Jack Straw – 2003 Speech to Labour Party Conference


Below is the text of the speech of the then Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, to the 2003 Labour Party Conference in Bournemouth on 1st October 2003.

Conference, let me begin by making two brief introductory comments.

First, I would like to place on record my thanks to colleagues on the Britain in the World Policy Commission, particularly its chair Diana Holland.

I believe this commission has become a model of how Partnership in Power can work.  The document we have been discussing today is testament to that.

Second, I want to pay my own personal tribute to two good friends who have tragically passed away in recent weeks.

Gareth Williams, Lord Williams of Mostyn, our Leader in the Lords, was never a man to grab the headlines, but he made a lasting contribution to our Labour Government.  His work on the Human Rights Act was invaluable, and his dream of a new Supreme Court and an independent judicial appointments system is now official government policy.  Gareth was a man of incisive wisdom and extraordinary warmth, and we will all miss him greatly.

The Swedish Foreign Minister, Anna Lindh, was the best of humanity – warm, funny, generous, committed.  Her passion for justice, peace and freedom knew no bounds, and I was privileged to know and work alongside her.  In the cruellest of ways, our socialist family has lost one of its brightest stars.


Conference, Clause 4 of our constitution – agreed just eight years ago – commits us, as a democratic socialist party, to the defence and security of the British people, and to co-operating in European institutions, the Commonwealth, and the United Nations … ” to secure peace, freedom, democracy, economic security and environmental protection for all.”

It is that statement of beliefs, which provides the overall framework for all that we do as a government, and all that I do as your Foreign Secretary.

But the test of any set of beliefs is its application.  In no case in recent years have the decisions been tougher, nor their consequences more profound, than in respect of Iraq.

For six intensive weeks after last year’s conference, I negotiated for Britain to achieve what became UN Security Council resolution 1441, passed on the 8th November 2002 by 15 votes to zero.

In that resolution, all fifteen members of the Security Council, including Russia, China, France and Syria, recognised, and I quote, the threat posed to international peace and security by:

– Iraq’s long-range missiles,

– its proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and

– Iraq’s non-compliance with twelve years of Security Council resolutions,

The Security Council came to this conclusion – not from US pressure or from any dossier – but from their own experience of Iraq, and their own assessment of its threat.

And in 1441, the Security Council including, yes, China and Russia and France and Syria was clear. It warned Iraq that it had one final opportunity to comply, and that serious consequences would follow if it failed to do so.

Conference, we did seek to resolve the Iraq crisis by peaceful means.

But at four successive meetings of the Security Council, which I attended at the beginning of this year, it became clear to me that the Saddam regime had no intention of complying with the clearest possible obligations imposed on it.

Of course, I understand how controversial our decision to take military action has been. No decisions are graver than those of war, no responsibility heavier than to put a nations young men and women of its armed forces in harm’s way, and contemplate the fact too that innocent people would die.

It is for that reason that the decision to go to war followed months of discussion in Cabinet, in the Parliamentary Party, and in Parliament – where our position was endorsed, not once, but three times by large majorities.

Never before have British forces been committed to military action with such a degree of rigour and open deliberation.

Conference, I respect those who took a different view.  They did so for the best of reasons.

But just as we who took the decision for military action have to face the consequences, including in Iraq today, I ask those who took the opposite view to acknowledge the likely consequences of their position if we had not taken the decisions that we did: Saddam would still be there and, I also suggest that:

– the authority of the UN to enforce its resolutions would gravely have been weakened as the worst, most long-lasting defiance of the Security Council and the international rule of law led to paralysis,

– that Saddam Hussein would have been re-empowered and re-emboldened, to continue the threat he posed to international peace and security and,

– to increase the ferocity of the reign of terror he imposed on his own people.

I readily accept that the picture on the ground in Iraq today is not satisfactory.  Security is a serious concern, and the challenges of helping to heal the scars of a country battered by decades of repression and dictatorship are substantial.

The uncovering of dozens upon dozens of mass graves tells its own terrible story – as do the reports from the Red Cross and the United Nations of 300,000 Iraqi men, women and children dead or missing and I quote: “from internal repression”.

The horrific torture, the persecution of religious groups and the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs paint a vivid picture of a systematic brutalisation of a people.

That this was allowed to go on for twenty years or more must shame us all.

I am in no doubt that the fall of Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime was a just cause.

The state-sponsored repression of the Iraqi people is now over.

An administration for the first time representative of all Iraq’s faiths and peoples is slowly taking charge.

A free press is emerging.

Students have returned to schools and universities.

People are free to pray and worship as they wish; read what they like; and say and sing what they want.

Hospitals and schools are back up and running, and medicines and food are now getting to those most in need.

And slowly, if too slowly, the reconstruction work is starting to create a future for the people of Iraq they have dreamed of for so long.

Conference, we have helped to liberate the people of Iraq from Saddam, but I accept that liberating them from his brutal legacy will be longer and harder.

On August 19, those who seek to emulate his legacy of murder, rape and fear struck with characteristic depravity by detonating a bomb at the office of the United Nations in Baghdad.

They killed 24 people including the UN’s special representative, Sergio Vieira De Mello, and a senior British official, Fiona Watson.

Days later they murdered more than a hundred worshipers and the Shia cleric, Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim, a man who had been working to help rebuild his shattered country.

And two weeks ago they murdered Dr Akili Al Hachimi of the Iraqi Governing Council.

Such acts against both the international community and civilians in Iraq strengthen our resolve to complete our task – to hand over sovereignty to where it belongs, the Iraqi people.

And all of us committed to democracy, freedom and the rule of law can and should join in this higher purpose.

So I hope that soon, in New York, the Security Council will come together again and give the United Nations a wider and stronger role in Iraq, better to help build a free, democratic and prosperous society, which can deliver for its people and take its rightful place in the community of nations.

Conference, we came into government six and a half years ago, committed to an active foreign policy to help put our ideals, and those of the United Nations into full effect.

And our party’s commitment to internationalism means we are best placed to confront the challenges of our complex, interdependent world.

Terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, regional conflict, global poverty and inequality, hunger and disease – all pose fundamental questions.

But helping to build security, prosperity and justice in the world are not alternatives: they are essential parts of a single coherent whole.

And they require a range of tools and resources which this Government has deployed with greater effectiveness and purpose than ever before.

– the best armed forces in the world, uniquely equipped both to fight for and to keep the peace;

– an aid programme on a scale and imagination light years from that which existed under the Conservatives;

– and deeper, stronger relationships with the world’s international organisations to make multilateralism an effective reality.

With each of these constituent parts working for common goals we have made, and are making, a difference.

In Sierra Leone, Kosovo and Afghanistan we took decisive action to end tyranny – and we are there to help the people of these lands build a better future for themselves.

In doing so, we work hand-in-hand with our partners.

As an independent sovereign state, we will always have control over our own foreign and defence policy. But where, in particular, we in the UK can develop common policies in the EU we will, because we can do so much more together than we can apart.

Take the Middle East.

No dispute has more profound consequences for our world today than that between Israel and the Palestinians.

Over two thousand Palestinians and nearly 1,000 Israelis have lost their lives in the three years since the current Intifada began, and the hopes that were there three months ago are much diminished.

But the Roadmap remains the only blueprint for a better future for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

This Roadmap is a collective initiative of the European Union, the United States, Russia and the United Nations working in partnership towards the common goal we all seek: a secure state of Israel living side by side with a viable state of Palestine.

And on issues like global trade, Iran, Zimbabwe, Burma and human rights, we pursue a multilateral agenda within the European Union and we are stronger for it.

But if the European Union has an increasing role to help deliver security, prosperity and justice in the wider world, its greatest contribution has been to do just that within Europe itself.

Even in the 1970’s, Greece, Spain and Portugal were all run by military dictatorships, and still by the end of the 1980’s the countries of Eastern and Central Europe laboured under the yoke of Soviet tyranny.

It has been the values of the European Union more even than its economic success that has helped these countries towards stable democracy.

Next May we will see a unification of Europe undreamed of by our parents and grandparents with the admission of ten countries.

Proud and established nations like Poland and Hungary, and newer nations like Latvia and Slovenia regard their membership of the EU as the very expression of their national sovereignty and independence.

This is the context of the draft constitutional treaty for the union.  Far from some superstate of Conservative fantasy, it reflects the reality of 25 sovereign nation states working together to make the EU work better for all its citizens.

Now, the EU is not perfect.  But our membership is vital for our economic prosperity and influence in the world – and whilst the Conservatives seek to undermine that future, we will continue to work for Britain and British interests as a full and leading partner in the European Union.

Conference, we are a party of profound values and high ideals.  Without these we are nothing.

But ideals are nothing unless we commit them to action.

Sometimes, abroad as at home, the decisions are difficult and controversial.

But to govern is to choose.

And we can not allow this country to turn its face away from the victims of injustice and tyranny, or to pass by on the other side.

For there lies retreat, inaction and an abdication of our responsibility.

That would not only be a betrayal of British national interests, but of our internationalist values and beliefs too.

We are active in the world, not out of any sense of conceit, nor inflated sense of our history, but because of a strong sense of responsibility born of the values of our party and out of a confidence in what this country stands for.

Conference, it was an honour to hear President Karzai address us today.

I was reminded of the time, three months ago in the Afghan city of Kandahar, when I met a group of women who were training to be midwives. I asked them how their lives had been improved since the fall of the Taliban. They looked at me with incredulity and asked if I had any idea what it was like under that evil regime when women were denied almost the right to exist.

In Afghanistan, as elsewhere, we’ve done right.

And we are making a difference – now, today – to the lives of millions  across the world.

Slowly, yes. But surely and determinedly we, the Labour Party, are making people’s lives better.

That is what we came into this party to do.