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Lord Whitty: My Lords, as I understand it, such mines come under the general definition of anti-personnel mines. Therefore, they are covered by the Ottawa Convention which 120 nations signed in December. Of course, it is much more difficult in the Bosnia area to detect those mines than it is land-based mines. Nevertheless, they are part of the technical operation of determining which is under way.
Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, would my noble friend the Minister consider it reasonable to suggest that those who sold such mines, or the governments who assisted them to do so, should be asked to make a rather more significant contribution to their clearance?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, clearly the mines were laid by the protagonists of the catastrophe within the former Yugoslavia. The resources within that country for clearing such mines are relatively limited. The UK and other governments are providing substantial support to the clearance. The purpose of the convention to which I referred is to avoid a similar catastrophe happening elsewhere.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, as the presence in Bosnia of the United States is pretty certain for the next year or so, can the Minister say whether, as well as the mine clearing policy, there could also be some sharpening and focusing of the purposes of our presence there? Further, in that particular respect, is the
Lord Whitty: My Lords, as the House will know, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has emphasised the importance of a sharper operation to bring such war criminals to justice. That is backed not only by the United States but also, most emphatically, by the European Union of which we now hold the presidency.
Lord Kennet: My Lords, in an earlier answer, my noble friend the Minister made a distinction between areas of Bosnia where mines are likely to be--or, indeed, are thought to be or probably are--and smaller areas where they are actually known to be. We know of a very interesting technology being developed in the United States to make that distinction more certain. When that comes into use, it will obviously be a great deal easier to get on with the only necessary job; namely, clearing the mines from where they are. Can my noble friend the Minister give the House any news about the bringing into action of such technology?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, my noble friend is correct to say that much of the present mapping of the whereabouts of mines in the area is a little hit and miss. The technology is intended to improve the definition of priority areas. But even were we to be more precise in the priority areas as a result of that technology, we would still be talking about at least 100 square kilometres which would need to be cleared. According to the present rate of progress, that would mean about 5 square kilometres a year.
The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. Does the noble Lord accept that depleted uranium has a half-life of 4.5 billion years; that because of its highly pyrophoric nature on impact it produces uranium dioxide dust which can be carried several miles in the wind; and that that dust is both chemically toxic and radioactive and is implicated in a number of cancers, including lung cancer and leukaemia, kidney problems and birth defects? Therefore, is the Minister satisfied with the safety of the community in Scotland where, I understand, test firing is carried out into the ground and into the Solway Firth from the Dundrennan army base near Kirkcudbright?
Lord Gilbert: My Lords, far be it from me to challenge the remarks or the mastery of statistics of the noble Countess, Lady Mar. All I can say is that we have no knowledge whatever of any danger to the civilian population living in the neighbourhood of that particular test range, just as we have absolutely no knowledge of any dangers sustained by Her Majesty's Forces in the Gulf when DU was used in the conflict.
Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware of the fact that the use of depleted uranium has killed and maimed thousands of Iraqis, hundreds of American troops and an unknown number of British troops as a result of its use in the Gulf War? Therefore, will the Government do two things? First, will they investigate the possibility that this weapon is already bannable under the chemical weapons convention? Secondly, if it is not banned, will the Government consider doing so because it is ultimately a chemical weapon and should be banned under existing legislation? If that is not so, then there ought to be legislation to ban it.
Lord Gilbert: My Lords, not for the first time I am not sure that I can share all the premises in my noble friend's questions. In 1993 the defence radiological protection service concluded that there was no indication of harmful over-exposure of British troops to DU in the Gulf. Tests were made on some Gulf veterans who were concerned that they might have inhaled depleted uranium dust and that that might have had an adverse effect upon them, but none was found to have experienced detectable contamination. Similarly, as far as we know, no British troops sustained injuries from DU ammunition.
Lord Parry: My Lords, on a simpler level, can the Minister reassure the House as to whether civilian carriers of the shells were warned of possible dangers, whereas the military users of them, often in contained tank space, were not?
Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I have no recollection as to whether or not specific warnings were given to Her Majesty's personnel at the time of the Gulf War, but we continue to have an inventory of depleted uranium ammunition. I am sure that those responsible for handling it are well aware of the risks, if any, to which they might be exposed. Our view is--it was the view of previous administrations--that those are very small indeed.
Lord Kennet: My Lords, I am sure that the House is aware that neither the noble Lord nor I can go too far into radio chemistry. Can the Minister confirm that depleted uranium is about 60 per cent. as radioactive as undepleted uranium? Since there is nothing to do with depleted uranium except to make it into bullets, about a billion pounds' weight of depleted uranium is in store in the United States. If that is so, what is the corresponding figure in this country?
This material is not made into bullets in the normal sense of the word. It is put into the front end of tank shells. The only exception is the Royal Navy which has some depleted uranium ammunition for the Phalanx close-in weapons system.
Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I am not aware of whether our predecessors made any assessment. Certainly this Government have not been invited to do so. It is rather out of date for us now to make such an assessment.
However, the only specific source of concern is that in some circumstances we believe that the radiation can be slightly increased when one of the shells hits the armour of an opposing tank.
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