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Cluster Munitions

Volume 690: debated on Wednesday 21 March 2007

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

On 4 December 2006, (Official Report, col. WS 1) my honourable friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Kim Howells) set out in a Written Ministerial Statement the UK position on cluster munitions. We confirmed that we were committed to withdrawing dumb cluster munitions by the middle of the next decade. On 15 December 2006 the Government explained in another place (Official Report, col. 1727-1770) that we were examining the possibility of withdrawing dumb cluster munitions from service at an earlier date. This assessment is now complete and I am pleased to announce that we are withdrawing dumb cluster munitions from service with immediate effect.

We have considered carefully both military and humanitarian factors, reflecting our duty both to ensure that the Armed Forces have the capabilities they need to undertake the missions we ask of them, and to strive to reduce civilian casualties to the minimum.

Cluster munitions are legal weapons which have a valid role in modern warfare, particularly against an array of military targets in a defined area. However, they have also given rise to humanitarian concerns because they disperse submunitions over an area and those submunitions can have a high failure rate. Some cluster munitions address these concerns including through inbuilt self-destructing or self-deactivating mechanisms, reducing the risk of harm to civilians. Dumb cluster munitions do not.

At the moment, our inventory includes two dumb cluster munitions: the RBL 755 aerial delivered cluster munition, and the multi-launch rocket system M26 munition. Both will be withdrawn from service immediately and disposed of. Although withdrawing them represents a theoretical risk to our operational effectiveness, until their direct replacement is in service, there is no current plan to deploy them on operations. I have decided that this is an acceptable risk.

The types of cluster munitions we intend to retain are legitimate weapons with significant military value which, as a result of mitigating features, is not outweighed by humanitarian factors. As with all weapons, our forces' use of them will remain regulated by rules of engagement and internal scrutiny procedures designed to adhere to international law and reflect humanitarian values.

As well as living up to their responsibilities under international law, this decision is part of our wider efforts to reduce civilian casualties and to press other militaries to do the same. We continue to press for wider agreement to ban dumb cluster munitions through the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) and complementary initiatives such as the Oslo Conference on 23 February, where we, alongside other nations, agreed to work towards an international ban in 2008.