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Cluster Munitions

Volume 535: debated on Wednesday 9 November 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Newmark.)

I have sought this debate because I am very concerned at current moves within the UN convention on certain conventional weapons to adopt a new protocol that would ban some older and less sophisticated cluster munitions, but allow continued use of some weapons that are the most dangerous to civilians. This would be a major step backwards, as it would effectively undermine the convention on cluster munitions that prohibits ownership, manufacture and transfer of all cluster weapons, because they all kill and maim civilian children, women and men when they are used. Some 111 states have now joined this treaty, which requires a complete ban.

However, before I rehearse my argument on that issue, it might help if I take a step back and look at what cluster munitions are, what they do and whom they do it to, and describe how the convention on cluster munitions was achieved and what has happened since to take its provisions forward. Cluster munitions are air-dropped or ground-launched shells that eject multiple smaller sub-munitions or bomblets. Some have been developed for use against runways, armour and even electrical transmission systems to locate a specific type of target. However, their primary purpose in most circumstances in which they are used is to kill people—ostensibly enemy combatants, but in practice many others as well.

Cluster bombs can contain variable numbers of sub-munitions, but most often that means very large numbers. Each sub-munition contains explosives, a copper cone, a pre-stressed fragmentation sheath and an incendiary sponge. The main bomb breaks open in mid-air and the bomblets are released, effectively carpet-bombing an area the size of two or three football fields. Anybody within that area—military or civilian—is likely to be torn apart. Tragically, in conflict after conflict, because of where they have been used, many of the victims of that weaponry—even at the time of attack—have been innocent children, women and men who were non-combatants.

However, that is only the first part of the story. There is a longer-term impact, because many of the bomblets do not work properly. They fail to explode on immediate impact and are left on the ground after the end of hostilities, to be trodden on by farmers returning to their fields, pulled up when families are cleaning rubble from their damaged homes, or even picked up as playthings by children attracted by their shape and shine. They remain lethal.

Cluster weapons date back to the second world war, but were used most extensively by the United States in the Vietnam war, where villages were carpet-bombed with cluster munitions. In fact, in Vietnam the US sometimes employed cluster bombs that were designed not to explode on impact. They were called area denial ordnance, and when they were dropped they were effectively land-mining an area from the sky. That was deliberate, of course; but all too often ever since, the result of using cluster munitions has not been too different.

Revulsion at what cluster munitions were doing to the ordinary people of Vietnam led in the early 1970s to calls for an international treaty. In 1974, Algeria, Austria, Egypt, Lebanon, Mali, Mauritania, Mexico, Norway, Sudan, Sweden, Switzerland, Venezuela and Yugoslavia jointly put forward a document that included a section headed “Anti-personnel fragmentation weapons”. It said:

“Anti-personnel cluster warheads or other devices with many bomblets, which act through the ejection of a greater number of small-calibred fragments or pellets to be prohibited for use”.

Sadly, that initiative got nowhere at that time and the people of Vietnam are still living with the aftermath of that mass cluster bombing, 40 years later. Even now, every year, hundreds of Vietnamese civilians are killed or injured by American sub-munitions from cluster bombs dropped all that time ago. Some 22 countries have been affected by cluster munition contamination, with particular problems of unexploded ordnance in Indo-China, Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon.

Having visited southern Lebanon myself shortly after the ceasefire took place and after the Israelis had carried out a massive sowing of cluster munitions, I can say to the hon. Gentleman that he is absolutely right to point out the terrible dangers to men, women and children from these awful weapons, which are primarily used with the aim of, and have the effect of, killing and maiming civilians.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that contribution. He is absolutely right, and I shall say a little about what happened in Lebanon.

In 2006, the charity Handicap International produced a report documenting more than 10,000 known civilian casualties from cluster munitions, but it believed that the true figure could be as much as 10 times as high as that. What there can be no doubt about is that cluster munitions have caused excessive and disproportionate harm to civilians in every conflict in which they have been used over the past 40 years. People across the world realised this, especially when they saw on their television screens the use of millions of these weapons by the state of Israel against Lebanon and the consequences for its people. Sixty per cent. of Israeli cluster strikes were in built-up areas, with the inevitable impact on innocent human life. At the end of the conflict it was estimated that there could have been as many as a million unexploded cluster sub-munitions littering roads, schools, wells, houses, gardens and fields, taking their toll on the Lebanese population. A clean-up operation continues, in which the UK Department for International Development is playing a valuable and important role, but that, we should not forget, is a diversion of development aid money from other humanitarian projects.

At the end of that conflict, cluster munitions, as an issue, had gone up the political agenda across the face of the planet. Civil society was brilliantly organised by the Cluster Munition Coalition of more than 350 organisations in more than 100 countries. They found politicians who were willing to listen, ready to be convinced and prepared to act. From 2000 until 2007 attempts had been made to negotiate on cluster munitions at the UN convention on certain conventional weapons, and this had been blocked every time by the United States and others. When in 2006 a mandate to negotiate an instrument on cluster munitions, proposed by 27 states, was again prevented, Norway and the other countries involved decided to go outside the UN to move the issue forward.

That was the start of what became known as the Oslo process, starting with a conference in that city in February 2007. In doing that, Norway was following the example of Canada, which had used the same approach in securing the landmine treaty 10 years earlier. The Oslo process was quite remarkable. By getting people and their Governments to address the impact of cluster munitions, we saw quite radical changes of position over about a year, not least in this country.

On 23 November 2006, I secured an Adjournment debate in the Chamber on cluster munitions in which I urged the then Labour Government to play a leading role in the Oslo process and to take the initiative by announcing the UK’s intention to renounce all cluster munitions. The then Minister of State, Ministry of Defence who responded described cluster munitions as

“lawful weapons that provide a unique capability against certain types of legitimate target”,

and went on to say:

“Our military commanders judge the degree of force to employ to achieve the mission, subject always to strict compliance with international humanitarian law. We believe that that is a sufficiently adequate body of law. It puts considerable constraints on the use of cluster munitions.”

He added that

“a total ban on the use of all types of sub-munition would have an adverse impact on the UK’s operational effectiveness.”—[Official Report, 23 November 2006; Vol. 453, c. 802.]

If all those countries have signed the letter asking for these munitions not to be used, what action does the hon. Gentleman think should be taken against the manufacturers, because that is where the key lies? If they cannot sell them, they will not manufacture them.

In the 111 countries that are signatories to the Oslo convention on cluster munitions, manufacturing, stockpiling or transferring them is clearly illegal and states should act against such practices. Our problem is the countries that want to hang on to their cluster munitions, such as the United States, Russia and China in particular. That is the point of my debate. I think that they are trying to use the convention in the UN to enable them to hang on to the munitions, and I will move on to that point later.

In November 2006 the Labour Government’s position was that we need cluster munitions, but by May 2008 the previous Prime Minister was in Dublin arguing very effectively with Ministers from other states for a total ban. An historic agreement was struck on 28 May to establish the convention that now has 111 members, and more are joining as time goes on.

Let us think about that. Many people knew that the issue of cluster munitions needed to be addressed for at least the last third of the 20th century and the first few years of this century. In just five years, remarkable progress had been made and continues to be made. The convention on cluster munitions that came out of the Oslo process is now in its second year of implementation and its momentum remains strong. There were two new accessions in September and three new ratifications. The same month saw Lebanon host the second meeting of states parties to the convention, in which 34 countries that have not yet signed the convention participated. That is a dynamic that I think needs to be encouraged.

That is what worries me about what the United States and others are now proposing. Having blocked use of the UN convention on certain conventional weapons for years, they have proposed a draft protocol that would ban certain cluster munitions produced before 1980. It is due to be debated between 14 and 25 November in Geneva. There are three possible outcomes: adoption of the draft protocol, ending negotiations with no result, or the adoption of a political agreement that is not legally binding but allows interim steps.

My objective is to urge the Government actively to resist adoption of the protocol. In doing so, and in fairness, I want to recognise the commitment of the Government, like their predecessors, to a complete ban as espoused in the convention on cluster munitions. I do not doubt Ministers’ respect for its integrity or their keenness to get every country to join. However, from written answers to questions I have tabled, and from what colleagues and I picked up in a meeting on Monday with the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), I am worried that the Department may be in danger of making an error of judgment. I put it no more strongly that that, because I know that deliberations are ongoing.

My concern is that the Government feel that the Oslo process has stalled and that, therefore, any initiative that allows non-signatories to the CCM to commit to some renunciation of some cluster weapons is welcome because it might allow more progress towards the goal that all Members of the House want to see: a global cluster munitions ban. I understand that thinking but am convinced that it is quite wrong for a number of reasons. The proposed protocol seriously risks encouraging greater use of cluster munitions that have been banned by most countries because it would remove the current stigma that has been developing against the use of cluster munitions—the same stigma developed with landmines, with very positive results. Some welcome the protocol because it would allow a red light for certain old cluster weapons, which would mean the removal of more of those weapons, but there is a reverse side to the coin.

First, when we say that only some munitions are unacceptable, implicitly we are saying that others are acceptable, which means that they get the green light. For the draft protocol, that would mean the United States’ BLU-97 getting the okay. That is the cluster bomb that caused such civilian suffering in Serbia and Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Amazingly, it would also give the okay to the Israeli M85, which was responsible for the slaughter in Lebanon. That cannot be a step forward.

Secondly, the protocol would also hamper efforts to achieve universal adherence to the convention on cluster munitions. The states that want the protocol want it to avoid making progress on the CCM, not to facilitate it. Thirdly, banning cluster munitions is increasingly making military sense, because they do not deliver. That is why 22 of the 28 NATO states have banned them.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate and admire the passion with which he presents his case. Does he think that the UK’s position, given the role that the previous Prime Minister played in the Oslo convention, is looked at with particular significance by other nations?

The role of the UK Government in Geneva could be critical. It is vital that they show a strength of will against what the United States and others are trying to do to protect the integrity of the current convention.

The draft protocol is not compatible or complementary with the convention on cluster munitions. The latter bans these weapons; the former allows for their use, production and transfer. The proposed protocol would—as I believe it is designed to do—undermine the convention on cluster munitions that came out of the Oslo process. It would set up a rival legal framework for cluster weapons under the auspices of the UN and would not remove a single weapon likely to be used in conflict. All the weapons banned would be 40 years old by the time the protocol required their removal, and they would be ready for decommissioning anyway. However, the draft protocol would legitimise the use of much more dangerous cluster weapons. It would be a body blow for the approach that drove the Oslo process, which was a humanitarian-centred partnership between civil society and Government that is a valuable model for future progress on multilateral disarmament.

The draft protocol contradicts existing international humanitarian law and is not the best way to engage with existing states that have stockpiles of cluster munitions. The International Committee of the Red Cross has pointed out that if it is established, this protocol would set a highly negative precedent. It would be the first time in history that international humanitarian law has moved backwards. I urge the Government, whatever they do, to resist this protocol. It will not move us forward; quite the opposite, it will take us back and reverse so much that has been achieved in the past five years.

I understand the Government’s desire to find ways to encourage recalcitrant states to begin the process of decommissioning cluster munitions. The best way to do that is by encouraging the development of a political declaration or plan of action stating that intention, rather than by creating an alternative international legal edifice that threatens our existing convention, which, in fairness, is delivering within a pretty speedy time frame. The draft protocol is not about cluster munitions disarmament; it is a fig leaf behind which the US, China, Russia and others intend to hide, so that they can continue to rely on dangerous, indiscriminate ordnance that will kill more innocent civilians if we let them get away with it.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Gower (Martin Caton) on securing the debate and on the way he has for some years in this place consistently championed the cause of eliminating cluster munitions from the world. He has been tireless in drawing the matter to the House’s attention and in insisting that it should be high on the political agenda of successive Governments. I also want to acknowledge the presence here and contributions of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) and my hon. Friends the Members for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) and for Wells (Tessa Munt).

I start by stating unequivocally that the UK and the Government remain fully committed to the objective of ridding the world entirely of cluster munitions. As the hon. Member for Gower said, the UK was one of the original 46 states to join the negotiating process for a convention to prohibit the use, development, production, acquisition, stockpiling and transfer of such munitions. Those negotiations ultimately led to the coming into force of the convention on cluster munitions.

It is fair to say that the previous Government and previous Prime Minister are entitled to take pride in the part that they played in that. I remember speaking from the Opposition Front Bench when the Bill that became the Cluster Munitions (Prohibitions) Act 2010 was going through its stages in the House of Commons. I am glad that that legislation was taken through without amendment and with almost universal cross-party support.

The 2010 Act paved the way for this country to ratify the convention, enabling us to become the 32nd state party to the convention in November last year. It comprehensively implemented in UK law the obligations set out in the convention and it prohibited activity including the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of cluster munitions from taking place within the UK, and by any UK national wherever in the world they might be. The Act also established appropriate penalties and enforcement mechanisms, up to a 14-year prison sentence.

The convention on cluster munitions is rightly recognised as one of the most significant disarmament treaties of recent years. It is a great testament to what can be achieved by states and non-governmental organisations working together. I want to make it absolutely clear that, for this Government, the convention remains the gold standard for work on cluster munitions—the standard that we want all countries to aspire to and to accept and to which this country is determined to adhere.

We take our obligations under the convention very seriously. Immediately after signing the convention in May 2008, the United Kingdom withdrew all cluster munitions from operational service. That represented some 38 million sub-munitions. The United Kingdom then began the active destruction of these stockpiles in anticipation of ratification. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that so far we have already destroyed nearly two thirds of those stockpiles, or some 25 million sub-munitions. Under current plans, it is our intention to destroy the remainder by the end of 2013, or five years ahead of the deadline imposed by the CCM. This represents an early and dedicated effort to realise as quickly as possible, and in a safe, secure and environmentally responsible manner, our obligation to destroy munitions that are prohibited by the convention. We have shared the experience that we have gained and the lessons learned from that stockpile destruction programme with other signatories, and those countries have appreciated that advice and assistance.

At the same time, we have played a full role in delivering on our treaty obligations regarding international co-operation and assistance. Between 2010 and 2013, the United Kingdom will spend more than £30 million on mine action work. This includes the clearance of unexploded ordnance, including cluster munitions, around the world. In addition to this programme, we have allocated significant additional funding for mine action work in Afghanistan and Libya. The provision of this assistance is based on our published mine action strategy, which includes three main objectives: first, to release land affected by the explosive remnants of war so that it can make a measurable contribution to the socio-economic development of affected communities; secondly, to help Governments to take full responsibility for their national mine action programmes; and thirdly, to improve value for money in mine action.

With this strategy, we are concentrating our support on the states in greatest need. As recognised in the Vientiane action plan agreed at the first meeting of the states party to the convention on cluster munitions, the United Kingdom believes that particular attention should be paid to the world’s poorest, least developed states. Our strategy therefore gives priority to work that helps those countries first. Specific examples of assistance programmes include £27 million for two partners—the Mines Advisory Group and the HALO Trust—principally for operations in Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Laos, Mozambique, South Sudan and Vietnam; and a further £5 million granted to the UN Voluntary Trust Fund that is supporting mine action in countries including Afghanistan, Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Laos and Mozambique. We are fully committed to international co-operation and assistance. In just six months of our sponsored projects starting in Cambodia, Laos, Mozambique and Vietnam, 2.5 million square metres of land considered a high priority by those Governments for their national planning purposes had been cleared and returned to communities for productive use.

In addition to these efforts, the Government are fully committed to seeking a global ban on cluster munitions. That is a Government priority, and we continue to promote the universalisation of the CCM during all relevant bilateral meetings, as well as in multilateral forums.

Most recently, the UK, in partnership with non-governmental organisations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, hosted a workshop for Commonwealth countries, which was opened by my noble friend Lord Howell. The UK remains fully committed to the convention on cluster munitions and to a world free of cluster munitions. That is the standard we shall adhere to, that all states should aspire to and that we will continue to promote.

We cannot ignore the fact that, as the hon. Gentleman said, according to some estimates, 85% to 90% of the world’s stockpiles of cluster munitions are held by countries that are not parties to the Oslo agreements and to the convention. Nor can we ignore the fact that, sadly, there is little prospect of the non-Oslo states becoming parties to the convention on cluster munitions any time soon. That is a matter of profound regret. We continue to urge those countries, from the greatest to the smallest, to move forward and join the CCM.

It is in that context that negotiations have been under way for some time for a draft protocol VI on cluster munitions, within the convention on certain conventional weapons. The UK, along with the vast majority of signatories to the convention on cluster munitions, has participated constructively in those negotiations, but it has done so with a clear objective. We are determined to ensure that any protocol on cluster munitions that emerges from the talks for adoption by the CCW parties is complementary to and does not contradict the rights and obligations of states parties to the convention on cluster munitions. We also want to ensure that the additional humanitarian benefit that any proposed protocol would deliver is significant and demonstrable.

We think that working with the world’s major producers and users of cluster munitions towards a full prohibition—I emphasise that last phrase—is entirely consistent with our obligations under the CCM and that it would be irresponsible of us to refuse to engage with the countries that we wish to persuade to move towards adoption and implementation of the CCM, but which have so far refused to do so.

I can see that the Government might be able to find a form of words that does not apparently contradict the CCM. However, these countries obviously will not give us a protocol that includes a complete ban, so what will happen in practice is that a green light will be given to some of the worst munitions, such as the M85. In practice, if the protocol goes through, it will contradict the existing convention and it will be very dangerous.

Negotiations are under way and we have a seat at the table. I think that we are right to take part in those talks. However, we are a long way from seeing a protocol that we regard as worth debating or as acceptable in any way.

I will go into a little more detail. The negotiations on protocol VI have produced a draft protocol that would see states that agreed to be bound by it take on a legally binding obligation to prohibit the use of pre-1980 stocks of cluster munitions. We reckon that that could account for a third of the world’s stockpile of these munitions. The draft protocol, as it currently stands—of course, it may be subject to change—would also create obligations regarding victim assistance, clearance of cluster munition remnants and reporting on stockpiles.

Some of those things, of themselves, would be a step forward, but we are disappointed by the progress achieved during negotiations on a draft protocol VI. Our approach to those talks remains unchanged. We will participate in negotiations at the CCW review conference this month, with the aim of getting the best possible result, and we will be guided by our determination to deliver a significant humanitarian outcome and, crucially, not to undermine the progress made under the Oslo treaty. We will therefore continue to press the world’s users and producers to give up more, to be more transparent and to be explicit in their commitment to work towards a world entirely free of cluster munitions.

Given that negotiations are ongoing and this review is about to start, it would not be right for me to go into further detail about the UK’s negotiating position at the Geneva conference, or to speculate on what the outcome of those negotiations might be. I can tell the House that the UK will take a view based on whatever final draft protocol might result from the negotiations between the CCW parties, but the UK Government remain firm in their commitment to the integrity of the CCM, to maintaining it as the gold standard and to ensuring that nothing that might be agreed—it is hypothetical at the moment—for protocol VI to the CCW undermines or contradicts countries’ obligations under the CCM. That is how we propose to take things forward.

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).