HL Deb 24 January 2002 vol 630 cc1572-4

3.24 p.m.

Earl Attlee asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is the status, with respect to the Geneva Conventions, of Taliban and Al'Qaeda militants captured in Afghanistan.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the status of each detainee under international humanitarian law—the law of armed conflict—has to be considered in the light of the facts of the individual case. We do not have all the facts. The bottom line is that, whatever their status, they are entitled to humane treatment and, if prosecuted, a fair trial.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. I remind the House that I have a peripheral interest. World security and stability is paramount. Her Majesty's Government are not at fault in this problem, but does the Minister agree that compliance with the conventions is morally and legally right? Does she further agree that any perception that we are not committed to full compliance could result in our military opponents failing to surrender at the earliest possible moment and members of Her Majesty's Armed Forces not enjoying convention rights themselves?

Baroness Amos:

My Lords, we have made our position absolutely clear. We have said that the detainees are entitled to humane treatment under international law. The Americans have said very clearly that the detainees will be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention. That statement was repeated yesterday by the US Secretary of State for Defense. As to the position of our military opponents, I cannot speak for the opposition forces in Afghanistan. It is important for us to ensure that the consensus we have built up for dealing with international terrorism is maintained and we must be sensitive to the concerns expressed. That is why we have made it absolutely clear that humane treatment is the bottom line.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, is right in regard to perceptions being important and that the concerns raised in the national press and by various commentators need to be taken very seriously? Does she further agree that the best way to ensure that they are taken seriously is to ensure that the Red Cross and British officials continue to have access to those prisoners in order to reassure the international media and the public in general that provisions are continuing to be made for those prisoners?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the ICRC has permanent representation at Guantanamo Bay. It has unlimited access and is due to make a confidential report to the US authorities. It is important that the House should remember and recognise that the ICRC is an independent organisation. In that respect, my noble friend and the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, are right—the comments of an independent organisation such as the ICRC about treatment at Guantanamo Bay are very important. As to the three British detainees, the House will know that a team of diplomats went to Guantanamo Bay and spoke to them.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, the news of an upgrade in status and conditions at Camp X-Ray is welcome. Does the Minister agree—I am sure she does—that these are very dangerous men? One of them, apparently, tried to bite through the cables in the DC-9 he was brought over in in order to crash it; another has bitten a guard; and two others are suspected of being the people who bit to death the CIA agent in Mazar-i Sharif. So Washington and the United States are fully justified in treating these potential terrorist criminals with the greatest care. Would not the right line be to encourage the Americans to sort out who are criminals and who are prisoners of war, establish their status as soon as possible and then return them to the nations from which they came, where relevant? In the mean time, they could give a full understanding that in Cuba they are dealing with intensely dangerous and, in some cases, maniacal individuals.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. We have always said that these are high security prisoners and therefore there are security needs which have to be maintained in Guantanamo Bay. At the same time, it is important that we should recognise what the US authorities are doing. They have said that they intend to, and will, treat the detainees in accordance with the principles of the Geneva Convention. It is important that that is recognised.

With regard to the noble Lord's other questions, yes, I accept that it is important that the status of the detainees is clarified; we are in constant contact with the US authorities in relation to the matter. Once their status is clarified, we can make decisions as to the next step.

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