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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 10:09 am on 18th June 2019.

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Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Conservative, Sutton Coldfield 10:09 am, 18th June 2019

It is a pleasure to speak for the first time under your benign sway, Mr Bone. I congratulate Ann Clwyd on securing the debate and on her wonderful speech. There are many issues that are before us today where there is a political division, but I submit that on humanitarian issues, the House of Commons ought to be absolutely united on what the ground rules are. Today gives us an opportunity to honour and thank those who so often put their lives in harm’s way when trying to help in the humanitarian space that we are discussing.

It is worth remembering that before the second world war, there was no specific international legal norm that aimed to protect civilians in conflicts. Philippe Sands’s outstanding book “East West Street”, which was published last year, sets out clearly the way in which history was changed after that. The horrors experienced by civilians all over the world during that war prompted the international community to adopt, in 1949, the fourth Geneva convention on the protection of civilian persons in time of war.

My submission is that today, 70 years on, our generation is facing its own crisis of civilian protection. Gareth Evans at the United Nations made great progress on the responsibility to protect—R2P—in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda and, indeed, events in Europe. My submission today is that the responsibility to protect remains an absolutely critical international doctrine, but that it is a skeleton, and there is far too little flesh on the bones of R2P and what it means to protect civilians.

Recently, in what was widely regarded as ethnic cleansing, we saw the appalling events that took place for the Rohingya in Rakhine state. The Minister, who we are glad to see in his place, has taken a leadership role in trying to protect the people caught up in that. Threats to civilians are worsening and becoming more complex, more urban and more protracted, but perhaps the major challenge facing civilian protection today is the rise in deliberate identity-based targeting of civilian populations, not as a by-product of war but as a distinct objective. Those crimes and atrocities are abhorrent in their own right, and they can also lead to the outbreak of armed conflicts. The eight-year crisis in Syria, for example, was propelled by the deliberate perpetration of atrocities by the state, leading to protracted armed conflict and a hellish cycle of intentional violence against civilian groups by different perpetrators.

Many hon. Members will have seen the work being done by Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a distinguished former military officer. I had the opportunity to hear from him today, just after his return from the middle east where he advises the Idlib Health Directorate of the most up-to-date circumstances in Syria and particularly Idlib. He says this:

“Nearly 700 civilians killed this year and 500,000” internally displaced people

“in Idlib many without homes living in the open and off scraps and evidence of another chemical attack. There have been 29 attacks on hospitals by Russian and Syrian aircraft with many now out of commission. A handful of hospitals and doctors are now trying to care for 3 million civilians…Because we have done nothing to prevent this atrocity the crimes against humanity of attacking hospitals and the use of chemical weapons, this will haunt us much longer than the Syrian conflict. People in Idlib, who I speak to on a regular basis, feel completely let down by the West—we might be prepared to act against Iran for attacking an oil tanker but nothing to help the humanitarian disaster in Idlib?!”

I submit that we should be seeking to name and shame the aircraft attacking those hospitals, and provide evidence to the International Criminal Court for future prosecutions. As the Minister knows, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has sought protect evidence of breaches of international humanitarian law in Syria. The advent of mobile phone technology means that we can collect evidence of the atrocities. In Khartoum, Sudan, mobile phone pictures have been taken of individual soldiers committing atrocities, breaking international humanitarian law. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that in Syria, where there is a long-standing FCO operation, and in Khartoum, Sudan, we are collecting that evidence and we will make sure that it is used to bring international justice to those who have perpetrated those atrocities.

On that point, I remind the Minister that General Bashir, currently in jail in Khartoum, has been for many years the subject of an indictment through the International Criminal Court. We expect the British Government to do everything in their power to ensure that that warrant is executed.