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Chemical Weapons: Discussions With Usa

Volume 413: debated on Thursday 23 October 1980

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3.23 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what decision has been reached in discussions with representatives of the United States on the production of chemical weapons.

My Lords, as I have told the House before, the Government view with increasing concern the Soviet Union's offensive chemical warfare capability. We have no plans for acquiring an offensive capability of our own, but we cannot ignore the issues raised by the existence of the Soviet stocks. We have, therefore, encouraged discussion of these important issues. No decisions have been called for from these continuing exchanges.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that there is already an international convention limiting the use of chemical weapons, and that 10 years ago both the United States of America and the Soviet Union stopped producing them? Is it not also the case that hardline evidence about Soviet stockpiling of chemical weapons is very flimsy as is also evidence of their use of nerve gas in Afghanistan? In view of the fact that there is no definite evidence of these charges, is not this premature action?

My Lords, I am not certain to what international convention the noble Lord refers. I would very much doubt whether we in this country would believe that the Soviet Union has not produced chemical weapons in the last 10 years. On the last part of the noble Lord's question, I would agree with him that there is no completely irrefutable evidence of the use of these weapons, but of their possession by the Soviet Union we are in no doubt.

My Lords, can my noble friend say it is the opinion of the Supreme Allied Command Headquarters in NATO, that if, alas!, an offensive should be staged by the Soviet Union, they are quite convinced at headquarters that chemical warfare will result? In view of that, is it not vital that NATO, or in particular the Americans, have adequate stocks of chemical warfare to use as a deterrent against the Soviets using them?

My Lords, my noble friend referred to precisely the kind of misgivings that have been expressed on a number of occasions by a number of people in this country, including myself at this Dispatch Box. These are precisely the issues that we are addressing at the present time.

My Lords, is it not the case that the cruelty, appalling suffering and injury to combatants and non-combatants inherent in the use of chemical warfare have long ago led to the prohibition of its use, both in customary law and in a number of existing international instruments, like more than one Hague Convention and more than one treaty? Is not there now a case for pressing for an international convention, first, for the prohibition of the manufacture of chemical and bacteriological weapons and, secondly, for the destruction of any stockpiles of these commodities that already exist? Should not an effort be made towards achieving this convention?

My Lords, I do not think that I would disagree with anything that the noble and learned Lord has said. May I remind him—and I have said it on a number of occasions here and I would not wish to bore the House—that the United Kingdom is committed to seeking an arms control solution of this problem. We have backed that policy with initiatives. In 1976 the United Kingdom tabled a draft text in the Committee on Disarmament to assist in those negotiations. That draft text would have proscribed not just the use of chemical weapons but, as the noble Lord says, their possession. Of course the difficulty in getting any agreement with Soviet Russia on any of these issues is the problem of the Soviet Union accepting adequate verification. Most of these agreements are meaningless unless you have some means of ensuring that the other side is sticking to them.

My Lords, can the noble Lord tell us whether the use of chemical weapons has ever produced a battle casualty rate to compare with that produced by the musket in the Napoleonic wars? In point of fact, in this nuclear age are not artificial distinctions as to weapons a little absurd?

My Lords, I would defer to the noble Lord in his knowledge of military history. However, I have to say two things to him. I have to say, first, that it is hard to believe that the Soviet Union would bother to possess these weapons unless they had at least given consideration to the possibility of using them. That being so, I should also like to tell him that we have a very good defensive capability against people using these weapons. But the problem is that if you have to put on what are commonly known as "Noddy" suits, your ability to perform is considerably degraded and, therefore, you are at a grave disadvantage vis-à-vis those on the other side.

My Lords, will the noble Lord confirm that the United States' Government has published a number of documents confirming the possession of these weapons by the Soviet Union? Will the noble Lord arrange for copies of those documents to be obtained and placed in the Library of the House? Secondly, can he confirm that reports have appeared that chemical weapons have not only been used in Afghanistan but have been stockpiled in Ethiopia for use against the Eritrean Peoples' Liberation Front? Will he obtain copies of any evidence to that effect and also place it in the Library of the House?

My Lords, I do not think that I could go quite so far as to give an undertaking to assemble all this information, but I certainly hear what the noble Lord has said. Indeed, it is perfectly true that there have been a number of allegations at various times. I shall try to discover exactly how solid the evidence is.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there would be a very considerable body of support among those experts in this matter that Her Majesty's Government will not waste very scarce defence funds on the resumption of production by ourselves of these rather inefficient weapons?

My Lords, I am sure that the House is grateful for that intervention, coming as it does from someone with the authority of the noble and gallant Lord. Again, this is clearly one of the considerations that would have to be borne in mind in addressing this very difficult problem.

My Lords, does not the Minister's last answer but two virtually admit that there is no real defence against nerve gases? Is not the most significant international reform now required the total disarmament provided for under the Final Act of the special session of 1978? Will the Government give their wholehearted attention to making that policy effective and accepted within an early future?

My Lords, I have to repeat that we remain committed to the notion of this kind of disarmament if agreement could be reached. We continue to exert every effort in that direction. The problem is, I repeat, persuading the other side to permit the necessary measures of verification. So far as the first half of the noble Lord's question is concerned, I think it is an exaggeration to say that there is no defence. We have good defensive equipment which certainly gives some measure of protection.

My Lords, would the Minister tell the House whether it is true that in conditions approaching parity most staff studies say that the use of chemical warfare is unprofitable?

My Lords, I take it that the noble Lord is referring to the parity in nuclear weaponry?

My Lords, there is no question of parity between ourselves and the Soviet Union so far as chemical warfare capability is concerned. This is exactly the problem, as I have been trying to explain to the House. We do not have any offensive capability. Because we have no offensive capability and the other side do, there has to be a temptation to them under certain circumstances to exercise the advantage that they enjoy. We regard that as a very unhappy state of affairs.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the United States has an offensive capability?

My Lords, the United States has a very antiquated capability, and the capability of that capability is questionable, to say the least.

My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether he can confirm or deny the report that a Pentagon agency has urged the establishment of a British base for Bigeye 15 nerve gas bombs? Is he conscious of the opposition in Europe, particularly in Western Germany, to reverting to chemical weapons while this matter is being discussed at the Geneva committee?

My Lords, if I understand the noble Lord correctly he is suggesting that we might he asked to stockpile American chemical weapons in this country. If that is so, that has not arisen, and it is a hypothetical situation with which I can hardly deal this afternoon.