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Speech by Jack Straw at the Third Anniversary of The Foreign Policy Centre

Article by Rt Hon Jack Straw MP

September 15, 2006

Mr Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you this morning. Congratulations to the Foreign Policy Centre on your third anniversary. And congratulations on marking it by publishing such a stimulating pamphlet with so many important contributions.

More than six months have elapsed since September 11. A great deal has been achieved: the defeat of the Taliban régime and the dismantling of the Al-Qa’ida camps within Afghanistan have made the world safer.

With the establishment of the Interim Administration, Afghanistan is again a part of the international community. Over the next six months, a truly representative government should follow. Even now, it is a remarkable transition.

This is far from saying that all danger is past, as our latest deployment of Royal Marines to Afghanistan indicates.

But we should all take heart from the success so far, and realise that, when we act with resolve, we can, in the words of the Prime Minister, “re-order this world”.

My own contribution to your pamphlet focuses on the future of Afghanistan. And Afghanistan is an excellent case-study of why foreign policy matters so much.

Its failure as a state did not just turn it into a haven for terrorists.

It was an important centre for the drugs trade, and the source of 90% of the heroin on British streets.

For years, refugees from the chaos in Afghanistan have formed a tide of human misery seeking asylum in the UK.

And the Taliban were a threat to the stability of their entire region, including Iran and Pakistan.

The best way to counter the many threats posed by a failed state is to do precisely what we are beginning to do in Afghanistan: helping to build a successful state.

The final measure of our success will be whether the future state guarantees respect for those core global values on which all successful societies are founded – human rights, freedom, tolerance, the rule of law – the very values which the terrorists attacked on September 11.

But Afghanistan is not the only place where people have been excluded from the benefits of these values, or from the security and prosperity which we take for granted.

Conflict, poverty, discrimination and injustice still blight the lives of millions in every part of the globe. We cannot escape the consequences when communities collapse, societies disintegrate and states fail.

Our national interests are served where human rights, democracy and the rule of law prevail. Where these are threatened our well-being is at risk.

Experience should teach us that large-scale abuse of human rights is often a precursor of failed states or of serious regional instability.

Some of the most serious challenges in foreign policy today have their roots in the human rights abuses of years ago.

The recent history of Zimbabwe might have been very different if the international community had reacted with greater resolve to the massacres which Mugabe’s soldiers carried out in Matabeleland in the early 1980s. It was then that Mugabe’s authoritarian rule was shaped.

To take another African example, I recently paid the first visit by a British Foreign Secretary to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the after-effects of the Rwanda genocide of 1994 still reverberate, and at a cost so far of millions of lives. Who knows what lives would have been spared by firmer international action at the moment when Rwanda was descending into chaos?

In Iraq there is a very powerful central authority. But here, too, there is a consistent record of brutal contempt for universal values stretching back many years.

In the 1980s, many in the West, guided by the principle that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, saw Saddam as a useful ally against the threat of revolutionary radicalism from Iran under the Ayatollahs.

The abuse of human rights in Iraq told a different story. Thousands of Iraqi Kurds were murdered in Saddam’s “Anfal” campaign during the 1980s. His use of chemical weapons against Iran, and ultimately against citizens of his own country in the Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988, showed his utter contempt for international law well before the invasion and annexation of Kuwait in 1990.

It would be too easy for us to say today what our predecessors should have done to spare us these problems. Hindsight with 20/20 vision is a wonderful thing. The far harder challenge for us is to face the difficult choices before us now, stand up to bullies like Saddam, and not leave these problems to the next generation to sort out.

Mr Chairman,

What we need is not so much a diplomacy of hindsight, but rather a diplomacy of foresight. Since values can be such a useful indicator of future trouble, it follows that we need the best possible quality of contacts, expertise and analysis from our diplomatic network, so that we can use human rights and the rule of law as what amounts to a sort of early warning system.

We have to have the vision to act before threats arise.

The history of the Balkans in the 1990s illustrates this point well. In the early 90s, we failed to halt the horrors of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, despite European nations committing thousands of troops to a UN mission. The Dayton Agreement only became possible when NATO as a whole was ready to put troops on the ground, with a tough mandate.

Four years later, in Kosovo, we were able to act with greater speed and determination on the news of massive humanitarian abuse with a military campaign which soon turned back Milosevic’s tide of ethnic cleansing. Two years later, Milosevic himself was history.

Last year, through a timely deployment in Macedonia, we prevented a descent into ethnic conflict and established a political framework which has held.

Put in figures, the relative success of these three operations becomes even more stark. Sorting out Bosnia cost the British taxpayer at least £1.5 billion. Kosovo cost £200 million. Macedonia cost just £14 million.

Diplomacy is good value for money. Action “upstream” can prevent the need for more costly remedies “downstream”. Those costs may materialise through the need for military action to restore order or development assistance to put a country back together again. Either of these activities is massively more expensive than an investment in diplomacy, provided of course the latter works.

And of course there are cases where a judicious combination of military engagement, development aid and diplomacy can turn around potentially desperate situations, as in Sierra Leone.

The money which we and the rest of the European Union are spending in the Balkans now, on reconciliation, democratic development and prosperity, is money well spent if it helps guide the region away from war and towards membership of the EU.

The benefits of diplomacy are tangible. Yet the public may not always see these benefits, because making peace gets far less media coverage than making war.

How many TV bulletins recorded the extraordinary fact that Kosovo now has its own functioning internal government, with Serb MPs sitting in the provincial legislature?

Most international media have withdrawn correspondents not just from Pristina and Skopje, but from Belgrade as well.

It is not just the Balkans which now loses out in media terms. How many newspapers have reported that 46,000 ex-combatants have been disarmed and demobilised in Sierra Leone since our preventive deployment there?

The media play an essential rôle in focusing public attention on the crises that matter. They would not be doing their job if it were otherwise. But the sad paradox is that media attention, public support and pressure for action are often at their greatest when a situation has already deteriorated to the point where any action would be costly and demanding.

And it seems every time UK forces are deployed overseas to forestall conflict, siren voices are raised questioning whether they are really needed.

Engagement in the world means not just fighting wars, but also preventing them.

Conflict prevention is therefore a key British interest. And it happens to be an area where we have scored significant successes.

The respect in which the UK is held in the international community today derives from many factors: the quality of our armed forces, our political analysis, our regional expertise and our development programmes; but above all from our commitment to the international rule of law and to upholding it worldwide.

We are unique in the way we combine military strength, humanitarian effort, diplomatic effort and a long-term commitment to reconstruction. Where we have intervened, it has been to pave the way for political solutions.

Military deployment has been successful in places like Sierra Leone, Macedonia and Afghanistan.

Our development assistance has had a growing impact on the reduction of poverty, especially in countries where governments are committed to improving their people’s lot.

And diplomacy is an indispensable part of the mix. During the campaign in Afghanistan, our missions in Washington, New York, Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere have been tireless, and successful, in their efforts to build international support for what we have been trying to achieve on all three fronts – diplomatic, military and humanitarian.

The rôle of the FCO is essential in building acceptance of military deployment and development assistance where Britain has the resources directly to intervene, and, where we do not, in persuading people to pursue constructive ways forward.

Our Embassies and High Commissions are increasingly backing up our diplomacy with practical measures on the ground.

We have committed £118 million to two Conflict Prevention Funds, through which the Ministry of Defence, the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office work together in pursuit of a common set of objectives: fundamentally, to reduce the number of deaths and injuries caused by violent conflict.

This activity is a form of forward defence. And there are many other ways in which we help safeguard our security at home by contributing to stability and prosperity overseas.

We second British experts to transition economies. We train officials in the worldwide fight against terrorism, drugs, crime and environmental damage. We run projects in local communities to promote human rights and good governance.

Diplomacy today means putting our values into action.

It does not however follow that we should sever relations with every country whose observance of human rights falls below standard.

Nor is it impossible to establish a degree of commonality of interest with such countries, where circumstances dictate. But if these states have a poor record in upholding human rights and the rule of law, this will always be an obstacle to developing better relationships with them.

And our closest and most enduring alliances will always be with those countries which share our commitment to promoting these values.

Mr Chairman,

The UK is not a superpower. But we have continuously shown, as we have in the last six months, that we play a pivotal rôle. We can – and do – make a big difference. We are a major sovereign state, working alongside other sovereign states in our national interest and the collective, global interest.

Our strength in the world is immensely reinforced by the strength of our alliances with the EU, the G8, NATO, the Commonwealth – and with the US – within the overall framework of the UN and international law.

Values are essential to the success of states. But more than this, the universal observance of human rights and the rule of law is the measure of a successful global society.

Over the next few weeks, in a series of speeches both here and abroad, I shall be setting out in more detail the reasons why the UK’s interests are best served by an active and engaged global foreign policy, working with our allies to push back the boundaries of chaos.

It is clearer than ever since September 11 that our domestic security and prosperity depend on our willingness to assume our share of responsibility for global security and global prosperity.

Our challenge today is to stave off the Afghanistans of the future. We must not be found wanting.


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