19 JUN 2019

Speech on Intl Humanitarian Law

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). I thoroughly agreed with much of her speech, and I will comment on some of the things she said.

As the right hon. Lady pointed out, we are trying to deal with the effect of the Geneva convention and the protocols aimed at protecting civilians in conflict, but I was fascinated to read a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross that seemed to take that one stage further. I was actually quite shocked by the report, but it may reflect the reality of the situation. It stated that there is a level of harm to civilians that is acceptable. It set that out by reference to three key principles, including proportionality and precaution, but the idea was that there is a level of civilian casualties that is, as the report described it, acceptable "collateral damage".

The idea that a civilian building can have a military use as well as a civilian use brings me to my first point, which is related to the situation in Gaza. What do Israeli forces do when Hamas deliberately sets up its rockets in hospitals and schools? Do they simply turn away and do nothing, or do they accept, following the doctrine I have just set out, that they can take retaliatory action, in the full knowledge that there will be collateral damage—that real people will be killed? That is the first issue, which I raise to show that this whole business is not as simple as it should be.

The second area I want to deal with is Africa. In the past 20 years, there have been armed conflicts in Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d'Ivoire, Djibouti, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Liberia, Libya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda—that is probably not an exhaustive ​ list—but where are the African participants in the IHL debate, and where are the African participants at the UN trying to take this forward?

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP)

The hon. Gentleman is making a lot of sense, especially in what he says about collateral damage. War is war. Unfortunately, a lot of innocent people are caught up in it. Surely, the message must be that the sanctions that are applied to countries that carry it out need to be enforced. Rather than condemning, we should do something about it.

John Howell

I agree. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, which I may come to if I get that far in my speech.

Between 1990 and 2007, 88% of conflict deaths internationally happened in Africa. That may have changed subsequently, with a rise in the middle east, but it is significant that 88% of deaths happened in a continent that does not really participate in the IHL debate. Of course, that is mixed up with genocide—I think Rwanda was in that list of countries, and of course we saw a massive genocide there—but the idea of genocide developed at the same time as the fourth Geneva convention, so there is an opportunity to try to revise IHL to incorporate that and to recognise that things have developed in parallel over the years.

On the middle east, the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley mentioned Yemen. We debated Yemen recently in the main Chamber, so I will not cover it now, except to reinforce the points she made. However, I do not blame the Saudis alone; Iran has a lot to answer for with respect to its funding of the Houthis. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) said

"there are no good people in this conflict."—[Official Report, 23 May 2019; Vol. 660, c. 849.]

That is very true.

The last area I want to comment on is Europe. Europe is not exempt from violations of IHL. In my intervention on the right hon. Lady, I mentioned a prime example of defiance of IHL in the Russian-occupied area of Ukraine. That needs to be stated time and again. We in the Council of Europe need assistance from the Foreign Office so we can take a stand against the Russians and ensure, at the very least, that they give back the Ukrainian sailors they took. In the occupied bits of Ukraine, the Russians have attacked the Donetsk water filtration system, as I mentioned, which goes against everything the right hon. Lady said about trying to protect that for the benefit of individuals, and they have attacked 42 schools. Those were not schools where the Ukrainians were hiding rockets. This is not a Gaza situation. That was a deliberate attack on 42 schools, which we need to acknowledge.

What do we do about all this? First, we need to encourage more work by academics across Africa. I am aware that there is some activity in South Africa, but we need to encourage more Africans to carry out research and projects, which the Department for International Development may need to help fund. Above all, we need to ensure that the Geneva convention is enforceable. At the moment, it is characterised by a huge amount of non-compliance. We sit back and cross our arms and say how terrible that all is, but we do very little about it. We need to do something about it if we are to stop it happening.​

Lastly, we need to boost the amount of UN peacekeeping. Peacekeeping plays a vital role, and having peacekeepers on the ground is a good way of tackling this problem. I would love to see us argue for more peacekeeping, and more effective peacekeeping, throughout the world, wherever we can play our part.

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