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House of Lords

Friday, 15 December 2006.

The House met at eleven o’clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Salisbury.

Cluster Munitions (Prohibition) Bill [HL]

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

I start by thanking Landmine Action and other organisations which have been very helpful in briefing me and other colleagues. I am also grateful to the many colleagues from both Houses who have indicated their support. Some from this House are not able to be here today, but support for the Bill is probably wider than the number of speeches that I hope will come in support of it. I also thank my noble friends Lord Drayson and Lady Crawley for the conversations that I have had with them and for the helpful way in which I have engaged in discussion with them—not that we left in agreement, but I am grateful for having had the chance to do it.

I want to talk about the Bill under four headings: first, the humanitarian aspects of cluster munitions; secondly, my belief that there is no real military justification for their use; thirdly, the international aspects; and, fourthly, the arguments as between smart and dumb weapons which have featured so strongly in some of the discussions both in this House and in the other place in recent weeks.

There was a very active campaign against anti-personnel landmines some years ago, which culminated in the successful abolition of those terrible weapons. Indeed, my right honourable friend Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for International Development, is reported recently to have told Cabinet colleagues that cluster munitions are,

Like anti-personnel landmines, cluster munitions remain dangerous long after the military conflict has moved on or is over. They then pose a threat to civilians: children playing or going to school, people gathering crops, collecting firewood or going for water—all normal, innocent and essential activities for people in some of these zones where there has been conflict. Those are innocent activities that may result in the loss of a limb or death.

Perhaps I may quote my right honourable friend Hilary Benn again. In his Answer to a Parliamentary Question on 11 December, he said:

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He goes on to explain:

That is important in the discussion about dumb and smart bombs, to which I shall refer later. The Answer continues:

We know that sometimes that can take very much longer if the ordnance is buried, and indeed we know that there are many areas of the world where anti-personnel landmines are still there, causing enormous threat to ordinary people. We know that, for example, large areas of the Falklands are still fenced off because they are still too dangerous for people to walk on. I understand that even now in the Lebanon an estimated three persons are killed or injured by cluster munitions every day.

According to Handicap International, although 10,000 known civilian casualties from cluster bombs have been indicated, the real figure is probably nearer to 100,000. The United Nations’ most senior official for humanitarian affairs, Jan Egeland, has described cluster munitions in the Lebanon as,

The ICRC has described the impact of CMs as “horrific” and called for urgent international action. And of course not only did Israel use these weapons in the Lebanon but Hezbollah did as well, the first known case of these weapons being used by non-state armed groups—an ominous sign that the use of these weapons is proliferating. Hence the urgent need to take action is clearly highlighted.

I turn to the question of military effectiveness. I say at the outset that it is not my intention to do anything that would weaken our Armed Forces. They are responding bravely to what we are asking them to do and I am certain that the Bill would not hamper their effectiveness in any way. General Sir Rupert Smith said:

He is a person who knows what he is talking about from his own experience.

Cluster munitions have been used in about 24 different countries. I will not go through the list, but most of the areas where there have been conflicts in recent years have seen cluster munitions used. The justification for them, as I understand it, is that they are particularly effective against tanks and other vehicles, against large dispositions of troops and against runways on airports. Other speakers have far more military knowledge and experience than I could

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ever have, but my understanding is that cluster munitions are no longer regarded as particularly effective against tanks because they cannot penetrate the latest tank armour. As regards large dispositions of troops, I accept that in the war following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait there were concentrations of Iraqi troops, but I put it to your Lordships that it is most unlikely that we shall see large concentrations of troops in the conflicts that the world will witness in the future. I am assured by those who know far more than I do that cluster munitions are not necessarily the best weapons to use on aircraft runways and that there are other ways of effectively disabling runways.

This country is one of the largest users of cluster munitions. Indeed, 100,000 submunitions were used during the invasion of Iraq. My noble friend Lord Drayson wrote, in a letter dated 5 December 2006, that,

Of course, nobody would dispute that. However, I suggest to the House and, indeed, the Government that military necessity is not a good argument in favour of cluster munitions. I have not heard a single compelling argument that only these weapons will do the job. Many other weapons will, which do not have the other consequences of cluster munitions.

General Sir Hugh Beach said in February 2001 regarding Kosovo:

containing 78,000 submunitions—

It has also been alleged that in Kosovo 20 to 25 per cent of NATO cluster munitions failed to go off.

I refer to the international aspects and the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, normally referred to as CCW. Recently there were discussions in Geneva on this matter. The Government opposed a negotiating mandate but supported a discussion mandate. This seemed pretty esoteric to everybody, certainly to me. However, I am strongly advised that a negotiating mandate, had we supported it, would have been a clear sign of our intentions to proceed towards a ban, but that a discussion mandate is probably just a lot of old waffle. That is what I am told. I am not an expert on the discussions in Geneva, but I am assured that the Government’s decision was very disappointing.

Belgium has banned these munitions. Norway has declared a permanent moratorium. People say that, militarily, these countries are not as important as we are. I accept that, but nevertheless there are international moves towards banning these weapons. We are not in the forefront of those international moves; in fact, we are lagging a long way behind. Having said that, it is only fair to point out that, as I understand it, the history of arms control is usually

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that progress has been best achieved by a small number of countries reaching agreement and then extending that agreement more widely rather than having an agreement to which everybody signs up immediately. However, that is something for the experts to comment on. I would rather we had taken a more positive stance in Geneva than we did.

On the argument about smart versus dumb bombs, the Government have said on countless occasions that they abide by humanitarian law and that their stance on smart bombs will be incorporated in that process of abiding by humanitarian law. The clearly stated British policy is to phase out dumb bombs by 2015. If dumb bombs are not acceptable—the Government have admitted that they are not, as they want to phase them out—why have the date of 2015? Why not phase them out now, this minute? I do not understand why we have to wait so long. It is a sign that we are not that serious about the matter. Many other countries take note of that and say, “If the British are going to use them until 2015, why should we not do so? Why should we bother?”. The signal that we send out is as important as what we do; they both matter.

In recent weeks, I have studied hard to learn the relevant terminology. Dumb cluster munitions are ones that either do not have a target discrimination capability or do not have a self-destruct, self-neutralisation or self-deactivation capability. That is MoD terminology. I think that we understand what it means. Much evidence gathered over many years indicates that, when weapons have a target discrimination capability, they sometimes do not work and that, when they have a deactivation or self-destruct capability, they also do not work. A great deal of faith is put in technology, which in testing conditions does not always live up to its promises and in battlefield conditions is even less likely to. I quoted Hilary Benn. If a bomb lands on soft ground, it is much less likely to go off than if it lands on hard ground. If a bomb’s fall is broken by trees, it is less likely to hit the ground with as much force as it would if it landed on concrete. That is common sense even to someone as inexperienced in these matters as I am. All the evidence shows that smart bombs are simply not smart enough.

The Government have gone some way to meet this concern. I understand that air-delivered weapons are no longer used. The main weight has been put on the M85, a cluster munition with 49 submunitions that scatter. My right honourable friend Adam Ingram said on 16 June 2003 that the failure rate of these smart bombs was 2 per cent. An MoD paper of March 2005 put the failure rate at 1 per cent. However, on 8 November this year, Adam Ingram said that these weapons had a 95 per cent success rate. I notice that the figure has been tipped the other way to reflect not the failure but the success rate. It does not take much arithmetic to work out that if there is a 95 per cent success rate, there is a 5 per cent failure rate. But even 1 per cent is a high figure if one thinks of cluster munitions used on a large scale and scattered over a wide area. It seems to me that the smart bomb, as I said earlier, is simply not smart enough.

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The M85 bombs were widely used in the recent Lebanon conflict and, according to David Shearer, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator in Lebanon, it has been estimated that there may be as many as 350,000 unexploded bomblets littering the country. I have seen other suggestions that the figure may be nearer to 1 million. I have seen photographs of several lying together in south Lebanon, which clearly did not go off when they were supposed to have gone off. The M85 munitions that we use are made in Israel, so they ought to be the same ones that were used in south Lebanon.

A UN report says:

In other words, the task of clearing them is made harder when they do not go off than it was when the old-fashioned ones did not go off.

Another issue to do with the smart and dumb bomb argument is that, if the world is to ban dumb bombs and move to smart bombs, monitoring that will be very difficult. We had the same argument with anti-personnel landmines—that self-destruct anti-personnel landmines would be okay and the others would not be. That argument was scotched. The danger is that one cannot monitor international action if we allow some and not others. That is another case against them.

To conclude, on the way forward, obviously I really want the Government to take over this Bill, but I suppose that that is too optimistic a hope. The Bill makes it an offence to use, develop, store or transfer cluster munitions. It bans their import and export. Under the Bill, they are to be safely destroyed. That is what I would like the Government to take on board as legislation. I understand that the UK stockpile of cluster munitions contains four different types at the moment, so we have a lot of these.

Failing that—and I hate saying that if the Government do not accept plan A let us go to plan B, because it implies that I am conceding something, but let us be realistic—why should there not be an immediate moratorium on all cluster munitions? That would be sensible. It means that they would still be there if there was some military reason for them—which I have said there probably is not—but at least let us have a moratorium as the Norwegians have done. In any case, there is absolutely no argument for not having a moratorium on all dumb cluster munitions. Having said that they are going to be phased out, let us put a moratorium on their use now. I do not see why the Government should not do that.

It is a privilege to have been able to introduce this Bill. This is a desperately important issue, because it is a sign of our humanity if we do ban these weapons. I hope that the House will support that, and I hope that that is what the Government will do. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Dubs.)

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11.23 am

Baroness Northover: My Lords, I welcome this Bill and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, on introducing it so effectively and comprehensively.

The campaign to ban cluster bombs has all the hallmarks of that to ban landmines, for much the same reasons; they are not militarily effective and they produce disproportionately civilian casualties. Worldwide, civilians constitute 98 per cent of all recorded casualties from cluster munitions. But whereas landmines were in widespread use by all sorts of groups as well as states, this campaign has come in slightly earlier, before cluster bombs are in widespread use by non-states. If we act now, therefore, we can do a great deal to stop such proliferation.

Like others in this debate, I have read the material about the effectiveness, or otherwise, of these bombs. I have read what the Government say in their defence, and I am not persuaded by their case. It is very clear from the account of their use in the Balkans, where large quantities were used with extremely low success against armoured vehicles, that their military use seems extremely limited. We have heard that in Kosovo 78,000 cluster bombs were used, taking out only 30 major items of military equipment. Most of the UK cluster bombs are, I understand, unable to penetrate the armour of the main battle tanks that have been in operation since 1970. I will leave much of the assessment of their effectiveness to others, such as my noble friend Lord Garden, whose authority on these areas, I am sure the Minster will agree, is without question.

During the Iraq war, there was enormous concern about the use of cluster bombs, and the UK Government, I remember, were evasive about whether they were using them. They were very keen to stress afterwards that everything had been cleared up when they admitted that they had used them. It is rather difficult for any of us to go in and check that, given the state of Iraq at the moment. What has happened in Lebanon over the summer has given further, and I hope definitive, impetus to the campaign against these bombs.

What happened in Lebanon was controversial enough without the use of cluster bombs. There we have a fragile society, which as we speak is verging once more on collapse, and every day in the south several people, among them women and children, are killed or wounded by a previously unexploded cluster bomblet. What reminder does that serve to those who resented the incursion into their territory? When the Israeli Embassy here in Britain sends me a message about how important it is that the Government of Lebanon do not fall—with which I wholeheartedly agree—I wonder whether they regret leaving their fatal footprints in the south of the country, the daily reminders of a failed military intervention.

The Israeli Ambassador to the Russian Federation stated on 26 July:

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He knew full well how difficult, dangerous and damaging, both to civilians and to Israel’s reputation, it would be if they were used in such a populated area. On the same day, the commander of Israel’s ground forces said:

He knows both that they are being used and how controversial that is.

said a reservist, quoted in Ha’aretz on 8 September; the desperate but incredibly destructive reaction of an Army in retreat.

says the head of an IDF rocket unit, quoted in Ha’aretz on 12 September. They all recognised the significance of what was happening; for it is civilians, above all, who are harmed by cluster bombs.

Cluster bombs kill civilians during attacks because they spread across a wide area. Anyone who has been to southern Lebanon will know how populated that area is. They also kill after the conflict, when civilians stumble across them. Of course, there is the wide, longer impact in that either farmers cannot use their land, or they endanger their lives and limbs by carrying on doing what they need to do to keep their farms going. For many, there is simply no choice. In Lebanon, Israeli-fired cluster munitions have damaged access to agriculture, housing, schools and water sources. Even now, bombs sit on people’s roofs. In just one month after the ceasefire, bomb disposal teams had destroyed more than 25,000 submunitions.

Each time a cluster bomb goes off and hurts someone in southern Lebanon—even though Israel is now quite desperate to shore up the Lebanese Government, and even though it is making welcome moves to talk to the Palestinians and the states around about the way forward—it is Hezbollah that benefits. If ever there was a reason to ban these bombs, you can see it in the tinder box of the Middle East.

What is the scale of the problem? Some 73 countries hold cluster bombs. Hezbollah used them; that is said to be the first known use of such weapons by a non-state armed group, although I gather warlords in the Balkans also did so. Of course, the use of such bombs goes far wider than the Middle East. As the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said, the UK has been a significant user of them. It dropped some 78,000 bomblets during the air campaign in Kosovo and used more than 100,000 submunitions during the invasion of Iraq. It is therefore very appropriate that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is bringing forward a Bill which, as it were, targets what the UK can legally do. After all, the Government say that it is legal to use these weapons, but we can help them to a situation where it is no longer legal for them to do so.

Hilary Benn seemed to show some sympathy with that point of view—seemingly out of line with the MoD position—in calling for a campaign to ban cluster bombs other than those he considered “smart”. In a leaked letter on 5 November he said:

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Too right.

For the Convention on Conventional Weapons in early November, he argued to his colleagues:

In fact, at that conference, Kofi Annan called for the freezing of the use of cluster bombs,

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