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Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend asks a perfectly serious question. I do not know the answer. I suspect that it is not a drafting error, because it seems to me that the Bill closely reflects the words of the protocol. I would expect that the gaps in the protection are the product of the diplomatic wrangling that was needed to get the UN
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General Assembly to agree to the optional protocol. It is worth further exploring that point, but of course I understand the diplomatic dilemmas that our Government might have faced in deciding that they had to settle for half a loaf when they might have wanted something rather more ambitious.

Mr. Burns: Does my hon. Friend agree that however laudable it is to accept half a loaf rather than no loaf, it waters down and hampers the general intention behind the legislation?

Mr. Lidington: That is certainly the case. My hon. Friend and I have learned from our years in this place that one sometimes has to settle for half a loaf or even less and that one advances little by little towards the state of affairs that one hopes to achieve.

My final set of questions about this element of the Bill concerns the practical impact that it might have on existing UN operations. I am clear in my mind that the Bill is binding on British domestic law in respect of offences committed against UN and associated personnel overseas provided that those operations come within the scope of the original convention or the optional protocol. I am not altogether clear about which current UN operations would be covered by the Bill. Some UN operations are extremely controversial and could give rise to some tricky issues of litigation here.

We all watched with horror some of the events in Gaza in recent months. When, a couple of weeks ago, I met Mr. John Ging, the head of the United Nations operation in Gaza, he told me about shelling that had damaged his headquarters building in the Gaza strip. He also told me about military operations in the near vicinity of schools, or attacks on schools, run by the United Nations. I am deliberately trying to keep my language as neutral as possible because there are conflicting accounts of what happened, who was responsible and whether those actions were deliberate or inadvertent, or were in response to attacks on troops.

The basic point is that the Bill creates new offences in British domestic law in respect of attacks on UN and associated personnel operating overseas. If Gaza, to take the most obvious recent high-profile example, is covered by the scope of the additional protocol and the Bill, it surely follows that allegations could be made in the United Kingdom against individual Israeli political or military leaders. I note that the Bill provides a safeguard in that the Attorney-General must give permission for a prosecution to take place. However, one can well imagine that it would be an extremely controversial decision either to initiate or to deny such a prosecution given how the Bill represents and embodies our commitment to the United Nations and to the duty to protect all its personnel.

Mr. Chope: What troubles me about my hon. Friend’s comments is that they might be interpreted as suggesting that it is more dastardly to kill children who are in a United Nations-sponsored school than in any other school. Surely he is not suggesting that.

Mr. Lidington: No, I am not. The Bill gives particular protection to United Nations and associated personnel; other civilians are covered by the duties of protection that are guaranteed under more general international
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law, with which my hon. Friend is familiar. The Geneva conventions and the other forms of humanitarian protection that have been agreed between nations continue to apply. The Bill and the convention protocol on which it is based give additional protection to UN personnel in recognition of the particular duties that they carry out on our behalf.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Would not those protections extend to dissuading Israeli defence forces from murdering UK citizens who are part of a UN peacekeeping force in that part of the world, just as, for example, Israeli defence forces murdered the UK citizen Tom Hurndall?

Mr. Lidington: The hon. Gentleman makes his point forcefully, and the Minister and Members will have heard what he says.

It is disappointing that more than 10 years after the convention was adopted, fewer than half the member states of the United Nations have signed up to it. Does the Minister have reason to believe that the addition of the optional protocol will encourage more states to become parties both to the original convention and to the protocol? That would be encouraging. I hope that she can also clarify whether the offences created in the Bill exist only in respect of acts committed on the territory of a country that is a party to the protocol and to the convention, or whether those offences are more strictly defined so that if an attack that qualified under the Bill as a criminal offence took place on UN personnel in any country of the world, the individuals responsible could be brought to justice here. That is an important point that we need to understand not only in appreciating the virtues of the Bill but in judging its practical efficacy in the immediate future.

I am sorry to have detained the Minister for so long with detailed questions, but I wanted to take this opportunity to probe some of the details of the Bill, which, after all, creates new criminal offences that are binding on all our citizens. However, I strongly support the principle of the Bill, and I will support it if we vote on it.

1.56 pm

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I should like to add the Liberal Democrats’ support for the Bill. I am pleased that the cross-party consensus seems to be that it is the right way for the Government to go. I do not think that I need detain the House for three quarters of an hour in order to put my views across and ask a few questions that I hope that the Minister will be able to deal with in her summing up.

I echo the commendation that the Minister and the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) gave to the British Red Cross for the service it has provided in the 100-plus years of its operations. It is wonderful to see such an institution with such a long and successful history—the International Committee of the Red Cross has an even longer history of nearly 150 years—doing incredibly important work. The need to protect medical workers and respect the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies wherever it is operating is absolutely universal, and I am sure that nobody would disagree with the requirement to do so.

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One learns something new every day, as the adage goes, and I certainly did so when I read the Hansard report of the debate in the Lords, which the Minister outlined. I was surprised to learn that the origin of the red cross was a reversal of the Swiss flag as a symbol of the neutrality of Switzerland. It must be recalled that despite it being called the red cross, it is not a religious symbol—although, sadly, it has been taken to mean that in some circumstances. The difficulties that have arisen with the red cross and the red crescent being perceived as symbols that are not neutral have led to the need to adopt a new symbol. The adoption of the red crystal is a sensible way forward in such sensitive areas, although it is sad that that choice may have to be made.

I welcome the Minister’s confirmation that the Foreign Office’s default option—I hope the same applies to the British Red Cross—will be to continue to use the red cross, which is most familiar in this country in terms of brand recognition. There must, however, be flexibility so that a crystal can be used too, ensuring that it is entirely clear that the medical aid is neutral.

Mr. Burns: In what circumstances does the hon. Lady envisage the red crystal being used instead of the red cross?

Jo Swinson: I understand that it has already been used in several war zones where it was felt that the red cross or the red crescent might be perceived as religious symbols rather than neutral medical symbols. Although that might be regrettable, it is sensible that we ensure that an alternative symbol can be used. There has been discussion about who should make that decision, and the Minister has already stated that the default would be the Red Cross, but that decision has to be made by those on the ground who are able properly to assess the situation and any sensitivities.

Clause 2 calls for additional protection for those who do vital and dangerous work. We should salute those who courageously do an incredibly difficult job in providing a service to us and to the whole international community. Legal protection for UN personnel on peacebuilding and emergency humanitarian work is long overdue. Unfortunately, with the deliberate targeting of humanitarian and UN personnel in recent conflicts, it is more needed than ever.

I should like the Minister to clarify a point that was made today, and in the other place. My noble Friend Baroness Northover asked whether missions of sister organisations—the World Health Organisation or the Food and Agriculture Organisation—in conflict areas would be included. The Minister’s summing up in the other place suggests that any UN agency would be included and that any agency undertaking work with the UN under that umbrella would be included, but that humanitarian agencies would not. The hon. Member for Aylesbury suggested that the WHO and FAO would not be included, so clarity from the Minister would be helpful.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): I agree with a lot of what the hon. Lady is saying. Does she think that, historically, sufficient sanctions have been taken against those who have abused the Red Cross—or, most recently, those who abused the United Nations Works and Relief Agency in Gaza? What does she think can be done to beef up that process beyond what is in the Bill?

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Jo Swinson: I would certainly agree that sanctions have not been effective enough. Indeed, I was just about to say that it is all very well passing a Bill, but if the protection is available but is not used we are providing words rather than action. It is important that legislation is available and provides a first step, but the international community needs the political will to act against breaches. In the recent events in Gaza, the UN gave all the co-ordinates of its facilities to the Israeli authorities, but it still ended up being bombed, and that clearly requires an international investigation.

The difficulty with organisations such as the UN is whether independent investigations will be subject to a veto. Where there is evidence that war crimes might have occurred, I strongly feel that they should be investigated and people held to account, regardless of what country they are from or, indeed, in what country the offences were committed. Legal protection does not solve the problem, but having it on the statute book helps to provide a deterrent and gives us the tools to pursue justice. However, there must be the political will to pursue that justice.

Mr. Chope: If a deterrent is to be effective, surely there has to be an effective sanction against non-compliance. Are we not in danger of engaging again in gesture politics, where the substance does not follow what we are saying?

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman will know that getting agreement in international organisations is not easy—it is an art rather than a science. I hope that our passing this Bill will send a message to other countries and encourage them to ratify the protocols, but that does not automatically mean that international organisations will work as perfectly as we want. However, that is not an argument for not giving the Bill a Second Reading, or for the Government not to propose legislation. If the Government are encouraging other countries to sign and to ratify the protocols and the initial convention, as I hope they are, their task will be made a bit difficult if they have not ratified them.

When we talk about the protection of UN personnel under the Bill, we are talking about UN personnel in the UK, where we hope there would never be the sort of problems to which the Bill applies. The message that this Parliament sends will give us the basis on which we can, through our diplomatic efforts, encourage other countries to sign and ratify. I hope that the Minister will update the House on the current situation; I understand that 87 countries ratified the original convention, but that 34 had signed and 16 had ratified the protocols. Those were the figures given in the other place in January. Two months on, it would be interesting to know whether the figures have increased, the number of ratifications needed for the protocols to come into force and how far away we are from that.

The Minister said that the Government signed the protocol in 2005, yet four years later we are finally scrutinising the legislation. It is not exactly the weightiest measure for which the Government have needed to find parliamentary time, so I find it difficult to understand why it has taken so long. Given that the red crystal has been in use since 2007, it would be helpful if the House had put things in order beforehand. I should like the Minister to outline the difficulties.

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Lord Malloch-Brown wrote a letter to my noble Friend, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, in which he seemed to suggest that even when states had failed, international courts might be able to uphold this law. I wanted to press the Minister on how that could be the case if the states in question had not ratified the protocols. Clearly, some of the states we most want to ratify the protocols are those for which the issue might not be top of the agenda. Any information on the Government’s efforts to encourage them would be welcome.

Finally, much as I welcome additional legal protection for UN personnel, we need to remember non-governmental organisations, such as Oxfam, Médecins sans Frontières, Save the Children and so on. Other humanitarian agencies are delivering aid and relief efforts but will not be protected. A lot of those organisations work in conflict zones where even the UN has pulled out, deeming it too dangerous to work. I hope that the Government will pursue legal protection for aid workers who work in a neutral capacity, providing humanitarian assistance and not getting involved in the politics of individual countries. On 11 March, three staff were kidnapped from Médecins sans Frontières in Darfur, and I am sure that the whole House hopes they will be safely returned. Attacks against humanitarian workers can never be justified, but we should be concerned that our valued international institutions are sometimes regarded with hostility. It is incumbent on all of us, particularly the Government, to do everything possible to uphold the United Nations and its partners as just and non-partisan.

I hope that the Minister will address my points, and I am delighted to support the Second Reading of the Bill.

2.7 pm

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Thank you for calling me to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am delighted to be here today, supporting the Red Cross. Let us remember that the Red Cross wants the new international sign of the red crystal to protect its operatives in the field. It is wonderful to reflect at this time of huge global tension that the Red Cross operates to the highest ideals possible. We live in times when we have to be religiously sensitive—and when the cross and the crescent can unintentionally ignite religious passions—but the Red Cross is free of any ideology. When people are in need, it does not question who they are, their reasons for being on a battlefield, or their reasons for being in that location—it offers help at the direst time of need and emergency.

We live in dark and dangerous times. The Red Cross was founded nearly 140 years ago, but the need for the Red Cross, the Red Crescent and the derivatives of those organisations is greater than ever before. We have a number of global conflicts, in places such as the Congo, Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq. There are numerous flashpoints in the middle east, where aid is needed daily. We also have the spectre of global climatic events impacting on people living near sea shores. A few years ago the tsunami laid waste to large parts of Asia. Again, the Red Cross was at the forefront of delivering aid. The need is greater than ever, and if the Red Cross believes that it needs a new global symbol to protect its people in the field, it should have our full support. I am pleased that there seems to be a consensus about that today, as there was in the other place.

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We must examine the Bill carefully to ensure that it is as good as it can be. I have one concern, which I think many Members will share. The red crystal will come into force, and I imagine that our troops whom we send to far-flung parts of the world will understand exactly what it means very early on. They will be educated to recognise it. But will people in the Congo, for example, understand what the red crystal is? We will be dealing with youngsters who have had no formal education at all, as they have been denied it. They are taken from their homes, conscripted into youth armies and brutalised. What will the red crystal mean to them? Will it offer any protection to those who fly the flag? Terrible events are also unfolding in Swat valley in Pakistan.

Mr. Greg Knight: Surely in the scenario that my hon. Friend paints, another symbol would be used. Does he not think that the Foreign Office would have a list of countries where it is most appropriate to use a different symbol, and that the UN would be guided accordingly?

Mr. Walker: My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and that is why Parliament has such an important role to play through the Bill. When concerns are raised, parliamentarians turn their attention to addressing them, and I hope that the most appropriate symbol will be used. We have a duty to ensure that the brave men and women who go into dangerous places get the maximum possible protection. That is an absolute, and we must never shy away from trying to ensure it.

Mr. Swire: My hon. Friend is, of course, entirely right about the proliferation around the world of events at which the Red Cross or its derivatives are needed. Does he share a corresponding concern about the abuse of the symbols in the countries where those events are taking place? I understand that under the existing 1957 legislation, unauthorised use of the emblem is punishable by a fine up to level 5 on the standard scale, which is currently £5,000. I do not know whether he knows how many times that has been enforced, but does he regard that as a sufficient penalty?

Mr. Walker: The penalty sounds very small and out of date, but as my hon. Friend will know, we can have all the penalties in the world, but if they cannot be enforced they amount to absolutely nothing. In response to the intervention by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), I point out that there are too many parts of the world where the Red Cross and the Red Crescent are abused, and where people no longer respect the mission of those brave organisations. Like many other Members, I have read the Library briefing and watched the news. Unfortunately, brave men and women working tirelessly for the benefit of others under the flag of the Red Cross or the Red Crescent are losing their lives.

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