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Armed Forces: Cluster Bombs

Volume 685: debated on Thursday 12 October 2006

Lord Dubs asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they will seek an international ban on the use of cluster bombs similar to the ban on anti-personnel landmines.

My Lords, we have no such plans. Cluster munitions are legitimate weapons when used in accordance with international humanitarian law. They provide a unique capability against certain dispersed and wide-area military targets, for which other munitions are not necessarily practical. However, we remain committed to improving the reliability of all munitions to achieve lower failure rates and to leave less unexploded ordnance in order to minimise the humanitarian risk.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend, although I find his Answer somewhat disappointing. Will he confirm that, in the Lebanon, as a result of the use of cluster bombs, there are hundreds of thousands of unexploded munitions, causing intolerable risks and dangers to the civilian population? Surely it is time to put cluster bombs in the same category as anti-personnel landmines and ban their use.

My Lords, as I said in my first Answer, we believe that there is a legitimate force-protection use of these weapons. As to the Lebanon, it is for the Government of Israel to respond to the allegations, but we expect them to investigate any well founded allegations of the misuse of munitions by their armed forces, just as we would in the United Kingdom. Our embassy in Tel Aviv is pursuing a further response to the allegations from the Israeli authorities, and we will continue to monitor the situation, studying carefully any authoritative reports that emerge.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, replied to a Written Question from me on 19 June, explaining that the BL755 cluster bomb would be out of service by the end of the decade—that is, in three or four years’ time—and there are no plans for the Royal Air Force to replace it with cluster munitions. Given that, will the Minister talk to his colleague and see whether it would be possible to advance the date on which the bomb is taken out of service and use that as the launch pad for the UK to take the moral high ground over the banning of cluster munitions?

My Lords, there is no difficulty in talking between the departments: that is for sure. My understanding is that constant work is being done to improve the munitions so that there is not a failure rate. Although the failure rate is at the same level as that of other munitions, of course it has a greater impact due to the greater number of these munitions that are used because of their very character.

My Lords, does the Minister agree, despite the assurances that he has given about the care that will be taken in the use of these weapons, that as well as a debate about the legality there is a genuine debate to be had about the morality of the weapons? By whatever criteria we reach moral decisions, can there really be any moral justification for the production and deployment of such weapons, which are unable to distinguish between civilians and combatants and which in their effects are often indistinguishable from landmines? Where is the moral consistency in banning the one and legitimising the other?

My Lords, I truly understand the concern, but I do not think that it is true to say that they are the same as landmines. Landmines are left around so that when people or vehicles come into contact with them they explode and damage those people. These munitions are intended to explode on or slightly before impact. I have asked the question: do they make a legitimate difference? The answer that I am provided with is that they do. They offer a capability that means that, when troops are about to advance, there is a chance that the engagement that they will have with a wide-area enemy, particularly an armoured enemy, is not as fierce or protracted and that they do not suffer as many casualties.

I say this to the House, with the greatest respect to all those who have expressed the ethical concern: are the issues of the protection of our troops, which come up so frequently—quite rightly—in your Lordships’ House to be real considerations, or are we to abandon those considerations when it appears to be convenient?

My Lords, the sub-munitions that we are discussing are about the size of a child’s hand and look rather like a toy. We delivered ordnance containing 98,000 of these in the Basra area during our campaign to capture that city during the recent war. I understand that the Government claim a failure rate of 2 per cent; observers seeing the same elements deployed in the Lebanon have observed 10 per cent; and the United Nations claims a failure rate of 40 per cent. How effective and complete has been our effort to clear Basra of these lethal, child-killing weapons?

My Lords, I am not in a position to say how effective the operation to clear the weapons is, but I know that we attempt to deploy them in very strictly managed terms that comply fully with international humanitarian law obligations. For those reasons, I hope that we would try to clear up unexploded munitions on the same humanitarian basis.

I, too, have seen the range of figures. Of course, the figures that are produced on some occasions are when there is controlled use and it is possible to look at the immediate aftermath. Most of the conditions in Basra or the Lebanon are not such controlled conditions. In addition, there are different kinds of cluster bomb, and I understand that they have different failure rates. We must take all these matters into account in making sure that we protect our troops properly, as I have urged that we should, and comply fully with humanitarian requirements.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that 30 sovereign states have stressed humanitarian concern about cluster bombs, largely because of the high failure rate which rather makes them perhaps more like landmines than my noble friend suggested? Belgium has banned them; Australia and Norway have declared a moratorium; and the German Government have decreed that they will stop using them. Does my noble friend think that they are all wrong?

My Lords, I am aware of the anxieties in several countries. All I can say is that a number of military authorities, including our own, believe that this is a legitimate force-protection method, if used in accordance with international humanitarian law. I am dubious about trying to double-guess the best advice given by military commanders on how to ensure that British troops are kept safe while pursuing their difficult tasks.

My Lords, are not cluster bombs and humanitarian law very nearly a contradiction in terms? The Minister has heard the widespread concern expressed this morning about the use of cluster bombs. As anti-personnel landmines have been banned, does he accept that he would have very strong support in this House in all parties if he were to pursue international arrangements for banning these horrific weapons which, as unexploded bombs, are continuing to kill children in Kosovo, Laos, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and many other places?

My Lords, I repeat that I share the anxiety that has been expressed in the House. I believe that the United Nations discussions on the protocols that cover these weapons are likely to be inclusive, involving both producers and users. If there are further reforms, that is the best way of making sure that there is an inclusive discussion that then incorporates and embraces everyone.