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8.18 pm

Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton): I shall, as always, be extremely brief. I have listened to the debate with great interest and, when it got partisan, not a little dismay. If ever an issue required seriousness, this is it.

In some three hours, I have heard no mention of the quality of justice that the International Criminal Court will dispense, nor of the safeguards that it will offer to the accused. It is important that someone should make the case--and I am willing to do so--for the rights of accused alleged war criminals. That is especially true if people such as Milosevic, Mladic or Karadzic appear before the court. In cases such as that, a miasma of perceived guilt will attach to the accused.

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Such matters are difficult. Nuremberg passed the test, but I am not sure that the criminal tribunal in The Hague passes it, and that is the model on which the ICC is to be based.

I speak from experience. Inevitably, I have been closer to war crimes than most hon. Members. I know the pile of ash and bone that is left when a family is burned alive in its home, and the son and father have tried in vain to defend their relatives. I know what mass graves look like, and I know the stench of death. I know the tatters of clothing and bloodstains that mark scenes of mass execution.

I have given evidence and depositions to prosecution and defence lawyers at the Hague. In every case from the first Tadic case onwards, the defence lawyers felt that the scales of justice were weighted against them--more or less perceptibly, but in every case. I testified in the case of Tihomir Blaskic two years ago. Blaskic was the senior colonel commanding the HVO Bosnian Croat forces in the Lasva valley in central Bosnia during the vicious side war between Muslims and Croats in 1993 to 1994.

I gave evidence for the defence; I believed that there was no proper command and control, and that the Ahmici massacre, of which Blaskic was accused, was the work of freelance forces beyond his control. He was, however, convicted to a virtual life sentence. Now we know from documents found in the palace of the late President Tujman that he was indeed outside the command loop at the time. I trust that his appeal will succeed. Blaskic was one of many who was held for years before being tried. Are we proposing that the International Criminal Court have the same dilatory processes of justice? I hope not.

There is also a problem with the judges. They will come, as they must, from many countries and diverse judicial systems. They will be at the peak of their careers and, we hope, at the peak of their powers. In fact, many of them are quite elderly. In a case that may last a year and a half, one may have to drop out for reasons of ill health and then the defendant will have the right to have the whole case heard again. Blaskic chose not to, and he may well wish that he had, because one of the judges was simply not there for the taking of half the evidence at his trial. If that is the kind of system that the ICC will adopt, I think that we should consider very carefully the rights of the accused, however notorious they may be.

I get the impression that the international criminal tribunal at The Hague dispenses victors' justice. It is a prosecutor's court; it is, in some sense, a political court. I am afraid that when the new court is established and various high-profile cases come before it, as they come before the tribunal at The Hague, the ICC will then be under pressure to convict. It will cost hundreds of millions, maybe thousands of millions of dollars of United Nations money. In the absence of such convictions people will ask why that money is being spent and say that the court is ineffective. We must protect the rights of the accused and, above all, set up a court that will not feed on a diet of convictions.

8.23 pm

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): I believe that it is difficult to exaggerate the Bill's importance. It seeks to outlaw crimes against humanity, not just at one

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time or place, as some of the international tribunals have sought to do, but at any time or place. In other words, it seeks to ensure that no one is above the law, no matter where they live or who they are.

The International Criminal Court will be a permanent court based at The Hague, with responsibility for trying individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. It will come into effect when 60 states ratify the 1998 Rome statute. To date, 139 states have signed the statute and 29 have ratified it. I will be delighted if the United Kingdom is one of the first 60 to ratify it, as I am sure it will be, following the passage of the Bill.

The Government have played a pivotal role in the creation of the ICC. Notwithstanding the remarks of my friend the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell), I believe that the ICC will, for the first time, provide the means by which justice may be brought to victims and murderers may be brought to justice. We have not had those means before with an enforceable mechanism.

The ICC will deter potential war criminals and, I hope, contribute towards an end to the culture of impunity. It will also, for the first time, bring conflict within nation states into the jurisdiction of an international court. It will recognise crimes of sexual violence, which had gone unrecognised until very recently, and will go further towards prohibiting the use of child soldiers.

It is important to place the ICC within an historical context. In the last speech that I gave on the ICC in this Chamber, I noted that the first real codification of war crimes was the 1884 Geneva convention. The House of Commons research paper, as ever, is extremely far-reaching in its gathering of evidence. It cites a war crimes tribunal in Greece in 405 BC that held individuals to account. More recently--in 1474--a panel of 28 judges of the Holy Roman Empire stripped one Peter von Hagenbach of his knighthood and sentenced him to death for his role in ordering the murder, rape and mutilation of citizens of the Upper Rhine. These war crimes were committed by men under his command, and his defence, back in 1474--that he was following orders from his superior, the Duke of Burgundy--was rejected.

Despite the passage of 500 years, we remain at a fairly rudimentary stage of institution-building. That is what the ICC seeks to do. In fact, had Peter von Hagenbach committed his war crimes in the 1970s instead of the 1470s, he would probably have got away with murder, just as Pol Pot did. That is why I trust that all Members of the House support the principles behind the Bill. I certainly do, particularly in the light of my visits to Rwanda and Cambodia. Those countries vividly illustrate how genocide and conflict today take place within countries as much as between countries. The corollary is that most victims of war crimes today are civilians, not military personnel. As we have heard, in the last 50 years, more than 86 million civilians have died in more than 250 conflicts.

Many people might be surprised that we have a plethora of laws prohibiting war crimes. I described them in some detail previously in the Chamber, so I will not list them again; suffice it to say that it is not the laws we lack, but the means to enforce them. The 1948 genocide convention took 50 years to muster its first success. If a week is a long time in politics, it is a lifetime in warfare. One need look no further than the meticulous plans that were laid relating to the genocide in Rwanda, which sought to

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achieve a murder rate of 1,000 civilians per 20 minutes, to see that we have not a minute to lose. There must be an urgency brought to the Bill and I am delighted that the Government have found time for it, given the pressure of the legislative timetable.

I was pleased to hear the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) say that this is one of the most important Bills he has had the honour to debate in this House in the 35 years he has been a Member. I concur with his judgment and believe that the Bill is so important that we must get it absolutely right.

I wish to turn to some of the problems inherent in the Bill. The first is universal jurisdiction. The greatest concerns are about clauses 51 and 23, which allow Executive discretion. The Bill, as amended in the Lords, limits British jurisdiction to ICC crimes committed on British territory or committed abroad by UK nationals, or to those who are deemed, under the Bill, to be resident in the UK.

The use of the term "resident" means that non-nationals accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes will still be able to visit friends, seek medical advice or go shopping in the UK without fear of prosecution, because they would not be resident here. Other countries have sought to avoid this loophole; Belgium, Canada, Germany, New Zealand and South Africa have all decided on forms of universal jurisdiction to hold those accused under the statute to account. I would hope that we might be able to look at this in Committee and reduce the legal confusion by adopting the concept of "presence" instead of residence, as Canada has done. The definition of residence will add confusion and could undermine the intent of the Bill.

I should like to cite an example. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo--a country in which I take a great deal of interest--over 1 million people have died since 1998 in a war that has sucked in the armies of more than six neighbouring countries and left the population prey to a number of crimes against humanity. Many of those crimes have been perpetrated by foreign mercenaries. The ICC might have no jurisdiction over the offender because, for example, neither the Congo nor the perpetrator's state of nationality had accepted ICC jurisdiction, or because the Congo had not accepted jurisdiction and the nationality of the offender could not be established. If that offender came to the UK, why should he or she not be at risk of prosecution?

The case for universal jurisdiction is particularly striking when a British national falls victim to a crime against humanity committed abroad by a foreign national. On 28 December last year, Charlotte Wilson--a Voluntary Services Overseas teacher--was ambushed and murdered by a Burundian Hutu rebel group. The culprit of that crime, conceivably, could flee to the United Kingdom. I say that because, in my constituency, I have come across people who are alleged to have been war criminals in Rwanda and Bangladesh but have not faced prosecution. They could find a safe haven and be able to escape justice, even when their victims include a British citizen.

I urge the Minister to reconsider accepting the principle of universal jurisdiction. We have already done that in the case of torture and when a person commits grave breaches

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of the Geneva conventions. I hope that the Bill will treat equally all those who are present on UK territory, whether nationals or non-nationals, visitors or residents.

I am also concerned about the large degree of Executive discretion in the Bill. There are a number of clauses that provide a Cabinet member with the discretion to take or not to take a certain course of action. I have concerns that this could result in a failure to fulfil the obligations under the Rome statue.

I want to underline what the hon. Member for Tatton said about the quality of justice. We must ensure that justice is done on both sides and try to avoid the historical pattern: justice for the victors and an absolute lack of justice for the vanquished.

Conservative Members have asked the Foreign Secretary to legislate so that British armed forces can never, in theory or practice, be brought before the ICC. That is a worrying position to take, because it implies that we want a criminal court only if somebody promises us that we will never be brought before it. In theory, British service people will never be brought before it, because any bona fide allegation will be investigated by British authorities. That does not mean that they will not be held accountable for their actions. Surely they would not want that. There is already accountability, and a code that can be invoked if they break it.

It is also unlikely in practice that members of the British armed forces could be brought before the court.

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