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Global Britain: Lord Hannay opening remarks to UN All-Party Parliamentary Group

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Statement made by Lord Hannay to the UN All-Party Parliamentary Group, 19 February.

First of all, congratulations to UNA-UK and to the authors of the report on “Global Britain in the UN “ for shining some light on an important but currently rather neglected aspect of Britain’s external policies.

As debate rages over Irish backstops and customs unions it is all too easy to overlook the fact that the UK remains a middle-ranking power with global interests and responsibilities, which it needs to defend and promote if it is not to lose influence to a damaging extent.

Indeed if I have a criticism of the report it is that it is a bit too Brexit-oriented. Not just that it takes the fact of Brexit as a given, which it is not, yet. But that it rather overlooks the fact that much of the analysis and much of the advice is highly relevant Brexit or no Brexit - and would be so even if the June 2016 vote had never taken place. Because we live in a world of shifting power relationships and rapid technological change and we need to adapt to survive. That was the finding of the December 2018 report of the House of Lords International Relations Committee, on which I serve, and I believe it deserves to be born in mind during our discussions today . 

One or two brief comments on the report. I do hope that we will not get too obsessed by the issue of the UK’s Permanent Seat on the Security Council. As the report correctly says to lose that would require self-immolation. But that is not much comfort. After all, Chiang Kai Sheck’s China held a permanent seat for more than 20 years but to no benefit to itself or to the UN.

Then, second, what I called in my evidence to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee a year ago, the UK’s “trepidation index" - the extent to which other countries hesitate before kicking us on the shins or, less dramatically, simply ignoring our representations. That was relevant both to the Chagos Islands issue and to the ICJ election, two of the case studies undertaken by the authors. That that index has dropped in recent years is hardly in doubt. Reversing that trend will not be easy and cannot be achieved by the U.K. acting on its own.

And, thirdly, a word about pen-holding, a concept which did not exist in my time in the first half of the 1990s - and I do not think our influence at the UN was any the less because of that. I can see the advantages of holding the pen on a particular issue before the Security Council. But it can have its disadvantages too, if the hand that holds the pen becomes paralysed - think of Yemen. Then you become, quite rightly, a focus of criticism for Security Council inactivity. So, like all other privileges, it comes with increased responsibilities .

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