Geneva Conventions and United Nations Personnel (Protocols) Bill [ Lords]

Part of Registration of Births and Deaths (Welsh Language) – in the House of Commons at 12:45 pm on 1st April 2009.

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office 12:45 pm, 1st April 2009

Of course, I am very happy to do so.

Such work helps us all, of course, and we should be proud of and grateful for it. I very much welcome the sentiments expressed in early-day motion 1224, which was tabled this week by my hon. Friend Mr. Hoyle, to support the "Our World. Your Move" campaign. I am grateful for the eagle-eyed attention of Mr. Lidington in alerting me to the fact that the impact assessment was not, as it should have been, available in good time before the debate. I apologise to the House that that happened due to administrative error, and I assure the House that the impact assessment has now been made available.

I now come to the detail of the Bill. Clause 1 will amend the Geneva Conventions Act 1957 to allow the ratification of the third additional protocol to the Geneva conventions. The protocol provides for the use of a new humanitarian emblem—the red crystal—in addition to the existing emblems, the red cross and the red crescent. The UK Government and the British Red Cross played a significant role in securing international agreement for the adoption of the red crystal. The symbol is already widely accepted, as 38 states have already ratified the third additional protocol. Like the other two emblems, the red crystal is designed to be a protective symbol for humanitarian personnel in armed conflict.

It is interesting to reflect on the fact that the idea of a protective symbol came from a Swiss business man—Henri Dunant—who was travelling on business some 150 years ago and, by chance, happened to witness the battle of Solferino in Italy. During the battle, some 40,000 men from both sides were killed or wounded, and Dunant was shocked to see the wounded left on the battlefield without proper medical care. He therefore broke off his business trip and spent the next few days helping to do all that he could himself and convincing the locals also to help the wounded. He went on to found the Red Cross and establish the emblem of a red cross on a white background to help to identify those providing assistance.

I was fascinated to read the Red Cross literature, which told me that the emblem is a reversal of the colours and design of the Swiss flag. The symbol, as we know, has been used ever since. Its use has undoubtedly saved many lives—the lives of those providing humanitarian assistance, as well as lives saved by humanitarian acts. The red crescent emblem was given the same function in about 1879. Both symbols represent the protection of the medical services of the armed forces and the injured under the Geneva conventions. More recently, that protection has been extended to include civilian medical services.

As we know, however, conflicts have become more complex and the scope for the misunderstanding of those emblems has undoubtedly increased. In some situations, the red cross and the red crescent perhaps can be seen as having a religious, cultural or political connotation, which is not appropriate, accurate or intended in the settings in which it is used. Therefore, the red crystal has been introduced to ensure that a clear and neutral symbol exists for all to use. It can be used wherever the use of the other two symbols might be misinterpreted and therefore may not provide the protection that we would all seek to ensure. The red crystal symbol can also be used by national societies of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement—for example, in Israel and Eritrea—where people may feel unable to identify with either the cross or the crescent or do not want to have to choose between the two.

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