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UN General Assembly September 2023

Volume 833: debated on Wednesday 18 October 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the outcomes of the High-Level Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly held in September 2023.

My Lords, high-level week was a critical collective moment to tackle the growing interconnected challenges that we face by listening to the concerns of our partners, particularly in the developing world. We saw important progress made to accelerate delivery of the sustainable development goals. Importantly, the world also heard President Zelensky make the case for a just and sustainable peace in Ukraine, and the UK Government, alongside partners, led in broadening the vital international conversation on artificial intelligence.

I thank the noble Lord the Minister for his Answer and I look forward to the publication of the White Paper, which I understand is planned for November, on the sustainable development goals. Can I ask more widely? This is perhaps directly related to the non-attendance of our own Prime Minister but also a number of other national leaders around the world—indicating, I think, a feeling of impotence at the moment on the ability of the United Nations to influence the conflicts that we see, and the persecution and violence against individuals in so many countries. Given the failure of the international community to protect civilians in Syria, Sudan, Ethiopia, Ukraine and most recently, of course, Israel and Gaza over recent years, does the UK now recognise that there is a need for fundamental reform of an institution that is still built around the outcome of the Second World War and is not fit for the challenges and conflicts of the 21st century? Will the Government set out at some point their intentions to take a lead in that debate?

My Lords, on the question of attendance, there was high-level attendance from the United Kingdom, led by the Deputy Prime Minister. As the noble Lord may well be aware, it is not the first time that has happened and it is not uncommon. The Deputy Prime Minister led the delegations in 2010 and 2013, and the Foreign Secretary did so between 2001 and 2004 and in 2006 and 2007.

The important element was the discussions and some of the outcomes. The noble Lord is right that conflicts persist around the world. I argue that we are seeing a record number of conflicts around the world, certainly in my time as a Minister. There is a need for early intervention and prevention but also engagement and conflict mediation. The structures are there but they need reform, and the United Kingdom has been at the forefront of that, including supporting Secretary-General Guterres’s common agenda for the future. It is important that we get the sustainable development goals back on track, because they are important to deliver. When you see progress being made there, it needs not just the focus of one country or two countries but a collective unity to ensure that we meet the challenges we currently face.

My Lords, the SDGs are a vital agenda that, it was agreed, would be completed in 2030. World Food Day was on Monday, and it is a reminder that conflict and climate change threaten the progress that we have made and that this country has led on. The global food summit being held on 20 November is a chance to put this back in the leadership race and make sure that other countries take seriously the nutrition challenge, which is a multiplier in delivering on the SDGs. Can the Minister tell us that he will work with other Governments to ensure that next year’s Nutrition for Growth summit, which is scheduled to be in Paris, will be an opportunity to put things back on track so that we are able to deliver that 2030 agenda?

My Lords, I recognise the important role the noble Lord plays on this important issue. I agree with him on the SDGs; only 15% of the current SDG targets for 2030 are on track. Many have gone into reverse or stalled. Therefore, they require those important commitments.

I agree with the noble Lord on the food security summit, and the UK delegation highlighted hunger during high-level week. The UK has previously hosted the global food security summit and we are focused on delivering those important outcomes. I know the noble Lord agrees with me on this. Summits alone do not deliver outcomes. We have COP 28 coming up and we know the climate challenges. It requires promises and commitments that have been made to be fulfilled, particularly for countries that cannot help themselves. It is important that we stand up and help them.

My Lords, will my noble friend remind the House of the Government’s key priorities for the reform of the United Nations organisations? As the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, reminded us, they have been in their present form since the Second World War.

My noble friend is right to bring focus to that. One practical example is the current status of the UN Security Council, which was built on the pillars of the post-Second World War settlement. We have seen the Security Council not working effectively, particularly as one P5 member—namely, Russia—has interjected quite directly on its illegal war against Ukraine, a founding member of the United Nations. We need reform to reflect the global dynamic of the world today. There are many reforms. The rules-based system needs reform on how we interject when natural disasters hit different parts of the world, for example. These rules were made more than 40 years ago. They need reform to reflect the modern world we live in.

The main reason we are off track with the goal on poverty, as well as the others the Minister referred to, is that the richest nations on earth are not making the contributions they said they would, including the United Kingdom with its unlawful ODA cut. As the Independent Commission for Aid Impact highlighted in its recent report, the UK provided £3.3 billion for multilateral ODA in 2022, but £3.7 billion was spent within the United Kingdom on refugee costs. Will the Minister agree with me that official development assistance for the world’s poorest should be spent overseas and not here in the UK?

My Lords, I agree with the principle the noble Lord articulates, but he will be aware that it is within the ODA rules. The reduction we had to make was reflective of the challenges that the United Kingdom is facing, as all countries are. We remain one of the largest donors when it comes to ODA. It is also right that, as the United Kingdom has done with Ukraine and other conflicts around the world, we look to support those seeking protection here in the United Kingdom. It is within the rules to spend on that within that first 12-month period. He will know that my right honourable friend Andrew Mitchell, the Minister for Development, is very seized of the importance of ODA spend globally. That is why the White Paper referred to earlier will also define our future way on ODA spending and our priorities in the years to come.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, when approaching the issue of UN reform—and I agree with both him and the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, that reform is needed—it is probably wise to approach this in an incremental way and not to try to fashion together one single, overall package? In the light of the state of the world at the moment, that would look to me singularly unlikely to make progress.

My Lords, the noble Lord has wise insights from his time as our permanent representative at the United Nations. I agree with him about the reform that is needed, but I am sure he would agree with me that it has to go beyond words and papers being produced, and that we need practical delivery of the reforms. I want to move away from the division that is sometimes put forward about the global North and the global South. This should be a comprehensive review of understanding the equities, the strengths, the opportunities and also the challenges we have, and how we work in terms of partnership, particularly for developing nations. I talked about climate earlier; let us be quite real there. Climate change matters in certain respects to certain countries. If you are Vanuatu or Tuvalu—countries in the Commonwealth—climate change is an existential threat. It is vital that we look at the global impact of the decisions we make, but that needs fundamental reforms in the international rules-based system.

My Lords, the Secretary-General of the United Nations has today called for a humanitarian ceasefire in Israel. We need the hostages home safely to their people, and we need to stop the unnecessary bombing of innocent men, women and children. Does the Minister agree?

My Lords, I have been very much engaged and quite heavily involved in the diplomatic efforts since the abhorrent crimes that were committed against the Israeli people and the Israeli nation. Let us be very clear from this House: Hamas itself is a proscribed organisation and its tactics, antics and impact on Israel shook that country to the core. Equally, I assure the noble Lord that we are engaging in all diplomatic efforts. He will have heard the statements of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, and indeed those of the right honourable leader of the Opposition, that we as a country are at one. We do not want to see innocent lives lost, be they Israeli or Palestinian. I assure the noble Lord that we are working all diplomatic channels—bilaterally and collectively in the region—to ensure that this conflict, which has cost so many lives already, can be brought to a halt. We need the hostages back and we need humanitarian aid to enter to help the desperate people in Gaza.