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2.45 pm

In a previous debate in another place, there was some discussion about the protection afforded to United Nations facilities in Gaza. We were all troubled by the events at the end of last year, and the Prime Minister made Britain’s view very clear. International humanitarian law protects all persons who take no active part in the hostilities against attack, regardless of whether they use a protective emblem. That includes UN personnel and the facilities that they use. In the UN context, only medical and religious personnel participating in operations under its auspices can use the red crystal, the red cross and the red crescent. The UN facilities in Gaza could not therefore use any of the humanitarian emblems, but they were marked with UN symbols to protect them against attack.

Some hon. Members have raised the related matter of cluster munitions. We are keen to move forward with legislation on that and we shall do so when parliamentary time allows.

Members in the House of Lords raised the signing of protocol V of the United Nations convention on certain conventional weapons in November 2003, and hon. Members may therefore be interested in that. Discussions are continuing between the Departments involved to work out the arrangements for funding our future obligations, which arise from the protocol. It has proved more difficult than any of us anticipated to resolve the potential future financial liability arising from ratification. In the meantime, the UK follows the principles enshrined in the protocol, regardless of whether we have been able to ratify.

I do not think that I need to make further comments on the first clause. I hope that, despite the slightly querulous questioning about whether we are multiplying the number of emblems too much, all hon. Members will feel that the clause is the right way in which to proceed.

Mr. Lidington: I am grateful to the Minister for his introduction to the clause, and I shall not oppose the stand part motion at the debate’s conclusion. I shall simply make a couple of brief points.

I was intrigued when the Minister, almost in parenthesis, referred to the old symbol of the red lion and sun, which the royalist regime in Iran employed. I think I understood him to say that, although the symbol is no longer used, it remains a part of the appropriate conventions and it could be revived in future by some hypothetical Government in Iran, or somewhere else in the world, who chose to revert to the red lion and sun.

The adoption of the red crystal is the outcome of pragmatic negotiations and I am pleased that the decision means that it will be possible at long last for the Israeli and the Palestinian humanitarian organisations to participate fully in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent family.

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Chris Bryant: Just for the sake of completeness, I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that the red lion and sun is available for use only in Iran.

Mr. Lidington: I am grateful to the Minister for making that point clear.

The Minister said that the British Red Cross Society was strongly behind clause 1 and the Bill as a whole, and I can certainly vouch for that. I would say to those of my hon. Friends who perhaps still harbour some uncertainty about the measures that, having earlier this year met the chairman of the British Red Cross Society and the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Dr. Kellenberger, I am completely satisfied that both organisations strongly support what is proposed in clause 1 and the Bill as a whole.

I was grateful for the Minister’s assurances that it would be wrong to see the red crystal as a symbol that was intended to supplant either the red cross or the red crescent; were that to become the case, it would arouse considerable disquiet among the many thousands of people in all our constituencies who have given freely of their time and money over the years to support the efforts of the British Red Cross Society.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) referred in an intervention to the potential use of the red crystal by British troops. I noted that the Minister said that its use by British forces would be a pragmatic decision for field commanders to take on the basis of circumstances and that no presumption would be made that they should abandon the red cross. I would simply express the clear view that it would be wrong were there to be any pressure or any assumption on the part of the Ministry of Defence that such a change ought to be made. It is better for the confidence of the British public that the red cross, which is the symbol that people in this country recognise and respect, should continue to be used by our armed forces wherever possible. A departure from that principle should certainly be the exception, rather than be allowed to become the norm.

With that slight reservation, I am happy to give my support to clause 1.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): This has been a fascinating and informative debate, not least because we have found out the birthday and occupation of the Minister’s relations. It is always interesting to have some new information and some anecdotes to lighten the debate.

This is an important debate on an important Bill, which the Government are right to introduce and ensure that the UK passes. To people in this country, the red cross is seen not as a religious symbol but as something entirely neutral. However, if that is not the case in some places in the world, and if that can lead to confusion and, potentially, endanger people who are doing important work, it is obviously right that the international community should act to change the situation. I am sure we have all received information and leaflets from the ICRC encouraging us to support the Bill. We have had some debate about the origins of the cross and how it has been used by different cultures. In some contexts, the red cross is obviously seen as religious, but it is worth bearing in mind the fact that it is the reversal of the Swiss flag, and therefore represents neutrality.

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I was intrigued by the Bill’s description of the crystal, which it defines as

As was remarked upon in previous stages, this Bill is one of the first to include a diagram.

Chris Bryant: This is not the first Bill to do that: the Bill that became the Geneva Conventions Act 1957 did so as well. It is just a shame that we cannot print in red.

Jo Swinson: A mine of intriguing information is our Minister. Presumably the 1957 Act introduced the red cross, but I wonder whether he could say in summing up whether it introduced the red crescent too or whether that was introduced in a later Act.

The shape in the Bill, which is described as a crystal, could also be described as a diamond. Indeed, at election time I have been known to have posters in the shape of a diamond—at least we tend to call them diamonds. However, the marketing manager in me was quite impressed that, after all the discussion about the most appropriate shape, we have called the shape a crystal rather than a diamond. We therefore have that nice alliteration, with the red cross, the red crescent and the red crystal. It seems that everything has been thought of.

In answer to an intervention, the Minister said that 40 countries had ratified the measures and that another 48 had signed up to them. I do not want to confuse this point with the debate on clause 2—I appreciate that the protocols in clause 2 have also been signed and ratified by a certain number of countries—but I wonder whether the Minister could inform us in his final remarks whether a certain number is needed for the measures to come into effect. I appreciate that that is the case for the other protocols—the Minister pointed out on Second Reading that a further number was required, and I think that the magic number was 22. Some time has passed between that debate and this debate, so it would be welcome to know whether the provisions are yet in effect or whether we still await that.

I would like to welcome the Minister’s comments about cluster munitions and the fact that the Government have moved from their position of allowing so-called smart cluster bombs, which none the less maim and kill indiscriminately. I very much welcome the Minister’s commitment to find time for the Government to bring forward the ban on such munitions. It is important when we are discussing the technicalities of a symbol that will be used in war zones that we remember the horrors that are experienced where such symbols are used. We are talking about people being wounded and killed in the most horrific circumstances, so the issue is of the gravest importance.

The general consensus is welcome, and I will be supporting clause 1.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): This has been an interesting and informative debate. I am fully in support of the Bill, but I would be grateful if the Minister could respond to a couple of the points that have arisen.

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First, I have a slight concern about the possible proliferation of symbols. It was mentioned that although the Iranians do not currently use the red lion and sun, they still have the right to use it. Can the Minister clarify whether they have the right to use it only in Iran or could they use it anywhere in the world, and if so, could that cause confusion?

My second point is about implementation. When does the international agreement come into effect? Does it need a certain number of countries to ratify it? At what point will the new red crystal be used as a symbol of protection? Once countries have ratified the agreement, are they entitled to use the symbol or is there a point at which the whole world would be entitled to use it? I would be grateful for clarification on those two points.

Mr. Hayes: As the Minister and the shadow Minister said, this is not a partisan matter, but it is an important one and, in my judgment, it requires a rather fuller exploration than it has enjoyed thus far, although I do not say that in a pejorative way.

As one might expect with such a short Bill, clause 1 goes to the heart of the matter. The Bill’s purpose is, in essence, to amend previous Acts, in particular the Geneva Conventions Act 1957, which I hope to say a little more about in my contribution. Inasmuch as the Bill amends the 1957 Act, much of what we have discussed so far has focused on the change to that Act in respect of emblems. We debated this matter on Second Reading, but at that stage we did not know quite how the Bill would fare in the other place. Since then, I have received representations on the issue—I am sure that other hon. Members have as well—from a variety of agencies and constituents.

This is first of all about symbols, protocols and conventions. When the Minister says that the cross might cause offence, I am minded to reprise the remarks of G. K. Chesterton, who said that those who dislike the cross do so not because it is a dead symbol but because it is a live symbol. The cross has significance not only because it is recognised as a Christian symbol but because it has been associated with Christian and non-Christian cultures since time immemorial as a symbol of peace, good health and good spirit.

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman cites G. K. Chesterton, but Chesterton had a very firm understanding of the theological significance of the cross. He referred to it primarily in a proselytising sense. Indeed, that might be the potential danger in its use. I should also like to point out that I never used the word “offence” in relation to the cross. This is merely a question of whether people might misunderstand the red cross and take it to have an exclusively religious significance that is not intended.

Mr. Hayes: Of course that is true about Chesterton. He was making a case for a Christian emblem. The case that I am making is that the living nature of the cross extends beyond that narrow definition. The cross is perceived fairly universally as a symbol of peace, of the union of heaven and earth, and of the sun and the stars. It is seen as a world centre and a cosmic axis. It represents the human form, with its four cardinal points. It can map the fourfold system, the four directions—north, south, east and west—the four seasons and the four elements.

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In Christian imagery, as the Minister is well qualified to attest, the cross usually has an elongated southern element, because the cross in Christian imagery represents the crucifix. The red cross does not look like a crucifix; it is a simple cross, each part of which is the same length. It has a symmetry. Of course I accept that the red crescent was adopted because of the doubts that the Minister has articulated—the debate on this matter has gone on for a long time—but I am not sure that those doubts are well founded, given the universality of the cross.

When we debated the new symbol, the Minister acknowledged that it would not gain immediate acceptance because it might not be recognised straight away. Therein lies the nub of the problem. If the principle of a cross or a crescent is that it is widely recognisable and universally understood, and that its protective value as a device lies in that comprehension, a symbol that does not proffer immediate recognition might not proffer the protection that it is designed to provide.

I do not want to dwell on the specifics of the symbol at this point, but to set the matter in context. As I have said, this debate has been going on almost since the beginning of the Red Cross movement. A lively debate has been conducted since the end of the 19th century on whether the cross should be the movement’s only symbol, and whether it was the appropriate symbol to use in all places at all times. That was the very debate that gave rise to the adoption of the red crescent.

The problem with the solution proposed in the Bill is that it would be entirely possible for a multiplication of symbols to emerge, as has been suggested by several contributors to the debate. It is possible that, once this new symbol has been adopted, others might make similar claims. The point about universality is important. It is probable that we will get away with having one more symbol, which is why my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) and the Red Cross itself have said that they will not oppose the proposal. But what would happen if we were to add one or two more symbols? At what point would the recognition that lies at the heart of a symbol’s value become compromised? I make no judgment about that; I simply raise the point for hon. Members’ consideration. Indicative devices show the link that a person or object has with a movement. Once that link has been broken in terms of popular perception, the device loses its force. Emblems should typically bear additional information, as most emblems do not speak for themselves. They imply more than the simplicity of a red cross.

It is important to set all these considerations in their historical context. The Red Cross is the world’s largest humanitarian movement, with approximately 97 million volunteers worldwide. As the Minister said, it was inspired by Henry Dunant after his experience of seeing the dead and dying lying forlorn. He felt that something should be done on a non-partisan basis to ease their suffering and to deal with similar tragic circumstances. He wrote about that after the battle of Solferino in 1859, and I recommend his book to Members, because it makes the case that lies at the heart of these considerations.

Henry Dunant proposed the creation of national relief societies made up of volunteers trained in peacetime to provide neutral and impartial help to relieve suffering in times of war. Central to his concerns was his second proposal, which was to establish an international
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agreement—this became the Geneva conventions, as we now know—to oversee the support and humanitarian assistance that he craved. The proposals in the final resolutions at the conference that ensued from his efforts were adopted in October 1863. They are simple, and they are highly relevant to this part of the Bill. They included proposals for the foundation of a national relief society for wounded soldiers, for neutrality and for the protection of the wounded, for the utilisation of volunteer forces for the relief and assistance of those on battlefields, for the organisation of additional conferences to enact these concepts in legally binding international treaties, and for the introduction of a common, distinctive protection symbol for medical personnel in the field—namely, a white armlet bearing a red cross.

The armlet bearing a red cross was the original protection symbol declared at the 1864 Geneva convention. It represents a reversal of the Swiss national flag, and it was adopted to honour the Swiss founder of the movement, Henry Dunant, and his home country. That is interesting in itself, because few would argue that the Swiss flag is specifically identified by most reasonable people as a Christian flag. [Interruption.] I understand why the Minister is shaking his head, but most people do not think of the Swiss flag first and foremost as a Christian emblem.

Ideas to introduce a uniform and neutral protection symbol, as well as a specific design, came from the original founding members of the international committee. The red cross was initially defined as a protection symbol under article 7 of chapter VII of the Geneva convention of 1864—“The distinctive emblem”—and then under article 38 of the Geneva convention of 1949—

There is an unofficial agreement within the Red Cross and Red Crescent movements that the shape of the cross should be of a cross composed of five squares. I argued earlier that the distinctiveness of the red cross and the difference between it and the kind of cross typically used in Christian imagery are highly pertinent. However, regardless of the shape, any red cross on a white background should be valid and must be recognised as a protection symbol in conflicts.

Here I believe the Minister has a valid point. Although the red cross that we all think of first when we think about the Red Cross movement is the one used officially on most occasions, in the heat of battle as it were, other red crosses might be used that could be more easily misinterpreted. I take the Minister’s point that he did not use the word “offence”, but I am going to use it and say that it could give rise to offence, making such a symbol less useful or worse. I do not therefore disregard the points raised by the Minister and others about the need to be sensitive on this subject, but I do really worry about the possibility of the proliferation of the number of symbols and any effect that might have on universal recognition.

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