International Criminal Court Bill [Lords]

[back to previous text]

Mr. Maclennan: I am extremely indebted to the Minister for putting those words on the record. He removes the last shred of evidence in support of the view that the military are worried about the matter. Candidly, if the military were seriously worried about it, we would have heard about it directly.

Mrs. Gillan: The right hon. Gentleman fails to appreciate the debate that has taken place. I have some of the cuttings that surround the discussions—headlines in The Daily Telegraph such as ``Forces chiefs warn war crimes Bill will put troops' lives at risk'', ``Forces fear war crimes threat'' and ``Could British pilots face trial for bombings?'' I could go on. I am willing to let him have copies of those articles. He fails to appreciate the great debate that has surrounded the matter and the fears that have been voiced in evidence, in public and in military circles.

Mr. Maclennan: The hon. Lady mentioned all those matters in her contribution on Second Reading. To be candid, she has produced no further evidence, only rather tenuous references to unnamed people. I do not believe that the Committee should give weight to rumours that have emanated from her friends in the press, because they are without substance or weight. It is futile to reiterate such points.

Mr. Blunt: Having been a special adviser to the Ministry of Defence and a soldier, I believe that the right hon. Gentleman is unfair if he expects the Chief of the Defence Staff and other serving soldiers to break cover and make it clear that they are against the Government's policy. They advise the Government in private, and carry out the Government's instructions, as long as they are within the law. The right hon. Gentleman is wrong to expect the Chief of the Defence Staff to be able to make the point, and also to be able to make it in public.

The most that one gets from serving soldiers is stories such as those referred to in the press. From my experience, the serving military have a pretty limited focus on the matters we are discussing. Most of them will be unaware of proceedings, just as commanding officers were wholly unaware of what we were planning to do to their powers when we passed the Armed Forces Discipline Act 2000.

Mr. Maclennan: The hon. Gentleman's case was answered by the Minister. He read the question that had been put to Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, which would have allowed him to express precisely the concerns that have been dribbled around the Committee, and he would have felt no inhibition. Serving officers have a loyalty to the House when they are questioned by Select Committees, and may speak freely about any concerns that they may have. That is not an innovation and it is well known. Conservative Members have nothing on which to build their gossamer case.

Mr. Worthington: May I assist the right hon. Gentleman to whip up even more frenzy? Does he agree that a real problem with the Bill is that we may create a situation in which the only people who appear before the International Criminal Court are those from losing nations and poor nations? We should give an undertaking that our troops, American troops and French troops must, at some stage, be subject to the Bill.

Mr. Maclennan: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman again. Far from stirring up frenzy, I think that I have emulated the late Lord Whitelaw by stirring up apathy.

The point made by the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) is perfectly valid. If we submit to the jurisdiction of the court, we say to the world that we are prepared to put our own troops in the same position as those of other subscribing nations. There is no reason why we should seek to exempt them, because we feel that the justice that will be meted out by the ICC will be of the highest standing. Our confidence may lie in the improbability of our troops being charged with crimes against the laws of war.

The Conservative party is unwilling to subscribe to the statute and the Bill in terms, and prefers to wave a jingoistic and nationalist flag--which it usually does in a different context. It is, at best, willing the ends, but refusing to deliver the means. I hope that such arguments, which have been round the course several times, are blowing themselves out in Committee, and that we progress rapidly to debate the Bill on Report.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: It is wonderful that the right hon. Gentleman has been sparked into action and into something of a frenzy, although he is probably the only source of apathy, and he has not attended all our sittings. In his last few days as a Member of Parliament, I am sure that he has many responsibilities that he wishes to discharge before taking leave of us. We shall be sad to see him go, but it is unfortunate that his parting shot is to cast aspersions on my colleagues.

I readily accept that the right hon. Gentleman takes a different view from Conservative Members. He places greater reliance on the effectiveness of the court, and he does not believe that there is any likelihood of an abuse of power. I remind him that it is our responsibility to ensure that measures are not passed into law that are likely to imperil our troops on whom we call to take action in support of Britain's national interest or in the defence of these islands. That is entirely right and proper. Our constituents expect us to take such action, and it is our job as the official Opposition to probe every angle to ensure that the Bill is watertight and that our fears are allayed.

We must consider how matters may develop in future. It is not sufficient to take the words of the statute at face value as though that is how the situation will remain for all time. That is not a prudent way in which to proceed. I strongly support new clause 1, and we have put forward a strong case for it to be accepted. It would not challenge the fundamental nature of the Bill. It would not challenge the treaty. Indeed, its provisions are specifically provided for in the treaty.

I am not sure whether Ministers said that the UK Government or the French were in the van of ensuring the existence of article 124. The French have entered specific reservations, but why was it right for them to do so? The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross is more of a Euro-fanatic than I.

Mr. Garnier: That is not possible.

Mr. Howarth: It is possible, although I have excellent Euro credentials. The right hon. Gentleman dismissed lightly the worries of our French counterparts. The French were right to enter such reservations, and I do not understand why this country cannot do the same. We are not rejecting the treaty or the Bill for all time, but merely saying that we should take advantage of article 124 and see how things go.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough said that the French, given how they want such slightly abstract phrases to be interpreted, will give comfort to their troops. It is a pre-emptive strike. We, I fear, will hobble our troops. The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) said that the existence of these laws is an inhibition--I hope that I have quoted him correctly. I am sure that he is right. We all want them to be inhibitive—we want them to constrain military action so that it does not transgress the rules of war as laid down in the statute. However, we do not want to inhibit the actions of our troops in such a way as to put them at greater risk and inhibit them in the prosecution of their duty, which is to fight.

6.15 pm

My hon. Friends have referred to the evidence given in Committee by the Chief of the Defence Staff. I am sorry that the Minister sought to dismiss the Chief of the Defence Staff's concerns, as he expressed them clearly. On page 145 of the minutes of evidence to the Select Committee on 6 March in relation to the Armed Forces Bill, Sir Michael Boyce stated that it was unlikely that a British service man would be brought before the ICC because the national court would have the opportunity to investigate the case first. My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) then asked:

    ``Is it good enough to hear that it is `unlikely to happen', or would you prefer to have a more concrete exemption or derogation or protection in law?''

Sir Michael responded:

    ``I cannot say that `unlikely' fills me with huge confidence. I would be much happier with a completely unequivocal statement, but I guess that is probably the best I will get.''

He continued:

    ``If there are ways which guaranteed that the word `unlikely' could be removed, that would be more comforting.''

The Chief of the Defence Staff could not be more explicit in his reservations, but he acknowledges that that is the best that he is likely to get. He is, of course, answerable to the Government, and will not express publicly his reservations unless he feels strongly about them and is advised by others.

As for the contention of the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross that we have no evidence to adduce, I freely admit that I would not rely on the veracity of The Guardian—I put rubber gloves on when I am forced to read it. However, given the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), who served and has contacts in the armed forces, and given the conversation that I had with a recently retired senior officer in the Army, it is nonsense for the right hon. Gentleman to suggest that the armed forces are not expressing real concerns. That is why new clause 1 is important—it would provide a breathing space to see how the court pans out.

Provided that our proceedings run long enough and we progress sufficiently expeditiously to arrive at schedule 8, we shall deal with some practical examples of how the incorporation of certain war crimes in our statute book could present us with problems. It is important to think in practical terms when considering the military's reservations.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough referred to the concerns of the French about the deployment of nuclear weapons. The only occasion on which nuclear weapons were deployed was against Japan in 1945, when horrendous damage was caused. We acknowledge that huge casualties—that is the euphemism—were inflicted on the civilian population, and environmental damage was caused.

The Minister must answer the following question: if the British Government were to decide, in a future conflict, that their only option was to use nuclear weapons, could the service personnel responsible for deploying them be liable to prosecution under the Bill? No British court would prosecute the captain of a bomber that had delivered theatre nuclear weapons, because he would have acted under the auspices of the British Government and Parliament. That is where the problem would arise: the ICC might accuse the United Kingdom of refusing or being unwilling to prosecute, and of shielding people who have been responsible for widespread environmental damage and the death of many civilians. That is why we have reservations about the court's involvement in such matters, and the Minister must reassure us on that.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 1 May 2001