Skip to main content

Cluster Munitions

Volume 454: debated on Tuesday 5 December 2006

3. What assessment she has made of progress towards banning cluster munitions; and if she will make a statement. (107307)

8. What assessment she has made of progress towards banning cluster munitions; and if she will make a statement. (107312)

The United Kingdom raised the question of cluster munitions at the recent review conference on the convention of certain conventional weapons, and we secured an agreement to hold urgent expert-level discussions on their humanitarian impact. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East explained Government policy in a written ministerial statement issued yesterday.

In the 108 days since the ceasefire,177 people have been injured or killed by unexploded bomblets from cluster munitions in southern Lebanon. If casualties continue at the current rate, by 2007, when the Government’s proposed discussions are to take place, the figure will have risen to 500. Will the Minister make a commitment to hold truly urgent discussions with the Israeli Government regarding their violation of international law through their use of cluster bombs this summer?

The hon. Gentleman sets out clearly the nature of the problem. That is why the United Kingdom led the initiative at the recent CCW review conference for urgent discussions to take forward a comprehensive solution to the problem he describes so well. In addition, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary demonstrated on her recent visit to the area, the UK Government have provided financial assistance for the clearance of unexploded ordnance in southern Lebanon and we will continue to provide such assistance.

The Government have been trying to draw a clear distinction between smart and dumb cluster bombs—the latter of which they apparently disapprove of. Why then are they waiting until the middle of the next decade before ridding themselves of the large stockpile of dumb cluster munitions? Why not ditch them now?

I accept the implicit criticism in the hon. Gentleman’s observation about the distinction between smart and dumb weapons. However, the matter is not as clear cut as that. There is no internationally agreed definition. He has to face up to the fact that that weapons system, if used properly and in accordance with humanitarian law—that is, where there is no direct threat to the lives of civilians—is the most effective weapon for dealing with armour. He has to bear it in mind that, for example, if that weapons system was not available to British forces under threat from an armoured group, large amounts of high explosives would be required to deal with that threat, so there would be greater risk to the civilian population and greater risk of further damage to people in the area.

That is why it is appropriate to use this weapons system in accordance with humanitarian law, but at the same time to ensure that we take steps as best we can to reach an agreement internationally that, in particular, those weapons that cannot be properly targeted—those considered dumb, in the language that the hon. Gentleman uses—should not be used by any country.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, according to the Mines Advisory Group and a cross-party group that was in Lebanon last month, some 32.7 million sq m of land are infected and contaminated by cluster munitions? According to the Mines Advisory Group, if the Israelis were to give it grid references for the 1.2 million bombs that were let loose in the last three days of action, instead of three children dying a day, as is the case, the number would, it hopes, be much less. Will he use his good offices to ensure that we put sufficient pressure on the Israeli Government to move forward on this important issue?

My hon. Friend is quite right. We have repeatedly urged the Israeli Government to provide the UN with detailed maps and other help in locating unexploded cluster munitions in the area that he describes. There is, however, a very determined effort under way to clear that area of unexploded weapons. As I have already indicated, we have given significant financial help to that effort.

Although I understand my right hon. Friend’s assessment of the military capability of thoseweapons, does he understand that the humanitarian consequences are so vast that there is a requirement to move as quickly as possible? What assessment has he made of the progress and what chance does he think there is of reaching an international solution in the way that we did for land mines?

That is why the United Kingdom has adopted the approach that I set out. What is important is that we secure an international agreement in precisely the way that we did in relation to land mines, as my hon. Friend indicated. It is important that all countries move together as part of international law on this question. However, I emphasise that the United Kingdom’s use of that particular weapons system is always governed by humanitarian law.

But should not equal priority be given to removing the causesof conflict, which lead to the use of destructive armaments such as these and, for that matter, the 4,000 missiles that were rained down on Israeli towns and cities at the beginning of this conflict and which have a pretty contaminating and non-humanitarian impact on those who are on the receiving end of them?

Will the Minister give equal priority to supporting all those in the middle east who seek a peaceful solution, including the President of the Palestinian Authority and the Prime Minister of Israel? Would not a good start be made if there was an initial settlement that led to the release of the two hostages, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev?

Of course, my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, as I mentioned, were in the region very recently, as was my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East. So, a determined effort has been made by the Government, and will go on being made, to reduce the causes of conflict and to find a way back to a peace process.

I welcome what my right hon. Friend has to say and the written statement in particular. Does he agree that one thing that we could bring forth at the CCW conference in a year’s time would be a clear statement that we intend to publish details of our stocks of cluster munitions in the hope that all other countries do so? If that could be done, we would at least know the nature of the problem with which we are dealing.

I accept the point that my hon. Friend makes, but when trying to ensure that all countries respect international law, it is important that there is an international agreement. That is why we have taken the initiative, which I believe represents the best way forward. As other hon. and right hon. Members have said, the initiative is a route towards a comprehensive international ban.

In the past couple of weeks, we have begun a useful debate on this subject in Parliament, and I pay tribute to Landmine Action and others for the work that they do in this area.

May I press the Minister on his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie)? The right hon. Gentleman did not tell us why, if it is a matter of principle to get rid of dumb cluster munitions, it will take until the middle of the next decade for the British to do that. More generally, does not the Government’s distinction between dumb and smart cluster munitions ignore the reality that the smart bombs can have an unacceptably high failure rate of 10 per cent? Surely the bottom line is that we should be getting rid of all cluster munitions.

I am not going to give the hon. Gentleman and the House a lecture on the distinctions between dumb and smart weapons. One problem is that the word “smart” is generally used to refer to a guided weapon. Unfortunately, in this context, “smart” is also used to refer to the ability of this particular weapon to self-destruct if it has not exploded after a period of time.

A smart cluster bomb ought to be guided and should self-destruct after a period of time. However, I accept that the definitions are sometimes used imprecisely. I also accept that it is important that we move together with other countries to try to find a comprehensive way to resolve the problem. I do not wish to repeat all the points that I have made about the use of the weapons system, but I assure the House that the United Kingdom Government have only ever used such weapons fully in accordance with international law.

Has the Minister read research by Handicap International that demonstrates quite clearly that 98 per cent. of casualties from cluster munitions are civilians and that a third are children? Can he justify to the House how it is right that civilians should be allowed to go back to homes and fields that are clustered with explosive debris? Will he work with the International Committee of the Red Cross to try to overcome intransigence—especially on the part of the United States of America and Russia—over getting a ban on such munitions?

I am not even going to try to justifywhat my hon. Friend describes. It is appalling that children—or anyone—are damaged by such weapons when they fail to explode, because that is an indication that they have been used in circumstances in whichthe United Kingdom would not use them. It is important to emphasise that great care is taken by our commanders in the field to ensure that the provisions of humanitarian law are recognised and respected. By implication, my hon. Friend made clear the importance of getting a comprehensive international agreement on these weapons, which I emphasise.

In an effort not to be dumb, may I put one simple point to the Minister? As part of the Government’s efforts to achieve an international ban on cluster bombs, would it not assist if the UK gave them up first, thus taking the moral high ground? I remind him that while unilateral disarmament might not be the flavour of the month among those on the Treasury Bench at present, it might be a good idea during the negotiations.

As my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East did in yesterday’s written ministerial statement, I have made it clear that the Government’s intention is to phase out a certain kind of these systems—I say that without repeating the word used by the hon. Gentleman. I agree with him to the extent that it is important that we lead the way on that. However, equally, it is vital that we use the existing framework that is available to all countries that own and use those systems, and that there is a comprehensive agreement. Kofi Annan has made it clear that the parties should use the existing CCW framework, and that is the approach on which the United Kingdom Government have led the way.