HC Deb 15 March 1995 vol 256 cc858-65

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Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

There is a global land mine—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. Will hon. Members leaving the Chamber please do so quietly?

Mr. Cohen

There is a global land mine crisis—there are 100 million land mines in 62 countries. The United Nations estimates that 800 people die each month from land mine injuries, and 1 million people have been killed or maimed since 1973. Twenty million refugees want to return to their homes, but are impeded by the problem of uncleared mines.

The purpose of land mines is to bring terror to large populations. They have been sown around key economic installations, electricity and water plants, roads and ports, and civilians are the targets. The United States recently reported that the number of land mines deployed increases by between 500,000 and 1 million each year, and that they are increasingly becoming more sophisticated and hard to detect.

The present generation of land mines are plastic, with only a small metal component, which means that they are difficult to detect with metal-seeking devices. The next generation could well be all plastic, and perhaps undetectable. Mines have increasingly sophisticated electrical fuses that are far more hazardous to find and remove, and have associated booby traps, too. By contrast, mine clearance technology has advanced little since the 1940s.

The United Nations reports 84 de-mining experts killed in Kuwait, and at least 30 in Afghanistan. There are terrific complications in clearing mines in Cambodia, Mozambique and Rwanda. In those counties, mines are often planted in long grass or on the tea plantations, which may have to be taken up blade by blade, bush by bush.

Mine clearance is expensive. The Government give about £8 million towards the process, but that is small potatoes when set against the extent of the problem. In Afghanistan, which has 10 million mines, it would cost about $17 million a year for six years just to clear the priority community areas. In Cambodia, there are between 5 million and 7 million mines, and our Government helped train the Khmer Rouge to lay them. In Rwanda, Somalia, Mozambique, Bosnia, the Yemen and the Gulf, millions of mines have been laid and are waiting to explode.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, pointed out that mines had gone from being a tactical battlefield weapon to a theatrewide weapon of mass civilian destruction—a weapon of mass destruction in slow motion. Land mines need to be treated like chemical weapons, with a total worldwide ban. The United Nations has urged such a ban; the United States instituted a one-year ban or moratorium in October 1992, and extended it in 1993 for an additional three years; the European Parliament passed a resolution in December 1992 demanding a five-year moratorium; and many countries, including France, Germany, Italy, Israel, South Africa, Argentina and Canada, have announced their support for a moratorium. The Government say that they back the UN resolution for a moratorium, although the Foreign Office resisted it fiercely in private before accepting it. The Government keep demanding and applying exemptions to it.

The inhumane weapons convention of 1981 has a land mines protocol. We signed up to the convention in 1981, but I am told that we ratified it only three weeks ago. In answer to a parliamentary question on 16 January, the Government said that the motivation for ratification was to be able to take part in the September review conference. The implication is that they do not really support the convention but merely want a place at the table.

We have ratified the convention but only by Executive order, not legislation. Legislation would have made it a specific crime to breach the convention, but the Executive order does not. Only military disciplinary procedures will apply. That is not a good example to set other countries.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) is in his place. He tabled the excellent early-day motion 727, which refers to the petition recently presented to Downing street by the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development. It had millions of signatures, and called for an immediate moratorium on the export of all anti-personnel mines, and for the Government to encourage other Governments to follow suit. What have the Government done to encourage other Governments to follow suit?

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

I congratulate the hon. Member on raising this issue on the Floor of the House. He might like to know that 100 hon. Members of all parties have now signed the early-day motion, and that many people share his belief that far more should be done not only to stop the export of component parts from the United Kingdom but to influence those countries which are the quartermasters, which provide the armaments and anti-personnel mines that are doing so much damage and creating major development problems.

There are 30,000 amputees in Cambodia alone who are the direct casualties of land mines, and I million people around the world have either died or been injured as a result of coming into contact with anti-personnel mines. Many hon. Members of all parties welcome the hon. Gentleman's initiative.

Mr. Cohen

I am grateful for that intervention, and to the hon. Gentleman for pointing out that this is an all-party matter.

Also on 16 January, the Government said that no manufacturers were currently supplying United Kingdom armed forces with anti-personnel mines, including self-destruct or self-neutralising ones. If, as the Government claim, none has been exported since 1982, the implication is that no United Kingdom manufacturer is currently making complete land mines. Therefore, the Government could ban manufacture and export from this country. Why have they not done so?

In another place on 16 January, Lord Ingelwood said in effect that the moratorium did not include components for land mines and that exports were considered on a case-by-case basis. What has the Minister to say about components? Are we still making and exporting them?

What about work on land mines done by British companies under licence abroad? What about their research work? Oxfam said that the Government referred only to conventional land mines as part of the moratorium. What about non-conventional mines? The Government should be far more open about their policy. What are they covering up? Why will they not support a complete ban on the manufacture and export of such items?

My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) asked a couple of interesting questions about exports. In answer to one, he was told that the Government had established a moratorium on the export of mines that did not have self-destruct or self-neutralising mechanisms, and that export licenses for components would be considered only in the light of "other established criteria". What are those criteria? The response makes particular reference to the exemption in respect of the self-destruct and self-neutralising mechanisms which the Government have awarded themselves.

In answer to another question about the export of land mines with self-destruct mechanisms, my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields was told by the Minister of State for Defence Procurement: The UK has declared an indefinite moratorium on the export from the UK of all anti-personnel land mines which do not have self-destruct or self-neutralising mechanisms. That means that the moratorium does not apply to the mines that do have such mechanisms. The reply goes on to refer to the Government's efforts in trying to forestall the transfer of anti-personnel mines. The final sentence is especially interesting: Any applications for an export licence for a land mine which did possess a self-destruct mechanism would be assessed carefully in the light of these and other factors."—[Official Report, 27 January 1995; Vol. 253, c. 445.] What other factors? The Minister should answer that. That whole sentence implies that permission may still be given for exports of those components. In fact, permission probably would be given if the mines were to have a self-destruct mechanism.

The Government are wrong in trying to set up an exemption for self-destruct and self-neutralising mines. They have said that such mines do not pose great dangers to civilian populations. They do. They still kill and maim innocent civilians, and are costly and dangerous to remove. Other countries do not talk about exemptions for such mines, so why do this Government?

Oxfam has expressed its concern about the Government trying thAT get-out; for example, it asks how long the Government say such mines should be in the ground. That is worth an answer, because the longer the mines are in the ground, the more dangerous they are.

Oxfam also asks whether the Government have researched the failure rates of self-destruct and self-neutralising mechanisms. I can answer that, because the Government answered my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) on that subject on 18 January. The answer was none. They have not conducted any research into failure rates, so their assumptions that such mines are not so dangerous is false. The Government are wrong to have distinguished between types of mines and established an exemption for themselves.

The Government have argued that the British Army should have anti-personnel land mine capability, and that the mines are legitimate defence weapons if used in accordance with the laws of war—clearly marked when laid, and removed afterwards. Incidentally, the Government have not ratified the 1977 additional protocol to the Geneva convention on the laws of war, and they should have, because it is linked to the inhumane weapons convention.

Most wars these days are not conducted according to those traditional laws of wars. Most conflicts are guerrilla wars or internal wars, such as in Bosnia, where anti-personnel mines are not used in any structured or controlled way. As I have said, they are used to destroy morale and instill terror among civilians.

Indeed, it has been reported that some land mines have even been dropped from the air, which shows the indiscriminate nature of their use. British forces have a whole array of sophisticated weapons at hand if operating abroad—we certainly do not want to deploy land mines in this country under any circumstances. It is worth the British forces abandoning their use of this weapon to stop the terror worldwide.

The Government have been obstructive, as was the case at the recent Copenhagen world summit. I bring to the attention of the House a letter I received—presumably other hon. Members also received it—from the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Bishop of Brentwood, leaders of the Religious Society of Friends, the Salvation Army and other groups. It says: The draft document for the Social Summit in Copenhagen includes a paragraph (No. 71) from the Vatican seeking to address the problem of arms with indiscriminate effects, e.g. land mines and laser weapons. Britain has bracketed this paragraph which means we want it removed. Please use your influence to persuade the Government to support the Vatican paragraph, rather than to eliminate it. From what I hear about that Copenhagen summit, the Government had their way, and the Vatican's proposal was not taken on board. The Minister should explain why the Government took that position.

The land mines protocol of the inhumane weapons convention is acknowledged to be weak. For example, it does not apply to internal conflicts. Instead of trying to strengthen it, the Government are trying to exploit it. They keep saying that mines can be used in accordance with the protocol, and that mines do not pose great dangers to civilian populations. That is poppycock. The Government are also blocking the call for a moratorium and a total export ban.

By dragging their feet, the Government could deem worthless the review conference due to take place in September, in which land mines will be the major subject for debate. We should not wait until September in any case, we need action now, and strong action from Governments such as the British Government, to ensure a moratorium and a total export ban if we are to encourage other Governments and other countries to do the same.

There is a difference between the political parties on this matter. My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields, the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, has made it clear that the Labour party has called for the Government to fully support the UN motion on halting the export of anti-personnel mines, including the high-tech varieties with self-destruct mechanisms. Indeed, my hon. Friend assures me of the proposed ban of export of all anti-personnel land mines.

Oxfam has also made recommendations of which the House should be aware. Among them, it recommends at the very least that a ban on the export, transfer or sale of all anti-personnel mines, including those with self-destruct and self-neutralising mechanisms, should be agreed at the final review conference. The inhuman weapons convention should be made applicable to internal conflicts as well and it should be strengthened by an effective system of monitoring and enforcement.

Oxfam says: The above recommendations are vital, but the only adequate solution is a total ban on the production, sale and use of anti-personnel mines. The Government should adopt such a policy and, if they do not, they risk being almost—I hesitate to say it—the Myra Hindley of the international community, if they allow such indiscriminate slaughter of innocent civilians around the world to continue. We do not want that.

Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. Does the hon. Gentleman have the permission of the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) to speak?

Mr. Howarth

I hope I have.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Without the permission of the hon. Member for Leyton and the Minister, I cannot allow the hon. Gentleman to speak.

1.16 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. David Davis)

I apologise for that misunderstanding, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was not aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) wished to speak. We are rather short of time.

Mr. Howarth

Will my hon. Friend give way? Mr. Davis: I shall give way for one intervention.

Mr. Howarth

I simply want to say that I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) for introducing this subject, and for his cogent and moving speech. I cannot conceive of any sufficient justification for this country continuing to permit the export of anti-personnel mines. I hope very much that, in fact, we shall have an enhanced programme to support the clear-up of these appalling devices. Apart from the humanitarian consideration, how much more in Britain's interest that surely would be than to continue to allow Britain's contribution to the world, even in principle, to be one which allows such destructiveness and suffering to continue.

Mr. Davis

I shall have to move pretty fast to cover the points that I hope to cover.

I too congratulate the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) on obtaining this debate, and raising this subject. I certainly welcome the opportunity to reply.

The effect of land mines on civilians has rightly become a humanitarian issue of considerable public concern. The Government fully understand the concerns of the hon. Member for Leyton, although I hope that he will forgive me if I do not quite agree with his hyperbole from point to point about the Government's policy. As the hon. Gentleman said, the irresponsible use of land mines in recent conflicts, particularly in Africa and Asia, has had terrible consequences for civilians. Those consequences have endured long after the hostilities have ended. Scenes from those countries of awful damage to innocent civilians, often children, have understandably aroused strong emotions. The Government share the widespread abhorrence of those scenes. We share the views expressed by many charities and humanitarian agencies. Indeed, I believe that we share the views of the hon. Member for Leyton that the international community needs to act quickly.

The international community is acting. Contrary to what the hon. Member said, I am pleased to say that the United Kingdom is taking a lead in many areas. We have led the way in proposing and implementing practical and sensible measures which will command wide adherence, and which will therefore do the job for which they are intended—reducing the danger to innocent civilians.

I should like to set out clearly what we have done so far, and what we propose to do in the coming months. In doing so, I hope to respond to the majority of the points raised by the hon. Member for Leyton. My first announcement as a Minister, on 27 July 1994, was an indefinite moratorium on the export of all anti-personnel land mines, other than those equipped with a self-destructing or self-neutralising mechanism. That moratorium covers all countries.

We are often asked—the hon. Member for Leyton raised this point—why it is necessary to confine the moratorium to non-self-destructing mines. The answer is that that, in our view, is the best way to achieve our principal objective, which is to protect civilians. It is not combatants in the heat of battle but civilians who have suffered most from the improper or immoral use of land mines.

The hon. Member for Leyton had a vivid phrase for such weapons. He said that they were weapons which act in slow motion. Civilians are killed or injured when they return home and when they leave their homes to go about their daily business—not just in the days and weeks following a war, but sometimes for years afterwards. It is the mines that were laid earlier but which are still active which lead to most of the terrible pictures that we have all seen, not the use of land mines in the conflict itself.

All land mines can cause injuries to civilians as well as soldiers. However, a smart land mine which self-destructs or is neutralised after a period is then no longer a danger to civilians.

The hon. Member for Leyton raised two issues, with which I want to deal very quickly, in respect of technical standards and research.

Mr. Alton

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Davis

I apologise, but I cannot give way. I would have liked to give way, but I am very short of time.

Our experts tell us that, with regard to standards, a failure rate of one in 1,000 is possible. The American experts, dealing with a technology that is well understood, believe that a failure rate of one in 1 million is achievable. Although the hon. Member for Leyton said that there was no research on the matter, as soon as the United Nations weaponry convention reaches a conclusion, and we reach a conclusion on our code of practice, the Ministry of Defence will undertake work to ensure that mines that obtain under the new convention meet those conditions properly.

It would be easy to say, "Ban the export of all land mines." However, the vast majority of countries, including Britain and most other western countries, accept that land mines are a legitimate means of defence, provided that they are used responsibly and in accordance with the laws of war. Frankly, we would not persuade many countries that they should give up land mines altogether.

Even more importantly, a complete ban on the export of land mines by well-meaning western countries would have little effect where it really matters. The conflicts which the hon. Member for Leyton and I have mentioned have largely been in the developing world. Land mines are a cheap weapon. In our view, it is only realistic to recognise that they will continue to be used.

Our aim should be to ensure that existing stocks are replaced as quickly as possible with self-destructing mines. That is not only a logical and realistic approach; in our view, it is the most humanitarian approach. That is why I announced last July a ban on the export of anti-personnel land mines which do not self destruct. It is our policy to support steps that represent realistic and practical progress. Our decisions at each stage reflect that.

I am pleased to be able to announce to the House an extension of the United Kingdom's policy. I am announcing a ban, with immediate effect, on the export of all types of anti-personnel land mines to those countries which have not ratified the United Nations weaponry convention. I can also announce—this relates directly to a point raised by the hon. Member for Leyton—that the United Kingdom's moratorium is now extended to cover a total ban on the export of non-detectable anti-personnel land mines.

That enhanced moratorium underlines our commitment to put an end to the trade in the types of anti-personnel land mines that are the most dangerous to civilians. It adds a further safeguard by confirming our support for a complete ban on non-detectable anti-personnel land mines which are especially difficult, dangerous and expensive to clear, as the hon. Member for Leyton quite rightly pointed out. Above all, it underlines our support for the principle that land mines must be used responsibly. I hope that it shows a principled and sensible example.

We hope that our action will encourage more countries to ratify the UN weaponry convention and abide by its provisions. We hope that others which have not announced moratoriums, and most particularly those countries which produce land mines, will follow that example soon. However, we are not simply making a gesture, as I believe we were accused of doing earlier, important though that is. The United Kingdom was one of the initial signatories to the 1981 UN weaponry convention—the so-called inhumane weapons convention. That convention lays down rules for the responsible use of land mines and certain other weapons.

The hon. Member for Leyton was correct to say that we did not ratify that convention until earlier this year. However, that was a somewhat technical and legal point, because our armed forces have been trained, throughout the period since signature, to abide by the convention. They have abided by it in two wars—the Falklands war and the Gulf war. In the Gulf war, we were dealing with an adversary who had not even signed the convention, let alone abided by it. Rather more than most countries, we can demonstrate a commitment to the notion of responsible behaviour in warfare.

The weaponry convention is an important landmark in the process of establishing sound laws of war, but it is now 15 years old. It is generally accepted that its provisions need strengthening. The hon. Member for Leyton made that point. The convention will be reviewed at a conference to be held in September. We will be there, as a full state party, and we will be taking a lead.

Our objectives are to strengthen the convention and to persuade more states to ratify and abide by it. When I talk about strengthening the convention, I mean a significant expansion of its coverage; here I come to a point raised by the hon. Gentleman. We want the convention to cover not only international conflicts but civil wars and other internal conflicts. That is vital, because the majority of cases of land mine abuse are not international wars. It is important that the convention should send a signal that the use of land mines in internal conflicts should also be governed by the humanitarian laws of war.

These are important areas in which we are working for the strengthening of the convention. It is important that the convention should set down clear definitions and standards for self-destructing mines, for the reasons that I set out earlier. It should stipulate when and how minefields are to be marked to keep civilians out. It should ensure that minefields are properly mapped, both to assist mine clearance after a conflict and to protect humanitarian agencies. There should also be provision to assist those agencies when working in those areas. Those are provisions which our own armed forces are trained to adhere to strictly.

The convention should ensure that mines are detectable. There is broad agreement on that, and on banning non-detectable anti-personnel mines. We also support the proposal that the convention should introduce international controls on transfers.

Those are our aims for the review conference in September, and we shall continue to work hard to achieve them. That means getting international consensus. There has been good progress in the preparations, but there is still much work to do. We have some persuading to do. We arc working with other countries to ensure that the results of the review are the best possible.

We have invested a good deal of effort in the revision of the weaponry convention, but we believe that serious land mine problems should be attacked on several fronts. To that end, last summer we proposed a code of conduct restricting the transfer of land mines. That is intended as a politically binding undertaking, to which states could accede with great formalities, and as a first step towards a more comprehensive programme for the control of land mine transfers. The idea provoked much useful thought and helped to concentrate minds, and others have made their own suggestions.

In addition to close co-ordination with our European allies, we are dealing extremely closely with our American friends on this matter. We aim to take it forward in parallel with the efforts of the weaponry convention—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. Mr. Warren Hawksley.