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Conflict Prevention

Volume 530: debated on Tuesday 21 June 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Philip Dunne.)

Thank you, Mr Turner, for calling me to speak. Through you, I want to thank Mr Speaker for giving us this opportunity to debate the Government’s policy on conflict prevention. I also welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), to his place on the Front Bench today.

In the briefing that the House of Commons Library prepared for this debate, there is one particular article that summarises why I wanted us to have this debate, and my view is shared by the colleagues from other parties with whom I have the privilege of co-chairing the all-party group on conflict issues. I welcome the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) to the debate. Our third co-conspirator, the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter), cannot be with us this morning and sends his apologies. This debate is very much a cross-party initiative, rather than a personal one.

The particular article in the Library briefing that I want to start this debate by referring to is a BBC Online article from 11 April this year, headlined, “Aid spending should target conflict, World Bank urges”. It states:

“Poverty rates are 20% higher in countries hit by violence, so aid should target violence, the Bank says. The World Bank is recommending a major difference in the way aid is spent. A quarter of the world’s population live in states affected by conflict. In a report released on Monday, the World Bank says that there should be far more focus on building stable government, and on justice and police, than on health and education. The report says if there is not a major refocusing of aid in this direction, then other targets on poverty, health and education will not be reached. There is far more spent on alleviating the effects of conflict than preventing it from breaking out, and conflicts tend to be repeated. Ninety percent of recent civil wars occurred in countries that had already had a civil war in the last 30 years. The report found that cycles of violence were hard to stop, for example in South Africa and Central America. In Guatemala, twice as many people are dying now at the hands of criminals than died in the civil war in the 1980s. Poverty rates are 20 percentage points higher in countries affected by violence, but up to now, the World Bank found, there had been too little focus on ending corruption or reforming state institutions and justice systems. For instance, reform of justice was not one of the Millennium Development Goals...The report’s author Sarah Cliffe says this is the greatest development challenge facing the world. “It’s much easier for countries to get help with their militaries than it is with their police forces or justice systems, and much easier for them to get help with growth, health or education than it is with employment,” she says. “Our analysis would indicate that that should change.””

That is where I begin today and I am very grateful that, since the last election, the Government have made it clear that they give a great priority to conflict prevention. I am also very grateful to the Foreign Secretary who, when I have raised this specific issue with him on two occasions since the general election, has also made that clear, both generally—as a matter of strategy—and in relation to the initiative that he took recently to extend our diplomatic presence around the world. He said that those diplomatic missions would see conflict prevention as a key part of their work. So this is not a debate that has been called in order to rap the Government over the knuckles, but to encourage the trend in government, which began under the previous Government, to place a greater priority on conflict prevention for us as a country and for all the relevant partners in Government that work together on these issues. That means not only the Foreign and Commonwealth Office but the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence.

A few years ago, at the prompting of people from outside this House to whom I now pay tribute, the all-party group on conflict issues was formed. I hope that it has already been effective, if only in a modest way, in bringing issues to the attention of the House and in opening up debates. Indeed, in Westminster Hall we have had debates on the legacy of Northern Ireland, and debates between representatives of Russia and Georgia. Recently, we have had two sessions involving young people from Israel and Palestine talking about their vision for the future.

The themes of those debates and sessions are recurrent. It is all too easy to respond militarily when something goes wrong and then to try to pick up the pieces. It is much more intelligent and much cheaper to intervene to prevent a country, community or part of the world from falling to pieces in the first place.

About a fortnight ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) and I were part of a delegation that visited Israel and the west bank. If ever anyone wanted an example of a legacy of desperate failure to prevent conflict, they only have to go to those places. Whatever the good work that we, DFID and the FCO do to try to reconstruct community and civil society in the west bank or in Gaza, it is—bluntly—a much taller order than it would have been if there had not been the years of conflict in the first place.

I commend the right hon. Gentleman for securing this debate and for examining conflict prevention in the round. I support the aspiration to achieve the aid target of 0.7% of Britain’s GNP. However, does he share my view that, just as aid is very important in promoting conflict prevention, so is the role of our armed forces? They could play a much greater role in conflict prevention. In fact, their role is to prevent conflict and not to engage in it. However, if they are under-resourced they will be less able to play that role.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend about that point. I have a brother who is still working for the MOD and who has been in the Army in various parts of the world. However, it did not take him to remind me that it is more useful for the Army to stabilise a situation and to teach the skills of conflict avoidance and so on, than it is for it to engage in conflict. Sometimes conflict prevention is not perceived as being the dramatic work by the armed forces for which we pay our taxes, but it is both the most productive role of the armed forces and—frankly—the way that we can save not only the lives of people in faraway countries, such as Afghanistan, but in countries such as our own, including the lives of our service people who would otherwise pay a very high cost.

I also share my hon. Friend’s view that we not only need to have an ambition about the share of our national cake that we give to overseas development but that we need to have our armed forces fully committed to conflict prevention, as they want to be and as they increasingly have the skills to be.

I want to give one or two examples of how successful conflict prevention can be, if it is got right. They are examples of the work of the United Nations Development Programme which, since 2002, has assisted fragile countries to build resilience by strengthening what the UNDP calls “infrastructures for peace”. I commend the work of the UNDP’s Chetan Kumar, who has shown how extraordinarily efficient and effective very small financial contributions can be in transforming difficult situations. Let me give some examples of the UNDP’s success.

In Ghana in December 2008, there were rising tensions between different regions. Chieftaincy-related conflicts in parts of the country and the discovery of oil led to new tensions as the country approached national elections. When the elections were held, there was the narrowest margin of votes recorded in an African election—only 50,000 votes separated the winner and the loser. With tensions rising still further, the National Peace Council of Ghana, an autonomous and statutory national body that was established with assistance from the UNDP, helped to mediate a peaceful political transition. As part of Ghana’s peace infrastructure or peace architecture, regional and district peace councils are also being established.

Then there is the example of Togo in 2005, which shows that all this is not past history; it is very recent history. There were about 250 deaths in the 2005 national elections. However, in 2010 the establishment of a platform for political dialogue prior to the national elections and the ability of civic actors to conduct a sustained peace campaign led to a reduction in tensions and to peaceful elections, as well as to a stable post-electoral period. A code of conduct for political parties and a public peace campaign were developed and implemented with UNDP assistance. Further development included consolidation of a national peace architecture as a priority in 2011.

In Timor, between 2007 and 2009 the peace process that had followed the establishment of East Timor as an independent state nearly collapsed, after a massive return of refugees and internally displaced persons. With UN assistance, a network of community mediators was established; the mediators were trained and deployed; and other conflict resolution efforts enabled the return and resettlement of 13,000 families by 2010. The Government there are now working with the UNDP to establish a new department for peace building so that the country has its own standing internal mediation system.

In Kyrgyzstan, the UNDP facilitated dialogue between civil society, the electoral commission and security agencies.

In Kenya just last year, there was a constitutional referendum without a single violent incident, in contrast to elections just three years previously when 1,500 people were killed and 300,000 displaced. I am very conscious that the Foreign Office Minister here today, who has responsibility for Africa, takes an active interest in these matters. One reason for what happened last year was that, in advance of the referendum, the UNDP provided support for national efforts to reach a political agreement on the new draft constitution and helped to implement an early warning and response system that prevented violent incidents from cropping up, and local peace committees were strengthened in all districts of the country.

I could go on with examples, but we do not have the time so I shall give just two illustrations of the cost-benefit, which is also a consideration in times of straitened finances. Kenya’s leading business association assessed economic losses from post-election violence in 2008 as being $3.6 billion. In contrast, the 2010 constitutional referendum, which was plagued by similar tensions, did not see any violence, and the supported prevention effort cost only about $5 million. In Kyrgyzstan, the recovery costs from the inter-ethnic violence in mid-2010 were estimated to be $71 million, but the regional UN efforts to restore political and inter-ethnic confidence cost approximately only $6 million. I could go on, but I think that people understand my point.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that in the examples he has given of UN funding and support the key is the local buy-in—local people arbitrating peace in their own countries? I am afraid that I cannot stay for the Minister’s response today, but perhaps the Government will consider doing as they do in the field of aid, and support local projects that are designed to resolve conflict as well as, of course, using military intervention where necessary in an immediate crisis.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. All the best evidence is that grass-roots initiatives that are long term, engage the village—and the tribes in a tribal community—and are led by local people rather than external agencies, with the support of the international community, are far more likely to be successful.

I want to put the matter in another context. There are various authoritative indicators of conflict around the world, including the International Crisis Group and the “Global Peace Index”, and they tell us something which, if we paused for a second, we would realise for ourselves: after a very welcome decline in the number of conflicts in the past few years there has been a recent increase in violence in the world. The point that I made at the beginning of my speech when I quoted from the article on the World Bank is that inter-state conflict is now not nearly as frequent as it was. The bigger problem is internal conflict, which is likely to increase because many places are afflicted by not just political and economic crises but environmental ones such as water shortages, and other effects of climate change.

The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and I have taken an interest in many countries where there has been internal conflict and civil war, and as long as there is increased pressure on food, water and housing supplies—the normal needs of a community for economic prosperity—it is more likely that tribal and racial tensions will grow. We therefore urgently need to see those environmental problems as a priority if we are to prevent conflict in many of the poorest parts of the world, because they are often the most likely to be afflicted.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. There are two examples of environmental or food-based conflict, one of which is Darfur. Although the situation there is complicated, many people have arrived in the area as environmental refugees as a result of desertification. In Kenya, and to some extent in Tanzania, many people are being pushed off their land because very wealthy western countries and corporations buy land for their own food production, thus impoverishing the poorest people in those countries who then end up in slums around Nairobi and the other major cities. That is a huge source of misery, poverty and conflict.

It is, and two other things strike me. For example, west Africa is very rich in natural resources, but the benefit of those resources has historically not gone to the local communities for community development because the resources, particularly the oil, have been taken out by international corporations and there has been abuse, with flaring and so on. In other parts of the world, there is enforced privatisation of natural resources—water, for example—as part of a World Bank or International Monetary Fund programme that has actually reduced the capacity of the community to develop in its own way.

I want to make just two other general points and then end with some questions. I do not want to set out the Government’s stall because the Minister is quite capable of doing that, and there is a good story to tell, but I want to push them to go further. The UK has been working very hard to bring its operations together across Departments, and we have the capacity to be one of the world leaders in conflict prevention. I encourage the Government, through the Minister, to go that extra mile and pick up some of my ideas. It has been put to me that we have 21st-century conflicts but 20th-century institutions. The best example of a case that I have been closely involved with in recent years is that of the Sri Lankan civil war, as it came to its end. In theory, the United Nations had the power to intervene, under the responsibility to protect, but it was completely paralysed and did absolutely nothing. The conflict went all the way, with all the implications that we now know. I sense that internationally, through the UN, and nationally we sometimes intervene too late, because we do not have the international levers that we can pull early.

Since the beginning of the current situation in Libya the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington has been raising the point that it is comparatively easy to intervene militarily. It is not so difficult to scramble together a military intervention, and it should be as easy to scramble together a conflict prevention mechanism, but it is not. We need to think about how we get the balance of decision making and priorities right, in our Government and in others. The people on the ground, especially in countries where there is repeated, periodic or cyclical conflict, know that it is jobs, justice and domestic security that are likely to give them the most secure future. An illustration that helps us easily to picture these things is that it is often better to respond to an illness by dealing with the early signs of infection than to wait for the epidemic. In the past, we have often responded to the epidemic rather than taking preventive action.

The right hon. Gentleman has hit on another key point in relation to the Arab world. Not just in Libya but in all the countries of the Arab spring, the degree of violence and the difficulty, even if things go well, of creating civil society, is due to the legacy of having supported tyrants rather than democratic organisations in those countries over many years. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that is a lesson that we, and all western Governments, need to learn?

I absolutely agree. There is so much, both academic and practical, that we should have already learnt. The age of the empires of the world mercifully is coming to an end, but there is still a view that that sort of intervention by force is, in the end, what we need to display as our effective international activity, even though all the evidence is that different sorts of interventions are now much more needed.

I am grateful to all those who have briefed us for this debate. It should really be a seminar rather than a debate. I commend Saferworld, which has supplied some very good material and I shall summarise its five points about the areas on which Governments should concentrate. First, it picks up the point made by Labour Members, namely that we need to understand the context and put it first, and that each context is different. Secondly, we have to put people at the heart of conflict prevention. Thirdly, we have to work cross-departmentally in Government. Fourthly, we have to work with our international partners. Fifthly, a crucial issue is the arms trade and the need to curb it—many of the poorest countries spend large parts of their funds on arms rather than on other things.

I also commend the work of PATRIR—the Peace Action, Training and Research Institute of Romania—and Kai Brand-Jacobsen, the director of its department of peace operations. Ministers and others will have seen its work. It has identified 22 lessons for country-level prevention, as well as lessons for international support and prevention efforts, improving effectiveness and preparedness, and identifying key gaps and challenges, and the way in which we can apply those from here.

I have, with the help of the officers of the all-party group, prepared some questions. I have given the Department notice of them, so I hope that they do not come as a frightening surprise to the Minister. I will then end with some key requests. It would be good for the Government to set out what they mean by conflict prevention and which programmes they are funding in which countries to prevent which conflicts—we would then have more transparency about the details of the Government commitment—and how they evaluate the effectiveness of those programmes. It would be helpful if the Government could regularly gather information from the existing data sets on work around the world and learn the lessons from it. It would be good if the Government would consider establishing an organisation similar to that in Washington DC, to study, educate and train in the field of peace building, covering all elements of policy, from grass-roots policy to international diplomacy in the voluntary, public and private sectors and the like.

What in-house training are members of the civil service and diplomatic service receiving on conflict prevention? Are we able to get the Commonwealth to do more? It is for ever looking for an effective role. As a big supporter of the Commonwealth, I think there is an opportunity for it to play a much more direct role in conflict resolution and prevention. In the case of Sri Lanka, it was a lamentable failure for a Commonwealth country to be engaged in such a situation. The Commonwealth Secretariat could work with the Government on the issues.

Would it be possible—I hope that the Minister will respond positively to this, although it is not just his decision—for the Government to agree to an annual opportunity to stocktake conflict prevention? I would like us to have an annual debate on the issue. We have annual debates on the armed services—the Royal Navy, the Army and the Air Force—and it is just as important that we have an annual opportunity to review conflict prevention in the world. It would be a strong signal marker of our collective wish as a Parliament and a Government.

Will the Minister tell us how much the Government spent last year on conflict prevention and on overseas military intervention, so that we can compare the two? Is there a cost-benefit analysis of those two forms of spending? Is there a way of projecting how the cost benefit would be helpful as we think, in these straitened economic times, about how we are going to spend our resources abroad? That would produce obvious answers in relation to where we ought to prioritise.

There has been growing cause for concern in Sudan in recent days, and now the Archbishop of Canterbury has expressed concern about the situation. Are we, in our overseas development work, supporting the civil organisations on the ground in such countries to help prevent conflict, rather than just going in and using more traditional responses?

Do the Government monitor the infrastructures for peace developments so that we can promote good practice in other places around the world? Following on from a point made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), are we learning the lessons from the past year of the Arab spring about engaging with local communities in the Arab world, as opposed to just dealing with the governance in some pretty unsavoury places, so that we are with the people preparing for the change? Are we making sure that it is local citizens who are leading such developments? This country’s education processes are also an issue. Will the Government consider adopting the same approach as that in the Department for International Development’s policy paper, “The engine of development”, to make sure that we always have stakeholder dialogue—I hate the word “stakeholder”—between key participants?

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe has missions in potentially troublesome places in the Balkans and eastern Europe. Can we work with it to go to other places that look as though they are at risk of conflict in the future? Can we get better co-operation between the OSCE and the European Union in enhancing common foreign and security policy?

What about the places—this has been one of my perpetual frustrations since I have been in this place—where there have been stalled peace processes? Cyprus, for example, has been on the agenda every year that I have been here. There has just been another round of talks, which do not appear to have moved anything. We should seek to move things on. In the end, Northern Ireland resolved its problems as much through grass-roots movements from the community, particularly those involving women, as it did through political forces from the top. Cyprus desperately needs, and would benefit from, the same. Finally, is there any capacity within Government to expand the resources of the new stabilisation unit and the new strategies that the Government have put in place?

I hope that that is a helpful short tour of the horizon. I hope that the Government will say that they will seek to build a more formal and systematic approach, based on best practice, across Government Departments, and that they will accept that we need to beef up our capacity to lead on conflict prevention around the world. I hope that they will see the stabilisation unit as something that prioritises not just stabilisation but conflict prevention. I think that that has been the lesson of Afghanistan. I hope that they will be honest about the gaps and the challenges and give us an opportunity of annual stocktaking. Finally, I have one suggestion. I am always wary of tokenistic titles, but as there are three Departments that have to work together—the Ministry of Defence as much as the others—it may be that the Government need to think about who is the lead Minister across Departments for making sure that there is a driven policy for integrating the policies.

It would be a commendable and good thing if the way in which we organised Government was seen to give as much priority to prevention as it does to defence and military matters. A minister with responsibility for conflict prevention in the world would be a way forward. Other countries are setting up departments of peace, rather than departments of war, and are realising that we need to shift from ministries of defence to ministries of peace. We may not be culturally ready for that yet, although many would welcome it, but we need to move in that direction. I hope that this debate will show that a growing group of people in this Parliament and in all the Parliaments of the democratic world want this move. There is now a network around the world.

I shall end with a plug. For those who want any more information, there is a website entitled www. I hope that this is the beginning of a debate that engages not just us but many others outside this place, and that the Government are ready to respond warmly.

I apologise to you, Mr Turner, and to the Minister, because I will have to leave at 10.30. The group of MPs who represent constituencies around Heathrow airport have secured a ministerial meeting about night flights. Heathrow is in my constituency and it has taken us a long time to set up the meeting, so I will have to attend it. I apologise for that. I mean no discourtesy to the Minister, and I will read his response in Hansard.

I want to follow on from the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes). I call him my right hon. Friend because we have worked together on this issue for a number of years. That does not mean that we have done so on an almost fortnightly basis—I do not send him stroppy letters saying that I will never speak to him again if he votes for a Government proposal—but we have worked closely on this issue over the years. Part of the genesis of this debate was a ten-minute rule Bill on establishing a ministry of peace that we sponsored some time ago—[Interruption.] I do not know why my phone is going off. I apologise, Mr Turner. I cannot turn the thing off. Sorry about that. The song is Bruno Mars, “I’d Catch a Grenade for You,” which is bizarrely appropriate. My phone is now switched off.

As I was saying, the genesis of this debate was a ten-minute rule Bill that we sponsored that called for a ministry of peace. The objective was to secure a debate on how we can make conflict prevention and resolution more central to Government policy making. My hon. Friends and I had a range of debates in this Chamber about different examples of conflict prevention around the world in southern Africa, Northern Ireland and elsewhere. We basically picked the brains of people who had worked on the ground. Kai Brand-Jacobsen from the Peace Action, Training and Research Institute of Romania is a good example of that, but there were others as well. As I said, we heard from people from southern Africa and people from Northern Ireland from all sides. Following on from that, we formed the all-party group on conflict issues, which has worked successfully on an all-party basis and has brought in a range of expertise.

The stimulus for this debate is the Government’s expected publication of policy papers on the development of conflict prevention. We want to influence the longer-term decisions about investment in this field. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark said that the debate is more like a seminar. I suggest to the Minister that it would be extremely helpful if we had a ministerial seminar to which we invited all-party group members and other stakeholders from interested parties and organisations that have helped to brief us for the debate. If necessary, that debate could be held according to Chatham House rules. That does not matter, as long as we can have a free and flowing discussion about where we go from here on this important subject.

When we had the original debate, we set out a number of key factors that needed to be put in place if we were to make conflict prevention and resolution an integral part of Government policy making. The first factor is obviously political will. The atmosphere has changed dramatically as a result of our experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya. There is much more of a political will desperately to seek conflict prevention solutions and resolution at the earliest opportunity. As my right hon. Friend said, during the original debate we argued that such an approach is a cost-effective mechanism of intervening. We have proved that point time and again. Therefore, there is political will on all sides to develop conflict prevention as an integral part of Government policy.

The second element is the need for structure within Government. Under the previous Government, we had a major breakthrough with the establishment of a conflict pool. Departments such as the Treasury, DFID, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence were brought together to work with each other on not just the disbursement of resources, but the development of expertise in Government and the investment of resources in concrete projects. There is a need to consider the structure of Government again. I am pleased that the Stabilisation Unit is in existence and will continue, but I note that Richard Teuten, formerly the head of the Stabilisation Unit, and Daniel Korski, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and former deputy head of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Unit, which evolved into the Stabilisation Unit, are recommending that we bring elements dealt within the FCO within the remit of the Stabilisation Unit. They also recommend that we review the structure within Government, so that it is strengthened and there is a more direct and authoritative lead within Government policy making.

I also welcome the suggestion that we have a named Minister dealing with the issue. I do not in any way wish to make the post grandiose but, of course, the Minister would be accountable to Parliament and would play a key role in co-ordinating other Departments. It is important symbolically to state that we are about conflict prevention and resolution, and that we give the matter such importance that a ministerial title is given to such work.

The other ingredients are obviously expertise and engagement, which have been mentioned. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark raised the issue of ensuring that we learn from experience elsewhere. We have argued for some time that there should be open and transparent access to such information within Government, and that we should establish a database of the experiences of conflict prevention and resolution across the world. That would feed into the ongoing debate about what works, what does not work and how we can learn those lessons.

We have been briefed in advance of this debate about the global peace-building strategies that are taking place, particularly in relation to 14P. That initiative ensures that civil society fully participates in the peace-building initiatives within countries and works with Government, across the world. We have given examples of the conferences that are planned in Ghana, Kenya and elsewhere. The Government may well want to consider the practices that are taking place as a result of that initiative and how the Government can add their weight and support to such programmes.

One of the other ingredients that we have suggested, which has come from the practices that have been demonstrably successful elsewhere, is the need to ensure that we have some structure for stakeholder engagement within this country. There should be some form of stakeholder panel through which we can draw in external expertise and advocates for peace within our society.

Just for the record, may I correct the hon. Gentleman? The organisation he is referring to is “I”4P—Interactions for Peace. I just want to ensure that, when people read the debate, they know what we are talking about.

That is what comes from reading it and hearing it. I was trying to work out what 14P stands for. I have read all the briefing documents and could not understand it. I thank my right hon. Friend for that—I am very grateful.

It is.

The key issue around the stakeholder panel is that it would give stakeholders the opportunity to advise the Government on what they need in terms of support for civil society, particularly in terms of investing in the studying of peace techniques. It is also important to train peace-builders—that has happened elsewhere, but less so in this country—who can work on the ground, engage in peace initiatives around the world and come back and teach us the lessons we can learn as a result of that.

A further element is obviously the ingredient that relates to resources. I am grateful to the Government for maintaining the existing level of resources and the various initiatives that the previous Government pursued, which is a result of our winning the argument on the cost-effectiveness of that investment. As part of the Government’s consultation on future policy, it would be helpful if we talked to others about the real level of resources required in the future, particularly on the issues that my right hon. Friend has identified: the threat of climate change and whether that will result in further conflicts, and the issues around the continuing struggle for limited natural resources. Those matters are not necessarily always related to climate change itself. That would give us the opportunity to build up a level of information and knowledge that we can discuss with the Treasury and in Government more widely on behalf of the Minister who will eventually be responsible for conflict prevention. We need to argue our corner and ensure that a stable supply of resources is put into this field over time.

A further element is accountability. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark mentioned parliamentary accountability. It is absolutely critical that we come back here regularly and have parliamentary debates on the matter. It would be more valuable if that were instituted by the Government in Government time, because that would demonstrate the seriousness of the Government’s commitment to this field of activity. The onus is on the Government and all of us to encourage a wider stakeholder debate and to take the debate on our role in conflict prevention and resolution to the country. In that way, we can engender more support within our communities for investment in this field. I do not want to get into the debate we have had with DFID about spending more of our resources in this country than abroad, but we must win the argument again: investment in conflict resolution and prevention is in the interests of us all and, in the long term, will save resources for our country as well.

More specifically, one element that we have always emphasised in debate is that we will further the cause of conflict prevention and resolution, and of peace overall, if we tackle the issue of the arms trade and the role of our country in it. The Government have a critical role to play in the negotiations for the next UN arms trade treaty in 2012. I would welcome the Government’s undertaking to have a full and thorough debate in Parliament and the wider community about how to construct that treaty so that we can engender support for it across the globe, but in this country in particular. That means, if we are to play our full role in combating conflicts resulting from the proliferation of weapons throughout the world, acknowledging that this country’s involvement in the arms trade must be reduced and eventually eliminated. That would throw up a whole range of issues—the impact on jobs and employment—which means we must have a serious discussion about conversion policies, allowing real arguments to stand up for those individuals and communities currently dependent on the arms trade.

An urgent matter at the moment is what is happening to the Nuba people in Sudan. In my constituency is a group called the Nuba Democratic Forum, consisting of refugees from that area of the world who have come to this country and have campaigned consistently over a number of years to ensure that the Nuba people can at least live in peace and at some level of decency if not prosperity. As the Minister is aware, the Sudanese Government have sent troops in, and there has been heavy artillery and aerial bombardment in the Nuba mountains, resulting in hundreds of thousands of people being displaced. The word coming back to families in my constituency is of appalling suffering, with a lack of water, food and shelter. I urge the Government to step up the application of pressure on the Sudanese Government, working with the US and through international bodies, to end the conflict and now, just as importantly, to secure humanitarian aid and access to it in that area. Although the world’s attention is not on the area at the moment, it will be soon because of the immense human suffering that will be played out if we do not act swiftly.

A wider debate could be had on conflict prevention and resolution, which is why I would welcome a ministerial seminar. Climate change has an impact and—as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) said—globalisation and the continuing exploitation of the developing world are key. In addition, a new focus which we need to discuss is the use of sovereign funds in the developing world, to extract natural resources and to exploit individual communities. If we do not address that major agenda, it will be a new source of conflict and division in society, and globally.

Britain is known for its military and imperial history. We now have a real opportunity for Britain to be great again; it could be great as a world leader in securing peace. The development of Government policy—in cross-party partnership—on conflict prevention and resolution could make a major contribution to enhancing the status of this country in the eyes of the world as a peace-builder, rather than as a country that engages in wars and conflicts.

Thank you for calling me so early, Mr Turner.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) for proposing this debate, which is important, timely and supported by what I might call a broad coalition. The contribution of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) was welcome as well.

My right hon. Friend was right to refer to the BBC Online article, which pointed out the economics of conflict. In addition, the Secretary of State recently quoted Professor Paul Collier from Oxford university, who described conflict as “development in reverse”, and he cited some astonishing statistics:

“a civil war is estimated to cost a low income country an average of about 64 billion US dollars. In other words, the cost of a single conflict is more than half of the value of annual development aid worldwide.”

He also pointed out that

“the higher a country’s GDP per capita, the lower the risk of internal war. A typical post-conflict country with no economic growth has a 42% risk of returning to conflict within ten years. But with 10% growth, the risk declines to 29%.”

The issues of development and conflict are intertwined.

That was also my experience when working for Oxfam for some years. We saw conflict adding to poverty and destroying infrastructure in health, education and transport, often driving the most skilled people in a country into exile or displacement, or getting them killed, and disrupting the education, employment and training of everyone else. Conflict disrupts economies, normal politics and civil society, it wrecks agriculture and it destroys the ability of countries to support themselves. Clearly, we have common ground in that any money spent or effort made by the Government and other Governments internationally to prevent conflict must be well done.

Part of the question concerns how the money is spent. Most obvious is peacekeeping, but in one sense that is intervention at the point of failure. In effect, events have developed so far that we need soldiers on the ground and enormous effort to retrieve a situation. Other things help to fuel a conflict that is potential or just breaking out, and the arms trade is the single most important one. We must also look deeper, at the sources of tension and conflict, which are commonly social, religious, ethnic and political. Increasingly, especially with the impact of climate change, conflict will be over resources. I must echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, who talked about our recent trip to Israel and Palestine, where we can see every single one of those different elements of conflict fuelling each other and adding to a toxic mix, making us most concerned for the future of that region.

I therefore very much welcome the Government’s mapping out an increasing amount of spending in what is called the conflict pool budget, which has risen from £229 million last year to £256 million this year, and will reach £309 million by 2014-15. Part of the conflict pool—about £76 million—is devoted to peacekeeping. On top of that, a separate peacekeeping budget now consists of £374 million, so something like two thirds of what is being spent annually by the Government goes on peacekeeping. Yet that, in a sense, is intervention at the point of failure, so perhaps we need to look at how much of the focus ought to be on anticipating and preventing conflict in the first place.

Even if we break down the remaining money in the conflict pool, which is spent on conflict resolution, discretionary peacekeeping—yet more peacekeeping—and stabilisation activities, including the excellent work, which I strongly commend, of the cross-departmental Stabilisation Unit, the countries on which that money is focused are a list of war zones and former war zones: Afghanistan, Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and, slightly more distant, Lebanon and Cyprus. That is right because, as discussed, the risk of recurrence is high in regions that have already had conflict, but if we are to have a theme of anticipation and prevention, perhaps there is room for exploring where else the strategy needs to go.

My noble friend Lord Ashdown’s recent report on humanitarian aid and assistance emphasised the importance of building anticipation and resilience before emergencies strike. We need the same approach, if possible, in conflict prevention. We need the tools to build resilience to conflict. I would like my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark to commend Saferworld’s briefing on this debate to Ministers, including its points about emphasising the context of each country, as well as the point made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) about focusing conflict prevention efforts strongly on people’s experience.

Saferworld made those good points, and I would add that we should look for countries in which there is systematic denial of human rights and democracy, which is often the source of conflict. In his recent address to both Houses of Parliament, President Obama drew an interesting lesson from the experience of the Arab spring, which was exactly right. He pointed out that the west collectively had been supporting some tyrannical regimes that had given the impression of being stable. He said that

“repression offers only the false promise of stability”,

and that it puts a lid on conflict and often suppresses legitimate democratic, ethnic, political and even religious aspirations to the point where there is eventually an explosion. It would be good if the Government looked at a slightly more anticipatory approach with an eye on human rights and democracy.

It is excellent that the Government are developing the so-called BSOS, the building stability overseas strategy, and we must build into it and pay particular attention to institution-building, human rights, and particularly the rights of minorities and marginalised groups who are not part of the mainstream in each society. We need an anticipatory approach.

It is also excellent that in BSOS and many other policy areas that I mentioned we see three Departments—the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development —working closely together. Ministers should be commended on the extent to which there is a cross-departmental approach to many of the issues. Clearly, when there is an opportunity to join up, that is more effective and often more cost-effective. The one thing I would add is that the same lesson also applies at European level, and if we can join up and co-ordinate our stabilisation efforts with other European countries and, indeed, the European Union as a whole, we may have an even more effective and cost-effective approach. Nowhere is that more true than in the case of the arms trade, where an international approach is necessary.

It is right that the Government are pressing on towards an arms control treaty, which is vital, but it is also important to look at what environmentalists might call domestic effort. The steps that the Government have already taken are welcome in the wake of the Arab spring, or the Arab awakening as some people are now calling it. They have instituted a review of their arms export licences, and have already revoked 160. The list of licences that had been issued—sadly, that was under the previous Labour Government—is a cautionary tale. Although human rights and repression were supposed to be part of the criteria, we sold arms to almost every regime in the middle east, including the former regime in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. We were selling not just small arms, parts or communications technology, but tear gas, and something described as crowd control ammunition. I cannot conceive how that could be used peacefully and democratically.

I strongly welcome the revocations, and I urge the Foreign Office to consider making the current review of the arms control and the arms trade licence regime as robust as possible. It has been done in a hurry, and although it was right to do it quickly in response to events, I would welcome a more inclusive and wider review. Various right hon. and hon. Members have made the point that if we are to prevent conflict, we need an anticipatory approach. Many good suggestions have been made during the debate for enhancing the role and profile of conflict prevention, and there is a real opportunity for the coalition to show great leadership and to gain widespread support.

I will be brief to allow the Minister and the Opposition Front Bench spokesman sufficient time to respond to this debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) on securing it. It is crucial, and I am sorry that more Members are not here to take part in it. I recognise that we have an annual debate in this Chamber on human rights, when the Foreign Office usually responds to the report on human rights from the Foreign Affairs Committee. That is an important debate, and this one is equally important. Perhaps we should think in terms of an annual three-hour debate on this subject. I support the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and others, and the suggestion of a seminar arranged through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on conflict prevention and how we go about it.

The debate coincides with refugee week. Many of us have been at events in our constituencies and communities commemorating or celebrating refugee week. Indeed, I was at an enormous event in Islington town hall yesterday with hundreds of people from all sorts of communities who have made their home in this country and made an enormous contribution to our society. We should also reflect on the tens of thousands—nay, millions—of refugees throughout the world whose lives have been wasted away in refugee camps and whose brilliance and opportunity are denied to them and to the rest of us by a lifetime in such camps. Conflicts may end with a deal or treaty, but the consequences continue for a long time. People have been in Palestinian refugee camps for 60 years, and in other camps for a very long time. It is a massive waste of human resources.

I want to make three essential points about the major causes of conflict. One is poverty. Poverty, inequality and injustice are fundamental to many of the present conflicts. As the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) said, many regimes in north Africa and the middle east were seen as stable, efficient and effective, but they were often presiding over a police state with massive youth poverty and unemployment. The resentment eventually boiled up to the Arab spring, which has not yet been played out. It could go in all sorts of directions, and some will not be nice or pretty. That is the effect of the pressure cooker of denying millions of young people the opportunity to develop themselves and their lives.

The second cause of conflict is natural resources. The United States made itself wealthy from exploitation of its natural resources, in exactly the same way as in the 18th and 19th centuries European powers, particularly Britain, France and Germany, made themselves powerful from exploitation of their natural resources. Those natural resources were quickly exploited, and worked out, and thus came empire to obtain resources from elsewhere. In many ways, that is what led to the first world war. There was competition between France and Britain with Germany and other powers.

The issue of resources has not gone away. The massive interest in Africa—it is not always a benign interest—by every industrial power at the moment is largely about its enormous untapped natural resources. Indeed, the interest in Afghanistan is far from benign, with China, Russia, the United States and Europe all eyeing up its massive mineral resources.

The third cause of conflict that has a massive effect on people’s lives is the lack of effective democratic government and institutions in so many societies, where there is no opportunity for poorer people to obtain justice and self-expression, and no independent and effective legal system that can redress high levels of human rights abuse. Support for the building of governmental, institutional and educational capacity is important.

As the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark pointed out, it is tempting to talk about every conflict in the world. I shall not do that; I will just mention a couple. The first conflict is that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Congo gained its independence in 1961, having been the most abused colonial territory ever in history, I think. I am talking about the way in which Leopold and later the Belgian Government administered the Congo, with slavery, decapitation, humiliation, torture—just about everything appalling possible. “King Leopold’s Ghost” is a book that everyone should read.

As I said, the Congo gained its independence in 1961. Its institutions were always weak. The skilled classes, the Belgians, left immediately. The power of the Government to administer the country was very limited. It quickly became a conflict between mineral companies and the military as to who would control the Congo. That still goes on. The institutions are still very weak. Militia, working on behalf of or in concert with mining interests, are killing people. Tens of thousands of raped and abused women survive in refugee camps in the east of the country. Kinshasa is beset by homeless victims of the war, mainly young boys and girls, who are trying to survive. It is a disastrous history. Although it is potentially very wealthy, we all have a responsibility for what has happened in the Congo and we all have an interest in ensuring that there is justice and peace in the future in the Congo; otherwise, the misery and waste of resources will go on and the lives of so many people will be blighted.

The second conflict—a long way away—is that involving central America and Guatemala. It came out of injustice, poverty and the civil wars of the 1980s, often inspired by outside interests, particularly oligarchs who wanted to hang on to power, and the United States, which wanted to hang on to the military interests in that country. The most abused people were the indigenous non Spanish-speaking people. That resulted in the civil wars. There was a peace resolution move in the 1990s. Welcome as it was, it did not result necessarily in peace. It resulted in an end to the conflict in a sense between actors on behalf of the state or of other forces. It has now morphed into systematic criminal violence and abuse of people’s rights, particularly abuse of indigenous people’s rights, which means that there are many people living in desperate poverty who are, in effect, refugees from their own homes in a conflict zone. Again, the lack of justice, democracy and sufficient capacity has left the country in that situation.

What do we do about this? We must recognise that our economic policies—the economic policies of grabbing resources and the economic policies of western countries buying up large amounts of land, particularly in east Africa, to grow food for themselves while denying food to the local people—will be a cause of future conflict.

One of the concerns that certainly I and perhaps many other hon. Members have relates to the insatiable demand of China for the world’s resources. Today’s press underlines again the fact that China’s demand is outstripping supply. Does the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) agree that China’s emergence as a world power causes great concern for Africa in particular, but also for other parts of the world?

I absolutely agree. In a sense, the way in which Africa is suffering from Chinese attention at the moment is little different from what the European powers were doing in the 19th and 20th centuries—I am thinking of the grab of resources. China’s economy is unsustainable in the sense that it is growing far too fast and taking far too many resources from elsewhere in the world. That is fuelling an environmental disaster as well as a supply disaster in relation to so many other things. There has to be a coming together of world economic powers to control these things.

This debate is important. The proposals made by Saferworld on conflict resolution and capacity building and the work that it has done are very welcome. I hope that the Minister will tell us how the Government’s policy on this is developing and particularly whether he is prepared to organise a seminar so that we can start to build the idea that we remove ourselves from armed conflict and instead bring about capacity building.

I will finish on this point. This morning, the Ministry of Defence is saying that it can no longer afford the conflict in Libya. We cannot afford conflicts. We cannot afford the level of arms expenditure that we are spending. What we can afford in this world is justice and peace. That means sharing. It means a slightly different approach to the world’s issues from the one that we are adopting at present.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) on securing this very important debate and the other hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber who participated in it. I refer the House to my relevant entries in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I congratulate the all-party group on conflict issues on its work, which has been discussed during the debate. From the Labour Front Bench, I very much support the suggestion of an annual debate in the House on conflict issues and conflict prevention and I welcome the suggestion of a seminar organised by the Foreign Office, which was made by a number of hon. Members.

I want to reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said about the current crisis in Sudan. After decades of conflict in that country, the comprehensive peace agreement—Britain played a central part in bringing that about—was designed to bring an end to the civil war and to prevent a return to conflict. As my hon. Friend graphically described, we have seen in recent weeks reports of up to 500,000 people being displaced as a result of fighting between the Sudanese armed forces and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and rebel groups in South Kordofan. That is a real and pressing example of the issues that we are dealing with in the debate. I will return to the issue of Sudan at the end of my speech.

The right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark referred to the responsibility to protect. That is a very important principle, and we should remind ourselves where it came from. It came out of the horror of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. The concept was developed by Roméo Dallaire, who was the UN commander in Rwanda in 1994. He is now a Liberal Senator in Canada, and Canada was at the forefront of the move for the UN to adopt that principle. A great deal of further work needs to be done to turn what is a fine principle in theory into something that can be made to work by the institutions of the world today.

As the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) said, the Government will soon announce their building security overseas strategy. Today’s debate gives us an opportunity to consider some of the challenges and opportunities and to discuss the requirements of that pending strategy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) spoke about the causes of conflict. He rightly placed poverty and inequality at the heart of those causes. Therefore, development is clearly a central way in which we can prevent conflicts. I am very proud of the record of the previous, Labour Government in setting up the Department for International Development and starting us on the path towards finally achieving the 0.7% requirement. I welcome the present Government’s reaffirmation of that commitment. It is clearly vital that we all make the case for it in the face of the onslaught from sections of the media opposing that very important commitment, of which we as a country can be proud.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North spoke about the Congo. Last month, I had the opportunity to visit the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the first time and also to visit Rwanda with the all-party group on the great lakes region of Africa. The aim was to learn more about some of the challenges that my hon. Friend described. A feature of our growing aid programme is that the United Kingdom is an increasingly important contributor in that country. Some of the work that DFID is doing there is exactly the type of work that should prevent conflict in the future. It involves reconciliation and disarmament; addressing some of the horrific tales of rape and gender-based violence to which my hon. Friend referred; and dealing with the challenges in relation to natural resources. It also relates to how we can promote women’s participation. One of the most striking features of how we deal with conflict issues is that women need to be at the centre of the solutions, because women have so often been the victims of some of the worst extremes in the conflicts to which hon. Members have referred.

Others have described the importance of the conflict prevention pool, which the previous Labour Government created in 2009. I welcome the fact that the present Government have maintained it and, indeed, given a commitment despite cuts elsewhere to increase spending from £229 million—the figure for the previous financial year—to more than £300 million by the end of this Parliament.

The other place recently debated soft power, and the concept is clearly of central relevance if we are to prevent conflicts in the future. I am keen to hear from the Minister what role the Government see institutions such as the British Council and the BBC World Service playing in the promotion of conflict prevention tools. In February, I visited Jerusalem as part of a visit to Israel and the west bank, and I learned of the excellent work that the British Council is supporting with the Palestinian Authority to promote English language training throughout the west bank. I also met the brilliant organisation OneVoice and talked to young Palestinians in Nablus and young Israelis in Tel Aviv who were working together to build the two-state solution to which this country is committed, but which seems such a distant prospect.

Another important innovation in recent years has been the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, whose work I have seen in a number of countries. The foundation grew out of the end of the cold war and the need to support the development of democracy in central and eastern Europe. The Foreign Secretary has spoken about the foundation’s important role in supporting the development of democracy and human rights in the Arab world, and I would be interested to hear from the Minister what plans there are for the foundation in terms of preventing future conflicts.

One issue that has not been addressed is the importance of international justice in preventing conflict. The creation of the International Criminal Court has been an important achievement in recent years. Pursuing prosecutions at an international level of those accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide can send a strong deterrent signal and prevent such acts from happening in the future. In Sudan, ICC indictments are currently directed at the current President, al-Bashir, as well as at Ahmad Harun and Ali Abd al-Rahman, who have so far evaded trial. What are the Government doing to support the indictment process so that a real emphasis can be placed on prosecution as a conflict prevention tool?

Is the Minister aware of the gap in the international legal system in terms of the prosecution of suspects accused of crimes against humanity? I would like to draw hon. Members’ attention to the work of the crimes against humanity initiative at the Whitney R Harris World Law Institute at Washington university, which seeks to address that gap. Currently, only 55 countries have domestic legislation covering prosecution for crimes against humanity, compared with more than 140 countries that have domestic laws against genocide and torture. Although the ICC is important, it has a narrow remit and it is limited by the number of countries that have not signed up to it. Will the Minister set out the Government’s thinking on the proposal to adopt an international convention on crimes against humanity?

Several hon. Members have emphasised the importance of arms control, and I support what they said. The hon. Member for Cheltenham rightly highlighted the serious shortcomings in the UK’s export licensing policy, which have been exposed by events in the middle east and north Africa. I welcome the Government’s decision to review arms export licensing policy, and I look forward to seeing the results shortly. What discussions have the Government had, however, on replicating that review at European level and, most importantly, globally? We can do a lot through domestic and European Union controls, but as my hon. Friends have said, we need global progress. The then Foreign Secretary under the previous Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband), lobbied vigorously for commitments to a binding and comprehensive arms trade treaty. Since taking office, the present Government have sent delegations to the UN’s preparatory committee on the treaty. Will the Minister update us on the progress that has been made towards securing the goal of a binding and effective treaty?

Finally, I return to the issue that I started with: the crisis in the Nuba region of Sudan. In the past 24 hours, we have heard that the leaders of the north and south struck an agreement in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, yesterday, and I cautiously welcome that. The agreement allows for the demilitarisation of Abyei and proposes a contingent of Ethiopian peacekeepers. Will the Minister outline the Government’s response to this latest development and their strategy for addressing the deep-rooted crisis in South Kordofan? On the basis of our experience in Darfur, there are real questions about the commitment of the al-Bashir regime in Khartoum to a genuine peace and reconciliation process. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington said, there are immediate and pressing concerns about humanitarian access to the region. There is a fear that we find it hard to concentrate on a number of different crises at the same time. The Arab spring has rightly focused our attention, but the international community has perhaps taken its eye off the ball in Sudan. Let us hope that the agreement in Addis Ababa signals a positive move forward, but we need some serious reassurances if we are to accept that that is the case.

Again, I congratulate the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark on securing this important and wide-ranging debate. I echo what colleagues on both sides have said: clearly, it is better to prevent conflict than to end up spending large amounts dealing with its consequences. I look forward to the Minister’s response to the points raised in the debate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) for securing this important debate on the key issue of how we prevent conflict. I also congratulate him on the work that he has done with the all-party group on conflict issues, and I congratulate colleagues who have supported its work; it is one of the most important groups in Parliament.

Upstream engagement is essential to help us tackle the underlying causes of conflict before violent and costly flashpoints are reached. The Government have made their work on conflict prevention a key priority. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary’s announcement of the extension of our network of missions, particularly in Africa and central Asia, bears out our determination to increase our activity and widen our footprint in many areas.

Conflict does, of course, matter. More than 1.5 billion people live in fragile and conflict-affected states or in countries with high levels of criminal violence. Conflict and violence deprive millions of their basic rights to life and security. The economic consequences of conflict for poor countries are enormous: an average civil war—if there is ever such a thing—costs a developing country 30 years of GDP growth. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) said, nine of the 10 poorest countries in the world are fragile states. Not a single fragile or conflict-affected country has yet achieved a single millennium development goal.

Neighbouring countries and wider regions are often destabilised by the flow of small arms, light weapons, mercenary groups and displaced people that conflicts can produce. Five countries, all of which are in the midst of conflict, produced 60% of the world’s refugees in 2009. Crime and instability also provide fertile soil for radicalisation and a recruitment ground for terrorist groups.

Short-term lulls in violence can mask the root causes of conflict. Since 2000, nine out of 10 new conflicts have been relapses, as fragile countries have fallen back into war. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark made that point and referred to the recent World Bank report. Climate change and resource scarcity are also likely to increase the pressures on fragile countries, mainly in a band running from west Africa, through the Sahel and the horn of Africa and up to west and central Asia.

The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) referred to some of the drivers of conflict. He pointed out poverty as being one of the obvious ones. He mentioned natural resources and the clamour and demand for those resources, and the pressure that that creates. I refer him to the work that we are doing with the Kimberley process on conflict diamonds, because now about 90% of all rough diamonds are within that process. We must go further, particularly in respect of Marange in Zimbabwe.

The hon. Member for Islington North also mentioned the pertinent point of lack of proper governance, which in turn leads to the lack of basic freedoms and rights. He referred, as indeed did the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nor should we ignore the continuing risk of state-on-state conflict in some regions. The causes of such conflicts are often similar to those within states and similar support and interventions are often required by the international community. When seeking to prevent conflicts through early engagement upstream, we must make sure that we emphasise the need to protect innocent civilians from the effects of conflict, paying particular attention to the most vulnerable groups, such as women and children. We should remember that no lasting peace can be achieved after conflict unless the needs of women are met: not only justice for the victims of crimes of war, but their active involvement in creating a society in which their rights are respected and their voices heard.

We need to acknowledge that we will not always be able to prevent conflict. Episodes of political change are often sudden, turbulent, violent and contested, as we see today in north Africa and the middle east. They may generate risks for the UK, affecting our security and prosperity and our ability to promote British values. When such rapid change occurs, the UK needs to be able to take swift targeted action and build popular confidence in positive outcomes, as we are doing in Libya, and as we are working towards doing in other countries. The evidence shows that achieving lasting change takes time. We need to be prepared to stay engaged and help to build strong and legitimate institutions—the best defence against countries falling back into conflict—as we are doing in Afghanistan.

The national security strategy identified shaping a stable world as a core objective for the Government, to reduce the likelihood of threats affecting the UK or our direct interests overseas. The strategic defence and security review made a commitment that we would reduce such threats by tackling them at source. Our response to the Arab spring has demonstrated the Government’s commitment to engaging in places at risk of instability. However, we cannot achieve success on our own. We will work in partnership with others on prevention, with the same intensity as we do in response. That will require a greater investment of our diplomatic and influencing efforts, in particular with emerging global and regional powers such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, and with influential Commonwealth partners—because the Commonwealth is incredibly important also.

Similarly, we will identify where and how we can work better through the EU, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and NATO on prevention and crisis management. Recent events, for example in Côte d'lvoire, have shown that the UN is willing, when appropriate, to take a more robust approach. We will actively engage with other regional groupings, such as the African Union. For example, we are exploring opportunities for investment in AU civilian capabilities to support South Sudan. We must also be realistic about the pace of change, providing predictable support over the long run, taking risks and accepting some failures in order to secure transformational results.

I agree with the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby: the British Council has an important role to play, as indeed do the BBC World Service and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. I would like the British Council to be more flexible, and to be able to surge its activities. A good example is that it has large operations in countries such as Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria, but nothing at the moment in Côte d'lvoire. That is a country that has come out of appalling civil war, but is now moving promisingly towards peace-building and stability. There could well be an important role for the British Council.

Our response to the challenges is threefold. First, we need to increase our investment in upstream conflict prevention, to tackle the root causes of conflict to build longer-term and more sustainable peace. I support the idea put forward by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) of a ministerial seminar with all the parties; it makes sense. The prevention of conflict is helped significantly in countries with inclusive political settlements and strong legitimate institutions that provide civilians with security, justice, economic opportunity and jobs. Conversely, countries with weak government, inequality, social exclusion, uncertain rule of law, and poor control of corruption are significantly more likely to fall into civil war.

In line with the SDSR the Government will invest more in conflict prevention. We have announced an increase in the conflict pool’s programme resources over the course of the next spending review period from £229 million in the last financial year to £309 million by 2014-15. As part of that, we will refocus the Stabilisation Unit to do more work upstream. Also, by 2014-15 we will increase to 30% the proportion of UK overseas development assistance that supports conflict and fragile states.

As to early warning and early response, no one predicted the current crisis in the middle east, or that it would start in Tunisia. It is unlikely that anyone could have done, but we must become better at systematically spotting which states are at risk, for example as a result of unemployment or political exclusion, and where shocks, such as food and fuel price hikes or unrest elsewhere in the region, may generate instability. The middle east and north Africa conflict pool programme supports a number of key projects. Priority countries will include Iraq, the occupied Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Yemen.

I want to say something about Sudan and South Sudan, because as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby pointed out, we have put great emphasis on it in the past few months. Indeed, my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development will hopefully be going to Juba on 9 July to witness the birth of a new country. However, I share the dismay and great fear of the hon. Gentleman about what has been happening in Abyei, South Kordofan and the Blue Nile State, and the attacks on south Unity State. Time is obviously running out fast. With less than a month until the secession of South Sudan, we urge both north and south to resolve the outstanding issues under the comprehensive peace agreement—particularly the status of Abyei, but also border demarcation and the sharing of oil revenue. I welcome yesterday’s important announcement that the parties have signed up to the Abyei interim agreement. There is obviously a long way to go in rebuilding trust and good will, but it is essential that that good will and the determination to make the CPA work should be established in the next few days and weeks.

I want quickly to answer the questions of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark. Do we have a strategy? We do indeed. Are we going to learn lessons? Yes, we certainly will. Are we going to look at the idea of the United States Institute for Peace, in Washington? We currently do the same things with a different number of structures—using Government operational staff, policy writers, lesson learners, planners and different think-tanks. The right hon. Gentleman also asked how much we spent on conflict prevention last year. We spent more than £600 million on peacekeeping and conflict prevention through the tri-departmental conflict pool. Our approach to conflict accepts that defence capability and conflict prevention work hand in hand together.

My right hon. Friend asked about monitoring on the ground, and we will certainly make sure that that happens. As to the lessons of the Arab spring, we will of course learn them. The Arab partnership works with those in the region who want to put the building blocks of democracy in place, underpinned by vibrant economies. The right hon. Gentleman also asked whether the Ministry of Defence—which of course was once the War Office—could become the Peace Department. He ought to take that up with the MOD, but I note his ideas on that.

On the matter of the arms trade, several hon. Members, including, I think, the hon. Members for Hayes and Harlington and for Liverpool, West Derby, talked about the arms trade treaty. I assure right hon. and hon. Members that we are working with the EU in helping to develop and deliver member states’ objectives for a series of EU-sponsored ATT seminars. Indeed, we take review and revocation of arms export licences very seriously.

We have a long way to go, but across Government we are establishing co-ordination. We do not want to be just one of the world leaders: we want to be the world leader in making an impact in this vital area.