HC Deb 19 March 1970 vol 798 cc807-21

1.59 a.m.

Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)

The House is asked to vote a supplementary sum of £6,555,000 for purposes of defence, and it is asked to vote £590,000 specifically for research and development establishments.

My purpose tonight is to inquire into the extent that these sums are required for the manufacture and possible eventual use of C.S. gas. It is now more than 50 years since the First World War, but men still shudder at the idea of gas warfare. The very expression still conveys a sense of horror to most ordinary people and those responsible for the conduct of public and, particularly, defence affairs. It is, therefore, right that we should probe into any possible expenditure on weapons of this nature and, specifically, C.S. gas.

C.S. gas is a chemical weapon. I doubt that I can pronounce its chemical name correctly, but, for the record, it is called Orthochlorobenzylidene malononitrile. It was invented, or, rather, synthesised, for the first time in the United States in 1928, but developed, I am rather sorry to say, in our own country in the 1950s, and developed primarily, I gather, for use in riot control; that is, for use against civilians rather than against a military enemy. It falls into the category of what are called incapacitant or harassing agents; that is, it is primarily designed not to kill but to incapacitate or to render ineffective for a short period enemy soldiers against whom the defence forces may be operating.

Harassing agents as such are not a new phenomenon. They were the first form of chemical warfare used in the First World War.

The effects of this gas, to quote a distinguished American biologist, Professor Meselson, are as follows: Exposure to CS causes intense pain in the eyes and upper respiratory tract, progressing to the deep recesses of the lungs, causing a feeling of suffocation and acute anxiety. If exposure is not excessive, these symptoms usually pass within minutes after restoration to fresh air. Heavy dosages as may occur in confined spaces or when massive quantities of C.S. are dispersed, can cause lung damage. Very intense exposure to unprotected skin can cause second degree chemical burns. It is manufactured, I understand, at Nancekuke in Cornwall.

Having explained as best I can the nature of the weapon, I wish to devote some time to the use of this gas because, unlike a great many other weapons in this category, this is not an academic or theoretical subject. C.S. gas has been used widely in war, not, I am glad to say, by British forces but by American forces. It has been dispersed by means of grenades, shells, sprays and bombs to flush out—I think that is the expression—enemy soldiers with a view to driving them out of their defensive positions and subsequently killing them by more conventional weapons. It has been widely used in practice, and in discussing its use we are not airing theories; we are talking about what has happened.

Moreover, I must emphasise at this point that those who would argue, and have argued in the past, that this is somehow a humane weapon, that it is simply designed to incapacitate an enemy with a view to taking him prisoner or rendering him unable to fight for a short time, have no grounds for that argument so far as experience goes, at least in Vietnam. This gas has been used in combination with conventional weapons, such as rockets, mortars, machine guns and bombs, as a more effective means of destroying the enemy and not in any way to incapacitate him temporarily and with a view to taking prisoners or more mercifully dealing with resistance in a particular part of the battlefield—

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army (Mr. Ivor Richard)

My hon. Friend is surely not suggesting that it could not be used for that purpose?

Mr. Hooley

With respect, I was describing how it has been used.

Of course, the Government and the House are not responsible for the use of this weapon by another country, even if this country is a military ally. The House is concerned with the use or possible use of C.S. gas by British forces under possible conditions of war. But this country and this Government cannot be regarded as free agents in the use of this gas, since we are bound as a country by a very important international instrument known as the Geneva Protocol. This convention lays it down that certain forms of warfare are not legitimate, and since we have signed this document, we have presumably renounced those forms of warfare.

The operative paragraphs of the protocol say: Whereas the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases"— I emphasise the words "or other gases"— and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices, has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilised world; Whereas the prohibition of such use has been declared in Treaties to which the majority of Powers of the world are Parties; and, to the end that this prohibition shall be universally accepted as part of International Law, binding alike the conscience and practice of nations; … the High Contracting Parties, in so far as they are not already Parties to Treaties prohibiting such use, accept this prohibition, agree to extend this prohibition to the use of bacteriological methods of warfare and agree to be bound as between themselves according to the terms of this declaration. That is an international instrument which this country freely signed and ratified and by which I contend that we are bound if we are contemplating the use of any weapon of this kind, particularly C.S. gas.

It may be suggested that 1925 is a long time ago and that circumstances have changed, that the technology of war has changed and that it is not logical or reasonable to be bound by an instrument which could have been out-dated by the advance of science and greater knowledge. I must therefore point out that this protocol has been reaffirmed in recent years.

On 5th December, 1966, four years ago, the United Nations passed a resolution by 91 votes to none, with only four abstentions. The operative paragraph read as follows: The General Assembly … calls for strict observance by all States of the principles and objectives of the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, signed at Geneva on 17 June, 1925, and condemns all actions contrary to these objectives. That was in December, 1966.

Last year my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley), who was then in the Foreign Office, speaking to the 18 Nation Disarmament Commission in Geneva, when he referred to chemical and bacteriological warfare, suggested an important new international instrument designed to limit and, indeed, prohibit the application of biological weapons. He said in the course of his speech on 17th April, 1969: However, today I would once again repeat that nothing that I have in mind would in any way limit or derogate from obligations assumed by States party to the Geneva Protocol. On the contrary, I repeat what I said in introducing this subject, that I would like to see all countries who have not done so already ratify the Protocol. That was less than 12 months ago. It could hardly, therefore, be argued that this instrument is regarded in any way as having lost its force, and certainly not by Her Majesty's present Government, of whom my right hon. Friend was, and is, a distinguished Member.

Last year, on 1st July, the United Nations produced a report on the subject of chemical and bacteriological warfare which had been commissioned by the General Assembly. The Secretary-General, U Thant, had been instructed to consult experts in this field and to produce a report, which he duly did. In the preface to the report the Secretary-General made three recommendations, as follows.

First, he renewed the appeal to all states to accede to the Geneva protocol of 1925. Second, he asked them To make a clear affirmation that the prohibition contained in the Geneva protocol applies to the use in war of all chemical, bacteriological and biological agents (including tear gas and other harassing agents) which now exist or which may be developed in the future". Third, he called upon all countries to reach agreement to halt the development, production and stockpiling of all chemical and bacteriological (biological) agents for the purposes of war ….". In December last year the General Assembly again, this time by a vote of 18 countries to three or four, reaffirmed the view that it was contrary to international law to use any chemical agents of warfare, chemical substances, whether gaseous, liquid or solid, because of their effects on man, animals or plants. The interesting feature of that resolution is that it goes beyond the suggestion that what is prohibited is merely a gas or other chemical weapon which is lethal to man. It suggests the outlawry of any chemical weapon which could damage or destroy the flora or fauna in man's natural habitat.

In the light of these international instruments, declarations and resolutions, I and many people much better versed in these matters than I am were gravely startled by a statement in this House by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs concerning the use of C.S. gas, which was held to be prohibited in war by the instruments and declarations which I have quoted.

My right hon. Friend said: … modern technology has developed CS smoke"— he called it, somewhat disingenuously, "smoke"— which unlike the tear gases available in 1930, is considered to be not significantly harmful to man in other than wholly exceptional circumstances; and we regard CS gases and other such gases"— he reverts to the normal word applied to this substance— accordingly as being outside the scope of the Geneva Protocol."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd February, 1970; Vol. 794, c. 18.] It is my view and the view of people much more expert than I, that this is a totally untenable proposition. The words of the Geneva Protocol are quite clear. I will repeat them. They refer to: asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases and all analogous liquids, materials or devices …". That is a very comprehensive and thorough-going prohibition. I cannot see how C.S. gas can, under any ordinary construction of the English language, be taken out of that definition.

In all the discussions on the use of chemical or gaseous agents of warfare there has never been a distinction drawn between what is, to quote my right hon. Friend, "significantly harmful" and what is absolutely lethal. The whole range of chemical and gas agents has been prohibited. International opinion has been flatly against gas as such, for a very good reason.

This reason was probably best set out in a letter published in The Times, from Professor Meselson, on 12th February, 1970, in which he wrote: The chief hazard in using irritant gas in war is that it abandons the unique and simple standard of 'no gas.' It spoils the chances for a uniform understanding of where we hold the line. It stimulates military interest in gas warfare in many countries, creating pressure for the acquisition of chemical weapons where there had been little or none before. And it favours the application of existing and future knowledge in biochemistry and medicine to military purposes, opening up a new dimension of welfare that otherwise might be kept closed. There is great force in this line of argument, that once we breach the dam, on however sophisticated an argument, or in however tiny or apparently insignificant a manner, then the consequences become incalculable.

I hasten to add that this is not just the opinion of one man, one odd scientist. The British Council of Churches, the Friends' Peace Committee, the United Nations Association, all have seriously criticised this statement by the Foreign Secretary, and have condemned this unilateral derogation from the Geneva Protocol by Her Majesty's Government which is involved in this statement.

A very distinguished Member of this House, probably the only Member of this House to hold the Nobel Peace Prize, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mr. Philip Noel-Baker), has also condemned this change of policy in very forthright terms, publicly, and within the associations with which he is concerned.

The danger of this change of attitude on the use of C.S. gas is that it may call in question the good faith of the United Kingdom in general discussions and negotiations on chemical and biological warfare, where hitherto we have had a very good record and have given an outstanding lead.

But, worse than that, by constituting a unilateral derogation of an international instrument of an authority so high, a prestige so great, as the Geneva Protocol, which has stood the test of 45 years, it may undermine respect for similar disarmament agreements. If one country can simply opt out of a prohibition in a particular respect on however sophisticated grounds—that it is not lethal, that it is smoke and not gas, and so on—it will create mistrust and suspicion that the other important instruments of disarmament do not mean what they say, or can be made to mean what somebody else says.

2.21 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army (Mr. Ivor Richard)

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) has deployed his case with a great deal of skill and, obviously, a great deal of sincerity. It is a case worth putting, and it deserves a considered and careful answer.

However, I think that my hon. Friend would not expect me, speaking from the post in the Government that I have the privilege to occupy now, to answer in any detail some of the matters of higher foreign policy that he raised, particularly those concerning the international effect of what he considers to be the unilateral abrogation by the United Kingdom of the 1925 Geneva Protocol. What I would like to do is to sketch in from a defence point of view some of the background to the arguments that have taken place over the protocol, and then to give the House some information on the circumstances in which C.S. has been used by the British Army, particularly in the recent past.

As my hon. Friend said, the protocol states that it prohibits the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices. It goes on to prohibit all bacteriological methods of warfare.

Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Hugh Dalton, later Lord Dalton, said in reply to a Parliamentary Question

The United Kingdom became party to the Geneva Protocol on 9th April, 1930. Shortly before this the then Under-that, inter alia, tear gases were prohibited under the protocol. That was the view that the United Kingdom Government then took and expressed again in a Memorandum that they tabled before the Preparatory Commission for the Disarmament Conference in December, 1930, in which they said, basing themselves on the English text of the protocol, that they had taken the view that the use in war of other gases, including lachrymatory gases was prohibited. My hon. Friend is right when he says that that was the position the British Government took up in 1930.

In the re-examination of this question in recent months the Government have sought to establish what the drafters of the 1925 protocol meant by the term "other gases". Then the Government have sought to apply those conclusions in the light of what is known of gases now available. My hon. Friend characterised this as a sophisticated and specious approach. I could not agree with that characterisation of the Government's approach. It is only common sense that, as the Geneva Protocol was entered into in 1925 and ratified by the United Kingdom as long ago as 1930. it is incumbent upon any Government from time to time to review their interpretation of what the 1925 protocol meant in the light of what is now known of technological advances in this field. The Government, therefore, concluded that the best interpretation of this ambiguous phrase "other gases" is that the protocol seeks to ban the use in war of all gases which are significantly harmful to man. This view is fully consistent with that which was advanced by the then British Government in the 1930 Memorandum, because the tear gases which were available in 1930 are indeed considered to be significantly harmful to man.

But C.S., unlike the gases which were available in 1930, is considered to be not significantly harmful to man in other than wholly exceptional circumstances. I will in a few moments go in greater detail into that part of the argument which my hon. Friend deployed with such skill.

decided that C.S. was outside the scope

It is for that reason the Government of the Geneva Protocol. C.S. is at present the only such agent in existence, but the possibility of further developments in this field cannot be ignored.

I can do no better than quote the statement which was made by my right hon. and noble Friend, Lord Chalfont, in another place on 26th February in answer to a Question by my noble Friend, Lord Brockway: My Lords, it is true that in 1930 the Government made a certain interpretation of the Geneva Protocol. This interpretation in general terms has now been reiterated. The Government had to give close consideration to what was in the minds of the drafters of the Protocol and what developments had taken place since. One of the developments that has taken place since is that the agent known as CS has been developed. Her Majesty's Government decided that this agent was not significantly harmful, except in exceptional circumstances; and it was to exclude significantly harmful agents that the Geneva Protocol was formulated. We therefore believed that we were right in saying that, although we stood by our interpretation of 1930, this agent should be excluded. It is not, in fact, as my noble friend has suggested, entirely true that we achieved general agreement at Geneva in the 'thirties. We suggested that tear gases should be excluded by the Geneva Convention, and the reaction to this was not, as my noble friend has suggested, unanimous. In answer to a supplementary question, my noble Friend, Lord Chalfont, said this: So far, there is no evidence that the use of this gas in war—and I emphasise 'in war', because I think it is not fully appreciated that the Geneva Protocol deals with war and not with riot control or internal security—except in exceptional circumstances, is significantly harmful."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords; 26th February, 1970, cc. 161–64.] That is the statement of the Government's position; and. although I want to draw one or two conclusions from it in a moment or two, I would not wish to go further in defining the stand that the Government have taken on this question.

Mr. Will Griffiths (Manchester, Exchange)

Have not the doctors at least made out a case? My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has great talent, but he is not a professional man. Is it right that C.S. gas is dangerous?

Mr. Richard

My hon. Friend has anticipated my argument by about three minutes. If he will be kind enough to wait, I promise him that I will deal with the point.

Mr. Griffiths

If my hon. Friend thinks that it is all right, I do not.

Mr. Richard

I gather that my hon. Friend did not agree with me. It might have been better if he had listened to the whole of the debate before interrupting.

To answer my hon. Friend the Member for Heeley, it seems to me that two points emerge from what I have said so far on the Government's position. The first is whether C.S. comes within the terms of the protocol. For the reasons given by my noble Friend Lord Chalfont and, indeed, by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, in the Government's view the answer is clearly that it does not.

A second point, however, follows from that. Even if the use of C.S. is accepted—my hon. Friend did not suggest this, but it has been suggested elsewhere—as being outside the terms of the Geneva Protocol, the suggestion is sometimes made that the United Kingdom should now have said that it nevertheless deems the protocol to cover C.S.

It is not for me to say what the international effects of such a declaration would have been. It is, however, perhaps for me to say what the military effect of such a declaration might have been on the Army. The military effect of such a declaration would have been somewhat anomalous concerning the Army, namely, that we might have found ourselves in a situation in which, in war—as my hon. Friend knows, the protocol applies only to war—we would be denying ourselves by the protocol the use of a weapon against our enemies when, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said, one can imagine many situations in modern military warfare when it could lead to less loss of life than if it were not available. We would be denying ourselves the use of that weapon in war but, at the same time, we would be preserving the possible right to use it in time of peace for riot or crowd control purposes against our own citizens.

Whatever the international effects of that argument might be, I hope that my hon. Friend and the House will agree that the military effects would be quite extraordinary for the Army. To put soldiers in a position where they are told, "This is a weapon which you can use in, say, Northern Ireland against citizens of your own country for crowd and riot control, but, nevertheless, you would not be entitled to use that weapon against possible enemies in a war situation"—however that might be defined, which again causes difficulties—would be an extraordinary and anomalous position.

Mr. Hooley

My hon. Friend is dealing with the argument in a very fair-minded fashion, but would he not accept that, leaving aside the morality of using this weapon against civilians, the danger in war is that the use of such a weapon provokes counter-use, with the serious danger of escalation into general chemical and gas warfare, which cannot apply in the civil situation?

Mr. Richard

I accept that that is an argument, but it is an argument that was dealt with also by my noble Friend Lord Chalfont in the statement to which I have referred. What he said in answer to precisely that point was that he took the view, and that it was the Government's view, that since the protocol did not exclude agents which were not significantly harmful except in exceptional circumstances, the point did not arise. In other words, in the view of my noble Friend, there could not be escalation when the agent that was used was one which was not significantly harmful.

I turn to the medical aspects with which I was asked to deal. It is perfectly true that C.S. gas was first synthesised in the United States by Corson and Stoughton, and I think that it is from their surnames that the initials come. It was not developed, however, until 1950, when it was developed in this country as a possible riot control agent to succeed C.N., which was known and accepted to be hazardous. In 1958 it was approved for introduction into British service.

British C.S. has not been used in Vietnam; nor has it been used in Paris; nor has it been used in the United States. The United States makes its own C.S., as far as we know. In the Paris riots the French police used mostly C.N. and very little C.S. We have not sold C.S. to France, nor to the United States. C.S. is not patentable, and it can be made anywhere without licence. It is produced in this country only at the out-station of the Chemical Defence Establishment at Nancekuke in Cornwall. My hon. Friend correctly said that up to five tons a year of C.S. could be produced at Nancekuke, although current production is not more than three tons a year.

My hon. Friend quoted one doctor's view of the effect of C.S. A committee known as the Himsworth Committee was set up to examine precisely the effect of the use of C.S. gas in Londonderry last year. It describes the symptoms as follows: The symptoms experienced varied from a slight but definite 'pricking' of the eyes and front of the inside of the nose to the maximum symptoms of streaming from the eyes and nose, spasm of the eyelids, marked salivation and retching or sometimes vomiting, burning of the mouth and throat, and a gripping pain in the chest of such intensity that breathing became restricted to shallow gasps that only took place when breath-holding was no longer possible. In addition, when the full symptoms are present the face became pale, as we have confirmed in ourselves, and this on occasions had clearly caused conspicuous alarm to others. In no case of those actively engaged and therefore presumably heavily exposed, did we, however, learn of a collapse or of a person being unable to move away from the line of fire. Some were certainly assisted but whether this was necessary is not clear. The remarkable thing about those with marked symptoms was the speed with which these disappeared once away from the exposure. At one moment the exposed person is gripped by the full symptoms. Then he either stumbles away, or the smoke plume veers or the discharge from the cartridge or grenade stops and, within three to four minutes, he is breathing freely and his eyes, although still streaming, are open. Five or so minutes later the excessive salivation and pouring of tears stops, and quarter of an hour after exposure, although, naturally, shaken, the man is substantially back to normal. The number of persons who, after experiencing severe symptoms, had gone back repeatedly into the struggle provides some indication of the speed and degree of recovery". It is fair to say that while the immediate short-term effect is very unpleasant, certainly incapacitating, once the individual moves out of exposure to the gas, he recovers quite quickly.

There have been allegations that the toxicity of C.S. is comparatively high. All the evidence we have, and it is considerable, is that C.S. is not significantly harmful to man other than in wholly exceptional circumstances, such as very high C.S. concentration suffered for some time in a small space and with little or no ventilation.

Although C.S. gas has been used in a large number of countries for many years, we know of no authenticated case of death or permanent injury resulting from its use. Allegations that it caused the death of an Australian corporal serving in Vietnam are untrue. It has been concluded that the toxicity of C.S. gas was about three times less toxic than C.N., which was the agent it replaced. It has always been recognised that it could be dangerous in a confined, unventilated space from which escape is difficult or impossible, and British troops are warned of this danger. It is, however, very unlikely in practice that concentrations dangerous to health could either be built up or become built up to that extent. Even low natural ventilation would reduce concentration to low levels within a short time.

Having first of all considered the short-term medical effects, the committee is now considering the longer-term effects. For example, it is studying the possible effects on the young, including embryos, the elderly and those with impaired health, together with any other possible long-term effects. In addition, the Chemical Defence Establishment at Porton worked on toxicity and effects of C.S. gas long before the committee was set up. We find no evidence that dosages of C.S. gas which would be made in normal use would cause any long-term effects. The second report of the committee will go further into the question of long-term effects. Paragraph 38 of the first report says that the committee knows of no evidence—and this deals with one allegation which has been made from time to time, but not by my hon. Friend—which suggests that C.S. might fall into the category of substances which produce cancer as a result of only brief exposure.

In addition, a paper on the toxicology of C.S. gas has been prepared at Porton. It could have been published towards the end of last year, but it was decided to amplify it with new, additional material. We hope to publish it within a month or so. Again, we believe that this report, too, will show that C.S. gas can be harmful only in wholly exceptional circumstances.

From the manufacture and toxicity of C.S. gas, I turn to its use and particularly the way in which it has been used by the Army in Northern Ireland. The use of C.S. gas by the Army in riot control is based on the principle of minimum force—that is to say, that every effort must be made to deal with a situation by lesser means before it is used and the availability of C.S. gas should be taken into account before any stronger measures are adopted.

When the Army is called in to deal with or prevent a serious disturbance, a number of situations can arise in which the use of C.S. gas may have to be considered. In the first place, it will be one of the options available for preventing serious risk to life and property. It may also be, in the judgment of the commander on the spot, the only way of keeping two hostile crowds apart or of preventing a hostile crowd attacking his troops. It may also be necessary to prevent riotous acts against people or property.

In all cases, the use of C.S. gas must be considered in the light of all the lesser options which are available. I repeat that the principle of minimum force is the one which is used. Naturally, the commander on the spot is the only person in a position to decide whether C.S. gas should be used and whether it will produce the necessary effects. Indeed, I can envisage that he would consider such things as the size, disposition and temper of the crowd, whether he should use it before the actions of the crowd endanger persons or property which must be protected, and such things as the ground, whether the crowd might panic, whether there are sufficient exits and so forth.

Last September, for example, troops in Northern Ireland used C.S. gas to disperse Protestant and Catholic crowds. It was used because the officer in command considered that the mere presence of the soldiers and police were insufficient to prevent the clash between the two rival crowds which, in his judgment, was imminent. He gave warning three times that unless the crowd dispersed he would use C.S. They did not, and he then ordered its use. No one can be sure what the crowd would have done if they had not been dispersed in this way, but the risk of bloodshed was averted and the minimum force principle was applied in what proved to be a relatively harmless way of dispersing the crowds. In the first weekend of October there was a violent series of disturbances in east Belfast. The violence can be judged by the fact that one soldier received a gunshot wound and another a fractured skull. But on the two occasions that C.S. was used, it was only after all other methods used had failed to disperse illegal crowds and after proper warning had been given to the crowds that it would be used.

I must, speaking on behalf of the Ministry, tell my hon. Friend frankly that C.S. is a very valuable addition indeed to the armoury of weapons at the disposal of the Army when faced with a difficult problem of crowd and riot control. It is used with care and must be used with care and only when necessary. I should have thought that my hon. Friend, the House, and the country would consider it preferable that a person should suffer the effects of C.S. rather than perhaps face the effects of a bullet.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this subject tonight. It was well worth, even at 3 o'clock, having a debate on C.S., and I trust that I have been able to clear up at least some of the misconceptions in people's minds.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Committee of the whole House.

Committee this day.