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Ukraine: War Crimes Allegations

Volume 820: debated on Monday 4 April 2022

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to work with international partners to investigate allegations of war crimes following the massacre in Bucha, Ukraine, by Russian Armed Forces.

My Lords, we were all horrified, as we are now, by seeing evidence of appalling acts by Russian forces in the Ukrainian city of Bucha. Russia’s alleged indiscriminate attacks against civilians during this illegal invasion must be investigated as war crimes. We will fully support any investigations by the International Criminal Court, and we will not rest until those responsible for these atrocities have faced justice. The international community must continue to provide Ukraine with humanitarian and military support while stepping up sanctions to cut off funding for Mr Putin’s war machine.

My Lords, reports of atrocities coming out of Bucha must be investigated urgently. I welcome Her Majesty’s Government’s support for the war crimes investigation at the ICC, but what conversations have the Government had with our partners about an appropriate response should the ICC make a preliminary finding that war crimes have indeed been committed? What more can we do immediately not only to open up more humanitarian corridors but to ensure that they are protected, to get more people out and stop further atrocities taking place?

My Lords, on the right reverend Prelate’s second question, humanitarian corridors are being negotiated primarily between Ukraine and Russia, but equally it is Russia that is impeding those very corridors. I have seen myself through a visit to Poland—indeed, my right honourable friend is travelling to Poland today—the bravery of the people on the ground who are nevertheless providing humanitarian support and access into Ukraine. We are working very closely with the Ukrainian Government in that respect. On the issue of accountability and working with the ICC, the right reverend Prelate may know that we led a coalition of countries that has now secured the support of 40 other countries in support of the ICC investigation into what is under way in Ukraine, to investigate it fully. We are in close contact with the ICC prosecutor and are providing technical and financial support, and indeed professional support through the recent appointment of Sir Howard Morrison, in supporting the Ukrainian Government’s effort in gathering evidence.

My Lords, Dmytro Kuleba called yesterday for a special mission from the ICC and other international bodies. What is the Government’s assessment of a mission going to Bucha to ensure that evidence is gathered? What assessment has the Minister given to the calls for a special tribunal to prosecute Putin for these outrageous war crimes?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first point, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary will be meeting Foreign Minister Kuleba. As the noble Lord knows, we are in close and almost daily contact with the Ukrainian Government, including the Foreign Minister. They will be talking specifically to that very point, among other areas that the noble Lord has raised. On the issue of a new special criminal tribunal for Ukraine, as I have indicated, the UK has led efforts to refer the situation in Ukraine to the ICC prosecutor. That is why, certainly at this time, we are focusing our energy, assistance and resources in support of the ICC prosecutor’s investigation. As the noble Lord will be aware, the ICC prosecutor has himself visited Ukraine in pursuit of this objective.

My Lords, these horrific crimes are being perpetrated by units of the Russian military that we are aware of and mercenary groups that we are also aware of. While of course support for the ICC is vital, that will take time, but UK legislation can be used to send very strong signals that this activity is in breach of the Terrorism Act 2000, specifically its fifth factor to be considered, which is:

“the need to support other members of the international community in the global fight against terrorism.”

There is no doubt that these mercenary groups and military units are acting now in global terrorism. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the mechanisms of proscription orders against Russian mercenary groups and these specific units so that anyone engaging them will be breaking UK law anywhere in the world because of their extrajudicial characteristics?

Of course I will be pleased to meet the noble Lord. As I have said right from the start of this conflict, we are working across parties and across your Lordships’ House to bring forward whatever is required. I pay tribute to everyone across both Houses for the speed of the legislation and the reform that was required when it came to sanctions policy. I look forward to engaging with the noble Lord. I am delighted that the Minister of State for the Home Office, my noble friend Lady Williams, is still here; she and I are keeping in very close contact, and if there is further legislation that we can consider, we will be pleased to consider it.

My Lords, could the Minister say a little more about what the Government are doing to resource the very welcome appointment of Sir Howard Morrison to assist the Ukrainian Government in pursuing this appalling evidence of crimes? If he cannot say this at the Dispatch Box, could he write a letter, setting out what resources Sir Howard will have and how he will be able to help? Could the Minister also say what progress the prosecutor at the court appears to be making in amassing evidence and what we are doing to provide him with evidence, if we have any?

My Lords, there is a lot of detail to be shared in answering the noble Lord’s questions. We are certainly working very closely with Sir Howard Morrison, who was appointed by my right honourable friend the Attorney-General in conjunction with the Deputy Prime Minister and Attorney-General of Ukraine. We are working very closely in resourcing and supporting, including with technical and financial support. On the ICC prosecution, we have already allocated an initial £1 million to the ICC investigation to cover some set-up costs. We are meeting the ICC prosecutor regularly in establishing the technical support, and are looking at IT support. The offer that we have given also ranges from police and military analysis to specialist IT help, which is all helping the ICC to collect and preserve evidence. Of course, in the UK, the Met police has set up access and channel points to collect evidence from Ukrainians who are arriving here.

My Lords, when the investigations have taken place and conclusions have been reached, will the Government ensure that, by one means or another, these conclusions are passed to certain countries—even Commonwealth countries like India—that are all too ready to give the benefit of any doubt to the Russians in this conflict?

My Lords, that is why we are working very closely on ensuring that the work of the ICC has as wide a scope as possible. That means also securing the support of a wide range of countries. Indeed, when we first approached the ICC, 30-odd countries were supportive of this; that has now gone up to 40. I hear what the noble Lord says about the wider Commonwealth, and I am sure that, with the CHOGM that will take place in Rwanda in June, this will be one of the issues that will continue to dominate the discussions of the Commonwealth leaders.

My Lords, does not the evidence that a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council is using the massacre and torture of civilians as a considered military strategy potentially fundamentally undermine that security apparatus? Will the UK work with allies to radically rethink what we can do about our global security governance in the aftermath of these atrocities?

I totally agree with the noble Lord’s point—this is a fundamental challenge to the order that was established after the Second World War, and it is posed directly by a P5 nuclear state. It has tested and continues to test the very premise of the workings of the United Nations. The appalling and abhorrent nature of it is in not just the conflict and the abuse of the UN system but the fact that even the humanitarian provisions for conflict resolution and humanitarian support for the victims of war are being impeded by Russia. I will be at the UN next week, and this will be part and parcel of the discussions that we have with not just Security Council members but the wider UN family.

My Lords, would it be a sensible idea to compile a detailed list of all these documented war crimes and to present it to Russian ambassadors around the world—including London, of course—and to the ambassadors of all those countries that have abstained from UN resolutions?

My Lords, I hear what my noble friend says but our primary focus, which I believe is right at this time, is to co-ordinate the collection of evidence and to ensure that all countries that can work together are doing so and putting that into a single source of support for the ICC prosecutor. Of course, at a given time, that evidence will be shared, but at this time the immediate priority must be the collection of evidence in a co-ordinated fashion.

Does the Minister agree that the apparent kidnapping, torture and summary execution of the Ukrainian mayor of Motyzhyn, along with the apparent summary execution of her son and husband, is a particularly sinister development and may be a harbinger of even worse crimes to come?

My Lords, as the Russians pulled back from Bucha and other cities, I, like other noble Lords I am sure, was left speechless by what we saw unravelling on our screens. I have read reports at the FCDO qualifying some of the scenes that we have been seeing on our television screens. This is happening in 2022 in Europe—it is abhorrent and it churns the stomach. Equally, however, it should bring to focus our need to work together, collectively and collaboratively, to ensure that every perpetrator in the Russian regime, whoever they may be, is brought to account.

My Lords, precisely because of what the Minister has just said, we should all bear in mind that this is all denied by the Russians on the grounds that it is fake news, there are actors and it is not real. As we consider what is, as the Minister quite rightly says, unfolding on our screens, can this evidence not be presented by the United Kingdom in our capacity as a P5 member of the United Nations Security Council, as other noble Lords have mentioned?

My Lords, of course, we are sharing and presenting the evidence, but the evidence—indeed, the reality—is being rejected by Russia. It is sometimes said that the evidence, the truth, can be in front of your eyes but you deny it, and that is exactly what the Russians are doing. However, we will be unrelenting in our collaboration and co-ordination to ensure that the perpetrators of these crimes are brought to account.

My Lords, is the Minister able to enlarge on the statement made by the Prime Minister overnight that we will be sending military and police support to the Hague to help with the investigations that are under way, and that we will be working with our Five Eyes allies to collect evidence as well? Does he recall the question that I put to him last week about inviting Karim Kahn QC, the prosecutor of the ICC, to come here so that we can clarify the difference between the various phrases being used to describe these crimes—they are not genocide, but they are crimes against humanity and war crimes—and the existing mechanisms that there already are, which mean we do not need a new tribunal, because the existing inquiry into Donbass is already under way? Would it not be a good thing for Mr Kahn to come here to brief Members of both Houses?

My Lords, if Karim Khan is following our debates in Hansard, as he often does, I am sure that he will have seen the noble Lord being consistent in asking the prosecutor to come to the UK. As I have said before, he has a lot on his plate, understandably, but we are working closely with him. On the next opportunity we will—and I will personally, when I next see him—extend that invitation for him to come here to hear what noble Lords, indeed all parliamentarians, have to say on this issue. We are working very closely. The appointment of Sir Howard underlines the importance of close co-ordination. The noble Lord will know that Sir Howard himself was a very distinguished judge at the ICC.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the publication today of the pictures and name of the colonel named within the latest atrocities is a good development that might start to impact on the behaviour of the troops on the ground now rather than when it is too late? I agree entirely with the Government’s strategy, which is to support the international approach, get investigations started and collect evidence but, importantly, to get investigators on the ground as soon as possible. The images that are coming back clearly show evidence, literally on the ground—both in terms of people, sadly, and in physical terms—which will be lost. The sooner the investigators can safely get in there, the less will be lost and, frankly, the more people will be held to account. Our evidence from Yugoslavia is that the system works; it usually goes right to the top—exactly as it should—but the people on the ground need to be held to account for the murders, rapes and the other atrocities that we are seeing.

I agree with the noble Lord; he of course speaks with great insight and knowledge on various issues, particularly on investigations of crimes on the ground. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, talked about military and technical support as well as other police support, and I assure the noble Lord that this is the kind of technical support that we are giving to the Ukrainians. I am sure that noble Lords will have seen that President Zelensky himself was visiting Bucha this morning, and with him were experts who are gathering evidence as we speak. We are working absolutely hand in glove with them to provide whatever support they require at this important time.