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

Part of Registration of Births and Deaths (Welsh Language) – in the House of Commons at 3:12 pm on 1st April 2009.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education) 3:12 pm, 1st April 2009

This debate is about symbols, protocol and convention. In the end, it is about the meaning of all those things. Much of the work of a politician is in discerning the difference between symbols and truths, spin and substance, emblem and reality, so I want to start my brief contribution by speaking about symbols, for that has preoccupied many of the previous speakers. Jung said:

"Symbols are ideas. Whenever we use one we are pointing to the idea behind that symbol".

He went on:

"the sign is always less than the concept it represents, while a symbol always stands for something more than its obvious and immediate meaning."

One of my inspirations, my favourite thinkers and writers, G. K. Chesterton, said specifically on the cross:

"in criticising Christian symbolism, they talk much of dead churches and decaying creeds. They talk of a creed as a cant but their own talk itself is cant. They do not dislike the cross because it is a dead symbol, but because it is a live symbol"— and so it is with the symbols that we are debating today. They have meaning beyond their image. They have a significance that is widely understood; they are indeed alive. No more could be said—or perhaps needs to be said—about the red cross than to point out that it is so widely recognised and so universally understood as to have a significance that is special and worthy of protection.

I shall speak at some length about the Geneva convention, which is critical to this debate, and about the 1957 Act, but before I do so perhaps it is worth debating for a moment what was said in the other place about this Bill. The Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Lord Malloch-Brown said:

"the scope of the convention is relatively narrow, applying to only two categories of UN operations: those maintaining or restoring international peace and security; or those where the Security Council or the General Assembly has declared that there exists an exceptional risk to the safety of the personnel participating in the operation." —[ Hansard, House of Lords, 27 January 2009; Vol. 707, c. 190.]

The Bill is indeed narrow. None the less it is important that we understand the context in which we debate it. For that reason, I want to speak at some length, although not at inordinate length, about the 1949 Geneva convention, which is critical to our consideration and about which I have to say, without meaning criticism of hon. Members, we have heard too little so far this afternoon.

The following briefly summarises the provisions of the 1949 Geneva convention that govern the use of the red cross, red crescent and, as was mentioned earlier, the red lion and sun flags. Geneva I governs land warfare. Geneva II governs warfare at sea. There are also Geneva III and IV, but they have no provisions concerning flags, so we must not waste time on them today.

Article 138 of Geneva I provides for the use of the Swiss federal arms in reverse colours—the red cross on a white ground—as the

"emblem and distinctive sign of the Medical Service of armed forces."

That was originally provided for in article 7 of the first Geneva convention. As Members will know, that was signed on 22 August 1864. The red crescent—or red lion and sun in lieu of the red cross—was recognised for use by countries already using such devices when the 1949 convention was adopted.

Geneva I, article 39, requires the emblem—the red cross and those others—to be

"displayed on the flags, armlets and on all equipment employed in the Medical Service."

The same provision is contained in Geneva II, article 41.

Geneva I, article 42, limits the display of the distinctive flag of the convention to

"medical units and establishments as are entitled to be respected under the Convention".

It is permitted to be displayed in conjunction with the

"national flag of the Party...to which the unit or establishment belongs."

The 1864 convention required it to be displayed with the national flag. When medical units fall into the hands of the enemy, they display only the flag of the convention. Indeed that is detailed, as Members will know, in the Geneva Conventions Act 1957, about which I shall speak at some length later. It was specifically referred to in the Second Reading debate on that Bill, which I shall also be speaking about later.

Geneva I, article 44, bans all uses of the red cross or equivalent emblems, including flags, other than

"to indicate or to protect the medical units and establishments, the personnel and material" under the Geneva conventions, except that the national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies may use the emblems in peacetime for other activities in conformity with the principles of the Red Cross Movement. That reinforces the universality that I have argued previously is critical to our considerations today. In wartime, they may use the emblems for their activities only if they are clearly not implying the protection of the convention. International Red Cross organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross may use the red cross emblem at all times.

Geneva II, article 43, requires hospital ships to make themselves known by

"hoisting their national flag and further, if they belong to a neutral state, the flag of the Party to the conflict whose direction they have accepted. A white flag with a red cross shall be flown at the mainmast as high as possible.

Hospital ships which...are provisionally detained by the enemy, must haul down" their national colours.

"Coastal lifeboats" operating from a base which is occupied by the enemy may

"continue to fly their own national colours along with a flag carrying a red cross".

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