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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

I absolutely agree. To my knowledge we have raised that issue in this Parliament on many occasions, but we still have not come to any resolution apart from to condemn it.

We can all think of armed conflicts where armed parties have deliberately targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure to try to terrorise the population into submission, such as in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Other hon. Members will no doubt highlight such shocking and despicable crimes in their contributions. It is important to keep in mind that it is not just non-state armed actors such as IS that carry out such crimes; IHL violations are committed equally by state and non-state armed actors. In addition, states always have the primary responsibility for protecting and meeting the basic needs of the civil population.

The second failing putting civilians at greater risk is armed parties not prioritising the protection of civilians when implementing IHL. IHL leaves room for interpretation, particularly as regards its application, as while it sets out what armed actors are supposed to do, it does not necessarily detail how those responsibilities are to be exercised. I have visited armed conflicts in various parts of the world, but in Iraq in particular I remember talking to American military personnel and emphasising to them the importance of the Geneva conventions, but being met with a blank look because they had no idea what those were. That was a great difficulty when trying to persuade them to do something differently.

All armed actors must incorporate the protection of civilians into their core military missions and strategies and must actively seek to do everything possible during military operations to ensure civilians are properly protected. They should do that in recognition that success in armed conflict is not just about fighting to control territory but about the need to ensure the safety, dignity and wellbeing of affected populations, so they are not driven to support radical and extremist ideologies and groups, further fuelling conflict, and so they are better able to contribute to sustainable peace-building and reconciliation efforts when the armed conflict is over. To do that requires a much better understanding by armed actors of how their operations could and have had an impact on civilians, as well as much more investment in more accurate recording of civilian casualties and tracking of civilian harm.

I must highlight my concern about the Ministry of Defence’s ludicrous claim that there was only one civilian casualty resulting from its operations in Mosul and Raqqa in the fight against IS, despite the RAF dropping over 4,000 munitions, of which over 70% were 500 lb bombs, primarily in urban areas. That figure indicates the UK’s inability to accurately record civilian casualties and track civilian harm, and the lack of a baseline for assessing civilian harm.

The UK wants to be a global champion on civilian protection—obviously, we would all commend that. We will not, however, be credible on the international stage until and unless we are first accountable for our own operations. We therefore need a dedicated civilian casualty mitigation and investigation team with proper resources, to understand the impact of our operations and accurately record civilian harm. We need to appoint a dedicated military chief of staff to co-ordinate civil-military issues, and a civil-military focus in all major military headquarters with a centralised role in planning and decision making, to represent the interests of civilians.

In addition, the UK must do more to uphold our positive responsibilities under IHL and clarify the British position when assisting and working with partners, whether sharing intelligence and assets, providing weapons and materiel support or training and giving advice to local forces. We sometimes still fall short, so I urge the Government yet again to rethink our support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, as my hon. Friend Gill Furniss mentioned, to ensure that any support provided is, at the very least, more explicitly conditional on a proactive policy of adherence to civilian protection.

More generally, the Government should adopt a dedicated process of operational end-use monitoring—again, in the Committees on Arms Export Controls we have had in-depth discussions about end-use monitoring, taking examples from other countries, to analyse the operational outcomes of UK assistance, work with partners through training and education to build a foundation for civilian protection before conflict begins, and build capacity in all relevant areas, including security sector reform, neutrality of humanitarian actors and targeting. I emphasise the need for more vigilance in preserving the space for, and enabling the capacity of, neutral dedicated humanitarian actors, who work hard in extremely difficult circumstances to fill the gaps in civilian protection. We must ensure that their neutrality is not repeatedly compromised, as that opens them up to attacks; counter-terrorism measures must not risk criminalising their essential activities; their funding must remain adequate and not be tied to unreasonable or overly bureaucratic conditions; and they and their facilities must not be targeted.

Last but not least, we need to do more to address the accountability crisis. Impunity for serious IHL violations simply fuels further violations and puts civilians at even greater risk. The UK needs to support referrals to the International Criminal Court, champion ad hoc fact-finding mechanisms—including commissions of inquiry and the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission —and the establishment of local courts and transitional justice mechanisms, and it must consider adopting targeted measures against those who commit such atrocities.

All Governments need to step up their efforts to protect civilians in armed conflict and recognise and adopt best practice, such as that of NATO, which is making significant efforts to make civilian protection a key element of operational planning. That is essential if we are to see a dramatic reduction in civilian casualties and harm in the next decades.

For the UK really to make its mark on the global stage, I urge the Government not only to take the action I have called for, but to ensure the current review of its protection of civilians strategy is the beginning of a longer term process to adopt a cross-departmental strategy and whole of Government approach, so the protection of civilians is formalised as a top-line priority in UK operations and UK assistance to partners. The Government should also appoint a dedicated ambassador to champion protection of civilians on the global stage, to better utilise the UK’s position as chair of the informal expert group on protection of civilians and to work with the broadest possible range of states and relevant actors, as well as increase our influence in the UN, including through increased support and involvement with peacekeeping operations, UN missions and relevant UN agencies, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Now more than ever, armed conflicts in other parts of the world can no longer be, to paraphrase slightly, quarrels in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing. We need to care about how civilians are affected by armed conflicts, because the horrific violations carried out against them are a stain on all humanity, and their effects are long lasting and widespread.