My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question asked in another place on the decision of the United Kingdom Government to abstain from voting on the resolution of the Human Rights Council held on 18 May calling for an independent investigation into the recent violence in Gaza. The Statement is as follows:
“We abstained on calls for a commission of inquiry into recent violence in Gaza during the UN Human Rights Council session on Friday. Unfortunately, the substance of the resolution was impartial and unbalanced. We could not support an investigation that refused to explicitly examine the action of non-state actors such as Hamas. An investigation of this kind would not provide us with a comprehensive assessment of accountability. It would risk hardening positions on both sides and move us further away from finding a just and lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
However, the United Kingdom continues to fully support the need for an independent and transparent investigation into recent events. We call directly on Israel to carry out a transparent inquiry into the IDF’s conduct at the border fence and to demonstrate how this will achieve a sufficient level of independence. We believe that this investigation should include international members. We urge that the findings of such an investigation be made public, and if wrongdoing is found, that those responsible are held to account. The Foreign Secretary stressed the importance of Israel conducting an independent investigation when he spoke to Prime Minister Netanyahu on 16 May”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, last Tuesday the Minister agreed with many on the need for an international, independent investigation. In fact, he assured the House that our team at the UN would be working hard on this, and that he would report back on progress. I hope that the Minister can explain why, if the Government were dissatisfied with what appeared at the Human Rights Council, the UK did not submit its own resolution to address this issue? Why not set it out in a way that last week we were all happy to support?
The noble Lord is quite right to say that the Government’s position has been, and remains, to support an independent and transparent investigation into recent events. In this case, we joined European allies—notably Germany, Slovakia, Hungary and Croatia—in abstaining on calls for a commission of inquiry. I made the reasons for our abstention clear in my opening remarks. To that end, we were concerned that the resolution as presented could not be perceived as balanced because it did not look to ensure that non-state actors were fully considered. We remain true to the fact, however, that we will continue to work through all channels, calling for an international investigation into the events in Gaza last week. There is, as the noble Lord will know, a UN resolution at the Security Council on the situation regarding Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. We are aware that Kuwait has also tabled a draft resolution. We are currently considering the text carefully and will make a decision on the way forward on that in due course.
My Lords, how does the noble Lord feel personally about this decision? He and his colleagues have repeatedly called for the facts to be established, so how does that square with abstaining on this matter? The Statement rightly asks for an independent and transparent investigation. Why, then, does it go on to ask one side—Israel—to carry this out?
My Lords, we made clear at the Human Rights Council the importance of any independent investigation. We sit on the Human Rights Council and we always stress the importance of co-operating, and we sought to do so. We did not vote against the resolution but abstained because we had reservations about the wording as it stood. We were not alone in that: I believe there was a total of 14 abstentions.
The noble Baroness asked about the Government’s position, which has been consistent. We want to see a resolution to the situation between Israel and the Palestinians, and we want to see an inquiry into the events that occurred last week in Gaza. Regrettably, children’s lives were lost. For that reason, we wanted to ensure that all material facts could be fully reviewed by any investigation that had been set up. We felt that the UN Human Rights Council resolution fell short of the requirement to ensure that any factors from the side of Hamas inciting others to act in this way were going to be fully considered. That was regrettable, and that is why the UK Government abstained from voting for the resolution.
Does the Minister recall that, only just over a year ago, the Government announced that they were putting the United Nations Human Rights Council on notice for its disproportionate focus on Israel? It is a council that contains countries not noted for their support of human rights, such as Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Qatar and Burundi. Would he entrust the council with an independent investigation into, for example, the behaviour of British soldiers in Iraq? I am pretty sure that I know what his answer will be.
My Lords, the noble Baroness points to Item 7 of the Human Rights Council, concerning various resolutions relating to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The Government have made their position clear to members of the Human Rights Council and to the Palestinians and the Israelis—that we want to see any bias in the Human Rights Council agenda addressed directly. That is what we have sought to do in the last few years, and the votes that we have taken have reflected that. Let me say again that, while we have reservations, we continue to be an active member of the Human Rights Council and we are supportive of its actions. Most recently, there were special sessions concerning a call for action on the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma, and the Government have been supportive of those efforts. In any investigation that is held, impartiality and independence are important, as is balance, which is why the Government abstained.
To follow the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, it is important, as my noble friend the Minister has said, to have impartiality and balance. Tragic events took place in Gaza, where, in my opinion, there was a hugely disproportionate use of force—lethal force—by the Israelis. However, this was whipped up by Hamas. We know that and, indeed, I understand that Hamas has claimed that over 50 of the dead people were allegedly members of Hamas. That is not a capital offence, in my opinion, and there was disproportionate use of force, but any investigation must be impartial, and I do not think that that was on offer at the UN Human Rights Council.
My Lords, my noble friend raises the issue of the number of lives lost. I believe that over the two days, the count was 60. As my noble friend pointed out, Hamas itself claims that 50 of those killed were members of Hamas. There is another issue, to which my noble friend again alluded: the use of force and live fire. I assure your Lordships’ House that the Government continue to call for restraint. Indeed, when I was in Israel most recently, I directly asked the Ministers concerned to ensure that, in any conduct—be it in Gaza or elsewhere—the Government of Israel show such restraint. There were others whose lives were lost. I believe that six children lost their lives during the events of last week, and we all mourn the loss of life of such innocent young children.
The central point of the inquiry, as my noble friend said, is impartiality, balance and independence. The Government’s view was that the text that was tabled was not impartial and would not fulfil that objective.
My Lords, given the shocking loss of life as a result of the use of live ammunition against unarmed protestors in Gaza, and given what the Minister has just said about the need for an impartial, international, independent inquiry into what happened, can he reassure the House that the Government will not abstain when the resolution put forward by Kuwait comes before the Security Council? It would be enormously helpful, and very reassuring, to many people in this country who are deeply shocked by the violence that took place if he could do that this evening.
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Collins, I am a little mystified as to why the Government did not manage to secure a better draft in the Human Rights Council, so that we did not end up looking very weak on the issue. The Minister will know that I have secured a balloted debate for a week on Thursday when we come back. I hope that by that time he will have been able to satisfy the noble Baroness and that the resolution in the Security Council will be supported by the British Government.
I thank the noble Lord for his question. The Government, and our ambassador in Geneva, were seeking the kind of text which we could agree with others. However, that was not possible; we are not the sole members of the Human Rights Council. After looking at the text in front of us, the decision was taken that it did not fulfil the full criteria, particularly on the issue of other, non-state actors. That is why we abstained. I assure the noble Lord, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that our ambassador on the ground, through instruction from London, sought to get the kind of language that would have been acceptable to the United Kingdom.