My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Falkner for securing this debate. This is an important and timely debate and an area of policy in which I have had considerable interest for a long time. The Building Stability Overseas Strategy is of great importance to our domestic and international interests. It is focused and comprehensive in identifying three pillars upon which the strategy is formed: early warning; rapid crisis prevention; and response and investing in upstream prevention.
The early warning system makes a commitment to produce an internal watch list of fragile countries that have the potential to become unstable over a 12-month period. The watch list is subject to an annual review. I welcome this requirement, as it will ensure that our efforts are targeted at the most fragile regions. Early intervention may prove to neutralise tensions among warring factions. We can take the lead, along with our international partners and supranational organisations to prevent conflicts from occurring.
The rapid crisis prevention and response pillar comprises a stabilisation response team, as mentioned in the strategic defence and security review. The progress made by the stabilisation response team deployed in Libya last May is a testament to the importance of such an initiative in promoting stability. By investing in the upstream prevention of instability, we can ensure that our aid goes towards promoting democracy while addressing civic challenges in fragile nations.
I welcome the announcement that 3,000 former combatants will be re-integrated into civilian life in Nepal by 2015. I would be grateful if the Minister could elaborate on the progress made by Her Majesty’s Government in meeting this target. I visited Nepal last July, where I inaugurated a business school of excellence in Kathmandu.
I am also involved in helping with the trade delegation that will be visiting Nepal next week, and I am pleased that our ambassador to Nepal is participating in the arrangements of the visit. I feel that we need to develop stronger business links with overseas countries which will help our economic situation and build bonds between us and other countries.
The Secretary of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has recognised that untapped potential. He has undertaken to overhaul our network of foreign embassies to turn them into engines for trade, supporting the Government’s ambitions for an export-led recovery from the current economic situation. There is good will towards the United Kingdom, but we need to build on these relationships to achieve mutual benefits.
I am pleased that the Building Stability Overseas Strategy mentions this vital element. Our diplomacy should recognise the importance of greater dialogue among the Department for International Development, the Ministry of Defence and, of course, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Those departments are paramount to achieving progress through preventive diplomacy, and should form an integral part of any decision to embark upon any intervention overseas.
I am encouraged by the fact that that strategy has been developed by the various departments. In helping fragile nations to build institutions, we can make a vital contribution in furthering our national interests. Building institutions is important if we are to achieve progress. In addition, we should also of course assist in bringing peace and stability, making democracy work, helping economic growth, creating jobs, empowering women and children and helping to deal with poverty and lack of education. I emphasise the need to empower women and raise their standards of education.
The challenges facing our nation and the world at large require a multifaceted approach to our conduct of future relations. In recognising our status in the global arena, we have a role to play in preventing the rise of dictatorships and rogue states. Democratic values and freedom should be at the heart of our approach to international and foreign affairs. Our policies and actions must support countries that aspire to achieving democracy and ending the oppression of citizens. It is vital that the strategy should enable us to work more effectively with our international partners such as the Commonwealth nations and the European Union.
I have spoken on several occasions in your Lordships’ House about the importance of the Commonwealth. I feel that the Commonwealth may play a greater role in conflict resolutions and promoting trade between the various countries.
I am pleased that there are now closer links between Commonwealth countries and Sri Lanka. I have visited Sri Lanka, where I was impressed with recent developments following the end of hostilities. I am a strong believer in the merits of education and its ability to contribute to stability in fragile nations. I feel that we must build connections between universities in the United Kingdom and educational institutions overseas.
Through initiatives such as the Union for the Mediterranean, the European Union has a part to play in the reconstruction of countries in north Africa, following the Arab spring. This is reminiscent of the role played by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in helping countries in central and eastern Europe to achieve democracy and build a free market economy following the collapse of communism.
I have visited both Egypt and the Gulf region in the last six months, where I have spoken with citizens about the challenges facing their countries. I feel that our involvement in any such country must be soft; we should exercise soft influence. When I visited Egypt, I found that the Egyptians had very high expectations. Although we can provide assistance to the people of a country where there are problems, the people must themselves find the solution and form a system which suits their circumstances. We should not expect foreign countries to adopt our form of government and there should be no attempt on our part to do so.
I have always supported the Government’s plan to ring-fence the international development budget. However, I remain concerned that there is consternation among the general public about this commitment. I would therefore be grateful if the Minister could provide information on what Her Majesty’s Government are doing to inform the public that this makes a vital contribution to stability in fragile nations.
I also welcome plans to boost the resources of the conflict pool and efforts to expand the Arab partnership initiative over the coming four years to support economic and political reform in north Africa and the Middle East. The tragic loss of life as a result of the Arab spring must not be in vain and it should be used to promote commerce and a strong civil society in these nations to make them free from corruption. Achieving peace and stability in any region that has been ravaged by war and has a wealth of cultural differences is always a challenge. It is important to recognise the strong regional dynamic of the barriers to peace in any region. By focusing on individual nations, the risk of instability in neighbouring countries must be heightened as ethnic divisions transcend borders.
Foreign policy and national security are intertwined and should be treated as such. The success of our foreign policy will work to promote our national security and interests both at home and abroad. We have the capability and intelligence to identify volatile regions where there is a danger of an outbreak in hostilities. World history is littered with examples of the repercussions inherent in a failure to identify unstable regions or places that have the potential to descend into instability. Government departments involved in forming this strategy deserve praise for devising a scheme that is both pragmatic and strongly relevant to the challenges facing both Britain and our national interests overseas.