Clause 2 — Amendments of the United Nations Personnel Act 1997

Gangmasters Licensing Act 2004 (Amendment) Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 10th June 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Watch this
Embed this video

Copy and paste this code on your website

Hide

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I hope that hon. Members, albeit in a slightly querulous and sceptical mode, will also support clause 2 standing part of the Bill. It will amend the United Nations Personnel Act 1997 to incorporate the optional protocol to the convention on the safety of United Nations and associated personnel. The original Act has been used to protect operations maintaining or restoring international peace and security and operations in which an exceptional risk exists.

It has been necessary to bring forward the optional protocol because there is a loophole: there are operations that are not maintaining or restoring international peace and security, but are peace building. They go beyond the stage of peacekeeping, but the Security Council has not determined that an exceptional risk exists. Consequently, the full protection afforded by the 1997 Act and the convention is not extended to those operations.

First, we must amend UK law to give effect to the optional protocol, and that is what we are doing this afternoon. Next comes the process of ratification, whereby we lay down the optional protocol before Parliament, under the Ponsonby rule, and after 21 days it is considered to be ratified. We then lodge the instruments of ratification and accession with the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

In the previous debate, Jo Swinson asked when the provision came into force. She was right to say that it comes into force when 22 countries have ratified and sent their instruments of ratification and accession to the Secretary-General. At the moment, there are 19 on the list, so when we add ourselves there will be 20. The countries involved include Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bolivia, Botswana, Bulgaria, the Central African Republic, Chile, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Guatemala, Jamaica, Kenya, Lebanon, Liberia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Mali, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, the Republic of Korea, Romania, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunisia, Ukraine and Uruguay.

As I am sure hon. Members are aware, there are a large number of UN peacekeeping and peace-building missions around the world, from the presence in the middle east that started in 1948 to the mission in the Central African Republic and in Chad, which started only in 2008 when an EU mission handed over to the UN and where we are dealing with a lot of the knock-on effect from Darfur. In countries such as Burundi, the mission is a peace-building mission, as we have moved on from peacekeeping. It is important, none the less, that UN people who are working there have the full protection that would otherwise be afforded them.

Watch this

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Labour, Pontypridd

My hon. Friend just read out a long list of countries, some of which I found very surprising. Mali, for one, has a Government who are trying to combat terrorism and is the recipient of help from the UN and other bodies. It is also where we have just seen the al-Qaeda murder of a British citizen. In a situation such as that in Afghanistan, where the mission is UN-led but has all manner of activities going on, including fighting and reconstruction—often in the same place—how does one distinguish between somebody who is classified as a UN worker and is therefore the recipient of protection under the terms of this amendment and others, and somebody who is a fighter and, presumably, not the recipient of the same protection, despite the fact that they are both being led by the UN on a clearly defined mission?

Watch this

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

The protection is afforded to those who are directly involved in the UN peacekeeping mission and to those who are employed by direct agencies of the UN. It does not extend to further bodies. The truth is that in the various different missions around the world, the level of risk is differently estimated. We are keen to ensure that all the countries in which there are missions at present sign up. It is true that not all the countries where there are missions have so far signed up. That is why, although there will not be much immediate impact in the UK—we do not intend to have UN peacekeeping missions to the UK, so there is no direct likelihood of any such eventuality in this country—our ratification of the provision is part of the process of encouraging other countries to ratify that might otherwise be reluctant to do so. Obviously, that is true for countries as divergent as Liberia and Afghanistan. My right hon. Friend mentioned Afghanistan, where there was a UN assistance mission, which is now a political mission. The situation is similar in Ethiopia and Eritrea. It is good that Cyprus has now ratified—that is somewhere where there is a UN peacekeeping mission. Our aim is to create the universality of protection that he envisages.

Watch this

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 3:45 pm, 10th June 2009

If I heard him correctly, the Minister said a moment ago that not all countries with UN missions had yet signed up. However, his predecessor, Gillian Merron, who is now a Minister of State at the Department of Health, said on Second Reading that

"five countries with UN missions in their territories"—

I presume that she meant UN peace building missions—

"have signed the protocol."—[ Hansard, 1 April 2009; Vol. 490, c. 980.]

I am not trying to trip up the Minister, but it would be helpful for the House to be clear about this. One question that I have raised previously about this part of the Bill has to do with the fact that the optional protocol does not define "peace building" in the way that earlier protocols defined "peace making". That does not pose an immediate problem if those countries with peace-building missions have signed up already, but there could be a problem in the future when it comes to defining exactly what sort of UN activity is covered by the additional protection being given.

Watch this

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I think that the hon. Gentleman is right, and I apologise if I inadvertently misled him. As I understand it, the five countries with peace-building missions have signed up, but if I am wrong I shall be happy to write to him. However, there are missions in 16 countries, and they obviously vary in their aims and the goals that they are intended to pursue. The point is that peacekeeping missions already have protection, whereas those missions involved in peace building that the Security Council has not said are at serious risk do not have protection. As the Security Council has never said that about any mission, it is clear that there is a legal loophole that the optional protocol is designed to tidy up.

I have to correct an impression that I gave earlier to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire, and which has to do with the number of countries that have signed and ratified the optional protocol. Thirty-four countries have signed the optional protocol, and 18 have ratified it. That number will become 19 if we ratify it, and 22 countries have to do so for the optional protocol to come into force.

Watch this

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

The Minister will be delighted to know that this will be my final intervention, but clause 2 deals with the optional protocol that extends the convention's authority to deal with humanitarian aid. However, as Dr. Howells suggested, it brings us back to the issue of protection, and to signs and symbols. Will the Minister buttonhole this once and for all? Surely a sign has a strictly limited meaning but a symbol, as Jung argued, is far more subtle. When we use a symbol, we imply or suggest all that lies behind it. Does the Minister agree that, when it comes to protection, that is critical? He is well qualified to answer that, as he is Jung at heart.

Watch this

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I think that I can match that. There is a very fine book called "Jung and the Christian Way", written by a Christopher Bryant—although not this one. The author is a different Christopher Bryant, but I have read the book and could expand at length about what it says about the collective subconscious and the rest, although I do not think that that would be strictly relevant to clause 2.

However, I think that I can help the House by saying that the protocol covers UN personnel or contractors only. That means that UN peacekeepers are covered, but NATO troops are not—a clear distinction, as the latter are not UN personnel.

Watch this

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Labour, Pontypridd

I am sorry to interrupt again on this point, but it is very important. I have been in some of the armpits of the world and have seen UN peace builders and keepers doing amazing work, but they have been able to do that work only because they have had NATO personnel guarding them. How does one differentiate a UN worker—they are clearly defined in the schedules and the original agreements—from NATO or other troops, without whose protection UN workers cannot work? How do we convince the enemy—insurgents, the Taliban or whoever—that those workers are not there simply because they are being guarded and allowed to be there by troops who are not covered by these provisions?

Watch this

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I have not been to so many of the places to which my right hon. Friend refers; my own experience has been in places such as Bosnia, where the EU was doing its business of peace building. It is difficult to distinguish between peacekeeping and peace building, but after a while one realises that that is what one is definitely doing. Thus, processes such as going house to house to ensure that any rocket launchers left in people's garages are taken off them are all part of the process of peace building. Similarly, my right hon. Friend is right to say that people who want to prevent peace from taking hold may choose to interpret as part of the enemy anybody involved in a humanitarian effort and who is being protected by troops, but that does not mean that we should not ensure that they are afforded the protection that they need.

I wish to correct myself on one issue relating to something that Mr. Lidington said. The five countries where there are UN peace-building missions have signed, but I cannot be certain that they have ratified. It is difficult to tell whether or not that makes a material difference, but I shall write to him specifically on that point.

Watch this

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I want to follow up on who would be covered by this measure. I welcomed the fact that on Second Reading the Minister's predecessor said that

"we continue to press for a fuller set of protections".—[ Hansard, 1 April 2009; Vol. 490, c. 980.]

I say that because the other group of people who are not covered but who do an essential job of rebuilding countries and working in war zones are humanitarian workers for non-governmental organisations. They, too, face dreadful threats—as we saw, 2008 was one of the worst years for aid workers being killed—so will the Minister repeat the assertion that the Government will continue to press for fuller protection?

Watch this

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

Absolutely. The NGOs do an extraordinary job in many parts of the world, and they do work that could not be done by governmental organisations and agencies. They sometimes have that extra reach into the local community by definition of the fact that they are non-governmental, but if that means that they do not have the protection that they require, it makes it more difficult for them to do that job of work. There is often a judgment to be made on the ground as to how one best advances the process of peace and makes it flourish rather than just lie on stony ground. I wholeheartedly support the point that the hon. Lady makes. I hope that the whole House will support this clause, and I urge hon. Members to do so.

Watch this

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I am happy to offer my support for the clause, which is undoubtedly a welcome addition to the existing protocols and the protections conferred by them. My only difficulty is over what the protocol omits. I agreed with Jo Swinson when she said that one would hope to see, at some future stage, this form of protection extended to humanitarian workers for NGOs. I am troubled by the absence in the protocol of a clear definition of peace building and by the opt-out that countries retain under subsection (4) in respect of operations

"to deliver emergency humanitarian assistance"— on their territories—

"in response to natural disaster".

I simply cannot understand the purpose of that opt-out arrangement.

I am also concerned that the provisions in the Bill, resting as they do upon the protocol, appear to exclude from the additional protection regional peacekeeping operations and operations that, although authorised by the United Nations Security Council, are under either national or regional control, rather than direct United Nations control.

I accept that the protocol is the product of prolonged international negotiation—negotiation that must have been difficult. It is better than no protocol at all, but I hope that the Government will show energy in pursuing further work and trying to ensure that the remaining loopholes are closed.

Watch this

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I support clause 2. Legal protection for UN personnel who are doing essential peace building and emergency humanitarian work is vital and, I would argue, long overdue. Those employees are working on behalf of the whole international community, but sadly they are under increased risk of attack and kidnap. In fact, according to Reuters, in 2008 some 122 people were killed in the course of aid work. That highlights the point that I raised earlier about the possibility of extending the protection further, beyond UN personnel.

Sadly, even just in the short time that the Bill has been discussed in the Houses of Parliament, we have seen on the news the requirement for it. On Second Reading, the Gaza conflict was uppermost in people's minds, as a result of the attack on the UN school. Since then, of course, we have seen dreadful scenes unfold in Sri Lanka, where hospitals have come under fire from artillery shells, and a Red Cross worker is reported to have died. We still do not know the full scale of the damage, death and destruction. Obviously, legal protection alone will not solve the problem. We do not wave a magic wand by agreeing to the protocol, but it is a step in the right direction. It is a deterrent, and it does at least give us the opportunity to act in pursuit of justice where atrocities have been committed.

As for applying the measures to the UK, obviously we hope and do not expect UN workers to come under attack in the UK. However, ratification would provide an international lead. It is good news that even since Second Reading two more countries have ratified; I note that Hansard shows that 16 countries had ratified at the time. Hopefully we will make it 19, and that leaves just three more before the measures are brought into force. I urge the Minister and his Department to use all possible diplomacy, as I am sure they will, to encourage other countries to sign and ratify the protocols as soon as possible. With that, I reiterate my support for clause 2.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 1 agreed to.

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Third Reading

Watch this

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 3:58 pm, 10th June 2009

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I am not sure that I can add anything further to the discussions that we have already had this afternoon. We have ranged widely through matters hermeneutical and semiotical, and many other matters. I cannot remember whether it was Aristotle, Seneca or somebody else who said that a small book is always a bad book. The truth is that a small Bill need not be a bad Bill. This is a good piece of legislation, and I am sure that all hon. Members will support it on Third Reading;
I am grateful to the officials who have worked hard to make sure of that. I am also grateful to all the previous Ministers who ensured that the issue was brought forward, through diplomatic circles. I hope that the red crystal, and the greater protection that we can afford to peacekeeping and peace-building operations around the world, will significantly enhance the opportunities for peace and justice in this world, and I urge people to support the Bill on Third Reading.

Watch this

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 3:59 pm, 10th June 2009

This is a welcome piece of legislation, which the Opposition are happy to support.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

Watch this