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13 Jun 2007 : Column 783

Orders of the Day

International Tribunals (Sierra Leone) Bill [Lords]

Order for Second Reading read.

1.42 pm

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

On 4 June, the trial of Charles Taylor, former President of Liberia, began before a chamber of the Special Court for Sierra Leone sitting extraordinarily in The Hague. Former President Taylor stands charged with 11 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes, which he is alleged to have committed during Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war.

Let me stress at the outset that it is for the Special Court for Sierra Leone to establish whether former President Taylor is guilty of the crimes with which he is charged. He is entitled to a fair trial and I am entirely confident that he will receive one. The simple fact that the trial is taking place sends an extremely powerful message. It sends the message that, no matter how rich and powerful one may be and no matter how untouchable one may at one stage appear, there can be no impunity regarding those most serious crimes.

All those on trial before the Special Court for Sierra Leone must now answer for their actions. Terrible, shocking crimes happened in Sierra Leone in the late 1990s—of that there can be no doubt. Hon. Members will recall the sickening images of that time. Civilians were slaughtered, mutilated and maimed; women were enslaved and brutalised; and killing, rape and amputation were perpetrated on a massive scale.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Uncharacteristically for the Foreign Office, the Minister underplays his brief. The genuine significance of Taylor’s prosecution is that it is the first time that a head of state has been brought before the international courts. It conveys a clear message, which I hope the Foreign Office will trumpet in Khartoum, among other places, that no one, including heads of state, is immune from the reach of the United Nations and international legal tribunals.

Dr. Howells: I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who makes a wise observation. He is right to say that the message will be heard around the world.

Perhaps most seriously, children were drugged, armed and turned into soldiers, then forced to wreak on others the horrors that had been wrought on them and their communities.

In May 2000, the United Kingdom brought peace to Sierra Leone. I pay tribute to the bravery and expertise of our troops who carried out that intervention. They have our continued gratitude for the typically courageous and professional job that they undertook. We know from experience that they also have the sincere thanks and respect of the people of Sierra Leone.

Since then, we have supported the Government of Sierra Leone as they have sought to consolidate the peace and rebuild a country ravaged by conflict. Seven years on from our military intervention, the people of
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Sierra Leone are preparing to go to the polls to elect the leaders who will take the next steps on that path of recovery. The UK is providing support for that process, and we will work closely with those leaders as they face the difficult challenges ahead. However, part of the future of Sierra Leone is in coming to terms with the past, and ensuring that those alleged to have committed the shocking crimes of the country’s civil war are held to account. In turn, taking such action sends a message to those who would commit such crimes in future, that if they do so, they will answer for it.

With those aims, the Government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations negotiated an agreement back in 2002 to establish the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The Special Court is an international criminal tribunal of a hybrid nature, in that it combines elements of Sierra Leonean and international law, and draws on the skills of Sierra Leonean and international staff. The United Kingdom has been one of the Special Court’s strongest supporters since its inception. That has meant ensuring that the court has the resources that it needs to do its work. To that end, we recently made a further payment of £2 million towards meeting the costs of the court, bringing our total contribution since 2002 to £12 million.

Our support for international justice goes beyond the financial. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs said in June last year, if we want to live in a just world, we must take responsibility for creating and fostering it. In practice, that means that we and other states must provide practical assistance to the different international criminal tribunals as they take forward their important work. We live up to that challenge.

For example, we co-operate in the exchange of information with the international criminal tribunals, we take witnesses into our witness relocation system, and we imprison some of those convicted by the tribunals in the UK prison system. The legislative basis for doing that is the International Criminal Court Act 2001, which provides, among other things, for our entering into sentence enforcement agreements with the International Criminal Court and other international criminal tribunals established by resolution of the UN Security Council, such as those for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): On the wider point—the Minister mentioned the world—and particularly with respect to Uganda and the International Criminal Court warrant for Kony, the Lord’s Resistance Army rebel leader, does the Minister agree that, although the ICC is well-meaning, an arrest warrant prior to any settlement or the signing of any peace treaty may sometimes hinder rather than help peace?

Dr. Howells: I would have to look at that assertion on a case-by-case basis. The hon. Gentleman mentions northern Uganda. I know that he feels strongly about these issues, so I am sure that he would not like anyone in Uganda or its neighbouring countries to sense a degree of impunity regarding the crimes that they have committed and continue to commit. We would have to look into that matter very carefully and on a case-by-case basis, as I said, but I take his point. It can be a very sensitive issue, which has to be considered very carefully.

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Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): I heard what the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) said, but in my view the fundamental point about Uganda—and, indeed, Sierra Leone—is that the writ of the ICC in these cases must be upheld. That is of the greatest importance. One has to recognise that what happens after the proceedings—if, indeed, the arrest warrants are ever executed on Kony and others in northern Uganda—might be a matter for the international community in due course, but the writ itself must be upheld.

Dr. Howells: I agree with my hon. Friend. Although it is not the main matter under consideration today, I take his point. What he says about the ICC is a very important consideration.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I visited Rwanda with a group of colleagues last week; the issue of trials of people involved in alleged genocide is pertinent, but I shall say nothing more about that. There is an issue about the growing internationalisation of the justice system. With the best will in the world, we are talking about Sierra Leone today, but we could be talking about arrangements in Rwanda or in former Yugoslavia. Is there any move towards the consolidation of law in order to achieve a smoother transition to a proper justice system, which would be preferable to having to look at individual countries and individual issues? Otherwise, as with Rwanda, we could be completely overwhelmed by the scale of the number of those accused of perpetrating various crimes in Sierra Leone.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Before the Minister responds, I want to make it clear that, in the words of the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), we are talking today about Sierra Leone. The Bill before us is quite narrowly drawn, so perhaps the Minister will bear that in mind in his response to interventions.

Dr. Howells: I know that my hon. Friend has great experience in these matters. The message sent out by the Bill is very clear. It will say many things to many people around the world, but the one thing that I hope it will say is that there really is no impunity for war criminals. We have to try to adapt wherever we can, as we have in Sierra Leone, and if necessary introduce hybrid arrangements to ensure that the guilty parties are brought to justice. That is what matters in the end. I certainly take into account—and I hope others will, too—my hon. Friend’s point that we perhaps require a sharper definition of what international law is likely to look like in the future when it comes to war crimes and so forth.

As I was saying, we have imprisoned some of those convicted by tribunals in the UK prison system. The legislative basis for doing so is the International Criminal Court Act 2001, which makes provision, among other things, for our entering into sentence enforcement agreements with the International Criminal Court and also with other international criminal tribunals established by resolution of the UN Security Council, such as those for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

It was only after the coming into force of the International Criminal Court Act 2001 that the Special Court for Sierra Leone was established. It is because the court was a new model of tribunal—a hybrid, as I
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mentioned—established with the full agreement and participation of the Government of Sierra Leone, that a UN Security Council resolution was not required to bring it into being. None the less, the Special Court enjoys full support from the international community. Indeed, the UN Security Council indicated its support by passing a resolution that authorised the UN Secretary-General to negotiate the founding agreement with the Government of Sierra Leone. That is not, however, sufficient to provide an adequate basis for our entering into a sentence enforcement agreement under the terms of the ICC legislation as it stands. The short, two-clause Bill before us will therefore extend the International Criminal Court Act’s provision on sentence enforcement to the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

Let me briefly explain why we are taking this important step in the case of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. First, we do so because it is another demonstration of the UK’s commitment to international justice—the same commitment apparent in our steadfast support of the tribunals for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and the same commitment that has since led us to help establish the permanent International Criminal Court and to take a lead as one its strongest supporters, in principle and in practice. I am pleased to note that the ICC is now playing a vital role in breaking down impunity for the shocking crimes taking place in Darfur, in northern Uganda, as we have heard, and elsewhere.

Secondly, we are moving this forward because of the UK’s particular commitment to peace, security and development in Sierra Leone. When we made that intervention in May 2000, we also made a commitment to see it through and finish the job. Our support for the Special Court is an important part of that. Through the actions that we are taking, we also safeguard the investment—military, political and financial—that the United Kingdom has made in Sierra Leone.

Thirdly—I come now to the reason for our approaching the Bill in expeditious fashion today—we do so to give effect to the commitment that we gave to imprison former President Taylor if he should be convicted at the trial, which began last week in The Hague. Let me speak for a few moments about that commitment and its role in making the trial possible.

Former President Taylor was transferred to the detention facility of the Special Court for Sierra Leone in Freetown on 29 March last year, having been indicted for alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes. Within a short period of time, considerable security concerns arose about former President Taylor’s presence in Freetown. There were fears that his supporters might seek to free him, with terrible consequences for the stability of the region. Owing to those fears, President Kabbah of Sierra Leone and President Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia proposed that former President Taylor’s trial should take place away from the court’s headquarters in Freetown.

The Government of the Netherlands agreed to allow the Special Court to sit in The Hague to hear former President Taylor’s trial and the International Criminal Court agreed to allow the court to use its facilities for the trial, but the Dutch insisted that, should former President Taylor be convicted, he must serve his sentence in another state. The UN Secretary-General, in the light of the security concerns and on the advice of UN staff operating on the ground, added his call to
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that of the regional governments and requested that the United Kingdom agree to make the necessary commitment to the Dutch.

I should emphasise that the proposal to transfer the location of former President Taylor’s trial was considered long and hard. We and others were and remain instinctively supportive of the principle that, where possible, a trial should be conducted locally, where it is most accessible and most visible to those who have been affected. However, the security threat was significant and the requests from Kofi Annan, from Presidents Kabbah and Johnson-Sirleaf and from the ECOWAS—Economic Community of West African States—grouping of states were impossible to ignore.

On 15 June last year, we announced that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary had agreed that, subject to parliamentary legislative approval, the United Kingdom would allow former President Taylor—if convicted and should the circumstances require it—to enter the UK to serve any sentence imposed by the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Will the Minister confirm that there is a total of 10 indictees, including Charles Taylor, that nine others are being tried at special courts in Sierra Leone itself and that only Charles Taylor is being tried in The Hague? To prevent the Bill from becoming a hybrid one, would it be possible for the other nine indictees, if convicted, to serve their sentences in this country? Is the Minister prepared to put it on the record that it is the British Government’s intention that only Charles Taylor should serve his sentence here?

Dr. Howells: Yes, I can put that on the record without any hesitation. It is important to recognise that the other trials, which seem to be proceeding very well in Freetown, are at a rather different level from that of Charles Taylor. In that sense, Charles Taylor is a very special prisoner. That is why he is being tried in The Hague and why he could be imprisoned here. We would certainly never rule out a request from the International Criminal Court or from the Sierra Leone authorities regarding someone else whom we might consider imprisoning, but that would have to be a matter for careful consideration. We certainly do not envisage that happening at this time.

Former President Taylor’s transfer to The Hague was subsequently authorised by the president of the Special Court for Sierra Leone and confirmed by United Nations Security Council resolution 1688. Just five days after the announcement of the UK’s commitment, former President Taylor was transferred to The Hague. A real threat to peace and security in Sierra Leone and the wider region had been overcome, and the trial which has now begun had been made possible.

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