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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 9:59 am on 18th June 2019.

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Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union) 9:59 am, 18th June 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Bone. I congratulate Ann Clwyd on initiating this debate. As Members will know, she chairs the all-party human rights group, and I am vice-chair of the all-party group on drones. We made a joint bid to the Backbench Business Committee, and I am pleased that we secured this debate.

Before coming here this morning I dropped in on Richard Ratcliffe. I recommend that people do that; he is outside the Iranian embassy, which did a good job of suddenly deciding its front needed painting and that it therefore needed some screens, which obstructed Richard Ratcliffe, or the view of him. I am pleased the police were not willing to move him on, which is apparently what the Iranians asked them to do. I encourage Members to visit him. In some respects, he and his wife are civilian casualties of an unofficial—well, there is not exactly a conflict or war between the UK and Iran, but there are certainly casualties.

It is right to debate this topic in the year of the 70th anniversary of the fourth Geneva convention on the protection of civilian persons in time of war. This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the protection of civilians agenda at the UN Security Council, for which the UK is currently penholder.

The protection of civilians must be a priority, and the right hon. Lady set out many reasons why. Save the Children says at least 420 million children globally are now living in areas affected by conflict, which is more than ever. That has an impact across the board. Before coming here this morning I met an organisation that campaigns on education in the Lake Chad basin—an issue that particularly affects girls in that area of conflict—including in Nigeria and Cameroon. Children are a priority, as is education, and we must ensure that, where they are lacking, appropriate protections are put in place for civilians and children.

The right hon. Lady referred to the figure for RAF casualties, and the claim that there was only one civilian casualty after 4,000 munitions were dropped in the war against Isis. In future, we should perhaps require independent confirmation that there have been no civilian casualties, and use that as the basis. In circumstances where there is no independent confirmation for whether there have been civilian casualties, there must be a question mark over that issue. The RAF is effective and efficient and has tight safeguards over the use of munitions, but to suggest that there was only one civilian casualty after 4,000 attacks is challenging in terms of credibility.

We know that warfare is changing and that we are moving away from large-scale ground interventions. Airstrikes are becoming the primary means of achieving military objectives, and as we saw in Syria, they are increasingly used in urban areas. Drones are an added element of that. People attempt to portray drones as highly precise in their targeting, but there must be a question mark over that. We must ensure that issues of legality, transparency and accountability in the use of drones are monitored and built on. This is a developing area of military intervention, and the legal safeguards around drones must grow at the same time as their use.

We must focus on civilian protection during our own operations, but we must also consider the role that the UK increasingly plays when working with its partners—Saudi Arabia and the conflict in Yemen are often mentioned as an example of where UK personnel are not involved in directing attacks, but they are in command centres. The role the UK should play in civilian protection should be enhanced to cope with scenarios where the UK is an active partner in conflicts. Unfortunately, evidence is overwhelming that attacks have taken place in Yemen, from both sides, that are in breach of IHL. As parliamentarians, we should be worried that, while we have a role in expressing a view and voting on whether the UK should or should not take part in armed conflicts, we do not have one regarding whether the UK partners with countries that are in conflicts, such as that in Yemen. Perhaps we should look at whether we as parliamentarians should have an enhanced role when such partnerships are established.

It is not just when the UK is involved in a partnership that there are perhaps risks around whether we might be—either actively or at a distance—involved in matters that affect IHL. For example, the current US campaign in Yemen is separate from the conflict, but we must consider the use of drones. The same is true in places such as Pakistan and Somalia. The all-party group on drones set up an inquiry into the use of drones, and there are concerns about British involvement in US strikes in Yemen. It has been reported that there has been UK assistance with intelligence sharing, information triangulation and the tracking of informants, via the base in Yorkshire.

The German High Court recently found that at least some of the US drone strikes are unlawful and that Germany has an obligation to protect the Yemeni plaintiffs’ right to life. The German Government also have a legal obligation to establish a mechanism to ensure that any assistance to the US adheres to IHL. I therefore hope that, when the Minister responds to the debate, he will say whether the UK Government have looked at the German High Court ruling on the US strikes and at whether they need to develop a policy or position on that. Are the Government comfortable that we could not be in the same position, given our role in Yemen?

I have three precise asks for the Minister. First, will the Government assure Members that they have considered the German case and assessed its legal implications for the UK? Secondly, as part of the forthcoming UK protection of civilians strategy, will there be a clear mandate and commitment to the protection of civilians, and specific guidance on the use of explosive weapons in urban areas and in partnerships? Finally, through our position as a penholder on civil protection at the UN, we have a unique opportunity to lead a global recommitment to civilian protection in UN forums—I know that is something to which the Minister would wish to commit.

We have a crisis of great magnitude on our hands. When up to 85% of war casualties are civilians, it is clear that the laws of war—distinction, proportionality, necessity and precaution—are being disregarded on a large scale. The time to act is now.