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Geneva Convention: 1977 Protocols

Volume 475: debated on Monday 2 June 1986

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware that, although they have stated that they have no record of any reservation to the 1977 Geneva Protocols which relates to nuclear weapons (Lord Trefgarne, 10th April, col. 407) the list of Reservations etc. appended to Protocol I includes a statement by the United Kingdom that the United Kingdom's signature is subject to a number of understandings one of which is that the protocol does not "regulate or prohibit the use of nuclear weapons."

My Lords, as I made clear to the noble Lord on 2nd May, I am aware of the United Kingdom's statement of understanding on signature of the 1977 protocols additional to the Geneva Conventions. That did not constitute a reservation.

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that under the pretext that the understanding which was reached was not a reservation it was denied from her Front Bench that the Government had any concern with the question of laying down a reservation that the protocol did not apply to nuclear weapons? In these circumstances will she look into the matter again, especially having regard to the fact that as far as I and the Libraries can discover, the list of understandings to which she has referred was not in fact placed in the Library of either House, although at the time an undertaking was given in Written Answers in both Houses that that would be done? Will she be good enough to look into that, and if she discovers that the understandings referred to have not been placed in either Library, will she see that that is now done so that noble Lords can look into the matter and make up their own minds?

My Lords, on the first supplementary question that the noble Lord has asked, he is not in fact correct. The correct Answer was given earlier by my noble friend Lord Trefgarne to the Question that the noble Lord put down on the Order Paper. I gave a correct Answer to the Question that he asked on 2nd May. The function of a reservation is to modify for the reserving state the provisions of a treaty or protocol. In this case the United Kingdom would not need to enter any reservation on nuclear weapons, since the protocol does not contain any provisions relating to them.

With regard to the second supplementary question of the noble Lord, many states made declarations on signature, and a list of those has been placed in the Library of the House. But other states have made both declarations and reservations on accession or ratification and a list of those will be placed in the Library of the House.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness the Minister agree that despite the regulation and prohibition of the use of nuclear weapons, whatever protocol may or may not be signed or whatever understanding there is of the matter, it all comes down to verification? Will she tell us how far the Government have gone along that path, because I happen to know that the British Government themselves made proposals which have not yet been accepted even by Russia? Will she be good enough to tell us whether there is any hope of verification coming about?

My Lords, the point that the noble Lord, Lord Mellish, has raised is somewhat wide of the subject of this Question. It is a very important matter. As he will be aware, the function of these protocols is, of course, rather separate from arms control negotiations.

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that if she will be so good as to arrange for the understandings to be placed in the House, as was supposed to have been done in 1977 and, as far as I can gather, never has been done, I shall be happy not to ask her any further questions on the subject until I have had the opportunity to study the actual documents?

My Lords, I have already indicated to the noble Lord that they will be placed in the Library of the House.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the recent development of American policy makes the use of nuclear weapons more likely? Will the Government come to the decision that nuclear weapons now threaten the whole of mankind and will they cease to tolerate them or to use them?

My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Lord's first supplementary question about the American Government's attitude. In answer to his second supplementary question, it is the British Government's view that nuclear weapons have made a contribution to peacekeeping since the end of the Second World War.

My Lords, will the noble Baroness tell the House what is the practical difference between a reservation and an understanding? Will she direct herself to the question asked by my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Putney? Does the protocol regulate or prohibit the use of nuclear weapons, or does it not?

My Lords, as I indicated in an earlier answer, a reservation modifies for the reserving state the provisions of the treaty or protocol. In this case, a reservation was not necessary because the protocols do not contain provisions relating to nuclear weapons. We made a statement to make clear our understanding about the additional protocols, and that is the statement to which the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, referred.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that if the great powers of this world go on amassing these mighty nuclear weapons, they will present a grave risk, regardless of the fact that they may be credited with having kept the peace for 40 years, because they could wipe out the whole of mankind in 40 minutes? It is the responsibility of everybody in public life in all nations to seek a way to banish these horrendous weapons from the face of the earth.

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, will be well aware, the Government are doing all that they can to help with the arms control negotiations to bring about some resolution of these difficult problems.