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My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) will know, as he is a former soldier, that the battlefield is a dangerous place to be. We see that week in and week out, when we hear of journalists and other non-combatants being killed. Deliberate attacks on people flying an international symbol of aid and help must no longer be tolerated. The Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), touched
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on the fact that when people working for the Red Cross come under deliberate attack, there must be global indignation and those responsible must feel the full weight of global law fall upon their shoulders.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): I am sorry that I was not here at the outset of the debate, but I have thus far followed it with interest from a distance, and I have read all the materials provided. My hon. Friend talks about indignation, but that must find its form in the appropriate reaction of Government. If they do not take a lead on these things, he is fanciful in expecting others to do so in their place. The Government must take a lead, and there is not much evidence that they are.

Mr. Walker: I shall be more charitable than my hon. Friend to the Government, because I think that there is a desire and a mood in all parties to provide the necessary protection to men and women operating in the field under the red cross and the red crescent. However, my hon. Friend makes a valuable point. Today, we have the G20, and 66 per cent. of the world’s population is represented by the global leaders who are in London. The economy is absolutely critical and deserves their attention, but they should also focus on how to alleviate the suffering of the hundreds of millions of people who are living in war-torn parts of the world. I mentioned the Congo earlier, and it is outrageous that more than 6 million people have been allowed to perish there. How many more would there have been without the Red Cross?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I have been pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman relating his remarks and concerns to the Bill, and I hope that he will continue to do that.

Mr. Walker: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

How many more would have perished without the Red Cross, and how many more would be suffering? The organisations, guerrilla groups and people who wilfully attack the Red Cross must be brought before a court of international law and tried. If convicted, they must serve time in prison for their crimes against not just the Red Cross but humanity.

I conclude my short speech by paying tribute to those who work for the Red Cross and Red Crescent. They are ordinary men and women who do extraordinary things. We normally hear about them only when a tragedy occurs, but day in and day out they bring aid to parts of the world where there are unimaginable levels of suffering. We in this House need to do as much as possible to ensure that the Red Cross and its people can continue to deliver on their mission, and I am pleased that the Bill is before the House today and that we are supporting the Red Cross in its aims and objectives.

2.17 pm

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): May I say how nice it is to see how many colleagues are present who also served on the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, including the Government Whip, the hon. Member for Brent, South (Ms Butler), who unfortunately cannot speak for herself today?

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I begin by welcoming the tireless efforts of the humanitarian personnel who act selflessly to save lives and alleviate suffering. Humanitarian workers operate in the most hostile and dangerous parts of the world and show compassion and bravery that, along with the character of our armed forces, is unparalleled. We must of course do what we can to protect them and ensure that those who risk their lives are reassured of our support.

However, emblems and conventions may not be enough. It saddens me that in recent years there have been many examples of humanitarian workers being harmed and killed, often in the most callous and brutal ways. I am concerned that those involved in the conflicts in which the UN and humanitarian personnel are engaged are already failing to respect the existing laws of war and morality. Whatever we legislate for in this Parliament, and across the world in other decent and democratic countries that respect the laws of war and the Geneva conventions, that does not mean that others will necessarily extend the same protection and respect. There are immoral people in conflict zones across the world who show utter disregard for the laws of war. They make no distinction between those acting in a humanitarian capacity and military personnel, who may be viewed as being legitimate targets.

A number of high-profile examples have been brought to my attention that highlight the need for the international community, the United Nations and other international organisations to take action against those who refuse to be bound by the letter and the spirit of the conventions.

In October, we were all horrified by the actions of the Taliban gunmen who brutally murdered three women aid workers, including one Briton, 40-year-old Jacqueline Kirk. The aid workers were ambushed by gunmen 30 miles outside Kabul in the province of Logar, while travelling from Gardez in the east of Afghanistan to Kabul. The gunmen ignored the laws of war and did not feel bound by conventions. Ms Kirk and her colleagues were working for the International Rescue Committee. They were not soldiers, part of the coalition of the willing or there to wipe out the Taliban—that is the job of our soldiers. Ms Kirk was there to support innocent civilians. She had no knowledge of warfare, but expertise in children’s education programmes. The Taliban gunmen did not care. Their spokesman went as far as to claim that they attacked the vehicle in which Ms Kirk and her colleagues travelled because it was carrying military personnel, “most of them women.” He added to the Associated Press by phone:

Although the introduction of the red crystal symbol is welcome, I do not believe that the Taliban would show it any more respect than it has shown existing aid workers. It is not clear that the red crystal would have protected the five international aid workers who were kidnapped or held hostage in Afghanistan in the first half of 2008, or the dozens of Afghan aid staff working daily for non-governmental organisations.

There are other examples of aid workers being brutally attacked and mistreated in conflicts. Sadly, the case involving Ms Kirk is not a one-off, but an all-too-regular occurrence. In 1996, three International Committee of the Red Cross relief workers were killed in Burundi, despite travelling in a vehicle that was clearly marked
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with the red cross emblem. Four ICRC staff were killed in south Sudan by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in 1999—they were abducted in February and executed a few weeks later in April. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2001, two vehicles clearly marked with the red cross emblems were attacked, resulting in the deaths of six ICRC workers. The co-pilot of a Red Cross plane was killed after his plane was shot down in Sudan in 2001. Peace activist Ken Bigley was brutally beheaded in Iraq. In March 2007, a German aid worker was shot dead by gunmen in northern Afghanistan. In July 2007, two South Korean aid workers were shot dead. Suicide bombers in Iraq have attacked ICRC headquarters. In February, two aid workers for French organisation Aide Médicale Internationale were ambushed and shot dead south of Darfur. Only last week, a 39-year-old Sudanese relief worker was shot by gunmen in Sudan, who were attempting to steal a satellite phone facility. In Sri Lanka, a CARE International humanitarian worker was killed in a no-fire zone in the Vanni area in the north.

The Agency Co-ordinating Body for Afghan Relief—ACBR—has reported that there was a 50 per cent. increase in insurgent attacks in 2008 compared with the previous year. Those actions and the contempt that some show towards humanitarian workers and the emblems under which they act undermine efforts to bring peace to areas of conflict.

Mr. Chope: The ghastly list that my hon. Friend has read out will cause everybody much concern, but to what extent have the perpetrators been prosecuted?

Bill Wiggin: I do not think that there have been any prosecutions. The Government’s efforts in the legislation enable British people to be prosecuted, but not the perpetrators of the atrocities. Although it is right to have the legislation in place here, I emphasise that no one has been punished for the atrocities.

Mr. Swire: Let me repeat my earlier point. Although it is important that the international community comes down hard on those who ignore the symbols—incidences of that have unfortunately increased of late—it should also come down hard on those who misuse the symbols in times of war. Does my hon. Friend agree that existing provisions for fines and so on are woefully inadequate unless they are enforced, and also, as they stand, inadequate law?

Bill Wiggin: I agree with my hon. Friend—I usually do; he is very wise—but, tragically, enforcement is not possible. Aid workers are needed and they go into those areas because there is lawlessness, no enforcement and humanitarian need. Food for the world exists; bad governance means that it does not get to the people who need it most.

Mr. Burns: Is not it a sad fact of life that the legislation could include as harsh a punishment as one wanted, but many areas are so lawless and experience such a breakdown of law and order that, unless one catches the perpetrators of the atrocities, little can be done?

Bill Wiggin: My hon. Friend is right. However, all that should not stop members of the ICRC making the sacrifice, taking the risk and putting themselves in
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danger to deliver humanitarian aid because that is what they do, and we should support them. It is sad that whatever we say and do here is unlikely to have an impact. I hope that I am wrong, but I fear I am not.

We must do what we can to ensure that vital aid and resources get to innocent civilians who need it. In Afghanistan, our aid workers and those who wear the respective red cross, red crescent and red crystal emblems would have their safety and the security in which to operate and carry on with their tremendous work strengthened if the Taliban were further weakened. That means that our military personnel must receive the right equipment to ensure that they can do their job to the best of their abilities. It also means that the many other countries that have an interest in peace and security in Afghanistan, including members of NATO and the EU, commit their fair share of military resources to that conflict zone. By improving the security situation on the ground for aid and humanitarian workers, we can reduce the dangers posed to them and the threats and brutal actions of those who show no regard for the emblems that we are debating today.

When my constituents donate money to the Red Cross or to Oxfam, they expect their aid workers and the operations that they fund with their contributions to be protected. When our constituents decide to become aid workers, often as volunteers, while aware of the risks, they nevertheless expect that the purpose for their presence in conflict zones affords them some protection. People support aid agencies because they want to see them bring kindness and good to parts of the world where conflict has turned lives upside down and left innocent civilians—men, women and children—with little or nothing.

Whether in Palestine, Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia or Iraq the work that humanitarian workers and aid agencies undertake needs to be supported. I therefore press on the Under-Secretary the importance of taking the appropriate steps to ensure that those who disregard the laws of war and deliberately bring harm to aid workers are brought to justice and do not undermine the great efforts taken to support civilian populations.

We also need to know from the Government that, aside from the introduction of the red crystal, more is being done to protect aid workers. How can we guarantee protection for our aid workers and humanitarian personnel when there are people in conflict areas prepared to disregard the rules of warfare, morality and decency? In lawless Somalia and large parts of Afghanistan, the conventions may carry little force or protection. Delivering further measures to protect humanitarian workers through the amendments to protocols and introducing a new emblem may look adequate on paper, but their true test will be seen in the conflict areas.

The Geneva conventions and the protocols relating to UN personnel are not only designed to protect aid and humanitarian workers and civilians. The Geneva conventions were originally established to provide protection to wounded soldiers and military personnel—to ensure that those who need help and medical aid are given it.

My constituency is home to the finest soldiers anywhere in the world. Their record of achievement and their skills are unparalleled anywhere in the world. They are the bravest and they are the best. As with aid workers,
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however, when our soldiers are wounded in battle, there are those in some conflict areas who will not abide by international conventions. How confident can we be that our injured soldiers will be afforded the same rights, the same dignity and the same care by the enemy as those whom we capture are? When the Taliban or the insurgency in Iraq capture our soldiers, abiding by international law and those conventions does not appear to be at the forefront of their thoughts. The best way we can protect our military personnel in some conflict zones is not necessarily by relying on the enemy to observe international law, but by providing our personnel with the equipment and resources they need to protect themselves.

Our efforts to promote international law and those conventions are, however, undermined by some of the actions in which this Government may have been involved. The Government’s alleged complicity in acts of extraordinary rendition and the recent allegations made concerning torture are deeply worrying. We cannot go around lecturing others about international law and protecting civilians when there are questions that the Government may have to answer about not upholding such rules themselves. Such matters must be resolved to restore this country’s credibility. The UK has a proud tradition of upholding and promoting international law. This Government must not be allowed to undermine it.

2.31 pm

Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): As I understand it, the Bill has two objectives: to amend the Geneva Conventions Act 1957 and to amend the United Nations Personnel Act 1997. That is extremely relevant. Only a few weeks ago, I was with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) in Gaza, looking at, among other things, the enormous damage done to the UN compound in Gaza city and hearing about the deaths of about a dozen UN personnel during the recent conflict there. Also, as a television reporter at ITN, I spent considerable time in Bosnia, where I saw the importance of UN organisations operating effectively and saving many lives. I am therefore acutely aware of the need for both unambiguous markings and the protection of personnel.

The first aim marks a new stage in the use of protective and distinctive emblems to cover the work of people who bring relief to the victims of battle, whether civilian or military—the scenes are all too familiar on our television sets. The legislation does that by introducing and legalising the new additional emblem, which is intended to be both protective and indicative, being marked on vehicles and on the armbands and uniforms of personnel in the field. As we have discussed, the legislation also covers penalties for the misuse or abuse of the new symbol and, as I understand it, the existing symbols.

Mr. Swire: Does my hon. Friend share my slight concern that the new symbol could be mistaken for a military marking?

Mr. Holloway: My hon. Friend raises an interesting point, which I shall come to a little later in my speech, but I absolutely agree. The first time that I saw the symbol, it took me back to the platoon commander’s battle course at Warminster and the sort of markings
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that people might put on maps in an operations room, as well as the sort of markings used for directing military convoys. My hon. Friend makes an interesting point to which I shall return.

The second aim is to strengthen the safety of the UN and associated personnel by extending their legal protection against attack in a wide range of operations. Both those aims are obviously thoroughly commendable and, as has been said, extremely relevant to the modern world. The bravery of those who work under those badges and emblems of neutrality and mercy is clear; they do a fantastic job. I strongly support the aims, but I have a number of questions for the Minister, which I hope that she can answer. The expansion of symbols from the simple red cross to the red crescent comes down to us from the 19th century, as she has said. We have also heard that at one point there was the red lion and sun for the Persians, and I think that there was even a red flame at one time for Thailand. All manner of religious and ethnic concerns have been reflected by such symbols.

Let us remember, however, that the original red cross was never intended to be a religious symbol. As the Minister has said, it was simply the reversal of the Swiss flag, which is a white cross on a red background. The red cross became the emblem of that precious and nowadays abused concept of true neutrality. That was a long time ago, but this is where we are today. If the cross and the crescent have served us so well, I do not really see the reasoning for the new symbol.

Mr. Hayes: My hon. Friend might be understating the risk. It is true that part of that risk lies in confusion of the type that he has described, which might arise. However, the history of the subject, which he will have looked at in some detail, shows that it has previously been suggested not simply that there should be one or two more symbols but, as he has implied, that there should be a multitude of symbols. Indeed, it has been suggested in debates on such matters since the 19th century that each nation might have its own symbol. That would lead to a disaster, whereby the universality that he has described would be lost for ever.

Mr. Holloway: That is an interesting point. Indeed, my very next line is about whether the essential quality is in any way weakened or diluted by a third or more symbols.

Mr. Burns: I have been listening carefully to my hon. Friend. Does he accept that if one were to have too many symbols, it would dilute recognition and understanding? To answer an earlier point, it may well be a problem for Jewish people from Israel to have a red crescent and, possibly, a red cross. It may also be a problem for Hindus in India to have a red crescent or a red cross. Surely the way forward is to have a third, all-embracing symbol for those cultures and peoples who find Christianity and Islam not acceptable, but not to dilute it by having regional, religious or ethnic variations, which could cause total incomprehension.

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