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As I am sure hon. Members will know, the first clause of the Bill amends the Geneva Conventions Act 1957, which itself incorporated the 1949 Geneva conventions; those conventions were built on the 1864 Geneva convention, which was linked to the creation of the Red Cross. On
The four conventions of 1949 were built on former versions. First and foremost, they were to protect the wounded or the sick and ensure that such defenceless combatants should be respected and cared for, whatever their nationality. The personnel attending them, the buildings in which they sheltered and the equipment used for their benefit were to be protected, and a red cross on a white background was to be the emblem of that immunity. Other elements of that first convention have been modified over the years—in relation, for instance, to medical personnel and chaplains. Originally, if such personnel fell into enemy hands, they had to be repatriated immediately. Now, however, the situation is rather different.
The second convention related to the protection of those in combat at sea. The third was for the protection of prisoners of war. For many centuries, this country has sought to make sure that there was a proper understanding of how prisoners of war should be protected. The French have sometimes tried to remind us about Agincourt, but for the past few hundred years we have been wholeheartedly committed to ensuring that prisoners of war are treated properly. Finally, the fourth convention was to protect civilians.
The distinctive emblem has been referred to and is being amended by the new optional protocol. It was defined in article 38 of one of the 1949 Geneva conventions:
"As a compliment to Switzerland, the heraldic emblem of the red cross on a white ground, formed by reversing the Federal colours, is retained as the emblem and distinctive sign of the Medical Service of armed forces."
That gave protection to all those who were serving.
I am following the Minister's points with great interest. Does the symbol of Switzerland not also carry the connotation of neutrality and have a lot of history behind it, to do with the Hospitallers and so on? The sign is very distinctive and well recognised worldwide. It is known, and the same is true of the red crescent. How can the new symbol be marketed so that people fighting wars in far-distant places will recognise it and give it the same authority? We are talking about signs that are so emblematic and well known. Is adding a third one a good idea?
There is already a third one in the conventions—the red lion and sun—so that Persia had an emblem that it could adopt. The hon. Gentleman is right that the signs are emblematic. I say that with a slight rise of the eyebrow, because what one flag or emblem symbolises to one set of people—perhaps even the majority of the world—will not necessarily be symbolised to everybody.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the Hospitallers, and the reference to the crusades is not lost on some people, although anybody in the Red Cross would wholly deprecate the association. None the less, the truth is that in some cases it has been difficult for us to ensure that connotations of a religious war or crusade do not undermine the work that the Red Cross or Red Crescent are able to do.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. In broad terms, I am sympathetic to the Bill. I worry, however, that we will have symbol after symbol until almost every country, or every continent, has a symbol in addition to the ones that we have already. In the end, the famous nature of the red cross might be diminished.
The honest truth is that in the vast majority of cases, certainly as they affect the United Kingdom, people will retain either the red cross or the red crescent. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we should not be amplifying these symbols. As I said, we have had three emblems, including the red lion and sun, which modern Iran chooses not to use. In a sense, therefore, we are back down to two. There have been moves in some other countries towards being able to create other symbols; hon. Members may want to make reference to the situation in Israel. In wanting to be able to accommodate the whole world, we should not be seeking to create a different emblem for every part of it. We should be going through a proper process to ensure that the rules governing emblems are adhered to so that there are not wild divergences and they are properly respected.
The Minister touched on the star of David, which the Israelis want as their symbol. Does he anticipate that the advent of the red crystal will reduce pressure from Israel to use the star of David? Otherwise, there could be three, if not four symbols in the middle east.
The hon. Gentleman may know that the Israeli national society, the Magen David Adom, has used the red star of David, although only internally, which has meant that it has not been able to join the international Red Cross movement. Importantly, the introduction of the red crystal has enabled Israel to sign up to become a part of the Red Cross movement, so Israelis and Palestinians have been able to share in the movement. That is not the biggest step that we need to take in the middle east process, but it helps to move us forward.
This is a very important issue; it is not only about emblems but about their significance. I fully share the view of my hon. Friend Mr. Heald that the red cross is universally recognised. The Minister will understand that I approach the issue from a military perspective. The armed forces know and recognise the red cross; equally, it is generally the case that the red cross is not abused. I am worried that unless there is a rigorous regime to ensure that the red crystal is not abused, our armed forces, who are already feeling hamstrung by human rights legislation, could find that our enemies abuse the red crystal and our troops would therefore be at risk. What assurances can the Minister give Britain's armed forces in that respect?
I know of the interest that the hon. Gentleman has historically taken in the armed forces, which, as he knows, I share. He is absolutely right that we need to ensure that there is strong protection for the symbols that are already used, and equally so for the red crystal. Where it is used because it is thought to be the most appropriate means of protecting the medical forces, we need to ensure that it is fully understood. My experience during a brief visit to Basra with the armed forces parliamentary scheme showed me that the British armed forces are very well attuned to the business of winning hearts and minds, and part of that will be making the right decisions on the ground about which emblem to use. Equally, we have to ensure that as many countries as possible ratify and enter into this process, so that they understand, and can ensure that their armed forces understand, the significance of the emblems.
It is important to emphasise that the decision on the red crystal did not come out of thin air; it was a long, complicated process involving a lot of different countries that had found it difficult to decide between different emblems. For instance, in Eritrea the decision is not between a emblem that does not exist and one that does, but between the red cross and the red crescent, because those are the symbols of the two religious communities in the country, who have very strongly held religious views. In that circumstance, the red crystal forestalls the need for inventing lots of new emblems by deciding on one that can be used more generically.
I agree with the Minister that there has to be international support in developing an understanding of the red crystal symbol. However, are there not practical concerns that it might be misinterpreted, particularly on a battlefield? A red crystal on an armband worn by an orderly will look like a lozenge or a diamond shape unless the arm is bent, when it could look like a red square.
The same could be true of a red cross, because if the arm is bent in the right way it ends up no longer being a cross, but a sword. I am afraid that those issues remain. In fact, as often as not the colour is the determinant. Professional brand managers say that people do not recognise a brand until they have seen it 16 times. After that, the effect will often be created by the precise Pantone shade that is used, the combination of red and white, and seeing it in a military context. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, as have all other hon. Members.
Is there any general move in order to try to remove ambiguity towards the crystal evolving into the main symbol and the other two going out of use?
No, there is not, and I do not think that that would be appropriate. There is no need to abandon the red cross or the red crescent, which are very well known and much respected symbols. However, there are circumstances in which a third or fourth emblem is necessary, or would be useful. There is no need, certainly in the short term, for us to move towards abandoning the red cross.
This is an important subject, as I said when we debated the programme motion. The universality of the cross and the crescent is their virtue. The problem with the Bill is that it proposes a multiplication of symbols, or emblems. I cannot think that that is compatible with universality, which has been at the heart of the success of the cross and the crescent.
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. It is interesting that he used the phrase, "The universality of the cross". To many conservative evangelical Christians, that phrase would have a capital U and a capital C, and it would have a very strong religious significance—although he obviously did not intend it in that sense. For many, the cross is what they live and die for. In that context—in which, in some parts of the world, religion can be one of the axes that is used to create division and wars—it is important that we are able to have an additional symbol. He refers to a proliferation of symbols, but that will not happen: there will not be additional symbols coming down the line in a couple of years' time. One more symbol is being added to the list, with one of the three existing symbols no longer being in use.
The cross has been used as a symbol since prehistoric times. It can be traced to almost every culture, Christian and other, as a symbol that represents a variety of things, such as health, peace or fertility, depending on which culture one turns to. To identify the cross purely, or largely, with the Christian tradition is to misunderstand its history.
I am being tempted down theological lines, which is quite dangerous, so I should rather like to say, "Get thee behind me, Satan." I believe that the hon. Gentleman understands the point that there are situations in which forces that are trying to do good would be afforded better protection and better understanding among the local population if they did not use a symbol that could be misunderstood as having a largely religious undertone or overtone. That is what we are seeking to avoid.
I am trespassing on the Minister's good will, but we have established that a symbol such as the cross or the crescent is historic and well known. Even in places where there is not a proper education system and there is not an easy opportunity to market a new symbol, people know about crosses and crescents. How will we be able to establish the new brand of the crystal in a war-torn place where perhaps only half the children go to school? In such places, where this really matters, will it be easy to establish the new symbol?
I do not believe that we need to establish it in every part of the world with immediate effect. The truth of the matter is that there are many parts of the world where the current symbols are perfectly adequate and perfectly well understood. Incidentally, the hon. Gentleman suggests that there might be parts of the world where brands cannot be marketed. I do not think that Coca-Cola believes that. It believes that there is no such part of the world. One of the great successes of Mr. Henri Dunant's original idea following the battle of Solferino was that something without words in it could cross linguistic barriers and be readily understandable around the world. That is what the Red Cross movement has achieved.
I wish to pay substantial tribute to the British Red Cross Society, which has been around since 1870—we were one of the earlier countries to adopt the red cross. It does great work, and I know that many people hold it in high esteem and would be saddened if it changed from the Red Cross Society to anything else. However, it wholeheartedly supports the Bill. Around the world, the Red Cross movement hopes that as many countries as possible will ratify the change. It has already meant that the Israeli and Palestinian societies have been able to join the movement, and it will give the movement a strong future for many decades, and I hope centuries.
I have no desire to be unnecessarily disputatious, but the Minister mentions Henri Dunant and Solferino. I recommend to the House Dunant's book on Solferino. What he wanted was not only protection but, as the Minister will know, an international agreement to secure that protection. Implicit in that appeal was the recognition, through a symbol, of protection that was non-partisan and universally available. I am very concerned about the issue of universality, and I hope that the Minister might say another word about it before he sits down, after which I am sure we can make time for other contributions.
I suspect that however many words I say about the universality of the original symbol, I will not be able to appease the hon. Gentleman. The truth of the matter—I keep on saying "the truth of the matter", and I must stop doing so—is that when the original symbol was created it was not envisaged that there would be parts of the world where there might be disputation about whether it involved religious significance. Consequently, we have grown to have not just one symbol but three, and now we are moving towards having a fourth. I like to think, and those who dedicate their lives to the Red Cross movement believe, that that is fully consistent with what Mr. Dunant aspired to. Indeed, as a former deputy leader of the Labour party said, sometimes we need traditional values in a modern setting. That is precisely what we can advance now.
As I have said, three emblems are currently allowed—the cross, the crescent and the lion and sun, although the last is not much used now. There are some problems, including misunderstanding about religious symbols. For some, the cross is a highly religious and divisive symbol. For others it is a symbol of unity, and when they see the red cross they do not see a religious symbol at all. Eritrea has been unable to choose which is the right symbol to use, and Israel likewise. I am delighted that bringing forward the red crystal has made it possible to enable both Israelis and Palestinians to take part in the movement.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his new position. It is a very important one, and I know that he will do an excellent job.
May I ask my hon. Friend to clear up some of the nuts and bolts of the matter? If three symbols will be accepted, that does not mean, does it, that nations will be able to pick and choose which of the three they will allow people to use to visit political prisoners, for example, and do all the things that the Red Cross does so brilliantly at the moment, often in very difficult circumstances? It will not somehow result in three different organisations that people will use for nefarious purposes, destroying the central goodness of what the Red Cross and the Red Crescent do.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and neighbour for his comments. He was a fine Minister in the Foreign Office, and there are fond memories of him skulking around the corridors—it was not him skulking around the corridors, it is the memories.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. There will not be different organisations, and the structure will still be the same. It would be wholly wrong for people to swap armbands every afternoon or every second day according to who they were visiting. In the vast majority of cases, they will stick with the symbols that are already known—the red cross and the red crescent. However, there may be circumstances in which a national organisation, working only within its own territory, wants to incorporate within the crystal its own symbol, for instance the red star of David. That could happen only in national circumstances, which seems sensible.
Likewise, if British defence medical agencies and services overseas judged in a particular conflict that using the red crystal rather than the red cross would afford them greater protection and bring greater understanding among the public, they would be free to do so. That choice has to be made on a pragmatic basis, but it should not change and flip-flop all the time, because that would itself undermine clarity. For the most part, I suspect that they will not need to take that step, but in some circumstances they will.
Will the Minister pursue a little further the point that Dr. Howells made? Can he confirm that the distinction will be between the internationally recognised protective symbols, which will now include the red crystal and which confer the right to protection upon an organisation or vehicle, and an indicative symbol such as the red star of David, which could be used within a national territory as part of a fundraising or publicity drive or as a means of identifying an individual or vehicle? Will it be only the cross, the crescent and the crystal that will confer the right to protection under both domestic and international law?
The hon. Gentleman is right—he put it better than I could, as doubtless he often will in the many debates in which we engage, though I am not sure whether I shall admit to that on subsequent occasions.
There is a difference between using the emblem for protective purposes and using it for fundraising or for the relevant body in one's own country. That is why it is important to police the convention equally. We want to ensure that the Red Cross movement is not disaggregated or undermined.
Things could become very confusing. If every country has a choice between the red crescent, the red cross and the red crystal for protecting vehicles and in addition a local brand, such as a red antelope or a red star of David, how on earth will people in places where there are armies that are not well organised like the British Army, but are in wars in informal settings and not much cop, be clear about what constitutes a protective symbol? It sounds like a recipe for confusion.
I am sorry if I have misled the hon. Gentleman—I never want to do that. We do not envisage every country in the world inventing its own brand, emblem or logo because, as he said, that would lead to confusion and undermine the whole proposal. People use the existing emblems because they afford protection. If they no longer afforded protection, people would not use them. If there were so many emblems as to cause confusion, that would undermine the structure and point of the Red Cross movement. That is why the provision is tied up with so much determination by all the states that are signatories to the convention to deal robustly with any abuse of the emblems. [Interruption.] Mr. Moss is leaning forward desirously.
I congratulate the Under-Secretary on his new post. Who decides which symbol or emblem will be used in a particular country? He talks about signatories to the convention, but how many have signed up to the proposal and how many have so far ratified it?
I thought somebody might ask that question and I have the answer. Forty counties, including Israel, have ratified and a further 48 have signed but have yet to complete the ratification process. So we are doing well. If British armed forces medical services were taking part in a war entirely on a British basis, Britain would decide which emblem afforded its medical services the greatest protection. In the vast majority of cases, it will be the red cross. If we were part of a multinational operation, it would make sense for the whole operation to decide how to proceed. Otherwise, as hon. Members have said, a proliferation of different symbols would undermine the protection that an emblem affords. I hope that I have reassured the hon. Gentleman.
I will try to answer some further questions. A few hon. Members have referred to the combination of emblems. As the hon. Member—or the hon. chorister—for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) said, when used by armed forces medical and religious personnel as protection against attack in a conflict, the emblems cannot be used in combination. Only the four distinctive emblems can be used for protective purposes. For indicative purposes, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, national societies in the various states that decide to use the red crystal may choose to incorporate the red cross, the red crescent or the red star of David in the red crystal when using it in conformity with relevant national legislation. A national society—for example, the British Red Cross—may use and display the combined emblem only within its national territory. That means that the British Red Cross could display an emblem showing the red cross in the frame of the red crystal, but only to promote its activities in the UK.
In a previous debate in another place, there was some discussion about the protection afforded to United Nations facilities in Gaza. We were all troubled by the events at the end of last year, and the Prime Minister made Britain's view very clear. International humanitarian law protects all persons who take no active part in the hostilities against attack, regardless of whether they use a protective emblem. That includes UN personnel and the facilities that they use. In the UN context, only medical and religious personnel participating in operations under its auspices can use the red crystal, the red cross and the red crescent. The UN facilities in Gaza could not therefore use any of the humanitarian emblems, but they were marked with UN symbols to protect them against attack.
Some hon. Members have raised the related matter of cluster munitions. We are keen to move forward with legislation on that and we shall do so when parliamentary time allows.
Members in the House of Lords raised the signing of protocol V of the United Nations convention on certain conventional weapons in November 2003, and hon. Members may therefore be interested in that. Discussions are continuing between the Departments involved to work out the arrangements for funding our future obligations, which arise from the protocol. It has proved more difficult than any of us anticipated to resolve the potential future financial liability arising from ratification. In the meantime, the UK follows the principles enshrined in the protocol, regardless of whether we have been able to ratify.
I do not think that I need to make further comments on the first clause. I hope that, despite the slightly querulous questioning about whether we are multiplying the number of emblems too much, all hon. Members will feel that the clause is the right way in which to proceed.
I was intrigued when the Minister, almost in parenthesis, referred to the old symbol of the red lion and sun, which the royalist regime in Iran employed. I think I understood him to say that, although the symbol is no longer used, it remains a part of the appropriate conventions and it could be revived in future by some hypothetical Government in Iran, or somewhere else in the world, who chose to revert to the red lion and sun.
The adoption of the red crystal is the outcome of pragmatic negotiations and I am pleased that the decision means that it will be possible at long last for the Israeli and the Palestinian humanitarian organisations to participate fully in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent family.
Just for the sake of completeness, I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that the red lion and sun is available for use only in Iran.
I am grateful to the Minister for making that point clear.
The Minister said that the British Red Cross Society was strongly behind clause 1 and the Bill as a whole, and I can certainly vouch for that. I would say to those of my hon. Friends who perhaps still harbour some uncertainty about the measures that, having earlier this year met the chairman of the British Red Cross Society and the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Dr. Kellenberger, I am completely satisfied that both organisations strongly support what is proposed in clause 1 and the Bill as a whole.
I was grateful for the Minister's assurances that it would be wrong to see the red crystal as a symbol that was intended to supplant either the red cross or the red crescent; were that to become the case, it would arouse considerable disquiet among the many thousands of people in all our constituencies who have given freely of their time and money over the years to support the efforts of the British Red Cross Society.
My hon. Friend Mr. Howarth referred in an intervention to the potential use of the red crystal by British troops. I noted that the Minister said that its use by British forces would be a pragmatic decision for field commanders to take on the basis of circumstances and that no presumption would be made that they should abandon the red cross. I would simply express the clear view that it would be wrong were there to be any pressure or any assumption on the part of the Ministry of Defence that such a change ought to be made. It is better for the confidence of the British public that the red cross, which is the symbol that people in this country recognise and respect, should continue to be used by our armed forces wherever possible. A departure from that principle should certainly be the exception, rather than be allowed to become the norm.
With that slight reservation, I am happy to give my support to clause 1.
This has been a fascinating and informative debate, not least because we have found out the birthday and occupation of the Minister's relations. It is always interesting to have some new information and some anecdotes to lighten the debate.
This is an important debate on an important Bill, which the Government are right to introduce and ensure that the UK passes. To people in this country, the red cross is seen not as a religious symbol but as something entirely neutral. However, if that is not the case in some places in the world, and if that can lead to confusion and, potentially, endanger people who are doing important work, it is obviously right that the international community should act to change the situation. I am sure we have all received information and leaflets from the ICRC encouraging us to support the Bill. We have had some debate about the origins of the cross and how it has been used by different cultures. In some contexts, the red cross is obviously seen as religious, but it is worth bearing in mind the fact that it is the reversal of the Swiss flag, and therefore represents neutrality.
I was intrigued by the Bill's description of the crystal, which it defines as
"the emblem of a red frame in the shape of a square on edge on a white ground, conforming to the illustration in Article 1 of the Annex to the third protocol".
As was remarked upon in previous stages, this Bill is one of the first to include a diagram.
This is not the first Bill to do that: the Bill that became the Geneva Conventions Act 1957 did so as well. It is just a shame that we cannot print in red.
A mine of intriguing information is our Minister. Presumably the 1957 Act introduced the red cross, but I wonder whether he could say in summing up whether it introduced the red crescent too or whether that was introduced in a later Act.
The shape in the Bill, which is described as a crystal, could also be described as a diamond. Indeed, at election time I have been known to have posters in the shape of a diamond—at least we tend to call them diamonds. However, the marketing manager in me was quite impressed that, after all the discussion about the most appropriate shape, we have called the shape a crystal rather than a diamond. We therefore have that nice alliteration, with the red cross, the red crescent and the red crystal. It seems that everything has been thought of.
In answer to an intervention, the Minister said that 40 countries had ratified the measures and that another 48 had signed up to them. I do not want to confuse this point with the debate on clause 2—I appreciate that the protocols in clause 2 have also been signed and ratified by a certain number of countries—but I wonder whether the Minister could inform us in his final remarks whether a certain number is needed for the measures to come into effect. I appreciate that that is the case for the other protocols—the Minister pointed out on Second Reading that a further number was required, and I think that the magic number was 22. Some time has passed between that debate and this debate, so it would be welcome to know whether the provisions are yet in effect or whether we still await that.
I would like to welcome the Minister's comments about cluster munitions and the fact that the Government have moved from their position of allowing so-called smart cluster bombs, which none the less maim and kill indiscriminately. I very much welcome the Minister's commitment to find time for the Government to bring forward the ban on such munitions. It is important when we are discussing the technicalities of a symbol that will be used in war zones that we remember the horrors that are experienced where such symbols are used. We are talking about people being wounded and killed in the most horrific circumstances, so the issue is of the gravest importance.
The general consensus is welcome, and I will be supporting clause 1.
This has been an interesting and informative debate. I am fully in support of the Bill, but I would be grateful if the Minister could respond to a couple of the points that have arisen.
First, I have a slight concern about the possible proliferation of symbols. It was mentioned that although the Iranians do not currently use the red lion and sun, they still have the right to use it. Can the Minister clarify whether they have the right to use it only in Iran or could they use it anywhere in the world, and if so, could that cause confusion?
My second point is about implementation. When does the international agreement come into effect? Does it need a certain number of countries to ratify it? At what point will the new red crystal be used as a symbol of protection? Once countries have ratified the agreement, are they entitled to use the symbol or is there a point at which the whole world would be entitled to use it? I would be grateful for clarification on those two points.
As the Minister and the shadow Minister said, this is not a partisan matter, but it is an important one and, in my judgment, it requires a rather fuller exploration than it has enjoyed thus far, although I do not say that in a pejorative way.
As one might expect with such a short Bill, clause 1 goes to the heart of the matter. The Bill's purpose is, in essence, to amend previous Acts, in particular the Geneva Conventions Act 1957, which I hope to say a little more about in my contribution. Inasmuch as the Bill amends the 1957 Act, much of what we have discussed so far has focused on the change to that Act in respect of emblems. We debated this matter on Second Reading, but at that stage we did not know quite how the Bill would fare in the other place. Since then, I have received representations on the issue—I am sure that other hon. Members have as well—from a variety of agencies and constituents.
This is first of all about symbols, protocols and conventions. When the Minister says that the cross might cause offence, I am minded to reprise the remarks of G. K. Chesterton, who said that those who dislike the cross do so not because it is a dead symbol but because it is a live symbol. The cross has significance not only because it is recognised as a Christian symbol but because it has been associated with Christian and non-Christian cultures since time immemorial as a symbol of peace, good health and good spirit.
The hon. Gentleman cites G. K. Chesterton, but Chesterton had a very firm understanding of the theological significance of the cross. He referred to it primarily in a proselytising sense. Indeed, that might be the potential danger in its use. I should also like to point out that I never used the word "offence" in relation to the cross. This is merely a question of whether people might misunderstand the red cross and take it to have an exclusively religious significance that is not intended.
Of course that is true about Chesterton. He was making a case for a Christian emblem. The case that I am making is that the living nature of the cross extends beyond that narrow definition. The cross is perceived fairly universally as a symbol of peace, of the union of heaven and earth, and of the sun and the stars. It is seen as a world centre and a cosmic axis. It represents the human form, with its four cardinal points. It can map the fourfold system, the four directions—north, south, east and west—the four seasons and the four elements.
In Christian imagery, as the Minister is well qualified to attest, the cross usually has an elongated southern element, because the cross in Christian imagery represents the crucifix. The red cross does not look like a crucifix; it is a simple cross, each part of which is the same length. It has a symmetry. Of course I accept that the red crescent was adopted because of the doubts that the Minister has articulated—the debate on this matter has gone on for a long time—but I am not sure that those doubts are well founded, given the universality of the cross.
When we debated the new symbol, the Minister acknowledged that it would not gain immediate acceptance because it might not be recognised straight away. Therein lies the nub of the problem. If the principle of a cross or a crescent is that it is widely recognisable and universally understood, and that its protective value as a device lies in that comprehension, a symbol that does not proffer immediate recognition might not proffer the protection that it is designed to provide.
I do not want to dwell on the specifics of the symbol at this point, but to set the matter in context. As I have said, this debate has been going on almost since the beginning of the Red Cross movement. A lively debate has been conducted since the end of the 19th century on whether the cross should be the movement's only symbol, and whether it was the appropriate symbol to use in all places at all times. That was the very debate that gave rise to the adoption of the red crescent.
The problem with the solution proposed in the Bill is that it would be entirely possible for a multiplication of symbols to emerge, as has been suggested by several contributors to the debate. It is possible that, once this new symbol has been adopted, others might make similar claims. The point about universality is important. It is probable that we will get away with having one more symbol, which is why my hon. Friend Mr. Lidington and the Red Cross itself have said that they will not oppose the proposal. But what would happen if we were to add one or two more symbols? At what point would the recognition that lies at the heart of a symbol's value become compromised? I make no judgment about that; I simply raise the point for hon. Members' consideration. Indicative devices show the link that a person or object has with a movement. Once that link has been broken in terms of popular perception, the device loses its force. Emblems should typically bear additional information, as most emblems do not speak for themselves. They imply more than the simplicity of a red cross.
It is important to set all these considerations in their historical context. The Red Cross is the world's largest humanitarian movement, with approximately 97 million volunteers worldwide. As the Minister said, it was inspired by Henry Dunant after his experience of seeing the dead and dying lying forlorn. He felt that something should be done on a non-partisan basis to ease their suffering and to deal with similar tragic circumstances. He wrote about that after the battle of Solferino in 1859, and I recommend his book to Members, because it makes the case that lies at the heart of these considerations.
Henry Dunant proposed the creation of national relief societies made up of volunteers trained in peacetime to provide neutral and impartial help to relieve suffering in times of war. Central to his concerns was his second proposal, which was to establish an international agreement—this became the Geneva conventions, as we now know—to oversee the support and humanitarian assistance that he craved. The proposals in the final resolutions at the conference that ensued from his efforts were adopted in October 1863. They are simple, and they are highly relevant to this part of the Bill. They included proposals for the foundation of a national relief society for wounded soldiers, for neutrality and for the protection of the wounded, for the utilisation of volunteer forces for the relief and assistance of those on battlefields, for the organisation of additional conferences to enact these concepts in legally binding international treaties, and for the introduction of a common, distinctive protection symbol for medical personnel in the field—namely, a white armlet bearing a red cross.
The armlet bearing a red cross was the original protection symbol declared at the 1864 Geneva convention. It represents a reversal of the Swiss national flag, and it was adopted to honour the Swiss founder of the movement, Henry Dunant, and his home country. That is interesting in itself, because few would argue that the Swiss flag is specifically identified by most reasonable people as a Christian flag. [Interruption.] I understand why the Minister is shaking his head, but most people do not think of the Swiss flag first and foremost as a Christian emblem.
Ideas to introduce a uniform and neutral protection symbol, as well as a specific design, came from the original founding members of the international committee. The red cross was initially defined as a protection symbol under article 7 of chapter VII of the Geneva convention of 1864—"The distinctive emblem"—and then under article 38 of the Geneva convention of 1949—
"For the Amelioration of the Conditions of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field".
There is an unofficial agreement within the Red Cross and Red Crescent movements that the shape of the cross should be of a cross composed of five squares. I argued earlier that the distinctiveness of the red cross and the difference between it and the kind of cross typically used in Christian imagery are highly pertinent. However, regardless of the shape, any red cross on a white background should be valid and must be recognised as a protection symbol in conflicts.
Here I believe the Minister has a valid point. Although the red cross that we all think of first when we think about the Red Cross movement is the one used officially on most occasions, in the heat of battle as it were, other red crosses might be used that could be more easily misinterpreted. I take the Minister's point that he did not use the word "offence", but I am going to use it and say that it could give rise to offence, making such a symbol less useful or worse. I do not therefore disregard the points raised by the Minister and others about the need to be sensitive on this subject, but I do really worry about the possibility of the proliferation of the number of symbols and any effect that might have on universal recognition.
I am fascinated by the hon. Gentleman's historical lesson, which is very instructive, but I want to tease something out of him. Is he worried about the possibility that iconoclastic leaders such as Chavez, Ahmadinejad or Kim Il Jung would want their own symbols for nationalistic purposes and to reinforce their independence? Is that the sort of proliferation that he is worried about?
It is interesting to hear the right hon. Gentleman put it that way. I had not wanted to make a case quite as arch as that, as I did not at first think that symbols could be used in such a malevolent way. I was more concerned about confusion or even mischievous use. He is quite right, however, that it may well be worse than that and my concerns about confusion may well be an underestimation of the problem. It is indeed possible for the malevolent proliferation of symbols to take place in tandem with a nationalistic approach, which would be entirely contrary and injurious to the principles established in those early days by the founders of the Red Cross movement and, indeed, those of the Red Crescent movement. Those principles are widely recognised throughout the House as doing immeasurable good, so the right hon. Gentleman makes a useful point about what might happen. I know that the Minister will be as concerned as anyone about that and will do all he can on behalf of the Government to ensure that those possibilities are excluded, if at all possible, in the councils in which these issues are debated.
I do not wish to prolong these matters, but I was about to say that of the 186 national societies currently recognised by the International Committee of the Red Cross, 152 use the red cross as their official organisational emblem. In addition, the red cross is used by the national society of Tuvalu, which has applied for official recognition. Henri Dunant, who has figured largely—and not unreasonably so—in our considerations, also proposed that countries should adopt an international agreement that will recognise the status of medical services and the wounded on the battlefield. The resulting Geneva convention is now widely recognised by countries throughout the world as providing relief and support to the victims of international conflicts, disasters and wars. That includes refugees from the Hungarian revolution of 1956, from Vietnam in 1976, from the Iranian earthquake in 1962 and the famine in Africa in 1989; and in the UK, the British Red Cross has provided emergency relief following the disaster in Aberfan, the Lockerbie air disaster, the Easter floods in 1998 and the devastating summer floods in 2007.
The reason all that is important in respect of this part of the Bill and the Bill as a whole is that there is no guarantee that we are merely talking about proliferation of symbols internationally. The worry is not about the support of the Red Cross movement, but that independent people might choose to use a different symbol here. That is something that I hope the Minister will say a few words about.
The more symbols there are in existence, the more there are to choose from; there is no guarantee that mistakenly, mischievously, perhaps even malevolently, people will not choose to use symbols other than the red cross, even within our own borders. The white flag has been recognised as a sign of the wish to negotiate or surrender, and firing on anyone displaying it in good faith is forbidden. With the addition of the red cross, the flag's message is taken a stage further, demanding respect for the wounded and for anyone coming to their aid.
Let us not forget that the institution of the Red Cross was set up to transcend national borders and religious differences. There remains little evidence that the institution or the red cross itself was intended to have Christian connotations. I know that soldiers of the Ottoman empire claimed that it caused offence to Muslims, which is why we had the debate about the red crescent so long ago and indeed it explains why the red crescent was instituted. But there remains an argument that it would be better to reaffirm the red cross—as the ICRC wanted to do, as the Minister will know, in 1949. I nevertheless understand the Minister's point and the purpose and good will that lies behind what he said to the House and what is in this measure.
I want to say a little more about the debate that took place in 1957, simply because a brief examination of the Hansard on that occasion reveals how support for the red cross was well embedded when I suppose the memory of the second world war was altogether more alive in the House and in the hearts and minds of the Members who debated the convention at that time. The Member representing Plymouth, Devonport spoke eloquently and movingly in that debate about her work in both the British and the international Red Cross, though I shall not detain the House, however, by quoting chapter and verse from that debate.
We were invited in earlier contributions to say a few words about Israel. I propose to do so before we move on to clause 2, because it is highly relevant to clause 1. The Minister alluded to—although he did not, understandably, provide much detail—the controversy over Israel's national society, Magen David Adom and the dispute over the neutral protection symbols used in Israel. The idea of a red crystal—previously referred to as a red lozenge or red diamond—had its genesis as a result of that debate, and it proved to be the most popular of the various symbols that were suggested as additions to the red cross and red crescent. However, as we now understand, amending the Geneva conventions to add a new protection symbol requires a diplomatic conference of all 192 state signatories to the conventions. That conference was held in 2005, organised by the Swiss Government, to adopt the third symbol. It introduced the red crystal, which is illustrated in the Bill, detailed in the explanatory notes and referred to in the clause.
The third protocol refers to the new symbol as the third protocol emblem. The rules for the use of the symbol are based on the third additional protocol to the Geneva conventions. First, the protocol states:
"Within its own national territory, a national society can use either of the recognized symbols... alone, or incorporate any of these symbols or a combination of them into the Red Crystal."
That possibility exacerbates the risk that I described earlier. It is not merely that different symbols could be used in different places, but also that different symbols could be used in the same place, or used in combination in the same place. That could be—I put it no more strongly—a recipe for confusion, possibly even for disaster.
Secondly, the protocol establishes that
"a national society which does not use one of the recognized symbols as its emblem has to incorporate its unique symbol into the Red Crystal, based on the previously mentioned condition about communicating its unique symbol to the state parties of the Geneva Conventions."
Thirdly, it adds:
"For protective use, only the symbols recognized by the Geneva Conventions can be used. Specifically, those national societies which do not use one of the recognized symbols as their emblem have to use the Red Crystal without incorporation of any additional symbol."
I had not intended to say anything about the red lion and sun, which has also been mentioned. However, if fear of proliferation lies at the heart of the lingering doubts felt by some of us about these proposals, that is coloured to some extent by the fact that from 1924 until 1980 Iran used a red lion and sun symbol for its national society, based on the dynastic flag and emblem associated with that country. The red lion and sun was formally recognised as a protection symbol in 1929, together with the red crescent, and despite its shift to the red crescent in 1980, Iran explicitly maintains the right to use the symbol. It is therefore still recognised by the Geneva convention as a protection symbol with status equal to that of the red cross, the red crescent and, now, the new red crystal. Contrary to what might be assumed, we do not have one, two or even three symbols; we have four that are recognised, are established, and can be used as a matter of choice.
I shall not say much about the red shield of David, but Israel has used it as an organisational symbol since its foundation. It was initially proposed as an addition to the red cross, but that is not entirely relevant to this part of the Bill.
I have no doubt that the intention behind the proposal is honourable, and that good will prevails. That has been exemplified by what has been said today by the Minister and other speakers, including my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury. He has spoken to representatives of the Red Cross in the United Kingdom, who have said that they have no objection to the measure. Nevertheless, for the reasons that I have given, it is important for us to explore the subject.
Since Second Reading, I have received letters and representations from constituents and others expressing doubt about the advisability of adding the new symbol, and also confusion about its meaning. This is a complex matter, but I invite the Minister to consider the possibility that the anodyne nature of the crystal may be tantamount to ambiguity about its meaning and purpose. Had we defeated the programme motion and been allowed the longer time for debate that was desirable, I would have spoken in much greater detail about the subject of signs and symbols. It is at the core of the debate, and requires more consideration than we are able to give it.
To be useful and meaningful, a symbol must transmit a clear message. It need not communicate that message in the same specific way as a sign—that is the difference between a sign and a symbol, is it not?—but there must be a degree of clarity about its intent. When we think of something that "signposts", we think of something very particular; when we think of something being symbolic of something else, we envisage a slightly broader concept. A symbol is not a sign, but it must have meaning none the less. I have some doubts about the crystal in that context. Because of the effort that has been made not to be contentious, it is possibly rather too anodyne to serve its purpose.
I end my speech with those few remarks, which betray a certain scepticism on my part, but certainly no hostility towards either the measure or the Minister. I hope that we can soon move on to the rather more meaty and lengthy debate that will be necessary to deal with the other clauses.
I assume, Mrs. Heal, that I will be in order if I speak in the clause stand part debate about the schedule to the Bill and its proposed schedule 7 to the Geneva Conventions Act 1957, as clause 1(8) refers to inserting schedule 7 after schedule 6, and at our rate of progress this afternoon I doubt whether we will ever reach the schedule, let alone Third Reading.
Thank you very much, Mrs. Heal.
Proposed schedule 7 states:
" Recalling further that National Societies undertaking activities on the territory of another State must ensure that the emblems they intend to use within the framework of such activities may be used in the country where the activity takes place and in the country or countries of transit."
This comes back to a question that I put to the Minister in an intervention: who decides? The phrase "may be used" suggests that permission for a symbol to be used needs to be given by the country that our armed forces are operating in or travelling through. Is that vested in international law—in other words, does the country have to have signed up to the Geneva Conventions Act 1957—or does the local law of the country itself determine whether it accepts a particular symbol? Also, if contiguous countries have different views, will our armed forces and their vehicles have to keep switching their symbols as they move from one country to another? The Minister may not be able to answer that right away, but I would like an answer at some juncture, if possible.
Mr. Hayes made a highly informative and fascinating—if also slightly sceptical—speech. At the end of it, he invited me to speak about semiotics and the difference between signs and symbols. Most of my university English degree seemed to be obsessed with Saussurian analysis of semiotics, and then when I arrived at theological college I had to discuss the hermeneutical circle for about three years. [Interruption.] It is not that difficult to spell "hermeneutical". I remember very clearly a Scottish theologian who taught at Oxford saying as part of his address on systematic theology and symbolism in religion that a lot of people ask, "What do we mean by God?" but we should really be asking, "What do we mean by 'mean'?" Therefore, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will not return to the hermeneutical circle this afternoon. However, I would just say that on these issues I am closer to Urs von Balthasar and Coleridge than I am to Lacan.
I am not sure the Minister understands what he means by "mean" or "what" in this particular circumstance, so let us move on to the issue of the cross and whether it could raise offence. The hon. Gentleman pointed to various different ways in which the cross can be interpreted but, of course, the possible interpretations depend on whether one is referring to the Cross with a capital C, which for many Christians is the Cross on which Jesus died. How that should be presented has been hotly disputed between Catholics and Protestants over the years; one dispute is about whether the symbol of a Cross should be used at all in churches. Therefore, the religious connotations that can be attached—and are attached by many people—either for good or ill can make it more difficult in certain, limited, circumstances for the Red Cross movement to be able to do its job. If that is the case, we need to have the additional symbols. For me, the fact that it is the Red Cross imparts an element of the concept of Christian charity to the work of the Red Cross, but I understand that others think of that in a pejorative sense, not a positive sense. They might also think of the child being baptised with the sign of the Cross and being told to fight valiantly for Christ against the devil. For many people, that is not a positive symbol. The hon. Gentleman also said that the Red Cross symbol is different from any other crosses as its arms and legs, as it were, are of equal length, but so are those of the cross of St. George and I do not think anybody doubts that the cross of St. George is a religious symbol.
Let me clarify a couple of other matters. Several Members mentioned the issue of the red lion and sun and whether that is to be used only in Iran or only by Iran. The situation is that it is for Iran—properly speaking, it was for Persia—to use, and it has not done so since 1980. I do not think other countries or peoples would want, or choose, to do so, so it is not a matter that arises in any case.
In my estimation, it would be an unnecessary row to have. It would also involve many other countries trying to agree a new protocol, and I cannot see that there would be any great value in that. It sits there and is not greatly used. It stemmed originally from 13th century Persian understandings, but it is not used.
The other issue to which I should refer is the question of when this comes into effect. The original protocol makes it clear that it comes into effect when two countries have ratified. I have a list of those who have signed and ratified, and a separate list of those who have signed. Jo Swinson asked me which countries are on the list, but I think that it would be unnecessary to read them out. I am happy to write to her so that she can compare notes. There is no greater requirement than two countries ratifying, so it has already come into operation.
Without further ado—
The Minister has not answered my question. If the answer is long in coming, perhaps he would undertake to write to me with an explanation. That would be satisfactory.
More to the point, the Minister cannot remember the question, so whether he would be able to remember the answer is quite another matter— [ Interruption. ] I know that it related to schedule 7, and the hon. Gentleman referred to line 36, but I think that he meant line 36 on the first page of the schedule, because it has several line 36s. I will write to him at length on the issue, although I do not think that it will prevent him from supporting the clause. For the sake of the fullness of the debate, I will be happy to write to him. Without further ado, I shall now sit down.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.