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Geneva Conventions and United Nations Personnel

Volume 707: debated on Tuesday 27 January 2009

Second Reading

Moved By

My Lords, the Geneva Conventions and United Nations Personnel (Protocols) Bill will give effect to two international agreements. Both agreements aim to enhance the protection of personnel operating with a humanitarian purpose. Enactment of this Bill will enable the United Kingdom to become a party to the third additional protocol to the Geneva conventions and the optional protocol to the Convention on the Safety of United Nations and Associated Personnel.

The first clause amends the Geneva Conventions Act 1957 to allow ratification of the third protocol to the Geneva conventions. The protocol was signed by the United Kingdom in December 2005. It introduced a new humanitarian emblem, the red crystal, in addition to the existing emblems of the red cross and the red crescent. Like these, the red crystal is designed to be a protective device for humanitarian personnel in armed conflict. The emblem of a red cross on a white background has been used for nearly 150 years as a universal humanitarian emblem in times of armed conflict. The red crescent emblem was later given the same function. Both are symbols of the protection that the medical services of the armed forces and those in their care enjoy under the Geneva conventions. More recently this protection has been extended to include medical services.

However, as conflicts become more complex, the scope for misunderstanding of these emblems has increased. In some situations, the red cross and the red crescent are wrongly seen as having a religious connotation. The red crystal was therefore introduced to be used wherever the protection given by the other emblems might be compromised. The symbol can also be used by National Societies of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movements, such as those in Israel and Eritrea, which feel unable to identify with either the cross or the crescent or do not wish to choose between the two.

The creation of the red crystal was part of a package which also paved the way for the Israeli and Palestinian national societies to join the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in 2005. Recent events in Gaza have reminded us of the importance of effective humanitarian protection in conflict situations.

Once ratified, the protocol will enable the United Kingdom’s defence medical services to use any or a combination of the three distinctive emblems. In any conflict situation, armed forces will be able to choose the emblem likely to afford maximum protection to their medical services and their patients. The United Kingdom has played a major part in the adoption of the red crystal, which has been widely accepted. The protocol has been ratified already by 36 states. By ratifying, the United Kingdom will show its commitment to the development of international humanitarian law.

The implementing legislation before the House will amend the Geneva Conventions Act, which protects the red cross and red crescent against misuse under criminal law. As the protocol requires, the Bill provides the same protection to the new emblem as is already available to the red cross and the red crescent by making it an offence to misuse any of the three humanitarian emblems.

The Bill’s second clause amends the United Nations Personnel Act 1997 to give effect to the optional protocol to the Convention on the Safety of United Nations and Associated Personnel adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 8 December 2005. This optional protocol extends the scope of legal protection to United Nations and associated personnel engaged in UN operations.

UN activity in this domain was initiated in 1994 with the adoption of the Convention on the Safety of United Nations and Associated Personnel. The convention was adopted in response to rising casualties among UN peacekeepers and other personnel. The convention requires member states to prevent and punish, through domestic and criminal law, attacks on UN personnel and others associated with UN operations, extradite perpetrators of such acts and take other ancillary measures.

The scope of the convention is relatively narrow, applying to only two categories of UN operations: those maintaining or restoring international peace and security; or those where the Security Council or the General Assembly has declared that there exists an exceptional risk to the safety of the personnel participating in the operation. However, in practice neither the Security Council nor the General Assembly has made that required declaration, leaving many UN workers without the protection the convention was intended to provide. This narrow scope of protection has been heavily criticised, particularly by the previous United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, who for some years had called for a protocol to extend the protection to those UN personnel not otherwise covered. His deputy at the time made similar calls. These were echoed at the world summit in September 2005.

In response, on 8 December 2005 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted an optional protocol to the 1994 convention. The new protocol extends the scope of protection to two new categories: operations for the purpose of delivering humanitarian, political or development assistance in peacebuilding, and operations for the purpose of delivering emergency humanitarian assistance. The need for measures of this nature is as relevant as ever, as global demands on UN peacekeeping fail to cease. In a speech to the United Nations Security Council delivered on 8 January this year, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, expressed concern that the deliberate targeting of humanitarian workers has increased, establishing a tension between the imperatives of staff safety and effective humanitarian action.

If the courageous men and women involved are to continue to fulfil these vital roles they must have the full weight of international law behind them. Through its EU presidency the UK played a leading role in enabling the adoption of the protocol of the General Assembly before the end of 2005. Ratifying the protocol will reinforce the UK’s commitment to it, as well as encouraging further states to become parties to the 1994 convention. Given the need for the UK to be seen to be agreeing with the international consensus on these valuable initiatives, it should be regarded as an absolute minimum for the UK to ratify the two protocols contained in the Bill. For that reason, I commend it to the House. I beg to move.

My Lords, I am sure the House will be grateful to the Minister for moving the Second Reading of this short Bill, at a sadly appropriate time. The Bill has two objectives: to amend the Geneva Conventions Act 1957, as he has explained, and to amend the UN Personnel Act 1997.

The first aim marks a new stage in the use and application of protective and distinctive emblems to cover the work of those who are bringing care and relief to victims of battle, prisoners of war and people everywhere, including civilians, who are in crisis—a familiar scene that we have seen a thousand times in reality or on television screens. It does so by introducing and legalising this new additional emblem to the existing red cross and red crescent, to be called the “red crystal”, which is intended to be both protective and indicative, marked on vehicles and on the armbands and uniforms of personnel in the field. It also extends the penalties for misuse or abuse of this symbol and, as I understand it—I hope I have got this right—of the existing symbols as well. It is not often that one handles a Bill that has a picture in it. It is not, alas, in the colour that it ought to be, but it is an unusual departure from the grim, ordinary pattern of legislative documents placed before us.

The second aim, as the Minister explained, is to strengthen the safety of the conditions surrounding UN and associated personnel by extending their legal protection against attack, assault and danger to a wider range of operations. Both aims are commendable, and both are sadly relevant to the modern world and to events current even while we speak. The bravery of those who work under these emblems of neutrality and mercy, and of UN personnel in battle zones, cannot be exaggerated. It is easy to talk about, but it is immeasurable and shows enormous courage. That applies also to aid workers, whose position we discussed earlier in your Lordships' House when my noble friend Lady Rawlings raised an important Question on that issue

We strongly support the aims, but I have a number of questions for the Minister on which I hope he will have a chance to comment when he winds up this short debate. Although the expansion of symbols from the simple red cross to the red crescent comes down to us from the 19th century—indeed, at one stage, there was even a red lion and sun for the Persians and Iranians, and a red flame for the Thailanders—and arises from all manner of religious and ethnic concerns, it is a sad fact that the original red cross was never intended to be a religious symbol; it was simply the reversal of the Swiss flag, which is a white cross on a red background, and an emblem of that very precious and nowadays abused concept of true neutrality. That is all long ago, and it is no use crying over spilt milk, but it is where we have got to today.

If the cross and crescent have served so well, what is the main reasoning behind adding the new symbol? Are we being driven by the needs of a very small number of countries? Which countries want something different and are unable to accept either the cross or the crescent? The spirit behind these symbols is and must be complete and utter neutrality. Is that essential quality in any way weakened or diluted by the arrival of the third symbol?

We know about the Israeli problem, which the Minister has mentioned, and we know the Israeli preference for the Star of David. The proposition seems to be that, as they are now admitted to the international federation, they can combine the Star of David with the red crystal logo wrapped around it. Is that correct, and does it provide exactly the same protection under international law as the cross and the crescent?

Who exactly decides who can use the new symbol and where? I think that there is an answer, but I would like to hear it from the Minister. Will the combination emblems, be it the logo of the crystal with either the cross, the crescent or the Star of David, be fully operative for both indicative and protective purposes in all cases?

How will the new emblem affect the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies or the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement? Will “crystal” come into any of their titles in the future? Will there be a new international red crystal organisation?

I turn to the aspect of the Bill that concerns UN personnel. Again, I have a few questions. Does the UN protocol cover all bodies; for example, the UN refugee centre in Gaza? There have been comments about the scope of the previous personnel convention, and suggestions that it did not give the full cover required. The Minister, with his considerable experience at the UN, is an expert in this field and will be able to tell us about that.

Secondly, how many states are party to the convention on the safety of UN personnel, and how many states will be party to the enhancement and extension of it? Thirdly, the protocol now extends to UN personnel working in more clearly defined conditions of exceptional risk. The problem led to understandable complaints from Kofi Annan and others that the cover was not good enough. Now that it extends beyond the narrower concept of peacekeeping and humanitarian work, how many of the current UN operations will have the protection of this convention? There are many such operations in this world at the moment—too many, as we know to our cost.

That completes my questions on a Bill that all reasonable people will welcome. We remain supportive of this endeavour and of the people who have shaped it. It has been created and established after many delays and debates, and we hope that it will bring more humanity to a dark and violent world.

My Lords, we on these Benches also support the Bill. As humanitarian action has become more organised and more international, so too must the protection of those involved. The Red Cross movement has a long and extraordinary history, and the steady expansion of the UN’s role is surely welcome. We have debated repeatedly what can be done to protect people in desperate circumstances, and the UN's duty to protect was recently strengthened. Following increased international action, we must improve what we do to protect those brave people identified by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, who are involved in such missions. That is what the Bill is about.

The Geneva Conventions and the use of the symbol of the red cross in the 19th century—related, as we have heard, to the Swiss flag—were the first moves in this direction. We have heard how Ottoman soldiers reacted to the symbol because it was reminiscent of the Crusaders' badge—hence the use of the red crescent. As the noble Lord, Lord Howell, mentioned, Persia later used a red lion. Others proposed other symbols, but in 1949 it was these symbols—the cross, the crescent and the lion—that were recognised internationally, and other contenders were not accepted.

The emblems serve an important purpose as signs of neutrality, and to bring protection on the battlefield. Even when they were adopted, there were problems with their use, and some feeling that they were not sufficiently inclusive. That feeling has grown and become more pressing with the rise of religious and ethnic conflicts. It seems that their efficacy has been undermined by identification with one group or another. Also, some national societies have had difficulty using one emblem because of the diversity of their communities.

From the discussions over this there emerged, almost a decade ago, the red crystal, seen as a symbol free from religious, national, cultural, ethnic or political symbolism. What happens when another symbol is placed within it, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, mentioned, remains unclear. Given that it emerged a decade ago, we should expedite this measure, to improve protection and give greater universality to the symbols available to the movement.

The new emblem could, of course, apply to British Armed Forces operating in appropriate circumstances—Afghanistan and Iraq might be cases in point. Humanitarian assistance in the Middle East, which is so desperately needed at the moment, could also benefit. As the Minister said, the red crystal emblem has already enabled the Israeli National Society to be recognised. The Palestine Red Crescent Society has also been admitted to the movement, thus increasing the universality of this humanitarian network.

The second clause in this Bill extends the scope of legal protection to UN and associated personnel engaged in UN operations for delivering humanitarian, political or development assistance in peacebuilding, or for delivering humanitarian assistance generally. This reflects the expansion of the UN’s role and its work in places such as Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s. The move to introduce a protocol gained added momentum in August 2003, when Iraqi insurgents blew up the UN headquarters in Baghdad, killing 20 UN employees, including the UN special envoy to Iraq.

The expansion of the scope of automatic application of the convention to include peace-building operations and emergency humanitarian assistance operations is very important. It must be very satisfying for the Minister to find himself taking this through as a Minister in his home country, having been involved in the development of these protections while at the UN. However, it has been suggested that there are some limitations still. Could the noble Lord comment on whether some UN bodies remain outside its scope? For example, emergency humanitarian assistance operations established by autonomous organisations within the UN system and by the specialised agencies seem not to be covered as they were not established by UN charter bodies. So, for example, operations established by the Food and Agriculture Organisation or the World Health Organisation would not be within the scope of the protocol. If they fall outside the scope, does the Minister know of moves to include them?

There is also a concern about the number of states signing up to its provisions. The convention, more than 10 years after its adoption, has only 79 countries signed up out of a UN membership of 191, and some of those that are not signed up are where UN personnel are operating. I have heard that only four out of the 16 countries where UN personnel are operating have signed up. What comment would the noble Lord make on this?

Nevertheless these provisions are a move forward and to be welcomed. It cannot be for us to change this Bill; that will need to be built into future UN agreements and then ratified by member countries. But while we are discussing the issues of where now, can I ask when legislation might be brought forward in relation to the remaining international humanitarian law treaties to which the UK is not yet a party? I gather that in 1977 the UK entered a reservation on reprisals—that in extreme circumstances the UK retained the right to reprisals. Could the noble Lord comment? What else has the UK not yet signed up to, and why? For example, there is the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, and its two protocols. A draft Bill on this was published in January 2008. The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee undertook an inquiry and published a report in July 2008, but the Bill was not included in the Queen's Speech. It might be helpful if the noble Lord could say when this Bill might come forward. In the mean time, I wish to make it very clear that we welcome this Bill today.

My Lords, I shall speak briefly in support of this Bill, which will enable Britain to ratify the Third Additional Protocol for the Geneva Conventions and the Optional Protocol on the Safety of UN and Associated Personnel. In so doing, I declare an interest as the chair of the United Nations Association of the United Kingdom. Like my predecessor in this debate, I congratulate the Minister on the rather unusual possibility of playing the ball from one end of the table and getting round to the other end in time to play it back again.

No trend in recent years has been more shocking or despicable than the rise in attacks on UN and humanitarian personnel. Some episodes, such as the terrorist attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad in 2003, which resulted in the death of the UN’s greatly admired Special Representative Sergio Vieira de Mello, received widespread publicity, as did the recent attacks on UN schools in Gaza; but far too many of these incidents pass over almost unnoticed by a general public who have become inured to such tragedies. I ask the Minister whether it is not high time that the Government took steps to commemorate with a public memorial the sacrifice by British citizens serving the UN and associated actions in this kind of operation.

In any case, the least that we can do to help the effort to reverse this lamentable trend is to pass this legislation and, by so doing, to make our own modest contribution to providing greater protection and security to UN and associated personnel. The other provision in the Bill that will enable us to ratify the amendment to the Geneva Conventions recognising a third symbol, in addition to the red cross and the red crescent; namely, the red diamond—or another word that escapes me at the moment—seems to me equally worthy of support and extremely topical in a period that has seen hostilities in a region where the addition of the new symbol could be genuinely valuable.

I should add that I doubt whether merely a confusion over symbols lies at the heart of some of the truly appalling incidents of disrespect for the basic precepts of international humanitarian law in and around Gaza. That is more properly a matter for debate that has, alas, lamentably been postponed for another 10 days, and in which I will unfortunately not be able to participate. I urge, therefore, that we give this measure a rapid and trouble-free passage through the House.

I was a little startled to hear the noble Lord, Lord Howell, suggest that there were too many UN conventions. I am not sure which ones he would propose to cull, but I may have misunderstood what he said, and if so, I apologise.

On the basis of recent experience, I suspect that if you were to ask the BBC whether it supported a measure designed to protect UN and associated personnel, it would decline on the basis that that would undermine its impartiality. As a lifetime supporter of the BBC’s right to exercise its own editorial judgment, I would not budge from that view, deeply though its decision to refuse to screen the Gaza appeal has dismayed and angered many of its friends. However, I reserve the right to say that I personally regard that decision as aberrant.

My Lords, I indicate on behalf of Magen David Adom, which translates as “red shield of David”, and of whose British friends I have the privilege of being president, that the Bill is warmly welcomed.

The history of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent is magnificent in regard to the work it has done to help people injured in situations of war or many other situations. It is also possible to recognise Magen David Adom, with the shield of David painted very visibly on its ambulances, which it uses in the vicinity of the Gaza strip to remove injured people regardless of religion or race from situations of danger, at much risk to those operating the vehicles. That fact has perhaps not been noted by the media. It is to be hoped that the fact that in future they can take advantage of the red crystal—the Hebrew for which I do not know—will be of benefit.

It might be asked, as indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, why we should have another symbol if existing symbols have acquired the reputation to which I have referred. The fact is that when the Israeli aid service could not appropriately use either the red cross or the red crescent, they used another symbol. After long negotiation, carried out in an amicable spirit between the authorities of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, the formula was devised of avoiding the undesirable multiplication of symbols and substituting a clearly neutral symbol. Perhaps it is to be welcomed that the international services were able to achieve beneficial results in those circumstances.

My Lords, the Bill has received a warm welcome from all sides of the House. I want to add only one or two short points. First, which symbol do the Government intend to use on medical vehicles? If, in humanitarian peacekeeping in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, there is a strong argument for our moving to the red crystal, can the Minister assure us that government Ministers will be robust in standing up to the unavoidable and inevitable response from the Daily Mail, the Sun and others if we shift from one symbol to another?

Secondly, I wish to make further remarks on the concept of true neutrality for the UN and elsewhere. We have all learned that, sadly, many people in the world do not accept the concept that any organisation can be truly neutral. I fear that we have suffered to an extent from those neoconservatives in the United States who wanted to make sure that the UN is the servant of a particular concept of world order—the West alone. That has not helped the UN and is the sort of attitude to the UN that helped to fuel the dreadful events in Bagdad. I knew well one of those badly injured in the Bagdad bombing. We need to make sure that international organisations are seen to be as non-partisan as possible, even while recognising that there will always be some groups, some non-state actors, who simply refuse to recognise that anyone can be neutral in any single way.

More and more humanitarian operations of the sort to which this extends protection will be taking place in parts of the world where there is no recognised authority or clear state, and where the idea of local authority will be highly contested. We have seen across the Great Lakes region, Sudan and elsewhere, the problems of trying to exist on law being enforced, particularly international law, and international courts. It throws extra complexity and extra tension into an already difficult situation. Perhaps the Minister would like to comment on how we should cope with international courts and international rights being added.

Thirdly, the question of territorial extent under Clause 3 always comes up in Bills like this. I do not expect the Minister to reply to this, but I am always puzzled by the extent to which we allow very small territories, much smaller in extent than those which Her Majesty’s Government regard as appropriate for any local authority in Britain, to opt in or opt out of these very evident international organisations—the Isle of Man, the British Overseas Territories, the Channel Islands and so on. At some stage soon the House is going to have to ask the Government for a clear definition of how much we allow the British territories to opt in and out of very clear international obligations, rather than accepting that we legislate for them.

My Lords, I thank all who have participated for their support for this Bill and for this thoughtful debate. I begin by reassuring the noble Lord, Lord Howell, that the introduction of the crystal will not in any way undermine the standing of the other two symbols. Indeed, it is the hope of those who came to this solution that creating a third religiously neutral symbol would prevent a proliferation of other symbols. It is hoped that the protections available to the first two symbols will be extended to this third one so they will all be on a level playing field and enjoy restored respect. In that way, the worrying, debilitating and degenerative fight about whether the first two symbols were becoming religious in nature would be at an end and the symbols would once more enjoy, we hope, universal authority and the power to protect because they would be respected. The protocol clearly covers under exactly what circumstances a country can adopt and incorporate its own symbol, as Israel has done. In much of this, the parties to the agreement will police it and make sure that people are satisfied that it is used within the framework of what has been agreed.

I suppose I should be relieved that on one ground at least I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and, through him, to the Daily Mail, that the British Red Cross is safe with this Government. It is not our intention, nor is it the intention of the British Red Cross movement, to change the name or the emblem. There is a lot of history behind it and it will stay that way, so the Daily Mail can relax. That said, over time we expect more and more countries to avail themselves of the Red Crystal because unfortunately the polarisation around religion and religious symbols seems likely to grow rather than dissolve as the world moves forward. On whether there is special pleading behind this and whether it covers more than a small handful of countries, the original initiative within the Red Cross movement came from the need to find a way to include Israel in a way that it felt met its needs. That then got entangled with the separate issue of how to allow the Palestinian Red Crescent movement in. Eritrea is also reluctant to use the first two symbols. So there is a general sense that the crystal will get increased usage moving forward. It is just a sad commentary on the way of the world we live in.

Let me turn to the UN clause. As a number of noble Lords were kind enough to say, it is a great pleasure for me to see through this piece of national legislation. One of the darkest clouds of my latter years at the UN was the severity and growing frequency of attacks on UN humanitarian workers. Let me be clear that this protocol alone will not solve that problem. It is an important step and a demonstration by the UK that we take this very seriously. However, as it is not on UK territories that threats to UN humanitarian workers are likely to occur, we are in a sense trying to lead by example in doing this, encouraging others to adopt the protocol. More critically, we are encouraging them to recognise in their own justice systems and the priorities that they set for themselves that attacks on humanitarian workers—particularly UN workers, the category covered by this protocol—is a heinous offence that they must address.

The core point is how many countries with UN peacekeeping or major humanitarian missions have so far adopted the protocol. The Central African Republic, Cyprus, Lebanon, Liberia and Sierra Leone all have UN missions and are signatories to the protocol as well. Of the original convention, 87 countries have ratified it, while 34 have signed the protocol and 16 have fully ratified it as well. Perhaps we need to look at that sub-group most clearly.

The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, queried our record on other outstanding international legislation. I reassure her that the draft Heritage Protection Bill contains the necessary implementing legislation that will enable the Government to ratify the Hague convention. The draft Bill was published in April 2008 and is currently subject to pre-legislative scrutiny and public consultation. We remain committed to it, and it will be brought forward at a later date as soon as parliamentary time allows. I know from the difficulty we had fitting even this minnow of a Bill into your Lordships’ busy legislative programme and that of the other place, that this is currently a difficult issue; we have a bit of a queue of legislation. However, I reassure the noble Baroness that we have by no means lost focus on this. We recognise that legislation’s importance.

The suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, for there to be a public memorial to UN personnel killed in the course of duty certainly appeals to me and is very much part of the broader issue that we want to address in terms of giving proper respect to those who lose their lives, and fits within a culture of respect and, for that matter, protection. I plan to share the idea with others in Government to see whether we can move forward with it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, was right to say that the convention applies only to UN staff. I do not think that it is limited to just one subset of agencies, but she was correct to say that the Bill does not apply more broadly to humanitarian workers. We need continually to press for a fuller set of protections that would mean that people who work for Save the Children, Oxfam or other organisations were similarly protected. The Bill sets the right direction, but it is not all-embracing.

I conclude by asking the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

My Lords, I have temporarily lost my Minister, I therefore move that the House do adjourn during pleasure until 4.45 pm.

Sitting suspended.