Previous Section Index Home Page

13 Oct 2008 : Column 605

I shall explain briefly why I think it will almost always be the case that military intervention in the internal affairs of another country that has not attacked us will turn out to be disastrous. There are four reasons. First, when people go in, particularly with regime change in mind, they create a political vacuum. Once that happens, they cannot control what emerges. When we went into Iraq, it was no part of western, or coalition, policy that Shi’a and Sunni sectarianism would grow dramatically and become the dominant force in Iraqi politics, yet it should have been anticipated that if a political vacuum is created, the people of the country concerned will determine for themselves the political consequences that flow from it.

Secondly, intervention changes the political dynamic of the country that has been invaded. Until NATO took military action against Serbia, the vast majority of Kosovar Albanians, although they wanted independence, would have compromised on autonomy. They did not believe independence could be achieved, so they were willing to go for autonomy, which is what Rugova was arguing for and other Kosovar Albanians would have settled for at that stage. Once a group knows that NATO is on side, it has a historic opportunity that has never happened before and will probably never happen again. Every single Kosovar Albanian then said, “There is no question of autonomy or compromise; it is independence or nothing.” That not only could have been predicted, but was predicted. However, it was ignored at the time, because it was inconvenient to do otherwise.

First, military intervention creates a political vacuum. Secondly, it changes the internal political dynamic. Thirdly, although we will win the conventional war—NATO will always win a conventional war, just as the coalition did in Iraq, and just as NATO did in Serbia—the consequence will be asymmetrical responses from those who know that they cannot beat the west or NATO in a conventional way. So it comes about that there are Shi’a and Sunni militias—and, in Afghanistan, the Taliban—operating in quite a different way from those taking part in conventional conflicts, but nevertheless making a mockery of what we set out to achieve.

Mr. Crabb: My right hon. and learned Friend is making a powerful and compelling speech. How would he regard our action and intervention in Sierra Leone? Would he regard it as an exception to his argument, or does it fit with the general principles that he outlines?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: Sierra Leone was quite different; we were invited in by the Government of that country. It was a small, self-contained operation, and we went there with consent. We did not invade a country against the wishes of its Government. There is therefore a clear distinction.

John Bercow: I am extremely grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for giving way. As always, he is making a highly compelling speech. Circumspection and an insistence on considering each case on a case-by-case basis is one thing, but a blanket rejection of military intervention in human rights crises is a quite different matter. How does he reconcile the position that he is
13 Oct 2008 : Column 606
commending to the House, to which I confess I am instinctively rather averse, with the United Nations proclamation on the responsibility to protect? Humanitarian intervention often requires military intervention, and indeed regime change, if we are to achieve anything.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I will come to that point, and will give my hon. Friend a direct answer in just a moment, if I may.

The fourth result of military intervention is, of course, the geopolitical consequences to which I referred in my opening comments. The independence of Kosovo, which was forced on the west against its wishes, unlocked a series of consequences. It has meant the fragmentation of parts of the Caucasus, and has led every small national minority in many states to believe that if it can only push us hard enough, it can create a further fragmentation of Europe and of the wider world. That has the serious consequences that we are now experiencing.

I now come to the point that my hon. Friend raised. Everything that I have said so far implies that one can somehow just ignore human rights abuses, however serious they are. I make one exception to my general principle, and that is in the case of real genocide. The word “genocide” has been used very widely. It has been used to talk about small massacres in towns, cities or villages, or against small numbers of people. Such events are terribly reprehensible, and I will come back to that issue. However, I entirely acknowledge, for a reason that I will explain, that if there is a genocide such as the holocaust, or such as that in Rwanda or Cambodia, in which a whole population is threatened with annihilation, of course the outside world cannot but intervene.

How do I rationalise that, given what I have just been saying? I do so in a very simple way. I have argued that whenever one intervenes militarily in the internal affairs of a state, one will create more harm than good. By definition, the one exception is genocide, because although military intervention will still create a political vacuum and change the political dynamic, and still lead to all sorts of consequences that were never intended, nothing can be as bad as the genocide that one has succeeded in stopping. In circumstances in which military intervention would prevent or stop a genocide—I mean genocide in its overall sense, not simply a massacre in a town or a village—the argument must point in the other direction.

That leaves the question: what does one do about lesser human rights abuses, in which people are persecuted and sometimes slaughtered? I refer to the Srebrenicas of this world—

John Bercow: Darfur.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: And to Darfur, and so forth. In cases that my argument does not properly address, there is a spectrum of responses. Military intervention leading to regime change is at one end of the spectrum. There is a whole range of other options available. I do not just mean economic sanctions or diplomatic pressure, but options involving military means.

When I was in government, we imposed a no-fly zone on Iraq. We stopped Iraq persecuting the Kurds. We were able to stop it persecuting the Shi’a. Saddam Hussein had no control over his own airspace. He was emasculated as a power that could show aggression to its neighbours. However, we did not have to invade Iraq
13 Oct 2008 : Column 607
to achieve that, and therefore we did not suffer all the terrible consequences that there have been in the past five years. There are options available, but there has been a lack of imagination on the part of the Bush Administration and, I must say, the British Government. There has been a belief that either there should be military intervention involving regime change, or soft power should be used. That quite ignores the spectrum of alternatives available, some of which may involve the use of our military assets.

In the past 20 or 25 years, there has been a huge increase in democracy in the world. It is rightly often mentioned as a matter in which we should take huge pleasure. There has been such an increase in Latin America, central and eastern Europe and many countries of the far east, and that is marvellous. It is significant that all those changes—all these red, orange and purple revolutions—have almost entirely taken place without external intervention, as a result of the determination of the peoples of those countries.

In his book, “The Audacity of Hope”, Barack Obama says that:

I am not arguing that the outside world cannot influence events; of course it can. I am arguing against the ridiculous concept of the Bush doctrine and of the Blair Chicago speech—repeated by our current Foreign Secretary, although not with the same emphasis—which says that military intervention is the way in which one achieves internal democratic change in certain countries.

Finally, there is another, highly relevant reason why such intervention will not work—why the Americans cannot, by themselves, create democracy in Iraq. It is a simple question of their staying power. Britain helped to create democracy in India because the Indians knew that we were going to stay there for a very long time. We were in India for 200 years. If one is somewhere for 200 years, of course one changes the culture of a country, affects its options and has a powerful impact on its political development. If, however, as was the case in Afghanistan or Iraq, from the moment we arrive, our objective, supported by public opinion, is to get out as quickly as possible, the domestic population of the country knows it perfectly well. It knows that it has to tolerate us while we are there, but it is only too anxious to see us go, and will then determine its own political destiny.

That is not an argument against human rights or democracy—far from it. It is simply to recognise that we are talking about matters that, rightly, will be determined by the populations of the countries concerned. With the single exception of cases in which there is genocide, I believe that military intervention will do more harm than good. The examples of Kosovo and Iraq are evidence of that. Our Government may in practice have given up such a policy, but they continue to pay lip service to it. I hope that they will recognise that that is not a sustainable position, and will reverse it as soon as possible.

13 Oct 2008 : Column 608
7.28 pm

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): In a moment, I want to continue the argument and the conversation that the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) began. He took the debate into interesting and difficult territory that forces us to examine some rather large issues.

Before I do that, let me say that one of the joys of a debate on democracy and human rights is that one can talk about almost anything one wants. I could not help but be struck by the headline of today’s The Times; it was simply: “Banks nationalised”. The idea that there would ever have been such a headline in The Times beggars belief. It immediately put me in mind of Sidney Webb’s Fabian essays of 1889, in which he says:

with a capital “D”, by the way—

Of course, that was the belief of many in my political tradition: democracy was not simply a set of political arrangements but a way in which the people could discipline private power. Indeed, that was the governing class’s fear of democracy, and why it was resisted so furiously for so long. The worry was about not just people having a vote but about what the vote would do, and what people would want to do, armed with the vote, to private economic power. It is a nice symmetry, therefore, that today the banks are being nationalised, and I shall return to that at the end of my contribution.

When we talk about democracy, we use the term without defining it. We use it as a shorthand for free electoral competition, free expression, the rule of law, respect for differences and for minorities, and so on. We often prefix it with words such as “liberal” or “pluralistic” to show that we do not believe simply in majoritarianism, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, suggested, it is possible to have majoritarian tyrannies. Human rights are properly attached to democracy as a qualifier, to show that we believe not in majoritarian tyrannies but in the kind of democracy that recognises that individual citizens possess rights that are to be protected, even against majorities.

That is why the link between democracy and human rights is important. It is a source of regret that in recent years the phrase “human rights” has begun to be used pejoratively by the Daily Mail and parts of the Conservative party. That profoundly damages the broader human rights cause, because it detaches us from a broad movement for human progress and the protection of individual freedoms. We must not allow such denunciation or criticism to enter our culture of human rights, and I hope that it no longer prevails.

I often think that there is a certain unreality to Foreign and Commonwealth Office Question Time. We tend to ask the Government to do things about places almost anywhere in the world. We have a roll call of places where things need to be done, and we ask Ministers what they are going to do. The realistic answer in almost all cases is, “There is nothing very much that we can do about those things on our own. All we can do is work with others to try to make some improvements.”
13 Oct 2008 : Column 609
The mentality that we bring to proceedings, however, is that the gunboats are there, poised to be dispatched to whichever part of the world is causing difficulty. We need a dose of realism.

The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea gave us a dose of realism when he explained why intervention to do good almost always does harm, certainly if military means are used. He argued his case extremely powerfully, and I want to pursue it by briefly discussing two instances that have preoccupied the Commons in recent years: the Iraq adventure and Europe and the European treaty, which force us to think rather large thoughts about democracy and human rights.

I dissent somewhat from the right hon. and learned Gentleman, as I believe that the tragedy of Iraq is that it stopped us thinking creatively about the doctrine of liberal intervention, because it seemed absolutely to validate the proposition that he advanced. So catastrophic was the failure that it persuaded people that it was not even worth thinking about how we can sometimes intervene to do good, even by military means, and I say that as someone who did not vote for the Iraq war. I wanted to believe the arguments. I wanted the then Prime Minister to tell me that this campaign was directed against the world’s worst tyrant, and that we were going to ensure a little instalment of freedom, but he was careful not to say that. He said that, in fact, it was consistent with international principles: the objective was not regime change, it had been validated by the United Nations, and so on, but none of that persuaded me. Nor was I persuaded, to use the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s test, that it would do more good than harm. I thought that the warnings about the acceleration of terrorism were probably justifiable, and that we should do things only if there was a good chance of their succeeding.

John Bercow: The former Prime Minister grounded his case principally on the miscellany of Security Council resolutions on the one hand and on the supposedly imminent threat to our security through weapons of mass destruction on the other. May I nevertheless tell the hon. Gentleman that, even with the passage of time and all that has gone wrong—I am not sorry or ashamed to say this—some of us voted for the Iraq war overwhelmingly on human rights grounds? I was never convinced of the weapons of mass destruction thesis, but I thought that there was a case on human rights grounds and in the name of regime change for going to war.

Dr. Wright: We all wrestled with the arguments at that time. I wanted to believe them, and I would have signed up to a campaign simply to remove tyranny, because we had such an opportunity, and I thought, rightly or wrongly, that it would be worth doing. I was not persuaded, however, by the argument about its success, nor was I persuaded that it would not produce more terrorism, rather than diminish it. I was not persuaded, either, by the argument about the link between Iraq and previous terrorism. It was hard to sustain the argument, and I had doubts about the larger ideological prospectus attached to it.

13 Oct 2008 : Column 610

Having said all that, I had huge respect for those who, like the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), supported the decision on the right grounds, and I wanted it to succeed. I take no pleasure from the fact that it has proved so awful.

I return to where I began: unlike the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea, I do not want to cite this with relish as vindication of the argument that international attempts to sort out monstrous regimes inevitably fail. He said that he was not defending a tradition of national sovereignty, but that was his argument. I do not think that tyrants can do what they want simply by citing the doctrine of sovereignty. It is sensible to consider whether any action will do more harm than good. That approach argues for caution in many circumstances, but that does not mean that the development of the doctrine of liberal or humanitarian intervention should be junked, although many people have readily wanted to draw that conclusion from Iraq. If we say that, it does no service to people in the world who need us on their side. Although it is difficult, tricky and contentious, we must work inside international organisations to make sure that they better equip themselves to do the things that we want them to do.

This debate has been full of frustration with international organisations and the dangers posed by people who want to bypass them and do things directly through a coalition of the willing. We do not want that, but we do want to try to transform those organisations so that they can do things more effectively when they need to be done. They should not simply stand aside, with us swapping frustrations as horror follows horror, and every tyrant knowing that they will be protected because the international order says that they will be. Our concern for democracy forces us to explore such huge issues further.

My next point is to do with my own area of contention—Europe and the recent European treaty. I want to relate that to democracy because of a paradox, about which we have to be open and through which we have to try to work our way: that, to be effective in the world, we have to be more effective than we can be on our own. We have to be effective players in the big international blocs, and the big international bloc in our part of the world is the European Union. On issue after issue, we are asked to be effective at EU level. That is the reality; it does not matter what the issue is.

The ideological essence of democracy is that we have to go where the power is. We have to follow the power with the democratic disciplines, but that is precisely what we have not done in relation to the international financial system. We have allowed a globalised financial system to happen—I was going to say that we had “created” it, but that is probably not the word—but we have not put in place global regulation of the system. Domestically, we have thought it crucial to discipline private power in that way, but globally we have not.

It is no good saying that it is all the fault of the rotten bankers, although it no doubt is. There has been a failure of democratic imagination and will on a scale that is difficult for us and involves establishing the international mechanisms necessary to control the new sites of power in the world. That is what democracy is about. Europe is one of the mechanisms for securing leverage on the wider sources of power, which is why we have to be part of it.

Next Section Index Home Page