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House of Lords

Thursday, 25th November 1999.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Blackburn.): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Lord Armstrong-Jones

Antony Charles Robert Earl of Snowdon, having been created Baron Armstrong-Jones, of Nymans in the County of West Sussex, for life, took the oath.

Ethical Foreign Policy

Lord Burnham asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What an ethical foreign policy is.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, this Government have placed human rights at the heart of foreign policy. We believe in the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and core United Nations human rights instruments. We are committed to promoting those rights, working through our bilateral relationships and with our international partners. In implementing this policy, we take account of the characteristics of each situation and use the combination of approaches--of dialogue and pressure--most likely to secure real human rights improvements on the ground.

Lord Burnham: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that estimable reply. However, are those ethics inalienable or do they vary if the country is Chechnya, Burma, East Timor, Kosovo or Pakistan, because it seems that Her Majesty's Government apply a different policy in each case?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, we do not apply a different policy in each case. Consistency does not mean responding in the same way to every conflict, whatever the circumstances. It means deciding how to act against a consistent set of policy considerations; for example, whether all options short of force have been exhausted, whether military intervention is likely to achieve its goals and do more good than harm, and whether it would be responsible to use force if it were likely to be counter-productive. Nor would it be responsible to say that, because we cannot do everything everywhere, we should not do anything anywhere.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, perhaps I may express the appreciation of these Benches for the Government's real efforts to do something about human rights. I ask the noble Baroness two questions. First, can she say what position the Government intend to take on the proposed charter on fundamental

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human rights, having discussed it at the European Parliament and in the run-up to the next inter-governmental conference? Secondly, in the light of the recent extremely troubling report to Mr Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, concerning what happened at Srebrenica in 1993, can she say whether the Government are considering clarifying the channel under which UN mandates are agreed so that a clear line of command exists in any future UN operation?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, we are working with our partners to see how the charter can be implemented. Particularly in relation to the comments made by the Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, we are looking very carefully at the report on Srebrenica. Your Lordships will know that the Secretary-General concluded his statements by saying that,

    "the cardinal lesson of Srebrenica is that a deliberate and systematic attempt to terrorise, expel or murder an entire people must be met decisively with all necessary means, and with the political will to carry the policy through to its conclusion".

We strongly endorse that conclusion. That is why we took action when we did in Kosovo. We have learned our lessons from history--lessons in which all sides of this House participated--to make sure that we do better in the future.

Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, does the Minister agree that a basis for military intervention should not be a statement of the Government's ethical foreign policy, but in all circumstances such intervention should have the authority and backing of a Security Council resolution?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, of course, ordinarily intervention would have the backing of Security Council resolutions. I know that the noble Lord is thinking particularly of the position with which we were all faced in Kosovo. We have said on a number of occasions that that was an exceptional circumstance. It was a last resort and certainly Her Majesty's Government feel--and feel very strongly--that military reactions should always be a matter of last resort as opposed to the first port of call.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that that is an area in which virtue is rewarded and that the influence of this country has extended substantially since the days when our decisions were seen to be narrow and selfish?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I most certainly agree. Our reputation has been enhanced considerably by the stance we have taken with our partners in relation to Kosovo and, indeed, by the way in which we have worked together so effectively in regions such as East Timor.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, pursuant to the Question posed by my noble friend, in view of the ethical dimension to the Government's foreign policy

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and the Foreign Secretary's promise, echoed by the Minister, to put human rights at the heart of foreign policy, to what extent does the Minister believe that grotesque human rights abuses outweigh national sovereignty? Does the Minister agree that the conflicts in Kosovo, East Timor and Chechnya, and indeed the human rights abuses within China, have all involved significant, abhorrent human rights abuses? Therefore, can the Minister explain the Government's differing responses to those crises within the context of a consistent ethical foreign policy?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the noble Lord would have me say that there is just one response which we need to give to every situation and every country. If I may respectfully say so, that is naive. Each country has its own challenges, its own difficulties and a differing set of relationships. We and, indeed, any responsible government must analyse that situation, ascertain what are the best methods of securing human rights and then employ them. Those are the ways in which we obtain the best results; not by seeking a quick fix which does not give lasting resolutions to the difficulties.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the best methods of promoting human rights is to enhance the resources available to the European Commission on Human Rights and its various procedures. Will the Government therefore make it a high priority to raise the budget of the human rights commission and to promote respect for the decisions made by the human rights commission and for the recommendations made by all the special rapporteurs and working groups?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the Government have the highest possible regard for the human rights commission. There is and always has been a commitment to ensure that the contributions made are appropriate. Your Lordships would not expect me to make from the Dispatch Box any commitment on figures. However, it is clear that the work is most important and will continue to be so. We act bilaterally on many matters in order to encourage and promote human rights. There is new money available from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for human rights projects. We have over 330 projects worth over £9.3 million in some 60 countries. If I may express it colloquially, we are putting our money where our mouth is.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, is it not the case that the recent statement by Mrs Bonner, the widow of academician Sakharov, against the current Russian offensive in Chechnya is a fine example of an ethical approach? Will the Government build on it to achieve a peaceful solution?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the Government are certainly building on all initiatives to try to achieve a peaceful reconciliation in Chechnya.

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These are difficult and troubling times and your Lordships' House has debated this issue on a number of occasions. We are moving forward. There are improvements in the Chechnya-Russian position. Russia now accepts, after the Istanbul summit, that a political solution is the way forward and it is engaging with the international bodies--the OSCE in particular--in trying to find that resolution. It is a very positive move.

Lord Annan: My Lords, I totally agree with what the noble Baroness has said and I applaud the line that she has given the House today. But does she not agree that there is something fundamental which was stated by Lord Carteret in 1743 when he said that the object of foreign policy was to knock together the crowned heads of the kings of Europe and jumble something out of interest to our own country; and our own country's interests must in the end come first?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, our own country's interests do come first, but it is part of our country's interests to promote safety, security and the human rights of others. It is only by promoting those rights that we have security at home for ourselves.

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