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Dr. Howells: I am fascinated by the hon. Gentleman’s historical lesson, which is very instructive, but I want to tease something out of him. Is he worried about the possibility that iconoclastic leaders such as Chavez, Ahmadinejad or Kim Il Jung would want their own
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symbols for nationalistic purposes and to reinforce their independence? Is that the sort of proliferation that he is worried about?

Mr. Hayes: It is interesting to hear the right hon. Gentleman put it that way. I had not wanted to make a case quite as arch as that, as I did not at first think that symbols could be used in such a malevolent way. I was more concerned about confusion or even mischievous use. He is quite right, however, that it may well be worse than that and my concerns about confusion may well be an underestimation of the problem. It is indeed possible for the malevolent proliferation of symbols to take place in tandem with a nationalistic approach, which would be entirely contrary and injurious to the principles established in those early days by the founders of the Red Cross movement and, indeed, those of the Red Crescent movement. Those principles are widely recognised throughout the House as doing immeasurable good, so the right hon. Gentleman makes a useful point about what might happen. I know that the Minister will be as concerned as anyone about that and will do all he can on behalf of the Government to ensure that those possibilities are excluded, if at all possible, in the councils in which these issues are debated.

I do not wish to prolong these matters, but I was about to say that of the 186 national societies currently recognised by the International Committee of the Red Cross, 152 use the red cross as their official organisational emblem. In addition, the red cross is used by the national society of Tuvalu, which has applied for official recognition. Henri Dunant, who has figured largely—and not unreasonably so—in our considerations, also proposed that countries should adopt an international agreement that will recognise the status of medical services and the wounded on the battlefield. The resulting Geneva convention is now widely recognised by countries throughout the world as providing relief and support to the victims of international conflicts, disasters and wars. That includes refugees from the Hungarian revolution of 1956, from Vietnam in 1976, from the Iranian earthquake in 1962 and the famine in Africa in 1989; and in the UK, the British Red Cross has provided emergency relief following the disaster in Aberfan, the Lockerbie air disaster, the Easter floods in 1998 and the devastating summer floods in 2007.

3.15 pm

The reason all that is important in respect of this part of the Bill and the Bill as a whole is that there is no guarantee that we are merely talking about proliferation of symbols internationally. The worry is not about the support of the Red Cross movement, but that independent people might choose to use a different symbol here. That is something that I hope the Minister will say a few words about.

The more symbols there are in existence, the more there are to choose from; there is no guarantee that mistakenly, mischievously, perhaps even malevolently, people will not choose to use symbols other than the red cross, even within our own borders. The white flag has been recognised as a sign of the wish to negotiate or surrender, and firing on anyone displaying it in good faith is forbidden. With the addition of the red cross,
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the flag’s message is taken a stage further, demanding respect for the wounded and for anyone coming to their aid.

Let us not forget that the institution of the Red Cross was set up to transcend national borders and religious differences. There remains little evidence that the institution or the red cross itself was intended to have Christian connotations. I know that soldiers of the Ottoman empire claimed that it caused offence to Muslims, which is why we had the debate about the red crescent so long ago and indeed it explains why the red crescent was instituted. But there remains an argument that it would be better to reaffirm the red cross—as the ICRC wanted to do, as the Minister will know, in 1949. I nevertheless understand the Minister’s point and the purpose and good will that lies behind what he said to the House and what is in this measure.

I want to say a little more about the debate that took place in 1957, simply because a brief examination of the Hansard on that occasion reveals how support for the red cross was well embedded when I suppose the memory of the second world war was altogether more alive in the House and in the hearts and minds of the Members who debated the convention at that time. The Member representing Plymouth, Devonport spoke eloquently and movingly in that debate about her work in both the British and the international Red Cross, though I shall not detain the House, however, by quoting chapter and verse from that debate.

We were invited in earlier contributions to say a few words about Israel. I propose to do so before we move on to clause 2, because it is highly relevant to clause 1. The Minister alluded to—although he did not, understandably, provide much detail—the controversy over Israel’s national society, Magen David Adom and the dispute over the neutral protection symbols used in Israel. The idea of a red crystal—previously referred to as a red lozenge or red diamond—had its genesis as a result of that debate, and it proved to be the most popular of the various symbols that were suggested as additions to the red cross and red crescent. However, as we now understand, amending the Geneva conventions to add a new protection symbol requires a diplomatic conference of all 192 state signatories to the conventions. That conference was held in 2005, organised by the Swiss Government, to adopt the third symbol. It introduced the red crystal, which is illustrated in the Bill, detailed in the explanatory notes and referred to in the clause.

The third protocol refers to the new symbol as the third protocol emblem. The rules for the use of the symbol are based on the third additional protocol to the Geneva conventions. First, the protocol states:

That possibility exacerbates the risk that I described earlier. It is not merely that different symbols could be used in different places, but also that different symbols could be used in the same place, or used in combination in the same place. That could be—I put it no more strongly—a recipe for confusion, possibly even for disaster.

Secondly, the protocol establishes that

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Thirdly, it adds:

On 22 June 2006, the ICRC announced that the International Red Cross and the Red Crescent Movement were adopting the red crystal as an additional emblem for use by the national societies, and announced the recognition of the Palestine Red Crescent Society and the Israeli national society Magen David Adom. On 14 January 2007, the third additional protocol entered into force. What we are doing here, as is necessary, is amending legislation in accordance with those changes.

I had not intended to say anything about the red lion and sun, which has also been mentioned. However, if fear of proliferation lies at the heart of the lingering doubts felt by some of us about these proposals, that is coloured to some extent by the fact that from 1924 until 1980 Iran used a red lion and sun symbol for its national society, based on the dynastic flag and emblem associated with that country. The red lion and sun was formally recognised as a protection symbol in 1929, together with the red crescent, and despite its shift to the red crescent in 1980, Iran explicitly maintains the right to use the symbol. It is therefore still recognised by the Geneva convention as a protection symbol with status equal to that of the red cross, the red crescent and, now, the new red crystal. Contrary to what might be assumed, we do not have one, two or even three symbols; we have four that are recognised, are established, and can be used as a matter of choice.

I shall not say much about the red shield of David, but Israel has used it as an organisational symbol since its foundation. It was initially proposed as an addition to the red cross, but that is not entirely relevant to this part of the Bill.

I have no doubt that the intention behind the proposal is honourable, and that good will prevails. That has been exemplified by what has been said today by the Minister and other speakers, including my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury. He has spoken to representatives of the Red Cross in the United Kingdom, who have said that they have no objection to the measure. Nevertheless, for the reasons that I have given, it is important for us to explore the subject.

Since Second Reading, I have received letters and representations from constituents and others expressing doubt about the advisability of adding the new symbol, and also confusion about its meaning. This is a complex matter, but I invite the Minister to consider the possibility that the anodyne nature of the crystal may be tantamount to ambiguity about its meaning and purpose. Had we defeated the programme motion and been allowed the longer time for debate that was desirable, I would have spoken in much greater detail about the subject of signs and symbols. It is at the core of the debate, and requires more consideration than we are able to give it.

To be useful and meaningful, a symbol must transmit a clear message. It need not communicate that message in the same specific way as a sign—that is the difference between a sign and a symbol, is it not?—but there must be a degree of clarity about its intent. When we think of something that “signposts”, we think of something very particular; when we think of something being symbolic
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of something else, we envisage a slightly broader concept. A symbol is not a sign, but it must have meaning none the less. I have some doubts about the crystal in that context. Because of the effort that has been made not to be contentious, it is possibly rather too anodyne to serve its purpose.

I end my speech with those few remarks, which betray a certain scepticism on my part, but certainly no hostility towards either the measure or the Minister. I hope that we can soon move on to the rather more meaty and lengthy debate that will be necessary to deal with the other clauses.

Mr. Moss: I assume, Mrs. Heal, that I will be in order if I speak in the clause stand part debate about the schedule to the Bill and its proposed schedule 7 to the Geneva Conventions Act 1957, as clause 1(8) refers to inserting schedule 7 after schedule 6, and at our rate of progress this afternoon I doubt whether we will ever reach the schedule, let alone Third Reading.

3.30 pm

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Sylvia Heal): Yes, as I doubt very much that we will reach a debate on proposed schedule 7, it is indeed appropriate for the hon. Member to comment on it at this stage.

Mr. Moss: Thank you very much, Mrs. Heal.

Proposed schedule 7 states:

This comes back to a question that I put to the Minister in an intervention: who decides? The phrase “may be used” suggests that permission for a symbol to be used needs to be given by the country that our armed forces are operating in or travelling through. Is that vested in international law—in other words, does the country have to have signed up to the Geneva Conventions Act 1957—or does the local law of the country itself determine whether it accepts a particular symbol? Also, if contiguous countries have different views, will our armed forces and their vehicles have to keep switching their symbols as they move from one country to another? The Minister may not be able to answer that right away, but I would like an answer at some juncture, if possible.

Chris Bryant: The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) made a highly informative and fascinating—if also slightly sceptical—speech. At the end of it, he invited me to speak about semiotics and the difference between signs and symbols. Most of my university English degree seemed to be obsessed with Saussurian analysis of semiotics, and then when I arrived at theological college I had to discuss the hermeneutical circle for about three years. [Interruption.] It is not that difficult to spell “hermeneutical”. I remember very clearly a Scottish theologian who taught at Oxford saying as part of his address on systematic theology and symbolism in religion that a lot of people ask, “What do we mean by God?” but we should really be asking, “What do we mean by ‘mean’?” Therefore, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will not return to the hermeneutical circle this afternoon. However, I would just say that on these issues I am closer to Urs von Balthasar and Coleridge than I am to Lacan.

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Mr. Hayes: What the whole House wants to know is: what does the Minister mean by “what”?

Chris Bryant: I am not sure the Minister understands what he means by “mean” or “what” in this particular circumstance, so let us move on to the issue of the cross and whether it could raise offence. The hon. Gentleman pointed to various different ways in which the cross can be interpreted but, of course, the possible interpretations depend on whether one is referring to the Cross with a capital C, which for many Christians is the Cross on which Jesus died. How that should be presented has been hotly disputed between Catholics and Protestants over the years; one dispute is about whether the symbol of a Cross should be used at all in churches. Therefore, the religious connotations that can be attached—and are attached by many people—either for good or ill can make it more difficult in certain, limited, circumstances for the Red Cross movement to be able to do its job. If that is the case, we need to have the additional symbols. For me, the fact that it is the Red Cross imparts an element of the concept of Christian charity to the work of the Red Cross, but I understand that others think of that in a pejorative sense, not a positive sense. They might also think of the child being baptised with the sign of the Cross and being told to fight valiantly for Christ against the devil. For many people, that is not a positive symbol. The hon. Gentleman also said that the Red Cross symbol is different from any other crosses as its arms and legs, as it were, are of equal length, but so are those of the cross of St. George and I do not think anybody doubts that the cross of St. George is a religious symbol.

Let me clarify a couple of other matters. Several Members mentioned the issue of the red lion and sun and whether that is to be used only in Iran or only by Iran. The situation is that it is for Iran—properly speaking, it was for Persia—to use, and it has not done so since 1980. I do not think other countries or peoples would want, or choose, to do so, so it is not a matter that arises in any case.

Mr. Hayes: Would there be a purpose then in detaching the red lion from the protocol, or would it be better to just let it wither on the vine?

Chris Bryant: In my estimation, it would be an unnecessary row to have. It would also involve many other countries trying to agree a new protocol, and I cannot see that there would be any great value in that. It sits there and is not greatly used. It stemmed originally from 13th century Persian understandings, but it is not used.

The other issue to which I should refer is the question of when this comes into effect. The original protocol makes it clear that it comes into effect when two countries have ratified. I have a list of those who have signed and ratified, and a separate list of those who have signed. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) asked me which countries are on the list, but I think that it would be unnecessary to read them out. I am happy to write to her so that she can compare notes. There is no greater requirement than two countries ratifying, so it has already come into operation.

Without further ado—

Mr. Moss rose—

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Chris Bryant: Well, apparently there will be further ado.

Mr. Moss: The Minister has not answered my question. If the answer is long in coming, perhaps he would undertake to write to me with an explanation. That would be satisfactory.

Chris Bryant: More to the point, the Minister cannot remember the question, so whether he would be able to remember the answer is quite another matter— [ Interruption. ] I know that it related to schedule 7, and the hon. Gentleman referred to line 36, but I think that he meant line 36 on the first page of the schedule, because it has several line 36s. I will write to him at length on the issue, although I do not think that it will prevent him from supporting the clause. For the sake of the fullness of the debate, I will be happy to write to him. Without further ado, I shall now sit down.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

Amendments of the United Nations Personnel Act 1997

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Chris Bryant: I hope that hon. Members, albeit in a slightly querulous and sceptical mode, will also support clause 2 standing part of the Bill. It will amend the United Nations Personnel Act 1997 to incorporate the optional protocol to the convention on the safety of United Nations and associated personnel. The original Act has been used to protect operations maintaining or restoring international peace and security and operations in which an exceptional risk exists.

It has been necessary to bring forward the optional protocol because there is a loophole: there are operations that are not maintaining or restoring international peace and security, but are peace building. They go beyond the stage of peacekeeping, but the Security Council has not determined that an exceptional risk exists. Consequently, the full protection afforded by the 1997 Act and the convention is not extended to those operations.

First, we must amend UK law to give effect to the optional protocol, and that is what we are doing this afternoon. Next comes the process of ratification, whereby we lay down the optional protocol before Parliament, under the Ponsonby rule, and after 21 days it is considered to be ratified. We then lodge the instruments of ratification and accession with the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

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