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Ukraine: Potential War Crimes by Russia

Volume 711: debated on Tuesday 22 March 2022

1. What steps his Department is taking to support an investigation into potential war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine. (906194)

7. What steps his Department is taking to support an investigation into potential war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine. (906200)

8. What steps his Department is taking to support an investigation into potential war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine. (906202)

11. What steps his Department is taking to support an investigation into potential war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine. (906205)

14. What steps his Department is taking to support an investigation into potential war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine. (906208)

With your forbearance, Mr Speaker, may I join the expression that you gave on the fifth anniversary of the murder of PC Palmer? I send my sympathies to the family and our total solidarity in this House with those who risk their lives on the frontline.

Vladimir Putin’s regime is responsible for an illegal invasion. There is strong evidence of war crimes and we believe that those responsible must be held to account.

I associate myself with my right hon. Friend’s remarks regarding PC Palmer. What steps has he taken to ensure that the mechanisms are in place so that the evidence of war crimes can be confidently collected by the International Criminal Court?

We are doing two things in particular. First, I have convened a cross-Whitehall group, which we have done in the past, to ensure that we can provide whatever support may be needed for everything from witness protection services to the gathering of evidence and information co-operation. Secondly, I have been to The Hague and I will be going back this week. I am working with a coalition of countries that also have unique expertise in that area to provide the support that the Court needs.

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that our recently passed Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act 2022 will ensure that this Conservative Government will take every step to deprive those found guilty of war crimes in Ukraine of their illegally gotten gains?

My hon. Friend will know that, because of the Sergei Magnitsky regime for asset freezes and visa bans for anyone who has committed serious human rights abuses, we already have that capacity in place. That is on top of the further co-operation that we will provide with the ICC and, I should mention, that the Attorney General will provide with the prosecutor general of Ukraine.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, while the shelling of civilians is itself a war crime, any use of chemical or biological weapons, as predicted by President Biden today, would be a breach of the Geneva protocol and the chemical weapons convention and would most certainly be a war crime?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am always careful to allow the ICC, of which both the prosecutor and the chambers of the Court are independent, to make those determinations, but the points of principle that he has set out are absolutely right. There must be no impunity for those in Moscow or the commanders on the ground who commit those atrocities.

Can my right hon. Friend outline to the House what steps the Government have taken to build the broadest caucus of support for prosecuting President Putin and his regime over their actions in Ukraine? Will he join me in applauding the role of the British ICC judge and British prosecutor in their work on the issue?

My hon. Friend is right. We secured the election of Karim Khan and Jo Korner. They operate independently on the Court but it is a sign of how well regarded this country’s legal profession is that we have two such senior figures there, as well as the registrar. Again, they operate independently, but we are working with the Ukrainian authorities, led by the Attorney General. I am also going back to The Hague to ensure that we understand the specific needs of the ICC, not just to provide support ourselves but to ensure that we bring together a coalition of countries with that unique expertise so that justice can be done.

There will not be many people watching the TV each night who think that what Putin is doing to Ukraine does not constitute war crimes. I appreciate what my right hon. Friend says about the evidence and that these things can take a while. Without going into details, therefore, can he assure the House that we have learned the lessons of previous attempts to pursue war crimes cases, so that we might bring Putin and co to justice faster?

My hon. Friend is right, although, of course, we have a war going on and we need to be realistic that that will take time and strategic patience. We had Radovan Karadžić, the butcher of the Balkans, delivered to a British jail cell last year under a sentence enforcement agreement that I happened to negotiate with the UN in 2004. These things will take time; that is the realpolitik that we are dealing with. We are ensuring, however, first, that things such as the preservation of evidence are a priority now in conduct on the ground, and secondly, that the message goes out that we and our partners in support of the ICC are being clear that, if someone commits those kinds of crimes, sooner or later they will end up in the dock of the Court and behind bars.

As the Secretary of State is a very senior member of the Government, would he ensure that this House is updated regularly on what is going on? So much has happened, even over the last weekend, in this dreadful conflict, so would he send a message that this House should be updated regularly? I started by thinking that this must be settled peacefully, but are we really going to allow injustice to rule in this country and to let Russia get away with it?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I thank him for what he has said. I would be happy to update the House through oral questions or other means, and I am very happy to meet him. It is absolutely right that there will not be a peaceful settlement to this. I think we can all agree that trusting Vladimir Putin to keep his word is going to be a very tall order for anyone in the community, let alone President Zelensky, and there cannot just be a brushing under the carpet of atrocities committed now or in the future.

The Secretary of State will be aware that Russian criminality in Ukraine did not start this year; it started in 2014. Since then, there have been crimes against the people of Ukraine, including, we have to say, gross abuses of the human rights of ethnic Russians in Ukraine. Will he use his influence to ensure that any war crimes investigation is extended to the beginning of the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who makes a really important point. Of course, I must at this point say that it will be for the ICC, which operates independently, to determine the temporal scope of its jurisdiction.

The Justice Secretary made a very important point earlier when he said that this is about not just those in Moscow, but the commanders on the ground, although in fact it is even about individual soldiers. What can we do as a nation to help the ICC get the message across that those in the field could find themselves before the Court?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I think he is right. Of course, one of the things Putin has done is to clamp down on all independent sources of media, but that is of course something that we are looking at trying to support so that Russians get the facts on the ground. He is also right to say that the conscripts, as well as the commanders, are at risk here. Many of those young Russian conscripts, who were told they were going in as peacekeepers, will have points at which they are not sure whether to follow essentially illegal orders either for their own welfare or for the good of Ukraine itself.

Especially perverse have been the Russian attacks on hospitals, schools and churches—on babies, children and elderly people—in Ukraine. What steps have been taken to co-ordinate with the UN to ensure that these travesties will not go unanswered in The Hague and that evidence is collected, collated and unquestionable?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who I know has long had an interest in this area of accountability, and he is absolutely right. Of course, one of the critical issues right now is the preservation of evidence—not just that crimes were committed, but on whose orders they may have been committed. Those are all things we are looking at, and I think it is important that we work with all our allies on this. We have some unique expertise in law enforcement, with mechanisms in relation to information co-operation, witness protection, sentence enforcement and forensic evidence, but other states also have unique capabilities in those areas. What is crucial is that the early evidence—not just of crimes, but of the responsibility up the chain of command—is preserved where possible.