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It is interesting to reflect on the fact that the idea of a protective symbol came from a Swiss business man—Henri Dunant—who was travelling on business some 150 years
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ago and, by chance, happened to witness the battle of Solferino in Italy. During the battle, some 40,000 men from both sides were killed or wounded, and Dunant was shocked to see the wounded left on the battlefield without proper medical care. He therefore broke off his business trip and spent the next few days helping to do all that he could himself and convincing the locals also to help the wounded. He went on to found the Red Cross and establish the emblem of a red cross on a white background to help to identify those providing assistance.

I was fascinated to read the Red Cross literature, which told me that the emblem is a reversal of the colours and design of the Swiss flag. The symbol, as we know, has been used ever since. Its use has undoubtedly saved many lives—the lives of those providing humanitarian assistance, as well as lives saved by humanitarian acts. The red crescent emblem was given the same function in about 1879. Both symbols represent the protection of the medical services of the armed forces and the injured under the Geneva conventions. More recently, that protection has been extended to include civilian medical services.

As we know, however, conflicts have become more complex and the scope for the misunderstanding of those emblems has undoubtedly increased. In some situations, the red cross and the red crescent perhaps can be seen as having a religious, cultural or political connotation, which is not appropriate, accurate or intended in the settings in which it is used. Therefore, the red crystal has been introduced to ensure that a clear and neutral symbol exists for all to use. It can be used wherever the use of the other two symbols might be misinterpreted and therefore may not provide the protection that we would all seek to ensure. The red crystal symbol can also be used by national societies of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement—for example, in Israel and Eritrea—where people may feel unable to identify with either the cross or the crescent or do not want to have to choose between the two.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Who will determine the circumstances in which the red crystal, as distinct from either alternative, will be used?

Gillian Merron: That is a matter on which the appropriate movement in-country will make a decision. As I will go on to say, our default position will be to use the red cross; but in all cases, we will consider the circumstances of the conflict and make a decision for our own part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

The creation of the red crystal was part of a package that paved the way for the Israeli and the Palestinian national societies to join the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in 2006. That has offered the movement the opportunity to achieve its goal of universality—again, something that we would all support.

The United Kingdom signed the third protocol in December 2005. Once the protocol is ratified, our Defence Medical Services will be able to use any of the three distinctive emblems. As I have already stated, we will continue to use the red cross as our main humanitarian emblem; but in any conflict, our armed forces will be able to choose the emblem that is likely to afford the maximum protection to their medical services and their patients. For instance, British troops deployed in
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Afghanistan or Iraq can use the red crystal or the red crescent, rather than the red cross, as a protective symbol for their medical units if they believe that doing so would improve their safety.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Can the Minister help us on the use of the red lion and sun? In 1980, the Islamic Republic of Iran declared that it was waiving its right to use those symbols and would use instead the red crescent as its distinctive symbol, but it reserved the right to return to the red lion and sun if new emblems were recognised. By recognising this new emblem, are we creating the danger that the Islamic Republic of Iran may wish to revert to the use of the red lion and sun, thereby creating another symbol?

Gillian Merron: We are introducing clarity and reminding ourselves why we have international emblems. The three emblems form the basis of use and protection; they are clearly and absolutely recognised; and there can be no misunderstanding. In-country, for example, if a local society wished to use the red crystal with a red cross inside, it could do so. However, I am talking about—this is what hon. Members are concerned about—the protection provided in conflict situations.

Mr. Chope: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again, because I do not think that she understood my point, which is that the Islamic Republic of Iran has given due warning that if symbols in addition to the red cross and red crescent were enacted, it would reserve the right to revert to the use of the red sun. I want to find out from the Minister whether or not that threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran is still on the table.

Gillian Merron: My understanding is that there has been no indication that Iran would wish to revert to using those symbols, and I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): Does the Minister accept that using various symbols in different areas gives rise to the problem addressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope)? In the future, more symbols may well be introduced because of the circumstances that are presented, and that could cause more confusion, rather than coherence in what the Red Cross is trying to achieve.

Gillian Merron: No, I do not share that view. Indeed, let us remember that the impetus has come from the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, which recognises the difficulties and limitations of having two emblems. Therefore, rightly and sensibly, with a lot of hard work and negotiation, we have found that the adoption of the red crystal is getting us through the kind of difficulties that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I have been listening carefully to the Minister, but she has not really answered the question about the people who have been ignoring red crosses and red crescents but who are not going to ignore a red diamond or crystal, or whatever she wants to call it. Will she answer that question now? What evidence is there that the approach has worked in the field of combat?

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Gillian Merron: I have been in discussions with the British Red Cross and I know how much support there is for this Bill. I also know how much support exists internationally, among people who operate in the field. They have requested us to take the legislative action necessary to make available an additional option that they do not have at the moment. That is why we are here today.

This is about sensitivity to the situation. As I said in my opening comments, there are concerns that the red cross or red crescent might be incorrectly interpreted. That is why the international movement has come forward with this proposal for the red crystal symbol. I think that it is the correct option.

John Bercow: I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way. She is very reasonable, and is addressing the House in her usual mellifluous tones. I am minded to support the Second Reading of the Bill, but I am a bit befuddled about one thing; I hope that she can release me from my ignorance before long. There are three clauses in the Bill, and clause 3 deals with commencement. It specifies that the other two clauses will come into effect, by statutory instrument, on a date to be decided by Ministers. The measure is important and reasonably urgent, so when will the instrument be brought forward?

Gillian Merron: I am afraid that I cannot tell the House that at this stage, but I shall be glad to do so in my closing remarks.

By ratifying the third protocol, we will show our continuing commitment to the development of international humanitarian law. As required by the additional protocol, the Bill will amend the Geneva Conventions Act 1957 to make it a criminal offence to misuse the red crystal symbol, as is currently the case with the other two symbols.

Clause 2 amends the United Nations Personnel Act 1997 to give effect to the optional protocol to the convention on the safety of UN and associated personnel.

Mr. Greg Knight: I am grateful to the Minister, who is being extremely generous in giving way. However, I return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). If she cannot answer now, perhaps she will be able to answer at the end of the debate. As I understand it, the red crystal symbol has been in force internationally since 14 January 2007. Why has the Bill taken so long to get here? Why does its commencement provision not use the word “forthwith”?

Gillian Merron: To do full justice to that question, I shall deal with it in my closing remarks.

The optional protocol allows states to agree to extra measures to increase the legal protection of UN and associated personnel engaged in UN operations. The UN began providing legal protection to its personnel in 1994, when it adopted the convention on the safety of UN and associated personnel in response to rising casualties among UN peacekeepers and others. The convention makes three requirements of member states: that they prevent and punish, through domestic criminal law, attacks on UN personnel and others associated with UN operations; that they extradite the perpetrators of such acts; and that they implement other ancillary measures.

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The scope of the convention is relatively narrow, applying to UN operations in only two categories. The first category covers those operations designed to maintain or restore international peace and security, and the second covers those operations that the UN Security Council or General Assembly has declared pose an exceptional risk to the safety of the personnel participating in them. That narrow scope of protection has been heavily criticised, in particular by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who called repeatedly for a protocol to extend the protection to those UN personnel not otherwise covered. That call was echoed at the world summit in September 2005.

Christopher Fraser: By passing the Bill, Britain will be setting an example for other nations. Does the Minister agree that the optional protocol must also be adopted by those countries where personnel are at greatest risk?

Gillian Merron: That is an extremely important point, and the hon. Gentleman is quite right. The Bill is unlikely to have an impact on UK soil, but it will send a very clear message to other nations.

Mr. Chope: Will the Minister give way?

Gillian Merron: In a moment, but I want to continue explaining how we came to this point.

As I said, the call by Kofi Annan was echoed at the world summit of September 2005. In response, the UN General Assembly adopted an optional protocol to the 1994 convention in December of that year. That protocol extends the scope of protection to two new categories—to operations for the purpose of delivering humanitarian, political or development assistance in peace building, and to operations for the purpose of delivering emergency humanitarian assistance. As the House will be aware, those measures are—sadly—as necessary today as they have been in the past.

Mr. Chope: Can the Minister tell us about enforcement? Even without the extension, can she assure the House that the existing arrangements are being enforced? Most people know that, although the UN or this Parliament may say something about Darfur, for example, there is outright defiance of these conventions on the ground.

John Bercow: Chope the humanitarian!

Gillian Merron: It is true that the protocol has to be applied through domestic criminal law, and that we are not able to track whether there have been prosecutions of people who have attacked UN personnel. However, the protocol is designed to correct the weakness in coverage that does reflect the current situation. That is why the Bill is before the House today.

Thankfully, the global conflicts that typified the first half of the 20th century have been avoided, but continuing regional, bilateral and internal conflicts have brought just as much suffering to the people caught up in them. The Red Cross and Red Crescent has worked to minimise that suffering, but the UN high commissioner for refugees told the Security Council earlier this year that the deliberate targeting of humanitarian workers in such conflicts has increased. As well as being deeply shocking, that worrying new trend puts UN humanitarian staff in
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an impossibly difficult situation. Do they act to keep themselves and their colleagues safe, or do they continue to try to deliver effective humanitarian assistance to those desperately in need?

Christopher Fraser: I thank the Minister for giving way again. I am asking my questions in interventions rather than in a speech as I have to attend a Select Committee very shortly. When the UN’s sixth committee proposed the terms of the optional protocol to the convention on the safety of UN personnel, there was some concern that the term “peace building” was not properly defined. What does she understand the term to mean now?

Gillian Merron: The hon. Gentleman is right, and we will miss his presence in the Chamber later. The term “peace building” does not have an agreed definition but, according to the UN, it covers a wide range of activities associated with capacity building, reconciliation and societal transformation. He will know that peace building is a long process that happens after violent conflict has slowed or come to a halt. The Bill is important because it recognises that there has been a change in the work that UN personnel do on our behalf

I said earlier that UN humanitarian workers face an impossible choice, one that none of us would want to make. However, we should do everything possible to make sure that those courageous men and women acting in our name should not have to confront that choice. If they are to continue to fulfil their vital roles in the most difficult of situations, they must have the full weight of international law behind them. When we held the EU presidency, we played a leading role in securing the adoption of the optional protocol by the General Assembly. By ratifying the optional protocol, the UK will once again demonstrate its commitment to protecting humanitarian aid workers—a commitment that I know all right hon. and hon. Members share.

Mr. Greg Knight: Before the Minister concludes, will she make reference to the European convention on human rights? If my memory is correct, clause 1 of the Bill might be seen as a control on the use of property within that convention, and the clause might therefore fall foul of the convention.

Gillian Merron: I can assure the House that the Bill stands alone, and gives effect to the points that I have outlined. As hon. Members have pointed out, ratifying will encourage other states to sign and ratify the optional protocol. It will help to convince yet more states to become parties to the 1994 convention. We have the opportunity today to set an example. I commend the Bill to the House.

1.11 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I very much welcome the Bill, which fills two gaps in the domestic application of international humanitarian law. If, by any chance, there should be a Division later today, I shall certainly support the Government in voting in favour of a Second Reading.

As there is to be no separate debate on the programme motion that the Government tabled today alongside the motion on Second Reading, I hope that the Minister
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will forgive me if I start by making a few brief comments on that programme motion. I welcome the Government’s decision that the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House. That is a welcome departure from a practice that has been too frequent in recent years; Bills that once would have been open to debate in Committee by all right hon. and hon. Member have been shunted upstairs for truncated scrutiny there, so this is a welcome change. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office rarely has primary legislation before the House, and I am glad that it is, on this occasion, setting an example to other Departments. I hope that the Foreign Secretary and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), are able to persuade their fellow Ministers that it is an example that other Departments would do well to follow.

I temper my welcome just a little bit by expressing disappointment that the programme motion provides for proceedings in Committee, on Report and on Third Reading to be completed all within a single parliamentary day. The Bill has cross-party support, but in my experience, we could improve our understanding of most Bills through detailed scrutiny and questioning, and the tabling of new clauses and amendments that are intended to probe, rather than to overthrow the principles of the Bill in question. The House of Lords is very insistent on maintaining intervals of a few days between each stage of primary legislation; that is an example that we in this House might profitably seek to emulate.

I note that the programme motion not only provides for Committee and all subsequent proceedings to be taken in a single day, but makes no guarantee that those proceedings will not be strictly timetabled so that they take less than an entire parliamentary day. The Government perhaps need to reconsider that point. I hope that there will be further reflection on that subject before we get to the subsequent stages of the Bill.

As the Minister said in her opening speech, we are debating the application in domestic law of two protocols in international law. The additional protocol was adopted by parties to the Geneva convention as long ago as 2005. That is true, too, of the optional protocol to the UN convention on the protection of United Nations and associated personnel, which was adopted by the General Assembly in December of that year. It is slightly odd that we should have had to wait from the end of 2005 until the spring of 2009 for the Government to decide finally to bring forward the legislation to give effect to their decision to sign and ratify those important pieces of international legislation.

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