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In essence, the purpose of such munitions is to offer destruction and suppression capabilities against dispersed armoured targets, as well as other combat forces and military facilities. The use of cluster
munitions on targets at long range reduces the number of enemy to be dealt with in contact battle, reduces enemy momentum, delivers shock effect and reduces the exposure of, and risk to, our front-line combat forces. Engaging targets at long range allows the field commander to act in an area of his choosing, which gives him a tactical advantage and more flexibility to select target areas that minimise collateral damage.
In certain circumstances, alternative munitions may not possess the necessary capabilities to defeat the intended target in a timely manner. Were such force-multiplier weapons as cluster munitions to be banned, the contact battle would inevitably mean more close-combat fighting, as enemy resources would not have been reduced before the engagement commenced. That would probably lead to higher casualties, possibly including higher civilian casualties, and increased physical collateral damage. Those consequences might lead to increased humanitarian risk. Tellingly, they could also mean that more of our own personnel were killed or injured.
Given future threats, types of operation and doctrinal and technological developments, a total ban on the use of all types of sub-munition would have an adverse impact on the UKs operational effectiveness. I am not sure that those who campaign for the ban fully understand that. None the less, and for the reasons I gave earlier, from the middle of the next decade a limited ban on the so-called dumb cluster munitions would not adversely impact on UK operational effectiveness.
I now turn to the legal framework. As I said, no treaty specifically prohibits or restricts the use of cluster munitions. They are lawful weapons that provide a unique capability against certain types of legitimate military target. When used by the UK armed forces, they are employed in a manner consistent with our obligations under international humanitarian law. For that type of weapon, as with all weapons, the planning for and execution of attacks is subject to tight controls, to ensure that any potential collateral damage implications are identified, minimised and assessed as proportionate to the military advantage to be gained from the attack.
The use of all munitions is governed by international humanitarian law. In the United Kingdom, we have a clear audit trail from the legal framework, through doctrine and training, and into targeting procedures. Our military commanders judge the degree of force to employ to achieve the mission, subject always to strict compliance with international humanitarian law.
We believe that that is a sufficiently adequate body of law. It puts considerable constraints on the use of cluster munitions. We want to ensure that the law is rigorously applied by the whole international community, including ourselves. The Government clearly recognise the legitimate humanitarian concerns that have been raised over cluster munitions. At the UN review conference for certain conventional weapons last week, the UK called on all states to comply fully with international humanitarian law when using cluster munitions. We encouraged the phasing out of so-called
dumb cluster munitions. In addition, we are committed to improving the reliability of all munitions, including cluster munitions, with the aim of achieving lower failure rates and leaving less unexploded ordnance.
It is against that background that we intend to phase out of service, over the next few years, our so-called dumb cluster munitions, the RBL/BL 755 and the M26 MLRS. Contrary to those who allege that we obstructed progress at the UN review conferenceI have heard that view again this eveningthe truth is that the United Kingdom took the lead. We sought and secured, with the support of the other P5 nations and Australia and Canada, agreement for a discussion mandate to consider further the application and implementation of existing international humanitarian law to specific munitions that may cause explosive remnants of war, with a particular focus on cluster munitions.
The aim of that is to minimise the humanitarian impact of the use of those weapons. As a result of that significant UK initiative, international Government experts will now consider the adequacy of existing international humanitarian law, whether it is being implemented diligently, and factors affecting the reliability of cluster munitions. They will report back to the next conventional weapons meeting in 12 months and in the interim we will proactively take this forward.
It is important to understand that the conference on certain conventional weapons is the only process that includes key producers and users of cluster munitions, as well as states, including the United Kingdom, that provide funds for post-conflict development. In our view, that is the best forum in which to strike the right balance between humanitarian concerns and military necessity. The discussion mandate is a necessary step as the basis for future negotiations that may lead to a new legally binding protocol.
Let me repeat that so that there in no question of future misunderstandings: the UK led the efforts to secure the discussion mandate at the review conference. That clearly demonstrated that we are serious about tackling the problem. We took the lead in the international community to find a solution. We believe that that approach is more likely to achieve real humanitarian benefits than an Ottawa-style process outside of the UNthat is what the Norwegian initiative iswhich would exclude many key producers and users of cluster munitions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gower raised the question of the YouGov poll. I wonder what would
happen if YouGov asked this simple question on its website: if by banning these weapons more British personnel would be killed as they were being a force for good, would you be in favour of that or not? I suspect that we would get the same sort of percentages that he cited. Let us bring balance to the debate.
The United Kingdom believes that cluster munitions are legal weapons, that international humanitarian law is adequate to govern their use, and that the international community would be better served by implementing existing law in a consistent manner when using cluster munitions. We further believe that we have the most rigorous targeting procedure for the use of cluster munitions, which is derived from the law itself and which is incorporated into our doctrine and training.
Cluster munitions offer destruction and suppression capabilities against dispersed targets in order to reduce the combat power of an enemy. We should not deny our troops that battle-winning capability. Cluster munitions also provide an important degree of force protection, so that were the UK to cease using them, our armed forces would be put at greater risk. We are committed to alleviating humanitarian concerns regarding these weapons, which is why we sought a mandate to address them at the Geneva talks.
The UK has played a leading role within the UN disarmament process in Geneva to influence users of cluster munitions to adopt a mandate focusing on them. The conference on certain conventional weapons has the potential to deliver real humanitarian benefit for people in conflict areas by tackling the humanitarian concern head on in a process that should lead to a negotiating mandate.
I would ask all those who are campaigning in this area to have confidence in the Government and follow the lead that we take within the UN. We are proactive, concerned and want to ensure that international humanitarian law is applied at all timesit is something that we do. There is an implication in some of the argumentation advancedthough I have not heard it here tonightthat somehow our military commanders and those who act with civilian oversight over them do not follow international humanitarian law. We do at all times and we apply it rigorously. We do it so that we can ensure that we are a force for good. Many people are living in the world today because of the military action that we have taken. We should be proud of this nation and not seek to undermine our capacity to deliver best effect.