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23 Nov 2006 : Column 795

Hinchingbrooke Hospital

6.15 pm

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): This is the petition of 55,000 residents of Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire mainly resident in the constituencies of Huntingdon, North-West Cambridgeshire and South Cambridgeshire. I am pleased to be supported this evening by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara).

It reads:

To lie upon the Table.


23 Nov 2006 : Column 796

Cluster Munitions

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Watts.]

6.16 pm

Mr. Martin Caton (Gower) (Lab): I would like, in this short debate, to talk about what cluster munitions are; what they do; and who they do it to. I shall also briefly consider the history of cluster munitions over the past 40 years and the international debate about the moral justification for their use over most of that time. I shall also call for our Government to renounce the use of those weapons, to destroy the stockpiles that our defence forces hold, and to take a lead in the international community in seeking a global ban.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister who will be replying to this debate does not need me to describe cluster munitions, but for clarity and for the record, I wish to make it absolutely clear what I am talking about. Cluster munitions are air-dropped or ground-launched shells that eject multiple smaller submunitions or bomblets. Some have been developed for use against runways, armour and even electrical transmission systems, and some are smart weapons with guidance systems to locate a specific type of target. But their primary purpose, in most circumstances in which they have been used, is to kill people—enemy soldiers—and they do that very effectively.

The British cluster bombs stocked and used by the Royal Air Force are the BL 755 and the RBL 755. Each British BL 755 contains 147 submunitions designed to disable tanks and kill soldiers. Each submunition contains explosives, a copper cone, a pre-stressed fragmentation sheath and an incendiary sponge. The main bomb breaks open in mid air and the submunitions are released, effectively carpet-bombing an area the size of two or three football fields. Anybody within that area—military or civilian—is likely to be torn apart. Tragically, in international conflict after conflict, because of where they have been used, many of the victims of that weaponry—even at the time of attack—have been innocent children, women and men who were non-combatants.

But that is only part of the story. There is a longer term impact, because many of the bomblets do not work properly. They fail to explode on immediate impact and are left on the ground after the end of hostilities, to be trodden on by farmers returning to their fields, pulled up when families are clearing away rubble from their damaged homes, or even picked up as possible playthings by children attracted by their shape and shine. They remain lethal.

Our own cluster bomb is far from being the most inefficient in the world, but the Government admit that their submunitions have a failure rate of some 6.5 per cent.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): I suggest to my hon. Friend that the failure rate is probably much higher. Previous generations of cluster bombs were, in some cases, designed not to go off on impact. For example, in Vietnam and Laos, of which I
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had some experience 20 or 30 years ago, they were called area denial ordnance and were created to render territory uninhabitable.

Mr. Caton: I take my hon. Friend’s point. It is certainly true that in many conflicts the failure to explode initially has been much higher. I quote the 6.5 per cent. figure for British munitions weapons because my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence gave it to me in a written answer. Even if we are talking of 6.5 per cent., that means that nine or 10 of the 147 bomblets per bomb will not go off. When one considers the number of such bombs that are dropped, we are talking about a lot of unexploded munitions killing people later. People are still dying from cluster bomblets in Vietnam.

These weapons date back to the second world war, but were used extensively by the United States during the Vietnam war, where villages were carpet-bombed with cluster munitions. Revulsion at the consequences of the use of this weaponry led, in the early 70’s, to calls for an international ban. In 1974, Algeria, Austria, Egypt, Lebanon, Mali, Mauritania, Mexico, Norway—it has an honourable tradition—Sudan, Sweden, Switzerland, Venezuela and Yugoslavia jointly put forward a document that included a section headed “Anti-personnel fragmentation weapons”. It said:

Sadly, the proposal was not acted upon at that time. The people of Vietnam are still living with the aftermath of that mass cluster-bombing more than 30-odd years ago. Even now, every year hundreds of Vietnamese civilians are killed or injured by unexploded American submunitions from cluster bombs dropped decades before.

Interestingly, bearing in mind very recent history, in the 1970s the US also sold cluster munitions to Israel, but set conditions for their use. When Israel breached those conditions in 1982, the Americans banned further sales. Tragically for the people of Lebanon, that ban was later lifted. That story shows that even then the US itself knew that cluster bombs were problematic.

Other evidence from the 1970s shows clearly that even then, with comparatively little evidence, there was already recognition, at least by many, including some states, that cluster munitions presented problems and raised real moral dilemmas because of their impact on civilians. The evidence that has accrued since then about what devastation cluster munitions have wreaked on the lives of innocent families and communities is overwhelming. Their indiscriminate nature means that all too often, both at the time of use and in the longer term, unacceptable numbers of civilians are killed and maimed when they are employed.

Now 22 countries have been affected by cluster munition contamination, with particular problems of unexploded ordnance in Indochina, Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon. Many other countries are also affected. Literally billions of cluster munition bomblets are even now stockpiled in 73 countries of the world. For the first time, in the recent conflict in Lebanon, a non-state armed group, Hezbollah, is known to have used cluster munitions. Surely that is extremely worrying evidence
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of proliferation, but perhaps not surprising, in view of the stockpile levels across the world, that I have just mentioned.

The charity Handicap International recently produced a report, documenting over 10,000 known civilian casualties from cluster munitions, but it believes that the true figure could be 10 times this. What there can be absolutely no doubt about now is that cluster munitions have caused excessive and disproportionate harm to civilians in every conflict in which they have been used over the past 40 years, including in Afghanistan, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, Chad, Croatia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Laos, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia and Montenegro, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Vietnam and Western Sahara. Most recently, just a few weeks ago, we saw night after night on our television screens what this weaponry did to the people of Lebanon, their homes and land, and what those weapons continue to do to that country: two or three civilians are still being killed by unexploded submunitions from cluster bombs every day.

In Lebanon there have been more than 140 unexploded ordnance casualties since the ceasefire— 95 per cent. from cluster bombs. Sixty per cent. of Israeli cluster strikes were in built-up areas, with the inevitable consequences for innocent human life. There might be as many as 1 million unexploded cluster submunitions littering roads, schools, wells, houses, gardens and fields—each a potential death trap, of course. There is also a crippling impact on the attempts of individuals, families and communities to recover following the war. They have been unable to harvest crops, and they are unable to plant because they dare not go into their fields. Cluster submunitions block water supplies, disrupt work to restore power and prevent excavation of rubble.

There is, I am pleased to say, a massive clear-up operation in which the United Kingdom Department for International Development is playing an important part, but even that is a diversion of development aid money away from other humanitarian needs. In my view, what we saw, and see, in Lebanon alone should make the world think again about cluster munitions. As I have said, I would like the UK to take the lead on working towards an international ban.

First, however, we have to put our own house in order. This country has been one of the planet’s largest users of cluster munitions. We dropped 78,000 submunitions, inside 531 cluster bombs, during the air campaign in Kosovo. We used over 100,000 cluster bomb submunitions during the invasion of Iraq. What I find particularly worrying is that organisations such as Landmine Action and Human Rights Watch report that their investigations have shown that the UK always used them against military targets but sometimes in residential areas, with the inevitable consequences for many civilians in those areas.

As a first step towards removing these weapons from our arsenals, we should respond positively to Kofi Annan’s call for a freeze on the use of cluster munitions in populated areas. It is time that we started listening to a whole range of voices on the international stage who have recognised that cluster munitions, as used, are unacceptable because they disproportionately harm
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civilians. Jan Egeland, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, described the recent use of cluster munitions in Lebanon as “shocking and immoral”. The International Committee of the Red Cross earlier this month called for urgent action on cluster munitions and described their impact as “horrific”. The Democrats in the United States Congress have tried to prohibit the use of American cluster bombs in populated areas during conflict; sadly, that was blocked in the Senate.

From press reports, it appears that even within the British Cabinet the voice of humanity and reason is now being heard—and thank goodness for that. Also, cluster munitions are the subject of a private Member’s Bill introduced in the House of Lords by Lord Dubs, which had its First Reading this morning.

The people of this country are pretty clear about what they believe. Last month YouGov conducted an opinion poll in which the question asked was whether people agreed or disagreed with the following statement,

and 57 per cent. strongly agreed, 24 per cent. agreed, 7 per cent. disagreed, 3 per cent. strongly disagreed, and 9 per cent. did not know. Therefore, 81 per cent. want us to help ban this weapon.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Was my hon. Friend not rather ashamed, as I was, that the UK, along with the US, was the main protagonist against the Norwegian motion at the recent convention on certain conventional weapons, which is trying to bring forward an attempt to remove—or initially at least to reduce—the use of those weapons?

Mr. Caton: I agree with my hon. Friend. I was disappointed with the position that our Government took at Geneva. Some positive things have come out of the Geneva conference, which I shall mention shortly, but the general position that we took, compared with that adopted by some of our European partners, was very disappointing.

I wish at this point to thank and congratulate Landmine Action and its international partners in the Cluster Munition Coalition for the work that they have done in campaigning on this issue and raising public awareness in this country and across the world. They are not just changing minds among the general public, because there is remarkable movement in the positions of Governments in many parts of the world—but sadly, not in our country, so far.

The momentum that is building for a ban is best demonstrated by what happened at the third five-yearly review conference that my hon. Friend mentioned. Although cluster munitions were not on the formal agenda, the realisation of what had happened in Lebanon prompted a number of nations to seek to give those weapons due attention. At the start of the conference six countries were calling for direct negotiations on cluster munitions. By the end that number had risen to 30, including most of our
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European partners. Sadly, the move was blocked by the US, China, Russia and others—including, I am afraid, the United Kingdom.

I know that our representatives at the conference did get agreement on a one-day talk at a meeting next June on “Explosive remnants of war, with a particular focus on cluster munitions”, but I understand that the focus in those discussions will be on technical issues, when what really needs to be addressed are the humanitarian questions. I therefore warmly welcome the announcement that Norway made on the last day of the conference—that it intends to lead a new flexible multilateral process to negotiate a prohibition on cluster munitions outside the framework of the convention. It is organising a conference in this process in Oslo from 21 to 23 February next year, which all states committed to protecting civilians from the effects of cluster munitions are invited to attend. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will be able to assure me that the UK Government will accept that invitation and play an active part in achieving a satisfactory outcome to this process in the near future. Perhaps we should remember that the treaty that banned anti-personnel mines did not come out of the deliberations of the convention on conventional weapons, but out of an initiative like the one being led by Norway now, 10 years ago in Ottawa.

Like many Labour MPs, I was enormously proud when our Government, early in their life, put through the legislation that made our contribution to the land mine ban. I am still proud of the international leadership that we showed at that time. It is time to show it again. Let us prove our civilisation and join others in seeking to rid the world of these terrible weapons.

6.31 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) on obtaining time for this important debate.

During Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday, at column 543 of the Official Report, the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) asserted that I strongly advocated the use of such weapons. Let me make it clear from the outset that I wish we did not have to commit our armed forces into areas of conflict. However, we have to live in the real world, and we have to recognise that military conflict is invariably brutal. It should always be the course of last resort, and that has been our approach to all conflicts in which we have found ourselves in recent years.

While our armed forces operate as a force for good wherever they are in the world, they also have to be strong, well equipped, trained and capable of succeeding in their mission. This means that they have to have in their armoury weapons that are effective against the enemy they face. Our overriding objective must be at all times to ensure that we seek to minimise the level of threat to our armed forces, to avoid as best we can injury and death among those whom we ask to act in our name. As a nation, we adhere to the highest level of compliance with our international and humanitarian obligations. That applies to all of our armed forces, wherever they serve, and it applies to the
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weapons that they use to achieve their aims on our behalf. It is in that context that I should like to address the points raised by my hon. Friend.

A cluster munition is an air-carried or ground-launched dispenser, containing numerous sub-munitions, which is designed to eject those sub-munitions over a pre-defined target area. Cluster munitions are not the same as anti-personnel landmines and are not covered by any weapon-specific conventions, including the Ottawa convention. Anti-personnel mines are defined by the Ottawa convention as mines

Cluster munitions are designed to explode prior to, on, or immediately after impact with the target.

There is currently no internationally agreed definition of cluster munitions of any variant. Our understanding of these so-called dumb cluster munitions is that they contain numerous sub-munitions, each with an explosive content. Additionally, they either do not have a target discriminatory capability, or they do not have a self-destruct, neutralisation or deactivating capability should they fail to detonate prior to, on, or immediately after impact with the target.

It may be useful if I give an overview of those munitions that contain sub-munitions within the UK inventory. We have two systems that we consider to be so-called dumb cluster munitions. First is the RBL/BL 755, which is an air-delivered dispenser designed to attack armoured and non-armoured vehicles and area targets. It is due to be phased out by 2010 and the capability will be partially replaced by Brimstone, which is a unitary guided missile designed to attack armour. The second is the M26 MLRS, a ground-launched, multiple-rocket system designed to attack combat troops and other military objectives in a designated target area. It is due to be phased out by the middle of the next decade and the capability will be partially replaced by a unitary guided system—the guided multiple launch rocket system.

The UK has in its inventory other munitions that contain sub-munitions, but we do not consider them to be so-called dumb cluster munitions. They include the extended range bomblet shell L20A1, which is a ground-launched artillery shell designed to attack armoured vehicles, troops in the open and other military objectives. The UK does not consider that to be a so-called dumb cluster munition because it has a self-destruct mechanism. It will remain in service until 2021, and no replacement of a similar type is envisaged.

Another munition that falls into that category is the multi-purpose sub-munition CRV-7, an Apache helicopter air-delivered dispenser designed to attack lightly armoured and non-armoured vehicles and troops in the open. The UK does not consider it a so-called dumb cluster munition because it has too few sub-munitions. It will remain in service until 2020, and no replacement of a similar type is envisaged.


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