Westminster Hall: International Humanitarian Law: Protecting Civilians in Conflict

Yesterday morning, Mark responded on behalf of the Government to a Westminster Hall debate called by Ann Clwyd MP regarding the continued importance of international humanitarian law in protecting civilians in conflict. Mark's response to the debate is pasted below and can be viewed in the above clip. You can find the debate on Hansard in its entirety here.


The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

I am grateful, as I am sure we all are, to the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) for securing this debate, and to all other right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions. I shall try, in the course of a slightly longer speech, to respond to all the points raised.

As the right hon. Lady said, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) reiterated, this year marks the 70th anniversary of the Geneva conventions, which were designed, after the terror and the horror of the second world war, to serve as a founding pillar of what we know today as international humanitarian law. They represent a clear affirmation that the principles of international humanitarian law are both neutral and universally recognised.

Today’s motion rightly highlights the central place of IHL in international efforts to protect civilians affected by conflict in our world today. There is little doubt that, as conflicts become increasingly complex, IHL will become ever more important and will expand as a body of law. Its underlying principles—the distinction between civilians, those hors de combat and combatants; the principle of necessity and the prohibition on the infliction of unnecessary suffering; the principle of proportionality; the observance of precautions in attack; and the principle of humanity—are all clear and unambiguous.

However, as many speakers have rightly pointed out, the nature of conflict is changing. Too often, the distinction between combatants and civilians, between a target that is legitimate and one that is not, has become blurred. Too often, civilians, including aid workers, are deliberately targeted. In almost all modern wars, it is not the combatants who suffer most, but the civilians. Indeed, as a number of hon. Members brought up, current patterns of violent conflict worldwide show that 90% of all casualties today are civilian. As urbanisation increases, the International Committee of the Red Cross has reported that there are

“some 50 million people worldwide affected by armed conflict in cities.”​

The changing nature of conflict presents challenges for states such as the United Kingdom and our allies, who seek to provide humanitarian assistance and make a positive contribution to preserving international peace and security, and to ending conflict, including, where necessary, through military action. The UK Government are committed to facing those challenges, because we all take very seriously our commitments to international humanitarian law and to the protection of civilians in our operations and in the humanitarian contexts where we provide assistance.

Adherence to IHL is a paramount consideration in our approach to conflict, and when we encounter potential violations, we strongly support engaging the appropriate mechanisms to deal with them, while ensuring that we have a domestic legal framework that makes certain that our armed forces are fully accountable. A number of hon. Members will recognise that the Ministry of Defence has an important part to play in some of the questions I will come to in a moment or two, and those really relate to that Government Department.

The UK military is at pains to operate to the highest standards. It closely monitors and verifies the impact of our military activity. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield rightly pointed out that the increased use of social media provides a mechanism for not only the long-term maintenance of evidence, but, on a day-to-day basis, a recognition of where military or other individuals have gone beyond what is acceptable.

The protection of civilians is and will remain a central pillar of the UK’s approach to our humanitarian efforts and to managing conflict. It has been pointed out that we have played a leading role in the UN Security Council over 20 years in developing that international approach. If I might respond to what my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) said earlier, South Africa is currently the African nation on the Security Council, but Tunisia will join, and I very much hope it will play an important part in this, given the recent conflicts that have taken place there.

My hon. Friend will perhaps be aware that the Asian nations currently on the Security Council—Indonesia and Vietnam—have made questions around peacekeeping and the rights of combatants and civilians in war an important part of what they hope to achieve. I hope we will work together with those countries and others in the UN Security Council to raise the profile of many of those issues during the next two years and beyond.

To coincide with the 20th anniversary of the first resolution on this issue, we are undertaking a review of our approach to the protection of civilians in armed conflict, to ensure that it is fit for purpose in the context of modern conflicts and that it addresses all civilians, including children and other particularly vulnerable people, which goes to the heart of the point made by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire—

Martin Docherty-Hughes (West Dunbartonshire) (SNP)


Mark Field

Sorry—West Dunbartonshire. The hon. Gentleman might well become the leader of the Liberal Democrat party if I am not careful.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD)

Nominations are closed.

Martin Docherty-Hughes

I think I’ll pass.

Mark Field 

I think the hon. Gentleman has a supporter in the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake).

The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire made a good point about recognising issues around disability, children and other groups. We do not want simply to look upon civilians as a single group, and part of what we are trying to achieve here is focused on what I think is a public demand on all these matters.

Our approach to the review embraces a cross-Whitehall consultation, as proposed by the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley, as well as consultations with civil society—we have made reference to Save the Children, but a number of other charities will play an important part in the review. When completed, we hope it will contain an agreed Government-wide position that will take account of all Government Departments.

To demonstrate what that means in practice, I will focus on three main areas: our international engagement, our work on international peacekeeping, and our domestic activity to promote and uphold international humanitarian law. On the international stage, as a number of hon. Members have pointed out, our permanent seat on the UN Security Council bestows on us an important responsibility to protect civilians and uphold IHL, whenever and wherever international peace and security are under threat. We have not shied away from those responsibilities.

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

In terms of the review, is the Minister aware that the World Bank has changed from a system of trying to put out today’s fires to one of trying to identify what fires will occur tomorrow and to prevent them? Should we not adopt something similar for the UN?

Mark Field

To an extent, I agree. Obviously, predictions of the future are always fraught with difficulty; a number of the conflicts I am going to touch on now might have been predictable 10 or 15 years ago, but others have arisen unexpectedly. We need a flexible system, but there is some sense in having that forward-looking approach at the UN as well as at the World Bank.

In Iraq, the UK has been at the forefront of efforts to ensure accountability for the crimes committed by Daesh, the so-called Islamic State. Through a Security Council resolution adopted in 2017, we helped to establish a UN investigative team to support the Iraqi Government in the collection, preservation and storage of evidence linked to Daesh crimes.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield pointed out on Syria, we co-sponsored the UN General Assembly resolution in December 2016 that established the international impartial and independent mechanism for Syria, which was designed to deliver accountability for horrific atrocities, including the deliberate targeting of civilians and the use of chemical weapons.

On Myanmar, the UK was the penholder at the UN Security Council that co-sponsored the creation of the UN fact-finding mission, which concluded that ethnic cleansing had been carried out against the Rohingya by the Myanmar military and could amount to genocide. We worked in the UN Human Rights Council to establish a unique investigative mechanism to collect and preserve evidence of atrocities for future prosecutions, recognising—tragically, I am afraid, in certain cases—that those who need to be brought to account will possibly remain in ​office for many years to come. None the less, we have a reliable and legally watertight mechanism to hold them to account. I would like to think that our country has played a leadership role, but, of course, we do not do this alone; we work with like-minded partners to address conflict situations, such as in Sudan, Yemen, Libya and the horn of Africa.

Let me come on to some of the contributions made in the debate. Risks around serious or major violations of international humanitarian law, or abuse of human rights, are a key part of our assessment against the IHL consolidation criteria. In relation to arms exports, a licence will not be issued to any country if so to do would be inconsistent with any provision of the mandatory criteria, including where we assess that there is a clear risk that arms might be used in the commission of a serious violation of IHL. The situation is kept under careful and continual review. We examine every application rigorously, on a case-by-case basis. That applies in Yemen, with Saudi Arabia, but also in many other walks. The test is designed to be forward looking. A licence will not be issued to Saudi Arabia or any other country if to do so would be inconsistent with any provision of the consolidated EU or national arms export licensing criteria.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab)

On arms exports, unless there is proper end-use management—which we do not do—we cannot be confident in the assertions that the Minister makes.

Mark Field

I was coming on to that very point. I know it is one that the right hon. Lady made earlier.

Mr Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con)

While the Minister is collecting points to come on to, does he agree that it is not a good idea for investigations into breaches of international humanitarian law to be undertaken by one of the parties to the conflict, namely Saudi Arabia? Is it not better to agree that, under UN auspices, any such inquiries should be neutral? Otherwise, it is akin to a student marking their own homework.

Mark Field

I wish I had homework that I could mark these days—it is more my children’s homework that I have to do that with now. My right hon. Friend makes a valid point. Above all, the issue is less to do with whether that is desirable, and more about the credibility in the international community of such outcomes. He makes a fair point.

To return to the point made by the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley, the operational end-use monitoring and the establishment of a dedicated civilian casualty mitigation and investigation team are an MOD lead. I will ensure that her speech is passed to my friends over in that Department, although I am sure they are well aware of the concerns raised here today. The issue relates to operations in the field and is therefore an MOD matter. From our side, we are trying to improve data collection, as I referred to, in other parts of the world. We feel that that may have an important part of play. There is project underway with the University of Manchester looking at many of these related issues, and I hope the right hon. Lady will be able to feed into that.​

The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), who is no longer in his place, made a point about child soldiers. The UK is firmly committed to ending the recruitment and use of child soldiers and to the protection of all children affected by armed conflict. We are an active member of the United Nations Security Council working group on children and armed conflict. I believe it will be an important part of the Indonesian presidency next year that they want to address this terrible issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Henley talked about Africa, and I have discussed the Security Council issues a little. Uganda, Senegal and Ghana—I am not sure they are all on his hit list, and I have put them in reverse alphabetical order—are working with the US and other countries, looking at positive reform of the International Criminal Court. We would obviously like to see more activity in Africa, given the prevalence of concerns that have arisen from that part of the world, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out.

The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington made an important point about drones, their legality and the implications of the German High Court ruling. The MOD leads on this, but we will look closely at that German High Court ruling. Upholding IHL is already integral to any assistance that we would provide to other states. This matter is under review at the moment through the MOD.

Tom Brake

On that point, I and other Members here today would like something in writing from the Minister, once those discussions have been completed.

Mark Field

I am happy to undertake to do that.

I want to talk about the challenges that our UN peacekeepers face. In today’s modern conflicts, missions are facing increasing asymmetric and physical threats, and they can be targets themselves. The importance of finding political solutions remains paramount. We are committed to improvements in peacekeeping. We will continue to call for support to improve the three Ps of peacekeeping—planning, pledges and performance—as we, along with 63 nations, set out in a communiqué at the 2016 UN peacekeeping Defence ministerial meeting in London.

I realise that time is getting tight, and if there are matters that I have not been able to bring up, I will respond in writing. I will make sure my team looks through the Hansard transcript.

A key approach is that there should be no impunity. Primary responsibility for investigation and prosecution of the most serious international crimes rests with states themselves, but where those states are unable or unwilling to fulfil their responsibilities, other justice mechanisms, such as the International Criminal Court, have an important role to play. The UK remains one of the foremost contributors to the ICC, and we will work to ensure that the court undergoes the necessary reforms to enable it to fulfil its mandate as the court of last resort, as intended under the Rome statute. We have been strong advocates of ad hoc and hybrid international tribunals, such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and its successor, as well as the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and the Residual Special Court for Sierra Leone.​

UN peacekeeping is an important aspect of the protection of civilians, and we will continue to work with the international community on it. In addition to our international efforts, we are working domestically to ensure that we are doing all we can to uphold IHL in the interests of protecting civilians. We have established a centre of excellence for human security, which will deliver extended training on the protection of civilians; women, peace and security; human trafficking and sexual exploitation; and cultural property protection. Ours is the first military in the world to have a dedicated national defence policy on human security. The centre will help other militaries. We have also had a safe schools declaration, to support the continuation of education during armed conflict, and the publication of our “Voluntary Report on the Implementation of International Humanitarian Law at Domestic Level”.

Mr Bone, I appreciate that you want to ensure that the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley has a moment to speak at the end of the debate, but, if I may, I want to conclude by saying that our support, recognised, I think, by everyone in the House, for the principles, rules and instruments of international humanitarian law remains unwavering. The robust framework is designed with the protection of civilians in mind. We take our responsibilities seriously, and I am glad that the House feels as strongly as we do. The review is under way, and I am convinced it will be a great success, not least because it will have input from Members here and from a range of bodies with these interests at heart. I hope we can discuss these matters again in the House before too long.