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

Part of Registration of Births and Deaths (Welsh Language) – in the House of Commons at 1:56 pm on 1st April 2009.

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Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs) 1:56 pm, 1st April 2009

The hon. Gentleman will know that getting agreement in international organisations is not easy—it is an art rather than a science. I hope that our passing this Bill will send a message to other countries and encourage them to ratify the protocols, but that does not automatically mean that international organisations will work as perfectly as we want. However, that is not an argument for not giving the Bill a Second Reading, or for the Government not to propose legislation. If the Government are encouraging other countries to sign and to ratify the protocols and the initial convention, as I hope they are, their task will be made a bit difficult if they have not ratified them.

When we talk about the protection of UN personnel under the Bill, we are talking about UN personnel in the UK, where we hope there would never be the sort of problems to which the Bill applies. The message that this Parliament sends will give us the basis on which we can, through our diplomatic efforts, encourage other countries to sign and ratify. I hope that the Minister will update the House on the current situation; I understand that 87 countries ratified the original convention, but that 34 had signed and 16 had ratified the protocols. Those were the figures given in the other place in January. Two months on, it would be interesting to know whether the figures have increased, the number of ratifications needed for the protocols to come into force and how far away we are from that.

The Minister said that the Government signed the protocol in 2005, yet four years later we are finally scrutinising the legislation. It is not exactly the weightiest measure for which the Government have needed to find parliamentary time, so I find it difficult to understand why it has taken so long. Given that the red crystal has been in use since 2007, it would be helpful if the House had put things in order beforehand. I should like the Minister to outline the difficulties.

Lord Malloch-Brown wrote a letter to my noble Friend, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, in which he seemed to suggest that even when states had failed, international courts might be able to uphold this law. I wanted to press the Minister on how that could be the case if the states in question had not ratified the protocols. Clearly, some of the states we most want to ratify the protocols are those for which the issue might not be top of the agenda. Any information on the Government's efforts to encourage them would be welcome.

Finally, much as I welcome additional legal protection for UN personnel, we need to remember non-governmental organisations, such as Oxfam, Médecins sans Frontières, Save the Children and so on. Other humanitarian agencies are delivering aid and relief efforts but will not be protected. A lot of those organisations work in conflict zones where even the UN has pulled out, deeming it too dangerous to work. I hope that the Government will pursue legal protection for aid workers who work in a neutral capacity, providing humanitarian assistance and not getting involved in the politics of individual countries. On 11 March, three staff were kidnapped from Médecins sans Frontières in Darfur, and I am sure that the whole House hopes they will be safely returned. Attacks against humanitarian workers can never be justified, but we should be concerned that our valued international institutions are sometimes regarded with hostility. It is incumbent on all of us, particularly the Government, to do everything possible to uphold the United Nations and its partners as just and non-partisan.

I hope that the Minister will address my points, and I am delighted to support the Second Reading of the Bill.

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