it also reflects our continuing determination to raise these matters at the UN. That was the position that I adopted at the European Council of Development Ministers yesterday, and we have set it out publicly and continue to argue for it at the UN. The hon. Gentleman rightly recognises that there is no consensus with our partners on that issue in New York, but we continue to put the case to them.

Tony Baldry: I welcome the Secretary of State’s confirmation of that line and I am glad that we have that on the record. There was some ambiguity, and I would hate there to be any suggestion in the international community that Britain, which has been one of those working hardest to encourage the sense that we live in one world with a mutual responsibility for fellow citizens, was resiling in any sense from that general principle. It is important that that is clearly on
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the record. No one underestimates the complexity of this issue, or of any other—including Zimbabwe and Darfur. We are not children and we all understand that we have to have a pragmatic approach as well as a principled approach.

My wider concern in this debate is that it is one thing for some of the members of the Security Council to be anxious that we do not interfere unnecessarily in matters that should be the sovereign responsibility of member states, but the suspicion must be—in Darfur or in Burma—that the self-interest of those members is uppermost. The international community cannot function on that basis. That may mean that we have to try to expand the Security Council to bring in other member states—which has been discussed for a long time and is unfinished business—but we need to ensure that the UN and its institutions match the needs of the 21st century.

Dr. Julian Lewis: I apologise that a commitment to the Royal British Legion meant that I missed part of the Secretary of State’s speech, but, as I understand it, the point that I raised in an earlier intervention still has not been addressed. Whereas it was thought a few days ago that China was blocking action being taken on the Security Council, that surely ought no longer to be the case, now that China is reacting to its disaster in the way that the Burmese authorities should have reacted to their disaster. What efforts is Britain making at the UN to put China to the test about why it will not support similar measures being taken in respect of Burma that it welcomes for itself?

Tony Baldry: My take on that—and I would be interested to see whether it finds support elsewhere—is that China sees the world in terms of spheres of influence. China sees Burma as being within its own sphere of influence, just as it sees parts of Africa in the same way. Burma’s main trading partner is China, which accesses a lot of coal, timber and other resources from Burma. China was anxious about the international community internationalising the involvement in Burma, so China, sadly, has taken a very different position in the Security Council from that to its own earthquake catastrophe, where it has been glad to see international support.

Mr. Douglas Alexander: It is fair to place on the record that I first contacted the Chinese ambassador here in London before the tragic earthquake that now afflicts the country, and I made clear to her our strong desire that China use its considerable influence over the Burmese regime to secure the unfettered access that is the desire of Members on both sides of the House. She in turn, before the earthquake, made it clear that that was the Chinese Government’s position, and that she would pass our representations back to Beijing, but assured me that efforts had already been made by Beijing to make representations to the Burmese Government. As I say, further contact is being sought both through our permanent representative in New York and direct ministerial contact, but it is right to recognise that even before the soliciting of international aid by the Chinese Government following the earthquake, the Chinese ambassador made it clear to me that Beijing had made representations to the
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Burmese regime, encouraging efforts to open up in the face of the terrible cyclone that affected the country.

Tony Baldry: That is welcome from the Secretary of State, but he will also have to note that today’s report in the Financial Times by Harvey Morris at the United Nations states:

It adds that

because of China’s intervention—

The Chinese ambassador in London is an incredibly nice lady—

Mr. Andrew Mitchell: A very tough lady.

Tony Baldry: Tough and nice. But China’s actions in the Security Council are not entirely consistent with the line that she has taken.

Mr. Alexander: Other partners on the Security Council object to the Security Council being an appropriate forum for reasons of national sovereignty and the invocation of the responsibility to protect doctrine. In that sense, it is for others on the Security Council to account for the position that they have taken. The emphasis that we place on China, India and ASEAN partners results from the fact that, historically, significant influence has been wielded in relation to Burma by both India and China, and of course influence continues to be exerted by neighbours in the immediate region. For us, it is not an either/or between encouraging China, India and ASEAN partners to exert their influence on the regime and continuing to work to use the mechanism of the United Nations and its various bodies. It is important that we send a clear signal, and some partners on the Security Council, because of a particular view of the status of the Security Council, can find themselves in the position of objecting to the position that we, as the British Government, would support.

Tony Baldry: I have no quarrel with the Secretary of State on any of that except that I express the concern that there are members of the Security Council who view the Security Council in a way that will limit its role in the future. It is the only international institution of its kind that we have, and we will have to return to how we ensure that the UN functions effectively and properly. All sorts of bits of reparation and repair work might have to be done. The whole matter of the UK, the US, the Iraq invasion and the coalition of the willing has done some damage, but, bluntly, the truth is that the Security Council, through no fault of the UK and its chairmanship, has not stepped up to the mark in this crisis in the way that one would have hoped and expected. It is as simple as that.

I am conscious that many hon. Members wish to speak, not least the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who I am sure will add to comments about
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the responsibility to protect, and I am glad that the House has had the opportunity to debate the issue in the main Chamber in prime time. I hope that the Secretary of State will undertake to update the House regularly, because—I entirely endorse and echo what the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) said—this will be a long-running tragedy that will need an enormous amount of international effort. We all know that one of the real tragedies of such events is that they understandably endure for a period of time on the television screens and news broadcasts, and then they are simply forgotten, and large numbers of people feel forgotten and abandoned. We should, if we do nothing else during the course of the debate, make it clear to the people of Burma that they will be neither forgotten nor abandoned.

3.15 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): I agree with much that has been said and I will not repeat those points, but I want to pay tribute to the non-governmental organisations that are today doing vital work in Burma, but also in other parts of the world, saving lives and improving the conditions of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. That work goes on, day by day, regardless of whether newspapers and television programmes are showing any interest in it. It is important that members of the British public know that those organisations are not corrupt, that they are efficient and that, as has been said, money that is given gets through directly.

I concur with the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) who talked about the situation with the vile brutal regime in Burma. It is important that we understand that as well as not doing enough, or actively impairing humanitarian efforts, it has also devoted its television channels to broadcasting smiling, dancing women, telling people to go out and vote; it has postponed its referendum on its fake constitution in the area that is now under water by just a few weeks, seemingly in the belief that it can then run some falsified referendum in a few weeks’ time; and it is still pursuing its brutal repression of the ethnic groups in the rest of its country. This, after all, is a very complicated country, where there is a brutal military regime at the top, which does not have the support of the people, and where Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, 20 years ago, won a democratic election—then she was put under house arrest, which she has been unable to leave. It is important to place that on the record today.

The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) referred to the impact of climate change. Sadly, that issue, which we are confronting today, will have to be confronted more and more in this century. Rising sea levels and extreme weather conditions impact on coastal peoples causing natural disasters, with a world population that is now far more urbanised, and with many people and living in flood plains or on the coast. We need international mechanisms whereby we can intervene quickly and effectively in such cases.

However, we do not live in a world of world government. We do not live in a world where the United Nations General Assembly or the United
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Nations Security Council can decide something and then it happens. There are almost 200 countries in the world, some with corrupt and incompetent Governments, some that are failed states, and some where the Governments are not incompetent, but rather are very effective at maintaining their power despite the wishes of their people or of the rest of the world. It is extremely frustrating when we know that intervention and assistance could make a huge difference to those millions of people, yet we do not have the means to intervene. There is therefore a real question to be confronted about how we strengthen international institutions and the rule of international law.

The motion in the name of the Conservative party uses the phrase “international community” in its last sentence. I would ask what we mean by “international community”. We have had a bit of a debate about the differences between the motion and the Government amendment. The Government amendment, interestingly, does not use that phrase. It talks about the United Nations. I am trying to tease out whether we are saying that the existing UN system is not able to deal with these issues. Does that mean that we should move towards a league of democracies that would act outside—my Scottish friends would say “outwith”—the international community? That issue is flagged up in an article in today’s Financial Times by the foreign policy adviser to Senator John McCain, Mr. Robert Kagan. I am very worried about that development, because we do not strengthen the ability to act, particularly in countries such as Burma, if we do not have the support of the growing major power in Asia, which is China, or of India. If we rely simply on the Australians, the New Zealanders, the Canadians, the United States and European Union countries, that will not be effective.

Sadly, reference has been made to opposition within the UN Security Council to taking responsibility. That is not just China. It is also Russia and South Africa—a non-permanent member of the Security Council that seems to have taken a totally traditionalist attitude to non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. That is the traditional Communist party view from the 1970s, which seems to be influential in the Foreign Ministry of the Republic of South Africa. It is understandable, but it is not right, because in the world today we need the growing economic and political powers, the so-called BRICS—Brazil, India, China and South Africa—to work for the development of international institutions that work. They should not take a traditionalist view that would stop the more effective international organisations that we need to deal with such issues working.

Even if we all agreed, however, we would still face a very difficult situation because we know that intervention is not always easy, and there are unintended consequences. Reference has been made to the no-fly zones in connection with the Kurds in Iraq. I think that John Major’s Government deserved enormous credit for establishing that. It may have been said that it was in accordance with international law, but it is doubtful whether it was. Kosovo, too, comes to mind. Some people have said that the invasion in 1999 was illegal but legitimate. That was done with no UN Security Council authorisation or resolution, and we are still dealing with the consequences of that today with the developments in the Balkans, Serbia and the greater western Balkans.

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If there were to be intervention by the “international community”, however defined, without a UN Security Council resolution, it would be contrary to the conditions laid down within the Canadian-sponsored commission, the UN Secretary-General’s high-level panel and the UN General Assembly resolution of 2005. It was made explicit in 2005 at the General Assembly that the principle of the responsibility to protect would be based on, first, each state having the responsibility to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, not from humanitarian disasters. Secondly, the principle is that if a state fails to discharge its responsibility, the international community has a responsibility to use peaceful means to protect the population, and it can also, on a case-by-case basis, as a last resort, and through the Security Council, issue a binding resolution or authorise the use of force if

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