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Freedom of Religion or Belief — [Ms Karen Buck in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:02 pm on 12th March 2020.

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Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham 2:02 pm, 12th March 2020

Thank you, Ms Buck. It is a pleasure to be here today. I have spoken about freedom of religion or belief before. Of course, any decent society believes that freedom of religion is a basic human right. The problem is that I have been to many places where it is not a basic human right.

From the Bishop of Truro’s report, I know that 80% of persecution for religious reasons is against Christians. I am neutral, however, because in Bosnia I saw Roman Catholics attacking Orthodox Christians and Muslims, Muslims attacking Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics, and Orthodox Christians attacking both other sides. What they carried out was often a crime against humanity—it was definitely ethnic cleansing—and it was sometimes genocide. The fact of the matter is that those terms are relative. For the poor devils suffering, it does not matter what it is called: they are dying.

In my experience, I have seen far too many people dying for religion. It is not really about religion, but people often use it as an excuse. Unfortunately, when I was the UN commander in Bosnia, I came across many instances of various sides doing foul deeds to the others. However, there is a good reason—I will come to it later—to refer to what happened on 22 April 1993, when I was in a village called Ahmići. As the British UN commander, I was checking the village for bodies with my soldiers. We came to a house halfway down and could not find any bodies, because people had been killed and thrown into the houses. The houses had been torched and their roofs had fallen down, so we could not get through to the bodies.

In one house that we came to, a soldier said, “Over here, sir.” I was on the road through the village. First, I went to the front door. There was a man’s burned body and a boy’s burned body. They had obviously been shot and then someone had thrown petrol or something over them. We knew they had been shot because we were standing on shell cases. Round the back, however, was worse. When I went into the cellar, I could not really see at first what was in front of me—I just could not believe it. Then my eyes focused and I recognised a head bent back, I suspect in agony. There were other burned bodies. Then the smell came, because this had happened six days earlier. I could not believe it. My men and I rushed out. Some wept; others puked. We could not believe what we were seeing.

The reason I am telling this story is that I received an email this morning from a guy called Thomas Osorio, who was the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights at the time—27 years ago—and who I worked with on the ground. In the email, he tells me that the people whom I had found that day—they have been held in a morgue for 27 years because of a failure to identify them—have now been identified. I will repeat their names: Sabika Naser Ahmic, 30 years old; Husnije Zehnadina Ahmic, 28, who was presumably the mum; Arnaut Zedina Elvis Ahmic, eight; Naser Suhreta Ahmic, six; Naser Sejo Ahmic, three months. Theirs are the bodies I found in that cellar 27 years ago. They were Muslims and had been killed by Croats who were Roman Catholic and who used the excuse of people being Muslim to kill them. It was an excuse.

I have to say that I was in such shock afterwards that I did not really know what to do. After consultation with my second-in-command on the radio, I decided to run a press conference and broadcast it to the world by saying, “This is what I found. In my view, this is a crime against humanity.” Later I discovered that it was actually genocide. By definition, genocide is the deliberate act of clearing out a whole group of people. In this case, it was the Muslims in the village of Ahmići. Other houses were untouched. Guess what? In those houses lived Roman Catholics.

I did not really know what had happened, but my intelligence cell suggested that they had done a cordon-and-sweep operation. In other words, they had made a box around the village using soldiers with machine guns. From the bottom, in a straight line, they had systematically gone through each house. When they had driven people out of the houses, they either killed them there and then by throwing them into the houses, or they let them run into the machine guns.

I do not know how we could have stopped it. One of the questions I might ask Jim Shannon is how the hell can we stop this sort of thing happening. Our blathering on in Parliament is all very well, but what will the Foreign Office do about it? How will the Minister stop that? He is a very good friend of mine and is looking at me intently, but that question is impossible to answer. How do we do it?