REFORM OF THE UNITED NATIONS – 19 January 2005

Dr Julian Lewis: The contribution of the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) may have seemed a trifle long for the amount of time available, Mr Gale, but I am sure that, compared with those speeches that he was telling us about that he had heard in various United Nations bodies, it was quite short. I shall endeavour to do even better.

In response to the his observation that the nuclear deterrent was not much good to the United States on 11 September, I would point out that the nuclear deterrent was certainly a lot of good to the US and the rest of the Free World during the 50 years of the Cold War. It is a question of horses for courses. During the Cold War, the hon. Gentleman argued with complete consistency that we should unilaterally abandon nuclear weapons. I would not expect him to change that position now that the Cold War has ended. I do not share his views, but this is not meant to be a debate about the efficacy or otherwise of nuclear deterrence. It is meant to be a debate about the need to reform the United Nations. In that respect, surprisingly enough, I share a lot of common ground with the hon. Gentleman.

The UN was certainly set up with the mistakes of its predecessor, the League of Nations, firmly in mind; it was set up with a limited and pragmatic mandate. During the years of the Cold War confrontation, I remember people saying: "You know what's wrong with the UN? The big powers have a Veto on the Security Council." That is not what was wrong with the UN, but what was right with it. It was designed to reflect the reality that big-power capabilities could keep the peace or destroy it, and recognised that it had to come to terms with the realities of the world if it was to make a contribution to peace and tranquillity.

In short, the UN is a handmaid to, not a substitute for, action by the Governments of sovereign states; it is a reflection of, and a facilitator for, the states that make it up, enabling them to act where they have got the will to do so. We must not over-invest it with a sanctity that it does not possess. As has been said, the UN is not a democracy; it is not made up, depending on one's definition of the term, of a majority of democracies. Therefore, it is not, and it should not be regarded as, a World Government or the fount of international wisdom and morality.

One thing that concerned me in the run-up to the war in Iraq was the degree to which responsibilities were shuffled from Governments to the UN. Governments were trying to say: "We will do this, but only if we get a vote in the Security Council." The reality is that the UN is comprehensive. As the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) rightly said, it includes everybody. As such, it cannot be expected to represent the best practices of nations around the world, although it does enable them to work together when they have a mind to do so, without having to set up ad hoc machinery.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that many of the pungent criticisms voiced by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) carry such weight. It is true that we can have a totally inappropriate country chairing a human rights body at the UN. I do not share the view that that should be ruled out, because it gives us an opportunity to use that country's record to embarrass it in the eyes of the world. I do not know that it did Libyan legitimacy a lot of good to be stuck in the chair, where it was subject to greater scrutiny than it would have been had it been excluded.

Mike Gapes indicated assent.

Dr Lewis: I am gratified to see the hon. Member for Ilford, South nodding in assent, but there is another side to the coin. If we recognise that the UN is a universal structure, designed to incorporate the mad, the bad, the dishonest and the murderous, just as much as the peaceful, saintly and democratic ideal, we must also recognise the limitations on the legitimacy of its pronouncements. That is why the case that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham is making is worth pushing forward, despite all the organisation's in-built limitations. By its existence, the UN enables those who wish to work together to do so, but it also allows those who wish to get away with misbehaviour or atrocious and inhumane behaviour in the dark to be dragged into the spotlight and forced to justify that behaviour.

Let us not kid ourselves that the United Nations will ever be a substitute for the responsibility of Governments. There are two forms of club. There is the form of club that is made up of members who think and act alike and believe in the same codes of conduct. That is not what the United Nations is about. There is also the form of club that everyone belongs to, but which cannot then expect a spotless reputation. That is what the United Nations consists of.

However, my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham is absolutely right to bring the matter forward and to shine the piercing intellect for which he is renowned on the abuses of member states of the United Nations. Although he has not over-exaggerated the role or the legitimacy of the body concerned and his admiration for it, he has been able to use the lip-service that everyone at the United Nations tries to give to certain principles to show up the hypocrisy of nations that fall short of adherence to those principles.

I know from the Cold War years that there were many times when the stench of hypocrisy, particularly over arms control, rose to high Heaven from the United Nations, its sub-committees and its subordinate organisations. I also know that the work done there to link up baskets of human rights, for example, with disarmament initiatives for the East-West confrontation was extremely valuable. All of us would agree that, had the organisation not existed, when the time came for change in the totalitarian societies of the USSR and Eastern Europe it would have been much harder to bring that about and formalise it.

Let us go forward with hope in the utility of the United Nations. Let us not exaggerate it for its ability to do the impossible and let us always remember that the United Nations is as good, but no better, than the members who make it up.

[ ... The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Bill Rammell): ... The failures of the League of Nations demonstrate the dangers of an organisation that does not give due weight to the major powers; the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr Lewis) referred to that. We continue to believe that the existence of the Veto is a factor in ensuring that major powers work through the UN in dealing with threats to international peace and security. However, although we would not support formal restrictions on the use of the Veto, we believe that it should be used with restraint and in accordance with the principle of the Charter. We are practising what we preach: we have not used our Veto since 1989.

... The hon. Member for New Forest, East made a succinct and profound point in saying that the Veto was needed, or very powerful states would walk away from the UN. We need to learn the lessons from the disintegration of the League of Nations; that is sometimes forgotten in this debate. The hon. Gentleman got it absolutely right when he said – and I paraphrase – that we should move away from some of the dewy-eyed views of the UN and recognise that, at its core, it is an organisation that enables states to act when they have a will to do so. It is no more and no less than that ... ]