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International Humanitarian Law: Protecting Civilians in Conflict — [Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 18th June 2019.

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Photo of Ann Clwyd Ann Clwyd Labour, Cynon Valley 9:30 am, 18th June 2019

My hon. Friend obviously knows that I totally agree with her. In fact, I have joined in the argument on that particular point at various stages. I am a member of the Committees on Arms Export Controls, and that is an issue that we certainly continue to discuss.

Last month, the UN Secretary-General published his annual report on this subject. Why, as he set out, do

“civilians continue to account for the vast majority of casualties in conflict”,

and suffer from a variety of “short and long-term” impacts, “including forced displacement”, forcible

“starvation…unlawful denial of humanitarian access;
attacks on humanitarian and medical personnel, hospitals, and other medical facilities;
sexual and gender-based violence;
and intentional damage and unlawful destruction of civilian infrastructure, property and livelihoods”?

The first thing to recognise is that armed conflict has changed in many ways, some of which have put civilians in greater danger, such as a massive increase in armed groups, including non-state armed actors. Research by the International Committee of the Red Cross shows that more armed groups have emerged in the past six years than in the previous 60 years. The proliferation of armed groups, backed by a variety of partners, allies and arms providers, often leads to a dilution of responsibility, fragmentation of chains of command, an unchecked flow of weapons, and longer and more intractable armed conflicts. All that results in greater danger to civilians. In addition, there is increased use of explosive weapons in urban areas, where populations are highly concentrated, and of so-called precision weaponry which is not precise enough.

I argue, however, that the changes in the way that armed conflicts are carried out do not mean that international humanitarian law is no longer fit for purpose, but that greater efforts must be made on three fronts: to adhere to IHL; to interpret it with civilian protection at the forefront; and to ensure that those responsible for serious violations are held to account. I cannot emphasise that last one enough. As one who collected evidence on Iraqi war crimes over a period of years, I know how important it is to document such crimes, because a time will come when it is possible to prosecute people for those crimes.

There continue to be too many instances of IHL not being respected and, worryingly, a determination at times to flout legal obligations to protect civilian populations.