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7 Jan 2004 : Column 133WHcontinued
Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr) (PC): At the outset of my remarks, I would like to place on the record, somewhat breathlessly, that I have the utmost admiration for our servicemen and women, who have shown great fortitude in difficult circumstances in pursuance of their duties in Iraq.
The occupation of another country is always difficult and dangerous, but it is also dangerous to be occupied. I wish to focus this afternoon on the civilian casualties since the end of the war. The sad fact is that Iraqi civiliansnon-combatantsmore than any other group have died in the battle between insurgents and coalition forces in the past seven or eight months. According to the Washington-based Project on Defence Alternatives, in the first six months of the occupation 200 civilians have been killed by insurgents and 200 have been killed by coalition forces. Let us remember that these unarmed civilians have been not simply caught in the crossfire, but killed by coalition forces in the street, in demonstrations, in their own homes and in custody.
Following the killings early on in Fallujah, we have, rightly or wrongly, come to expect such incidents from nervous and inexperienced American troops. However, it has only recently begun to emerge in press reports and through some carefully crafted parliamentary questions that the problem of civilian casualties caused by coalition forces is as much an issue in the British zone as in the rest of Iraq. That calls into question the perception that human rights violations by the coalition forces are the preserve of the Americans.
It is certainly true that the Ministry of Defence has had plenty of recent relevant experience in peacekeeping, facing similar problems in Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor. However, the key lesson of those conflictsnamely, the need to deploy international law enforcement and judicial personnel as quickly as possible after the end of hostilitiesappears to have been forgotten in the case of southern Iraq. In May, the Government promised 1,500 international civilian police officers to protect the city and train local police. Yet Stephen White, our appointed Director of Law and Order in Iraq, complained that by October there were only 15.
Whatever responsibility individuals may have for any of the alleged deaths, I contend that the deaths are also a direct result of the Government's failure to localise and internationalise law enforcement sufficiently quickly. In that vacuum, soldiers and civilians have lost their lives unnecessarily, and lives will continue to be lost unless we show a greater sensitivity to civilian deaths allegedly caused by coalition forces. To date there has been little evidence of that sensitivity from the MOD. No soldier has been charged, either by the Americans or by us. We refuse even to keep a count of the civilians our forces have allegedly killed.
Apart from the morality of the situation, we are making a huge strategic error. Nothing is more certain to antagonise an indigenous population now and for generations to come than killing innocent civilians with impunity. Think of Bloody Sunday and the disastrous effect that it and the subsequent cover-up had in intensifying and prolonging the troubles over a quarter
It is in everybody's interest, from every perspectivepragmatic and principledto minimise civilian casualties and, when they happen, to treat them with the gravity and the sensitivity they deserve. That does not seem to be happening at the moment. I shall concentrate on three areas: the refusal to publish the number of civilian casualties; the lack of transparency in the process of investigating those deaths; and our failure to fulfil our obligations under international humanitarian law.
First, on the number of civilian deaths, although the coalition, rightly, keeps meticulous records of coalition deaths, it has consistently refused to give statistics on the number of civilian casualties, either during the war or in the period since 1 May. Every civilian death is a tragedy, but the failure even to count them is a travesty of justice. Trying to get accurate information from the Ministry of Defence has been like getting spilt blood out of a stone. The Secretary of State for Defence said in a written answer:
The Minister of State explained that that was because in some incidents Iraqis, injured or dead, may be buried or hospitalised by the time British forces return. With due respect, the fact that a body has been removed does not prevent its exhumation for the purposes of post-mortem examination, the taking of witness statements, or the examination of the report detailing the number of rounds fired and the casualties inflicted, which has to be filed by the commanding officer.
In a reply yesterday, the Minister of State said that all casualties witnessed by UK forces are reported, so I ask him today how many civilian casualties have been reported by British forces in southern Iraq. I also ask him to comment on the report in the Sunday Mirror on 7 December that the Secretary of State has ordered an inquiry into the number of civilians killed and told field commanders to submit more precise and detailed reports, including the numbers of civilian casualties, in any future incidents.
What is interesting about that is that it contravenes the sixth amendment of the American constitution, which was one of the key issues in the complaints against George III in the declaration of independence. Following the Boston massacre, British soldiers were given legal immunity from prosecution in the United States for the deaths they caused in the local population. That created the impression that the military were, in
Many people will have read with horror and disgust Robert Fisk's account in The Independent on Sunday at the weekend of the death in September in British custody of Baha Musa, who was hooded and tied with a rope around his necka pretty horrible way to die. Can the Minister confirm that there have been five other deaths in British custody in Iraq? Can he give us the names of the deceased and tell us whether anyone has been charged in relation to those deaths?
The British Government have apparently offered £4,500 to the Musa family. Can the Minister tell us how that figure was arrived at, especially considering the excruciating nature of Baha Musa's injuries, and the fact that he was such a young man, whose death left two children orphaned. Does the Minister agree with the statement made by a senior coalition official that the value of a life in Iraq is probably a lot less than it would be in the United States or the United Kingdom? Compensation arrangements are governed by section 6 of coalition provisional authority regulation No. 17, which provides that any claim shall be submitted to and dealt with by the parent state of the person whose activity is alleged to have caused the loss; and the claims will be dealt with in a manner consistent with the national laws of the parent state. The principal law in England and Wales that relates to claims for compensation for a fatal accident caused by another person's negligence is the Fatal Accidents Act 1976. Will the Minister confirm whether Iraqi families have been informed of their right, under the CPA order notice, to bring a civil action in this country under the terms of that Act?
The MOD has rejected seven claims for compensation for fatalities. Possibly, though by no means certainly, those relate to a large number of alleged civilian deaths in Majar al-Kabir, which were attested to by the assistant director of the local hospital, the local Iraqi police and several news agencies, but denied by the MOD. Will the Minister give us the details of the claims that were rejected and the reasons for their rejection? In this context, it is particularly relevant to note that the MOD denied reports of beatings of 11 innocent Iraqis in Majar al-Kabir, including a woman who, according to reports, begged the soldiers not to hurt her children and was struck over the head with a rifle butt. However, the MOD was forced to apologise following press reports in this country. There is a question mark as to whether it is right for the military to be judge, jury and investigating officer in these cases.
That brings us to the legal framework. Under articles 65 to 77 of the fourth Geneva convention, occupying powers are obliged to observe international standards of due process. However, the MOD has failed to comply with those on a number of occasions. In May 2002, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK had violated the right to life of Dermot McShanewho was crushed by an Army vehicle in Northern Ireland in 1996by failing to ensure an effective, independent investigation into his death. That was confirmed in the recent High Court decision in the case of Kathleen Thompson.
The case law in respect of the European convention is clear that there must be an effective investigation, and the criteria for such an investigation are laid down. The persons responsible for the investigation must be independent of those implicated in the events. The investigation must be effective in the sense that it is capable of leading to a determination as to whether the force was justified. There is a requirement for promptness and reasonable expedition, and there must be a sufficient element of public scrutiny of the investigation. In particular, the victim's next of kin must be involved to the extent necessary to safeguard their legitimate interests. None of those criteria has been met by the investigations conducted by the special investigation branch so far in Iraq.
In the case of Manning, the courts in this country held that, given the importance of article 2the right to lifeof the European convention, there had to be compelling grounds for not giving reasons as to why a prosecution would not follow a death in custody. What are the compelling reasons why no one has so far been charged in connection with the six deaths in custody, some of which date back as far as May last year? I should confirm in passing that the European convention applies in Iraq. A case has already been admitted against Turkey for operations in northern Iraq. Was the Minister aware of the applicability of the European convention and, again, have we advised the families of the deceased that the option of bringing a case against British forces under the European convention is available to them?
I put three principal recommendations to the Minister in the light of the above. We should begin to keep accurate records of civilian casualties in the areas under our control. We should facilitate a complaints procedure through adequate legal representation for the Iraqi population, and agree to pay compensation to victims of unlawful use of force. We should ensure that proper mechanisms are in place to ensure prompt, impartial and independent investigations into all non-combatant deaths. The last point necessitates a civilian, rather than a military, internal investigation system, possibly through the appointment of an independent ombudsman in the coalition authority, who could oversee all complaints.
I ask the Minister to cast his mind back to his time in Northern Ireland and his dual role as the Minister with responsibility for both security and victims. We were told that he was to be the listening ear to thousands of people who had suffered. I ask him sincerely to take up that dual role now in Iraq, and to be the Minister for both the armed forces and the innocent victims of the occupationnot just the victims of the Ba'athist rump, but our victims: the victims of our mistakes and misdeeds. That is what real accountability means in a mature democracy. It means taking responsibility for one's actions.
By inspiring the confidence of the victims of abuse, we will inspire confidence in a future based on the respect for human rights, the rule of law and a democratic culture. Justice must be done, and must be seen to be done, for the long-suffering people of Iraq. That is the grave responsibility of the Minister.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram) : I congratulate the hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price) on securing this Adjournment debate. He has touched on a number of important issues, and I welcome the opportunity to set the record straight. The hon. Gentleman has been a consistent critic of our policy in Iraq, and his contribution today should be considered against that background. I would argue that it is neither objective nor accurate in many of its salient points. I shall deal with those points, but first I shall set his criticisms in the context of what the coalition of some 30 nations has achieved to date against the barbarism and brutality of Saddam Hussein's regime.
For 12 years that regime flouted the will of the international community and United Nations Security Council resolutions. It launched unprovoked and senseless wars on its neighbours and tortured, terrorised and destroyed the lives of Saddam Hussein's citizens, including through the use of chemical weapons. The hon. Gentleman did not mention any of those matters.
I now come to the charges made by the hon. Gentleman. He called for the establishment of an ombudsman and some independence in the process in Iraq. In essence, he was saying that our troops have acted indiscriminately, without due regard for the rule and import of international law; and that their investigations are not independent, and because of that we do not know the circumstances of incidents, or even the names of the victims. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Our forces are working in partnership with the Iraqi people to establish a safe and secure environment, and are doing so under the rule of law. That principle governs the training that our forces receive and all that they are doing in Iraq under the most difficult conditions, at times under fire, and often showing remarkable restraint. None the less, as the hon. Gentleman said, there have been some civilian deaths.
Without prejudging those cases, it might be helpful to clarify what we mean by "civilian death". For our purposes, the term "civilian" applies to all Iraqis. Besides peaceful law-abiding men, women and children, it includes those former regime loyalists who have since April continued to bomb, kill and maim their fellow Iraqi countrymen and women and coalition troops. It also includes those who are frustrating the work of the vast majority of the Iraqi people to build a safe, secure and prosperous Iraq.
It has been suggested that we are refusing to keep records of such casualties. That is not true. All incidents of alleged or possible fatalities of which our people are aware are recorded by the unit involved. Although we record all such incidents, it would be wrong to claim that we have an exhaustive record, because we cannot always be certain of the number of fatalities that result. In some incidents, such as ambushes on our forces and firefights, those who have been attacking UK forces and who have been injured or killed are removed from the scene.
I was interested in what the hon. Gentleman said about exhuming bodies. I wonder what impact it would have on the local communities if coalition forces dug up graves because we thought that someone who had been killed by a member of the coalition forces had been buried there. He should reflect on his suggestion.
There have also been incidents in which UK forces have been forced to withdraw from an engagement with no reliable means of ascertaining the number of fatalities. Given the criminal nature of some attacks, it is unsurprising that the former collaborators of the dead are reluctant to report fatalities. Finally, gun battles have taken place in which our forces were not involved, but there have been claims that they were responsible for casualties none the less.
Against that background, I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands why it is impossible to claim to have complete and accurate records. Any organisation that claims so is doing a disservice to the truth. However, let me make it clear that we take our obligations and responsibilities seriously. If a confirmed civilian fatality was allegedly caused by UK forces, and we are aware of that, we endeavour to inform relatives through the International Committee of the Red Cross. The local commander reviews the circumstances to determine whether the UK forces involved acted within their rules of engagement. If he judges that they didfor example, they were returning fire against the deceased, having first been fired at themselvesno further action is taken other than a report of the incident being prepared and retained.
If there is any doubt for whatever reason about the circumstances, the commanding officer must initiate an investigation by the Royal Military Police. Seventeen cases have been referred to the RMP in that way. It was found in three cases that forces acted within their rules of engagement; four were traffic accident cases, and the deaths were the result of tragic accidents. In the case of Radi Nu'ma, it was found that he had died of natural causes in our custody and there was no case to answer. Investigations into the remaining cases continue.
I am also aware of the case of Baha Musa, about which there has been much public comment. A complex and thorough investigation involving interviews in Britain and Iraq is now at an advanced stage. Given that, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time. Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I do not have it in my gift to set myself up as judge and jury in the way that he has done in predetermining where guilt should lie.
It has been suggested that the RMP cannot conduct impartial or independent investigations. That is not the case, and is a calumny on the integrity of those who carry out that function on our behalf, often in dangerous circumstances. In exercising its constabulary powers, the RMP is independent of the Army's chain of command.
The Army Prosecuting Authority is statutorily independent of the chain of command. The chain of command is not allowed to seek to influence it. That independence was confirmed only last December by the European Court of Human Rights in the Cooper case. As members of professional bodiesthe Bar Council or the Law SocietyArmy prosecutors have an overriding duty to the court to act with independence in the interests of justice. As an additional protection from interference, the APA is answerable to the Attorney-General.
It has also been claimed that UK forces are not given adequate guidance on the use of force. In fact, they receive training on the use of force both prior to and during their deployment. That includes a lecture on the legal issues relating to the use of force and the rules of engagement, an operational brief to put the rules of engagement into context, and scenario-based training under RMP instruction on the use of force. Once in theatre, they are given a lecture on the rules of engagement by the legal advisor. Further training is available if required.
Individual service personnel are aware that in all situations they may use no more force than is absolutely necessary. The principles for the use of lethal force in non-combat situations are based on UK domestic law. As well as receiving training on the relevant principles, UK forces are issued a summary in the form of what is known as a "soldier's card", which they carry with them. Those principles are no different from those in force in other theatres of operations, such as Afghanistan and the Balkans. In Iraq, where British Forces have faced a higher and more sustained threat, the same principles apply.
In November and December, British forces were subject to two dozen attacks per month involving mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, small arms and improvised explosives. I commend the restraint of our people in dealing with those situations: the hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr did not even mention that. The measured response of soldiers from the Royal Regiment of Walesconstituents of the hon. Gentleman might be serving in Iraqin diffusing a riot in Basra, which was widely reported in today's press, is further testament to the quality of our people and their training, and it highlights the benefits of the plastic baton round in dealing with such incidents.
The hon. Gentleman listed many extracts of law, and referred to the corpus of law in some areas. As I have said, we seek to build the rule of law in Iraq, in partnership with the Iraqi people. The practices that we adopt, and which I have set out, are in accordance with two key United Nations documentsthe code of conduct for law enforcement officials, and the basic principles on the use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials. The code of conduct sets out the basic minimum standards for all civilian and military law enforcement officials. It covers matters such as upholding human rights and the use of force only when strictly necessary and to the minimum extent. The basic
The hon. Gentleman mentioned Assistant Chief Constable Stephen White and his comments of last year about the level of UK civilian police support in Iraq. I visited Iraq shortly before Christmas. I know ACC Stephen White well: the hon. Gentleman referred to my time in Northern Ireland, and I knew Stephen White then when he was a officer in the then Royal Ulster Constabulary. I had a high regard for all that he did there, and I was pleased when he took on his current appointment in our area of involvement in Iraq. I sought him out to find out about his comments, and I was glad to hear him say that he is pleased with the level of support that he is now getting. While his comments might have had some relevance at an earlier time, that is not the case any more. We should deal no longer with history, but with current facts.
Mr. Ingram : ACC White is the best person to judge that. He is the person who made the comments. When I asked him about them, I said that if he had expressed a similar type of concern to me, I would have pursued that appropriately. I am less concerned now than I was then.
We regard any loss of life as deeply regrettable and we take our obligations to avoid or minimise casualties extremely seriously. Steps to avoid such casualties are integrated into every aspect of military operations. When there is any indication that those measures may have failed, we investigate fully in order to learn the lessons that will make incidents of civilian death and injury fewer still. I believe that, thanks to the courage and professionalism with which the armed forces have conducted themselves in Iraq over the past 10 months, the need for such investigations has been limited.
The hon. Gentleman referred to my time in Northern Ireland. During some of that period, I held a dual ministerial role: I had responsibility for both victims and security personnel. I therefore take the issues under discussion very seriously. The moral high ground does not rest solely with critics in respect of Iraq. This matter goes right to the heart of Government, and all Government Ministers who have a responsibility take these issues very seriously.