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Falkland Islands: Unexploded Ordnance

Volume 698: debated on Tuesday 29 January 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What is the position on the removal of unexploded landmines and other ordnance still lying in the Falkland Islands following the 1982 conflict.

My Lords, a joint UK-Argentina feasibility study into de-mining in the Falkland Islands was completed in October 2007. It concluded that clearance will be challenging but technically possible. The Government are now considering the options for clearance before deciding on next steps. Any clearance operation would remove all unexploded ordnance contained in mined areas.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is it not the case that in addition to the technology currently available to deal with this matter, there are also international obligations upon the combatant nations? Will that be part of the consideration that she has referred to?

Yes, my Lords. As noble Lords—certainly the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne—will know, the UK is a state party to the Ottawa convention and its obligations, and we are very well aware of them. A feasibility study was concluded in October. The UK is now considering options before deciding on next steps. Since the end of hostilities in 1982, the landmines have been clearly marked, fenced off and monitored, and there have been no civilian casualties.

My Lords, is it not rather depressing that on a British territory, 25 years after the conflict, these landmines and other ordnance are still there as a potential danger? What hope is there for other countries in the world where there are millions of these weapons lying about posing a great danger to civilians? Does my noble friend agree that the case for banning cluster munitions is therefore even stronger? Will she please say that I am pushing at an open door on this?

My Lords, the noble Lord certainly cannot be accused of not pushing. It has taken time to get to this stage—a feasibility study that is now being looked at extremely seriously and will be put in front of Ministers very shortly—because we have been working alongside the Argentinian people on this, and I do not need to tell noble Lords that that has meant that negotiations on de-mining the Falklands have been detailed, complex and extensive. However, we now hope to be looking seriously at the next steps.

We are aware that cluster munitions around the world are maiming and killing people, particularly in developing countries. That is why DfID spends £2 million per year assisting with de-mining across the world. I hope that my noble friend will take encouragement from the fact that in March 2007 we removed from use the so-called dumb cluster munitions that were under our control. We are working in the Oslo and CCW organisations to ensure the eventual removal of all cluster munitions.

My Lords, to expand a little on what the Minister says, is not the position that there are well over 20,000 landmines scattered around the Falklands and that about 18,000 of them were put there by the Argentinians, often by recruits—who have no idea where they are now—or by remote devices? It is not surprising that, since it is our sovereign territory—although the Argentinians continue to dispute that—this argument has gone on for years. The continued view from Buenos Aires—that because this is Argentine sovereignty there has to be a quarrel over who does what—is wasting a lot of time and in future may even waste a lot of lives. Is it not time for the Argentinians to recognise that, at a practical level, there should be no further barrier to working out exactly where these mines have been laid and getting their full co-operation in removing these dangers from the territory?

My Lords, I very much agree with the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord. This process has taken time. It has been complex and sometimes difficult, but we have good relations with the Argentinians. We have no problem, and no uncertainty whatever, about sovereignty; sovereignty is clear as far as we are concerned. There will be no negotiations on the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands unless and until such time as the Falklanders wish there to be. That has been made clear to the Argentinian Government; they are well aware of that. Like the noble Lord, I would not wish any convention, such as the Ottawa convention, to be used to underline any claim to the Falklands other than our own.

My Lords, while I am well aware of the time it has taken to carry out these de-mining operations, what is the Government’s annual spending now on de-mining in the Falklands? How many personnel are employed in these activities?

My Lords, there has been a feasibility study on what can be done technically in the de-mining process. Budgets have not been made public and will of course be discussed. There is no beating about the bush; this will be expensive—we are talking about a lot of ordnance. As the noble Lord said, it is spread over a wide area. There are also environmental issues that the Falklanders are concerned about.

My Lords, the thrust of the Minister’s reply earlier means that the British Government would save themselves an awful lot of trouble and expense if they banned cluster munitions totally, and did not use them. That might be a better way forward than going around the world picking up the ones that we have used or maintaining an unsustainable distinction between so-called dumb and so-called smart weapons. In that case, I assume that we have to pick up the smart ones that are not smart.

My Lords, I am told that we do not use the word “smart”; we use the phrase “not dumb”. The UK Armed Forces use cluster munitions only when operationally necessary. As with the application of all force, it is done only in strict accordance with international humanitarian law and our strict targeting guidelines. Unfortunately, we cannot exclude the use of cluster munitions in certain circumstances as regards the arsenal available to our Armed Forces and their protection.

My Lords, what part will the Argentinians play in the de-mining, and is this acceptable to the Falkland Islanders?

My Lords, we do not see the Argentinians playing any part in the actual de-mining. They have been with us as partners in producing the feasibility study.