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Protecting Civilians in Armed Conflict

Volume 806: debated on Monday 12 October 2020

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are their plans for the implementation of the proposals set out in their paper UK Approach to Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, published on 27 August.

My Lords, the paper provides an update on the UK’s approach to the protection of civilians, highlighting the work being done across the UK Government over the past 10 years to move this important agenda forward. The United Kingdom is already implementing the work we have set out and we will continue to do so, be that through the UN Security Council and other multilateral fora or, indeed, by championing agendas such as the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative.

My Lords, the specific inclusion of children in the strategy for the first time is most welcome. What measures are the Government now taking to fulfil the commitment in the strategy to improve accountability for violations of children’s rights in conflict?

My noble friend has raised an important point. As she will know from her own time as Minister of State at the Foreign Office, the annual report on Children and Armed Conflict from the UN Secretary-General has highlighted more than 25,000 UN-verified grave violations against children. I am therefore proud of the fact that the UK is the largest single financial contributor to the Office of the UN Special Representative, SRSG Virginia Gamba, who I have worked with very closely. I can assure my noble friend that we continue to work on this as a key priority in protecting civilians in armed conflict.

My Lords, the report states that the United Kingdom will tackle the climate of impunity around conflict-related sexual violence. Can the Minister confirm that this will include the prosecution of perpetrators and the provision of safe abortion services for victims in conflict zones, whatever the national law in that country stipulates?

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an important point. On her second point about sexual and reproductive health and support for women, particularly in conflict zones, the United Kingdom has been very clear indeed. When the latest PSVI resolution was passed, I made it very clear in support of the resolution that the absence of that element was a major omission from the resolution. Nevertheless, let me assure her that whether it is within the conflict zone itself or through the international courts, we shall ensure that the perpetrators of sexual violence are held to account.

My Lords, a key factor in the victimisation of civilians in conflict is often the ethno-religious facets of war. The report rightly emphasises the importance of local NGOs and community groups. How can the FCDO do more to support these groups in the de-escalation of ethno-religious tensions?

My noble friend raises a very important point. As he will know, we have stepped up our advocacy on important issues of freedom of religion or belief. I believe very passionately that the engagement of civil society and that of faith and belief groups is an essential component to ensuring that civilians are protected effectively. That does not just mean within countries, but internationally.

My Lords, In Nagorno-Karabakh, despite a temporary ceasefire, this NATO country is involved a deadly proxy war with civilians, including children, continuing to be targeted with heavy artillery. How can we implement the recommendations in Part 1 of the report concerning impunity and justice so that those who are in breach of international humanitarian law and continue to commit war crimes and other crimes against humanity are brought to justice?

My Lords, first and foremost, let me assure the noble Lord that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has made it clear that we continue to support the work of the Minsk Group. He and the Canadian Minister for Foreign Affairs, François-Philippe Champagne, issued a joint statement on 6 October calling for an immediate ceasefire and a return to the negotiating table. That must be the first step so that, as the noble Lord has rightly articulated, we can then move forward to holding the perpetrators of crimes fully to account.

My Lords, how will the Government hold to account those who are responsible for the use of explosive weapons in populated areas which devastate the lives of all civilians, but particularly those of children and the elderly? What actions are they planning to take to prevent the use of these weapons?

My Lords, on the important point raised by the noble Baroness, the UK is working closely with other states, including the Red Cross movement, to promote compliance with international humanitarian law. We will continue to work with partners and call on all states and non-state actors engaged in armed conflict to respect international humanitarian law and to act in accordance with their obligations under it.

My Lords, 50% of the funding of the former DfID was targeted towards fragile and conflict-afflicted states. Will the new FCDO continue with that funding?

My Lords, the integration of the two departments is a major step towards ensuring that our diplomacy and development objectives are fully aligned. We continue to remain committed to ensuring that resolving conflict and a commitment to peace will be the major objectives of the new FCDO.

My Lords, the paper rightly stresses the importance of effective and independent monitoring and reporting for accountability. Can my noble friend the Minister tell the House whether it is still the Government’s policy to establish an independent international mechanism to investigate alleged crimes of sexual violence in conflict and what concrete progress has been made in the past two years on this?

My Lords, while paying tribute to the work of my noble friend, let me assure her that within the context of the PSVI which I lead on for the Prime Minister, it is about strengthening justice for the survivors of sexual violence in conflict and to hold the perpetrators to account. We are seeing progress. In a survivor-centred approach, we have recently seen progress through the appointment of survivor champions. The PSVI conference, which unfortunately had to be postponed, was also focused on bringing together the expertise and insight needed to ensure that we have a centre of excellence where all the best practices can be brought together.

My Lords, perhaps I may pick up on the call by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, for specific action in relation to this policy report. Yemen is still the biggest humanitarian crisis we face, with women and children suffering in particular because of the collapse of the health system. What are we doing to ensure that we are able to respond to the crisis in infrastructure and make sure that people have access to healthcare?

The noble Lord rightly points out the situation in Yemen, which is dire. The most vulnerable communities are unable to access healthcare There are issues around epidemics, including cholera, which continue to persist. That is why it is important, as my right honourable friend has said, that there has to be a political settlement within the parties in Yemen as well as with the countries supporting it. I can assure the noble Lord that that is exactly the objective we are working towards.

My Lords, this policy paper is silent on the need for additional protection for civilian interpreters working in conflict zones. Although the Minister told the House as recently as June that the UK would pursue this issue with the UN Security Council, does he accept that the Geneva conventions are currently inadequate to protect civilian interpreters? Can he report on any progress to date towards a Security Council resolution?

My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s second point, I have recently discussed with the team in New York how to look at this issue, in particular during our presidency of the Security Council. Let me assure her that since she first raised this issue and continues to do so, it has remained very much on my agenda. Interpreters play an essential and vital role. They are regarded as civilians and the UK recognises their invaluable contribution, as the recent support for Afghani translators has demonstrated.

My Lords, it is impossible to meet children who have been involved in conflict or extreme violence without seeing the deep trauma in their eyes and actions. The Secretary-General’s special representative on children and conflict has given a high priority in discussions to psychological support for traumatised children from around the world who have experienced that violence. Are the UK Government involved in discussions with her to make progress on that agenda?

My Lords, the short answer is yes. We are looking at all elements of supporting the most vulnerable communities. As my noble friend did, the noble Lord rightly raises the important issue of children who are directly impacted, not just by the conflict itself but in their life chances thereafter. I assure him that, as we work closely with Virginia Gamba and fund her office, we will continue to prioritise this issue.

My Lords, following the Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, and the Minister’s Answer, can he confirm the UK’s continued commitment to the principle that international humanitarian law trumps national law in situations of armed conflict, and that this applies to abortion, if sought and recommended when a woman has been raped?

My Lords, the United Kingdom remains committed to obligations of international humanitarian law and, as I said earlier, we call on other countries to respect their obligations to it. When we have differed on this issue, even from our strongest allies and at the top table—the UN Security Council—we have made known our difference and the importance of standing up for the sexual and reproductive health of all women, everywhere.