Global Policy Forum

We are in Iraq to Bring about Democracy


Speech by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Labour Party Conference, Brighton

By Jack Straw

September 28, 2005

I want to begin with my own tribute to my predecessor, Robin Cook. Robin and I disagreed about Iraq. But our friendship survived. At the General Election he showed the strength of that friendship, by going out of his way to campaign for me in my constituency. He made a big difference to the final result. My debt to him is immense. So too is the Party's. In the mid nineteen nineties he helped Tony lay the foundations for a different approach to foreign policy.

Just think where we were ten years ago. Srebrenica. 8000 innocent men, mainly Muslim, slaughtered. Conference, three months ago, I stood in a field laid out with 700 coffins in that town of Srebrenica as it marked the anniversary of that massacre. These 700 were denied a decent burial for 10 years. Their loved ones were at last being given the chance to say farewell to husbands, brothers, sons.

I reflected that day on how the whole world had failed to meet its responsibility to protect those people.

For in Bosnia, and in Rwanda a year earlier, Britain and the rest of the world had simply stood passively by. The Tory government had reduced foreign policy to platitudes, complacency and drift. In contrast, in our election manifesto of 1997 we committed ourselves to giving Britain the "effective leadership and clear vision" which would put us once again "at the centre of international decision-making instead of at its margins".

So when we were faced on our watch with what could easily have become a second Srebrenica, in Kosovo, we did lead; we took military action to protect hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Muslims Much else was achieved in that first term: decisive intervention in Sierra Leone; a huge expansion in our overseas aid programme; the establishment of the International Criminal Court.

But, conference, no one could have anticipated that three months after the 2001 general election, on September 11th, our whole world would change. Just as the Second World War dominated international relations for the succeeding two generations, so that dreadful day has set the context for many decades to come; a profound change for all of us, compounded by the terrorism in Madrid last year and in London this July.

Afghanistan: late 2001, Iraq: 2003. Two wars have followed September 11th. In each case, alongside the US, we in the British government worked tirelessly for an alternative. But there came a moment of decision where we had to judge which was the lesser of two evils: to stand by and allow these two monstrous regimes to go on defying the international community, or to act. In each case we chose the latter course. And I believe we were right to do so.

Just four years ago Afghanistan's Taleban government was unspeakable. Justice was absent and women so excluded that to educate girls was to commit a criminal offence. Some told us that this was how the Afghan people were. Well, I'll tell you how the Afghan people are. They are like you and me. They want to live their lives in peace, freedom and prosperity, with respect for their religion and the right to change their government. It is called democracy. And that's the path they're on now.

In Iraq, the incident in Basra 10 days ago was serious, of course; and, as John Reid has commented, we can expect more dark moments. But the coalition forces, not least our own brave service personnel - and many civilians - are there now under a unanimous United Nations Security Council mandate. We are in Iraq for one reason only - to help the elected Iraqi government build a secure, democratic and stable nation - and we can and will only remain with their consent.

Conference, none of us should underestimate the challenges that still lie ahead in Iraq.

Nation building, from a violent past, has never been easy. Take Germany: after the war there was great hardship and much unrest; it took four years before national elections could be held. In Iraq it was less than two. 60 per cent turnout, braving the terrorists and remember how proud they felt holding up their thumbs marked with the indelible ink which showed they'd seized their right to vote. Bringing any nation whose people have been ruled by violent dictatorships, to one where the people rule themselves, can take time. That's why we are there in Afghanistan and Iraq, just as we are in Kosovo, Bosnia and Sierra Leone.

Conference, in foreign policy we have to be ready to respond to events seemingly beyond our control, like September 11th. But, above all, we have to seize the opportunities within events. We have to show leadership, shape those events and look beyond the horizon to help build the world we want to see - secure and peaceful with shared prosperity across the globe. On the foundation of our alliance with the United States and membership of the European Union, it is the United Nations which is at the heart of how we achieve this active and engaged foreign policy.

The UN is a great institution. But the world is changing fast. So the UN has to change, to reform, if it is to survive. At the Millennium Summit two weeks ago, with the UK in the vanguard, major reforms were agreed. New development aid targets; a peace-building commission; a new and more effective human rights council; and, most important of all, a new recognition that sovereign states themselves and the nations of the world as a whole, have a clear "responsibility to protect" all citizens from genocide, from ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

And if this new responsibility had been in place a decade ago, thousands in Srebrenica and Rwanda would have been saved. We would not have had to take action in Kosovo without an explicit UN mandate; and the later divisions over Iraq might (just) have been avoided.

And my pledge to you is to ensure that the fine words on responsibility to protect are translated into collective action.

Conference, to the east of the current border of the European Union are two countries, each with bigger populations than the UK or France. Each is overwhelmingly Muslim and each, in their separate ways, is crucial to whether the world can be bound together, or fractured along deep political and theological divides: Turkey and Iran.

For Turkey, the issue is EU membership. Turkey was first offered this prospect in 1963 - 42 years ago. It would now be a huge betrayal of the hopes and expectations of the Turkish people and of Prime Minister Erdogan's programme of reform, if, at this crucial time, we turned our back on Turkey. The decision on Turkey will be made by EU Foreign Ministers next Monday, under our Presidency. It is one of my - and our- highest priorities. But the test next week will be of the EU as a whole. Like the United Nations, the EU has to change with a changing world.

For Turkey would lose from a "no" decision. But Europe and its people would lose even more.

Anchor Turkey in the West and we gain a beacon of democracy and modernity - a country with a Muslim majority - which will be a shining example across the whole of its neighbouring region.

Now Iran. The issue is a very different one; the challenge no less daunting. Shortly after the Iraq war, categorical evidence emerged that for eighteen years Iran had been developing nuclear capabilities in clear breach of its treaty obligations. So, with my French and German counterparts, we agreed on a strategy, backed by the EU, in which our three nations would lead the international effort over Iran.

It's been hard going but we've held together. And by declaring Iran non-compliant with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as we did last Saturday, the international community sent a strong signal to Iran that commitments had to be respected. But if Iran does come into compliance the door will be thrown wide open to co-operation - economic, political and social - between another great peoples and the European Union.

Conference, just to the south of Turkey, west of Iran, lies an area where conflict and bloodshed has continued throughout my life - between Israel and Palestine. A year ago the news was bleak. The problems are still immense. But now there is also hope with a new Palestinian president and the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and from settlements in the West Bank.

Both sides have shown courage and resolve; we in Britain are investing millions in the reconstruction of Gaza. But both sides have to do more. The Palestinians must press on with the reform of their security services, dismantle all terrorist organisations; the Israelis must stop all settlement activity, stop the confiscation of Palestinian land, and alter the route of their security wall. All these are crucial steps to the historic goal of two sovereign states living side by side in peace and security.

And conference it is extraordinary what can be achieved with international engagement. Look at India and Pakistan. Three years ago these nations were on the brink of a major war. We managed to get them to pull back. Now there is friendship, trade, and a process, which should lead to a peaceful solution over Kashmir in place of 60 years of conflict.

In Africa, ending conflict is vital for our ground-breaking development programme, and so is good governance. In Darfur, Sudan, we have given substantial backing to the African Union as it has intervened to stop the killing, and we have led the way in the Security Council to ensure that those responsible for these crimes can be brought before the International Criminal Court. In Zimbabwe, it is bad governance which is denying that country the opportunities now available to its neighbours like Mozambique. In just 20 years, life expectancy in Zimbabwe has almost halved, falling from 60 to just 33. When Kofi Annan's special envoy visited the country recently she saw the clear evidence of the Mugabe government's callous indifference to the well-being of its own people. Her report is damning and emphasises why not just we and the European Union, but Africa and the whole international community, should be pushing - for as long as it takes - for the restoration of democracy and human rights in Zimbabwe.

Fuelling conflicts across the world is the anarchic trade in small arms and other weapons. Last year, at party conference, I announced proposals for an international treaty on the arms trade. That commitment went into our manifesto. We have won backing for this in the European Union, and we are now working within the UN to gain further international support.

Conference, in 1997 we made that pledge to put our country at the centre of international decision-making. We vowed to reject the blinkered isolationism, which had so tarnished Britain's reputation. This year we fought the general election on a manifesto which reflected both our pledge of 1997 and the new challenges that we face today.

The world is changing at a rate unimaginable not just a generation ago, but unimaginable even when we came into power. Yet I believe we are uniquely equipped to meet those challenges and seize the opportunities they present. There is the extraordinary reach of our diplomatic service, the unrivalled record of our aid programmes, the sheer professionalism of our armed services.

There are our alliances.

There is the natural advantage of our language and history and now of our multicultural society.

But most of all there are our values.

The values of international solidarity and justice.

They are the values for which we have always stood.

They are the values which are in the blood of our party.

And they are the values upon which the peace and security of this country, and our whole world depend.

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