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

Part of Registration of Births and Deaths (Welsh Language) – in the House of Commons at 2:17 pm on 1st April 2009.

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Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Opposition Whip (Commons) 2:17 pm, 1st April 2009

May I say how nice it is to see how many colleagues are present who also served on the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, including the Government Whip, Ms Butler, who unfortunately cannot speak for herself today?

I begin by welcoming the tireless efforts of the humanitarian personnel who act selflessly to save lives and alleviate suffering. Humanitarian workers operate in the most hostile and dangerous parts of the world and show compassion and bravery that, along with the character of our armed forces, is unparalleled. We must of course do what we can to protect them and ensure that those who risk their lives are reassured of our support.

However, emblems and conventions may not be enough. It saddens me that in recent years there have been many examples of humanitarian workers being harmed and killed, often in the most callous and brutal ways. I am concerned that those involved in the conflicts in which the UN and humanitarian personnel are engaged are already failing to respect the existing laws of war and morality. Whatever we legislate for in this Parliament, and across the world in other decent and democratic countries that respect the laws of war and the Geneva conventions, that does not mean that others will necessarily extend the same protection and respect. There are immoral people in conflict zones across the world who show utter disregard for the laws of war. They make no distinction between those acting in a humanitarian capacity and military personnel, who may be viewed as being legitimate targets.

A number of high-profile examples have been brought to my attention that highlight the need for the international community, the United Nations and other international organisations to take action against those who refuse to be bound by the letter and the spirit of the conventions.

In October, we were all horrified by the actions of the Taliban gunmen who brutally murdered three women aid workers, including one Briton, 40-year-old Jacqueline Kirk. The aid workers were ambushed by gunmen 30 miles outside Kabul in the province of Logar, while travelling from Gardez in the east of Afghanistan to Kabul. The gunmen ignored the laws of war and did not feel bound by conventions. Ms Kirk and her colleagues were working for the International Rescue Committee. They were not soldiers, part of the coalition of the willing or there to wipe out the Taliban—that is the job of our soldiers. Ms Kirk was there to support innocent civilians. She had no knowledge of warfare, but expertise in children's education programmes. The Taliban gunmen did not care. Their spokesman went as far as to claim that they attacked the vehicle in which Ms Kirk and her colleagues travelled because it was carrying military personnel, "most of them women." He added to the Associated Press by phone:

"They were not working for the interests of Afghanistan and they belonged to those countries whose forces... took Afghanistan's freedom."

Although the introduction of the red crystal symbol is welcome, I do not believe that the Taliban would show it any more respect than it has shown existing aid workers. It is not clear that the red crystal would have protected the five international aid workers who were kidnapped or held hostage in Afghanistan in the first half of 2008, or the dozens of Afghan aid staff working daily for non-governmental organisations.

There are other examples of aid workers being brutally attacked and mistreated in conflicts. Sadly, the case involving Ms Kirk is not a one-off, but an all-too-regular occurrence. In 1996, three International Committee of the Red Cross relief workers were killed in Burundi, despite travelling in a vehicle that was clearly marked with the red cross emblem. Four ICRC staff were killed in south Sudan by the Sudan People's Liberation Army in 1999—they were abducted in February and executed a few weeks later in April. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2001, two vehicles clearly marked with the red cross emblems were attacked, resulting in the deaths of six ICRC workers. The co-pilot of a Red Cross plane was killed after his plane was shot down in Sudan in 2001. Peace activist Ken Bigley was brutally beheaded in Iraq. In March 2007, a German aid worker was shot dead by gunmen in northern Afghanistan. In July 2007, two South Korean aid workers were shot dead. Suicide bombers in Iraq have attacked ICRC headquarters. In February, two aid workers for French organisation Aide Médicale Internationale were ambushed and shot dead south of Darfur. Only last week, a 39-year-old Sudanese relief worker was shot by gunmen in Sudan, who were attempting to steal a satellite phone facility. In Sri Lanka, a CARE International humanitarian worker was killed in a no-fire zone in the Vanni area in the north.

The Agency Co-ordinating Body for Afghan Relief—ACBR—has reported that there was a 50 per cent. increase in insurgent attacks in 2008 compared with the previous year. Those actions and the contempt that some show towards humanitarian workers and the emblems under which they act undermine efforts to bring peace to areas of conflict.

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