Protecting Civilians in Conflict

18th June 2019

Andrew Mitchell speaks in a debate entitled International Humanitarian Law: Protecting Civilians in Conflict.

It is a pleasure to speak for the first time under your benign sway, Mr Bone. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (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.

With regard to Syria, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the UK Government should also be keeping records of the Russians involved, so that they too may be held to account?

I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman; he is quite right, and the Minister will have noticed what he said.

Of today’s major and emerging crises, the vast majority—Syria, Yemen, Libya, Myanmar, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Venezuela and Xinjiang—are driven, at least in part, by the deliberate violent targeting of civilian groups by political elites. Just as the decision was taken 70 years ago, in recognition that modern war was changing, to create a convention that aimed to protect civilians during the time of war, so we must admit today that more is needed.

Mr Bone, you will have heard the Queen’s wonderful words in her toast at the banquet for President Trump. She said this:

“After the shared sacrifices of the Second World War, Britain and the United States worked with other allies to build an assembly of international institutions, to ensure that the horrors of conflict would never be repeated. While the world has changed, we are forever mindful of the original purpose of these structures: nations working together to safeguard a hard won peace.”

It is incredibly important to support international structures, particularly the UN—I draw the Minister’s attention to the comments in the House yesterday on the urgent question on Iran—and to use international bodies that were built up in the aftermath of the second world war.

The Government’s ongoing review of the UK’s protection of civilians strategy provides a welcome opportunity to ensure that British policy is fit for the challenges of modern conflict. It is, as the Minister will appreciate, an opportunity to ensure that any new strategy is in line with the substantial progress made in related areas since the previous strategy was published by the coalition Government in 2010 and last reviewed in 2012—namely, the UK’s growing commitment to the prevention of mass atrocities.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that in developing the strategy, it is important that the UK shows clear leadership—for example, by appointing an ambassador in that area to deliver Britain’s message to the UN and globally about the protection of civilians?

That is true. Of course, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Britain has a highly effective ambassador who can do that work.

Introducing a concept of “preventing while protecting” into national frameworks of civilian protection would raise the ambition from not targeting civilians to an active commitment to save lives. Any modern protection of civilians framework should prioritise the capacity to assess emerging and long-term risks of atrocities, including horizon scanning, the mapping of actors and interests, and contingency planning.

Any commitment to protect civilians from armed conflict and atrocities must be consistent. I have spoken out on many occasions against what is happening in Yemen and the role of the British Government, which I think is not in the right place. I greatly welcome the Foreign Secretary’s change of emphasis on Yemen, and the fact that his first act as Foreign Secretary was to go to both Tehran and Riyadh to try and bring that appalling conflict to a close. Nevertheless, the British Government are complicit in what is happening in Yemen, and we await the judgment of the Court of Appeal—probably on Thursday—on the issue of arms sales by Britain to Saudi Arabia.

I have never called for an arms embargo, because I understand that Saudi Arabia is a country surrounded by enemies, with the wealth to purchase arms, and a British arms embargo will not protect the children who suffer from the aerial bombardment of Yemen by the Saudi air force—at least, not any time in the near future. However, the way in which Saudi Arabia has pursued its policy against Yemen has united huge numbers of us against what is effectively the bombardment and blockade of a nation, which is causing a medieval famine, with the break-up of infrastructure leading to the prevalence of diseases that we have not seen in Europe for generations. Of course, that is radicalising thousands of young Yemenis, who know from where that appalling destruction is coming.

It was a low point in a low war when, last year, we saw that school bus hit by coalition bombs. Some 40 children were murdered, and we saw the pictures of them in their UN blue smocks and satchels. I stood, some time ago now, in the funeral parlour bombed—during a funeral ceremony—by coalition aircraft; 180 people were killed, with the plane coming around again for a second attack. That was a breach of international humanitarian law, and I hope the pilot responsible for that will be held to account in the same way as the others I have mentioned.

While the UK can and must play a role through all its internationally facing Departments to help prevent these dreadful crimes and innocent loss of life, we can and must uphold the same values here at home. The UK must never be a haven for those who commit atrocities, war crimes and genocide. We must uphold our responsibilities to victims and prosecute subjects who reach our shores. In that context, I wish to draw the House’s attention to the fact that five alleged Rwandan genocidaires remain free, wandering around the British Isles, three at least claiming British benefits. They have not been held to account for the alleged crimes that they committed and perpetrated during the Rwandan genocide. Britain’s judicial system, which of course is entirely separate from politics, declined to extradite those five back to Rwanda, where they could have faced justice along with hundreds of thousands of others. There is therefore an onus on the British judicial system—our laws—to ensure that those people are held to account in this country if they are not to be extradited.

I draw that to the Minister’s attention. It is not a direct Foreign Office matter, but I can tell him this: it is not the Rwandan system of justice that is in the dock today, but the British system of justice, for not delivering justice to the many people in Rwanda who allegedly suffered at the hands of those five genocidaires. I hope it will not be too long before the British judicial and legal system holds them to proper account, for their sakes, as well as for those in Rwanda who allegedly suffered at their hands.



Andrew Mitchell MP speaking in Westminster Hall on Protecting Civilians in Conflict