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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 10:22 am on 18th June 2019.

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Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Industries of the Future and Blockchain Technologies) 10:22 am, 18th June 2019

It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Bone. I thank Ann Clwyd for securing this debate. I associate myself with the words of Mr Mitchell, who gave a clear and precise overview of the dreadful conflict in Yemen and the impact on civilians, and with those of Tom Brake, who talked about the impact of technology—especially drones. I agree, as I usually do on this matter, with John Howell, who spoke about Ukraine and the Russian state’s interference in and occupation of Donbass.

An example of how we need to review IHL in the context of the changing nature of warfare is the targeting of the infrastructure of the Estonian state through cyber-warfare in 2007. Government institutions were unable to deliver civilian—public—services after that direct attack on the civilian population. However, I do not think that could happen today, given that Estonians are leaders in the field of cyber-warfare.

It is important to commemorate and remember those who brought about the fourth Geneva convention. We should be thankful that we are able to be here today to discuss its 70th anniversary and the work that was done in the light of the horrors of the second world war. It is clear that IHL is a solid and extensive legal framework for protecting civilians in conflict. Nevertheless, the protection it affords is in many ways inherently qualified. It is clear from the evidence that the failure is due not to the law itself, but to the persistent failure to comply with those obligations. IHL has proven to be a practical, durable and adaptable framework for providing passive protection for civilians in the midst of conflict, but that inherent qualification means that we must review it in the light of changing technologies and methods of warfare.

There have been elements of failure. The genocide in Srebrenica in 1995 and the genocide of the Tutsis in 1994 made it clear that we need to ask ourselves consistently how valuable and effective the framework is. In the light of the increase in civilian casualties, which was well documented by the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley, we must redouble our efforts proactively to protect civilians in a range of spheres. I hope the Minister will say something about that later. Civilians must be protected not just on the frontline in Syria or Idlib, but in the cyber-sphere. I am a member of the Defence Committee, and I note that NATO has thankfully recognised the importance of making civilian protection a key element of operational planning, and has published a protection of civilians strategy.

I have three questions for the Minister. First, although the UK seems to have been slow in following NATO’s moves on the protection of civilians in operational planning, will he assure Members that the Government are moving in the same direction as our NATO allies? If he is unable to furnish us with that answer, will he ask the Ministry of Defence to write to Members?

Secondly, do the Government recognise that investment is required to respond to the specific needs and vulnerabilities of different groups—specifically, women, children, the disabled and the elderly? Finally, does the Minister agree that the continued abuse of the Security Council veto undermines not just IHL but the rule of international law itself?