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Conventional Weapons

Volume 696: debated on Thursday 15 November 2007

rose to call attention to the recent proceedings of the United Nations Conference on Certain Conventional Weapons at Geneva; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, as the tide goes out, perhaps I may recommend to anyone who feels that their circulation is not stimulated enough when opening a debate to discover that they have left a vital document on the first or second floor and have to search for it during the gap between the substantive reply to the first Question on the Order Paper and the Motions which your Lordships have just heard. Your Lordships will be glad to learn that it was here all the time.

I thank your Lordships in advance for taking part in this debate because I shall have no chance to do so at the end. I do not apologise for bringing the subject of cluster munitions to the fore for a second time this year, or possibly a fourth, because the matter is so urgent and pressing. I do apologise, however, for the terms of the Motion, which does not mention that it is about cluster munitions. Had it done so, and had this not been a Thursday morning, there would be a considerably longer speakers list.

I declare an interest: I am just returned from the latest convention on conventional weapons at the United Nations. My attendance, and the cost of going to and from, was funded by the charity, Landmine Action. Its work is beyond praise, but, as a recipient of this support, I should leave it to others to sing those praises.

The background to the convention is probably familiar to your Lordships. The United Nations convention had met to discuss the possibility of doing something about cluster munitions for five years when Norway decided that enough was enough, set up a separate organisation and invited all countries prepared to sign up to a complete ban internationally by 2008 to go to Oslo at the beginning of this year. It is important to say that the principal paragraph of the Oslo declaration was a commitment to conclude by 2008 a binding international instrument that will,

“prohibit the use … production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians”,

and, crucially, establish a framework for co-operation and assistance that ensures adequate provision of care and rehabilitation to survivors and affected communities. These are the terms on which many of us wish to see a conclusion to the proceedings in Geneva.

However, what happened was rather different. I should explain the importance of that to readers of this debate. I know that your Lordships are familiar with this, so I shall be brief. Broadly, in layman’s terms—the definition will be crucial to the treaty—cluster munitions are containers, delivered by artillery, rocket fire or aircraft. They contain large numbers—sometimes more than 400—of sub-munitions which are designed to explode on impact with the ground and cause damage to personnel or vehicles. They are area weapons. The commander who releases them does so in the expectation that within an area—in the case of the M85, an area the size of at least two football pitches—there will be tanks, people or soft skin vehicles that they want to get rid of and which are a threat to them.

If cluster munitions do not explode, they become small landmines. They are the size of my fist roughly. Because of the very high failure rate, latterly a secondary system has been introduced into many of them, which is designed to self-destruct within five seconds after impact if the bomb has not already gone off. I shall go into failure rates later. However, it is important to remember that they also have a failure rate. All ammunition has a failure rate, from a 303 round to a howitzer round. If the secondary mechanism fails, and experience proves that it does so on a considerable scale, the bomb left on the ground is just as dangerous and far more difficult to defuse. That is one of the reasons why so many landmine clearing experts are losing their lives around the world at present. Munitions designed to self-destruct and those which have other mechanisms to make them more accurate are excluded from a general definition known as “dumb/smart munitions”. Her Majesty’s Government refuse to accept the term and I rather congratulate them on that. Referring to cluster munitions as “smart” would be an oxymoron, but we do not have a general term for them yet; we need one.

It would be possible to quote many sources on failure rates and come to different conclusions, but fortunately the Quadripartite Committee of another place states the following at paragraph 367 of its report:

“‘Dumb’ cluster munitions have a failure rate which is estimated to be between 25% and 30%, and even ‘smart’ cluster bombs may have a failure rate which may be between 5% and 10%. In other words, even in cluster bombs which have a relatively sophisticated self-destruct mechanism, up to one in 10 bomblets (or ejected sub-munitions) that do not explode will lie live on the battlefield. The potential to inflict death and injury on innocent non-combatants entering the field after the engagement is therefore substantial”.

Going to the scale on which this happens, Handicap International, another charity of very great value, has said that in Lebanon it is estimated that at least 1,159,000 sub-munitions have been delivered by rocket and 2,800,000 by artillery, and those figures exclude all air-delivered weapons completely. I leave it to noble Lords to work out even 5 per cent of those numbers in relation to the size of that country. At the time of writing, the number of casualties reported as definitely due to these things was 587, but that is going to mount. Eleven of those casualties are de-miners. The de-miners are incredibly brave people. I had the privilege of meeting in Lima, at an earlier stage of the Oslo process, a de-miner of possibly Albanian origin who had simply stirred the grass at the end of a runway which had been under attack, having been told that some of these munitions were there. He never saw the thing that blew up, but it removed all his limbs. He now has no hands and no feet, indeed nothing below the knee. I can almost hear some of your Lordships say, “Spare us the bleeding stumps”, but it is bleeding stumps that we are actually talking about, thousands if not millions of them.

The scale to dwarf all is that of Vietnam. By 1975, 294 cluster munitions—the containers, not the bomblets—had been delivered to the equivalent of every square kilometre of Vietnam, which works out at roughly two sub-munitions per head of the population of that country. It is also tragic to note that the ratio of those killed shows that more than twice as many civilians died as did military personnel. Is it not surprising that the Americans lost the war, and is there not a lesson for us there? Therefore almost in parenthesis, I ask the Minister whether our use of these weapons on the fringes of Basra affected our reception by the local civilian population.

All this is certainly horrific, but is it militarily useful? I have already referred to Landmine Action, which states on page 9 of its report that:

“Data on mobile target hits in Kosovo is disputed. However, an analysis of damage assessments in the bombing data released by NATO relating to cluster strikes on mobile targets in Kosovo finds only 75 out of 269 missions positively claiming some degree of damage to the target”.

Incidentally, in that campaign there was a total of 234,123 sub-munitions confirmed minimum, of which a considerable number were dropped by us and the rest by our allies.

This makes the blood run a little cold. On the military issues there are others—notably the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, who is to address your Lordships later—who know more about this than I do, but already after the first Gulf War certain American senior soldiers, particularly those connected with 3 Infantry Division, were calling these campaign losers, not because of their effect on the civilian population, which would be disastrous for their eventual aim, but on their own troops because they could not go on foot through ground on which they had deployed their weapons. Every time they came to where they had deployed any weapons they had to get into their helicopters. Consequently they arrived late on objective.

I ask your Lordships to consider their impact, not only on people in the battlefield at the time of the battle but on a large number of civilians afterwards. We cannot hear the groans of the wounded, for whom the loss of a limb is the loss of a livelihood; we cannot hear the tears of the widows and orphans who have lost the means of subsistence; we cannot hear the frustration of those who want to carry on their commercial activities but cannot because the roads are not safe; we cannot hear the farmers who dread to till their fields because they do not know what has been sown in them. People in Vietnam fear them still; they are losing up to 100 civilians a year as a result of these things.

I do not need to say much more to convince your Lordships about the horror of these weapons. That is no doubt why the UN Secretary-General received an invitation and a welcome to the convention meeting last week in Geneva. He urged states to,

“address the horrendous humanitarian, human rights and developmental effects of cluster munitions”.

I pause on the word “developmental” to reflect how extraordinarily well qualified the Minister is to respond to this debate. From the moment he founded the Economist development report, through his work at the World Bank on the United Nations millennium development goals, to his work as administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, as the chef de cabinet to the Secretary-General and eventually as a deputy secretary, he has been committed to development for the whole of his career. I hope he will be able to answer with that in mind, untrammelled by words of caution from the officials’ box or from his Secretary of State.

The Minister will be familiar with the extraordinary circumstances in which I found myself last week in the United Nations building, the Palais de Nations, a vast amphitheatre full of people who, for hour upon hour, were straining to change two words in an unimportant preliminary document. Anything important was happening in the cafeteria or in small rooms, and I had the privilege of seeing the French and Russians grouped like a rugby scrum around a small round table. It was impossible to hear anything they were saying, which was most frustrating.

That brings me to the Russians and the fact that, until they became active, there seemed to be a general agreement available on a fairly positive result to all this. However, the chill wind from Siberia flowed into the corridors and it wilted. I shall tell your Lordships in a moment what we got as a result. I would like to know from the Minister whether I am right that our own diplomatic efforts are constrained within the terms of the European leadership. Apparently, we have to toe its line in certain respects. If the presidency adopts a line, we have to follow it. Does that extend to our role in the Security Council? I hope that it does not.

The United Nations proceeds by consensus. Members of this House proceed often enough by consensus to hold it up as a virtue, but I see it as a terrible threat, because it enables anybody to stop something in its tracks, which is just about what happened. The text, as agreed by consensus on 13 November, stated:

“The meeting of the High Contracting Parties to the CCW decides that the GGE will negotiate a proposal”—

the fight to include the word “negotiate”, showing that something positive was being done, is immediately neutralised by “a proposal”—

“to address urgently the humanitarian impact of cluster munitions, while striking a balance between military and humanitarian considerations”.

My noble friend on the Front Bench will undoubtedly do that, although I think that he will get the balance marginally wrong. The text continues:

“The GGE—

that is, the group of government experts—

“should make every effort to negotiate this proposal as rapidly as possible and report… in November 2008”.

I skip to the programme for the experts. They will meet from 14 to 18 January. It is urgent business, this: their next meeting is on 7 July. That is where I would like them to see the bleeding stumps and to hear the cries of the wounded and the bereaved.

Even that, several states—Brazil, Pakistan, India, South Korea and the United States—indicated that they would not support, nor would they negotiate a mandate if it was explicitly aimed at establishing a prohibition or if it had a deadline. The Russians asked to be read into the record a long declamation of what they would not stand, including anything that had any commercial or economic effect. At that point, I thought that we were in Alice in Wonderland territory. It was therefore encouraging to hear the Prime Minister say at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet:

“Small arms kill every 90 seconds so as we call for an Arms Trade Treaty, Britain is willing to extend export laws to control extra-territorial broking and trafficking of small arms, and potentially other weapons. And having led the way by taking two types of cluster munitions out of service—

on which I and my colleagues offer warm congratulations—

“we want to work internationally for a ban on the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of those cluster munitions which cause unacceptable harm to civilians”.

If noble Lords read that alongside the Oslo declaration, they will see that the Oslo process includes exactly what the Prime Minister stated, with added to it humanitarian treatment for those affected and destruction of the stockpiles. What better commendation could there be to the next meeting of the Oslo process in Vienna, to which I am delighted to say that the noble Lord—I am tempted to call him a noble friend, but that is dangerous ground in this Chamber—will go from our country?

I have possibly said enough to persuade your Lordships that these are obscene weapons, whose effects are unacceptable and unavoidable, as one sees from the deaths among mine clearers as well as others, and that we should in all humanity stop using them at once. Our country is leading the way—I am proud of that—but what I would like to hear from the Minister today is an unequivocal undertaking that the Government will pursue this to the end in the Oslo process, and will find as few weasel words as possible for the final declaration so that everything that does not work is scrubbed out. We are talking about future generations. How true was it said that the sins of the fathers shall be visited on the children and the children’s children unto the third and fourth generation. It is on their behalf that I draw your Lordships’ attention to the Motion. I beg to move for Papers.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Elton, on bringing this subject to your Lordships' House for a second time. It deserves a second hearing. I congratulate, too, the Government on a slightly crabwise but none the less forward movement on cluster munitions over the past year or so. I hope to show that with only a little further movement the Government could put themselves in a position in which they felt genuinely comfortable and could play a leadership role on an issue of great public and humanitarian concern.

We have alas to accept that there will continue to be conflicts in the years ahead—often unjustified, often preventable, always nasty. That is a depressing but realistic conclusion. But even recognising that, we can and must take action to mitigate the worst consequences of conflict, and that means in particular the effect of conflict on innocent civilians and especially on women and children. That is why action has been taken against landmines—I join the noble Lord, Lord Elton, in congratulating Landmine Action on the work that it has done and continues to do—and that is why action is needed now to ban cluster munitions, weapons which, as the noble Lord explained, are lethal, horrible and do untold damage to innocent people in the months and years after conflicts have gone and sometimes after the original purpose of that conflict has been forgotten.

As I say, I welcome the Government’s move recently towards a ban on cluster munitions. I welcome the decision to work for a ban on so-called dumb munitions and to withdraw the United Kingdom's stocks with immediate effect. I welcome the Government's commitment to the Oslo process and I understand their desire to work in parallel through the convention on conventional weapons to engage those countries whose position is less forward than our own. But despite the stance taken by the Government, and despite, as I understand it—perhaps the Minister can confirm this—the strong position taken by the European Union at the meeting in Geneva, the outcome was weak and disappointing. It is clear that working through the CCW is going to be, at the very best, a long process.

The Oslo process therefore remains the key. What the whole issue now requires is firm and moral leadership, and the prospect of such leadership from the United Kingdom seems tantalisingly close. The Prime Minister said in his Mansion House speech, as the noble Lord, Lord Elton, said, that he would work towards,

“a ban on the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of those cluster munitions which cause unacceptable harm to civilians”,

echoing the words of the UN Secretary-General. But the inescapable truth is that all cluster bombs cause unacceptable harm to civilians regardless of whether they are dumb, not dumb, smart or not very smart. Surely these are semantic and ignoble distinctions to make.

All cluster bombs or bomblets that do not explode may kill or maim innocent people, and very many of them do. I found the figures which the noble Lord mentioned horrific. Even if only 2 per cent—and that is way below the estimates—of the bomblets used in Lebanon in 2006 did not explode, that means that there are tens of thousands of bomblets waiting to trap innocent people. The only possible justification for accepting that those should continue is if we believe that the military use of these weapons is so overwhelmingly important that it outweighs the unquestioned humanitarian cost. I very much look forward to hearing the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, speak on that point. I find that case very hard to believe and I hope that the Minister will not seek to advance that argument when he responds to the debate.

As I said, there is a need for moral leadership here. The Foreign Secretary, when Secretary of State at Defra, showed such leadership in putting forward the draft Climate Change Bill, which I strongly support and which I look forward to debating in the House later this month. Will the Minister use his undoubted expertise and influence to persuade the Foreign Secretary that a decision now to work for a legally binding instrument to ban all cluster munitions and to withdraw our stockpiles of all cluster munitions with immediate effect would be a similar act of statesmanship, which would be strongly welcomed by very many people in this country and abroad and would have a real chance of saving many innocent lives in the years ahead?

My Lords, I join my noble friend Lord Jay in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Elton, on obtaining this debate. It is marvellous that the debate is taking place so soon after the Geneva conference in which he played a distinguished part. I also express my pleasure that once again the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is taking part in this debate because, between them, the two noble Lords have done so much to keep this issue alive.

When I last spoke on this in the debate in May, I mentioned my experience both as a military commander and as somebody involved in demining, which had conditioned my view about these weapons. At the risk of boring the House, I would like to return to that because I was very interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Elton, mention the after-action comments of the United States Third Infantry Division in Iraq, who pointed out that it was not just a case of the damage caused to civilians by unexploded weapons but of the difficulties imposed on the movement of its own troops which made these inappropriate weapons for that type of conflict.

When I commanded the British Third Armoured Division for two years, which was the first division to be given a counterattack responsibility within the NATO forces in Germany, my task was to go quickly to places where I could deliver a counterattack, following an advance by the Russians. We were then concerned particularly about problems of movement. We were able to take action around our own marked minefields because we knew where they were. But when you looked at the state of the battlefield, you realised that they were not the principal inhibitors; the principal inhibitors were the unmarked, random minefields, many of which had been delivered by cluster munitions. They had been put down for what was then a military purpose.

The development of these weapons began in Korea when people were concerned with taking on massed Chinese infantry. They required a weapon to take action against mass—fine. The next development took place again in the context of mass, but against mass armour. The idea developed of cluster munitions which could deliver top attack—as it was called—many of which could take on the more vulnerable top parts of a tank and could help break up massed Russian armour. At the time, as military people, we welcomed those because of what they did when we had a purely defensive posture. But once movement began and the inhibitors, particularly of the failed weapons, began to cause problems for our own movement, we realised that these were not appropriate weapons where movement was concerned.

That was during the Cold War when we were talking about war between what are called industrial nations by armed bodies of uniformed troops on ground which was dedicated to the battle between them. That, of course, is not the nature of warfare, particularly since the end of the Cold War. We are not talking about war between the armed forces of industrial nations; we are talking about, in the words of General Sir Rupert Smith, “wars amongst the people”. It is the people who we have to consider.

I was also involved in demining in places such as Mozambique, Angola, Somalia, Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia. I am sure that the Minister will remember the welcome that the demining fraternity gave to the pronouncement by the new president of the World Bank, of which he was then a member, in July 1995, when for the first time he said that the World Bank recognised that demining was not a purely military activity and it therefore qualified for World Bank funding for post-conflict reconstruction. That was one of the most important statements made in this area, because until then demining activities were severely frustrated by the lack of funding.

When we went to carry out the demining, it was easy to clear mines that were marked, but it was not easy to clear those that were unmarked. One was particularly concerned about the random delivery by cluster munitions all over the place, which were not marked; nor did anyone know the failure rate. I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Elton, mentioned the figures that have been produced following the completely unjustified use of those weapons, particularly the M85 in Lebanon, because they drive a coach and horses through the previous figures given to justify their use.

There has been one other development since our last debate in May; the publication in America of the US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. It is the result of work done by General David Petraeus, who is the senior commander of the American forces in Iraq. The manual is one of the most remarkable documents that I have ever come across, because it completely reverses the previous United States approach to warfare of this kind. It used to be based on what was called the “doctrine of overwhelming force”. Overwhelming force was just that; the application of everything that you had every time that you took part in any form of conflict, because they felt that that guaranteed quick success and would save lives. They have analysed the results of using these sorts of weapons, particularly in Iraq, and the report of the third division, which the noble Lord, Lord Elton, mentioned, played a large part in that.

At the beginning of the manual, there are two very interesting essays. One is by Colonel Nagl, who is one of the American army authors, who was in Iraq, in which he says that the American army was completely unprepared for this type of conflict. The other essay is by Sarah Sewall, the director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Inter alia, she says:

“This counterinsurgency field manual challenges much of what is holy about the American way of war. It demands significant change and sacrifice to fight today’s enemies honourably”.

She also postulates that the manual may also reveal America’s moral anxiety:

“The nation is trying to heal wounds caused—once again—by failings and abuses in the field”.

In particular, commenting on the new doctrine, she says:

“The new US doctrine embraces a traditional—some would argue atavistic—British method of fighting insurgency, learned during its early period of imperial policing and relearned during responses to twentieth century independence struggles. Accordingly it adopts a population-centred approach instead of one focused primarily if not exclusively on the insurgents. The latter approach concentrates on physically destroying the unseen opponent, embedded in the general population … The field manual directs US forces to make securing the civilian, rather than destroying the enemy, their top priority”.

When I mentioned this in the previous debate, the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, said to me that although he completely accepted what I was saying, he suspected that I would be,

“among the first to tell us that we should also listen to the advice of those who command our forces”.—[Official Report, 17/5/07; col. 322.]

I am the first to listen to such advice, and when I was commanding forces I hoped that people might listen to mine. But bearing in mind the type of warfare and the sort of appreciation that the Americans have now carried out as a result of their experiences of what using these weapons has done to their ability to fight war among the people, I suggest that there cannot be a British military commander who could justify the use of these weapons in the sort of warfare now taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan.

People say, “Oh yes, but you need them as direct-fire weapons”. You do not. For direct fire you need all the weapons that people in Afghanistan have been calling for and, fortunately, they have been appearing—the multi-barrelled grenade launcher, the heavy machine gun and other weapons which you can deploy and have line of sight against the people who come at you. You do not need these indiscriminate weapons because, as the noble Lord, Lord Elton, said, they not only take innocent lives, have a residual effect for years to come and undermine all your efforts to win the hearts and minds of the people to your cause—which is why you are there in the first place—but because they leave behind material which inhibits the use of the ground over which they have been fired for the practical purposes of post-conflict reconstruction, which may be farming, roads, building or whatever.

I am very sorry that the result of the meeting last week in Geneva was really festina lente—make haste slowly and negotiate whether to have a proposal, rather than getting on with it. There is evidence from everyone, not least the military commanders on the ground, that these weapons are wholly inappropriate for the sort of conflict in which we are currently engaged. Surely now is the time to follow the Prime Minister’s welcome remarks and ban them.

My Lords, it is indeed a privilege to follow the three speeches made so far. Most of the arguments have been well put. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Elton, on having secured this debate, but above all on his long-term commitment to getting rid of these dreadful weapons. I shall be brief. I made a contribution on the same subject during the debate on the Queen’s Speech. Most, if not all, of the arguments have been put better than I could put them.

I will say this, however: I believe that in a few years’ time these dreadful weapons will be banned in their entirety. When something is inevitable, why not get on and do it now? We shall be asking not, “Why have we banned them?”, but, “Why has it taken us so long to do what is right?”. When something is so obviously right, it is only proper that we should do it quickly and not delay.

Having said that, I welcome the progress made by the Government to date. The Secretary of State for Defence has got rid of dumb cluster munitions, the Government contributed fairly positively to the Oslo process earlier this year and the words of my right honourable friend have already been quoted. They represent a clear commitment to support the Oslo process in its entirety. I am pleased, not only that the Government are doing something at the CCM discussions but, above all, that the Government will take part in the continuation of the Oslo process.

I am fairly convinced that we do not need unanimity to start getting rid of these weapons. If we want international unanimity, we will wait for a long time. We made progress in dealing with anti-personnel land mines without the agreement of some of the leading countries in the world—indeed, they have not yet signed up. But the fact is that the climate of opinion as regards anti-personnel landmines changed significantly with the step that this country and others took in getting rid of them. Similarly, I believe that if one or two leading countries in the world do not go along with the proposal on cluster munitions, the rest of us should. We are, after all, a significant military power and, together with the other countries that are opposed to these weapons, we would play an important part in saying, “Enough. No more. We don’t want them”.

The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, made it very clear that there were no real military uses for these weapons. I suppose it is understandable that in the Ministry of Defence some people say, “We don’t want to get rid of all these weapons systems. There may be an occasion when we want to use them”. I understand such reluctance. I am not a military person; nevertheless, the case for their military use seems to be increasingly thin as one listens to people with experience discuss when they could possibly be used. The answer is: hardly at all in the past and not at all in the future. Reference has already been made to the US Army. Surely no army would want to advance into terrain into which cluster munitions had been sent. It would be dangerous; it would be like advancing into a minefield and would make no sense at all.

One key issue is the hearts and minds of the civilian populations in areas where conflicts take place. Many eminent military people have already been quoted—I could produce quotations from others—saying that you negate the purpose of military action if you alienate the civil population on whose behalf ostensibly you are intervening. That is how war has changed a great deal since the beginning of the last century. We are not really concerned about the attitude of the civilian population, and I can think of no conflict on this earth where the outcome is bound to be, and should be, influenced by how civilians react. However, if we use weapons that alienate or kill innocent civilians, we can hardly say that we have done very much for hearts and minds.

I started by saying that the Government had moved. I ask them to move a bit further and to move quickly on this issue.

My Lords, the more I thought about this debate and the more work I did for it, the more I felt that in summing up I would discover that everything that should have been said probably had been said. Often when people say that, there is a degree of sadness in their voice, but that is not the case this time because everything has been said better than I could possibly have said it.

The description given by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, of the rather Byzantine and realpolitik nature of the negotiations that are currently going on seems to anyone who has done any negotiating, at however junior a level, so accurate that it cannot be describing anything other than what is happening.

I have seldom heard such a successful hatchet job on an argument than that executed by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, on the issue of utility. We are talking about a weapon which is directly counter-productive for those who might use it: you cannot move forward because you have laid your own minefield that will blow bits off your own soldiers. Why on earth would we even consider using a weapon such as that? The noble Lord referred to a weapon designed for static defensive posture, whereby you would be concerned only with stopping someone coming towards you or making them do it so slowly that you could counter-strike with weapons, possibly at a distance. There is logic there.

I hope that the noble Lord will not tell us that there is some plan to reinvent the Cold War with the threat of mass attack by an army or any other troop movement. However, if the type of warfare that we are involved in now is one in which we must move forward, chase down and counter-attack our opponents, such as in Afghanistan, the Taliban would probably want us to use this weapon. If we inflicted some casualties but mainly missed, the Taliban would have a safe haven to which they could withdraw. If we fired in a direct line, they would have a slight advantage in that they would be able to get away from us. Surely there can be no grounds for the use of this weapon in military terms.

The Americans have said no to the doctrine of overwhelming strike or overwhelming incapacity, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said. Surely there can be no military argument. If the military argument does not exist, why are we waiting for the rest of the argument? It makes agricultural ground unusable until it is properly cleared using either intensive manpower or technical means—I am not an expert—but the fact that it is difficult, takes time and costs money puts an economic damper on the areas we go into, which is not our aim in most of the places we are operating in.

Having been a disability spokesman for many years, I did not realise how well that brief would prepare me to understand the effects of these weapons. It has been difficult enough in this country, which probably has the most advanced disability legislation, to ensure an infrastructure that helps those who are movement or sight impaired. In a developing country or one that is recovering from warfare, we should consider the economic damper we are imposing on high numbers of people who are wheelchair-bound, or who have lost an upper limb, sight or hearing. I am talking not just about the human effect; their economic capacity will be dramatically reduced, far more so than in a technologically advanced society where there are metalled roads. What level of technical support is required to enable people in those terrains to move around if they have lost a limb, let alone two? Think of the extra cost that we are piling on to huge sections of these societies. It is almost unimaginable that we should carry on doing this.

As noble Lords have said, the Government have moved a long way. I hope that they will move further, and the Minister can tell us about their plans and the guidance they will give. We have lots of these weapons in the stockpile but presumably the military will not be required to use them if they are militarily inappropriate. I take that as a given, although a confirmation would not hurt. To make sure that we have no such weapons, and, I hope, will not be producing them for people, where do we go from here? Will the Government give another undertaking to place a ban on these weapons because we cannot find a use for them and because they are against our objectives?

I did a small calculation. If 4 million weapons have been dropped on Lebanon and there is a 5 per cent failure rate, according to my maths, 200,000 weapons are lying across that comparatively small area of land. If we drop them in an area that has softer ground and more trees, there will be more. It is impossible for smart weapons to function fully for the simple reason of the stress such devices go through in delivery. They are fired from a large piece of artillery or dropped from a plane, so there will be damage. We are still digging up the occasional live bomb from World War II. Weapons have always failed. Seventeenth century mortar shells landed on battlefields and did not go off, which we read from accounts of military history. I believe that a bomb went through this Chamber in World War II and did not go off.

My Lords, I hear it was at the other end.

There is no way that we can deal with these things safely. Devices will always be traumatised in their delivery systems. Can we please have a government undertaking today that we will do everything we can to achieve an international ban, everything we can as a nation to ensure that our Armed Forces do not use these devices, which are almost certainly counter-productive for our current types of military conflict, and that we will not supply them to anybody else? I look forward to the answer as this may be an occasion when agreement will break out.

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Elton for bringing cluster munitions and the latest United Nations conference on the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons to the House’s attention today. The conference focused on two specific areas of the convention: amended Protocol II—“Landmines, Booby-Traps, and other Devices”—and Protocol V—“Explosive Remnants of War”. The concluding message of the conference made by the UN Secretary-General was to:

“those countries that have not yet expressed consent”—

to these two protocols—

“to do so as soon as possible”.

Protocol V is the only protocol of the convention that this country is yet to ratify. Its subject is cluster munitions. Fired by an air-carried or ground launch dispenser, these weapons contain numerous submunitions, which are designed to eject those submunitions over a pre-defined target area. Cluster munitions are bound by no regulatory strictures, not even the Ottawa convention. They are currently a legal military weapon that the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, representing Her Majesty’s Government in 2006, claimed:

“fulfil a legitimate military role that cannot be performed by other means”.—[Official Report, 6/11/07; col. 587.]

But the controversy that surrounds cluster munitions is that, while they can effect military advantage, their humanitarian cost is grave. My noble friend Lord Elton made the point that more and more military observers now consider them campaign losers, a point reinforced by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, who also drew the House’s attention to new military thinking, following on from General Rupert Smith’s excellent work on war among the people”. Although we must always respect the judgment of commanders of our Armed Forces, I am sure that they will be thinking and considering at a high level the issues that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has mentioned today. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, pointed out that military commanders will want to do everything possible not to alienate and kill civilians

The UN mine action co-ordination centre estimated that, during its one-month conflict, Israel dropped nearly 4 million cluster bombs on Lebanon from artillery projectiles which, as of 15 January 2007, resulted in 555 recorded casualties with children making up 25 per cent. Too often their consequence is the tragic death of innocent civilians. They can indeed be the “horrendous and silent hazards” that Timothy Caughley, deputy secretary of this November's conference, described. The noble Lord, Lord Jay, said that action must be taken to mitigate the worst aspects of military conflicts.

On Tuesday this week, the final day of the conference, the decision was reached that a group of governmental experts should be established to negotiate an international treaty stipulating exactly how, and if at all, cluster munitions should be used. The group will report its findings to the next meeting of the high contracting parties in November 2008, an outcome that we on these Benches welcome. We have been calling for an internationally recognised definition of these two different types of missiles. Unlike smart missiles, dumb missiles are understood to be those that do not discriminate between targets, or do not have mechanisms to self-destruct if they fail to explode on impact.

The Foreign Affairs Committee report—to which my noble friend alluded—estimates that smart cluster missiles’ failure rate is between 5 and 10 per cent, and the staggering failure rate of dumb cluster missiles is between 25 and 30 per cent. Dumb cluster missiles that fail to explode effectively become landmines when they reach the ground, as my noble friend explained. He pointed out the excellent work of de-miners and, like him, I pay tribute to them.

After its 2007 conflict, Lebanon has been scarred, with an estimated area of 37 million square metres contaminated with almost a million unexploded submunitions. To prevent such situations arising again, the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, had advocated a ban on the use, production, stockpiling and distribution of all dumb cluster missiles, but not smart missiles. After the Prime Minister’s speech at the Lord Mayor of London’s banquet on Monday, Her Majesty’s Government’s position is now less clear. The Prime Minister declared he wanted to,

“work internationally for a ban on ... those cluster munitions which cause unacceptable harm to civilians”.

Can the Minister please clarify which cluster munitions, exactly, are “those munitions”, and if government policy has changed in any way? Will the Government be supporting the Prime Minister’s rhetoric with financial support? We on these Benches welcome Her Majesty’s Government’s £15 million donation in 2000-01 for de-mining teams around the world.

Is Her Majesty’s Government’s commitment to the banning of cluster munitions such that, if the certain conventional weapons resolution does not bring about change due to the resistance we have seen from some states—my noble friend mentioned Russia—they will follow Austria, Belgium, Hungary and Norway in banning these weapons anyway? The noble Lord, Lord Jay, asked for firm and moral leadership, and for Her Majesty’s Government to ban all cluster munitions. This was reinforced by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs.

We have reason to be hopeful that the outcome of this discussion on Protocol V will be successful, after the impressive results of the conference’s focus on the amended Protocol II. This protocol regulates, but does not ban, the use of landmines and booby-traps. Anti-personnel landmines must be kept in clearly marked and protected minefields or be equipped with self-destruct and self-deactivation mechanisms that disarm and render the mine unusable after a certain period of time. Cluster munitions dropped from aircraft or delivered by artillery or missiles must be fitted with self-destruct and self-deactivation mechanisms. Another fortuitous consequence of the conference’s inquiry into landmines was individual Governments’ and charities’ heightened consideration of this important issue.

The conference on the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons is a step towards repairing the terrible consequences of warfare and expanding the freedom of movement for those who live in lethally infected areas.

My Lords, I join all who have congratulated the noble Lord, Lord Elton, on obtaining time for this important debate. I thank him for his tireless humanitarian work on cluster munitions. I immediately acknowledge his seductive, even seditious, suggestion that I ignore the cautious advice of officials and go further than my brief allows. I reassure him that my brief will allow me—in that crabwise motion described by the noble Lord, Lord Jay—to move this issue forward at least some way. While this is the second debate on this subject this year, I would welcome many more. Pressure in a Chamber such as this moves the issue forward.

Across the Government, and in the Prime Minister’s reference to cluster munitions earlier this week, there is a clear recognition that the use of large numbers of explosive submunitions over large areas presents a serious risk of civilian casualties. Cluster munitions have long and potentially deadly consequences for civilians when their submunitions fail to explode as intended, and become dangerous explosive remnants of war, visiting a terrible toll upon subsequent generations. We agree that the use of cluster munitions was brought into sharp focus by the conflict in Lebanon last summer.

In describing what we have done in government, I shall look at this in two groups: first, what is happening on the international side and progress towards the banning of these weapons, and secondly, what is happening internally in our own use of weapons.

It has already been noted that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said in his speech earlier this week:

“We want to work internationally for a ban on … those cluster munitions which cause unacceptable harm to civilians.”

I was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Astor, whether that amounts to a change of policy. At this stage, it does not because the Government believe that they have already banned the so-called dumb weapons, but I recognise that there is a debate about whether that goes far enough.

My Lords, we keep on referring to “dumb”. My noble friend advanced a possible definition of what is not dumb: something that has either self-destruct or deactivation. The third category is weapons that are steered to individual targets. The general thinking is that either of those qualifications makes a munition not dumb. Does the Minister accept that if both of them were incorporated, a very large number would be put out of service and that would be an enormous step forward?

My Lords, the noble Lord knows that the United Kingdom now has two weapons types that are in dispute. One has a self-destruct mechanism built in and we believe that the other type does not meet the definition of a cluster bomb because of the limited number of munitions within it. However, that is a matter of debate, and, as has been observed throughout this debate, as yet there is no acceptable international definition of a cluster bomb. We believe that we have reduced our arsenal in ways that mean that we are not using weapons that do the kind of damage that occurred, for example, in Lebanon, but we recognise that this is not the last word on that.

I shall turn first to what has happened on the international side. As a number of noble Lords have mentioned, the CCW third review meeting made some progress last year on several related categories of weapons, but the priority for the UK and our EU partners at this year’s meeting of states parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which has just concluded, was, as the noble Lord, Lord Elton, observed, to secure a negotiating mandate on cluster munitions as a necessary step towards agreeing additional protocols on cluster munitions.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Jay, I do not believe that the difficulty is divisions within the European Union on this; it is more a case of divisions with others who have not raised the quality of their weapons to the UK standard. Let me immediately say that we do not believe that the negotiating mandate that was eventually agreed is anything like as strong as we would have liked. However, as the Prime Minister said, we seek practical action for change. We will work hard with other states parties over the next year to ensure substantial action emerges from the work of the group of governmental experts whose rather leisurely meetings schedule was referred to. We believe that the CCW is still the right place to secure a new instrument because it includes the major users and producers of cluster munitions and an agreement forged there is most likely to bring down the use of these weapons. That is why the United Kingdom has worked very hard over the past 12 months to be a leader in the process in that conference.

Let me be clear that—and this is a little bit analogous to the Ottawa process, which reinforced a slow-moving intergovernmental process on landmines—we look at the Oslo process as the vital ginger group that will bring pressure to bear on the CCW. That is why we are participating in it with, at the last count, 83 other states. As many noble Lords are aware, the Oslo negotiations are evolving. At the next Oslo process meeting in Vienna from 5 to 7 December textual elements for a new convention are likely to be discussed. A further conference in Wellington in February 2008 is due to agree definitions and thereby set the conditions for entry into the convention. Whereas progress within the CCW framework may appear glacial in comparison, we still hope that these two processes can ultimately be to each other’s benefit because the final prize is an agreement where the hard-core producers and users accept a convention and a ban and not just a conversation among the like-minded who have already recognised this. Remembering Ottawa and the role it allowed for NGOs and other activist groups such as Landmine Action to bring huge pressure to bear on the intergovernmental process, I hope something similar will be created. The UN Secretary-General said that the Oslo process should be ‘mutually reinforcing and complementary’ to the CCW, and provide inspiration to the states of the CCW to fulfil the aim of a new instrument.

I now turn to what has happened here in the UK. I acknowledge the praise this morning for the progress that has been made and for the action of the Secretary of State for Defence. I hardly dare use the word “dumb” again; it is a very unfortunate term because of what it suggests about the weapons still commissioned. Nevertheless, we are in the happy situation of being able sharply to reduce these weapons systems. It is largely a response to the important point made by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, about the new asymmetric character of warfare where warfare takes place in population centres and indiscriminate weapons of this kind not only cause an unacceptable loss of innocent civilian life but are such a counterproductive weapon in winning hearts and minds, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, observed.

I draw the noble Lord’s attention to the remarkable and visionary document produced by General Petraeus, and particularly to the essay in it by Sarah Sewall, the director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights—I am not sure whether Ministers have to declare conflicts of interest, but I was on its board until becoming a Minister. The essay represents a revolution in military thinking and an understanding that these weapons are utterly at odds with the objectives of military action in these new asymmetric conflicts.

I caution the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, to remember, as I am sure that he does, that although at the moment fighting counterinsurgency operations seem to be the dominant likely conflicts of the future, it is nevertheless the case that there is still a possibility that our Armed Forces will find themselves committed to an operation against an enemy equipped with mass armour, for which certain categories of weapons that we would not want to use in close civilian situations may still be justified in those more old-fashioned battle circumstances.

I remind noble Lords that we expected the 2003 action in Iraq to be more of that old character than of the new.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, but I think that he would agree that the weapons that we actually deployed in Iraq, such as the M85, were not anti-armour but anti-personnel.

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord is correct. Although they were deployed in 2003, they were felt to have been supported by very detailed targeting procedures, which minimised civilian casualties. I believe that they were felt by the commanders there at the time to have been very effective against Iraqi armour and artillery. Nevertheless, I take the noble Lord’s point: the conflict was not what we had expected, which is why they were quickly withdrawn from use.

Let me reassure the noble Lord—he is aware of this—that despite the very bad press that the M85 had in Lebanon, where it was used by the Israeli armed forces and where it was suggested there has been a failure rate of 25 per cent to 30 per cent, in the case of the British arsenal, the M85 has been tested rigorously. Tests conducted in Norway in 2005 suggested a failure rate of 2.3 per cent. Although any failure rate is not acceptable, that at least puts those weapons in a very different category.

My Lords, does the noble Lord accept that experts—I think that it was the Norwegians themselves—went to the field in Lebanon and found evidence that the failure rate was much higher than that?

My Lords, I was acknowledging a failure rate of 25 per cent to 30 per cent for the weapons used in Lebanon as a figure that has been used. Frankly, given the fraught nature of the aftermath of that conflict, it is very hard to get solid figures for the failure rate, but it was clearly unacceptably high and had a terrible consequence for civilian lives. I fully acknowledge that point but, again, I contrast those weapons with the UK M85, which has a self-destruct mechanism. We are committed to improving the reliability of these weapons.

The essential point is that, given what the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has observed about the current nature of the conflicts in which we are involved in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is no current use of those weapons. They remain in the arsenal, but are not used. The weapon of dispute is the Apache-fired CRV7, which the Ministry of Defence does not categorise as a cluster weapon—but I suspect that there may be a debate on definition there.

I assure your Lordships that Her Majesty's Government have moved this year in response to concern expressed in this Chamber and outside by civil society and all those involved in the Oslo process. We have moved sharply to contract our use of those weapons, to decommission whole categories of those weapons and to take the lead internationally in pressing for a conventional treaty to ensure that the use of cluster weapons, as an indiscriminate tool of warfare against people and one that no longer comports with the overwhelming nature of modern conflict, is reined right back to military purposes that have a military rationale.

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, could he address my question about the constraints put on our diplomatic efforts in such meetings by any line set by the presidency of the European Union? If there are such constraints, can he assure us that the greatest efforts will be made before the next meeting in 2008 to ensure that there is an accord as to what those constraints should be?

My Lords, the noble Lord will have heard me say that I hoped that the observation of the noble Lord, Lord Jay, that the European Union had a common and proactive position on the matter in the negotiations, was indeed the case. It is other producers who are not members of the European Union who were the force of conservatism and resistance here. I can assure the noble Lord that building a common position is usually worth the effort, because it increases our firepower—to use what is perhaps a slightly unfortunate metaphor in this context.

I will look into the negotiations surrounding the emergence of that common position, because it is a useful diplomatic tool. It gives more power to our arm, if you like, but the noble Lord is quite correct: if it is at the expense of a forward position, we should try to ensure that next time Europe is more forward.

My Lords, I am most grateful to your Lordships. I earlier thanked your Lordships for taking part, because it had escaped me that I would have the opportunity to do so formally at the end. I add my thanks to those who have not taken part but who have done us the favour of listening to the arguments, which I hope were persuasive. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.