Cluster Munitions

– in the House of Lords at 2:42 pm on 6th May 2008.

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Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench 2:42 pm, 6th May 2008

My Lords, while declaring an interest as chair of the board of the United Nations Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which is part of the campaign to ban cluster munitions, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will seek an international convention banning all cluster munitions at the next meeting of the Oslo process in Dublin in late May.

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN)

My Lords, the Government's aim is to achieve a legally binding instrument on those cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians. That is what we, along with the other participants in the Oslo process, will be working to achieve in Dublin. The key task at this final meeting will be to reach agreement on the types of cluster munitions that fall into this category and which should therefore be prohibited.

Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench

My Lords, while I thank the Minister for that reply, which seems rather less clear and categorical than I would have hoped, does he recognise that any further effort by Her Majesty's Government to maintain a distinction between types of cluster munitions that would be banned and types that would still be permissible is liable either to wreck the prospects of an international convention being agreed in Dublin or to produce one that would be unenforceable and ineffective? Given the appalling suffering of innocent civilians, which has already been inflicted by the use of these munitions irrespective of their type, and given their fundamental military unsuitability for the kinds of hostilities most prevalent in today's world, will the Minister make a further effort before the Dublin meeting to define a British negotiating position that will accept the banning of all cluster munitions with no ifs and buts?

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN)

My Lords, I think the noble Lord knows that the Government's position is that we want to seek a ban on those munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians, either because they do not have a self-exploding feature or because they hit targets indiscriminately due to the nature of their launching and aiming systems. There is a debate about which munitions should or should not fall within this category. That is the purpose of Dublin: to see if this can be resolved in a way that protects those weapons that we still consider to have military utility. While the noble Lord is correct about today's asymmetrical warfare and the fact that these weapons have little purpose and can do a lot of harm when used in areas where civilians are present, we should not assume that old-fashioned warfare with tanks and other major targets is gone for ever.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Deputy Leader, House of Lords, Spokesperson in the Lords, Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords, Home Affairs

My Lords, can the Minister give us a useful distinction between cluster weapons that cause unacceptable harm to civilians and cluster weapons that do not? Is he confident that one can get a consensus in the negotiations on that distinction?

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN)

My Lords, the noble Lord is pressing on the most difficult point in this—that of trying to find a definition that is acceptable to the countries that are moving forward the Oslo process and, more broadly, those who are our military partners and with whom issues of interoperability are key. I have given the principal criterion, which is harm to civilians. We see that as coming from old, unmodernised weapons, weapons that do not self-explode and weapons that are fired and aimed in such a way that it is hard to avoid unnecessary civilian destruction.

Photo of Baroness Whitaker Baroness Whitaker Labour

My Lords, when it is a question of the definition of a civilian, does my noble friend accept that, in this country, when we look at compensation for the trauma of being injured by bombs, we look at loss of earnings and the cost to the whole family? Can my noble friend confirm that the current definition of a victim in the draft of the cluster munitions treaty will remain as it is; that is to say, it will include the family affected—so much more important in countries where earnings are crucial to survival?

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN)

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. I do not believe that this issue is in dispute in the draft treaty so I can say with some confidence that it is likely to remain the same, but I again stress that the meeting in Dublin is to resolve differences in the treaty and I cannot rule out changes. However, in that area, that is unlikely.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs, Deputy Shadow Leader, Parliament, Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, does the Minister accept that almost all so-called submunitions can cause civilian deaths and casualties and are doing so at this moment—while we are sitting here—in places such as southern Lebanon? I have considerable sympathy with the observations made by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, about that and the dangers of too many qualifications and too much hair-splitting over the definitions of different munitions. Does the Minister also accept that any agreement either in Dublin or later on has to be universal? Can he tell us which countries are still opposing the whole idea? Do they include the United States, Russia or China—if so, we have a lot of work ahead of us—and which countries merely want a transitional period? Do they include countries such as Japan and Germany? Where exactly in this spectrum do we stand?

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN)

My Lords, the important point to understand is that not all countries are part of this process. A core group that went to Oslo has been working on this. It includes countries that are not users of these weapons together with some, such as ourselves, who use them in a very limited way. The difficulty for us is that not all NATO members are part of this process and therefore interoperability and the need to protect our ability to work with NATO partners in certain conflicts are key. NATO members have no need or reason at this time to use such weapons because of the nature of the conflicts we are involved in. We have no south Lebanon on our books at this time.

Photo of The Bishop of Southwark The Bishop of Southwark Bishop

My Lords, will the Minister explain what cluster munitions are used for?

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN)

My Lords, their purpose is to be used against heavily armoured targets. That is why in today's current asymmetric campaigns against insurgents they have no high military utility. That is why they have not been used by NATO in recent years.

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Spokesperson in the Lords, International Development, Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development)

My Lords, is it still the case that DfID is opposed to these weapons but that the Ministry of Defence wishes to retain them? Who does the Minister think will prevail in the end?

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN)

My Lords, I could not possibly comment. The Ministry of Defence obviously has a certain interest in this because weapons of certain limited types that fall within this category are within our current arsenal, if not presently being used. There is a discussion inside government as we move to the negotiation in Dublin, and there is a determination to try to get an agreement if we can and therefore to make our definition as expansive as possible, consistent with protecting our military interest.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Labour

My Lords, the Minister spoke in his initial response of a ban against the weapons that cause unacceptable harm to civilians, leaving the impression that perhaps there might be something that involved acceptable harm to civilians. I am sure that my noble friend did not mean to imply that but it was the inference none the less that some noble Lords drew from what he said.

Does the Minister agree that one of the dreadful things about cluster weapons is not only that they explode on a delayed mechanism, like landmines, but also that they are extremely attractive to children? That is what most people find totally unacceptable: that young children come to play with what they see as something attractive on the ground and lose a hand, arm or foot—or even worse—in so doing. Will the Minister explain what will be done in these discussions to try and avoid these difficulties, not just about delay but about making these weapons less attractive to children?

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN)

My Lords, let me be clear that when we say "unacceptable", we mean random and indiscriminate harm to civilians that does not show proper effort to protect innocent civilian lives in a military conflict. Let us again be clear: war always, sadly, claims innocent civilian lives, whatever protection is taken.

We believe that the weapons in the British arsenal do not have a high failure rate; they have a very low failure rate—indeed, one of the two is self-exploding, which should keep the rate extremely low. However, I think that we are all aware that southern Lebanon represented a terrible, terrible situation with continuing tragic deaths of children and others. One very much hopes that the weapons type that was used in southern Lebanon will be within the boundaries of this treaty. Therefore the answer to my noble friend's question is that that variant of the M85 will not be in use in future.

Photo of The Earl of Onslow The Earl of Onslow Conservative

My Lords, presumably those weapons in southern Lebanon were provided by the United States for use by Israel. If that is the case and the United States will not be present in Dublin—which is what I gathered the noble Lord was implying—where are we going from here?

Photo of Lord Malloch-Brown Lord Malloch-Brown Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Africa, Asia and the UN)

My Lords, the hope is that it will be rather like the landmines treaty, which was initially carried by a small group of convinced countries— even if they did come from very different military backgrounds—that formed a treaty that the rest of the international community came in behind and supported. We hope the same will happen with this. That is why it is so important that the concluding negotiations in Dublin do not create a narrow treaty that will not gain that broad support—without it, its utility in limiting this use of weapons will not amount to that much.