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CS Gas

Oral Answers to Questions — Public Building and Works – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th March 1970.

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Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Croydon South 12:00 am, 10th March 1970

asked the Prime Minister how many letters he has received on the Government's present policy on CS Gas.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

About twenty, Sir.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Croydon South

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the considerable and serious concern about the Government's decision to exclude CS gas from the Geneva Protocol? Is it not a matter where the Government should look at the position again, and have not countries like Canada expressed their disapproval of the Government's decision?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

I have referred to this matter in the past at Question Time. We have looked at it many times having regard to the kind of arguments put forward by my hon. Friend. As I have explained, and as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has explained to the House, the situation is that, when the 1930 decisions were taken about the protocol, CS gas had not then been developed. It is of a different character in its effects from all those known and contemplated in 1930.

Photo of Mr Alex Lyon Mr Alex Lyon , City of York

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it would be possible under the Geneva Protocol to keep CS gas for internal security if it was already excluded from use in war? There is a real distinction between the two situations, since in one case the use of the gas might escalate to the use of more dangerous weapons, whereas in internal security that is quite impossible.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to internal security. While everyone in the House was concerned when CS gas was used and about the circumstances in which it was used in Northern Ireland, when it was used, under proper control, it was because the only alternative in a heavily built up urban area would have been to use bullets—[HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense."] I am sorry. My hon. Friends know that the job of the British troops in the matter of keeping—[Interruption.] I am referring to when it was used under proper control by British troops. My hon. Friends will know the job that they had in keeping order on one or two particularly difficult nights. If the horrible decision to use CS gas had not been taken, the even more horrible alternative would have been that of protecting British solders' lives with bullets. Faced with that choice of evils, I think that most hon. Members would have chosen the one which was chosen by the British forces.

Photo of Dr Winnie Ewing Dr Winnie Ewing , Hamilton

Has the Government's decision to redefine gas as smoke anything to do with a desire to please the United States Government?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

No, Sir. That had nothing to do with any decision which was taken. It was a separate decision which we took. As I said, it is used very sparingly and under control in internal situations where the alternative is to do something worse and something more lasting, because there is no recovery from bullets—

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

So far as its use in war is concerned, again different hon. Members could form different views as to its effects. One can imagine a lot of situations in modern military warfare where it could lead to less loss of life than if it were not available.

Photo of Mr Niall MacDermot Mr Niall MacDermot , Derby North

In view of the widespread disagreement about the Government's view of their obligation, and as a matter of international law, will my right hon. Friend consider referring the matter for an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice and agree to abide by the decision of the court?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

We took our decision in the light of the available advice on the legal matters involved. I know that there are certain difficulties in interpretation, partly due to the fact that, unaccountably, in the English and French texts the Geneva Protocol itself uses different words, though both texts are authentic. I do not think that we would gain anything in these difficult problems by asking for a further legal opinion.

Mr. MacMaster:

Is The Prime Minister aware that he is exaggerating in a very unfortunate manner when he suggests that the alternative in Northern Ireland was to use bullets? Is he further aware that on the occasion of a Sunday afternoon church parade in my constituency, CS gas was used when there was no question of a need for bullets and indeed when there was no question of any breach of the peace?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

I cannot comment on individual incidents in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. Many of the matters which caused concern last year are being investigated by the Scarman Tribunal, and I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will see to it that evidence is given about the case that he has in mind. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not deny that there were some really ugly incidents. I will not say from which side they came, because there were extremists of more than one persuasion involved. At various times, there were very ugly incidents where British troops, in order to keep law and order and in order to preserve their own lives, would have had to use weapons. Instead, because they had CS gas, they used it. No one likes the thought of using CS gas in Northern Ireland or anywhere else. But if it is a choice between that and weapons, which would be the alternative, I think that most hon. Members would choose the gas.

Photo of Mr Philip Noel-Baker Mr Philip Noel-Baker , Derby South

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I took part in the discussions on the Geneva Protocol in 1930 and that there is, in my view, absolutely no doubt whatever that the view of Mr. Arthur Henderson and Lord Robert Cecil, which was unanimously accepted by the Disarmament Conference, forbids the use of any such gas as CS in time of war?

Is my right hon. Friend further aware that a great authority in the United States has said that the other gases, the herbicides and defoliants, have done long-term damage to Vietnam agriculture and that they have destroyed the forests perhaps for ever?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

The subject of the second part of my right hon. Friend's question has been debated a number of times. It is a separate question from the one on the Order Paper, whether in the context of Vietnam or in the broader context of defoliants and similar preparations. On the first part of my right hon. Friend's question, everyone knows of the authority with which he speaks on these matters and his long experience and distinguished contribution to disarmament in those years. Our conclusion took into account everything said in those discussions. But I think that my right hon. Friend will recognise that discoveries, such as CS gas, were not known to exist in this form at the time that these decisions were taken. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that in all matters of disarmament the good is sometimes the enemy of the best, and that is the alternative we are facing here.