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International Humanitarian Law: Protecting Civilians in Conflict

Volume 662: debated on Tuesday 18 June 2019

[Relevant documents: Twelfth Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Global Britain: Responsibility to Protect and Humanitarian Intervention, HC 1005, and the Government Response, HC 1719.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the continued importance of international humanitarian law in protecting civilians in conflict.

I am pleased to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Bone.

I applied for this debate to mark the 70th anniversary of the 1949 Geneva conventions and the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Security Council first putting the protection of civilians in armed conflict on its agenda. The UK is the penholder at the Security Council for that mandate.

This debate allows us to convey appreciation for what has been and is being done to protect civilians by a wide range of actors that adhere to international humanitarian law—which I will now abbreviate to IHL—and to interpret its provisions to prioritise civilian protection in armed conflicts. It also provides us with an important opportunity to highlight the terrible price that civilians continue to pay in such conflicts the world over, and to suggest what should be done—what must be done—including by the UK Government, to alleviate their suffering.

IHL, as detailed in the 1949 Geneva conventions, sets out the specific protection that civilians are entitled to in armed conflict. IHL requires that parties to a conflict must distinguish at all times between combatants and civilians, and must direct attacks only against combatants and other military objects. Constant care must be taken to spare civilians and civilian objects, such as schools, hospitals, and water treatment and sanitation facilities, from the effects of the fighting. IHL also calls on parties to authorise impartial humanitarian assistance to populations affected by the conflict. In addition, a number of key human rights such as the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of life, or the prohibition of torture and slavery, cannot ever be suspended.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the preservation of water treatment facilities. In Europe, unfortunately, we have a prime example of the corruption of IHL in the Russian-occupied bits of Ukraine: Russian forces targeted the Donetsk water plant in order to destroy it, and attacked 42 schools. Will she join me in condemning that?

Absolutely. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s experience on the Council of Europe, given the kind of discussions that take place there. Unfortunately in so many areas of conflict, we are all aware of examples of such attacks on what should be protected people, facilities and so on.

Despite the frameworks in place that are meant to protect civilians in armed conflict, and their further development and consolidation, including through the UN, civilians continue to suffer in armed conflict. According to the May briefing paper of the Overseas Development Institute, “Twenty years of protection of civilians at the UN Security Council”, a century ago civilians represented about 10% to 15% of total casualties in armed conflict; by the second world war that had risen to 50%; and by the 1990s civilians accounted for between 80% and 85% of such casualties, a trend that has unfortunately continued and possibly even intensified into this century. What is going wrong?

I thank my right hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Does she agree that as the UN penholder, the UK has significant leverage to pressurise countries such as Iran? Does she find it as chilling as I do that a former British military officer said that without US and UK assistance Saudi Arabia could not wage war on Yemen, yet four years on we still sell arms to the Saudis? Does she agree that that should stop?

My hon. Friend obviously knows that I totally agree with her. In fact, I have joined in the argument on that particular point at various stages. I am a member of the Committees on Arms Export Controls, and that is an issue that we certainly continue to discuss.

Last month, the UN Secretary-General published his annual report on this subject. Why, as he set out, do

“civilians continue to account for the vast majority of casualties in conflict”,

and suffer from a variety of “short and long-term” impacts, “including forced displacement”, forcible

“starvation…unlawful denial of humanitarian access; attacks on humanitarian and medical personnel, hospitals, and other medical facilities; sexual and gender-based violence; and intentional damage and unlawful destruction of civilian infrastructure, property and livelihoods”?

The first thing to recognise is that armed conflict has changed in many ways, some of which have put civilians in greater danger, such as a massive increase in armed groups, including non-state armed actors. Research by the International Committee of the Red Cross shows that more armed groups have emerged in the past six years than in the previous 60 years. The proliferation of armed groups, backed by a variety of partners, allies and arms providers, often leads to a dilution of responsibility, fragmentation of chains of command, an unchecked flow of weapons, and longer and more intractable armed conflicts. All that results in greater danger to civilians. In addition, there is increased use of explosive weapons in urban areas, where populations are highly concentrated, and of so-called precision weaponry which is not precise enough.

I argue, however, that the changes in the way that armed conflicts are carried out do not mean that international humanitarian law is no longer fit for purpose, but that greater efforts must be made on three fronts: to adhere to IHL; to interpret it with civilian protection at the forefront; and to ensure that those responsible for serious violations are held to account. I cannot emphasise that last one enough. As one who collected evidence on Iraqi war crimes over a period of years, I know how important it is to document such crimes, because a time will come when it is possible to prosecute people for those crimes.

There continue to be too many instances of IHL not being respected and, worryingly, a determination at times to flout legal obligations to protect civilian populations.

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing this debate and on her continuing interest in this matter over many years. Does she agree that one of the issues that comes up frequently in the civilian population is particular to children? Some of those involved in conflict situations across the globe make forcible use of child soldiers. That is another transgression that must be highlighted and, I hope, resolved in the near future.

I absolutely agree. To my knowledge we have raised that issue in this Parliament on many occasions, but we still have not come to any resolution apart from to condemn it.

We can all think of armed conflicts where armed parties have deliberately targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure to try to terrorise the population into submission, such as in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Other hon. Members will no doubt highlight such shocking and despicable crimes in their contributions. It is important to keep in mind that it is not just non-state armed actors such as IS that carry out such crimes; IHL violations are committed equally by state and non-state armed actors. In addition, states always have the primary responsibility for protecting and meeting the basic needs of the civil population.

The second failing putting civilians at greater risk is armed parties not prioritising the protection of civilians when implementing IHL. IHL leaves room for interpretation, particularly as regards its application, as while it sets out what armed actors are supposed to do, it does not necessarily detail how those responsibilities are to be exercised. I have visited armed conflicts in various parts of the world, but in Iraq in particular I remember talking to American military personnel and emphasising to them the importance of the Geneva conventions, but being met with a blank look because they had no idea what those were. That was a great difficulty when trying to persuade them to do something differently.

All armed actors must incorporate the protection of civilians into their core military missions and strategies and must actively seek to do everything possible during military operations to ensure civilians are properly protected. They should do that in recognition that success in armed conflict is not just about fighting to control territory but about the need to ensure the safety, dignity and wellbeing of affected populations, so they are not driven to support radical and extremist ideologies and groups, further fuelling conflict, and so they are better able to contribute to sustainable peace-building and reconciliation efforts when the armed conflict is over. To do that requires a much better understanding by armed actors of how their operations could and have had an impact on civilians, as well as much more investment in more accurate recording of civilian casualties and tracking of civilian harm.

I must highlight my concern about the Ministry of Defence’s ludicrous claim that there was only one civilian casualty resulting from its operations in Mosul and Raqqa in the fight against IS, despite the RAF dropping over 4,000 munitions, of which over 70% were 500 lb bombs, primarily in urban areas. That figure indicates the UK’s inability to accurately record civilian casualties and track civilian harm, and the lack of a baseline for assessing civilian harm.

The UK wants to be a global champion on civilian protection—obviously, we would all commend that. We will not, however, be credible on the international stage until and unless we are first accountable for our own operations. We therefore need a dedicated civilian casualty mitigation and investigation team with proper resources, to understand the impact of our operations and accurately record civilian harm. We need to appoint a dedicated military chief of staff to co-ordinate civil-military issues, and a civil-military focus in all major military headquarters with a centralised role in planning and decision making, to represent the interests of civilians.

In addition, the UK must do more to uphold our positive responsibilities under IHL and clarify the British position when assisting and working with partners, whether sharing intelligence and assets, providing weapons and materiel support or training and giving advice to local forces. We sometimes still fall short, so I urge the Government yet again to rethink our support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) mentioned, to ensure that any support provided is, at the very least, more explicitly conditional on a proactive policy of adherence to civilian protection.

More generally, the Government should adopt a dedicated process of operational end-use monitoring—again, in the Committees on Arms Export Controls we have had in-depth discussions about end-use monitoring, taking examples from other countries, to analyse the operational outcomes of UK assistance, work with partners through training and education to build a foundation for civilian protection before conflict begins, and build capacity in all relevant areas, including security sector reform, neutrality of humanitarian actors and targeting. I emphasise the need for more vigilance in preserving the space for, and enabling the capacity of, neutral dedicated humanitarian actors, who work hard in extremely difficult circumstances to fill the gaps in civilian protection. We must ensure that their neutrality is not repeatedly compromised, as that opens them up to attacks; counter-terrorism measures must not risk criminalising their essential activities; their funding must remain adequate and not be tied to unreasonable or overly bureaucratic conditions; and they and their facilities must not be targeted.

Last but not least, we need to do more to address the accountability crisis. Impunity for serious IHL violations simply fuels further violations and puts civilians at even greater risk. The UK needs to support referrals to the International Criminal Court, champion ad hoc fact-finding mechanisms—including commissions of inquiry and the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission —and the establishment of local courts and transitional justice mechanisms, and it must consider adopting targeted measures against those who commit such atrocities.

All Governments need to step up their efforts to protect civilians in armed conflict and recognise and adopt best practice, such as that of NATO, which is making significant efforts to make civilian protection a key element of operational planning. That is essential if we are to see a dramatic reduction in civilian casualties and harm in the next decades.

For the UK really to make its mark on the global stage, I urge the Government not only to take the action I have called for, but to ensure the current review of its protection of civilians strategy is the beginning of a longer term process to adopt a cross-departmental strategy and whole of Government approach, so the protection of civilians is formalised as a top-line priority in UK operations and UK assistance to partners. The Government should also appoint a dedicated ambassador to champion protection of civilians on the global stage, to better utilise the UK’s position as chair of the informal expert group on protection of civilians and to work with the broadest possible range of states and relevant actors, as well as increase our influence in the UN, including through increased support and involvement with peacekeeping operations, UN missions and relevant UN agencies, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Now more than ever, armed conflicts in other parts of the world can no longer be, to paraphrase slightly, quarrels in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing. We need to care about how civilians are affected by armed conflicts, because the horrific violations carried out against them are a stain on all humanity, and their effects are long lasting and widespread.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). I thoroughly agreed with much of her speech, and I will comment on some of the things she said.

As the right hon. Lady pointed out, we are trying to deal with the effect of the Geneva convention and the protocols aimed at protecting civilians in conflict, but I was fascinated to read a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross that seemed to take that one stage further. I was actually quite shocked by the report, but it may reflect the reality of the situation. It stated that there is a level of harm to civilians that is acceptable. It set that out by reference to three key principles, including proportionality and precaution, but the idea was that there is a level of civilian casualties that is, as the report described it, acceptable “collateral damage”.

The idea that a civilian building can have a military use as well as a civilian use brings me to my first point, which is related to the situation in Gaza. What do Israeli forces do when Hamas deliberately sets up its rockets in hospitals and schools? Do they simply turn away and do nothing, or do they accept, following the doctrine I have just set out, that they can take retaliatory action, in the full knowledge that there will be collateral damage—that real people will be killed? That is the first issue, which I raise to show that this whole business is not as simple as it should be.

The second area I want to deal with is Africa. In the past 20 years, there have been armed conflicts in Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Liberia, Libya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda—that is probably not an exhaustive list—but where are the African participants in the IHL debate, and where are the African participants at the UN trying to take this forward?

The hon. Gentleman is making a lot of sense, especially in what he says about collateral damage. War is war. Unfortunately, a lot of innocent people are caught up in it. Surely, the message must be that the sanctions that are applied to countries that carry it out need to be enforced. Rather than condemning, we should do something about it.

I agree. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, which I may come to if I get that far in my speech.

Between 1990 and 2007, 88% of conflict deaths internationally happened in Africa. That may have changed subsequently, with a rise in the middle east, but it is significant that 88% of deaths happened in a continent that does not really participate in the IHL debate. Of course, that is mixed up with genocide—I think Rwanda was in that list of countries, and of course we saw a massive genocide there—but the idea of genocide developed at the same time as the fourth Geneva convention, so there is an opportunity to try to revise IHL to incorporate that and to recognise that things have developed in parallel over the years.

On the middle east, the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley mentioned Yemen. We debated Yemen recently in the main Chamber, so I will not cover it now, except to reinforce the points she made. However, I do not blame the Saudis alone; Iran has a lot to answer for with respect to its funding of the Houthis. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) said

“there are no good people in this conflict.”—[Official Report, 23 May 2019; Vol. 660, c. 849.]

That is very true.

The last area I want to comment on is Europe. Europe is not exempt from violations of IHL. In my intervention on the right hon. Lady, I mentioned a prime example of defiance of IHL in the Russian-occupied area of Ukraine. That needs to be stated time and again. We in the Council of Europe need assistance from the Foreign Office so we can take a stand against the Russians and ensure, at the very least, that they give back the Ukrainian sailors they took. In the occupied bits of Ukraine, the Russians have attacked the Donetsk water filtration system, as I mentioned, which goes against everything the right hon. Lady said about trying to protect that for the benefit of individuals, and they have attacked 42 schools. Those were not schools where the Ukrainians were hiding rockets. This is not a Gaza situation. That was a deliberate attack on 42 schools, which we need to acknowledge.

What do we do about all this? First, we need to encourage more work by academics across Africa. I am aware that there is some activity in South Africa, but we need to encourage more Africans to carry out research and projects, which the Department for International Development may need to help fund. Above all, we need to ensure that the Geneva convention is enforceable. At the moment, it is characterised by a huge amount of non-compliance. We sit back and cross our arms and say how terrible that all is, but we do very little about it. We need to do something about it if we are to stop it happening.

Lastly, we need to boost the amount of UN peacekeeping. Peacekeeping plays a vital role, and having peacekeepers on the ground is a good way of tackling this problem. I would love to see us argue for more peacekeeping, and more effective peacekeeping, throughout the world, wherever we can play our part.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Bone. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on initiating this debate. As Members will know, she chairs the all-party human rights group, and I am vice-chair of the all-party group on drones. We made a joint bid to the Backbench Business Committee, and I am pleased that we secured this debate.

Before coming here this morning I dropped in on Richard Ratcliffe. I recommend that people do that; he is outside the Iranian embassy, which did a good job of suddenly deciding its front needed painting and that it therefore needed some screens, which obstructed Richard Ratcliffe, or the view of him. I am pleased the police were not willing to move him on, which is apparently what the Iranians asked them to do. I encourage Members to visit him. In some respects, he and his wife are civilian casualties of an unofficial—well, there is not exactly a conflict or war between the UK and Iran, but there are certainly casualties.

It is right to debate this topic in the year of the 70th anniversary of the fourth Geneva convention on the protection of civilian persons in time of war. This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the protection of civilians agenda at the UN Security Council, for which the UK is currently penholder.

The protection of civilians must be a priority, and the right hon. Lady set out many reasons why. Save the Children says at least 420 million children globally are now living in areas affected by conflict, which is more than ever. That has an impact across the board. Before coming here this morning I met an organisation that campaigns on education in the Lake Chad basin—an issue that particularly affects girls in that area of conflict—including in Nigeria and Cameroon. Children are a priority, as is education, and we must ensure that, where they are lacking, appropriate protections are put in place for civilians and children.

The right hon. Lady referred to the figure for RAF casualties, and the claim that there was only one civilian casualty after 4,000 munitions were dropped in the war against Isis. In future, we should perhaps require independent confirmation that there have been no civilian casualties, and use that as the basis. In circumstances where there is no independent confirmation for whether there have been civilian casualties, there must be a question mark over that issue. The RAF is effective and efficient and has tight safeguards over the use of munitions, but to suggest that there was only one civilian casualty after 4,000 attacks is challenging in terms of credibility.

We know that warfare is changing and that we are moving away from large-scale ground interventions. Airstrikes are becoming the primary means of achieving military objectives, and as we saw in Syria, they are increasingly used in urban areas. Drones are an added element of that. People attempt to portray drones as highly precise in their targeting, but there must be a question mark over that. We must ensure that issues of legality, transparency and accountability in the use of drones are monitored and built on. This is a developing area of military intervention, and the legal safeguards around drones must grow at the same time as their use.

We must focus on civilian protection during our own operations, but we must also consider the role that the UK increasingly plays when working with its partners—Saudi Arabia and the conflict in Yemen are often mentioned as an example of where UK personnel are not involved in directing attacks, but they are in command centres. The role the UK should play in civilian protection should be enhanced to cope with scenarios where the UK is an active partner in conflicts. Unfortunately, evidence is overwhelming that attacks have taken place in Yemen, from both sides, that are in breach of IHL. As parliamentarians, we should be worried that, while we have a role in expressing a view and voting on whether the UK should or should not take part in armed conflicts, we do not have one regarding whether the UK partners with countries that are in conflicts, such as that in Yemen. Perhaps we should look at whether we as parliamentarians should have an enhanced role when such partnerships are established.

It is not just when the UK is involved in a partnership that there are perhaps risks around whether we might be—either actively or at a distance—involved in matters that affect IHL. For example, the current US campaign in Yemen is separate from the conflict, but we must consider the use of drones. The same is true in places such as Pakistan and Somalia. The all-party group on drones set up an inquiry into the use of drones, and there are concerns about British involvement in US strikes in Yemen. It has been reported that there has been UK assistance with intelligence sharing, information triangulation and the tracking of informants, via the base in Yorkshire.

The German High Court recently found that at least some of the US drone strikes are unlawful and that Germany has an obligation to protect the Yemeni plaintiffs’ right to life. The German Government also have a legal obligation to establish a mechanism to ensure that any assistance to the US adheres to IHL. I therefore hope that, when the Minister responds to the debate, he will say whether the UK Government have looked at the German High Court ruling on the US strikes and at whether they need to develop a policy or position on that. Are the Government comfortable that we could not be in the same position, given our role in Yemen?

I have three precise asks for the Minister. First, will the Government assure Members that they have considered the German case and assessed its legal implications for the UK? Secondly, as part of the forthcoming UK protection of civilians strategy, will there be a clear mandate and commitment to the protection of civilians, and specific guidance on the use of explosive weapons in urban areas and in partnerships? Finally, through our position as a penholder on civil protection at the UN, we have a unique opportunity to lead a global recommitment to civilian protection in UN forums—I know that is something to which the Minister would wish to commit.

We have a crisis of great magnitude on our hands. When up to 85% of war casualties are civilians, it is clear that the laws of war—distinction, proportionality, necessity and precaution—are being disregarded on a large scale. The time to act is now.

It is a pleasure to speak for the first time under your benign sway, Mr Bone. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on securing the debate and on her wonderful speech. There are many issues that are before us today where there is a political division, but I submit that on humanitarian issues, the House of Commons ought to be absolutely united on what the ground rules are. Today gives us an opportunity to honour and thank those who so often put their lives in harm’s way when trying to help in the humanitarian space that we are discussing.

It is worth remembering that before the second world war, there was no specific international legal norm that aimed to protect civilians in conflicts. Philippe Sands’s outstanding book “East West Street”, which was published last year, sets out clearly the way in which history was changed after that. The horrors experienced by civilians all over the world during that war prompted the international community to adopt, in 1949, the fourth Geneva convention on the protection of civilian persons in time of war.

My submission is that today, 70 years on, our generation is facing its own crisis of civilian protection. Gareth Evans at the United Nations made great progress on the responsibility to protect—R2P—in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda and, indeed, events in Europe. My submission today is that the responsibility to protect remains an absolutely critical international doctrine, but that it is a skeleton, and there is far too little flesh on the bones of R2P and what it means to protect civilians.

Recently, in what was widely regarded as ethnic cleansing, we saw the appalling events that took place for the Rohingya in Rakhine state. The Minister, who we are glad to see in his place, has taken a leadership role in trying to protect the people caught up in that. Threats to civilians are worsening and becoming more complex, more urban and more protracted, but perhaps the major challenge facing civilian protection today is the rise in deliberate identity-based targeting of civilian populations, not as a by-product of war but as a distinct objective. Those crimes and atrocities are abhorrent in their own right, and they can also lead to the outbreak of armed conflicts. The eight-year crisis in Syria, for example, was propelled by the deliberate perpetration of atrocities by the state, leading to protracted armed conflict and a hellish cycle of intentional violence against civilian groups by different perpetrators.

Many hon. Members will have seen the work being done by Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a distinguished former military officer. I had the opportunity to hear from him today, just after his return from the middle east where he advises the Idlib Health Directorate of the most up-to-date circumstances in Syria and particularly Idlib. He says this:

“Nearly 700 civilians killed this year and 500,000”

internally displaced people

“in Idlib many without homes living in the open and off scraps and evidence of another chemical attack. There have been 29 attacks on hospitals by Russian and Syrian aircraft with many now out of commission. A handful of hospitals and doctors are now trying to care for 3 million civilians…Because we have done nothing to prevent this atrocity the crimes against humanity of attacking hospitals and the use of chemical weapons, this will haunt us much longer than the Syrian conflict. People in Idlib, who I speak to on a regular basis, feel completely let down by the West—we might be prepared to act against Iran for attacking an oil tanker but nothing to help the humanitarian disaster in Idlib?!”

I submit that we should be seeking to name and shame the aircraft attacking those hospitals, and provide evidence to the International Criminal Court for future prosecutions. As the Minister knows, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has sought to protect evidence of breaches of international humanitarian law in Syria. The advent of mobile phone technology means that we can collect evidence of the atrocities. In Khartoum, Sudan, mobile phone pictures have been taken of individual soldiers committing atrocities, breaking international humanitarian law. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that in Syria, where there is a long-standing FCO operation, and in Khartoum, Sudan, we are collecting that evidence and we will make sure that it is used to bring international justice to those who have perpetrated those atrocities.

On that point, I remind the Minister that General Bashir, currently in jail in Khartoum, has been for many years the subject of an indictment through the International Criminal Court. We expect the British Government to do everything in their power to ensure that that warrant is executed.

With regard to Syria, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the UK Government should also be keeping records of the Russians involved, so that they too may be held to account?

I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman; he is quite right, and the Minister will have noticed what he said.

Of today’s major and emerging crises, the vast majority—Syria, Yemen, Libya, Myanmar, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Venezuela and Xinjiang—are driven, at least in part, by the deliberate violent targeting of civilian groups by political elites. Just as the decision was taken 70 years ago, in recognition that modern war was changing, to create a convention that aimed to protect civilians during the time of war, so we must admit today that more is needed.

Mr Bone, you will have heard the Queen’s wonderful words in her toast at the banquet for President Trump. She said this:

“After the shared sacrifices of the Second World War, Britain and the United States worked with other allies to build an assembly of international institutions, to ensure that the horrors of conflict would never be repeated. While the world has changed, we are forever mindful of the original purpose of these structures: nations working together to safeguard a hard won peace.”

It is incredibly important to support international structures, particularly the UN—I draw the Minister’s attention to the comments in the House yesterday on the urgent question on Iran—and to use international bodies that were built up in the aftermath of the second world war.

The Government’s ongoing review of the UK’s protection of civilians strategy provides a welcome opportunity to ensure that British policy is fit for the challenges of modern conflict. It is, as the Minister will appreciate, an opportunity to ensure that any new strategy is in line with the substantial progress made in related areas since the previous strategy was published by the coalition Government in 2010 and last reviewed in 2012—namely, the UK’s growing commitment to the prevention of mass atrocities.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that in developing the strategy, it is important that the UK shows clear leadership—for example, by appointing an ambassador in that area to deliver Britain’s message to the UN and globally about the protection of civilians?

That is true. Of course, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Britain has a highly effective ambassador who can do that work.

Introducing a concept of “preventing while protecting” into national frameworks of civilian protection would raise the ambition from not targeting civilians to an active commitment to save lives. Any modern protection of civilians framework should prioritise the capacity to assess emerging and long-term risks of atrocities, including horizon scanning, the mapping of actors and interests, and contingency planning.

Any commitment to protect civilians from armed conflict and atrocities must be consistent. I have spoken out on many occasions against what is happening in Yemen and the role of the British Government, which I think is not in the right place. I greatly welcome the Foreign Secretary’s change of emphasis on Yemen, and the fact that his first act as Foreign Secretary was to go to both Tehran and Riyadh to try and bring that appalling conflict to a close. Nevertheless, the British Government are complicit in what is happening in Yemen, and we await the judgment of the Court of Appeal—probably on Thursday—on the issue of arms sales by Britain to Saudi Arabia.

I have never called for an arms embargo, because I understand that Saudi Arabia is a country surrounded by enemies, with the wealth to purchase arms, and a British arms embargo will not protect the children who suffer from the aerial bombardment of Yemen by the Saudi air force—at least, not any time in the near future. However, the way in which Saudi Arabia has pursued its policy against Yemen has united huge numbers of us against what is effectively the bombardment and blockade of a nation, which is causing a medieval famine, with the break-up of infrastructure leading to the prevalence of diseases that we have not seen in Europe for generations. Of course, that is radicalising thousands of young Yemenis, who know from where that appalling destruction is coming.

It was a low point in a low war when, last year, we saw that school bus hit by coalition bombs. Some 40 children were murdered, and we saw the pictures of them in their UN blue smocks and satchels. I stood, some time ago now, in the funeral parlour bombed—during a funeral ceremony—by coalition aircraft; 180 people were killed, with the plane coming around again for a second attack. That was a breach of international humanitarian law, and I hope the pilot responsible for that will be held to account in the same way as the others I have mentioned.

While the UK can and must play a role through all its internationally facing Departments to help prevent these dreadful crimes and innocent loss of life, we can and must uphold the same values here at home. The UK must never be a haven for those who commit atrocities, war crimes and genocide. We must uphold our responsibilities to victims and prosecute subjects who reach our shores. In that context, I wish to draw the House’s attention to the fact that five alleged Rwandan genocidaires remain free, wandering around the British Isles, three at least claiming British benefits. They have not been held to account for the alleged crimes that they committed and perpetrated during the Rwandan genocide. Britain’s judicial system, which of course is entirely separate from politics, declined to extradite those five back to Rwanda, where they could have faced justice along with hundreds of thousands of others. There is therefore an onus on the British judicial system—our laws—to ensure that those people are held to account in this country if they are not to be extradited.

I draw that to the Minister’s attention. It is not a direct Foreign Office matter, but I can tell him this: it is not the Rwandan system of justice that is in the dock today, but the British system of justice, for not delivering justice to the many people in Rwanda who allegedly suffered at the hands of those five genocidaires. I hope it will not be too long before the British judicial and legal system holds them to proper account, for their sakes, as well as for those in Rwanda who allegedly suffered at their hands.

It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Bone. I thank the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) for securing this debate. I associate myself with the words of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who gave a clear and precise overview of the dreadful conflict in Yemen and the impact on civilians, and with those of the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who talked about the impact of technology—especially drones. I agree, as I usually do on this matter, with the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), who spoke about Ukraine and the Russian state’s interference in and occupation of Donbass.

An example of how we need to review IHL in the context of the changing nature of warfare is the targeting of the infrastructure of the Estonian state through cyber-warfare in 2007. Government institutions were unable to deliver civilian—public—services after that direct attack on the civilian population. However, I do not think that could happen today, given that Estonians are leaders in the field of cyber-warfare.

It is important to commemorate and remember those who brought about the fourth Geneva convention. We should be thankful that we are able to be here today to discuss its 70th anniversary and the work that was done in the light of the horrors of the second world war. It is clear that IHL is a solid and extensive legal framework for protecting civilians in conflict. Nevertheless, the protection it affords is in many ways inherently qualified. It is clear from the evidence that the failure is due not to the law itself, but to the persistent failure to comply with those obligations. IHL has proven to be a practical, durable and adaptable framework for providing passive protection for civilians in the midst of conflict, but that inherent qualification means that we must review it in the light of changing technologies and methods of warfare.

There have been elements of failure. The genocide in Srebrenica in 1995 and the genocide of the Tutsis in 1994 made it clear that we need to ask ourselves consistently how valuable and effective the framework is. In the light of the increase in civilian casualties, which was well documented by the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley, we must redouble our efforts proactively to protect civilians in a range of spheres. I hope the Minister will say something about that later. Civilians must be protected not just on the frontline in Syria or Idlib, but in the cyber-sphere. I am a member of the Defence Committee, and I note that NATO has thankfully recognised the importance of making civilian protection a key element of operational planning, and has published a protection of civilians strategy.

I have three questions for the Minister. First, although the UK seems to have been slow in following NATO’s moves on the protection of civilians in operational planning, will he assure Members that the Government are moving in the same direction as our NATO allies? If he is unable to furnish us with that answer, will he ask the Ministry of Defence to write to Members?

Secondly, do the Government recognise that investment is required to respond to the specific needs and vulnerabilities of different groups—specifically, women, children, the disabled and the elderly? Finally, does the Minister agree that the continued abuse of the Security Council veto undermines not just IHL but the rule of international law itself?

It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Bone. I thank the Members who brought this fundamentally important issue to the Chamber. I have known the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) since I came to this place in 2001, and she has done phenomenally well in holding our consciences to account. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who represents the royal borough of Sutton Coldfield—

The royal town of Sutton Coldfield—it is close to Birmingham; that is as far as I will go. The right hon. Gentleman certainly made a great contribution during his tenure as Secretary of State for International Development. The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) was the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for international development from 2002, and has done great work since then, particularly as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on drones.

Today, we are celebrating the Geneva convention, which was created almost 70 years ago. It was a skilful piece of drafting of international law that sought to move forward from the severity of what we had suffered during the two world wars. We decided to bring nations together to look at how we could continue to operate. It was adopted by the United Nations Security Council, and everybody welcomed that.

I am not sure people realised when it was put together 70 years ago how much worse the situation would become. The implementation of that international law was a great achievement, but who knew how tragic things would become in the past 50 years? Certainly, since the start of the century, that great legislation has been set aside and people have suffered. We must address that. Great speeches have been made today by all the Members who took part, and they raised valid points. What we must consider is how to move forward and get implementation. Members have expressed positive ways of looking at the issue, and it has sometimes been the collective failure of Governments that means we have not moved far enough forward.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley set out a clear understanding of the convention of 70 years ago, with its definition, purpose and importance. The protection of children is fundamentally important, and that has been true for my right hon. Friend in the work she has done. As to how we move forward, she raised interesting issues about attacks on civilian facilities and other acts counter to the convention, which need to be considered. She rightly said that attacks have intensified since 2000 and continue to do so, and referred to the non-state actors that have increasingly played a part in the past almost 20 years. I hope that we can try to address those issues and how they arise.

The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) raised a key point about Ukraine, on which he does a phenomenal amount of work—as well as on eastern Europe generally. His role is important, because sometimes, when there are wider issues such as what is currently happening in places such as Yemen and Syria, there is a need to recognise what is going on in our back yard. The hon. Gentleman raised the complex issue of Gaza and how to resolve that and move forward. He made a fundamentally important point about conflict in Africa—the number of deaths, and the part to be played by African nations and individuals. He also mentioned the conflict in Yemen, and the roles of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Sometimes we tend to pick sides in conflicts but, if we are to serve the people and be bound by the Geneva convention, we must not be bound by individual preferences as to what side we are on. We should be on the side of the victims.

The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington has played a huge role, particularly with the all-party parliamentary group on drones. He believes in the importance of that work. It includes the issue of accountability in the use of drones, and the way people see them—sometimes we put such things to the back of our minds—as being part of a military mechanism. That suggests to me other areas where we take action and may say, “If we just have air attacks and nothing on the ground, that is much safer.” It is not. When strikes begin to be made from above there will be mistakes, because those concerned will not know in which building or area people are concentrated. There have been attacks on Syria and Iraq where a huge number of people have been lost, and people have been killed in Yemen, because of air attacks alone. We go into such arenas and it is always said that technically we can do whatever we want and that it will limit casualties, but we must realise that, as has been said, that is not accurate. We need to take a serious look at how to deal with that issue and whether such action, or any action perpetrating additional acts of war, makes sense. We must look at our role and how to move forward. The right hon. Gentleman also raised the German legal action, and it is a great example that I am sure the Minister will address.

I think that the Minister has taken note of the issues raised by the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), and particularly what he said about women, children and people with disabilities, which is important. It is the purpose of the Geneva convention to resolve those things, and we have not done enough to address some of them. There are some issues that Save the Children want to encourage the Government to look at, to see how they can be dealt with. They include the importance of child-specific expertise in peace support and military operations. How can we cater for that, and record those issues? Several Members have referred to committing to avoiding the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, which is another key thing we should continue to push for when we take sides and support military action. Members have also mentioned what Save the Children says about creating civilian harm tracking procedures, and we should strongly focus on that.

As for improving and championing accountability for violation of children’s rights, it is difficult for us to get full accountability and a full assessment of what happens on the ground. However, as the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield said, where there are people—in particular the people in question from Rwanda—who have committed genocide and have still not been held accountable, and who are still walking around in the United Kingdom, never mind anywhere else, we should be looking to hold them to account, and thinking about how to do that.

The hon. Gentleman will obviously want to make it clear that those are allegations, but that it is in the interest of those who are accused, as well as everyone else, that they should have their day in court so that justice can take its course.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman, who makes a valid point. That was perhaps a slip of my tongue, which I should clarify, and I thank him for correcting me.

Save the Children also advocates a commitment to share expertise. In a conflict area we must be able to address some of the issues it has raised.

I declare an interest as I begin the next section of my remarks, about Kashmir—a region that has not been mentioned by many speakers in the debate—and human rights. The situation there has continued for 70 years, over the period we have been considering. Protection is given by the Indian state to the military and it cannot be held accountable in a court of law within the civil structure of India. Abuses happen day in, day out, and mass graves have been found. Torture is commonplace—including of children, women and people with disabilities. We need an open arena where the issues can be discussed, rather than just pointing fingers. However, people must be held accountable. The country that purports to be the largest democracy in the world should be held to account for the way it treats its people. My constituents from Punjab in India raise significant issues in that respect and we should be keen for development and progress on those issues.

It is also important to reiterate the role of the United Nations. The hon. Member for Henley mentioned peacekeepers in relation to the United Nations, and it is important that we consider that, but the United Nations should be not just a peacekeeper, but a peacemaker.

Part of the failure of the United Nations is due to the partisan issues that have arisen in the Security Council and the inability to get resolutions through. There should be a far greater presence of the United Nations in these conflict areas, to avoid further escalation of violence there. That would certainly help. There has been too much political side-taking by different nations and countries—again, I point to where that has happened in the Security Council—but, if the purposes of the United Nations are to be fulfilled, the organisation must be fit for purpose. Over the 19 years of this century, at least, we have seen huge conflicts escalate.

We, as countries and nations, must also understand that when we put arms into an arena, when we do not like someone and want to support the fighters against them, we add additional weaponry to that arena. We have no guarantee who gets hold of that weaponry and no say over what they will do with it. It is important to recognise that fact in terms of Syria. The US needs to learn some lessons on this and perhaps we, in some instances, need to learn lessons on it: if we are prepared to put more arms into those conflict areas, they will get used, and we cannot be guarantors of who gets to use them and how things move forward.

I have asked the Minister a lot of the questions that Save the Children has raised and other hon. Members have raised. In addition, we need to understand that, after 70 years of this great legislation that we are here to support, it would be far better for countries and nations to have more jaw-jaw and less war-war.

I am grateful, as I am sure we all are, to the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) for securing this debate, and to all other right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions. I shall try, in the course of a slightly longer speech, to respond to all the points raised.

As the right hon. Lady said, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) reiterated, this year marks the 70th anniversary of the Geneva conventions, which were designed, after the terror and the horror of the second world war, to serve as a founding pillar of what we know today as international humanitarian law. They represent a clear affirmation that the principles of international humanitarian law are both neutral and universally recognised.

Today’s motion rightly highlights the central place of IHL in international efforts to protect civilians affected by conflict in our world today. There is little doubt that, as conflicts become increasingly complex, IHL will become ever more important and will expand as a body of law. Its underlying principles—the distinction between civilians, those hors de combat and combatants; the principle of necessity and the prohibition on the infliction of unnecessary suffering; the principle of proportionality; the observance of precautions in attack; and the principle of humanity—are all clear and unambiguous.

However, as many speakers have rightly pointed out, the nature of conflict is changing. Too often, the distinction between combatants and civilians, between a target that is legitimate and one that is not, has become blurred. Too often, civilians, including aid workers, are deliberately targeted. In almost all modern wars, it is not the combatants who suffer most, but the civilians. Indeed, as a number of hon. Members brought up, current patterns of violent conflict worldwide show that 90% of all casualties today are civilian. As urbanisation increases, the International Committee of the Red Cross has reported that there are

“some 50 million people worldwide affected by armed conflict in cities.”

The changing nature of conflict presents challenges for states such as the United Kingdom and our allies, who seek to provide humanitarian assistance and make a positive contribution to preserving international peace and security, and to ending conflict, including, where necessary, through military action. The UK Government are committed to facing those challenges, because we all take very seriously our commitments to international humanitarian law and to the protection of civilians in our operations and in the humanitarian contexts where we provide assistance.

Adherence to IHL is a paramount consideration in our approach to conflict, and when we encounter potential violations, we strongly support engaging the appropriate mechanisms to deal with them, while ensuring that we have a domestic legal framework that makes certain that our armed forces are fully accountable. A number of hon. Members will recognise that the Ministry of Defence has an important part to play in some of the questions I will come to in a moment or two, and those really relate to that Government Department.

The UK military is at pains to operate to the highest standards. It closely monitors and verifies the impact of our military activity. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield rightly pointed out that the increased use of social media provides a mechanism for not only the long-term maintenance of evidence, but, on a day-to-day basis, a recognition of where military or other individuals have gone beyond what is acceptable.

The protection of civilians is and will remain a central pillar of the UK’s approach to our humanitarian efforts and to managing conflict. It has been pointed out that we have played a leading role in the UN Security Council over 20 years in developing that international approach. If I might respond to what my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) said earlier, South Africa is currently the African nation on the Security Council, but Tunisia will join, and I very much hope it will play an important part in this, given the recent conflicts that have taken place there.

My hon. Friend will perhaps be aware that the Asian nations currently on the Security Council—Indonesia and Vietnam—have made questions around peacekeeping and the rights of combatants and civilians in war an important part of what they hope to achieve. I hope we will work together with those countries and others in the UN Security Council to raise the profile of many of those issues during the next two years and beyond.

To coincide with the 20th anniversary of the first resolution on this issue, we are undertaking a review of our approach to the protection of civilians in armed conflict, to ensure that it is fit for purpose in the context of modern conflicts and that it addresses all civilians, including children and other particularly vulnerable people, which goes to the heart of the point made by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire—

Sorry—West Dunbartonshire. The hon. Gentleman might well become the leader of the Liberal Democrat party if I am not careful.

I think the hon. Gentleman has a supporter in the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake).

The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire made a good point about recognising issues around disability, children and other groups. We do not want simply to look upon civilians as a single group, and part of what we are trying to achieve here is focused on what I think is a public demand on all these matters.

Our approach to the review embraces a cross-Whitehall consultation, as proposed by the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley, as well as consultations with civil society—we have made reference to Save the Children, but a number of other charities will play an important part in the review. When completed, we hope it will contain an agreed Government-wide position that will take account of all Government Departments.

To demonstrate what that means in practice, I will focus on three main areas: our international engagement, our work on international peacekeeping, and our domestic activity to promote and uphold international humanitarian law. On the international stage, as a number of hon. Members have pointed out, our permanent seat on the UN Security Council bestows on us an important responsibility to protect civilians and uphold IHL, whenever and wherever international peace and security are under threat. We have not shied away from those responsibilities.

In terms of the review, is the Minister aware that the World Bank has changed from a system of trying to put out today’s fires to one of trying to identify what fires will occur tomorrow and to prevent them? Should we not adopt something similar for the UN?

To an extent, I agree. Obviously, predictions of the future are always fraught with difficulty; a number of the conflicts I am going to touch on now might have been predictable 10 or 15 years ago, but others have arisen unexpectedly. We need a flexible system, but there is some sense in having that forward-looking approach at the UN as well as at the World Bank.

In Iraq, the UK has been at the forefront of efforts to ensure accountability for the crimes committed by Daesh, the so-called Islamic State. Through a Security Council resolution adopted in 2017, we helped to establish a UN investigative team to support the Iraqi Government in the collection, preservation and storage of evidence linked to Daesh crimes.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield pointed out on Syria, we co-sponsored the UN General Assembly resolution in December 2016 that established the international impartial and independent mechanism for Syria, which was designed to deliver accountability for horrific atrocities, including the deliberate targeting of civilians and the use of chemical weapons.

On Myanmar, the UK was the penholder at the UN Security Council that co-sponsored the creation of the UN fact-finding mission, which concluded that ethnic cleansing had been carried out against the Rohingya by the Myanmar military and could amount to genocide. We worked in the UN Human Rights Council to establish a unique investigative mechanism to collect and preserve evidence of atrocities for future prosecutions, recognising—tragically, I am afraid, in certain cases—that those who need to be brought to account will possibly remain in office for many years to come. None the less, we have a reliable and legally watertight mechanism to hold them to account. I would like to think that our country has played a leadership role, but, of course, we do not do this alone; we work with like-minded partners to address conflict situations, such as in Sudan, Yemen, Libya and the horn of Africa.

Let me come on to some of the contributions made in the debate. Risks around serious or major violations of international humanitarian law, or abuse of human rights, are a key part of our assessment against the IHL consolidation criteria. In relation to arms exports, a licence will not be issued to any country if so to do would be inconsistent with any provision of the mandatory criteria, including where we assess that there is a clear risk that arms might be used in the commission of a serious violation of IHL. The situation is kept under careful and continual review. We examine every application rigorously, on a case-by-case basis. That applies in Yemen, with Saudi Arabia, but also in many other walks. The test is designed to be forward looking. A licence will not be issued to Saudi Arabia or any other country if to do so would be inconsistent with any provision of the consolidated EU or national arms export licensing criteria.

On arms exports, unless there is proper end-use management—which we do not do—we cannot be confident in the assertions that the Minister makes.

While the Minister is collecting points to come on to, does he agree that it is not a good idea for investigations into breaches of international humanitarian law to be undertaken by one of the parties to the conflict, namely Saudi Arabia? Is it not better to agree that, under UN auspices, any such inquiries should be neutral? Otherwise, it is akin to a student marking their own homework.

I wish I had homework that I could mark these days—it is more my children’s homework that I have to do that with now. My right hon. Friend makes a valid point. Above all, the issue is less to do with whether that is desirable, and more about the credibility in the international community of such outcomes. He makes a fair point.

To return to the point made by the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley, the operational end-use monitoring and the establishment of a dedicated civilian casualty mitigation and investigation team are an MOD lead. I will ensure that her speech is passed to my friends over in that Department, although I am sure they are well aware of the concerns raised here today. The issue relates to operations in the field and is therefore an MOD matter. From our side, we are trying to improve data collection, as I referred to, in other parts of the world. We feel that that may have an important part of play. There is project underway with the University of Manchester looking at many of these related issues, and I hope the right hon. Lady will be able to feed into that.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), who is no longer in his place, made a point about child soldiers. The UK is firmly committed to ending the recruitment and use of child soldiers and to the protection of all children affected by armed conflict. We are an active member of the United Nations Security Council working group on children and armed conflict. I believe it will be an important part of the Indonesian presidency next year that they want to address this terrible issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Henley talked about Africa, and I have discussed the Security Council issues a little. Uganda, Senegal and Ghana—I am not sure they are all on his hit list, and I have put them in reverse alphabetical order—are working with the US and other countries, looking at positive reform of the International Criminal Court. We would obviously like to see more activity in Africa, given the prevalence of concerns that have arisen from that part of the world, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out.

The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington made an important point about drones, their legality and the implications of the German High Court ruling. The MOD leads on this, but we will look closely at that German High Court ruling. Upholding IHL is already integral to any assistance that we would provide to other states. This matter is under review at the moment through the MOD.

On that point, I and other Members here today would like something in writing from the Minister, once those discussions have been completed.

I am happy to undertake to do that.

I want to talk about the challenges that our UN peacekeepers face. In today’s modern conflicts, missions are facing increasing asymmetric and physical threats, and they can be targets themselves. The importance of finding political solutions remains paramount. We are committed to improvements in peacekeeping. We will continue to call for support to improve the three Ps of peacekeeping—planning, pledges and performance—as we, along with 63 nations, set out in a communiqué at the 2016 UN peacekeeping Defence ministerial meeting in London.

I realise that time is getting tight, and if there are matters that I have not been able to bring up, I will respond in writing. I will make sure my team looks through the Hansard transcript.

A key approach is that there should be no impunity. Primary responsibility for investigation and prosecution of the most serious international crimes rests with states themselves, but where those states are unable or unwilling to fulfil their responsibilities, other justice mechanisms, such as the International Criminal Court, have an important role to play. The UK remains one of the foremost contributors to the ICC, and we will work to ensure that the court undergoes the necessary reforms to enable it to fulfil its mandate as the court of last resort, as intended under the Rome statute. We have been strong advocates of ad hoc and hybrid international tribunals, such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and its successor, as well as the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and the Residual Special Court for Sierra Leone.

UN peacekeeping is an important aspect of the protection of civilians, and we will continue to work with the international community on it. In addition to our international efforts, we are working domestically to ensure that we are doing all we can to uphold IHL in the interests of protecting civilians. We have established a centre of excellence for human security, which will deliver extended training on the protection of civilians; women, peace and security; human trafficking and sexual exploitation; and cultural property protection. Ours is the first military in the world to have a dedicated national defence policy on human security. The centre will help other militaries. We have also had a safe schools declaration, to support the continuation of education during armed conflict, and the publication of our “Voluntary Report on the Implementation of International Humanitarian Law at Domestic Level”.

Mr Bone, I appreciate that you want to ensure that the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley has a moment to speak at the end of the debate, but, if I may, I want to conclude by saying that our support, recognised, I think, by everyone in the House, for the principles, rules and instruments of international humanitarian law remains unwavering. The robust framework is designed with the protection of civilians in mind. We take our responsibilities seriously, and I am glad that the House feels as strongly as we do. The review is under way, and I am convinced it will be a great success, not least because it will have input from Members here and from a range of bodies with these interests at heart. I hope we can discuss these matters again in the House before too long.

indicated dissent.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the continued importance of international humanitarian law in protecting civilians in conflict.