15 March 2022
Andrew Mitchell urges seamless approach to humanitarian response to Ukraine

Speaking in a debate on Ukraine, Andrew Mitchell highlights the need for a seamless approach to the humanitarian response where all of Europe and NATO share the burden of the frontline states, highlights that there will be no impunity for war crimes, and warns that Russia will use humanitarian corridors to advance its military strategy.

Mr Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con)

I draw the House’s attention to my outside interests as set out in the register.

It is a huge pleasure to follow the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) and the very sensible speech she has just made, which underlines the unity across the House in facing this extraordinary and unjustifiable aggression by a member of the permanent five at the United Nations, tearing up 75 years of the international rules-based system and in contravention of everything that the UN has said and stood for and of the growth of international law.

Everyone in the House and the country will be haunted by the plight of the refugees. It is impossible to find words to set that out or explain it, but for many of us it will be the little girl, aged 10, terrified, her eyes wide with fear, clutching her cat as she came over the border from Ukraine. We must hope, as William Hague so eloquently said in The Times today, that

“a hollow structure…will lose its reputation and respect very quickly when its thieving and selfish reality is revealed to its own people. That may take months or years, but Putin’s henchmen would be well advised to start thinking about their escape route to Pyongyang.”

The whole House will agree with our former colleague. The Chinese today referred to the invasion as an “irreversible mistake”, and many of us this afternoon have saluted the extraordinary bravery within Russia of ordinary people standing up to this bullying maniac. I strongly support and congratulate the Government, particularly the Ministry of Defence, on giving the Ukrainians hope and some military muscle without starting world war three and on co-ordinating economic sanctions and the economic isolation of Russia across the western world and across European states.

I mainly want to talk about the humanitarian position, on which there is no need to look in our crystal ball; we can read the book of what happened in Syria. The House may recall that Jo Cox and I co-chaired the all-party parliamentary group for friends of Syria and held more than two emergency debates in the House.

If we want to know what the Russians will do to those cities in great peril in Ukraine, we need look no further than what they did in Aleppo, one of the great cities of the world, which, as the Nazis did in Guernica in 1937, they bombed back to the stone age. There were also indiscriminate attacks on hospitals. Let us imagine the bravery of the men and women, doctors and clinicians, who are working in hospitals in Ukraine and who know from Syria exactly what fate may await them. There were also massive breaches of the rules of war and of international humanitarian law.

Let us make no mistake about the danger of the use of chemical weapons, which was greatly enhanced when President Obama told the Russians that, if they used chemical weapons, they would cross a red line and action would be taken yet, when they did cross that line, no action was taken. Let us also remember the sheer numbers of people who were on the move. In Syria, 5 million people were internally displaced and 5 million people were outside in the surrounding countries—that is 10 million people out of a population of 20 million. That shows the scale of what may now face us.

The critical thing in humanitarian terms is that there should be a seamless approach where all of Europe and NATO share the burden fairly with the frontline states, whether they are in or out of the European Union.

Bob Stewart 

Speaking as someone who has dealt practically with refugees and displaced persons, we should put our bureaux and our offices right at the border with Ukraine, perhaps in Poland. As people come across, we should be guiding them, helping them, protecting them and perhaps giving them some help to get to the UK or elsewhere. The European Union should be doing that—we should all be doing that—with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UNHCR.

Mr Mitchell 

My right hon. and gallant Friend, who made such a great speech earlier, is absolutely right. There should be total solidarity with the frontline states and our European friends and partners in tackling this extraordinary crisis.

My second point on the humanitarian position is that we must also underline that there will be no impunity. I remember that, in a National Security Council meeting on Syria, the Foreign Office committed to collecting evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity by individual Russian and Syrian soldiers inside Syria. We must go after all those not only who fire on civilians but who give the order to fire on civilians, no matter how long it takes and wherever they hide. In Bosnia, we showed that we could go after those murderous people. They must be caught and put before due process. The use of social media, of course, will make it much easier to get the evidence that will then defy impunity and to get the message across to ordinary Russian conscripts serving there—those who give the command and those who exercise the command—of the deep jeopardy that they will be in, no matter how long it takes, when this is all over.

My final point is to caution the House against any sense that the humanitarian corridors are likely to be much of an answer. I am afraid that, too often, they are not what they appear. There are huge dangers in apparently separating humanitarian from non-humanitarian space. By definition, they are geographically limited and they undermine obligations under international humanitarian law to allow civilians to reach safety from areas of fighting and the ability of aid to reach those in need.

We learned in Syria that Russia uses humanitarian corridors to advance its military strategy: it uses them cynically to distract and manipulate, and to empty an area for military gain rather than for humanitarian support. They create an illusory sense of security and should, in any event, be run by the ICRC. They are used as an instrument of public relations and not of humanitarian support. I caution hon. Members that they are not safe and are only a very small part of the answer.

We have heard calls this afternoon for NATO to be rejuvenated, and it is being. We have heard about the increased necessity of defence expenditure, which I entirely endorse. The words of the former Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), at the weekend were absolutely right. This is a terrible crisis. We must stand together on the economic sanctions and on the support for the Ukrainians, and we must hope that our former colleague, William Hague, is correct.