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

Part of Registration of Births and Deaths (Welsh Language) – in the House of Commons at 4:41 pm on 1st April 2009.

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office 4:41 pm, 1st April 2009

I have a lot of respect for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and its experience, and it has requested this change. When emblems are used as protection against attack in a conflict situation, they cannot be used in combination. Only one of the three distinctive emblems will be used for protective purposes. But in non-conflict and domestic situations, a national society could choose to use the red cross, the red crescent or the red star of David within the red crystal in conformity with the relevant national legislation, which is another reason why the Bill is important. The British Red Cross could, therefore display an emblem showing the red cross within the frame of the red crystal, but only to promote its activities within the UK.

A further area of questioning concerned what would happen if there were attacks on those using the new or existing symbols, which relates to the issue of protection. As right hon. and hon. Members have said, the emblem is not a literal shield around people, much as we might like it to be. Prosecution will be a matter for national prosecuting authorities, and by ratifying these protocols we will send a message to others to do likewise and give impetus to the promotion of a third protective symbol.

Reference has been made to existing users and the regulatory impact assessment. We do not foresee any impact on businesses or charities, and there has been full consultation across Government. There are protections in clause 1(5) for existing users of the red crystal, which apply except where there would be confusion in armed conflict. Not only does that reflect article 6.2 of the protocols, so other countries will have the same rules, but it is unlikely that a ladies dress shop or a book title will cause confusion in armed conflict situations.

On the issue of control of use in the future, that would only apply where it is justified in the public interest.

On definitions in respect of clause 2, the important point is that those categories represent a sensible widening of scope, something that we do not have at present. It is true that there is no single agreed definition for peace building, but we do not anticipate a problem in practice. Peace building, as right hon. and hon. Members will be more than well aware, is the phase after peace making and peacekeeping when a violent conflict has slowed down or halted.

Humanitarian assistance is, as right hon. and hon. Members know, deployed at times of humanitarian crisis, such as natural disasters. Political and development assistance is always part of a long-term solution to provide a lasting strengthening of a nation's capability and capacity to recover from times of trouble.

Several points were raised about procedure, such as the time taken to bring the Bill before the House. Right hon. and hon. Members know that, as with any legislation, we need to find a place for it in the legislative programme. We prepared the Bill by working closely with the British Red Cross, to which I again extend my appreciation and thanks. Once the parliamentary process is complete, the UK will ratify the protocols as soon as possible, and statutory instruments will be laid to give effect to them. There are no significant financial implications.

On the question of scrutiny, right hon. and hon. Members know that the Bill started life in the other place and that it is not practice to take evidence on Bills that do so. However, this Bill is destined for the scrutiny of the whole House in Committee, so there will be no parliamentary opportunity for an evidence session. I repeat that the Bill has been prepared and drawn up in full consultation with the British Red Cross, which has used its expertise to bring many great aspects to the Bill.

On clause 2 and the Bill's coverage, the protocol covers only UN workers. However, we continue to press for a fuller set of protections—for example, for those who work for Save the Children or Oxfam. Of course, other criminal offences can be committed by people who attack humanitarian personnel, whoever they work for.

On the international legislative position, I reiterate that five countries with UN missions in their territories have signed the protocol. For us, the adoption of the protocol is a very serious matter and a demonstration of the importance that we place on it. In reality, we are seeking to lead by example, but we will continue to lobby international partners to do likewise. As we have heard, 87 countries have ratified the convention. A further 34 countries have signed the protocol, and 16 have ratified it. The protocol will come into force once 22 countries have ratified it.

A question was asked about the protocol's application. The convention and the protocol apply not only in states that have ratified them, but wherever a UN operation is taking place, so people can be brought to justice in the UK for acts committed elsewhere.

A question was asked about whether the Bill should amend the list of offences in the United Nations Personnel Act 1997. No further change is needed under the Bill, and any necessary consequential amendments were made when sections 1 and 2 of the 1997 Act were changed.

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