HL Deb 08 April 2003 vol 647 cc132-4

2.56 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether prisoners of war taken in Iraq will be treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach)

My Lords, the Government have long made plain that they will act in conformity with international law. The taking of prisoners of war is a recognised and legitimate means of reducing an enemy's strength and fighting capacity. Iraqi military personnel who fall into the hands of United Kingdom forces are prisoners of war and therefore will be treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I am most grateful for that reply from the Minister. However, perhaps I may ask him about the position of those who are known as "unlawful combatants" and who may be paramilitaries of one form or another. Does the Minister agree that those people fall under Article 5 of the third Geneva Convention, to which the United Kingdom is a signatory, and should therefore, as in the first Gulf War, be brought before a competent tribunal to determine their status? Can the Minister assure us that neither POWs nor this group of people will in any circumstances be sent to Guantanamo Bay?

Lord Bach

My Lords, if such people are taken into the custody of the United Kingdom forces, they will be treated under the terms of humanitarian law and will of course be looked after both humanely and safely. If they are passed on to another coalition partner—for example, the United States—to be guarded, then an arrangement is in place between the coalition forces that the following will happen. First, there will be no transfer outside the borders of Iraq without the consent of the detaining power, which will in those circumstances be the United Kingdom. Secondly, jurisdiction will be exclusive to the detaining power—at least for events that occurred before their first detention. Thirdly, as the noble Baroness suggests, where there is any doubt about their status—sometimes there may be no doubt about it either way—the United Kingdom may well have to convene tribunals.

Lord Vivian

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how many Iraqi prisoners of war are being detained by British forces and how long it will take to process them and to record their relevant details in accordance with the Geneva Conventions? In addition, how many British troops are required to guard and protect them and what amount of food, water and medical supplies are allocated to them in accordance with the Geneva Conventions?

Lord Bach

My Lords, as of this morning, the United Kingdom forces were guarding more than 6,500 coalition prisoners. They are being held in the United Kingdom divisional compound in Iraq, and UK forces are deployed to guard the prisoners of war. The numbers depend on the circumstances in force at the time. Therefore, I hope that the noble Lord will understand if I do not give more precise details.

We are processing the prisoners as fast as possible; the Red Crescent is content with the action that we are taking in that regard. Prisoners are of course being given sufficient food, water and access to the medical facilities that they require.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, I am sure that all views about the war, whether favourable or critical, converge in pressing for every aspect of the Geneva Convention to be applied. Does the Minister agree that it is vital at this stage of the war that we are seen to be applying every aspect of the convention to all prisoners of war, regardless of various grey shades of identity? Does he further agree that the recent response of the Secretary of State for Defence to a question on "Newsnight"— I'm not saying where they would go to, because we have not decided that"— is, although understandable in the circumstances, perhaps less than satisfactory?

Lord Bach

My Lords, with great respect to the right reverend Prelate, I do not agree that that is unsatisfactory. We are still considering the issues concerning prisoners of war and others; that needs extremely delicate handling. Of course, if they are within our jurisdiction, as it were, they will remain so and we will make the decisions about them.

Of course we hope that the conflict will end sooner rather than later and that prisoners of war can return to their homes.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, the other day the Minister gave in his Statement a figure of 9,000 prisoners of war. Today's figure is 6,500. Will he explain the discrepancy?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving me that opportunity. It is clear that the response that I gave did not contain the right figure; there was confusion about that. As soon as that came to my notice, I wrote to the relevant Front-Benchers on all sides of the House, and to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, and placed a copy in the Library of the House containing the true figures. I apologise for having given that figure last Thursday but, of course, the figures change every day.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, will the Government give some priority to Kuwaiti prisoners of war and those missing in action since the previous Gulf War?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am delighted that that question has been asked, because it is one matter about which the Iraqi regime has been asked ever since the first Gulf War ended. I believe that there are 600 Kuwaiti prisoners whose whereabouts are completely unknown. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Iraqi regime has done absolutely nothing to assist the Kuwaiti authorities on that matter. We shall certainly be looking into that as matters develop.

Lord Monson

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that it would be contrary to international law for coalition forces to imprison unarmed civilians merely because they happen to belong to a certain political party?

Lord Bach

My Lords, merely because they happen to belong to a particular political party? Yes, of course that would be unlawful. But we have the power to capture and detain combatants and others who pose a direct threat to United Kingdom forces or whose continued liberty poses a threat to our overall mission. If one or other of those requirements is met, we are entitled under international law to detain them.