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War Crimes Tribunal

Orders of the Day — Noise Bill – in the House of Commons at 2:15 pm on 12th July 1996.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bates.]

Photo of Mr William Powell Mr William Powell , Corby 2:45 pm, 12th July 1996

At the end of an intensive afternoon of legislation, it is a privilege to have the opportunity to debate the war crimes tribunal that is now sitting in The Hague and the future of an international permanent criminal court. I have raised the issue many times before, although this is the first time in the presence of my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) since he assumed his responsibilities in the Foreign Office just under a year ago. I make no apology for doing so again, as it is a fundamentally important matter.

It is worth recalling that, 12 months ago today, the world had to come to terms with one of the United Nations' greatest operational failures that led to the fall of Srebrenica. As we speak, investigators working on behalf of the prosecutor of the war crimes tribunal in The Hague are excavating areas around Srebrenica in Bosnia. Unfortunately, they are uncovering horrific evidence that may well lead to the prosecution of those responsible for the massacres that occurred a year ago.

While that vital work is taking place in Bosnia, it is worth recalling that the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague is also at work, and that warrants have been issued for the arrests of two of the most wanted war criminals—Mr. Radovan Karadzic and General Mladic. It is right that we should pursue all those who are responsible for unspeakable acts of wickedness in the former Yugoslavia. Although I shall concentrate for a moment on what has happened there, it should not be interpreted as meaning that I am overlooking the events that occurred in Rwanda, which are being addressed by a separate war crimes tribunal in Tanzania.

I start by paying tribute to all those who have worked so hard to enable the war crimes tribunal to begin its work in The Hague, and praising Mr. Arthur Robinson, the Deputy Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago. He is a former Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, and he was the first international statesman to raise at international level the need for machinery to deal with international and transnational crime.

Throughout his career in public life, Mr. Robinson has pursued the issue and placed it firmly on the international agenda. As a result of his leadership, many others have taken it up and have worked hard to ensure that we have some machinery for dealing with fundamental breaches of international conventions such as the Geneva convention, dealing with war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity and so forth.

I also praise the institute of international criminal law at De Paul university in Chicago, under the leadership of Professor M. Cherif Bassioni. There is no question but that, if it were not for his extraordinary and dedicated leadership, much of the necessary work to allow that to happen would not have taken place. Professor Bassioni became chairman of the council of experts established by the United Nations under the direction of the Secretary-General, and that led to the uncovering of a huge amount of evidence of war crimes from the early years of the conflict in former Yugoslavia.

One thing that became plain, both to the Council of Experts and to others, was that, unless we have permanent machinery, we are likely to lose the opportunity of bringing to justice those who are responsible for many acts of genocide and crimes against humanity. Although I am now talking about the events around Srebrenica and the investigations there, the line has gone cold for events that took place in Osijek, Vukovar and other areas in the early years of the Yugoslavian civil war.

Without a permanent mechanism for handling such events, many outrageous and wicked acts are bound to go without prosecution before an authoritative international tribunal. That gives rise to the danger that, if such actions are brought before domestic tribunals only, they may lack the authority that the world requires in dealing with such matters.

I also pay tribute to Professor Crawford, of Cambridge university, who has done an enormous amount, both in the academic world and in advising the Government, as to ensure that the proposals which have been made and are still being made for a permanent international court are practicable and capable of realisation. I pay tribute, too, to Amnesty International, which has given an enormous amount of its sponsorship, and has helped to ensure that a growing number of people throughout the world recognise the obvious deficiencies in our methods of dealing with such matters.

I am glad to say that a new body is being established in New York—a special body dedicated to bringing about a new permanent international court. I am delighted to say that the British Government too have played their part in the admirable 'work now taking place. We have provided a legal officer., investigators, cash and equipment, and I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure the House that he will do what he can to ensure that the tribunal in The Hague has the necessary resources to carry out its responsibilities under the United Nations resolution.

I do not mean that Britain must do that alone; obviously we must do it in partnership with other members of the United Nations. I am delighted to say that many countries, including some of the leading Commonwealth nations, are playing a significant part in ensuring that the tribunal has the resources and the means to honour its responsibilities.

I pay tribute to Judge Goldstone, the special prosecutor, and his staff, some of whom are British, for the remarkable work that they too are doing to ensure that the tribunal in The Hague can fulfil its responsibility to uphold a standard of criminal justice that the world can respect and admire. The work of his staff is remarkable, and deserves the support and admiration of hon. Members.

I pay tribute to the 73 hon. Members who signed my early-day motion 613, all of whom have helped to bring before the public and our Parliament the need to ensure that this issue is not allowed to wither and die, but rather is able to pick up momentum and, in due course, come to a successful conclusion.

My hon. Friend the Minister is aware that, over the years in which I have pursued the matter, I have not always been as encouraged by the stance of the British Government as I might have wished. Fortunately—not least since my hon. Friend assumed his responsibilities—I can say with some pride and satisfaction that the Government are now playing an excellent role, not only in the Hague and with the assistance that they have been giving to the tribunal dealing with events in Rwanda, but in the campaign being carried out at the UN to ensure a permanent international court.

One thing is perfectly plain—we cannot move from adhoc courts to ad hoc tribunals. The absence of permanent machinery to enforce the international conventions that outlaw outrageous forms of criminal activity has been one of the substantial deficiencies of the international order and of the UN in the generation since its founding. We can be reassured by the responsible and respected way in which The Hague has carried out its work that there are real grounds for supposing not only that the court is needed, but that it can work to the kind of standards of which all of us who are used to democratic procedures and a proper criminal trial process can feel proud.

The Government's action in the sixth committee of the UN last autumn, and the positive statement made there on behalf of the Government, reassures and encourages me that Britain will play a substantial part in encouraging other nations with whom we have dealings—not only in Europe and the Commonwealth, but throughout the world—that the time is coming when we ought to be creating by UN statute a permanent court.

Before the Minister has the opportunity of saying a few words in reply to the matters that I have raised, I want to underline some of the most positive aspects of what the representative of the Government said in the sixth committee when it met in New York last year. The important points about a permanent international court are these: it must be established by treaty under the United Nations; it must have the authority that comes from the UN itself; and it will be therefore necessary for us to move to treaty-creating, promoting and concluding conference as early as possible; and the court must be a permanent institution.

As I have said, we dealt with the outrage to world, and particularly European, public opinion by what television screens were showing of events in the former Yugoslavia, by establishing an ad hoc court to deal only with Yugoslavia. It was apparent at the same time that events in Rwanda were leading to exactly the same kind of anxieties about breaches of fundamental international statutes and conventions.

I say with some reluctance—but with realism—that, somewhere in the world, there will be future Yugoslavias and Rwandas. The way in which we can handle them is to have a permanent institution, and not merely a succession of ad hoc ones, with all the disadvantages that such institutions are likely to have.

There is a massive amount of relevant literature, and there has been a huge amount of argument, especially in international legal circles. The world is indebted to the leadership of Professor Bassioni. All of us who are genuinely interested in seeing a permanent international court want to stress that the purpose of such a court is to be complementary to national criminal jurisdictions or national criminal systems.

We do not want to create a supranational institution that can, as it were, take over the responsibilities that all nation states have to ensure that the rule of law and criminal justice is properly and effectively enforced. I have little doubt, however, that there is a real place for an international court that is complementary to national jurisdictions and has the authority and responsibility of handling the limited categories of offence that are defined either in customary international criminal law or in the Geneva conventions, which proscribe and outlaw certain types of conduct, but for which, when the conventions were written, no international means of enforcement were established.

Unless we can have a system of international criminal justice that deals with the really dreadful cases of human rights abuse, we shall find that the deterrent effect of an effective system of criminal justice will be absent from the world order, and that future Yugoslavias and Rwandas will be much more likely.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister and the Government generally now feel that they are in a position, as a result of the encouraging remarks made in the sixth committee, to welcome an international conference to discuss a draft convention—a draft treaty—and to try to move that forward as quickly as the machinery of the United Nations will allow. Obviously that process will involve a great deal of consultation. Completion cannot be achieved as quickly as some of the legislation that we have been considering this afternoon, which has had a remarkably swift parliamentary passage.

I do not expect the same speed for an international criminal court, but I stress that there is a need for such a body, and that Great Britain can play a role in promoting one. Great Britain can also play a role in encouraging other states to fulfil their obligations, which they have accepted under the United Nations, for the existing tribunals in the Hague and in Africa, and to accept the realistic idea that the time has come for us to proceed to a better means of enforcing international criminal justice in the limited category of supreme crimes against humanity, by the establishment of an international criminal court.

Photo of Sir Nicholas Bonsor Sir Nicholas Bonsor , Upminster 3:02 pm, 12th July 1996

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Powell). It is a privilege and a pleasure for me to have the opportunity to reply to the debate that he has initiated. I am sorry that it has to proceed in such an empty Chamber. My hon. Friend has raised an extremely important issue, and one that the House must treat with the utmost seriousness.

The past 10 years, unfortunately, have seen a disturbing increase in the number of war crimes. Thirty or more armed conflicts, most of them internal, are being fought in different parts of the world today. The main victims, more often than not, comprise the civilian population. Indeed, in some cases, the dispersal or even the wholesale destruction of opposing civilian populations seems to have become the objective of many conflicts. The need to protect the victims of conflict remains as pressing as ever.

The Government have consistently supported initiatives aimed at bringing war criminals to justice. In that context, we supported the establishment of ad hoc international criminal tribunals to deal with the atrocities that took place in former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda. Indeed, we were co-sponsors of Security Council resolutions 827 and 935, which established those tribunals.

My hon. Friend raised three specific issues: the Yugoslav tribunal, the Rwanda tribunal and the permanent court. In the few moments that remain, I shall try to deal with those issues.

Some of the worst war crimes that we have had to deal with in recent years have taken place in the former Yugoslavia. Before taking on my present job, I was, as the House knows, Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, so I have had the unfortunate experience of visiting the war zone about a dozen times since the conflict began. I have seen the full horror of what human nature is capable of, and what I have seen in that unhappy land has filled me with gloom.

I believe that all those, of whatever ethnic background, who committed war crimes in the recent conflict should—indeed, must—be brought to justice. Prosecuting those who are guilty of committing war crimes will send a clear signal that guilt is based not on ethnic origin but on the actions of individuals. I believe that it will help the peace process to take hold, and will promote reconciliation—reconciliation that would be extremely difficult.

I was in Mostar three weeks ago, and I asked one of the leading Muslim citizens about the chances of reconciliation between the Muslim and Croat communities in that town. The rather chilling response was, "The trouble, Minister, is that 2,000 of our people have been murdered, and we know the individuals responsible for those crimes." In those circumstances and against that background, it will be an extremely difficult task for the international community to re-establish peace, but that is our purpose, and we must not fail in helping to achieve that end.

We have therefore given the Yugoslav tribunal considerable political, financial and practical support to ensure that it succeeds in its important work. In particular, we have given £1.3 million in assessed contributions, and have made voluntary contributions worth almost £500,000 more to second investigators to the office of the prosecutor. We have contributed £75,000-worth of equipment for the office of the prosecutor and the tribunal's forensic activities.

We have made United Kingdom service men available to the tribunal for interview on their return from serving in Bosnia. Indeed, we are one of the largest providers of intelligence materials to the tribunal. On 15 March this year, the United Nations (International Tribunal) (Former Yugoslavia) Order came into force, enabling the United Kingdom to arrest and transfer indicted individuals to the tribunal. We are one of only a dozen or so states so far to have taken that action.

As a result of the support given by the United Kingdom and others, and the hard work of the prosecutor's office, the tribunal has made significant and welcome progress. For example, it has indicted 75 people for crimes committed against all three ethnic groups. Seven people are already in custody, including the chief of staff of the Bosnian Croat armed forces, and a member of the Bosnian Serb army who has confessed to taking part in the massacre of Bosnian civilians after the fall of Srebrenica, to which my hon. Friend referred. Another indicted Bosnian Croat has been arrested and awaits transfer to the tribunal.

The first trial started on 7 May, and several others are expected to take place this year. We expect more progress as a result of the exhumations that are currently taking place in Srebrenica—and appalling they are.

We accept that many problems still exist. Prime responsibility to deliver indicted prisoners to the tribunal rests with the parties, and we must emphasise that. We strongly condemn the failure of those who have not co-operated fully with the tribunal. We have been active in the Security Council, supporting recent presidential statements that have called on all parties to comply with their international obligations, and to arrest and transfer those indicted to the tribunal. We have also applied pressure on the parties to ensure compliance. I am glad to give my hon. Friend the assurance that we shall continue to do so, and that we shall use our best endeavours in that regard.

Time presses, so I shall move on to the Rwanda tribunal, for which our support is just as unequivocal as our support for the Bosnian and former Yugoslavia tribunal. No one could fail to be horrified by the extent of the genocide that took place in Rwanda. I believe that more than 700,000 people have been massacred in the course of that operation. I believe that, if we are to help those who are promoting reconciliation and rebuilding the social fabric of Rwanda, it is essential that the organisers of the genocide be brought to account for their crimes.

We have made substantial financial and logistical contributions. Last year, we seconded three policemen to help establish the office of the prosecutor in Kigali. At the tribunal's request, we extended the secondment of one of them for a further 18 months. In addition, we have made contributions of more than £100,000 to fund the procurement of vehicles and office equipment and to hire a translator.

We are encouraged by the progress that the tribunal has made recently. It has indicted 11 individuals to date, and is currently investigating others in custody in Belgium, Switzerland, Zambia, Cameroon and Ethiopia. The first trials are expected to start around October.

The Government endorse and encourage the establishment of an international criminal court. Indeed, our support is shown by the action we have taken. My hon. Friend mentioned the background essentials that must be addressed in making sure that the court we set up is the one we ultimately want to be responsible for trying international crime. My hon. Friend rightly said that the court must be established by treaty, and must have a strong link with, and be under the control of, the United Nations.

In order to ensure that the court has sufficiently widespread support, there would have to be a requirement for a relatively high number of ratifications and accessions to the treaty before it came into force. A treaty that did not have adequate international support would not in itself be adequate, and the court would therefore not be effective.

As my hon. Friend said, it would be a permanent institution, but in order to give it the necessary flexibility, cost-effectiveness and ability to cope with its different tasks, the judges of the court and its staff would be permanently available rather than permanently engaged. They would act only when required to do so to consider a case submitted to the court.

In today's difficult financial climate, we must adopt imaginative and flexible arrangements for this unique court. I am afraid that history does not give us much encouragement when it comes to being sure that the United Nations will get adequate financial support for its operations, in that all too many countries are already in default of their payments to the UN. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that we must be realistic about the sort and extent of court that we wish to set up, and that we must limit the cost of doing so.

The court must be staffed by judges with the highest qualifications. It is essential that the candidates for appointment have judicial and criminal trial experience. Again, that is a lesson we have learnt from other international forums. The choice of the prosecutor is also of the utmost importance, and we consider it essential to find someone for the job with the necessary experience in conducting investigations and prosecutions of criminal cases.

A fundamental characteristic of the court, also mentioned by my hon. Friend, would be that it was complementary to national criminal justice systems. Resort would be made to it only where national systems were not available or were ineffective. Provisions on this so-called complementarity principle should be included in the statute setting up the court, and procedures laid down for it to take the necessary decisions on whether the complementarity conditions were met.

We favour limiting the jurisdiction of the court to a few core crimes. These are the crimes which represent the most serious offences of concern to the international community as a whole, because of their magnitude and the situations in which they occur.

Any system of criminal law—in any jurisdiction—requires that there be substantive and procedural law as clear and precise as possible in order that individuals may know exactly where they stand. A new international court would be no different in that respect.

One aspect that my hon. Friend did not mention is the importance that the rights of the accused are protected. He must be sure that he will be tried under the proper process of law, and that his rights as an individual against being wrongly prosecuted are fully protected. There must be satisfactory arrangements for co-operation between states' parties and the court in respect of investigations, and the effective and speedy transfer of individuals, taking account of existing structures of judicial co-operation.

The United Kingdom has a proud tradition of upholding the rule of law and of seeking to bring war criminals to justice. We will continue to support the efforts of the international tribunals at this vital stage in their work. We will also work hard to ensure that the negotiations on a statute for an international criminal court are brought to a satisfactory conclusion, as soon as that can properly be done.

In those ways, we will work with the international community to bring home to the perpetrators of war crimes that they cannot and will not remain unpunished.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Three o'clock.