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Rules-based International Order

Volume 835: debated on Tuesday 16 January 2024


Asked by

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs what steps he is taking to champion a rules-based international order.

My Lords, an open and stable international order is in our interest. We use it to deliver on issues of domestic and global importance, such as the Bletchley AI safety declaration. We invest in it, as the fifth-largest UN budget contributor. We support reform of it to ensure that it benefits everyone, and we hold to account those who undermine it, including through steadfast support to Ukraine, sanctions against Russia and ensuring maritime security in the Red Sea. In a dangerous and uncertain world, this stable international order is more essential than ever.

I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for the clarity of that Answer on the importance and scale of his task. I wonder whether that task was helped or hindered by two developments yesterday. The first was fresh advice from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees that the Rwanda scheme, now updated by the Rwanda treaty and the safety of Rwanda Bill, is still contrary to international law. The second development was comments by the Prime Minister on GB News that the Court of Human Rights is a “foreign” court and that he is prepared to defy it.

We do not believe that the Rwanda scheme is contrary to international law. I would characterise it by saying that things like the refugee convention were written for another age, when there was not mass international travel or the ubiquity of mobile phones. We are saying that, yes, this is out-of-the-box thinking and it is quite unorthodox, but you have a choice, frankly: when you have people arriving from a perfectly safe country into another safe country, you have to deal with that trade. That requires some fresh thinking. It is not possible to put people straight back in a boat and take them back to France, which is why the Rwanda scheme is being introduced. It is within the law and it is novel, but I believe it can work.

My Lords, as many feel that the whole international rule of law is collapsing before our eyes and as my noble friend has rightly remarked that this is a very dangerous and fragile international situation, does he agree that it will be coped with only by new international organisations and institutions or by brushing up the present set of them? Can he share his thoughts on where the priorities in that process should be? Should we concentrate on repairing the United Nations, which is in a mess, or invent new structures in that respect, as the noble Lord, Lord Owen, just suggested? Might the Commonwealth, by far the largest network of voluntary, like-minded nations in the world, have an important role in building up a future structure to deal with all these crises?

My Lords, that is an excellent question but difficult to answer. Fundamentally, we are in almost all these networks—we are in the G7, the G20 and the OECD, we are the fifth-biggest contributor to the UN and a permanent member of the Security Council—so we should be quite thoughtful and selective about where we think institutions can be strengthened. A good example of that is NATO; it is undoubtedly stronger than it was two, four, six, eight or 10 years ago, which is a very good thing. Some organisations you could spend the rest of your political life trying to reform but struggle to make progress—I might put the United Nations in that category. We should use what we have and make it work as well as we can, but we should also look at new institutions when there is a specific problem, such as Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which does amazing work that we should get behind. I am a practical conservative; I do not have an all-encompassing, global set of rules that we must abide by. Let us take what we have and, where we can, improve it.

My Lords, the noble Lord has been engaged in the enlargement of the UN Security Council. Can he update us on the progress of that, including the system of penholders? Also, when nations fail in their most important task of protecting the safety and security of their people, civil society is often the first to come to their defence. Guterres and the UN have encouraged the involvement of civil society in the Security Council. What does the noble Lord think about that and will he do more to support the Secretary-General in engaging with civil society?

I certainly support engaging with civil society at the United Nations Security Council, as we have been doing. I will look very carefully at what Secretary-General Guterres has said. We support United Nations Security Council reform—India should be a permanent member and we need to look at the representation of Africa—but, candidly, in trying to make progress in these reforms, this will be a very difficult one on which to get unanimity. In this difficult, dangerous and disputatious world, the most important thing is to ask what we can do to strengthen our networks, NATO and our defence, security and intelligence forces to keep us safe at home and to ask through which institutions we can get things done. That is my priority. Although I support United Nations Security Council reform, it might be some time coming.

My Lords, I think the Foreign Secretary said to the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, that Rwanda is a “perfectly safe country”. If that is the case, why do we still grant asylum to people coming from Rwanda? He suggested that international refugee law is rather out of date, implying that if a law comes from a different age then it can be ignored. Is that really the inference that he wanted to leave with the House?

No. I am saying that in the modern world, where you have the ubiquity of mobile phones and mass cheap travel, countries have to make a decision about how to deal with illegal migration. I will be very frank with the noble Baroness: I do not think that we can tolerate a situation where there is very wide-scale, visible illegal migration taking place in small boats. It is not only desperately dangerous and unsafe for the people who do it—another four people lost their lives in the freezing cold waters of the English Channel the other night—but it completely undermines faith in our immigration system. As I said, all these people are coming from a totally safe country, France.

You have a choice in politics. You can say—and I do not want to get too political, because I know that is not the way of this House—that you are going to work on dealing with the criminal gangs and work on more agreements with France. I agree with all those things. However, ultimately, if you do not say to the people who come in the boats that they cannot stay here because they came illegally, you will not stop this trade and you are not going to save those lives. This Government have made a choice: that is what we are going to do. Yes, it is complicated; yes, it is expensive; yes, in the case of Rwanda, is it out-of-the-box thinking. However, it is the right thing to do because, if you do not do it, you will carry on with the problem.

It is not just Britain that has this issue. Some 6 million people have crossed the southern border in the United States. Country after country in Europe is looking at novel thinking for how to deal with illegal immigration. We have to do that, because otherwise we will have a system which will have no public confidence.

My Lords, one of the best ways that the UK could stand up for a rules-based international order would be to do all we can to secure the release of Vladimir Kara-Murza, the British citizen incarcerated on trumped-up charges by Putin. Will the Foreign Secretary agree to an urgent meeting with me, his wife Evgenia Kara-Murza and those campaigning for his release?

I think I am right in saying that a meeting has already been arranged and is in process. I do not know whether the noble Lord will be joining us, but it would be a pleasure to get together after all these years.

My Lords, in furtherance of a rules-based society, I suggest to my noble friend that it would be desirable if he could promote a coalition of willing states to reinforce the efforts of the United States and the United Kingdom to ensure safe navigation in international seas. We need a coalition of willing nations to participate.

We do have a coalition of not only those countries taking part in Operation Prosperity Guardian in the Red Sea, but all those countries supporting it. Again, even when it came to the military action, there was a coalition of countries—including the Dutch, Canada and Australia—backing us militarily, and a wider coalition of countries supported the action taken. Wherever possible, we should build a coalition, but sometimes it is necessary to act quickly, and I think the Prime Minister made the right decision.

My Lords, how does a rules-based international order sit with the destruction of the Sino-British treaty, an international treaty, which has led to the dismantling of democracy and of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong? How does it sit alongside the show trials of Jimmy Lai, a British citizen, and the naming in those proceedings of four other British citizens, including our former consul-general Andrew Heyn? Surely that in turn is a breach of the Geneva convention. Why have the Government not yet done anything to use Magnitsky sanctions against any of those who have been responsible for these things?

One of the reasons for supporting a rules-based order is that it enables you to call out other countries when they fail to live up to it. That is exactly what we have done in the case that the noble Lord refers to. That is why we have said that the national security law needs to be taken out, and that is why we have said that Jimmy Lai needs to be released. We have been very clear about that and how we do not think that it is in line with the arrangements that were put in place when the Hong Kong agreement was reached.