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The preamble to the charter of the United Nations talks about it being an organisation, but I remember some years ago speaking with an old friend, Ahmad Kamal, who was the ambassador of Pakistan to the United Nations for about 17 years and who told me that the United Nations was not an organisation but a table—a place where people meet and talk about things. I think that what he meant was that there are many of the attributes of an organisation that the United Nations does not have. The United Nations has moral authority but for the authority of its decisions it has to resort to the sovereign states—particularly the permanent five and the other members of the Security Council. The noble Baroness mentioned the problem of resources. It is a question not just of financial resources but of resources of people. For military resources and peacekeeping operations, the United Nations is dependent on states agreeing, first, to stump up with the numbers and, secondly, producing the numbers that they undertake to provide in due time and with appropriate quality. On implementation, it is not as in a national situation when one can implement laws and depend on the administration of justice from the police and the courts to ensure that they are implemented. Many decisions are taken by the United Nations and it proves impossible to implement them; sometimes repeated decisions are made about various parts of the world and it proves impossible to take them very much further. These are difficult problems.

One outcome of the United Nations being a table, rather than an organisation, is that it has gradually lost vigour and momentum over the years. If one looks back at the vision of the person who will, I suppose, not be disputed as the greatest of the Secretary-Generals, Dag Hammarskjold, one sees that he brought with him a great conviction and passion for peace and a different world. To some extent that has fallen foul of national interests rather than what the charter calls common interests. As a country, we find ourselves probably better at instituting wars and military operations than in instituting peacekeeping forces backed by the tremendous experience of our military and focusing sometimes more on the technology of military operations than on the capacities of our people. We have also failed to capitalise fully on the remarkable network of relationships in the Commonwealth, which is exemplified fully in the United Nations, not only by smaller countries but by powerful countries such as Canada, India, Australia and South Africa.

I shall listen with great interest to what noble Lords say, with their experience, but I hope that we see more vigour on the part of our Government in this regard.

7.53 pm

Baroness Coussins: My Lords, when I worked at the United Nations Association in the early 1970s, the late Lord Caradon used to joke that the UN is a wonderful idea, but that the people in it are the problem.

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The preamble is wonderful—as relevant and eloquent today as ever. The UN, through its agencies for economic, social and humanitarian work, has pioneered the transition from peacekeeping to peacebuilding, and confidence in the UN must be strengthened if that vital work is not to be undermined. It must be tempting for Governments to let the bureaucracy hold sway and avoid sensitivities. I am glad that the UK Government have shown that they rate the UN as sufficiently important to take an initiative to find ways in which to make it more effective, but I am disappointed that they have not been brave enough to follow that through.

The initiative to which I refer is the 2006 report called Delivering As One. It would be a wasted opportunity if it stayed on the shelf instead of being the catalyst for reform. My frustration echoes that of the distinguished former UN under-secretary, Dame Margaret Anstee, who has pointed out that the report is very similar to the capacity review that she co-authored with the late Sir Robert Jackson in 1968. There was no action then and there has been none now.

Dame Margaret proposes three reforms that I endorse; together they would help to reinvigorate the leadership and quality of governance at the UN. First, the way in which the Secretary-General and all the DGs are appointed should change. No large multinational company would recruit its chief executive without a systematic and professional global search. Political criteria are bound to be relevant, but so are international track record and stature. Secondly, and also in line with good governance, there should be a maximum fixed term with no further re-election for these most senior appointments. Thirdly, there should be a unified budget for all the agencies, to eliminate duplication and improve value for money.

These proposals are well known, but my understanding is that the Government are reluctant to push them, or any of the others from the Delivering As One report, because certain countries might misconstrue a UK initiative. But fear of being misinterpreted is a weak basis for inaction; why not just take the extra care to explain, show leadership and spell out what all Governments have to gain? These are fairly obvious reforms, but they have become too hot to handle, as if their supporters were naive idealists rather than highly experienced and knowledgeable people such as Dame Margaret Anstee. I hope that the Minister will be brave enough to persuade the Government and then a critical mass of other Governments that, if the UN is needed, not just as a wonderful idea but with the capacity and reputation to deliver on the promise of its preamble, these reforms are an essential starting point.

7.56 pm

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for giving us an opportunity to debate this issue and for her excellent opening speech.

There has been a change in the nature of conflicts around the world. Internal conflicts have in many instances replaced conflicts between states, and civilians now make up the vast majority of casualties. The genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia as well as the crimes against humanity in Kosovo, East Timor

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and Darfur, have demonstrated massive failures by the international community to prevent atrocities. That is why I was so delighted when in 2005 world leaders endorsed a new doctrine for the UN—the responsibility to protect—which is designed to provide a moral and legal framework for the international community to respond to mass atrocities. This means that if a state defaults on its responsibility to protect its citizens, the international community would assume the responsibility collectively. The notion that the international community has a responsibility to protect entails three distinct yet related commitments—a responsibility to prevent, to react and to rebuild. But by far the most controversial element of the doctrine is the idea that military force should on occasion be used to protect civilians. That amounts to a new take on a very old and divisive issue—humanitarian intervention.

In recent years, there have been many debates and discussions about the application of responsibility to protect in relation to, for example, Zimbabwe and Burma. However, I should like to focus on Sri Lanka. I am puzzled at the lack of action from the UN in the context of responsibility to protect. Just last week the International Crisis Group talked of the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in Sri Lanka. The International Committee of the Red Cross has warned that,

Members of the International Advisory Board of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect have urged the Security Council to uphold the responsibility to protect 100,000 civilians at risk of mass atrocities in northern Sri Lanka. It states, of the responsibility to protect:

“At the core ... is the obligation to act preventively to protect peoples from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, rather than waiting until atrocities have already occurred, as states have too often done in the past”.

I agree with my noble friend Lady Howells that we need to strengthen the UN. We need to enable it to act responsibly, and intervene in urgent humanitarian situations. The responsibility to protect goes some way towards doing that, which is why I ask the Minister why the UN has not taken action in Sri Lanka.

8 pm

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness for giving us the opportunity to discuss this important topic. We are perhaps celebrating the first meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco; but let us not forget that it was across the road from here, in the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster, that the first gathering was held a month or two before. We have spoken of the way that nations have developed and changed their approaches because of the UN. There are now 192 member nations. When I stand outside the UN in New York and see all the flags, from that of Afghanistan through to that of Zimbabwe, my heart warms. At least we are able to discuss issues together.

People have been given new opportunities because the wording in the preamble of the charter makes us all “world citizens”. It talks of,

and of,

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Is the United Kingdom taking the lead in building up the work and effectiveness of the UN? We sometimes criticise and condemn the actions of other nations, but the UN’s strength depends on all member states being able to discuss, sign, ratify and implement conventions. The last time I brought up this subject, some time ago, I was told that there were 630 treaties and conventions, of which 156 had not been signed or ratified by the United Kingdom. Has the situation changed since then? These are treaties and conventions by which, it is said,

We are talking about a quarter of the total. Has the situation improved since then? Are we implementing in full the charter on the rights of the child, or the convention on trafficking? These things are so important.

Finally, the action of individual nations within their own borders affects their standing as good neighbours, and the dignity and worth of the individual. I have previously raised the desperate state of failed asylum-seekers under the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act 2004. Whatever the Government’s intention was, these people are driven to destitution when their benefits are withdrawn. Is that being thought of in the context of the United Nations preamble? There is also the situation of migrants. There is no time this evening to discuss this, but I have seen them. They are penniless, homeless and in this country. Life is desperate for them. I ask the Minister—I know that his heart and mine often beat to the same rhythm—whether we cannot somehow make the life of individuals more in tune with the preamble to the charter of the United Nations.

8.03 pm

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, it is always timely to be reminded of the visionary language of the UN charter of 1945, and particularly of its preamble. It is also timely to be reminded of how far short we still fall when it comes to fulfilling those commitments, which have since been accepted by nearly 150 new states in addition to the original signatories. It is in that spirit, and having declared an interest as chair of the UNA association of the UK, that I welcome and participate in this short debate.

Are the charter and its preamble still fit for purpose? With one exception—the composition of the Security Council—I would answer that question in the affirmative. We need to face the inconvenient truth that, if the 192 members of the UN were to sit down today to rewrite parts of the charter, they would be unlikely to produce anything so crisp, clear and to the point as the original. So despite all the compelling arguments for amendment, I would urge that we forswear that route.

The one exception, Security Council enlargement, is now long overdue. The high road to enlargement and inclusion of new permanent members seems as firmly blocked as ever. That leaves the other road identified by the high-level panel on UN reform, on which I had the honour to serve: the creation of a new category of longer-term renewable seats to reflect better the regional balance of our own days. It is encouraging that the Government are pushing in that direction. They will need much patience and perseverance

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to succeed, and no doubt some luck, too. They will also need to avoid overrating our own fairly modest ability to move things on.

The main changes needed, if we are to act more effectively in accordance with the objectives of the charter and its preamble, lie outside charter amendment. I suggest three priorities. First, now that we have finally and belatedly got rid of regional pre-emption for the posts of Director General of the IMF and the World Bank, is it not high time that we did likewise for the post of Secretary-General of the UN? I am not so naive as to suppose that we can, or should try to, eliminate any element of regional rotation from appointments to that post; but surely we need to remove the degree of pre-emption that results in only candidates from one region being put forward at the outset, thus damagingly narrowing the field.

Secondly, we need to strengthen the UN and regional peacekeeping, both of which are under greater stress because they are in greater demand than ever. What is the Government’s response going to be to the recommendations of the Prodi report? Will they accept the proposals that regional peacekeeping operations, particularly those mounted by the African Union, should on a case-by-case basis be financed on the assessed contributions of the whole membership?

Thirdly, the recent report of the Secretary-General on the responsibility to protect, based on the work of his special adviser, Professor Ed Luck, is a reminder of how far we still are from operationalising that new concept. What is the Government’s reaction to that report; and, if they are in broad agreement with it, how do they propose to move away from a sterile debate almost exclusively about the pros and cons of military intervention in failed or failing states, unable to protect their own citizens, towards a multifaceted approach designed to prevent states from getting into that condition in the first place?

This debate demonstrates what an essential part of any reformed international architecture the UN continues to be; and also how far we are from maximising the benefits that the international community could derive from the fully functioning organisation envisaged in the preamble to its charter. We have a UN that is both indispensable and ineffective, and we need to move on.

8.08 pm

Lord Judd: My Lords, it is good to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, with his distinguished record of service to the UN and his recent role as a very effective leader of the United Nations Association. I thank my noble friend for giving us the opportunity of this debate and for the powerful introduction that she gave us to her reflections. She concentrated to some extent on reform of the Security Council, and she is right. We simply cannot go into the 21st century with a Security Council based on what was appropriate in 1945. It has to match the challenges of the century in which we are living.

My noble friend also referred to resources for the Security Council. I remember a previous Secretary-General saying on one occasion that when he was analysing the kind of crises that confronted us, he

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found it immensely difficult that he was utterly dependent on intelligence provided to him by the permanent members of the Security Council at their discretion. He did not have an independent intelligence system at his disposal by which he could make his own judgments. My noble friend's proposal for a permanent secretariat for the Security Council is a first-class proposition which deserves fuller consideration.

If the UN did not exist—it is easy to say this, but it is true—it would be essential at this juncture to invent it. The sense of exclusion and exasperation among millions of people in the world because they are not able to participate in the decision-making processes of the world cannot be overestimated. Many men and women just like us with the same aspirations as us are absolutely fed up with being told in effect that they have to be managed by a self-appointed elite in the international community. It is therefore essential that we have somewhere in the world system a place where the world can come together and demand accountability from those who have greater power than the others.

It is also essential to re-examine the concept of security itself. Traditional concepts of security do not suffice. We have to look at the matrix that makes up the security challenge—the economic issues, health issues, environmental issues, issues of climate, issues of terrorism and issues of human rights. On financial issues, it may well be said that the UN is not the appropriate body to manage the multilateral financial institutions of the world. That might be so, but it is essential for some way to be found for those bodies to play into the deliberations of the Security Council if we are to have a sane approach to managing the security of the world.

Finally, there has been reference to the charter. The charter emphasised people. People are now looking for an opportunity to be heard. We cannot impose security; we have to build it. That means having global forums where the world can speak.

8.11 pm

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Howells, rightly reminded us that after the devastating world war came the horrors of the concentration camps and the realisation that mankind had fallen so low. That must explain why the second objective of the UN charter was,

I thank the noble Baroness sincerely for giving us this chance to reflect on the atmosphere of that time.

It is easy for people to criticise the UN when they think of the outrage of poverty, child labour and the depths to which human beings have to sink to survive, and of our collective inability to change even the worst aspects of the way in which we live. But this country has a good record at the UN. The Government have not only met aid targets, they have made notable and specific contributions to the workings of the UN. British NGOs have also made their mark going back to Eglantyne Jebb’s work for Save the Children 85 years ago when she persuaded the League of Nations to adopt the first Declaration of the Rights of the Child.

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The UK was among those states that established the new Human Rights Council following the 2005 summit and the report of the high-level panel, and it was a UK initiative that in September 2007 established the Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery. I have seen at first hand the extraordinary success of the UN in post-conflict countries such as Nepal, where the UK has also played a leading role.

Human rights, especially the rights of minorities, are arguably the UN's biggest headache. Membership of the old commission was a constant source of internal rows and an embarrassment to the secretariat. That was one of the concerns of the high-level panel which said that membership,

Accordingly, it recommended a number of changes, most of which the UN subsequently adopted. The council now has 47 elected member states and, through the universal periodic review, it somehow manages to examine the human rights obligations of all UN member states. It may be that the machinery at the UN is improving. But human rights will remain a highly politicised area of the UN, and the issue could still encourage more fragmentation than consensus. Does the Minister consider that the new Human Rights Council is more effective than the old, and that it has fully met the concerns of the high-level panel about membership?

Finally, the Minister will know that there is a UN voluntary trust fund on contemporary forms of slavery which provides direct assistance to victims of slavery and trafficking. Can he confirm that the UK last supported this fund in 2003, and that the Government intend to support it again this year, six years later?

8.14 pm

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, in a short debate like this, we are forced to be telegraphic and focus on the key points. We all recognise that the UN system—and it is very much a system whose specialisations are increasingly important—is necessary but imperfect. It would be wonderful if we could redesign it from the outset, but we cannot. We therefore have to work as well as we can within this deeply imperfect system. With 192 members of the General Assembly and specialised agencies, it clearly is deeply imperfect. It includes some small, corrupt and, sadly, incompetent states. I only discovered that Palau existed when I read about its existence in the UN voting list.

We have, therefore, to work on an expanded agenda of global governance with instruments which are deeply inadequate. This includes the whole new security agenda, for which we need global governance. It includes population growth—population has more than doubled since the UN was formed. That means migration, it means social collapse and it means internal conflict. The whole climate change agenda is desperately central, as are the communications revolution and all the implications of that and the scientific and technical revolution, which has all sorts of implications, including those for the disarmament agenda. There is also the question of culture and civilisation. I note that President Obama spoke at an Alliance of Civilisations conference only the other week.

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What, therefore, are the principles with which we have to deal? First, we have to cling to the idea of inclusive global organisations, not exclusive global organisations. The whole concept of an alliance of democracies, instead of a global organisation, is something that we should reject. I was rather worried the other week when I read the Henry Jackson Society’s list of principles and saw that an alliance of democracies was one of the things that it still wished to promote. The Bush Administration were exclusive. Happily, the Obama Administration are now re-engaging.

The obstacles to the reform of the UN Security Council remain high, so we have to work as far as we can with ad hoc bodies. Perhaps the G20 is an ad hoc body which will work for a bit; at least we have to try it. We have to re-engage with China, India, South Africa and others, and I note that, at the moment, China, India and South Africa all have more troops engaged in UN or African Union peacekeeping than the United Kingdom does. So we really need to co-opt them to work with us as far as we can.

We have to recognise that popular nationalism and commitment to sovereignty have grown, even as the demand for global government has grown. There is a deep mistrust of elites, of bureaucrats, of distant conferences on complex topics, and of people like the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Malloch-Brown, deciding things far away from anywhere the Daily Mail journalists could fully understand or keep up with.

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