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Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): I thank my hon.—and gallant—Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) for managing to obtain today's debate and I thank the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) for his words. Representing Lancaster and Wyre, I too have many members of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment living in my constituency or currently serving in the regiment.

I stand here as a former officer in the Scots Guards, where I did eight years' service, not at the dizzy rank of lieutenant-colonel or even major; I served on the front
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line as a platoon commander or a captain and very often had to face the very real heat that sometimes makes men do things that are irrational or close to the wind—a heat caused by pressure, fear and danger that presents itself in many guises.

One of the hardest things to cope with was my time in Northern Ireland. One was sent as a soldier into what was effectively a civilian conflict and one had to walk the tightest of tightropes. Instructions, yellow cards and warnings were issued; any soldier who got one of those wrong was very quickly charged with failure or a crime. Indeed, on one of my tours two of the soldiers that I served with—Guardsman Fisher and Guardsman Wright—were tried and convicted of murder for actions exactly comparable to those that led to this debate. What was interesting then was that those young men said that they had made a genuine mistake. It is my belief that they did. However, in the end they became part of the Northern Ireland peace process, and yet again, young men in a difficult situation effectively became a political football. I fear that many of the charges due to be laid or being laid in the Iraq conflict may enter that realm as well.

My hon. Friend asked why we do not charge these individuals purely under the Army Acts? Why do we have to go through the international court and not only wash our dirty washing in public but do no favours to men and women currently serving abroad? Imagine what will happen in the streets of Afghanistan or other countries if one of our soldiers has been sitting next to those war criminals who are the worst in Europe for many decades. People will say, "Look, the British Army is the same as Milosevic and all those creatures who deserve to be in the dock." The Government need to be very wary of that.

It is interesting to ask why these soldiers are in such a pressured environment at the moment. One reason is the Government's relentless use of soldiers with inadequate equipment and with, often, a very heavy, politically motivated timetable. My regiment, for example, was sent to Basra last year for what was supposed to be nine days of in-theatre training, to get used to the 50° temperatures and to using the equipment. However, the Government chose to deploy the Black Watch with the promise that the regiment would be back by Christmas, so the nine days turned into two days. My regiment's equipment had not arrived, yet it was still sent north into the conflict zone. If that is not a recipe for future disaster, I do not know what is; it puts young men into difficult situations without protection.

The handling of the case of Colonel Mendonca and the Queen's Lancashire Regiment needs to be addressed. More than a year ago, the regiment and the individuals were informed that no more cases would proceed. They were told that the Special Investigation Branch had concluded its investigations and that that would be that for the four individuals charged originally. However, in March along came a new view from the Ministry, or indeed the Solicitor-General, that 11 people could be charged. That is completely wrong. The Minister should charge and be done.

The Minister must not allow brave men and women, especially people such as Colonel Mendonca, decorated for their service, to be dragged through the newspapers and have their careers put in doubt. Members should imagine being a thrusting commanding officer, waiting
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for the next step in their career, when a cloud appears over their head, with no real assurances—only the awful case of Trooper Williams, about which we have already heard. That is an appalling way to treat anybody, of whatever rank.

I say to the Minister: charge and be done. If there are to be no charges, he should give the House an assurance that the matter will be at an end. One of the allegations against Colonel Mendonca was that he never gave every man specific written instructions that he should not commit war crimes. Did the Minister, the Secretary of State, the brigadier or the Chief of the Defence Staff write specific instructions? If they did not, we shall end up end with a Minister or a Prime Minister in that court. I do not want any Government to go down that road; they should take care.

The current Chief of the General Staff, General Jackson, was an adjutant at the time of Bloody Sunday. My hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Mercer) referred to mission command. If Colonel Mendonca is to be charged because he did not issue specific instructions, the Government should beware—the Chief of the General Staff did not have to issue written commands in 1969, nor should he have done so. None the less, he is close to the Iraq issue and to the Government.

The Government must be careful about Iraq. They cannot wash their hands of Iraq by putting their guilt, or some of their opposition, on to the very men and women they sent to war. There are doubts about Iraq on both sides of the House, and they will not go away over the 10 to 15 years before the job is done. Until then, we should remember that the Government must take responsibility. They must not push it on to the young men and women who went to Iraq to do their job with inadequate equipment, little training and little time.

I ask the Government to think carefully about how they proceed. They should charge and be done with it.

8.23 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Don Touhig): I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on securing a debate on this important matter. His deep and long-standing interest in the armed forces is well known and appreciated. The subject is important and although the hon. Gentleman has touched on the circumstances, it may be helpful if I set out the background as seen from the Government side.

More than 50 years ago, the United Nations recognised the need to establish an international criminal court to prosecute crimes such as genocide. The General Assembly adopted the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide. At the same time, the International Law Commission was asked to consider whether an international court to try persons charged with genocide and other crimes of similar gravity was feasible and desirable.

Following a positive response from the commission, the General Assembly established a committee to prepare a draft statute. In 1953, a decision on a statute was postponed pending definition of "aggression" and the need for a code of crimes. It was not until 1989 that
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the General Assembly asked the commission to resume working on the international criminal court, which, at the request of Trinidad and Tobago, would also have jurisdiction on drug trafficking.

In the early 1990s, conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, and the appalling brutality perpetrated by parties to those conflicts, brought the subject of genocide to the fore once again. As a consequence, a draft statute was presented to the General Assembly and an ad hoc committee on the establishment of an international criminal court was set up to hold individuals to account for atrocities. The drafting of the text was finally completed in April 1998. In summer 1998, a United Nations diplomatic conference on the establishment of the court was held in Rome. Great Britain played a major role at the conference and in the preparation of the draft international criminal court statute.

Upholding international law, and the application of the law of armed conflict, have long been at the heart of Britain's foreign policy under all Governments. The UK was one of the early signatories of the statute, which was to come into force after 60 states had ratified it. The UK ratified it in 2001. The necessary 60 ratifications were achieved and the International Criminal Court came into existence on 1 July 2002. At that time, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs declared:

At present, 99 countries are party to the ICC.

The court's jurisdiction is carefully set out in the statute, which permits it to punish war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity, including mass murder of civilians, torture and mass rape. The principle of universal jurisdiction allows the court to proceed against any individual suspected to have committed war crimes in any part of the world. The court operates under the principle of complementarity, which simply means that jurisdiction is shared between the ICC and national courts, with primacy given to national courts. The ICC can exercise its jurisdiction only when a nation is not able or willing to prosecute such crimes.

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