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

Part of Registration of Births and Deaths (Welsh Language) – in the House of Commons at 4:26 pm on 1st April 2009.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 4:26 pm, 1st April 2009

Mr. Deputy Speaker, that last result that you read out will be of great interest to people outside the House. We are increasingly getting a reputation for wanting to curtail our proceedings, but that vote shows that no fewer than 103 of our colleagues want the House to sit on May day bank holiday in order to hold the Government to account.

I want to express my disappointment that my hon. Friend Mr. Hayes has curtailed his remarks. I hope that he did not do so in order for me to take over from him, because I cannot follow his act. Indeed, if there were a crystal award for conciseness and clarity—whether a red crystal or an ordinary one—he would receive it.

I want to make a few comments about where we are getting to with the red cross symbol. I was rather depressed to read the summing up by Lord Malloch-Brown in the other place on 27 January, in which he explained what he expects to happen as a result of what a number of colleagues have called a dilution of the symbolism of the red cross. He asserted that it was not the Government's intention to destroy the Red Cross, stating that

"the British Red Cross is safe with this Government".

[ Laughter. ] I note that that has caused derisive laughter among some of my colleagues. Lord Malloch-Brown went on to say that

"over time, we expect more and more countries to avail themselves of the Red Crystal because unfortunately the polarisation around religion and religious symbols seems likely to grow rather than dissolve as the world moves forward."—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 27 January 2009; Vol. 707, c. 197.]

He sees that process as inevitable, but I find that outlook very depressing. He effectively said that the Government are engaging in appeasement. Indeed, the whole of the British and international Red Cross movement now seems unwilling to hold the line that the red cross and red crescent symbols are not religious or political symbols. That line has now been abandoned, and we shall increasingly find ourselves in a mess.

This will mean that the great intentions of the founder of the Red Cross movement, Henry Dunant, will not be able to be realised. In 1863, he set out the basis for a new symbol, stating that it needed to be simple, identifiable from a distance, known to everyone and identical for friend and foe. The emblem had to be the same for everyone and universally recognisable. It is apparent from today's debate that there will be a proliferation of different symbols, which will inevitably not be so clear or identifiable from a distance. Those symbols will not be the same for everyone, and it will be even more difficult to obtain universal recognition for them. I therefore think that this is a retrograde step.

One of my hon. Friends has said that the red crystal symbol could easily be mistaken for other symbols already used by the military. My recollection from driving across Salisbury plain is that the red crystal symbol relates to roads that are used by tanks. I am sure that there are all sorts of other uses of that symbol, which could create confusion rather than clarity. One is left wondering why the principles enunciated in the first Geneva convention passed in 1864, which is popularly regarded as the time when modern international humanitarian law was begun, are now being undermined. I fear that the Government and the international community have not thought this through. I am not sure whether appeasement will get us anywhere—in fact, I am certain that it will not.

My second point relates to scepticism about the United Nations and other international organisations that use high-flown words and phrases. The Bill inserts schedule 7 into the Geneva Conventions Act 1957. The preamble contains all that language with which we are so familiar, but which does not mean anything whatever. If it meant something, relatively few countries would want to sign up to the schedule.

The preamble says, among other things, that the signatories to the schedule would have to note that

"this Protocol is without prejudice to the recognized right of High Contracting Parties to continue to use the emblems they are using in conformity with their obligations under the Geneva Conventions and, where applicable, the Protocols additional thereto".

It goes on to stress

"that the distinctive emblems are not intended to have any religious, ethnic, racial, regional or political significance".

In order for countries to sign up to the schedule, they have to accept that the existing symbols of the red cross and the red crescent do not have

"any religious, ethnic, racial, regional or political significance", but it is quite apparent that they do not actually believe that. Will that prevent them from signing up to this convention?

The preamble goes on, emphasising

"the importance of ensuring full respect for the obligations relating to the distinctive emblems recognized in the Geneva Conventions, and, where applicable, the Protocols... thereto", while recognising

"the difficulties that certain States and National Societies may have with the use of existing distinctive emblems".

These are the typical weasel words that we find in so much of this type of legislation.

What concerns me as much as anything is the fact that those symbols are not going to be enforced. We have had the recitation of a number of horrific incidents across the world where no respect whatever has been shown to these symbols, whether they be a red cross, a red crescent or, indeed, a red crystal. What is happening now is that people risking their lives on overseas expeditions in order to serve the cause of humanity are being picked off, and the people who attack them are beyond and above the law because there is no way of enforcing the sanctions against them that should be entered into under the Geneva conventions and associated protocols.

I feel that, in a sense, the debate is taking place in a vacuum, under the illusion that somehow it will make some difference on the ground, when we know that in almost all the areas in which the United Nations currently operates, the "host countries" have not even complied with, or put their signatures to, the conventions that we are discussing. I wonder whether we should tell the United Nations that it should not enter those countries unless or until they are prepared to sign up to what are very basic humanitarian agreements. That might concentrate some minds.

The Government have done the House a disservice by producing a regulatory impact assessment which is far from adequate. As my right hon. Friend Mr. Knight has pointed out, the section on the small firms impact test does not take account of the fact that a fair number of organisations already use the expression "red crystal". Although that symbol has not been recognised as a registered trademark, many organisations would not have wanted to register it, because they would not have thought it worth registering. Small firms using that symbol may be caught out by the legislation, which will criminalise the use of that symbol or those words. I hope that the Minister will respond to the real concerns on that subject.

I shall make my remarks extremely brief, but I find it extraordinary that, for the second time in as many Bills, not a single Government Back Bencher has participated on Second Reading. The first occasion was the Second Reading debate on the Industry and Exports (Financial Support) Bill, which took place two or three weeks ago—on the very day on which the Government Chief Whip addressed the Press Gallery, saying that he wanted to enter into a new compact with members of his party involving their participating in our affairs. That compact may have just been spin, and it is certainly not working. I find it extraordinary that the Government, or their Back Benchers, seem to have given up.

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