HL Deb 18 January 2005 vol 668 cc724-41

7.34 p.m.

Baroness Cox

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will review the role and functioning of the United Nations and its agencies.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am deeply grateful to all noble Lords who are to contribute to this timely debate, all of whom I am sure support the ideals upon which the UN was founded in 1945 and their subsequent endorsement in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Although these ideals were later criticised by some for their reflection of western Judaeo-Christian values, original members who endorsed them included Egypt, Turkey and India—Muslims and Hindus, as well as Christians. This definition of fundamental freedoms has served as a potential benchmark for calling nations to account in arenas such as the UN Commission on Human Rights.

However, as early as 1946, Winston Churchill uttered a prescient warning: We must make sure that [the United Nations] work is fruitful. That it is a reality and not a sham. That it is a force for action, and not merely a frothing of words, that it is a true temple of peace in which the shields of many nations can some day be hung up, and not merely a cockpit in a Tower of Babel". I wish to recognise some of the achievements of the UN, to identify some problems and failures, and to suggest some ways forward.

First, I pay tribute to those such as the Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, commander of the UN force in Rwanda. He continually warned the UN of the impending massacres, only to be ignored, with the horrendous consequences recorded in history. I also deeply admire UNICEF's James Grant and the successful immunisation programme of 25 million children around the world. I should declare an interest in the support that UNICEF has given to our programmes promoting foster family care for orphaned and abandoned children in Russia.

But I have less happy experiences of situations where UN aid agencies have been seriously out of touch with local needs. One example arose during a visit to war-devastated areas in southern Sudan. We were surrounded by ghost villages in which people were dying like flies of disease and starvation. I was encouraged to see, at the end of the airstrip, a large pile of cartons with a UN logo. But hope turned rapidly to disappointment and anger. The crates were full of blackboard chalk. What cruelty in an area where mothers were suffering the anguish of seeing their children dying of starvation or treatable disease. Their hearts must have leapt for joy as an aid plane landed with what they thought would be life-saving supplies. Instead they had only useless blackboard chalk, in an area with no blackboards and where, if the children were able to attend school, they learnt to write with sticks in the sand. When the rainy season came and the cardboard dissolved, there remained a whited sepulchre to the inappropriateness of too much UN aid.

In recent weeks, UN agencies have clearly played a significant role in response to the horrors of the tsunami. However, the most rapid response was made by the Australian and American military, able to mobilise resources quickly and effectively—considerably quicker than any UN deployment. The United States, so often the target of severe criticism and even hostility within the UN and from many of its members, continues to provide 24 per cent of its funding.

Many questions need to be asked about cost-effectiveness and extravagance. NGOs working alongside the UN argue convincingly that they could achieve far more results with far fewer resources, particularly since 70 per cent of the UN budget goes on staff costs. Enlightened governments like the Netherlands, Sweden and Canada now give their overseas aid budgets directly to independent NGOs; others might do well to follow suit.

But far more serious in terms of the massive scale of human suffering are the numerous failures of the UN in conflict prevention and peacekeeping. One insider comments: I cannot think of a single successful UN peacekeeping mission. Either the soldiers have no power to stop genocide, as in Bosnia and Rwanda, or they are too late, as in Kosovo and Cambodia". Sudan is the latest in this catalogue of failure. When the National Islamic Front regime took power by military coup in 1989, it declared militaristic jihad against all who opposed it, with military offences against innocent civilians. It simultaneously declared many areas as "No Go" to United Nations Operation Lifeline Sudan, and all the aid organisations under its aegis.

Returning from an area devastated by bombardment and massacres of civilians by NIF troops, I was told by pilots who flew UN planes that they witnessed this scorched earth policy throughout an area of 100 miles radius from where I was—but they were not allowed to tell anyone. Such compromise by the UN with that murderous regime helped to contribute to the toll of 2 million dead and 4 million displaced before Darfur hit the headlines. Now, while some Sudanese hope for some respite after the recent peace agreement between the SPLM/A and the NIF, the regime continues its genocidal policies in Darfur.

Nearly 400,000 have already been killed, with a projected figure of 100,000 dying every month for months ahead. The UN Security Council's failure to intervene effectively is not only culpably condoning avoidable suffering on a catastrophic scale, it is further proof of the need for radical change.

Another disastrous example of UN incompetence is its Commission on Human Rights. Its cast of characters would be a bad joke if the issues were not so deadly serious. It is almost unbelievable that the UN's guardians of human rights include Algeria, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Zimbabwe, China and Cuba. Moreover, the UN has shown systematic bias against Israel in comparison with relatively uncritical and massive support for Palestine.

Therefore the recommendations by the Secretary-General's experts for reform of the UNHCR are comparably bizarre. Instead of limiting membership to states committed to democracy and human rights, they recommend expansion from the current 53 to all UN member states. Thus current members such as Sudan and Saudi Arabia will be delighted to be joined by Burma and Iran.

I will not dwell on recent scandals such as those described in the article in the Independent on 11 January, graphically entitled: Sex and the UN: when peacemakers became predators", detailing scandals of sexual exploitation, abuse and rape, or the corruption of the Oil for Food programme. Instead, I will suggest some possible solutions to the UN's undeniable problems.

The recent internal report on proposals for reform by the group of eminences grises fails to address these most fundamental problems.

One of them stems from expanding membership, resulting in a clash of ideologies. It is estimated that now only 75 member states are free democracies and many of the new member states want international rules suiting dictatorships rather than democracies.

One proposal for reforms, suggested by James Mawdsley and Benedict Rogers in "New Ground", would be to downgrade the status and influence of member states according to their unwillingness to abide by the UN's founding principles. For example, states which violate fundamental human rights could lose the right to sit on committees, to table or sign motions, to speak in debates or vote.

The UN General Assembly would be far more effective if regimes which wilfully undermine its charter were excluded or expelled from UN bodies, and sanctions could be used also against states which fail to recognise the rights of women as enshrined in the UDHR.

Many oppressive regimes also use the concepts of territorial integrity and non-interference to perpetuate gross violations of human rights. Many of today's conflicts are the result of minorities trapped behind closed borders fighting for cultural or physical survival against ruling regimes committed to their destruction.

There is an urgent need to re-evaluate the balance between the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty—perhaps with a new definition of sovereignty based on the will of the people rather than the "might is right" legitimation of many brutal regimes, such as those in Sudan or Burma, which seize power by military force against the wishes of the vast majority of their people.

Finally, treaty agreements and funding could be linked to respect for and protection of the fundamental human rights enshrined in the UDHR. This was done successfully in Basket 3 of the Helsinki disarmament agreement in 1977 and in the Jackson/Vanik amendment in the United States for emigration from the former Soviet Union—but both those initiatives outside the UN.

In July 2003, I believe that Tony Blair, addressing Congress, called for continuing American leadership to protect world order. He stated that UN members must be told: If you engage in the systematic and gross abuse of human rights in defiance of the UN Charter, you cannot expect to enjoy the same privileges as those who conform to it I believe the Prime Minister was right when he urged Americans not ever to apologise for their values—for those values were precisely those which underpin the UN's charter and which it is supposed to defend. If the vast majority of its members do not choose to promote and protect those values, or to penalise those who do not do so, there will be no hope for its future, and those nations which feel passionately committed to those values may feel forced to consider a radical alternative, such as a community of democracies.

But if the UN can undertake the reforms necessary to purge corruption, become cost effective and accountable in the fulfilment of its humanitarian remit, successful in protecting human rights and promoting peace, then—and only then—will the people in every member state be able to say truly, "The United Nations: it's our world". I passionately hope that that day will come.

7.45 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, after that speech by the noble Baroness, I have a difficult act to follow. As the full debate of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, on the UN's high-level panel report includes in its agenda the causes of conflict in Africa, I shall be brief today.

The UN was set up as an act of faith intended to protect the world against more wars and against injustice. Unfortunately, its structure and the practices it has developed over the years have left us with a deeply flawed and ineffective organisation, whose own staff were reported in November last year to be considering a vote of no confidence in senior management. One draft resolution said that, The senior management no longer display the levels of integrity expected of all employees of the organisation". That rebellion coincided with the allegations of corruption in the UN's Oil for Food programme, on which a separate report has now been made. Two of the major charges appear to be that the UN allowed Saddam Hussein to manipulate the oil sales and that many of the medicines delivered, which should have been monitored by the UN, were past their sell-by date. The children were not well served. To corruption, therefore, we must add—not for the first time in the UN's history—gross mismanagement.

I know, moreover, of at least one case of gross injustice to a staff member, for whom representations were made in vain, even at governmental level, over several years. These were arrogantly rejected by the secretariat.

The UN's record in Africa is hardly encouraging. Spurred on by its appalling failure in Rwanda, the UN initially, after a slow start, reported fully on what was happening in Darfur. The UNHCR, the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Secretary-General were all active and effective in reporting what was happening, helped and urged on by the NGOs, as early as 2003. There was one powerful UN report followed by another.

Only in June 2004, however, did the Security Council act under Chapter 7 and give the Khartoum Government 30 days to disarm the militia—it proved an empty gesture—to allow humanitarian access and to punish human rights violations. Seven months on, there have been no sanctions, and the reason is that China and Russia are major arms suppliers to the Sudan. Russia sold MiGs as recently as July 2004; China has been selling helicopters and jet aircraft; and China is also a major investor in oil in the Sudan. Thanks to the veto of those two countries, economic sanctions were blocked, as was any effective pressure on the Sudan. The countries of the Arab League were also a factor in this.

The lack of any effective action against Khartoum is only one example of the way in which the organisation has proved unable to do more than apply the poultice of humanitarian aid and of verbal denunciation to a series of suffering countries. There is, for instance, no word that I have heard of the UN co-ordinated effort in the Far East being directed to Burma after the tsunami. The UN appears to accept that.

It cannot even denounce the barbarous behaviour of the Zimbabwe Government to their own people because that would be blocked in the Security Council by China and Russia, in deference, no doubt, to the African Union. There can be no debate on any motion on Zimbabwe in the General Assembly because the African Union prevents it. Even in the UNHCR meeting in Geneva, chaired by Libya, when motions on gross violations of human rights in Zimbabwe have been put forward—not by us but by other concerned countries—the African Union acts as a block, year after year, preventing any debate.

Meanwhile, Mr Mugabe was able to spend several comfortable days in Geneva, at UN expense, for a UNHCR meeting, and more recently to attend Mr Mbeki's reception in New York. He was never called to account by the UN, which is supposed to be the advocate of the poor and the oppressed. Sadly, the UNHCR representative in Zimbabwe stays silent and is acquiescent, and the Secretary-General has said nothing.

Meanwhile, the UN is both a profligate spender and a wholly ineffective protector of the people against violence and murder. By the end of 2003, it had spent more than 544 million US dollars on the international crime tribunal in Rwanda. After nine years of operation, nearly 30 per cent of those indicted still await trial, despite a UN investigation in 1996.

The Sierra Leone special court is funded by donations, chiefly from the US, the UK and the Netherlands. The Security Council refuses to fund this modest affair, despite—or perhaps because—it has spent more than 2 billion US dollars as at 2004 on keeping 17,500 troops in Sierra Leone since 1999, who failed completely to oust the rebels. On the contrary, the latter captured a number of UN troops and held them to ransom. It took about 1,500 British troops, I think, to end the insurgency in about a week.

I could go on. Eight hundred French troops and a few British in the EU mission, Artemis, who replaced UN troops for some two months in the Congo in 2004, did more to protect the people and begin to restore a safe environment in that time than 5,000 or more UN troops had done, not least because the UN mandate did not allow those troops to intervene. They were simply a presence. Eventually, they were totally disorganised and lost all command of the situation.

I saw that for myself in the Congo in 1960 when, after a day of unbridled violence against the white population of Stanleyville, the UN sent its daily telegram, which read, "All quiet, nothing to report". As I was there that day and happened to be one of the people who were beaten, I had a rather strong view on that and so, I am glad to say, did Her Majesty's Government. It was not unusual for men to be beaten severely under the eyes of the UN guards outside the UN headquarters; they had no mandate to intervene. When people were put in prison, the UN did nothing to protect them.

What emerges from all this is a flawed organisation which gives the world a false sense of a positive, international entity. We need that entity. Most of its employees, particularly in the many UN agencies, work hard and wish to do a good job, but the whole thing seizes up, thanks to the veto and other pressures, when serious action is required. There are too many examples of corruption, incompetence and extravagance. I hope that the UN's panel report will not be concerned with rearranging the chairs rather than taking a radical look at what is wrong with an organisation that should be the effective conscience of the world.

7.52 p.m.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Cox on her courage in holding this short debate tonight. In doing so, she is, of course, taking a shot at one of the great white elephants of our time, much loved by the unthinking leftish politicians who now have so much influence in international affairs.

I imagine that other noble Lords may have been struck, as I was, by much of the coverage from the BBC—that bastion of political correctitude—soon after the recent tsunami struck. The BBC reported, with considerable shock, that the wicked President Bush had set up a group of four nations—the United States, Japan, Australia and New Zealand—apparently in competition with its beloved United Nations, to bring aid to the stricken areas. There was a clear echo in this coverage of the trendy Left's anger with the liberation of Iraq by the United States and her allies, the implication being that the United States was again committing the irresponsible crime of acting outside the United Nations' authority. After a few days, the BBC announced in triumph that the president had disbanded his group and was prepared to collaborate with the United Nations. So normality and decency were restored to the face of the planet.

I have not time in a short debate to detail much of what was really happening on the ground immediately after the disaster struck. A good account can be found in Christopher Booker's column in the Sunday Telegraph on 9 January, entitled, "Don't mention the navy". This reveals that within hours, a task force of more than 20 US Navy ships, led by the vast, nuclear-powered aircraft-carrier, the "Abraham Lincoln", carrying 90 helicopters, landing craft and hovercraft, was carrying out a round-the-clock relief operation, providing food, water and medical supplies to hundreds of thousands of survivors.

But where was the United Nations? What was this great paragon of international virtue up to while Americans, Australians and others from their coalition were saving thousands of people? I can do no better than place on the record an extract from the "Diplomatic" weblog, run undercover by members of the US State Department. It is entitled, "The United Nations to the Rescue" and goes as follows: The local correspondent of the Guardian newspaper has called the Embassy in Jakarta. He is doing a negative story on the US relief effort based on 'information' provided by the UN at a press conference this morning. This Embassy has been running 24/7"— that is, 24 hours a day, in case your Lordships are not familiar with the expression— since the December 26th disaster. Along with my colleagues, I've spent the past days dealing non-stop with the relief effort. That work, unfortunately, has brought ever-increasing contact with the growing UN presence in this capital. In fact, we've found that to avoid running into the UN, we must go out to where the quake and the tsunami actually hit. As we come up to two weeks since the disaster struck, the UN is still not to be seen where it counts—except when holding well-staged press events. But the luxury hotels are full of UN assessment teams and visiting big shots from New York, Geneva and Vienna. The city sees a steady procession of UN Mercedes sedans and top-of-the-line four-wheeled drive vehicles—a fully decked out Toyota Landcruiser is the UN vehicle of choice; it doesn't seem that concerns about 'global warming' and preserving our tax dollars run too deep among the UNocrats. Sitting very late for two consecutive nights in interminable meetings with UN representatives, hearing them go on about 'taking the lead co-ordination role', pledges and the impending arrival of this or that UN big shot, or assessment/co-ordination team, for the millionth time I realized that if not for Australia and America, almost nobody in the tsunami-affected areas would have survived more than a few days. If we had waited for the UNocrats to get their act co-ordinated, the already massive death toll would have become truly astronomical. But, fortunately, thanks to those retrograde racist war-mongers John Howard and George W. Bush, as we sat in air-conditioned meeting rooms with these UNocrats, young Americans and Australians were at that moment 'co-ordinating', without the UN, and saving the lives of tens of thousands of people". I appreciate that this is only one instance of the United Nations' failure, but I trust your Lordships will agree that it is a rather important one. I therefore ask the noble Baroness to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the rescue work of the United States, Australia and their colleagues immediately after the tsunami struck and before the United Nations ground into operation.

I hope, too, that the Government will honestly confront and answer the several serious questions put to them by my noble friend Lady Cox. Her record of international human rights work makes her uniquely qualified in your Lordships' House to pose those questions. She started her international work by personally delivering many lorry loads of medical aid to Poland for several years before the wall came down. She then moved on to help in the defence of Ngorno Karabakh against Azeri invasion, making many visits to the battle zone, under fire, with medical supplies which otherwise did not exist.

My noble friend was perhaps the first person to penetrate southern Sudan and bring the terrible situation there to the world's attention, and to warn of the impending disaster in Darfur. She has run several missions to Burma and Nigeria, neither of them regimes which welcome those who reveal to the world what they are doing to some of their own people. She warned for several years, long before 9/11, of the growing problem of violent Islamist fundamentalists.

In short, she has huge experience at the front line on the international scene. I am sure that I speak for most of your Lordships when I suggest that the Government should address her concerns about the United Nations fully and openly.

I feel sure too, that the Government's laudable commitment to an ethical foreign policy demands nothing less and I look forward to the Minister's reply with much interest.

8 p.m.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I yield to none in my admiration for the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, but I deprecate the negative tone of this debate and the concentration on the United Nations' failure, rather than an attempt to improve what is undoubtedly a defective and inadequate organisation for the tasks that it has to undertake.

The noble Baroness has given us a first opportunity of looking at the report of the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, commissioned by the UN Secretary-General and presented at the beginning of December. The report acknowledges many of the organisation's faults, and goes on to say that the United Nations and its agencies were established in a world that faced a completely different and far less complicated set of problems. Its primary object then was to end the scourge of war but today it confronts a series of challenges that were unknown or not considered in 1945: mass poverty, AIDS, internal armed conflicts, failed states, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, natural disasters, and trans-national organised crime including people trafficking.

The UN and its agencies may not have been adaptive enough to cope with these problems and to co-ordinate its activities with other actors such as regional groups of states and non-governmental humanitarian agencies. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, has pointed out in an article in the Financial Times, they are linked together and all require a collective response, which only the UN can deliver.

I note the particular criticisms of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, of the Commission on Human Rights and I sympathise with her remarks on the membership of the commission, although of course she will realise that all states are already members of the Third Committee which covers the same ground. I proposed to the Minister with responsibility for human rights, Mr Bill Rammell, that at least the chair of the commission should be in full compliance with the commission's mechanisms, which means an open invitation to the special procedures and if it is considered impractical to restrict the membership for political reasons, perhaps voting rights could be limited to those in full compliance with the procedures.

We should note the sterling work done by many of the special rapporteurs and working groups in the face of impossible budgetary constraints; they are not mentioned at all by the panel and it is a scandal that they are not properly funded. Can the Minister assure us that Britain will do all it can to improve the funding of the commission and of its special procedures in particular? That is one of the recommendations made by the high-level panel.

One of the most difficult problems the UN has faced in recent years is whether the charter allows for a right of intervention in man-made catastrophes, in spite of the prohibition in Article 2.7. The panel says, genocidal acts and other atrocities, such as large scale violations of international humanitarian law or large-scale ethnic cleansing", are threats to international security, and can therefore justify action by the Security Council under Chapter 7. Yet the Security Council has allowed humanitarian disasters to occur in Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo and now Darfur, as acknowledged by the high-level panel.

When I suggested, after the first Gulf War in 1991, that we should attempt to generalise from Resolution 688, the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, who was then Foreign Secretary, told me that it was better to proceed on a case-by-case basis. States had signed up to the charter precisely because of the protection it gave or appeared to give them against intervention even when they were committing atrocities against their own citizens.

Today, according to the panel, there is an emerging international recognition that we have to protect the victims of large-scale killing, ethnic cleansing and serious violations of humanitarian law. Would it now be practicable to consider at least asking the Security Council to adopt a form of words similar to those used by the panel as criteria they would apply in deciding whether to exercise their authority under Article 42 of the charter?

The panel refers to the need for better co-ordination between the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and regional organisations, which they say could be formalised in agreements covering, for instance, co-training of both civilian and military personnel and exchanges of personnel within peace operations. What was the outcome of the discussions the Security Council had with AU and IGAD representatives in Nairobi last November, and were they able to draft a protocol on co-operation and joint operations with those organisations?

The existing AU mission in Darfur which the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, mentioned, is of course under a Security Council mandate. But co-operation there does not seem to have been very effective. Last week, three months after authorisation, the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, said that only 1,250 of the force of 3,300 had arrived because of logistical difficulties; and this after between 200,000 and 300,000 have died, 200,000 refugees have fled into Chad and an estimated 1.8 million people have fled from their homes in Darfur. But this is a political failure on the part of member states, not one of the United Nations as an organisation.

There is a G8 commitment to ensure that up to 75,000 peacekeeping troops would be trained and ready to be deployed on peacekeeping operations in Africa by 2010 and the UK has volunteered to train, directly or indirectly, some 17,000 African troops in that period. Can the noble Baroness tell us if these forces to be deployed only in response to Security Council resolutions or will they act independently at the AU's volition? The panel suggests that regional operations should invariably be endorsed by the Security Council, even if in some cases of emergency, it has to be after the event.

At the AU Peace and Security Council meeting in Libreville, a decision was made to send a force into eastern DRC to disarm and repatriate the FAR and Interahamwe remnants and this would be helpful. But how will the AU force relate to MONUC, the UN force responsible for peacekeeping in the region?

President Obasanjo of Nigeria undertook, at the inauguration of President Abdullahi Yusuf of Somalia in Nairobi three months ago, that, The AU is ready to play a major role in restoring peace and security in Somalia". He went on to say that the success of Africans in finding an African solution to the Somali problem would not be allowed to go to waste.

It was a hard slog to get to this point, and if the president and Parliament do not relocate to the country immediately, momentum will be lost and the peace deal may fall apart, as happened in 2001 with the previous transitional government. But President Yusuf was at one point asking for 20,000 AU peacekeepers to accompany him back to Mogadishu. Whatever the number, will they operate under a purely AU mandate, or will it need a Security Council resolution?

Finally, the idea of a peacebuilding commission, to prevent the failures of states and co-ordinate the international community's efforts in post-conflict peacebuilding, is an excellent one, and would apply directly to the case of Somalia today. I hope that the Government have had an opportunity of considering that proposal and that the Minister can give a preliminary response to it this evening.

8.8 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for initiating a most interesting and much needed debate. Indeed, I understand that it is this topic that will hold the attention of Members of the other place in Westminster Hall tomorrow. I would add my name to the tribute that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, paid to the noble Baroness.

The noble Baroness mentioned some of the failures of the UN and the failure of the UN peacekeeping mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina. As in Rwanda, Sudan and the Congo, the UN's involvement there will long be remembered as a shameful episode in the organisation's history. I know people whose family was murdered there while the UN stood by doing nothing despite its mandate. They would certainly agree with my noble friend Lady Park's description of the UN as a, deeply flawed and ineffective organisation". Since his appointment as Secretary-General, Kofi Annan has tried to institute reform at the UN. We on these Benches have supported the idea of, a leaner, more efficient and more effective UN, one that is, more realistic in its goals and commitments". We need to ensure that the British taxpayer gets value for the £623 million that it currently contributes to the United Nations.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, rightly said.

as contributors to the UN coffers, we are entitled to accountability". We need to ensure that any corruption is weeded out. That is an important issue to which I will turn later when I discuss the Oil for Food programme.

In the meantime, I will nail my colours to the mast. Despite criticism—and I agreed with everything that my noble friend Lady Park said about Zimbabwe—the UN has been a force for good. We believe that it remains an important institution, but that it needs reform. We agree with the majority view in the high-level panel report. It is a compendium of conventional and sensible things that anyone wishing to give, decent respect to the opinions of mankind", would be compelled to endorse. However, there are three areas of the report with which I take issue: the use of force, Security Council reform and nuclear weapons.

The use of force in any situation is not to be taken lightly. We should always aim to use force as a last resort, and force which has as much support from the rest of the international community as possible. However, we should never give up our right to decide on such actions even if the Security Council does not fully concur. Although we must work towards the greater good of our globe, we must not forget that there may be times when it is our own national interest, or that of an ally, to go to war without Security Council authorisation; for example, ouraction against genocide in Kosovo. Our public policy, the defence of this country, or a persecuted population at risk of genocide should not be held hostage to a bureaucratic assumption that the Security Council works in the interests of all its members. The UN is valuable, but it is not everything. It is not a world government and it is certainly not the sole source of international legitimacy.

I shall briefly touch on the issue of Security Council reform and membership. We are willing to consider enlarging the Security Council provided no additional vetoes are handed out. We share the report's aim of making it more representative. But simply enlarging the council will not address the gridlock that has beset the council since its inception. During the Cold War the council passed few resolutions. Since then, although it has passed many more, they have often been vague and weak. In the case of Iraq, it failed to enforce its resolutions properly. It is vital that the Security Council should be reformed so that it is able to fulfil its mission to maintain international peace and security. Does the Minister agree that a lot more thinking must be done on how to make that happen?

I must make it clear that we are completely opposed to the suggestion that the EU should have a seat at the UN. We would never give up our seat on the council to make way for an EU seat, not least because its voice would be muffled on major issues where the European nations have strongly differing views. Could the noble Baroness please inform the House of the Government's position on EU membership of the UN?

The UN Report admits that, although the UN did not work properly during the Cold War due to superpower rivalry, the, world has now changed and expectations about legal compliance are much higher". Yet during the Iraq war and the ongoing post-war regeneration, many international commentators have discussed the relevance of the UN. The actions of the Security Council in particular raised significant questions. France, China and Russia's disagreement on the issues surrounding Iraq delayed any decisions. Meanwhile, until the Iraq regime was overthrown, it was necessary to keep sanctions on the country, which caused enormous hardship to Iraqi people, but not the elite. All other options had been exhausted; 12 years of rewards and threats, which had been subject to indefinite delay, did not work.

Can preserving the global order really require unilateral preventive action to be absolutely forbidden? I do not believe that the world has changed in the way that the UN panel asserts. We may not be paralysed by the Cold War struggle, but it has yet to conform to legislative ideals. China's blocking of intervention in Darfur, mentioned by my noble friend Lady Park, is a tragic example.

Nuclear weapons are always controversial. While the report's desire to be rid of them is laudable, they cannot be disinvented. We believe that these weapons are the ultimate guarantee of Britain's security. They mean that an attack on us is not rational, since the price could outweigh any possible gain. I would argue nuclear weapons have helped to preserve peace in Europe. At a time when there is proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the world at large, they remain essential for our own and NATO's security. We must retain a minimum but effective strategic nuclear force. Obviously, their use could only ever be contemplated in a supreme emergency, to overcome a mortal threat to the existence or independence of this country, or as a proportionate response to an attack using weapons of mass destruction. I hope that the Minister will agree with this stance.

I now return to the issue of corruption and the problems surrounding the Oil for Food programme (OFF). A US Senate hearing that was investigating allegations of corruption surrounding this programme heard that the Iraqi regime made more than 21 billion dollars from illicit sales, the majority of which has been traced to various accounts in Jordanian banks. The interim report of the UN's Independent Inquiry Committee stated that this corruption was not just a hoodwinking of the system by the Iraqi regime, but malpractice within the UN itself—evidence for which can be seen from the IIC's report into those areas of the OFFP that were audited by the UN's Internal Audit Division.

However, there remain whole areas of the programme that have not been audited. It is believed that evidence of waste and misappropriation of funds has been covered up—a practice that can only encourage greater corruption. The first audit reports were carried out in 1997. Can the Minister say whether the Government will call for a full audit of the OFFP and explain why they have not done so sooner?

I have limited myself to four questions in the hope that the Minister may provide some answers. Despite our criticism, we believe that the UN has been a force for good. It remains an important institution and we should support its reform, with caveats, and do all that we can to ensure that the organisation and its members are accountable for their actions.

8.18 p.m.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on securing this debate on UN reform and thank all noble Lords on their reflective and, at times, spirited contributions. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, will accept that I may be on the left, but not the unthinking left—perhaps the trendy left

The debate could not be more timely. UN reform has an increasing profile within the international community and the UK. Indeed, there will be a debate in another place tomorrow. This follows the publication of two reports on improving the UN, to which I will return later, in anticipation of the Millennium Review Summit in September, which will assess progress against the millennium development goals.

I should start by saying that the Government support the UN and fully support the UN Secretary-General, who is doing a fine job under difficult circumstances. But no organisation can stand still. I fully agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, who believes that the UN needs to reform if it is to meet the challenges of the 21st century. The two recent examples of UN weakness that have received most attention are the Iraq Oil for Food programme, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, and other noble Lords, and, most recently, the allegations of widespread sexual exploitation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo by members of the MONUC peacekeeping mission.

While we support the UN's action to date with the appointment of an independent inquiry into Oil for Food and a special adviser on sexual exploitation, we should not shy away from the lessons that will need to be learnt. The allegations in the DRC, if borne out, are a fundamental betrayal of the trust that is essential if peacekeeping missions are to succeed.

The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, highlighted allegations of corruption, waste and inefficiency within the UN system, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth. The UN has put in place the Office of Internal Oversight Services to tackle that problem. In the past 10 years, the OIOS has exposed 290 million dollars of fraud and waste. We have supported moves to ensure greater transparency in the work of the OIOS, but it would be wrong to imply that the UN is not attempting to resolve the issue.

On the tsunami, our minds have been focused recently on the terrible events in the Indian Ocean, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, and others. The UN is involved in a range of countries to provide vital humanitarian assistance. The UK Government are in daily contact with the UN to discuss issues that arise. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, overall we are satisfied with the job being undertaken by the UN. Of course I pay tribute to the work of the United States, Australia and many other countries in their individual responses to the tsunami.

The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, raised the issue of the misuse of funds at the Food and Agriculture Organisation, with funds going to the Palestine agriculture ministry. Palestine is not a member of the Food and Agriculture Organisation. The FAO undertakes some development projects in Palestine, funded through extra budgetary resources, but none of those funds goes to a Palestinian ministry of agriculture, nor to fund ministry employees.

On Sudan, the whole international community responded too slowly to the crisis there, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said in his excellent contribution. It was a low priority until the suffering appeared on television and that was compounded by the difficult operating environment that humanitarian workers found there. The UN-led co-ordination in Sudan has not always been adequate. The lesson for the UN to learn from Darfur is that its response to humanitarian crises requires much stronger leadership. However, humanitarian assistance is now getting through to the people who need it. In December last year, the World Food Programme, for example, provided food assistance to 1.3 million people in Darfur.

I know that human rights are a particular passion of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. I salute the work that she does. We fully recognise that the Commission on Human Rights is not perfect—its 53 members include some with poor human rights records—but imperfect as the system is, we do not believe that excluding those whom it is designed to influence is the way forward. Instead, we would seek to press those who are members of the commission to commit to improving their human rights record during their time as members to try to improve the day-to-day lives of their own people.

The commission's work in expanding understanding of human rights, initiating negotiations on key issues such as torture and in appointing country-specific rapporteurs, for example, to Burma, should not be dismissed. One of our priorities is to place human rights at the heart of UN business, which is why we welcome the recent recommendation of the high-level panel that the High Commissioner for Human Rights should have a far more significant role in the work of the Security Council.

As regards peacekeeping, which was raised by several noble Lords, there is no doubt that there are weaknesses and difficulties associated with UN peacekeeping operations which need to be urgently addressed. Peacekeeping missions are based on the consent of the receiving nations following the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement and, if they are to be successful, the political will of parties to the conflict. If that political will is absent, a peacekeeping operation often becomes very difficult.

I disagree that there are no successful peacekeeping operations. We should look at the operations in East Timor and Sierra Leone which, although they have not had an easy path, are planning to end leaving behind a sustainable peace to build on. Similarly, the peacekeeping operations in Ethiopia and Eritrea have been broadly successful, while that in the Cote d'Ivoire has been robust in handling an extremely difficult situation. These examples of positive action by UN operations demonstrate their worth, but do not avoid the need to learn lessons from the past such as the terrible genocide in Rwanda and the steps needed to be taken to ensure that this kind of terrible event cannot happen in future.

I shall look for a moment at the current reform proposals for the UN. The discussion of peacekeeping leads towards an area where I fundamentally disagree with the noble Baroness; namely, the role of the current reform process, which she dismisses as being insufficiently radical. The high-level panel report referred to by noble Lords published in December and the millennium project report published yesterday are not panaceas. If their recommendations are implemented, the UN will be much more in line with that suggested by the noble Baroness. We welcome the high-level panel report and the millennium project report very much.

The high-level panel report is a radical document in many ways. Its recommendations for a peace-building commission will fundamentally change the approach to conflict prevention and post-conflict reconstruction. Although the idea of the commission is simple, its potential is enormous, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, suggested.

Moreover, the panel specifically recognises that there is a responsibility to protect against genocide, ethnic cleansing and other violations of international humanitarian law, addressing directly the issue of non-interference in internal affairs of which the noble Baroness is rightly critical. I hope that the noble Baroness will take a full part in the upcoming debate on the high-level panel report in this House in February.

As well as that report, the UK Government have also welcomed the millennium project report published on 17 January. We look forward to working with others to consider the recommendations in more detail. The report demonstrates that aid works. We need significantly to scale up the resources available for countries that are committed to poverty reduction.

As regards the issue of expelling UN members, the noble Baroness suggests that the UN excludes members who are in clear breach of the charter. It is a superficially attractive argument, and it is allowed for under the current UN charter. However, it is both difficult to enforce in practice, requiring votes in both the Security Council and the General Assembly and arguably counter-productive as one of the great strengths of the UN is universal membership, in clear contrast with the failed League of Nations. Suspension has been used, for instance, in the case of South Africa.

I come to the specific questions put to me by noble Lords. The noble Baroness, Lady Park, raised the issue of Zimbabwe at the UN. We share her concern at the situation in Zimbabwe. We have raised it with both the Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly of the UN. We, like her, regret that a procedural resolution last autumn prevented a substantive resolution on Zimbabwe being discussed in the General Assembly.

The noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, asked me to pay tribute to the United States and Australia for their actions after the tsunami disaster. Of course I pay tribute to those countries' efforts in the early days of the crisis. It is also significant that they handed over to the UN, and the UN's response, though not perfect, has been a good job overall.

In his questions to me, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, quoted the report from the panel. It stated that the emerging consensus is that the UN should be able to intervene in cases of large-scale killing, ethnic cleansing and violation of humanitarian law. He asked whether the form of words that the panel uses could be embodied in the UN charter. We strongly welcome the proposals put forward by the panel in the area of a collective responsibility to protect. They are similar to longstanding UK policy. The panel has not suggested that these proposals are embodied in the UN charter, which might prove difficult to achieve. We should not underestimate the difficulties in getting agreement for the proposals, even as they currently stand.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, also asked how the African Union forces are to be deployed and whether they are always to be deployed in response to Security Council resolutions. Regional peacekeeping missions currently do not have to be under the auspices of the Security Council if the country concerned consents to regional group troops playing such a role on its territory. This is allowed for under Chapter VIII of the current UN charter. However, in practice, most regional peacekeeping missions are authorised by the UN and, indeed, are precursors for a UN mission. We anticipate that this will remain the case. We strongly welcome the suggestion by the panel of increased co-operation between the UN and regional organisations.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, also asked what the Government think about the proposed peacekeeping commission. We support the recommendation that a peacekeeping mission and an associated peace-building secretariat be created. He also asked about the request of President Yusuf of Somalia for 2,000 peacekeepers to guard him. Our understanding is that President Yusuf of Somalia has made such a request to the African Union and that the African Union is prepared to deploy only after Yusuf has returned and the government have been re-established.

The noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever. asked whether I agree that more thinking is needed about how to reform the Security Council to make it better able to maintain international peace and security. I agree that reforming the membership should go hand-in-hand with reforming the way that the council works. The noble Lord rightly raised Iraq as an example of where the council failed to enforce its resolutions. We shall build on successes such as Sierra Leone and East Timor.

The noble Lord also asked me about EU membership of the Security Council. The UN is an organisation of member states. EU membership of the Security Council is impossible under the charter. The EU is well represented on the council by the UK and France and, currently, by Greece and Denmark.

The noble Lord asked me about the maintenance of nuclear deterrence. The UK is committed under the non-proliferation treaty to work towards general nuclear disarmament. Until that day comes, the noble Lord's point must be of importance.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Astor, asked me about a full audit of the Oil for Food programme. The inquiry has published many documents, to which the noble Lord referred. We expect the interim report later this month and the full report later this year. We are co-operating fully with that inquiry.

To sum up, the noble Baroness asked for reassurance and I hope that I have given her some reassurance that this Government are not complacent about the UN or the agenda for reform. The year 2005 provides real opportunities to progress across the full range of UN reform through the high-level panel, the millennium project and the millennium review summit. Our position as the holder of the presidency of the G8 and, from July, the holder of the presidency of the EU gives us a unique opportunity to influence the current reform debate and to improve the UN's performance.