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International Committee of the Red Cross

Volume 457: debated on Tuesday 6 March 2007

I thank Mr. Speaker for granting me this debate on parliamentary oversight of matters raised by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which brings together matters that are dear to my heart: Parliament—essentially, the democratic accountability of the Government and of the Executive generally to Parliament, and human rights and justice, especially matters involving public health and decent standards for detainees.

As I think the role of Parliament is important, I had sought to raise the matter with the Leader of the House. However, I appreciate the fact that a Foreign Office Minister is responding to the debate. I know from the answers that the Minister gives to my parliamentary questions that he is invariably informative and generous with information. However, I shall shortly refer to two parliamentary questions on which he was not particularly forthcoming. I understand that there was a reason for that, which I shall go into. That goes to the central reason for initiating my debate on parliamentary oversight—there isn’t any.

Despite the fact that the ICRC submits reports, there is no process by which Parliament can be told about them—what is in them, important matters of principle that they raise, or major abuses of human rights or decent standards on the British watch in Iraq, say, or Afghanistan. In fact, there is a block on such information from the ICRC reaching Parliament.

I tabled one of the two questions that I want to discuss following a meeting on 26 April last year of the all-party parliamentary group on global security and non-proliferation. The subject was “Iraq: supporting civil society”. Roland Huguenin-Benjamin, who was at that time UK spokesperson for the ICRC, spoke at the meeting. He pointed out that the ICRC has an official role as custodian of the Geneva convention and that it reports breaches of the convention to relevant Governments. That would apply, if appropriate, to our Government and our allies in relation to Iraq. He added during the discussion that although the ICRC submits its reports to the Government confidentially—the ICRC itself would not disclose publicly what was in them—that does not preclude the Government from responding when such matters are raised in Parliament. However, I have found that the Government say that their arrangement with the ICRC is totally confidential. Thus, they keep the matters involved secret from Parliament.

In my question following the meeting, I asked the Foreign Secretary

“what reports relating to Iraq the Government has received from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in its capacity as custodian of the Geneva Convention; whether the reports indicate breaches of the Convention by forces in Iraq; what (a) the UK’s and (b) the Allied Command in Iraq’s response has been; if he will place relevant correspondence between the ICRC and the Government in the Library; why the Government decided not to disclose such reports as a matter of course; if he will ensure in future that the Government exercises the option available to it to disclose such reports in full”.

The Minister replied on 3 May:

“The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) has unfettered access to British security detention facilities in southern Iraq and reports its findings to us, and we respond, on a confidential basis.

It is customary international practice for reports from the ICRC on security detention to remain confidential between the ICRC and the detaining power. We believe it is important to maintain that policy of confidentiality so as to, inter alia, encourage the free and frank exchange of views about detention in all locations where ICRC carry out their valuable work.”——[Official Report, 3 May 2006; Vol. 446, c. 1654W.]

In February this year, I asked

“how many issues have been raised with the Government by the International Committee for the Red Cross in (a) Afghanistan and (b) Iraq; how many of the issues raised (i) related to the UK forces and (ii) were communicated to the UK in its role as a member of the multinational forces; how many detainees were the subject of issues raised; whether the Government has responded in each case; whether the International Committee of the Red Cross has declared itself to the Government as dissatisfied with the response or raised the issue again subsequently”.

The Minister replied, referring to the earlier reply, and said that the Government

“and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) regard the contents of our frequent contacts with them, including on Iraq and Afghanistan, as confidential. We would not wish to break with this customary practice as it would risk undermining the ICRC’s work in other countries. This principle of confidentiality allows the ICRC to remain impartial, gain repeated and unrestricted access to prisoners, and urge detaining authorities to make any improvements that may be necessary.

We value our excellent, constructive and co-operative relationship with the ICRC.”—[Official Report, 19 February 2007; Vol. 457, c. 392W.]

Of course that is an important relationship, and I pay tribute to the ICRC for visiting, I am told, 600,000 people in 2,400 places of detention worldwide, but I am talking about people who have been detained by UK and US authorities. We are mature democracies, not totalitarian states. Our Parliaments can and should be told where there are exceptions to normally accepted standards. The ICRC and the totalitarian Governments whose prisoners it visits can keep their confidentiality, if openness is thought to put visiting at risk, but that surely cannot apply to our mature democracies. The Minister talked of the

“free and frank exchange of views”

and “unrestricted access”. Surely those would not be jeopardised in our countries if our Parliaments were told about the issues of concern arising from visits.

By the way, Mr. Huguenin-Benjamin is not the only ICRC representative to have said, or at least implied, at meetings I have attended that the Government could, if they wished, disclose relevant information to Parliament. Although Mr. Simon Brooks, the ICRC’s new senior delegate in London, who has been in post one week, told me yesterday that the committee would prefer its reports not to be made public so as to facilitate access to prisons globally, he still acknowledged that aspects of such matters were between the Government and Parliament.

I state clearly—this is why I sought the debate—that such total secrecy towards Parliament is wrong. In our democracy, there are three parties involved—not just the ICRC and the Government, but Parliament. Parliament has the right to know, especially when a Government have been dragging their feet on proper standards, or where major issues are involved or the Government do not properly respect the Geneva convention or other important treaties. I do not say that that is happening, but we just do not know.

The ICRC would not disclose the matters that were raised, but I contend that the Government could disclose them to parliamentarians if they wished. We are talking about major issues of principle. Mostly, the ICRC raises matters that are of concern to it and calls on the Government to address them. If they do not, the ICRC may raise such matters again in another report, and then, perhaps, in yet another. Matters that are repeatedly not addressed, or that are not addressed in a way that is satisfactory to the ICRC so that it must raise them repeatedly, should, I believe, come before Parliament. The Government may have a reason for that not happening that they want to stick to, but they should be accountable and should justify themselves to Parliament.

Three examples illustrate my case. First, we know that there was routine hooding of prisoners in Iraq. It was initially justified by the armed forces and the Government. The ICRC may have reported its concern, which would have been kept secret. It was only through the work of others such as diligent MPs—me included, by the way—that the practice was put into the public domain and challenged. Only when the Government realised that routine hooding breached accepted standards, including an earlier assurance by the Heath Government that it would not be deemed acceptable in Northern Ireland, was the policy towards Iraqi prisoners changed. If the matter had been subject to totally secret communication between the ICRC and the Government, nothing would have changed.

My second example concerns the case of Abdul-Razzaq Ali al-Jedda, the 49-year-old dual Iraqi-British national who has been held by our armed forces in Iraq without charge or trial since 10 October 2004. The Government say that they are justified in doing that under United Nations resolutions. Only after Amnesty International put that case in the public domain was I able to ask a parliamentary question to establish the Government’s position on it.

That case has huge implications for the process of law, but had it been raised only in the ICRC’s confidential report to the Government, it would have remained a secret. I hope that there will be an occasion on which the Minister or a Law Officer has to respond to questioning from Jeremy Paxman, Jon Snow or Jon Craig on the implications of that case, but that can happen only if such cases are known about. That is how an open democracy properly functions.

My third point is about Abu Ghraib prison. The spectacular abuses there were brought to light by a leak in the US, using warders’ trophy photographs. If it had been left to the cosy ICRC-Government relationship, knowledge of those abuses would not have made it to the public domain. Indeed, I do not think that the ICRC even told the UK Government what was going on in Abu Ghraib, despite the operation in Iraq being a coalition operation overall.

I have here the Foreign Office’s 2006 annual human rights report. The pages on Afghanistan have these words highlighted in red at the top:

“We believe states should be open and accountable for their human rights records: how a state responds to criticism is one of the best measures of its commitment to human rights.”

The first paragraph adds that

“we will continue to respond positively to criticism of our own performance by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and others.”

But it seems that the FCO will not respond in the same way to the ICRC’s criticisms, because they are not mentioned.

Some human rights abuses are mentioned in the report, including domestic violence and the lack of respect for women’s rights, the high rate of illiteracy and child mortality, and the persecution of an Afghan who converted to Christianity, but the ICRC must have raised its concerns about Afghanistan. I bet that more concerns are not in the report than are in it. Even if they are not attributed to the ICRC, why are they not in the report? Mr. Brooks told me that the ICRC visited 14,000 detainees in Afghanistan. Any comment on that reported to the Government does not get a mention.

There is much on Iraq in the “Security and law and order” section of the report, which is at pains to say that white phosphorous is not a chemical weapon, although most people think it is. That section discusses military operations in Falluja and other operations affecting citizens; allegations of abuses by authorities, including the military; refugees and internally displaced people; the infringement of women’s and minority rights; and, of course, detentions. It is likely that the ICRC has raised those issues in its reports to the Government, but other than explaining their political position on those matters, have the Government addressed the ICRC’s detailed concerns? There is no sign of that in the report.

I suspect that if the ICRC were doing its job properly, it would have reported on Iraqi prisons such as the one at site 4 in east Baghdad; US prisons—not just Abu Ghraib, but secret ones; torture and degrading treatment or the risk of such treatment in certain circumstances, such as when people are being detained for long periods; and whether relatives are being allowed access. It would also report on executions; deaths in custody; people being held without any proper legal process, not in accordance with international humanitarian law; and lack of access to legal counsel or any form of representation.

The ICRC would also report cases in which detainees are not allowed to know the charges against them, or the allegations against them in the many cases in which no charges are ever brought. It would also report on the impact of psychological or other undue pressure upon prisoners, perhaps to confess falsely.

In the wider context, the ICRC would report on the operation of death squads, including those that are officially sponsored and trained; the consequences for citizens of military operations such as the current US surge; the insufficiency of measures to help refugees and internally displaced people; the crisis in public health, especially for children; and the adequacy of public provision such as schools and hospitals. I find it hard to believe that the ICRC has not expressed its concern to the Government on those issues.

It might be worth bringing some of the ICRC’s more specific concerns to Parliament’s attention, as well as the general ones. The Government’s detailed response to those concerns should be available to parliamentarians. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons writes regular, often critical, reports on UK prisons, which are placed in the public domain and come before MPs. It is strange that there is not the same accountability to Parliament regarding prisons that the UK runs abroad.

There are several ways to get the relevant information to Parliament, even in an abridged form. The Joint Committee on Human Rights, which deals with human rights issues in the UK, could cover matters on which the UK is in control as an occupying power. We could also get the information through the Foreign Affairs Committee or the Defence Committee, or through parliamentary or Government websites. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office probably has several websites that could be used. Parliamentary questions could be answered more frankly, there could be parliamentary debates and the Library’s facilities could be used.

I fail to see how denying that information to Parliament and MPs, even in an edited form, serves any useful purpose in our mature democracy. I urge the Minister to reconsider.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) for raising this important subject. No other part of my brief at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office requires such a fine balance between the needs for confidentiality and for complete transparency in all matters of governance, in which I am totally in favour. That is a difficult balance to strike, and it is interesting that he is the only Member ever to ask about the nature of that confidentiality. That says something about the House of Commons.

My hon. Friend is very enthusiastic about pursuing such matters, and I am glad that he has pursued this. He is right to quote the FCO’s belief that we judge civilisations and societies on their attitudes to crucial issues such as human rights. However, all other right hon. and hon. Members seem to agree with my written answers that we have to maintain the confidentiality of our relationships regarding the reports and articles that we receive from the International Committee of the Red Cross. I shall try to explain why.

The debate is timely because there is a new ICRC representative to London, who may or may not be in the Chamber, and because I shall meet its president, Dr. Jakob Kellenberger, on Thursday, when he will also meet the Secretary of State for International Development.

Before I address the issues that my hon. Friend raised, let me express how much the Government value their constructive and co-operative relationship with the ICRC, which is a unique organisation. It is impartial, neutral and independent. Its humanitarian mission is to protect the lives and dignity of victims of war and internal violence, and to provide them with assistance. It directs and co-ordinates the international relief activities conducted by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in situations of conflict. It also endeavours to prevent suffering by promoting and strengthening humanitarian law and universal humanitarian principles. It is worth recalling that its mandate is conferred by international humanitarian law, notably the four Geneva conventions of 1949, the additional protocols of 1977 and the statutes of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement.

The United Kingdom is a committed and active state party to the Geneva conventions and additional protocols. We seek at all times to support the work of the ICRC through our work to promote effective application and strengthening of international humanitarian law, and by supporting its humanitarian work through our financial contribution, which is administered by the Department for International Development. The UK contributes £20 million annually to the ICRC.

My hon. Friend referred to provision of information to Parliament on representations to the Government by the ICRC. That is at the heart of this debate. The effectiveness of the ICRC’s work depends on its impartiality, neutrality and independence. It has unrivalled access to those it assists, to responsible authorities and to belligerents in situations of conflict and humanitarian need.

At the moment, we are worried about our diplomats who are on holiday in Ethiopia and who have been kidnapped. We are not sure where they are or who is holding them. So often, the International Red Cross knows belligerents with whom state parties have no contact. It has unrivalled knowledge and, more importantly, it is trusted. I shall return to that.

The ICRC treats information that it receives or gathers as confidential, and it expects its interlocutors to do the same. That confidentiality is the customary practice of the ICRC, and is accepted and expected by states and victims alike. We do not want to break with that customary practice because we would risk undermining the ICRC’s work, not only with the UK Government, but in other countries.

That principle of confidentiality allows the ICRC to remain impartial, to gain repeated and unrestricted access to prisoners, and to urge detaining authorities to make necessary improvements. The ICRC stresses the confidential nature of its reports on visits to places of detention and expects that to be respected by those to whom representations are made. I shall return to that, but I want to remind my hon. Friend that this country, this Minister and this Department have nothing to hide in that respect. I shall try to expand on that.

The ICRC is clear that neither an entire report nor any part of it may be divulged to a third party or to the public. It does not want reports or representations disclosed, although it is well known that it conducts visits that may result in such reports and representations. As well as preserving the ICRC’s neutrality, the principle of confidentiality also helps to preserve the safety and security of ICRC staff and those who assist it by talking freely to it. Without that, the ICRC would not be able to provide the assistance that it does.

It is in nobody’s interests for third parties, including the Government, to take action that would risk undermining the effectiveness of the ICRC and its work. For that reason, the Government accept and respect the confidentiality of information required by the ICRC, and will continue to do so.

I want to refer to an article in the “International Review of the Red Cross”, which the ICRC published in June 2005. It is headed, “Action by the International Committee of the Red Cross in the event of violations of international humanitarian law or of other fundamental rules protecting persons in situations of violence”. It is a long title, but it describes precisely what the article does. Section 2 spells out the ICRC’s requirement for confidentiality, and we have drawn conclusions from that. We regard the content of ICRC’s reports and representations made to us as confidential unless the ICRC itself says otherwise. It represents the victim, so it should take the lead, and we do not believe that third parties should make that judgment. That is important. I would be worried that a consequence of us making such a judgment might jeopardise its ability to visit the most difficult places—for example, Guantanamo bay, and many others, such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend.

We do not disclose the fact that the ICRC has reported or raised an issue with us, which is clearly in line with what is set out in the article. We have regular contact with the ICRC on a range of issues and we consider respect for the confidentiality principle by both the ICRC and states as fundamental to the exercise of its functions. We may be able to disclose information when we are asked more generally about a humanitarian issue when we are aware of the ICRC’s public position or when we have been briefed in accordance with its publicly available lines. Such situations are distinct from those in which the ICRC has reported specifically to us, or made representations to us on specific issues.

The Government have nothing to hide in terms of how we treat prisoners in any country, including Afghanistan and Iraq. Those countries have become my second home, and I make a point of visiting prisons, holding facilities and so on. I have seen the new prison at Pol-e Charki outside Kabul, which is probably the best public building in Afghanistan. At the heart of its architecture and design and the way in which it functions is a concern for human rights that is the most sophisticated and the best that I have come across in the world. We have nothing to hide on that front. There is no question but that some terrible things have happened in Afghanistan and Iraq, and my hon. Friend was right to raise them, but the Government are determined that that will not fall within our bailiwick. We look after prisoners because that is a mark of civilisation.

My hon. Friend knows that there are many ways and means by which Members of Parliament and Ministers can obtain information on alleged abuses of human rights and the status of people who may be held in any part of the world. I have never known this Parliament to be backward or quiescent in searching for answers to and the truth about the most opaque and difficult questions. I have pursued them many times. The Government judge that the ICRC’s work in its totality is so important that we must respect its demand for confidentiality, and we shall continue to do so. We will not jeopardise its ability to go to places where Governments cannot go and to do work that Governments cannot do. That is extremely important. I know that it is irksome to my hon. Friend, and I share his desire for transparency in all things, but I hope that he accepts my answers to his written questions, and that they will protect the ICRC’s ability to do its invaluable job in the future in some of the most dangerous places in the world, where its work is so necessary.