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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 10:26 am on 18th June 2019.

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Photo of Khalid Mahmood Khalid Mahmood Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) (Europe) 10:26 am, 18th June 2019

The royal town of Sutton Coldfield—it is close to Birmingham; that is as far as I will go. The right hon. Gentleman certainly made a great contribution during his tenure as Secretary of State for International Development. Tom Brake was the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for international development from 2002, and has done great work since then, particularly as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on drones.

Today, we are celebrating the Geneva convention, which was created almost 70 years ago. It was a skilful piece of drafting of international law that sought to move forward from the severity of what we had suffered during the two world wars. We decided to bring nations together to look at how we could continue to operate. It was adopted by the United Nations Security Council, and everybody welcomed that.

I am not sure people realised when it was put together 70 years ago how much worse the situation would become. The implementation of that international law was a great achievement, but who knew how tragic things would become in the past 50 years? Certainly, since the start of the century, that great legislation has been set aside and people have suffered. We must address that. Great speeches have been made today by all the Members who took part, and they raised valid points. What we must consider is how to move forward and get implementation. Members have expressed positive ways of looking at the issue, and it has sometimes been the collective failure of Governments that means we have not moved far enough forward.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley set out a clear understanding of the convention of 70 years ago, with its definition, purpose and importance. The protection of children is fundamentally important, and that has been true for my right hon. Friend in the work she has done. As to how we move forward, she raised interesting issues about attacks on civilian facilities and other acts counter to the convention, which need to be considered. She rightly said that attacks have intensified since 2000 and continue to do so, and referred to the non-state actors that have increasingly played a part in the past almost 20 years. I hope that we can try to address those issues and how they arise.

John Howell raised a key point about Ukraine, on which he does a phenomenal amount of work—as well as on eastern Europe generally. His role is important, because sometimes, when there are wider issues such as what is currently happening in places such as Yemen and Syria, there is a need to recognise what is going on in our back yard. The hon. Gentleman raised the complex issue of Gaza and how to resolve that and move forward. He made a fundamentally important point about conflict in Africa—the number of deaths, and the part to be played by African nations and individuals. He also mentioned the conflict in Yemen, and the roles of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Sometimes we tend to pick sides in conflicts but, if we are to serve the people and be bound by the Geneva convention, we must not be bound by individual preferences as to what side we are on. We should be on the side of the victims.

The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington has played a huge role, particularly with the all-party parliamentary group on drones. He believes in the importance of that work. It includes the issue of accountability in the use of drones, and the way people see them—sometimes we put such things to the back of our minds—as being part of a military mechanism. That suggests to me other areas where we take action and may say, “If we just have air attacks and nothing on the ground, that is much safer.” It is not. When strikes begin to be made from above there will be mistakes, because those concerned will not know in which building or area people are concentrated. There have been attacks on Syria and Iraq where a huge number of people have been lost, and people have been killed in Yemen, because of air attacks alone. We go into such arenas and it is always said that technically we can do whatever we want and that it will limit casualties, but we must realise that, as has been said, that is not accurate. We need to take a serious look at how to deal with that issue and whether such action, or any action perpetrating additional acts of war, makes sense. We must look at our role and how to move forward. The right hon. Gentleman also raised the German legal action, and it is a great example that I am sure the Minister will address.

I think that the Minister has taken note of the issues raised by Martin Docherty-Hughes, and particularly what he said about women, children and people with disabilities, which is important. It is the purpose of the Geneva convention to resolve those things, and we have not done enough to address some of them. There are some issues that Save the Children want to encourage the Government to look at, to see how they can be dealt with. They include the importance of child-specific expertise in peace support and military operations. How can we cater for that, and record those issues? Several Members have referred to committing to avoiding the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, which is another key thing we should continue to push for when we take sides and support military action. Members have also mentioned what Save the Children says about creating civilian harm tracking procedures, and we should strongly focus on that.

As for improving and championing accountability for violation of children’s rights, it is difficult for us to get full accountability and a full assessment of what happens on the ground. However, as the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield said, where there are people—in particular the people in question from Rwanda—who have committed genocide and have still not been held accountable, and who are still walking around in the United Kingdom, never mind anywhere else, we should be looking to hold them to account, and thinking about how to do that.