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Cluster Munitions

Volume 732: debated on Thursday 10 November 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they consider that Article 21 of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, incorporated in the Oslo Treaty of 2008, debars states party to that convention from promoting the adoption by other states of another convention containing weaker restrictions on the use of such weapons.

My Lords, the United Kingdom is fully committed to the Convention on Cluster Munitions and our Article 21 commitments. We will not sign up to anything that would undermine it or dilute our obligations under it. We believe that engaging in negotiations for a protocol on cluster munitions in the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons is consistent with paragraphs 1 and 2 of Article 21 of the convention. These are negotiations within the framework of an international humanitarian law treaty, which are aiming at establishing restrictions on a significant number of cluster munitions, which would have a notable humanitarian effect.

My Lords, Article 21 actually requires us to promote the norms established by the Oslo treaty and the CCM. The norms in the CCW convention that we are now discussing are significantly lower and permit the use, for instance, of the M85 weapon, which formed a considerable part of the saturation bombing of the Lebanon by Israel in 2006, when 4 million sub-units were used. Can my noble friend not see that the United Nations kitemark on a convention of this sort, which permits the use of many sorts of these child-killing weapons, will lead the rest of the world to think that the use of these weapons is respectable? This is not promoting the norms that we have undertaken to promote.

A lot of what my noble friend says is very wise. I emphasise that our consistent aim has been to ensure that any protocol on cluster munitions which emerges from the CCW parties is complementary to and does not contradict the rights and obligations of state parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions. I see the concern of my noble friend. The Government are anxious to take account of the worries and views of noble Lords and of Parliament generally. I repeat that we will not sign up to anything that would undermine the gold standard, as it were, of the existing convention. I give my noble friend that reassurance. A lot will depend on the negotiations and how they come out. Our position will be determined by that, not by any undermining of the kind which the noble Lord fears.

My Lords, notwithstanding the changes that we agreed the other day, would the Minister spare me having to thank him for that Answer, which I am afraid increases concern rather than decreases it? Will he not recognise that there is a very strong body of opinion in this House and in the House of Commons, which was brought to the attention of the Minister responsible for disarmament the other day, about the negotiations in Geneva for a protocol whose sole purpose is to ban some antique cluster munitions that are not very relevant to today’s world and which, if it is agreed, will have the effect of legitimising the modern cluster munitions weapons, including those referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that were used to such disastrous effect in the Lebanon? Will he not recognise that these feelings are strong and well founded? Will he not agree that it would be completely wrong—politically, not just legally—for this country either to support or to subscribe to any convention that makes that distinction and has the effect of legitimising these appalling modern weapons?

The noble Lord made a number of points. The antique cluster weapons are of course often the nastiest, particularly if they are used, so banning them is no bad thing. As for the negotiation over the protocol, obviously we will take into account the points that the noble Lord has made. However, perhaps he should take into account the point that 85 to 90 per cent of all cluster weapons are with non-Oslo state parties and so are left out of the present commitment, to which we ourselves are totally committed. If his advice is that we should ignore that situation, that sounds to me like a direct attack on a humanitarian benefit that we might achieve. I wonder if he would not like to reconsider his position.

My Lords, what is the mechanism for the adoption of the convention? Is it a majority vote by the Security Council? Do we have a veto?

We have already adopted the convention and it is a question of getting more countries to sign up to it. Alas, there are a number of important countries—the United States, Russia and China, for a start—that have not done so. That is the mechanism on the existing convention. If any protocol emerges from this, and that is a very large if—it depends on the force of our stance and our commitment not to sign anything that would undermine the convention—that would have to be approved by the United Nations and would have to receive signatories in the same way.

My Lords, will my noble friend give the House an assurance that, where competing international treaties or protocols are being negotiated, the United Kingdom will always strive, particularly in the context of arms sales, for the higher ethical standards in the spirit of our disarmament obligations that we have maintained for well over 60 years?

Clearly, we will give primacy to the gold standard, as I call it, of this convention. If it reassures my noble friend, I confess that we are disappointed with the progress of negotiations so far. We will continue to press the world’s major users and producers to give up more, be more transparent and be more explicit in their commitment to working towards a world free of cluster munitions, which is the aim of all of us.

My Lords, the point raised by the noble Lords, Lord Elton and Lord Hannay, is that in the current approach there is a risk of legitimising the use of modern cluster weapons. Could the Minister respond to that point?

First, let me say that the previous Government made excellent progress on this. The noble Lord may remember that when I was sitting in his place we supported that, and some brave and bold decisions were taken that we were all very pleased with. The risk is there in the negotiation, but it is a risk that we are determined to avoid. We do not want to legitimise lower standards or undermine or dilute the Convention on Cluster Munitions in any way. That is the approach that we will use in our negotiations. I cannot go into our detailed stance because that would not be very helpful at this stage, but the noble Lord is right that there are risks in this matter, and we are determined to avoid them.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that many of us doubt that modern cluster weapons are less nasty than the antique ones? Will he give an undertaking that the Government will not in future sign up to any convention that permits the use of modern cluster weapons?

As I said, we will not sign up to any convention that in any way dilutes or undermines obligations. I made the observation on antique weapons merely because it is a minimalist better-than-nothing point that banning antique weapons would be a start. Obviously, we would like to see a total ban, but we have to face the fact that 85 to 90 per cent of cluster munition countries and manufacturers are left out of the present convention. We must battle on to better things, but we cannot achieve it all overnight.