HL Deb 29 October 1985 vol 467 cc1454-64

3.7 p.m.

The Lord Archbishop of Canterbury rose to call attention to the 40th anniversary of the United Nations and to the need to increase the effectiveness of the organisation; and to move for Papers.

The most reverend Primate said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper to call attention to the 40th anniversary of the United Nations and to the need to increase the effectiveness of the organisation.

After the spate of speeches and articles on the subject during the past fortnight I may be thought to cut a figure rather like Ruth gleaning after a combine harvester; but it would seem to me to be a grave omission if this House did not have the opportunity to mark this anniversary with a short debate, for we recall with pride that in 1945 the preparatory meetings for the first General Assembly took place over the road at Church House. So I feel that it is not inappropriate for me to propose this Motion today and to invite your Lordships to assess both the progress made so far and the formidable agenda which still lies ahead. On this evaluation and assessment the strength of our own commitment in the future will depend.

The United Nations as an effective force for good has already lasted more than twice as long as its ill-fated predecessor, the League of Nations, and has played a major role on several occasions in the prevention of a third world war. Its membership, increasing from 51 nations in 1945 to 159 in 1985, means that it has at last achieved virtual universality. Let us acclaim these achievements while at the same time recognising the serious flaws that are still evident in the United Nations system: regional wars still waging; double standards; areas of inefficiency; and the numbing effect of a rhetoric which might remind us how the Parthians poured molten gold down the throats of those who spoke too long in public council.

The founders, let us never forget, created an organisation which is essentially the servant of the sovereign states which compose it. The stream cannot rise higher than the source. Wisely, those who wrote the charter did not attempt to create Utopia; and that is why the United Nations still survives and prospers modestly today. Dag Hammarskjold captured the spirit exactly when he remarked (although sometimes, with understandable national pride, the phrase is attributed to Winston Churchill): The United Nations was not set up to get us into heaven, but to save us from hell".

Your Lordships will recall that five years ago this House held a debate on the specialised agencies of the United Nations. In that debate, Lord Ritchie-Calder eloquently reminded us that 40 years ago it was widely believed that Britain's manifest destiny was to give a lead to the world community through the Commonwealth and the United Nations. In that debate, a number of noble Lords outlined the ways in which Britain has indeed supported and strengthened the agencies of the United Nations. I do not wish to go over that ground again, although as 80 per cent. of the United Nations' expenditure is in the area of economic and social development, it is an important part of the all-round achievements which we celebrate at this time and on which your Lordships may find that others wish to speak.

However, before I move to the main part of my speech, I should like to mention one specialised United Nations organisation which, for me, sums up all that is best about the UN agencies. I refer to that agency from whose handsome building flies the blue flag of the United Nations and which I can see from my window at Lambeth Palace—the International Maritime Organisation. That organisation—the only UN agency to have its headquarters in Britain—quietly, unobtrusively and yet persistently goes about its technical work of enhancing safety, encouraging rescue of refugees at sea, diminishing the damages of pollution, and the small-scale but important training of harbour masters for the great ports of tomorrow. Without its hundreds of conventions and codes, and the sanctions to ensure their application, we could not even cross the Channel without fear of collision or disaster. The agencies are generally effective, and they can and will be more useful if we give them our persistent loyalty and our steadfast support.

Such generosity of spirit towards helping people in the developing world has been strikingly demonstrated by the overwhelming response, particularly from the young, to Bob Geldof s Live Aid Appeal. However, let us be clear that the voluntary societies cannot, by themselves, cope with major disasters. The role of governments is crucial, and even governments acting separately will not be sufficient. The mandate to deal with this subject, given to the United Nations Disaster Relief Co-ordinator in 1972, has not been fulfilled. Thousands of lives could have been saved in Ethiopia and the Sudan had governments been ready with contingency planning which could have been speedily implemented. Could not Britain, acting within the UN framework, give a lead in contingency planning for the future in the war against the common enemy? We simply cannot allow disasters on a comparable scale ever to happen again without having the international organisation to cope.

I wish to focus my remarks in preparation for this debate on the United Nations work for peace and for human rights. These imperatives—the search for peace and the release of prisoners unjustly detained and convicted—are at the heart of the Christian Gospel which I represent. The prevention of wars is the raison d'etre for the founding of the United Nations. Therefore, it is with dismay that we look around the world today and discover that there are no less than 20 wars raging.

Of course, under Charter 7, the Security Council, and under Article 99, the Secretary General, have the authority to determine possible action where there is a threat to peace. However, with the exception of the remarkable Resolution 242 of November 1967 on Palestine—in which the noble Lord, Lord Caradon, demonstrated, in negotiating with the Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister, just how much diplomacy within the framework the United Nations can achieve—other efforts to resolve conflict have seldom been made before war breaks out. Indeed, recently things seem to have been going backwards—for instance, the failure to stop the outbreak of war between Iran and Iraq. In July 1980 the community of nations wasted a whole month which could have been used in peace-making. When there is a threat to peace, the machinery of consultation between the Secretary General and the Security Council must be strengthened and improved. Also, of course, the contribution which the Secretary General can make in exercising his own impartial good offices can be crucial.

In the field of peace-keeping there could evolve a form of collective action which would have anticipatory, preventative and enforcement elements. This could include the stationing of UN presences in potential trouble spots, as recommended by a former Ambassador to the United Nations, Sir Anthony Parsons. There would have to be a new acceptance of this process by third world members, especially by their foreign ministers and the permanent members of the Security Council.

Not only do these proposals for anticipating conflict stand a good chance of being effective; they would also be remarkably cheap. The Secretary General—the central figure in the implementation of any such proposals—deserves our continuing support and encouragement.

Gradually, unspectacularly, over the past 40 years the United Nations' contribution to the completely new experiment of peace-keeping has been enhanced. During this time, no fewer than 10 observer groups and a succession of peace-keeping forces have been created. But the United Nations can only act when the member nation states wish it to do so, and all too often over the past 40 years states in conflict have chosen to ignore the role of the United Nations.

Nonetheless, there are successes to record. The role of the UN soldiers in Cyprus, where they have for so long acted as a buffer between Greek and Turk, should not be underestimated. The presence of a UN force on the Golan Heights since 1973 may have prevented a regional conflict and even the outbreak of a third world war. In Zaire, a force of 20,000 men helped to avert a war in which the super powers might have fought each other by proxy. It is seldom realised that the lives of countless men, women and children have been saved by these unsung peace forces—they win no battle laurels, but they have made a substantial contribution to world peace and stability.

These United Nations soldiers have served us splendidly. Excluding the casualties in Korea, well over 400 men have given their lives. United Nations soldiers never shoot their way out of difficult situations. Indeed, the restraint of these forces comes close to matching the exacting demands of the Gospel about the use of force.

What can we do to make their work more effective in the future? First, we must avoid cheeseparing. A peace-keeping force, after all, costs no more per year than a minesweeper spread between 159 countries. If we expect them to hold the ring in, for example, Namibia, then we must provide a force adequate to cope. Member countries could do far more to include peace-keeping in the basic training of their forces, and all could be asked to keep units on standby. We have, perhaps, a special responsibility here, for our forces understand better than most the difficult discipline of aid to the civil power. Perhaps a lead could be given by our defence colleges. Again the number and seniority of military advisers in the office of the Secretary General may need to be increased. At present, the United Nations defence staff is smaller than that of almost any member government.

Lastly, the work of the United Nations for peace and international security cannot be considered without reference to the subject of disarmament and arms control. In the 1960s and the 1970s, the United Nations played an essential role in facilitating the partial test ban treaty, the seabed treaty, the outer space treaty, the non-proliferation treaty, and the biological weapons treaty. It is a matter of concern that Britain has not yet signed the Law of the Sea Treaty.

It would probably be helpful if the conference on disarmament were to be more actively involved with the current bilateral disarmament talks between the United States and the Soviet Union. Fear escalates and weapons proliferate; and in developing countries too many armaments may presage the onset of famine. Let us be grateful when the United Nations in its public deliberations again and again jogs the conscience of the world about the size and weight of our arsenals.

Let us also celebrate another United Nations achievement—this is in the field of human rights, where unexpectedly positive results have been quietly achieved in these four decades since the end of the war. Our concern, which I believe is a special Christian concern, is with the release of captives and the operation of justice against their oppressors. The United Nations blueprint for right conduct, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the social and cultural rights conventions, does not stand up yet very well when tested against the long list of abuses detailed in the annual reports of Amnesty International. But this is not a sufficient reason for despair. There has been substantial progress in investigating cases in individual countries, an activity which until recently would have been prevented by the excuse of unwarranted interference in the domestic affairs of another country. But no longer. Nation states now concede that individuals can petition the United Nations, and the UN can pursue the cases of individuals. Beginning with Chile and moving on to Argentina and Uganda, the UN is demanding and receiving co-operation with its investigations. In 1982, the United Nations Human Rights Sub-Committee received no fewer than 27,000 communications about violations of human rights. Can we not establish an international inspectorate of prisons, and also of police interrogation centres, possibly involving the Red Cross and other organisations?

As a Church leader, it is particularly distressing to me that religious persecution persists. In spite of the 1981 declaration of the elimination of all forms of intolerance based on religion we still have a long way to go to implement all its recommendations. The problem of implementation is also crucial with regard to the prevention of torture. I hope that Britain, which has adopted the recent convention, will soon be able to ratify it.

A key problem in this area is to reconcile the civil and political rights of individuals with the poor majority's perception of social and political rights and responsibilities. However, in general it is interesting how often developing countries which have shown the highest respect for human rights also have the best record of economic growth. Conversely, where human rights have been most widely abused, economic growth has been the slowest. These two types of rights, far from being always in conflict, can be complementary.

Only when the United Nations sources of information are improved, and when the UN Commission for Human Rights is strengthened by a higher level of representation—and the British contribution might be improved—only when these improvements are in place can we feel secure that there is a truly effective procedure which can reverse the tide of persecution which has yet to be turned back in so many places.

But the United Nations is greater than the sum of its parts. So at this point may I pay tribute to Brian Urquhart, the indefatigable peacekeeper, a fellow countryman and under-secretary general who, for 40 years, has worked at the United Nations and never lost sight of the wider vision and hope. Speaking last month in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York he said: All nations, great and small, have a vital stake in developing a world community which will ensure a better future. Whether we like it or not, we have created one world before creating the political institutions to manage it. That is the main purpose of the United Nations. Let us accept this challenge in all its grandeur and in all its importance, and let us enjoy doing it".

That was said by someone who should know from the inside. I believe those last words of his of enthusiasm are essential; they are not just rhetoric. Defeatism about the United Nations, as in other matters, ensures defeat. The theological virtue of hope, as in other matters, shapes the future.

In giving advice about the future effectiveness of the United Nations we are not simply exhorting others, we are exhorting ourselves both as a nation state and as a part of, "We, the peoples", and we have to work for these improvements from the inside. After all, we have been present and active in laying the foundations of the United Nations here in London. Surely this is the occasion, 40 years on, to remember with gratitude the contribution of so many. I mention the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, who, back in 1945, made those first steps possible and who, I understand, was present at last week's commemorative session. During the last four decades the United Nations system has developed a complex network of institutions to match the interdependence of today's world. Universality and authority belong together, and so I suggest that it is not an option to pick and choose only those parts of the United Nations that take our fancy.

On the last day of his life, President Roosevelt wrote these words to deliver to the United Nations at San Francisco. As we contemplate the future of the United Nations they can still serve as marching orders for us all: The work, my friends, is peace: more than an end of this war, an end to the beginning of all wars. The only limit to our realisation of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with a strong and active faith".

My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.27 p.m.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Young)

My Lords, we are indebted to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for putting down such a timely Motion for debate today. The 40th anniversary of the United Nations Charter was commemorated in New York last week. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister was among those who addressed a special session of the UN General Assembly. Last month my right honourable and learned friend the Foreign Secretary chaired a special commemorative meeting of the Security Council at Foreign Minister level.

The United Kingdom's prominent participation in those commemorative activities reflected our country's close involvement with the United Nations during the past 40 years. We helped draft the charter. We hosted the first meetings of the Security Council and General Assembly and, as a Permanent Member of the Security Council, we have played a full part in trying to ensure that the organisation functions effectively in its central area of responsibility—the maintenance of international peace and security.

I am pleased that a number of your Lordships taking part in today's debate were and are closely involved with the United Nations. The noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, played an important role in the negotiations which established the United Nations, and acted as its Secretary General during its early months. My noble friend Lord Home of the Hirsel, as Foreign Secretary, and the noble Lord, Lord Caradon, as a Permanent Representative, have great personal experience of the United Nations at work. The noble Lord, Lord Ennals, is President of the United Nations Association of Great Britain.

The Motion before us draws attention to the need to increase the effectiveness of the organisation. It is in the central area of peace and security that the expectations of 1945 have been most disappointed. The United Nations Charter created the Security Council as a mechanism through which the major powers which had defeated nazism and its allies would be able to act together to prevent the further outbreak of war. Yet wars have broken out. A number are raging in the world today. What went wrong? How did the world change to make the activity envisaged in the charter so difficult?

First, the alliance which had won the war quickly fell apart. Common purpose was replaced by deep political conflict. The idea of the major powers agreeing on military action to enforce the peace quickly proved unrealistic. The Security Council instead had to cope with a flood of Soviet vetoes; and by the time of the Korean war in the early 1950s the Soviet Union was boycotting the council.

Secondly, the UN Charter was written at a time when the international community was small, power was concentrated and a small number of countries had, through their colonial empires, control over vast areas of the world. International relations are today much more complex. The rapid pace of decolonisation has trebled the membership of the United Nations from 51 to 159. Newly independent nations were rightly jealous of their national sovereignty. The idea of the United Nations acting as a kind of global policeman rapidly became impractical.

Thirdly, the United Nations was born when memories of the devastation of the Second World War were still fresh. The defeated states were prevented for many years from joining the organisation. The constitution of the United Nations at least partly reflected its founders' desire that it should be equipped to deal with any resurgence of threat from that quarter. Yet that threat did not materialise; instead we have been faced during the past 40 years with a succession of regional and civil wars on which it has often proved impossible for the international community to take a united stand.

These developments lie behind the failure, through the United Nations, to live up to the organisation's prime purpose: "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war". We should therefore look for ways of increasing the organisation's effectiveness. But if we are to do so from a sound basis we must build on the real successes which the United Nations has achieved.

We have had to accept that a body composed of sovereign states cannot, in the modern world, act as an agent of enforcement against recalcitrant members. But the United Nations has nevertheless made an important contribution to international peace.

The Security Council has prime responsibility in this area. Action in the council has at crucial moments been able to defuse regional crises. The Middle East war of 1973, which threatened to escalate into a wider conflict, is a case in point. Negotiations in the Security Council eased tension, and the disputing states were able to agree to the swift deployment of a UN peacekeeping force.

Peacekeeping indeed is perhaps the prime example of the way in which the Security Council has been able to adapt its practices to changing realities. It was not an activity envisaged in the UN Charter. It has developed pragmatically. Peacekeeping operations rely on consent and co-operation to operate effectively. But where the parties to a dispute commit themselves to its deployment, a peacekeeping force can play a vital role in maintaining an otherwise fragile peace. And it can, as for example in Cyprus, help create the conditions in which negotiations on the underlying problems can begin. Successive British Governments have devoted military and financial resources to UN peacekeeping operations. We can take pride in the important role played by a British citizen—and I was pleased that the most reverend Primate referred to Mr. Brian Urquhart, Under-Secretary General—in the development of UN peacekeeping. This Government will continue fully to support this crucial UN activity.

The Security Council has been able to perform another important role. It has from time to time outlined a possible basis for a comprehensive settlement of some of the major problems facing the international community. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 addressed the Middle East conflict; Resolution 435 established the basis for Namibian independence. Such resolutions have not of themselves solved such deep and difficult international problems. But they set out the parameters of the sort of settlement which might be widely acceptable to the international community.

Successive Secretary Generals have worked closely with the Security Council in efforts to preserve peace and resolve disputes. Indeed, the Secretary General has on occasion been able to act when the Security Council itself has been paralysed by superpower dissension, as during the Cuba missile crisis in 1962. At other times the independence of his position has enabled the Secretary General to assist governments in conflict. The current Secretary General has, for example, worked tirelessly to bring the Greek and Turkish Cypriots together. The Government fully support those efforts.

The United Nations may not have prevented all wars. But it has helped prevent some, and played a role in ending others. The organisation was also established to further international co-operation on social and economic problems; to develop friendly relations among nations; and to promote human rights. In these areas too the United Nations has accomplished much.

Through the specialised agencies and related bodies of the United Nations system the member states work together on technical, humanitarian, social and economic issues. Some of the achievements of these organisations are well known: the eradication of smallpox by the World Health Organisation, and its programme to immunise the world's children against the diseases of childhood; the efforts of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to ease the plight of those made homeless by war and repression in areas such as Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Cambodia; the work of UNICEF on behalf of the young.

Other parts of the system are less well known but no less essential. The International Maritime Organisation and the International Civil Aviation Authority regulate international transport. The Universal Postal Union and the International Telecommunication Union facilitate international contact. Other UN agencies, such as the Food and Agricultural Organisation and the UN Development Programme, do valuable development work. Together these agencies represent a vast network of common international enterprise. Their achievements are not always dramatic. Yet they underpin much of our daily activity.

The United Nations can also focus attention on the need for governments to take action in important areas. In recent years, for example, the UN has made a unique contribution to the process of increasing the participation of women in economic, social, political and cultural life. We have a high regard for the work of the Commission on the Status of Women, the United Nations expert body on women's affairs. We welcomed the proclamation of International Women's Year in 1975, and the subsequent declaration of the Decade for Women, on the problems which women face. I myself had the honour to attend the world conference held in Nairobi in July to review the achievements of the decade. We adopted by consensus a comprehensive and detailed document containing practical and realistic ideas for making further progress.

Such documents help establish an agreed basis for governmental conduct. The UN Charter—the most important document in this area—established a code of international behaviour: rules of conduct designed to guarantee the maintenance of friendly relations between states. And it went further. It marked the first attempt by the international community to commit governments to civilised behaviour towards their own citizens—obligations and standards which were further elaborated by subsequent human rights covenants.

Of course governments have not always lived up to their commitments. Some have pursued their objectives by force. Others have consistently abused the fundamental human rights of their citizens. But those who do wrong are forced to justify their actions before the General Assembly and the Human Rights Commission. The Soviet Union, for example, has been forced to pay a political price for its invasion of Afghanistan. Successive General Assembly debates—the sixth is due next month—have exposed the Soviet Union to wide condemnation. This year for the first time the General Assembly will also have before it a report on the abuse of human rights in that country. Such constant reminders of Soviet aggression have, I believe, contributed to third world disillusionment with the Eastern bloc.

In general, states seek to avoid the condemnation of the international community. Without a common standard of conduct against which to judge governmental behaviour, without international fora in which such behaviour can be held up to examination, resort to force and the abuse of human rights might be even more common than they are today.

I have concentrated so far on the achievements of the organisation. It is right that we should be reminded of them as the United Nations celebrates its 40th year. But few would deny that these achievements fall short of the expectations of 1945. As the Motion before us today implies, the effectiveness of the organisation needs to be improved. I wish to suggest some ways in which this might be accomplished.

The Security Council is the most crucial of all the United Nations organs. It was designed as the supreme body of the international community: one which was to engage disputing states in dialogue, encourage the peaceful resolution of conflicts and, above all, work for a common international position on crucial issues of peace and security. All too often states use it as a platform for the trumpeting of national grievances. They come to the council looking for confrontation rather than compromise; a propaganda victory rather than the promotion of a settlement. It is up to member states to use the Security Council for serious work, not for rhetoric. We believe that some procedural innovations might help.

First, the Security Council could make more use of private meetings. It is not always helpful for an issue to be publicly debated. Nor need a debate always end in a resolution. A private meeting with one or both parties to a dispute present might help get negotiations underway. Of course, the Security Council will not have a role in all disputes. But when issues are brought to its attention private meetings might sometimes help the parties to find ways of resolving their difficulty by peaceful means.

Second, more preventive diplomacy: the Secretary General might have a role here, in bringing disputes to the council's attention at an early stage. The charter invests him with that power, but he has not always been encouraged to use it. Yet he might sometimes be able to act when member states are reluctant to point the finger at a particular regional problem.

I have mentioned the institution of UN peacekeeping as one of the organisation's great successes. But the UN's effectiveness in this area is compromised by the failure of some states (principally the Soviet Union and its allies) to pay their full share of the cost. It is disappointing, but perhaps not surprising, to see the contrast between the Soviet Union's professed commitment to peace and its reluctance to join in the most practical efforts to secure it.

The General Assembly has neither the power nor the responsibilities of the Security Council. But at its best it can act as a vehicle for the expression of international opinion. It can turn the spotlight on acts of aggression such as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. It can put the weight of the international community behind particular proposals. The General Assembly unfortunately undermines its ability to perform these tasks effectively by having an agenda clogged with irrelevant issues, by the repetitiveness of its debates, by its rigid programme of work and by the adoption of resolutions which are merely declaratory, especially in the field of disarmament. The agenda and working methods of the General Assembly need to be thoroughly rationalised. There are hopeful signs that many states are beginning to share that opinion. Let us hope that the 40th anniversary will prompt constructive action in this area.

Finally, the specialised agencies which have accomplished so much have sometimes suffered from poor co-ordination, confused and ineffective administration and the diversion of their energies and resources into political issues more properly the business of the Security Council and General Assembly. This has been particularly true in recent years of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. Indeed things reached the point last year where we were forced to give notice of our withdrawal from UNESCO.

We have since worked vigorously for the reforms which would allow us to stay in UNESCO: better programmes; less political bias; a responsible attitude to money matters; and improved management. We want to see resources concentrated on the most valuable activities; fewer abstract studies and meetings; less activity in Paris and more in the field. We want to see the organisation promote the free exchange of ideas rather than call into question such principles. We seek management reforms that would make the organisation less slow-moving and less top-heavy. We hope sufficient progress can be achieved at the General Conference now under way in Sofia, and will take a decision in the light of its results.

In the end such progress will depend on the political will of member states. The same is of course true of efforts to improve the effectiveness of the United Nations as a whole. The Government believe that the organisation—or rather, the international community acting through it—has achieved much. But we can achieve more, and must do so, particularly on problems such as drug trafficking and terrorism. These problems were not foreseen by those who drafted the charter. They nevertheless affect us all, irrespective of our political differences, and they will only be conquered through close international co-operation.

The 40th anniversary of the United Nations is an opportunity to step back and take our bearings. The Government will play a full part in efforts to ensure that the United Nations sets the right course for the future.