Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Fulfilling our responsibility to protect

Utilising both soft and hard power will be central to reconstructing Labour’s foreign policy

At Labour’s National Policy Forum in Wrexham this year I was asked whether we see the UK as the ‘world’s policeman’. It is a profound and important question as we develop Labour’s new foreign policy. The Arab Spring has demonstrated powerfully that freedom and democracy are universal aspirations rather than western values, and that multilateral institutions remain ill-equipped to respond in a sophisticated way to unexpected events.

All too often these complex challenges are reduced to a debate about the advantages and disadvantages of military intervention with one side citing failures in Iraq and Afghanistan while the other cites success in Kosovo and the appalling price of non-intervention in Rwanda and Bosnia. Direct military intervention must, of course, always be a last resort. What we need is to fashion an approach that fosters progress using soft power so that in future we are confronted less often with the option of military action.

The original protests in Tunisia were sparked by poverty and unemployment. If we are serious about addressing global inequality we have to give priority to trade, development and economic policies that enable countries in the poorest parts of the world to grow and to share the proceeds of growth fairly. The European Union could be a much more effective and significant player here – whether through neighbourhood action with the countries of north Africa and the Middle East or through trade and development policies.

Opposition gives Labour the opportunity to develop policies for the next general election – but it is also a chance for us to deliver practical solidarity now. The trade unions have a vital role to play here in supporting workers’ rights in the Arab world. We can learn from the practical examples of solidarity work with labour movements in countries like Iraq and Zimbabwe in recent years.

Earlier this year I visited Tunisia, where there are several secular, left-of-centre parties that merit support and encouragement. I met women’s organisations that were nervous that if the new constituent assembly is dominated by Islamists the clock could be turned back on women’s rights. We have a duty to help in situations like this.

But we must also consider the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, adopted by the United Nations in 2005.

In Libya I believe we had a duty under R2P to act to prevent a bloodbath in Benghazi. However, the Libya issue did not cast Europe in a positive light, with Germany taking the opposite view to the UK and France. The Arab League called for a ‘no-fly zone’, but the involvement of Arab countries in the military action was limited. R2P will have less impact and less legitimacy if the action necessary to enforce it falls only on a small number of countries.

Meanwhile, the crisis in Sudan continues but with far less media and political interest than the events in Libya and Syria. Credit here should go to African countries which have contributed to peacekeeping efforts in Darfur and more recently in Abyei. There is a real debate within the African Union between those defending the principle of R2P and those reasserting traditional notions of national sovereignty. We should be very clear in supporting and encouraging Africa’s defenders of R2P and giving the same urgency to addressing the atrocities of the regime in Khartoum as we have done to those in Tripoli, Cairo and Damascus.

If R2P is to mean anything, the major powers in the world need to work out how to make it succeed. Countries that argue that national sovereignty is overriding need to be persuaded otherwise. Early warning systems need to be improved so that the worst cases are prevented from happening in the first place. The world’s capacity to respond militarily to protect civilians needs to be increased – and the burden of doing so shared among a wider pool of nations.  While we do not see ourselves as the ‘world’s policeman’, we should play our part in upholding our responsibility, and so too should others. 


Stephen Twigg is MP for Liverpool West Derby and shadow minister for Africa and the Middle East


Photo: Steve Cadman

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Stephen Twigg MP

is chair of the international development select committee


  • This debate about the future foreign and defence policy of the Labour Party is important. I think in the later years of our last Government we lost our way on a clear and credible foreign policy.

    Iraq is a stain on our party’s history, whether you agreed or disagreed with the decision to commit military forces it was a complete debacle that followed. As a movement and as a party we must move beyond Iraq.

    If we look back at the first term of our last Government, and Robin Cook’s attempts to craft an ethical foreign policy, while wildly naive, it was also full of our values and our perspective on world affairs. We need recapture that sense of mission, but add to it with a large dose of realism. Robin Cook had captured the idealism of our movement and that was really important.

    The involvement in Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Kosovo created a momentum behind interventionism, but the attack on the twin towers and the invasion of Iraq changed everything. The current involvement in Libya again gives us plenty to reflect on.

    The overriding theme of the debate is how can Labour present a credible defence policy which stands side by side with a coherent and value based foreign policy.

    Stephen’s contribution here is very interesting. A pragmatic realist approach which acknowledges the world as it is needs to run through our policy, so that while we can drive an agenda of change based on our values, actual decisions on involvement in overseas issues can be judged against a serious and intelligent policy framework.

    There are four essential strands that we should be crafting in our foreign policy. Firstly, we need a coherent and well thought out approach to the evolution of international institutions which find themselves in a world with a changing balance of power where China, Brazil and India are major players. On economic matters this strand is critical; the IMF, EU and UN need major reform and we need to think these aspects of a new policy through with real care. Our values as a Party are important here and have so much to offer.

    Secondly, how do we deal with revolutions, uprisings and dictatorships in our world? How can it be right for us launch missions against Gaddafi over Libya and do nothing about Assad in Syria? It’s the Mugabe question. We need sophistication in our approach, but we also need consistency as that will provide credibility. It is a reality that where any government commits military force there is a danger of causalities. Where such action is successful as in Sierra Leone people can be lulled in to a false sense of using the military tool far too easily. When military action goes wrong or becomes very difficult, such as in Afghanistan that is the test of any Government policy.

    Thirdly, how do we tackle the poverty and health issues of our world? We have a social and political responsibility which should see our approach reflect that poverty abroad can and does directly affect us in Britain. Economic miseries for the West are multiplied in the poorest nations of our world, were starvation and disease is the enemy.

    Fourth, we need to examine our role in the world in the changing balance of power. Where is modern Britain going in relation to the EU, with regard to global leadership, with regard to our sense of identity and position in an ever fragile and in flux global environment?

    There is a real debate to be had and a policy that needs careful construction. This area of policy should not be seen as some add on; it needs to be given substance. While our focus might be domestic, we shouldn’t forget the rest of the world around us.

  • Dr Harvey urges us to ‘move beyond Iraq’. But how? The British military has a practice of Lessons to be Learned, especially after a defeat. Harvey is right to condemn the insane aggression against Iraq. But how can lessons be learned without a through and no-holds barred Party investigation of all moments and all aspects of that disaster? I suspect that it is politically convenient to consign it to the memory hole of 1984’s Ingsoc….a social and political system very similar to the World’s Policeman fantasy Stephen celebrates.

    Since February, there has been a vigorous propaganda campaign inciting Libyans against anyone with a black skin, with continuing reports of pogroms and massacres mainly of black people, some Northern Libyan, some from the Tuareg and other desert areas, some from the Chad frontier, some immigrant workers. Some may have joined the forces of Gaddafi’s regime. Does Stephen perceive a responsibility to protect these people? If not, why not? If so, how, and up to what end-point?

    There are plenty of other aspects where lessons need learned – for example the swindling NATO propaganda concerning the repression of the terrorist KLA by the elected President Milosevic, the wanton NATO assaults on Serb and Albanian-ehtnic civilians in the course of the air-war, the diktat of the Rambouillet conference that led up to it, the ongoing massacres of Serbs in the ‘success’ of Kosovo, especially the huge pogrom of 2004 conducted (like the ethnic cleansing of Eastern Slavonia) under NATOs benign supervision. whoever describes the Kosovo adventure of NATO bears responsibility for these horrors.

  • Yes we had an R2P the civilians of Benghazi but if the related UN resolution can be stretched to encompass air strikes and SAS operations to support regime change in Libya as a whole (regardless of the threat to Gaddafi supporting civilians in Tripoli and Sirte) then certainly UNSCR 1441 can be stretched to legitimise regime change in Iraq subsequently approved in various polls by the vast majority of the Iraqi people despite the hardships.

    Insane aggression? More like a noble act of liberal intervention in my humble opinion.

  • This is an interesting and thoughtful piece, hopefully a positive sign that the party is starting to review its approach on foreign policy, which is something we need to do as in the past there has been quite some confusion, and a lack of a clear vision.

    Stephen is absolutely right to call for solidarity on all levels with emerging democracies in north Africa, including on the part of the Labour movement. There is a great deal that we can do to help new social democratic parties and much that needs to be done beyond the party political scene. We should also be pushing the EU to bring the benefits of our continent’s enornmous experience of managing the transition to democracy, both in southern Europe in the 1970s and in Central Europe in the 1990s. What we can do as an opposition party is limited, though.

    It is also correct that the countries of north Africa have huge social problems and we need to address these if the revolutions are to result in a stable transition to democracy. Debate in western countries tends to be overly focused on the security and military aspects of foreign policy. Shouldn’t we be examining the feasibility of forming an international institution or think tank focused on researching policy options in the areas of employment, social security and health care for the emerging democracies of the Middle East?

  • What does the World’s Policeman mean? In our kingdom the police are accountable to some entity however imperfectly. So what is the World’s Policeman accountable to.

    We can not mean that this policeman should act in an unaccounatble way certainly.

    Unfortunately we have not yet learned how to address inequality in the kingdom let alone global inequality.

    And I seem to recall Robin Cook being sidelined on his brave initiatives.

    And I remain cynical about the Arab Spring. Has it (or the CIA who are probably are behind it as they certainly do not want a real revolution) produced anything of the results we could identifyas progress?

    I notice the media have stopped identifying what is happening in Libya as a revolution. And certainly Egypt is not having a revolution. Do any of us in the kingdom know what has really changed in Tunisia?

    So what is a revolution? Well Magaret Thatcher carried one out and the people here are still paying its price. The Russian one lasted two weeks according to some analysts.

    We started one in Derby – it took the form of our Neighbourhood Agenda in which people were actually asked what they thought was wrong and right in their community and what should be done to make it better.

    I suspect that this type of initaitive is the first time ever in the whole of certainly English history that that has ever happened.

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