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Chemical Weapons Convention

Volume 416: debated on Thursday 29 January 1981

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3.6 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 whether they will propose to the United Nations Disarmament Committee at Geneva that they give priority to the conclusion of an international convention to ban all chemical weapons, including nerve gas, and whether they will indicate their readiness to ratify such a convention without delay.

My Lords, the United Nations General Assembly has just adopted a resolution urging the Committee on Disarmament to continue negotiations on a chemical weapons convention as a matter of high priority. We supported this resolution. The Government remain committed to seek a comprehensive, effective and fully verifiable chemical weapons ban and will actively pursue this objective.

My Lords, while welcoming that Answer I should like to ask the Minister the following question: Is not the alternative to an international convention now very dangerous? Has that not been illustrated in recent speeches by our own Secretary of State for Defence, by the talks between officials—British and American—in New York, by the adoption by the Senate of a vote of 5 million dollars to build a plant for nerve gases and by its request to President Reagan to make a report on the production of nerve gas early this year?

My Lords, the prospect of the widespread or even the limited use of chemical weapons is, of course, an appalling one, as the noble Lord has said. But in considering our reaction to reports of manufacture of these facilities elsewhere we do, of course, need to bear in mind that the Soviet Union has a massive capability in this field.

My Lords, would the Minister care to remind the House that some years ago this country drafted a perfectly practical plan for the banning of chemical and allied weapons which was generally received as a very feasible proposal by the then members of the old Disarmament Committee in Geneva? Would he confirm that that draft is now with the Soviet Union and the United States Governments who have still to report upon its feasibility? Would he help to speed up the delivery of their comments to the present Disarmament Commission in Geneva, which would seem to most of us to be the quickest way of implementing what is already proven to be a perfectly practical plan for the banning of chemical weapons?

My Lords, it is indeed the case that since 1976, I think, there have been bilateral talks between the Soviet Union and the United States on this matter and that, indeed, the draft convention put forward by, I think, the noble Lord himself, is with them to assist them in their discussions. These bilateral discussions, which have taken place since 1976, have progressed very slowly, largely due to Soviet refusal to allow adequate verification.

My Lords, while fully supporting any attempt to get chemical weapons abolished by all parties, may I ask whether my noble friend would agree that, so long as Russia has this massive capability, our own troops ought to have chemical weapons themselves as a deterrent against use by the other side?

My Lords, that is a view, but we certainly have no plans at present to acquire chemical weapons, or the capability to produce them, or, indeed, to base them in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, with the indulgence of the House, may I ask the Minister to confirm, as a good augury for the proposals relating to chemical warfare, that the biological warfare test ban convention has been acceded to, ratified, I believe, by the vast majority of the members of the United Nations, and seems to be observed in practice by them? That is a very good augury for the success of the chemical warfare negotiations.

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right. The biological convention is, of course, now in force.

My Lords, arising out of this Question on chemical warfare and the supplementary question, in view of the fact that it is known that at least 25 per cent. of the Soviets' ammunition is equipped for delivering chemicals and even if we are not to have chemical weapons ourselves, what plans do the Government have for defending our own troops and civil population against the possible use of chemical weapons by the Soviets?

My Lords, I do not think that the House would wish me to go into the detail of our defensive dispositions in this matter, but I can assure the noble Lord that we have the matter very much in mind.

My Lords, will my noble friend not agree that, if, as we all hope, this ban may be possible to arrange in the comparatively near future, the ban by itself is no good? If it is to be a true ban, the chemical weapons which the Soviet Union possesses must be destroyed completely, otherwise the ban will be no good.

My Lords, as it happens, I think that a convention is already in force prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, and dates back to 1925. The ownership and manufacture of these weapons is the matter that is currently under discussion, and I have no doubt that the point raised by my noble friend will form part of any convention that is eventually agreed.

My Lords, although the verification of chemical weapons is difficult because they can be used for industrial purposes, is it not the case that the Soviet Union has accepted the principle of verification, and cannot this be followed by finding methods by which that verification can be carried out?

My Lords, I happen to think that such a convention without adequate verification procedures would be virtually useless. That is the line that we must pursue in these negotiations. The arguments about the difficulties of verification put forward by the noble Lord are the sort of arguments that we hear from the Soviet Union too often.

My Lords, following on from previous questions, will the noble Lord confirm that it is good policy to point out that it is the reluctance of the Soviet Union to agree to any kind of verification that holds up this whole matter? It is important that the public realise this and realise that it is not due to Western countries.

My Lords, the noble Lord is, of course, quite right. We shall continue to press the Soviet Union to accept proper verification measures in Geneva and elsewhere.