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Chemical Weapons

Volume 130: debated on Wednesday 30 March 1988

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5.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what progress has been made towards the conclusion of a treaty dealing with the manufacture, deployment and use of chemical weapons; and if he will make a statement.

Encouraging progress has been made at the chemical weapons negotiations in Geneva. However, complex issues remain to be dealt with, particularly on verification and arrangements for an international inspectorate, if we are to achieve an effective convention. I met Mr. Karpov, chief Soviet arms negotiator, on Monday and discussed this issue.

After the impetus to try to secure a treaty in the past two years, is it not regrettable that there has now been a slow-down? Given the reports of the atrocities in the Iran-Iraq war, is it not more important to stem the dangers of proliferation than to pursue perfection in verification? What is the attitude of Her Majesty's Government to the verification proposals in the draft United States treaty?

Verification between East and West is important because of the complexities involved in the interrelationship between military complexes and the civil chemical industry. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have been taking a lead in Geneva in tabling proposals on verification. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is a matter not just between East and West, but one that concerns a number of other countries,; and the lamentable use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war makes it clear to all of us that we should try to achieve a global ban. That is what we are working for. I cannot pretend that there are not difficulties that will be overcome only after a long time.

Will my hon. and learned Friend assure the House that, in the councils of the world, when we discuss chemical warfare we make it clear that we disapprove of the transfer of technology, materials and weapons to grossly irresponsible nations, such as those involved in the Iran-Iraq war, and that we shall do our best to ensure that neither side—East nor West—supplies those sorts of countries with such weapons?

Everyone would welcome any progress that can be made towards a ban on chemical and biological weapons. Does the Minister agree, however, that although he is right to condemn the use of chemical weapons against the Kurdish people in Iraq, one problem has been that the British Government have maintained diplomatic relationships with both Iran and Iraq, and not very long ago extended a £200 million credit to the Government of Iraq, enabling them to prop up their economy and continue the prosecution of the war? Would it not be better if we withdrew all trade, aid and credits to both Iran and Iraq as a way of bringing to an end the war and the use of chemical weapons in the region?

I think that that would be an entirely self-defeating exercise. The fact that we have diplomatic relations with Iraq, for example, has made possible a wide range of contacts, to the mutual benefit of both countries, and enabled us to play a constructive part in the efforts of the United Nations to try to bring the Gulf war to an end. As recently as yesterday it enabled a deputy undersecretary at the Foreign Office to see the Iraqi ambassador, to protest in strong terms about the use of chemical weapons, and to ask that his protest be reported back at the highest level in Baghdad. Without diplomatic relations, such exchanges would not be possible. The best way to stop the use of chemical weapons is to continue to protest through the channels available to us, as well as maintaining the present embargo to try to prevent any materials from Britain getting through that could be used in making such weapons.

The Government have done exceptional work in the chemical weapons talks in Geneva. Nevertheless, does my hon. and learned Friend agree that it would be a great mistake to allow the chemical weapons talks to be sidetracked by other, seemingly more important, talks? Bearing in mind the importance of dealing with these appalling weapons, it is essential that we get a meaningful treaty as soon as possible.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The NATO priorities embrace four sets of talks, and the chemical weapons talks are among them. We would all agree — especially as chemical weapons represent a worldwide problem and not one confined to East-West relations—that the sooner we make progress, the better.

Does not the foot-dragging of the super-powers on talks aimed at a chemical weapons treaty lead inexorably towards further proliferation of these obscene weapons? Last week we saw evidence of mass deaths caused by cyanide gas in Iraqi Kurdistan—away from all the television cameras and lights that we are so used to in other parts of the world. That is an outrage, not only against humanity, but one that reflects the complacent inactivity of the great powers of the world. Why are we not so moved by the atrocities — as we are by so many others that appear on our television screens — that we take the great leap of political will which alone will free the world from these atrocious and horrifying weapons?

I certainly agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, but I have some comments to make to him. It now seems clear that chemical weapons were used by Iraq against its own Kurdish population and the Iranian invaders. That use was contrary to international obligations entered into by Iraq, so we must not be too simplistic about the matter. Much as I would welcome a convention, the mere fact of its existence would not necessarily mean that countries such as Iraq would sign it; and, even if they signed it, they would not necessarily adhere to it.

On the hon. Gentleman's point about the super-powers, I assure the House that we do not wish there to be foot-dragging and we do not believe that there is any. Every year we table a number of papers designed in a non-propagandist way to make progress. We must not underestimate the number of genuine issues that need to be resolved, such as the number of chemical weapons, the possibility of inspection, and the need to contain the prospect of a breakout, which could come through concealed work in the civil chemical industry. All these are genuine and substantive matters that cannot be wished away and will, I am afraid, take time to sort out.