HC Deb 28 March 1991 vol 188 cc1163-70 2.30 pm
Mr. Peter Archer (Warley, West)

I am grateful for this opportunity, principally because it enables me to invite the Minister to assure the House that he and his colleagues have been reflecting carefully on the subject of the debate, and also to tell us what measures they propose to support the United Nations initiative. It is a subject that has received little notice, except in the most reflective and informed sections of the media, yet it could change the course of human history.

Sometimes, events come together to make possible the next great step in human progress. They create what Shakespeare's Cassius called a tide in the affairs of men. We have seen that tide flowing during the past two years. The Gulf war has demonstrated how a small nation is at the mercy of a powerful neighbour, and how people can find themselves projected into a tyranny, unless the international community comes together to prevent it. When it does come together, not only can it prevent one act of tyranny, it can establish a precedent. It can change human thinking and it can lay the foundations for new institutions.

That was possible in Kuwait because two other conditions co-existed—the cold war had ended and Saddam Hussein, by his conduct, had isolated himself from all decent company. However, even then there were problems. No international force was available and no quick response was possible, except from individual nations—in this case, the United Kingdom and the United States. It could be pointed out that the dedication of the United States to international law has been somewhat selective in the past, and it could be suggested that it may have been motivated more by considerations connected with oil wells than with the springs of justice. In the event, international law was vindicated, but we cannot be sure that it will happen next time. Still less can we be sure that a similar tragic war will not be necessary again.

If the world is to be made safe for small and vulnerable nations, if the lives of young people are not to be sacrificed in future wars, and if families are not to have their homes devastated and their safety placed at risk, it is not enough to regret the cost of the Gulf war—we need to seize on the commitment to enforce international law while it still breathes, and to construct the machinery of law and order globally, just as our ancestors constructed it in this country 500 years ago. Governments are not likely to agree to new institutions or to an effective enforcement machinery when they are already embroiled in a crisis, when they have taken up positions and when emotions are running high. The time to work on all that is in the relative tranquillity between crises, when arguments about sanity and justice have a prospect of getting through. That is when we need to reflect on the international rule of law.

We do not need so much to formulate new rules for international law—there is a substantial and comprehensive body of international law, although there are areas that need to be supplemented by new conventions and agreements—the most pressing need is to ensure that it is effective. Already, national sovereignty in the absolute terms envisaged in the 19th century has been reduced to safer proportions. The most recalcitrant and wilful of states is now constrained by the need to maintain a measure of good will among the international community. However, we have just been made aware that it is an uncertain constraint, because it depends on the existence of a consensus among the family of nations.

Yet each time that the law is enforced, each time that it is shown that anarchism does not pay, each time that it is emphasised that those who observe international law are not penalised while their less scrupulous competitors gain an advantage, confidence in international law is reinforced.

A legal system is like currency—its acceptance is almost wholly proportionate to the confidence that people have in it. That requires progress on a number of fronts. First, the United Nations needs to operate in a crisis decisively and quickly, and that will require national Governments to lay on the line a little more of their sovereignty. It may mean considering abolishing the veto in the Security Council.

Secondly, we need a greater sharing of the burden. If the bulk of the cost is borne by the United States, it is hardly surprising that policy should sometimes be decided on the hoof by American officials. It means devising speedier procedures for resolving internationsl disputes. The preparation for international tribunals of long, careful and scholarly memoranda and responses may have to give way just a little to the need for expedition. We may need to make greater use of oral argument.

But above all, we need to work towards a situation where the capacity to make war is removed from nation states and invested in an international authority. Of course, that will need to be a gradual process, proceeding in parallel with the building of confidence. We could begin by providing a modest permanent peace keeping force directly controlled by the United Nations and not dependent on the whim of specific Governments in a particular situation. To have to create a force from scratch whenever there is an emergency is like advertising for firemen when a fire has already broken out.

That is not an idea for which I claim any originality. It has been ventilated by a great cloud of witnesses from St. Augustine, Kant, Tennyson, Attlee and, most recently, one of our former colleagues here, Henry Usborne, who in his 80s has produced his book, "Prescription for Peace". One condition, as he points out, is that national Governments would need to be assured that the international authority would concern itself only with maintaining law and order and would not seek to make policies in other areas of activity and to force them upon unwilling nation states.

That is not to say that we should have no international order except a minimalist one. The maintenance of law and order, vital as it is, is not the only function for which we need an effective international law. Events crowd upon us to illustrate the widening sector of human affairs which needs to be regulated on a global basis. If individuals are to be brought to account for crimes against the fundamentals of civilisation, that cannot be left to the tribunals set up for the purpose each time there is an outrage. That would be seen as victors' justice. We have seen the outcry that arises when it is proposed to try them in the domestic tribunals of a particular state.

This is the moment to establish an international criminal court with a clear jurisdiction. That again is not an idea for which I claim the copyright. It was being debated in the United Nations as long ago as 1947. The debate was frustrated by the cold war. Now is our chance to begin again.

Every day, we see examples of the need for a coherent body of international law to protect the environment. If every problem requires the convening of a new conference with a new round of bargaining, every Government concerned to concede as little as possible, and no one willing to contribute the resources that may be needed, each new problem will meet with a response that is too little and too late.

If time permitted, I could entertain the House with a whole spate of human activities that require a form of global regulation. The liquidation of third-world debt; the harmonisation of tariff barriers; common safety standards; international measures to combat terrorism; the protection of human rights—all presuppose the development of an effective international law.

Despite what I said a few moments ago, we need to look at the substantive context of international law. Classical international law is about ensuring that we keep off one another's backs; that each state can do its own thing without being impeded. It embodies the ideology of individuals. What the 21st century will need is a body of law about positive co-operation; about sharing; about protecting posterity; about a common concern for the planet.

The European Community has shown that nations can embark on a course of positive co-operation. The conference on security and co-operation in Europe has seen the nations of eastern and western Europe, together with the United States and Canada, discussing the ground rules of civilisation for the next generation.

The confederation of European Churches demonstrated in Basel in 1989 that there can be a meeting of cultures and creeds in the pursuit of justice and peace.

The General Assembly of the United Nations has called for a decade of international law to promote the acceptance of, and respect for, the principles of international law, to develop codification, to promote methods for the peaceful settlement of disputes and to encourage the wider study of the subject.

I note that Ireland has responded on behalf of the European Community, but I hope that that document does not exhaust the intellectual, moral and political resources of western Europe. If the world's diplomats have no original ideas, the Association of World Federalists has proposed a number of specific ideas. Surely they merit discussion?

Perhaps the Minister—admittedly after the recess—can have a word with his right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science, who seems hell-bent on making the core history syllabus appear totally irrelevant to the children at the receiving end. Perhaps he can tell him that one of the purposes of the decade is to promote education on the subject.

The vision of an age of universal co-operation, which has been offered to the world by seers and poets through the centuries, could be within reach. Only a fool would pretend that it would be easy, but if we want to pass on that legacy to our children, we shall have to pay the price. If we want to live in a peaceful world, we shall all have to give up the right of being quarrelsome. If we want to live in a just world, we shall all have to give up the right of being selfish.

I believe that future historians will view this issue as the turning point in the saga of human survival, as the vital issue of our generation, and they will judge us by whether we seize the opportunity available or whether we miss the tide.

Britain still has an important role, because our voice is still listened to wherever people gather together to discuss such subjects, and especially legal subjects. The United Kingdom Government could hold up a torch to light the way forward. I invite the Minister to tell the House what we are doing about it.

2.42 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd)

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) for the opportunity to speak on this important subject. He made it clear that it was appropriate that we should be debating this subject in the context of recent events. Undoubtedly, I also agree with his contention that the Security Council's response, being immediate, was a clear recognition that Iraq's actions were not only a challenge to the United Nations but a direct and fundamental attack on the principles of international law. Therefore, it was especially welcome that the Security Council, through a unique and comprehensive series of decisions since last August, should have shown that it was determined to restore the fabric of international legality and, if necessary, to take stern measures to enforce those decisions.

I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we should consider these matters during the relative tranquillity between crises. Therefore, I congratulate him on bringing the matter before the House today.

I shall be dealing with one or two of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's points at length, but, first, let me give a little of the background. By a resolution in 1989, the General Assembly of the United Nations declared the period from 1990 to 1999 the United Nations Decade of International Law. That same resolution stated that the main purposes of the decade were to promote acceptance of and respect for the principles of international law; to promote means and methods for the peaceful settlement of disputes between States, including resort to and full respect for the International Court of Justice; to encourage the progressive development of international law and its codification; to encourage the teaching, study, dissemination and wider appreciation of international law. The right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned that. The Government strongly support all those objectives.

In 1990, the General Assembly adopted a programme for the first two years of the decade. The programme, which is rather detailed, envisages full co-operation with other international and regional organisations, and with such eminent private institutions as the International Law Association, the Institute of International Law and national societies.

It is too early to predict what concrete results will emerge, but I can say that work on the decade has started well. It began as an initiative by the non-aligned countries—welcome evidence of the importance that those countries attach to international law. I am happy to say that the days are past when some developing countries regarded international law and its institutions with suspicion, as something imposed on them by the west. There is also a welcome new emphasis in Soviet policy on the primacy of law, and there has been a radical and welcome change in the approach of many eastern European countries as they free themselves from stale communist dogma.

The General Assembly has acted by consensus in declaring the decade and in drawing up the programme of activities. Let me stress the importance that we attach to consensus. If the decade is to contribute to the healthy development of international law, it is essential for that consensus to be maintained in every area. The right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned the issue of an international criminal court.

We have welcomed the discussion of that issue in the General Assembly, especially in connection with the proposed code of crimes. It would be a major undertaking, and would raise political and practical questions as well as legal and financial ones. Although we are interested in the idea of such a court, we firmly believe that its existence would be justified only if some crimes could not be dealt with effectively by established means.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman also mentioned a permanent peacekeeping force. Having said that progress should be made by consensus, let me also say that, although the charter provides for forces to be placed under United Nations authority in advance of any conflict, that provision has not yet proved practicable. For the foreseeable future, such action as was taken in the Gulf—fully authorised and endorsed by the United Nations—is more likely to prove feasible.

Mr. Archer

Surely the argument that such action has not proved practicable—presumably because individual nation states are not prepared to provide the resources—is a bit like saying that the fire brigade has not proved practicable until something actually catches fire.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I should prefer to put it this way: what proved practical was what happened during recent tragic events. A response was developed by a coalition of forces in the allied community that was backed and underlined by the clearest possible mandate of United Nations resolutions. The way to proceed is on the basis of what has proved itself rather than on a basis that has not proved to be successful in the past.

The United Kingdom has always played a full role in the discussions on the decade. We co-sponsored the General Assembly resolutions of 1989 and 1990, and we participated actively in the work of the legal committee of the General Assembly and its working group on the subject. We shall continue to do so. That contribution to the decade reflects our contribution to international law more generally. The Government are committed to upholding the rule of law in international affairs and fostering good government and a respect for human rights. I recall the document "Human Rights in Foreign Policy" that the Foreign Office made public a week or so ago. I expect that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has studied it.

The United Kingdom has always made a major contribution to the development of international law, both through its practice—now well recorded each year in the "British Year Book of International Law"—and by its role in the elaboration of treaties and as a depository of many important treaties. It is not only in relation to questions of war and peace that international law is important. In today's world, it plays an increasing part in everyday life. In the past year or so, we have made an important contribution to the elaboration of worldwide conventions on drug trafficking and the marking of explosives and to treaties relating to the environment and disarmament.

If we look back over a longer period, we see that we have played, and that we continue to play, a major role in the Antarctic treaty system and in the law of the sea. Much international law is already of a positive nature—for example, on the environment, drugs and crime prevention. However, I agree that much more could be done. For example, the Government are working very hard on the climate convention.

The United Kingdom is committed to the peaceful settlement of international disputes. Within the conference on security and co-operation in Europe process—a political rather than a legal process—the conciliation proposals that we put forward last autumn formed the core of the mechanism for settling disputes, agreed by officials at the recent meeting in Valletta. On the legal side, we are encouraged by the increasing number of states that accept the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice. In the last couple of years a significant number of additional states have made the necessary declaration. Some of them were developing countries. That is a most welcome trend.

As the right hon. and learned Gentleman will know, we are the only permanent member of the Security Council that currently accepts the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice. We have always accepted its jurisdiction. Therefore, we are well placed to urge all states that have not yet accepted the court's jurisdiction to consider doing so.

Last year, the Secretary-General of the United Nations established a trust fund to assist developing countries to bring cases before the International Court of Justice by agreement—for example, territorial disputes. The United Kingdom was the first to announce a contribution to the fund. That is a very practical way of encouraging recourse to the court and the rule of law.

The United Kingdom's contribution to international law goes well beyond the Government. The British Institute of International and Comparative Law, the British branch of the International Law Association, and the many universities which teach international law play an important role and have influence well beyond this country. We are particularly pleased that in February the British judge on the International Court of Justice, Sir Robert Jennings, formerly professor of international law at Cambridge university, was elected president of the court for a three-year term. He is, in fact, the third British president of the court since 1946.

Successive British members of the United Nations International Law Commission have been influential. The commission has the potential to make further important contributions to the codification and development of international law. We shall make every effort to ensure that the British candidate for the commission, Professor Bowett, is elected this autumn.

Public awareness of international law has, I believe, never been higher than it is at present. Public awareness is important, for it is ultimately for the people of the various states to ensure, through their elected representatives and through public opinion, that Governments comply with international law. International law will be respected fully only when public opinion in all countries demands that Governments comply not only with the rule of law at home but with the rule of law in international affairs. Debates like this one, stimulated by the United Nations decade of international law, contribute to that end.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

My hon. Friend's reply to the debate has been an extremely interesting and most reasoned response to the excellent speech of the right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer), but should not the British Government be taking the lead to remedy the outstanding failure of international law to devise a way to stop dictators such as Saddam Hussein destroying their own people? The United Nations has the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs of sovereign nations, which we all understand, but something must be done to enable the United Nations to play some part in stopping such atrocities if we are to have international peace. Are we giving some thought to that, and will we take the lead in that as we have done in recent years in the other excellent activities of the United Nations?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

My hon. and learned Friend has raised a big issue at the tail end of the debate, but I can assure him that I am not unmindful of what he has said. Earlier today, we had a debate on the Kurdish people in northern Iraq, when similar sentiments were expressed. Without giving any undertakings, I assure my hon. and learned Friend that these matters are not lost on the United Nations. Clearly, we are likely to expect a resolution from the Security Council, perhaps before Easter, dealing with much wider issues in terms of the ceasefire and in respect of the Iraqi forces. I believe that that resolution will include some matters on which I cannot elaborate on this afternoon touching on some of the issues to which my hon. and learned Friend has drawn our attention.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Before we adjourn, may I wish all right hon. and hon. Members, officials and staff a very happy Easter recess?

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Three o'clock till Monday 15 April, pursuant to the Resolution [14 March].