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31 Oct 2002 : Column 1053—continued

Dr. Julian Lewis: The hon. Gentleman has a long history of open-mindedness on the dilemmas faced by successive Russian military authorities. Can he shed light on the fact that after the gas was applied in the theatre in Moscow—so effectively and lethally that it knocked everyone out and killed people so that nothing could explode—many of the assailants were dispatched by gunshot wounds? Presumably that happened when they were unconscious.

Harry Cohen: I have seen those reports. I want the Russian authorities to be more open about what happened and why. I hope that they can be encouraged to produce that information.

Patrick Mercer: I had the good fortune—or the misfortune—to watch the events on Russian television

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last week. It was obvious that Spetznatz forces made no bones about the fact that the terrorists were executed while they were unconscious. There was no question of hiding that. Indeed, the terrorists' wounds were exposed and filmed on camera to the acclaim of the audience among whom I was standing.

Harry Cohen: That act was wrong, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point.

Although I would not want the Government to release information that could be useful to terrorists, there is scope for greater openness, not least in having information ready to send to doctors who treat casualties exposed to such materials. When the full story of what happened in Moscow is known, I fear we will learn that some people died in hospital because the doctors knew nothing about what compound had affected their patients. I would not want that to happen if we had a siege.

In response to my questions in 1998, I learned that the Ministry of Defence held about 260 kg of CR which was described as

That was a puzzling statement because the next answer from the Ministry of Defence in response to another Member said:

But CR had been described in the same way. Although the full effects of CR have not been published, perhaps one side effect is amnesia. That juxtaposition of contradictory answers prompted correspondence.

The Minister wrote to me explaining that although in technical terms CR was considered a riot control agent, because of its effects it was held for use not against rioters but against terrorists—hence the claim that CS is the only Ministry of Defence riot control agent. As I cannot understand why a substance such as CR would be used against terrorists unless hostages were involved, that means that it would be used in situations similar to that in Moscow. Is that a serious loophole in the chemical weapons convention? Could a country stockpile chemical agents while pretending they were for law-enforcement purposes and then let their military people use them in a war? That would critically undermine the convention, the major piece of international law which controls chemical weapons around the world and which most major countries have signed.

The convention clearly says that any toxic chemical held for one of the permitted purposes, such as law enforcement, should be held only

That provision could close the loophole because other countries could challenge in the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague the holding of such chemical weapons. That international body relates to the convention, and I urge the use of such challenges and inspections.

The Government, through the Ministry of Defence, must give a new public assurance that they have checked that stocks of CR are held in compliance with the

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chemical weapons convention. But they must also do a little more. They cannot simply say that they are in compliance; they must present evidence of their thinking and show how they reached their conclusions. Only in that way can we make other countries justify what they do with chemicals for law-enforcement purposes. The Government would be a world leader by helping to keep the loophole tightly closed.

We cannot allow the use of gas to pass without comment. It may seem politically expedient not to condemn the use of gas now, but will it seem that way in a decade? The greatest control on the use of chemical weapons around the world is the fact that they are taboo in many cultures. If it becomes acceptable to use chemicals in law enforcement, that may lead to a weakening of the general taboo against their use in other circumstances. We owe it to British troops in the field to ensure that the sense of taboo against the use of chemical weapons is as strong as possible.

If the Russians feel that there has been little international pressure concerning the use of gases, what is to stop them using the same substances in Chechnya itself? If they did so, would the Americans feel free to use sleeping gases in Iraq? We could be at the start of a slippery slope that ends with scenes such as those in Halabja in 1988—another instance in which the Government of the day found it expedient not to criticise. We need strong controls on all those materials in all circumstances.

The Government must accept that there is no such thing as a non-lethal weapon. There is still speculation about the exact gas used in the Moscow siege, and although thankfully it was not lethal for the majority of the people involved, it was lethal for about 100 others. As with all substances that can bring about unconsciousness, the difference in the dosage necessary to make a person sleep and that needed for lethal effect is relatively small, which is why an anaesthetist will constantly monitor a patient who is under general anaesthetic during routine surgery. Sadly, uncontrolled doses can be lethal.

A great deal of political attention has been paid to so-called Xnon-lethal" weapons in recent years. It is laudable to try to create methods for carrying out military and peacekeeping operations without causing as much death and destruction, and the United States has an extensive programme to develop non-lethal weapons, but all that is too optimistic. Perhaps the longer-term lesson from what happened in Moscow is that it has demonstrated, in the bluntest possible terms, that the drive for non-lethal weapons is based on the fundamentally mistaken belief that materials that interfere with the operations of the human body can be applied with little chance of deadly effects becoming apparent. Non-lethal often ends up being lethal.

In summary, the Government must publish the evidence for their conclusion that their holdings of CR gas comply with the chemical weapons convention, and then encourage other countries to display similar openness. How can we demand from Russia information that we ourselves have not provided?

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent): I accept almost everything that the hon. Gentleman says, but will

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he answer a simple question? Given that the evidence now emerging from Moscow is that the special forces had to move quickly in the early hours of the morning because they believed that the hostages were about to be killed by their captors, how would the hon. Gentleman have resolved the siege without recourse to gas, which the forces needed to use to stop the terrorists activating their explosives?

Harry Cohen: I cannot say how I would have done it because I do not have all the information. Nobody has, which is why we want openness, at least in retrospect, from the Russians. I have made it clear that the use of the gas does not breach the chemical weapons convention. We must have openness, otherwise we will open up the possibility of the convention being breached, and I want to prevent that.

The Government must also be more open about the rules of engagement for the use of CR and provide full reassurance that they have taken all reasonable steps to ensure that the correct treatments are available if anyone is exposed to CR. Lastly, and most important, the Government must ensure that chemicals used in law enforcement are there only as a last resort. It took most of the 20th century to achieve proper controls on the use of chemical weapons; it is the Government's duty to ensure that those controls are not weakened in the first few years of the 21st century.

3.54 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): The right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), the Chairman of the Defence Committee, invited me to expand on my earlier intervention about the intelligence services' assessment in the 1990s of the rising threat from Islamic fundamentalist extremism, and I shall do so with the limited knowledge that I have.

That knowledge simply goes back to an incident in, if I remember correctly, 1994 or 1995, when, perhaps looking backwards a little too much and forwards too little, I was concerned about membership of the Intelligence and Security Committee and in particular the fact that people were being appointed to that Committee who had a history of sympathy with the former Soviet Union. I discussed the matter with a senior parliamentarian—it would be invidious to identify him—who said, XQuite frankly, Julian, we are not bothered about that any more." Surprise surprise. What was a genuine surprise was that he then said, XWe are concerned about whether any members of the Committee have links with Muslim fundamentalism."

I was impressed by the fact that, at that early stage, when there had been no significant eruption of Muslim extremism in this country, the committee should have been already thinking about such matters. We cannot lay at the door of the intelligence and security services the accusation that they were not thinking about these matters long before 11 September 2001; clearly they were doing so. We have to wonder why, when they had appreciated that Muslim extremism would be the next threat over the horizon, the strategic defence review carried out in 1998, several years later, did not pay more attention to that threat.

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The Chairman of the Defence Committee criticised the post-11 September Government pronouncements in various Ministry of Defence documents as being too bland in stating that in the defence of the United Kingdom, the fight had to be carried to the potential enemy long before he got too close to home. I think that criticism a little unjustified. If there is a primary point that I want to convey in my contribution, it is that passive defence against terrorism is never enough; only a form of offensive defence can hope to be successful.

That problem is not new. Strangely enough, the strategic planners of the United Kingdom—in the days to which I refer it was still just about at the tail end of what was called Xthe British empire"—had to face something very similar. At the end of the second world war, they had to assess what the arrival of mass destruction weapons meant for the future defence of the country. Some of the top scientific brains in the country were then still available to the Government service because they had been recruited as scientific advisers to the respective service Ministries throughout the second world war. They turned their attention to the prospect of whether there was any straightforward or practical way to counter the threat posed by the advent of biological and, as they were then described, atomic weapons. They quickly came to the conclusion that it was important to keep up the techniques of conventional military warfare and maintain the traditional roles of the Army, the Navy and the Royal Air Force in safeguarding sea communications and defending the United Kingdom's air space, as no one knew what sort of conventional conflict might yet take place. However, because only a few mass destruction weapons were needed to cause massive devastation, the only real defence against them was the ability to threaten immediate and devastating counter-attacks, thus deterring people from launching an offensive in the first place.

There is a parallel with today's situation. In the international threat facing our homeland, a small number of people may use the technology that the west itself has developed. Modern airliners, for example, may attack modern buildings, resulting in the deaths of many people following detailed organisation by a few individuals. That mini form of mass destruction is difficult to stop because only a few people undertake it. As we heard from the Minister of State for Defence in response to one of my interventions about individual terrorists undertaking copycat operations, there is no way in which society can protect against every deranged individual who may want to attack it. There is therefore a parallel, as a small number of people pose a disproportionate threat of damage and destruction.

However, there is also a difference in the solution to the problem—deterrents cannot be applied to people who are so filled with hatred that rational consideration of their own interests cannot be deemed applicable. If we are dealing with those who are so full of hatred that they are prepared to commit suicide to bring down their perceived enemy, we cannot hope to deter them from attacking. However, if we cannot hope to deter them and cannot necessarily, because of the mass destruction multiplier effect, hope to prevent them from carrying out those attacks, it follows that the MOD's basic

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approach is correct—we must stop them launching the attack in the first place. The best way to do so is, indeed, to attack their bases or at least their centres of power.

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